Sunday, December 27, 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

An erudite sarcastic pedophile takes the bobby soxed object of his lust on a road trip across the United States

Humbert Humbert, raised on the paradisiacal shores of the Mediterranean in the Hotel Mirana, is bathed in memories of his childhood girlfriend Annabel Leigh and their frantic unsuccessful attempts at love. After an unhappy marriage in Paris, with pit stops in several madhouses, Humbert tries his luck in America. This first person narrator lets us know, early on, that he is erotically attracted, not to fleshy women, but to frail nymphets, little girls on the cusp of puberty. These little girls are depicted, skating, skipping, and coming out of school. Humbert tries to be where they are. Through a series of fortunate plot twists, houses burning down, hips breaking, or Aubrey McFate, as he would say, he encounters Mrs. Haze, with a room to let, and Dolores, her twelve year old daughter. Fat Haze and little Haze. Circumstances conspire to leave him the sole guardian of Dolores. His original plan of drugging Lolita, as he calls her, to have his way with her, changes when the little girl apparently is up for coitus. In hiding, the pair flees across the country, giving Humbert an opportunity to sneer/admire the tawdry grandeur of America. Seeking respite, Humbert gets a job teaching French at a school very much like Wellesley College, enrolling the child in an all girls academy. As Humbert’s jealousy grows, the final part of the book turns farcical, as Humbert pursues the sex fiend who stole Lolita’s heart.

There are three parts to this book; 1) the amazing sentences completely precluding a “quick read”; 2) a love song to “America”; 3) a tragedy about lust and the ego and the inability to stop oneself from destroying another human being. Humbert presents himself as a monster. And he is. The book is split rather neatly in two. The tragedy presented in a cup of satire.

The sentences demand to be reread. This is not a book for skimming, because most of the enjoyment  comes from savoring the words. The sentences detonate – little knife twists with precise vocabulary choices –the high and the low.  I did not know the etymology of the word fascinate before. There are chunks of heavenly writing: The list of children’s names in Lolita/Dolores’s class. The amazing description of the tennis game, which also depicts his love for the girl and his love for life. Humbert views everything with a gimlet eye and right off the bat, the highly satirical truly tragical tone is taken.  The introduction has a deep emotional resonance once reread. Tragedy can’t be fixed.

I wonder if this is psychological accurate portrait of a pedophile. It seems like it is. In an extremely methodical fashion, he grooms her. Most of the time, Humbert is cruel, blinded to the little girl’s humanity. In many ways Lolita is a meditation on consent. He coerces her, maybe at first he seduces her. The book is not pornographic though its currency is the erect penis.  

The beautiful language; the paean to America, the tragedy of the destruction of a little girl’s life. And Lolita is no Little Nell. She’s a petulant brat. However, even a petulant brat deserves to have a childhood.  The plotting is a little wink wink: the hidden journal, the errant car, the house burning down. Nabokov must have enjoyed the thought of all the ignorant Americans scampering to the dictionary to look up the dirty word.

This is a masterpiece.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Aeneid by Virgil

A dispossessed man, harried (and helped) by the gods, founds a great race

Great warrior Aeneas must flee burning Troy with his father on his back and his little son by the hand. Reluctantly, he leads a band of warrior refugees, who trust in the prophecy that Aeneas will bring them to a new home. After some false starts, Aeneas and his followers land in Carthage, where the happy citizens are building a well ordered city under the active leadership of their wise compassionate queen Dido. Cupid, god of love, tricks Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, assisted by Aeneas’s evocative telling of the fall of Troy. Their first tryst is a humdinger, complete with divinely provided lightning bolts and a heavenly chorus of nymphs. But soon Aeneas is brought to his senses by winged Mercury, who brings him a message from big guy Jupiter – get back into those ships. After a quick visit to Hades, Aeneas travels to Italy, where he woos the daughter of the king of Latium. Her fiancé isn’t too happy about that and the last half of the book tells the story of war madness and furious battles.

I enjoyed this poem, a work dense with imagery and metaphor. Every lively stanza provides a glimpse into human nature, which seems not to have changed that much in two thousand years.  I loved all the stories and storylets, such as Venus and Vulcan in their bedroom as she talks him into making Aeneas’s armor. Maybe this is a story about storytelling. Also notable is the depiction of woman. There was an emotional equality between the sexes. As well as Camilla, warrior princess.

There are two parts – the first, quite memorable with amazing imagery, recounting the fall of Troy, the screwed up affair with sympathetic Dido, the trip into Hades to see his father. The second part is a series of boilerplate, if very cinematic, battles – it’s like a sword and sandals epic. Aeneas is presented as gentle, uxorious, not naturally bloodthirsty, though in the final stanza, he is a heartless killing machine. He is always torn between what he wants to do and what he must do to help his people. He must turn into a monster in order to found a great race. Maybe it’s like a Godfather II from the first century BC.

I wish I knew Latin and Greek so I could really appreciate the allusions and the echoes with the Iliad and the Odyssey. I also found it interesting that this was a state sponsored epic.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Bear by Marian Engel

An academic researcher is sent into the woods

Lou, a woman most comfortable in the stacks of an urban library, who “does not like the cold air on her skin,” accepts an assignment to catalog the papers of the eccentric Colonel Cary. This means Lou must travel to remote Cary Island in the far north of Ontario to sift through books in the Colonel's large historically significant house. Lou is asked to perform one additional duty -- feed Colonel Cary’s pet bear, a smelly animal chained in the back. An ancient First Nations woman advises Lou to shit near the bear in order to establish a good relationship. Lou takes that advice, and enters into a deeper connection with the wordless very powerful strangely compelling bear.

I really loved this – an insane tale, told in perfectly modulated language, a fantastical fable embedded in a realistic straightjacket. Everything is recognizably, even proudly, Canadian: the silent imposing bear, the black flies and their bloody bites, the stiff upper lip. The woods. The imposition of western civilization on the wilderness is shown as sort of silly. The characters in this mythic story have a little wiggle room in their assigned roles, although the librarian definitely has to be a librarian, and the bear definitely has to be a bear. But the colonel is not quite a colonel. Lou starts to love being alone on Cary Island with the deteriorating books and the Colonel’s notes on bears and the completely at ease bear itself. That bear and his strikingly long strikingly thick tongue. Bears have tongues and bears have claws and the bear teaches Lou about both.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

Years later, a woman relates the affair she had with her father

Kathryn, the accidental child of two teenagers, is raised by her elderly grandparents. Her immature mother makes a point to display her resentment. Her father, asked by the grandparents to disappear, fails to see Kathryn for years on end. When Kathryn is at college, her parents reconnect for the weekend, a weekend in which her father grows besotted with his daughter’s grown up blonde beauty, so like his own. Kathryn also realizes her parents have resumed their sexual relationship. At the airport, her father, a Presbyterian minister (!), sticks his tongue in her mouth. This is the eponymous kiss. She drops out of college, accompanies him to his parents’ house. That night, he enters her room, lifts her nightgown, and performs oral sex on her. He pesters and pesters her for coitus, and finally she agrees. For four years, their affair continues. He is sexually possessive and eventually brings her to live into his house with his wife and kids. Finally her unhappy mother dies of cancer, crystalizing Kathryn's disgust at her participation in the relationship.  The affair is over.

