Sunday, January 25, 2015

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

At the end of life, memories dominate

Memory was the theme of this collection of short fiction. The opening story, “Memory Wall,” is actually a novella, set only a little ways into the future. An elderly woman in South Africa is being treated for dementia by a machine that replays her previously recorded memories. One of the memory “discs” has recorded her deceased archeologist’s husband find of a rare fossil, a gorgon. Bad guys have figured this out and one night break into the old woman’s home, bringing with them a fifteen year old stooge with ports in his head who will “read” the discs, desperately trying to find that particular lucrative memory. Will he (she?) ever find that lost memory? Other stories concern infidelity, an orphaned girl and an old woman who is the last inhabitant of a valley about to be flooded in China. The closing story (which is also almost a novella) is about the plight of twelve Jewish orphans during the Holocaust.  

The range of settings and characters is impressive. And the prose was well-crafted, if long-winded. However, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. I felt nearly every story was rooted in a sonorous sentimentality that eventually grated. Often, the “twists and turns” felt workshoppy, with inoffensive careful descriptions. The characters reek of nobility. The title novella has a key character exactly like the subservient chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. Also, the premise of the Holocaust story offended me. Are we saying that murdered children end up in some sort of Last House on the Left Internet radio station? However, many of the stories had a strong narrative drive that was gripping. I especially liked “The River Nemunas”, about a sturgeon that can’t be caught.

Monday, January 19, 2015

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

A woman attempts to recover from trauma

Mireille Duval Jameson, visiting her wealthy parents in Port-au-Prince, is kidnapped by a violent gang led by the Commander.  After her father tries to bargain down the ransom, Mireille is brutally gang raped for thirteen days until dad pays up. Once freed, Mireille is traumatized, unable to be comforted by her American husband and son. In order to heal, she must return to a family farm in the American heartland.

The book begins with the kidnapping, bang, no time wasted