This short slight memoir read like a horror movie, impossible to put down. The dread, the compulsion. The tongue kiss at the airport is like the scaly monster appearing from behind the bedroom door. The story, which took place long in the past, is narrated in present tense, heightening the narrator's passivity, the lack of thinking things through. Most characters are depicted as horrid and there is not the slightest hint of humor. What seems a little unbelievable is Kathryn’s complete lack of agency in a four year sexual affair, but I accepted that an emotionally abandoned young woman could be fascinated by a longed for father’s fascination, and also that her father seduced her, in the old fashioned usage of the word. Led astray. Like a trick.

The structure is more than a little by the numbers, a kiss at the beginning, a kiss at the end, a journey into darkness. The structure is necessary, I think, because the material is so dangerously hot. Rich with symbols. The long hair, the fat body, the thin body. It’s all about mortification and a teenage girl’s masochism. Dad is definitely presented as creepy, or at least an excellent candidate for character assassination. It would have been interesting to get his point of view.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Find Me by Laura van den Berg

In a dystopian America, an invulnerable girl searches for the mother who abandoned her

Joy, an orphan quarantined at a strange hospital in Kansas, is part of a study of a disease which causes memory loss and brain deterioration (kind of like a sped up dementia). Her days are boring and regimented. Head Physician Dr. Bek and nurses, in biohazard suits, appear periodically to conduct tests. Joy is assigned to a workgroup, eats bland cafeteria and has sex with her roommate Louis. There is a half hearted patient strike. At all times, the patients are being observed.  Joy is haunted by a woman on tv, an oceanographer, a woman Joy believes is her birth mother. During a power outage, she escapes for a road trip across desolate America, at a certain point to be rejoined on the bus by her childhood foster brother, Marcus, a man who constantly wears a mask.

The writing was beautiful, with an appealing tone. The first person narration felt simple and open. It didn’t feel like a science fiction dystopian story, which technically it probably is. The first half was enjoyable to read; the second half also, only there, during the road trip, the plot lost its forward momentum, devolving into a series of well written discrete scenes. Do writers reach for the road trip structure when they can’t figure out what happens next? However, these scenes also contain a number of Joy’s memories. So the first part is about a forced forgetting, and the second part is about unwanted remembering. (Because most of her memories are sad). After her escape, though, I never got a sense of the narrative tension building, and ultimately, I stuck with this book because of the amazing voice.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

This Country Life by Rachel Cusk

An urbane slightly hysterical Londoner attempts to find solace in the country life

Stella, 29, decisively cuts her ties to the city by answering an ad for a caretaker for a disabled boy living on a grand country estate.  On her arrival she finds that seventeen year old Martin is a foul mouthed little cynic. The remainder of the eccentric Madden family terrifies Stella, especially Pamela, Martin’s icy dictatorial mother. A key plot point is Stella’s anxiety at failing to disclose she cannot drive, when the job explicitly requires lots of driving. One disastrous mishap after the other ensues.  She has an awful date with a man with a weird shaped head, falls down the stairs, tracks tar across a light colored carpet, gets sunburned and encounters the mysterious person who runs the post office. Martin pesters her until he finds out her secret reason for leaving London. Also, in a wonderful scene, she does manage to drive him to school.

This is an old fashioned satire in the English strain, sort of like Wodehouse, but maybe more like Mr. Bean or even Benny Hill. There’s a first person self obsessed narrator, the innocent thrust into the society of sharpies. The humor comes from depicting the pomposity of human beings, their folly. Also there are lots of pratfalls. The writing has a polished sprightliness and there are some truly surreal scenes, especially the scene in the post office. It took me a while to get into the story, but after a twist, the narrative attains a loopy peak of ludicrousness and I couldn’t put the book down. The ending is abrupt, but the ending makes sense. There’s a lot more here than meets the eye.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kamouraska by Anne Hebert

In 1840’s Quebec, Madame Elisabeth remembers her husband and her lover

Elisabeth, devout Catholic mother of eight, attends the bedside of her dying husband. Her second husband, that is. But, rather than the imminent death, her thoughts turn towards the past, the time when she and her young maid were imprisoned for the murder of her first husband, Antoine. Raised by maiden aunts, in an extremely devout household, Elisabeth revels in her youth and beauty and soon captures the heart of rich dashing Antoine. Unfortunately, Antoine turns out to be a licentious wife-beating brute and at their remote manor in snowy Kamouraska, Elisabeth's affection is stolen by handsome young American doctor, George Nelson. The pair, along with bad girl ladies maid Aurelie, plot to kill the dissolute Antoine.

I was immediately sucked into the fresh energetic voice. It's sort of like a Quebecois Alias Grace.  The impressionistic imagery is memorable -- like a Bergman film with acres of snow and gushing blood and women moaning.  Like a premenstrual scream.  The three old aunts clutching their rosaries, the overturned sleigh and the kiss in the snow.  Heightened emotions, heightened passions. But then the story gets repetitive, the narrative drenched in estrogen.  I got it - society wants to constrain Elisabeth, to make her take her place as a docile possession.  Eventually, the attempts of this trio to knock off Antoine start to take on a Three Stooges quality. And it’s not quite clear how Elisabeth ended up being so respectable.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Binary Star by Sarah Gerard

American road trip with an anorexic and an alcoholic.

The nameless narrator and her drugged up boyfriend John, aspiring vegan warriors, travel across the United States. She is anorexic, anxious, obsessed with celebrity photos. She is also a student of astronomy. Images of stars and galactic processes permeate the story. The reader learns that John is a egocentric clod. As the novel progresses, the narrator loses touch with reality. Will she survive?

I wasn’t really sucked into this one. I have read other stories about compulsive people, but I need to care about them. John is repellent, and the narrator keeps excusing John’s awful behavior, and pining away. The road trip structure is the only thing keeping the story moving, so the book, although short and lyrically poetic, bogs down because the same scene happens over and over again. She won’t eat, he insults one of her friends, they have a mini breakdown in the car. What makes the reader stick with a character? Maybe the character having a lot of energy? And these two really don’t. This could have made a good yet depressing short story with a nifty metaphorical structure. Instead the conceit was stretched into a slight and repetitive novel. It did make me think about anorexia being an infectious disease; the agent being society.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Family and friends struggle through the Biafran war

Wealthy western educated twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, and their partners, Odenigbo and Richard, join the infant state of Biafra, formed by the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria after an ethnic massacre. But things don’t go so well after civil war erupts and Nigeria blocks food shipments across the border. The four of them, along with sensitive houseboy Ugwu, must bid farewell to their affluent lifestyle and come to grips with war and privation.

This reminded me a little of War and Peace: the happy life, the transforming upheaval of war, the heroism found in unlikely places. The ambition and the quiet artistry. Adichie is a great storyteller – the tale moves right along, although the different time frames of the story confused me at first. She does a good job of tightening the noose, making the reader dread what will happen next and be unable to turn away. It’s historical fiction, but it’s also about the folly of the human heart and how easily things spin out of control.

The center of the story is Olanna, the beautiful twin, lover of the charismatic profession Odenigbo and sister to severe silent Kainene. Kainene doesn’t seem completely fully developed, that’s why it’s a little hard to figure out why anxious Brit Richard is so in love with her. The use of food to illustrate how far these Igbo professors have fallen works really well: the descriptions of elaborate dinner parties in the first part of the book, coupled with the meals of roasted insects and lizards in the last part of the book.

At times, because of the subject matter, that is, the bombing of starving children and the way the world ignored it, the book grew excruciating to read.  Americanah was more relaxed, messier and more fun. This was formal and deadly serious.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Wild Decembers by Edna O'Brien

A neighbor from abroad comes between a farmer and his beloved sister

Joseph Brennan, long time farmer in the beautiful Irish mountain town of Cloontha, works the land with his younger sister Breege. The siblings are a bit odd. Joseph is a master of trivia, and Breege possesses a nearly neurotic shyness. Then manly man Mick Bugler moves into his uncle’s old farm further up the hill, full of new ideas and rich enough to buy a tractor. He and Breege form an attachment, though he neglects to tell her about his rich fiancée back in Australia. When the families resume their generations long struggle over grazing rights, tragedy ensues.

The skeleton of the story is tragedy, but its skin is comedy.  Wild Decembers was different from the other Edna O’Brien novels I’ve read. Like the others, this one had a present tense lush descriptive prose style, although sometimes here perhaps that lushness felt a bit sloppy.  This book had a straight ahead plot, with violence and blood deployed effectively. The reader knows what the end will be from the get go. There’s a field, a love triangle. It’s mythic.  Letters from lawyers move the plot along. The minor characters are wonderful, comically drawn, with the unexpected bonus of the two lewd sisters. The ending petered out a little, but this novel was a unique and beautiful glimpse into the Irish soul.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

The story of the MacDonald clan of Cape Breton

Alexander MacDonald, affluent orthodontist, remembers his rugged melancholy upbringing as part of the large proud redheaded MacDonald clan. The memories include experiencing the tragic death of his young parents, buying beer for his severely alcoholic brother on Skid Row, and visiting his also affluent twin sister in Calgary. These stories are interspersed with memories of MacDonalds past, habitants of both Scotland and Cape Breton. The end of the book recounts the story of Alexander and his older brothers working in a mine in western Canada.

This novel wasn’t my cup of tea, although the prose was careful and literary, and many of the individual anecdotes were memorable. The set up, however, was endless. Also the book lacked a standard plot, being more a grab-bag of great scenes, such as the death of his parents on the ice or the horsing around of his three older brothers in their remote cabin. These scenes were glued together with a lot of quasi mystical highly sentimental paragraphs about the indomitable Scottish soul. The dialogue was endless, extremely expository, as the narrator tried to figure out (I think) why he ended up rich and his brother ended up on Skid Row. As you would expect, there were lots of scenes of winter.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Justine by Lawrence Durrell


An expatriate writer is torn between two lovers in 1920s Alexandria

Our unnamed narrator, in the exotic outpost of Alexandria, is torn between beautiful suffering Melissa, a poor inept club dancer, and beautiful suffering Justine, wife of a rich man. The three make their way, drinking, sightseeing with other expatriates and even a few colorful natives, a pervasive feeling of melancholy infecting every scene. Both Melissa and Justine have other men who hate the idea that their woman is seeing someone else.

The lush first person narration creates a unique ambiance, but the plot, what little there is of it, moves forward in dollops, never quite ending up anywhere. As a reader I got it, Melissa, Justine, Justine, Melissa, sweet sweet womenhood. But I needed something to happen, and grew impatient with all this sitting around making goo goo eyes. I wanted to slap the narrator sometimes he seemed so world weary.

Jan Morris’s prologue was very dismissive leading me to expect the worst, but it wasn’t that bad. The descriptions were strangely compelling. Although every action is taken so very seriously. There is no hint of humor in the book. Tragic events are here, buried beneath the narrator’s self regard, such as the missing daughter, the dead mother. Perhaps that’s the point.

Love stories have inherently low stakes. See Junot Diaz. I couldn't bear sticking around for three more books with these twits.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk

A year in the life of the Bradshaw family

Tonie, stay at home mom to the lovely Alexa, and Thomas, hardworking businessman, switch places. Tonie accepts an executive position at her university and Thomas quits his job to stay home, make dinner, dress and comfort eight year old Alexa. He also wants to deepen his knowledge of music, specifically the piano. Meanwhile, the alternating stories of Thomas’s brothers, one successful, one not, and his angry parents provide bittersweet comic relief until one day, a dramatic event causes the couple to return to their former stations.

These were linked micro stories, storylets really, about the extended Bradshaw family. The writing is traditional, but exquisite, highly technically proficient. The novel is written in the present tense (with one very short play). Although something cold is at the heart of this, a cold thoughtfulness, almost too insightful of others weaknesses, their vulnerabilities. The metaphors are amazing, especially the musical metaphors, making it so that the reader must read slowly both for simple pleasure and also to figure out exactly what is going on. The many characters are uniquely developed, all with their little arcs and neuroses. There are great sex scenes, great marital discussion scenes and great scenes of bureaucratic infighting, all done without describing too much, or even “much.”

The story opens with the question, What is art, and ends with the song of a bird. Thomas immerses himself in art, perhaps to the neglect of his family. Tonie is fascinated by work, perhaps to the neglect of her family. That story is framed by the dynamics of the extended Bradshaw family- the long festering hatreds, and yet a huge chunk of the scenes depict the family choosing to spend time together experiencing the loonieness inherent in human interaction. There’s a very grim view of families, and yet all the brothers seem to have great marriages and mentally healthy children.

If she needed a weekend job, Cusk could write sitcoms, because five or six times I laughed out loud at the crazy juxtapositions. The ending, surprisingly, is very conventional. The guilty are punished and the world’s balance restored.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

Two countries must learn how to coexist

In the first half of this book, World War I approaches, and Athanase Tallard, the leading citizen of Saint Marc, Quebec, has a meeting with Huntley McQueen, Montreal banker. The town’s French speaking population is immediately suspicious of the English speaking outsider. McQueen has a plan to use the great Saint Lawrence river to power a factory, though a capitalist outpost would insidiously destroy this traditional farming community. Athanase, something of a freethinker, goes for the plan, thereby earning the enmity of the town’s priest and the uncooperativeness of the farmers. His older son, Marius, fully French, draft dodger, incipient separatist, is completely against the idea. Paul, the younger half brother, (also half English), still a child, has his life turned upside down by his father’s actions. In the second part of the book, World War II approaches, and Paul, now grown, an aspiring novelist, is unable to get work in Depression-era Canada. Torn between his two cultures, he falls in love with Heather, the wealthy WASPy goddaughter of Huntley McQueen.

This novel was a bit too musty for my tastes. The story was laid out in huge concrete blocks – everything is explained. But at least MacLennan wastes no time with the plotting – the reader is immediately plunged into the conflict. Although the characters never really felt like real people, they feel like placards. The only unpredictable character was the old sea captain, who has the ability to access both cultures. The writing was old fashioned, fancy schmancy, with some scenes deliberately shocking (but not really). And the female characters annoyed me – the women were defined solely in terms of their relationship with men. At least this was explicitly a Canadian novel about an essential Canadian dilemma.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Does one woman having it all, mean another must lose it all?

In this final installment, at the peak of their successes, Elena and Lila are reunited in Naples as mature mothers. This time Lila bails Elena out, helping with childcare to allow her friend the time to organize her life as a famous writer and social critic. But then vicissitude follows vicissitude, as the pair struggle against the unfaithful nature of men, drug addiction, the Mafia, inertia and just plain evil. Eventually, as older women, suspicious of betrayal, the pair is bitterly separated. Elena, in the waning years of her life, possesses the trappings of worldly achievement and three confident successful daughters, with Lila just another crazy old crone wandering the wrong side of the stradone.

It’s a shame this work of art had to be marketed as four separate books when it is truly one integrated volume. The only way to understand the ending is to reread the opening of the first book. And don’t even try reading this installment without reading the others. You won’t get it. The first part of The Story of the Lost Child was a little confusing, although soon I was sucked into the game between Lila and Elena, the old fashioned plotting, the hooks and the threats at the end of each chapter. At times it felt slightly ridiculous, one operatic event after another, reminding me of the fotoromanzi I used to inherit from my Italian cousins. The first three books of this series handled the girls from age six to thirty – the last book zips through thirty-five years, concluding the Odyssey they are on (I use that term deliberately). The good girl gets rewarded and the bad girl gets punished. There is one critical scene in the book, the scene that changes everything, and the interpretation of that scene can be very different. Lila and Elena certainly have different views of it. Things conclude pretty bleakly - when you are old time runs out. There is no hope. Best to have money and a Labrador you can amuse yourself with.

Throughout, the unreliable narrator Elena is afraid of being found out that she is not such an intellectual after all, not such a great writer. Elena fears Lila is writing a book about Naples, a great book about Naples, one that will outshine whatever Elena has written. Did Elena wrote the book of Lila or did Lila write the book of Elena? And yet, this entire world has been summoned into being by Elena. Right? The end makes you wonder if these determinedly realistic books even took place in the plane of reality.

The book is not just about the relationship between the two friends. That is the frame in which Ferrante discusses modernity, the status of women, and recent Italian history. She makes it a point to show that Elena’s sex life at fifteen and her daughter’s sex life at fifteen are totally different. Supposedly liberated, Elena falls into becoming some jackoff’s mistress. At other times, some culturally Italian things don’t translate well – the whole cuckoldry thing, the Mafia guy falling in love with the gay guy.

Lila’s fear is taking the tunnel leading out of the stradone. Elena is spurred on to conquer that fear, to escape. A key question is: who is the lost little girl? (La bambina perduta) It’s Lila, I think her potential crushed by an overbearing culture that crushes women and the poor and the uneducated.  Maybe her potential crushed by something inside - something inside that Elena rejects.  The story is about two dolls, two little girls, two women, two new little girls. And at the end, back to the two little dolls. 

The people seemed so real to me, their travails affected me and I thought about them in the middle of the night, almost have to forcibly remind myself – you don’t need to worry about them, they are made up.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Confessions by Saint Augustine

A sophisticated Roman is torn between worldly things and God

Augustine, living around 350 AD, a smart kid, is urged to be successful by his devoutly Christian mother and his pagan rather dickish father. In an early important scene, he maliciously swipes some pears with a gang of other boys. Little by little Augustine expands his provincial horizons, leaving Africa to make his mark in the big city, finally ending up in Milan, running a school of rhetoric. Urged on by his saintly mother, he is attracted to Christians by their earnestness, their seeming happiness, but intellectually looks down on them for the crudeness of their beliefs. Also, Augustine likes girls and finds the concept of celibacy to be at first strange, then, obviously, impossible. One day, in a garden, in a moment of despair, he hears a child in the adjoining yard sing a child’s song (although a children’s song he had never heard before), Tolle Lege (Take and Read). There is a book on the ground, the New Testament (natch), he takes it up and reads. An inner peace fills him and he spends the rest of his life firmly committed to the Church.

Is this considered the first memoir? It certainly is constructed in an artistic manner, with early chapters filled with insightful comments about education and childhood. What really struck me is that this life of an ancient Roman, which I expected would be utterly alien to me, filled with atavistic beliefs, did not seem alien at all. (For the most part.)  Apparently humanity, the family, ambition and the search for meaning hasn’t changed all that much. Another thing I thought was interesting is how he discusses addictions – sex, alcohol and interestingly enough, addiction to gladiator contests. The conversion, a powerfully dramatic scene, is the climax. The last couple of chapters are very metaphysical and hard to read. Or at least hard to read quickly.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

A faux memoir by a thrice married Canadian television producer

Barney Panofsky, a Jewish guy from Montreal with a huge chip on his shoulder, sits down to write his memoir after getting offended by the contents of a "friend’s" memoir. Meanwhile, clues abound that Barney suffers from memory loss. Time, therefore, is of the essence. The book is divided into three sections, named after his three wives. Clara tells of his Bohemian years in Paris, The Second Mrs. Panofsky tells of his time as a rich successful businessman. And Miriam relates the years of his marriage to the beautiful love of his life, and how, because of his own prideful misjudgments, he lost her. Meanwhile, Barney’s trial for the murder of another old friend is interspersed throughout the sections, its solution withheld until the very last page.

At first I was thinking, this is kind of a budget Philip Roth, straining for laughs, but as the story went on I was able to appreciate more its deliberate structure, and I realized that the book is a genuine work of artistry, a character study of an obnoxious very deliberately politically incorrect braggart, loosely attached, maybe even mockingly attached, to a halfhearted murder mystery and a social critique of Montreal’s hidebound francophone anti-Semitic society. Here's another novel driven by the voice – a grating narrator, more than a little misogynistic, who gains sympathy because there are things he cares deeply about, namely Miriam and the kids. And even though he cares deeply about Miriam and the kids, he is unable not to alienate them. Perhaps he cares most of all for the Montreal Canadiens. A lost world, peopled by lively unique characters, is recreated. Finally, the narrative has postmodern footnoting, by Barney’s son, who makes several corrections to small errors of fact.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Light of Evening by Edna O'Brien

Separated by miles and differing moral outlooks, a mother and daughter will never break their bond

Dilly, an old woman from rural Ireland, falls ill and reluctantly allows herself to be admitted to the hospital in Dublin. Between flashbacks of Dilly’s long ago stay in Brooklyn working as a housemaid, and snippets of her daughter’s Eleanora’s doomed marriage to an old crab, we see Dilly anxiously awaiting a visit from the beloved Eleanora, a famous writer. However, the visit is ultimately disappointing as Eleanora soon rushes away to be with her unfeeling lover, mistakenly leaving behind her journal in which she beautifully describes her conflicted feelings about her mother.

This novel is, like some others I have been reading lately, all about the voice. And what a voice it is. The actual warp and woof of the writing, the description of landscapes and sexual encounters, is absolutely stupendous. Long sensual sentences with lots of commas alternate with homey country talk. The passionate people and their dialogue. No one is buttoned down here. Character is built through dialogue. The Brooklyn sections contain a big Irish Christmas dinner scene reminiscent (deliberately no doubt) of Portrait of the Artist. This is also a very credible historical novel, depicting the Irish immigrant experience.  I learned a lot.

But I wonder, despite the sensual beauty of the senses and rush of emotion, can Edna O’Brien do plots? I have read several Edna O’Brien books and they all have the same plot. (Which I understand to be the plot of Edna O’Brien’s life.) And in this one, a key plot twist (the mother reading the honest journal) comes about pretty hokily. But I enjoyed this so much I am going to seek out some of O'Brien's books that are about something other than O’Brien's life.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt

The breakup of a young marriage

Ned and Isabel have recently graduated from MFA programs and are intent upon beginning their writing career. Ned is further along than Isabel, being more diligent. Sensitive Isabel just seems like she can’t get comfortable. Ned is also intent upon bringing Isabel to orgasm, but she seems uninterested in going there (although she does indulge in the occasional extramarital dalliance). This story unfolds over two years, in London, New York and Maine.  In Maine, Isabel is invited to be a model for noted painter Clive Harris. The two of them are also engaging in a little affair (characteristically she is unperturbed that Clive has no interest bringing her to orgasm). Clive, along with his easygoing wife Dinah, offers his guest house for the young couple to live. It’s in Maine that Isabel and Ned decide to part.

The strength of this was not the plot, but the exquisitely beautiful writing.  The beautiful writing doesn’t, as you might suppose, support description, but rather character development. Some of the paragraphs are amazing little micro stories/character studies. Also the dialogue is wonderful. Indirect and funny. The dialogue, as well, builds character. The stakes of the novel, obviously, are low. I cared about the two main characters, but let’s face it; every single person in this book was rich, with no real problems. Unless you consider not having a super strong work ethic or being uninterested in have your husband give you an orgasm counts as a real problem. At times I returned to reread certain paragraphs, they were so lovely and insightful. But in the back of my mind a voice was muttering about the coming revolution.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Love triumphs in a time of chaos

For years, Dr. Manette was unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille, his sanity broken and happy life with his wife and child irretrievably destroyed. His malefactors are evil French noblemen twins, whose impunity from their many violent crimes is embedded in the unfair social structure of France. Once the doctor has been released to the care of loyal manservant Defarge, Manette’s lovely daughter Lucy nurses him back to mental health in democratic England. There Lucy entertains two suitors, the mysterious Charles Darnay, emigrant teacher of French, and hard drinking wisecracking tip top lawyer Sydney Carton. Strangely enough, both men bear a remarkable resemblance to each other. Meanwhile, Carton doesn’t have a chance with Lucy, though after her wedding to Darnay he takes his place as trusted family friend. Finally, the intolerably repressed peasants of France revolt and seek a terrible revenge against their well-bred oppressors. The Manette family is soon trapped by the competing claims of justice and mercy. Who will restore their simple happy life?

I have never really taken Dickens seriously, because I thought, despite those amazing sentences, his books lack real people and are populated by oversize variably colored papier-mâché heads. And the women—really! But A Tale of Two Cities left me entranced, touched by these frankly sentimental characters. The sweep of the story was cinematic, as was to be expected in the days before cinema. Also, I loved the excitement at the end when the narration slipped into intense second person to describe the coach carrying the escaping Manette family to freedom. Finally, I blubbered at the climax.

The technical storytelling skills are excellent, and the minor characters take on a life of their own. Mr. Lorry, the businessman, is the most sentimental of the bunch, and Lucy Manette, who I always thought of as a vapid blonde, is actually a pretty tough customer. Sydney Carton is a jolt of iconoclastic energy. The ultimate end of revolutionary psychology is depicted and the symptoms of the doctor’s post traumatic stress are carefully detailed. Even Madame Defarge gets sympathy during her murderous final walk, when her past as a little girl walking on the sand of the beach is evoked.

The symbolism and imagery was deep and resonant. One character obsessively makes shoes to forget, and one character obsessively drinks to forget, and one character obsessively knits in order to remember. There are two set of twins. And what is the meaning of the phrase, Recalled to Life? The story makes good use of the powerful emotional release ignited by the second chance. The resurrection.

Mr. Dickens, I stand corrected. This was a wonderful book.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Kiss From Maddalena by Christopher Castellani

During World War II, a poor Italian village boy falls in love with a rich beautiful village girl

The village of Santa Cecilia must evacuate as the war comes perilously near. The only people to remain behind are bright shy Vito Leone and his insane bedridden mother. Vito is in love with Maddalena Piccinelli, the beautiful daughter of the town grocer. After the town is deserted, Vito guards the Piccinelli house, carefully repairing the damage inflicted by German soldiers. But when the Piccinellis return, will he be granted Maddalena’s hand in marriage?

After plowing through 250 pages, I had to bail on this novel. The pace was too sluggish and there didn’t seem to be any forward momentum. Everything had to be explained and nothing seems to happen and I didn’t care about any of these people. Luckily the story picked up a little after the first fifty pages but that’s only because World War II was going on in the main street of the little village. But somehow there was a disconnect between the massive upheaval caused by the war and the hopes and desire and emotional state of the characters. The war seemed like just another minor inconvenience.

The strength of the book was the careful depiction of the many characters. They are all distinguished from each other, with dark and light portions to their personalities. Unfortunately, I didn’t care about Vito and I didn’t care about Maddalena. Nobody in this village was compelling.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

A Montreal family deals with hopeless poverty at the outset of World War II

The LaCasse family, neer-do-well dad, Azarius, perpetually pregnant maman Rose-Anna, shallow pretty daughter Florentine, and sickly Daniel, as well as a host of other children, are forced to change lodgings every year because of their constant poverty. They live in Saint Henri, a slum of Montreal, at a time when Canada is emerging from the Depression, and sending boys overseas to fight for England and now defeated France.  Soon it becomes apparent to everyone that a soldier’s job has pay.  Florentine, the main financial support of her family, longs for pretty clothes and to be the boyfriend of handsome curt Jean Levesque. Rose-Anna wants her children to be happy, and also for a neat spacious house of her own. The plot of the story is just one awful thing happening after another.

It’s like a Quebecois Grapes of Wrath. The characters are the point here, carefully described, their modest longings. The novel consists of one character study after another, like beads on a necklace. (Or Rosary maybe?) I loved the mother Rose-Anna, she just trudges on through one appalling situation after the next. There's a wonderful scene where the whole hapless family takes a trip back to the farm where Rose-Anna grew up, for maple sugaring time. The descriptions are wonderful. Even the minor characters are well drawn, like the English nurse, Jenny, in Danny’s hospital. The ending definitely feels like there will be a sequel. However, this is not a heartwarming piece. The reader understands that there really is  not any hope.  All the characters are forever mired in poverty and bad judgment.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Get In Trouble by Kelly Link

Imaginative stories about rips in reality

Funny little elves, spaceships, superheroes, superhero sidekicks and sad complex people with two shadows. These are the characters inhabiting Link’s wildly imaginative short stories. The opening story, “The Summer People,” is about “they”, the strange fairy-like creatures living in the house behind teenager Fran’s ramshackle cabin. Fran has inherited their eternal caretaking duties from her mother, who lit out a long time ago. Now Fran feels a yearning to travel. And who should show up on her doorstep but a helpful young schoolmate. So the story is two things at once, an exploration of working class resentment, as well as a classic folklorish tale. The second-to-last story, “Two Houses,” is also haunting, about a mostly female spaceship crew on their hundred year journey and a night when they tell ghost stories.

“The Summer People” is a wonderful story, inventive and lively, with a spine built from classic fairy tales. The reader soon figures out exactly where the story is going but hangs on for the entrancing ride. After that one, for the most part, the stories seemed thin and overlong. It shows you how much narrative power essential folklore has. I was so excited after reading the first one, but after reading the next couple, I grew bored, and I wondered if this was going to be one of those collections in which the first story is stupendous, gripping and exciting, and the rest are passionless puzzles. But I plugged onwards, which was good because the final two stories were much more compelling.

I loved how in almost every story the situation starts off normally, then takes on elements of surreality. Once something surreal is introduced, it is introduced in so commanding a fashion the reader instantly accepts it. The reader truly is enthralled, which is what I am looking for when I read. Each story is also an attempt at world creation, made more difficult when the laws of physics are changed or ignored. Although in many instances, the stories were overlong, and the stakes a little low. Sometimes it was too much like, will he ask me on a date.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

A girl tries to grow up with no good influences

Thirteen year old Baby is being raised by her heroin addict father, Jules, age 28. After her birth, he fled his small town Quebec home to raise her in a series of flophouses in Montreal. Jules is a charming eccentric who loves his daughter in his own way. However, his own way is not sufficient to keep intelligent Baby out of trouble. After landing in various foster homes (which provide a certain stability, affection and relief), she is thrilled by the attentions of sexy Alfonse, the neighborhood pimp. Once Baby starts working for Alfonse, she begins a chaste friendship with Xavier, a weird fat kid in her junior high class. The situation comes to a head, although at the end, it seems like things are looking up for Baby.

Unfortunately, this book was somewhat at a disadvantage simply because I have recently been reading a string of really first class literature. This novel was enjoyable, however, the story took too long to set up and that long set up was repetitious. The same situation happens over and over – my dad is a junkie, a weird boy likes me. The story is episodic. First this thing happens, then that thing happens. There are some droll descriptions (and some great descriptions of snow and frost) but the only thing really compelling is the eccentric hapless father. So at times I felt I was treading water. However, things start picking up once Baby is consigned to reform school/jail. Even the prose gets more beautiful and the final third was definitely the best part of the book.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Monologues of fugitives from a vanished world

This book is composed of the stories of four citizens from middle Europe. Some fled, once the Nazis materialized, in order to escape the utter destruction of their world. Others did not. Here the Holocaust is never referred to directly, only obliquely, but the void is made painfully present behind the dreamy weird atmospheric prose and the encyclopedic details of unusual objects. Certain motifs are repeated: Suicides, ski vacations, a man running around with a butterfly net.

Austerlitz was better, I think, more haunting, more skillful. This book grew repetitive, though the warp and woof of the various stories was fascinating – the history of the doomed Manchester seaport, the Grunewald altarpiece. Like Austerlitz, the creepy photographs created a haunting effect. The languid, odd and hypnotic prose style, and its focus on homey details, the detritus of human existence, brings to life a world of unrelievable sadness.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Outline by Rachel Cusk

A story told by a woman’s reactions to the stories of others

The unnamed narrator (unnamed for the most part, that is) travels to Athens to teach a two day creative writing seminar, encountering various people on her journey who tell her their stories. The stories of friends and acquaintances are lengthy, concerning unhappy marriages and heartbreak; the Greek students in the class tell her their writing exercises which are surreal snippets. Meanwhile, as the narrator awaits an important communication about a loan approval, she looks upon seemingly happy families with grief, and her children back in England rely on her as a distant factotum. The novel ends with a sentence about spending the day in solicitude. Or do you mean solitude?

I was completely gripped while reading this spare beautiful book. Out of seemingly nothing, Cusk created a moving story about human beings – human beings and their ignorance maybe. The amazing voice holds everything together, a detached ironic gaze as the narrator encounters one self-absorbed person after the next. Chilly is also the adjective that comes to mind, chilly in grief, although there are some very funny moments. (Not that the narrator would care to notice the absurdity). In some places I laughed out loud at the shocking juxtapositions. The people the writer meets tell their egocentric stories; the narrator typically has a philosophical analytical response. In some ways, this almost seems a religious novel. There is a lot of talk of love and hate, pride and knowledge by suffering.

The word “outline” shows up at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book. Both in relation to men talking. I’m not sure what that means, but men, especially an older sophisticated Greek man, do an awful lot of talking in this book. This novel is about depicting something where it is not. It reminded me of WG Sebald, writing about a thing by never mentioning the thing but making the thing very apparent to the reader. In Sebald’s case, the Holocaust, an entire community gone; in Cusk’s case, a happy family and the assumption of happiness. The reader feels like something big is going to happen, something really huge, but all that happens is that the final person the author encounters (another writer) consumes an entire jar of honey, spoonful after spoonful.

I suppose this is the dreaded writing workshop novel. The workshop itself, however, is laughably short, two classes. Could the students even learn anything? The reader, however, does.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

The good girl is tired of being good; the bad girl pulls herself together.

In this installment, scholarly Elena marries a superior scholar, accidentally gets knocked up twice, thinks herself better than the neighborhood that made her, writes a shitty novel and gets bored out of her mind. Lila endures her horrific job, accidentally unionizes the sausage factory and her midnight studying of flowcharts pays off big. The book is also a portrayal of the 1960s in Italy, and a study of what happens to society and the economy when women are released from their bonds.

I haven’t had such an intense, purely pleasurable, reading experience for several years. The end of each chapter is propulsive -- the reader wants to know what happens next. Like a Jane Austen novel, or a soap opera, one event keeps happening after the other, and, just like a murder mystery, this book commences with a dead body. There is a meticulous attention to plotting, really coming into view in Volume Three in which no character introduced in Volume One is wasted, but used to illustrate a point. The question is: how does Ferrante suck you in, what narrative techniques does she use to make the reader identify with the characters, get annoyed when they waste their lives? The ending of each book is powerful and moving, each books concluding with an unforgettable very powerful image.

Elena finally gets what she thinks she always wanted, the literary fame, the wonderful apartment, the sophisticated in-laws, though almost with her realizing it, her success is slowly swamped by the suck of domestic life, the babies and the dinner needs of an absent-minded professor. Elena also comes to the realization that her loyal husband loves her, but views her as kind of a charity case dolt. Meanwhile, little by little, Lila starts to crawl out of the mess she made of her life. This volume reminded me of The Golden Notebook. All the men are shits except for Elena’s cheerfully corrupt dad. One of the themes is that Italian men (all men?) are clueless about how to give a woman an orgasm. The only one who understands is the disgusting old scuzzbag Nino Sarratore’s dad who took Elena’s virginity. In these books, pregnancy is a disaster.

The shadow of the corrupting Mafia hangs over everything, including Lila, of course, who never left Naples, but also, much to her annoyed surprise, Dottoressa Elena. Virtually everyone in society is in their debt, vulnerable to their terrible violence.   Nothing happens without the Solaras' say so.

The story is also about how people's minds differ. Elena’s is plodding but with good judgment. Lila's is brilliant but crazy. Elena’s husband is loyal and boring. Nino Sarratore is exciting and untrustworthy. Nobody here, however, has a sense of humor.

The translation is wonderful, seamlessly switching between the high scholarly language of the university, the technical language of Marxist revolution and the vulgar shit filled language of the streets. Lila’s phone call at the end when she rips Elena a new one is just so satisfying – she says exactly what the reader is thinking.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme

 A husband and wife get into serious financial straits at the Biloxi casinos

Ray and Jewel Kaiser, satisfied residents of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, one day leave their house to try out the flashy new casinos moored along the once old timey shore. It’s not very long before Ray, without even thinking deeply about it, has gambled away thirty-five thousand dollars, and the couple, along with their teenage daughter RV, must move in with Ray’s understanding mom.

This book had a low key charm, the engine being the first person narration and humorous dialogue between the husband and the wife, the stepdad and the stepdaughter. The setting and the writing definitely felt like another time and place. The novel reminded me of Joy Williams. I guess you would call it Minimalism. The stakes feel low, but in retrospect, the hero is a guy who loses every material thing, as well as his pride.  He takes it well -- the tone feels jokey.

The frame of the book is gambling, specifically blackjack.  The destructive compulsiveness of those card scenes is beautifully described. After finishing the novel, I googled Barthelme- he lost all his money gambling, then was indicated for fraud. So the breezy low stakes tone here – were the stakes really low, or did he find out once he lost everything he felt freer? Or was that the only way to feel anything at all?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Beginning their lives as women, two friends compete

In Part Two of the Neapolitan novels, beautiful brilliant unstable Lila is now queen of the old neighborhood, with an affluent handsome husband, and successful grocery and shoe store she only makes more successful with her charm and intelligence. Elena, chubby with thick glasses and bad skin, trudges along with her studies and her hopeless crush on dashing Nino Sarratorre. Little by little, however, as Elena starts to excel in the alien educated world outside the claustrophobic violence of the neighborhood she takes charge of her own destiny, avoiding entanglements with men while Lila finds herself trapped inside a social and sexual prison. By the end of this book, their roles are reversed, Lila on the run, suffering at the most menial of jobs, and Elena a celebrated young novelist.

This was so good! Full of life and longing. Although there’s a little bit of false marketing going on, as this is not really Book Two of a series of linked novels, but rather this is the second section of a much longer, much more ambitious novel, like War and Peace or Middlemarch – an epic that not only examines the petty vicissitudes of the two main characters’ love life, but also takes on the modern history of Italy, the education of the masses, feminism and the rise of technology.

Now that the elaborate setup of Book One is out of the way, the personal story, that is, the story of the two women’s friendship, can really get going. In the first book, the plotting was harder to discern but in this volume the magnificent architecture comes into view. The many many supporting characters also serve as plot devices, that is, they are always bringing some gossipy tidbit or party invitation to Elena in order to move the story along. The book is about how two women struggle with their relationship, also about how they wake up to the consciousness of how men oppress them. And what is the meaning of the epigraph from Faust at the beginning of the first book? Which one, Lila or Elena, is the devil here? And also what is the meaning of the prologue to the first book, when Elena sits down to the computer, saying, you’re not going to win this time. What are these books about? Revenge?

Elena literally is learning a new language – Italian versus the dialect, and on her journey, she is helped by women and hindered (is that the right word) by men – or definitely not helped by men. At every critical juncture older women help her, the most critical help given by an anonymous professor who tells her about the scholarship to the free university in Pisa. The book is female-centric. The men are merely appurtenances or the bars of the cage.

The writing (including the translation) is consistently excellent. I went back and reread the opening of book one which was from the point of view of a four year old child. Excellently done. On one hand, the writing is highly realistic, on the other, I loved the effective use of imagery - Elena dropping of Lila’s box of letters in the Arno to open this book; Lila the burning of her Blue Fairy story to close the book. I love that the two girls love Little Women.

Round One: Lila with the wedding feast; Round Two: Elena with the book deal. Although the final scene of this book, where Elena has “won,” and Lila stands there stinking of offal in the refrigerator of the horrific sausage making factory, and then says, there’s this new kind of calculator and a flow chart, made me think that Elena has a kind of a Wile E. Coyote thing going on with Lila.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

P.S. by Helen Schulman

A ghost engenders lust in a nearly middle-aged woman

Louise Harrington, admissions coordinator for a graduate art program at Columbia, feeling old and dried up, gets a second chance at love. A folder lands on her university desk -- the applicant, F. Scott, is apparently the doppelganger of her tragically killed high school boyfriend, Scott. Should she investigate further? She certainly does.

I don’t think this was really my cup of tea. The story didn’t hook me. The stakes were too low and the whimsical tone grated. Although I enjoyed the prose and the dialogue. The characters were all depicted distinctly, each with his own quirky flaw. The plot was a little like a Twilight Zone episode, although for me, the story fell apart at the end. I began to get anxious in the last third – how was Schulman going to wrap this up? Is F. Scott the posthumous baby, the reanimated corpse, the extreme coincidence, the cloning experiment? The plot is not on the realist plane (though everything else is), but that question fatally distracted me.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sacred Games By Vikram Chandra

Cop chases robber through Mumbai; the backdrop the history of the modern state of India.

Sartaj Singh, the only Sikh on the Mumbai police force, gets the telephone call of a lifetime. Want Ganesh Gaitonde, a voice asks. Gaitonde is the top Hindu gangster in Mumbai, his nefarious reach only threatened by Suleiman Isa, the top Muslim gangster in Mumbai. Sartaj journeys to a neighborhood where Gaitonde is holed up in a class A bomb shelter. But why? By the time Sartaj gets the bulldozer handy, Gaitonde has shot himself. Also discovered in the shelter is the body of a woman, a procurer of beautiful young actresses. But why? Alternately narrated primarily by Sartaj’s third person POV and the posthumous Gaitonde’s first person story of how he started off poor and came to be a kingpin, this book takes the reader on a journey through India and India’s tragic (and very lively) modern history. 

This book was nearly a thousand pages long. A thousand pages! I was definitely planning to bail if it got too onerous. But I loved the book and thought the time commitment was worth it – the story works on so many levels. As a mystery, as a history, as a love story. As a Hindi swearing guide. The book is fast moving. The scenes are discursive, because the many many characters, especially Gaitonde, like to talk. So as a result the actual prose is not that poetic. The structure is the story of the Sikh policeman trying to piece together the story of the Hindu Mafioso, how he ended up in the bunker with the dead Christian prostitute.

The reader gets to the last page and there’s an extensive glossary of Hindu terms. Luckily I didn’t know about the glossary because it worked better to have the reader try to piece out the meaning. And the bloody birth of the Partition underlays the modern motivations – people didn’t just kill. They raped and killed. The hatred is just under the surface.

The scenes at the end of the book did not contribute to a feeling of the book wrapping up, but were, however, very moving.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Two “ghosts” send a woman over the edge

The nameless narrator nanny is dispatched by her manly employer to a remote country house where she has been hired to care for two beautiful (and beautifully polite) siblings, but it’s not very long before she senses the uncanny presence of first a man, decidedly not a gentleman, and next a woman, certainly a lady (though a tragic one). They stare. She understands that these two are after the children, and she also understands, after a while, that these two also are dead. She confirms her suppositions with the stolid illiterate housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Next the governess comes to realize the beautiful children, rather than being haunted or frightened by the recently dead pair, miss them and want to be with them.  She takes it upon herself to prevent that.

I couldn’t sleep after reading the first half. Whatever else this is (and I think I spent some time wrestling with the question,what the heck is going on), this book is a demonstration of how much can be achieved with a well detonated image. First a man on a parapet, then a man looking through a window, then a lady at nighttime sitting on the stairs. The story is completely frightening and eerie. The narrator gets increasingly hysterical, increasingly elliptical, as the story progresses. The charitable view is that she is trying to save the children from Evil; the uncharitable view is that she’s nuts. In addition, the story also seems to be about the nature of storytelling – opening with a narrator narrating a narrator narrating.

The ghosts have wonderful names – Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The hard and the soft, although there is not much to them besides their names, their static very striking “hauntings” and their backstory, sexually permeated and tragic. Their longing for the children, and the children longing for them, is buried and ethereal. The children, Miles and Flora, put on, the governess is convinced, a cheery show to fool her.

 Even though the Victorians were not explicit, the latent sex in here is clearly communicated, shockingly – the forbidden adultery between the valet and the nanny and the deep strange erotic (?) attachment between the valet and the child. What’s that about?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Last Things by Jenny Offill

Mad mother with little girl

Anna, seven year old Grace’s mother, is exhilarating. She works at a bird sanctuary, weeping at the plight of the passenger pigeon. However, she also takes midnight swims with her daughter in the treacherous lake, afterwards driving naked through town. Grace’s father, Jonathan, a chemistry teacher rejecting fantasy and organized religion, is destined to become “Mr. Science”, a character on tv. As Grace becomes increasingly unhinged, bewitching the local16 year old babysitter/mold genius, she and Anna take a road trip (or flee) to New Orleans and beyond, until Anna secretly telephones her father for rescue. Grace, deeply hurt, then disappears for good.

As in Dept. of Speculation, the language and imagery are exquisitely beautiful. A mosaic of compelling snapshots gradually create a plot. The book is constructed of short chunks of scenes and off-kilter facts, such as can be found in an encyclopedia. The reader must draw conclusions, although the somewhat fey lyricisms started to wear a bit in the middle -- is this story going anywhere? Also, the end didn’t quite feel like an end – the little girl didn’t want it to be an end.

There are many delightful conceits here. The secret coded language of Annic. The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained. Grace’s detective kit. There’s an underlying thematic symbolic structured (yes perhaps coded) that would make rereading it worthwhile.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

The collected essays of a practical woman

These essays, for the most part published in the glossy magazines, are about being a writer, being an “Author”, having an aversion to “settling down”; as well as, loyal dogs, loyal granddaughters, an indefatigable nun, and the impossible economics of opening a bookstore. In some way, they all ask: how should one behave?

They were easy to read, mostly because they were written by Ann Patchett, who writes in a clear direct compelling fashion. Since the essays are truly random, however, the energy or the emotion doesn’t build organically, and the main theme is Ann Patchett’s no nonsense yet appealing personality. She comes across as a wholly admirable person. However, these are the essays that appear in Oprah right before the recipes. There is not that frightening feeling of stripping bare the past, being totally exposed, the unblinking examination of the wound (the wound and the gift) inflicted on the child as there is in the great memoirs of Mary Karr and Mary Gordon. (Although Ann does swipe a puppy from a deaf child. As an adult.) It seems clear she had an awful childhood, but the essays don't really delve into it, maybe because that would involve an unsentimental view of Mom and Dad. Nothing wrong with that, only it takes the turbo out of the engine. 

The best essay is “The Wall” which does incorporate several themes, including that of pleasing her abandoned father. Ann engages in some duplicitous behavior when she applies to the LA police academy without any intention of joining, although her father, an honorable much decorated LA cop who was separated from her during her childhood, is eager to help, and indulges his fantasy that maybe she might actually become a cop. He’s sure she’d be a good one, and Ann starts to understand that she’d be good too. There’s another beautiful essay about a nun, “The Mercies”, about Sister Nena who confined 8 year old Ann to the classroom during playtime and forced her to learn how to read. Ann resented being thought of as stupid until she and the nun meet up decades later and she realizes that Sister Nena went to a tremendous amount of effort to help a little girl. It’s a story about how someone you considered a pest was actually your savior.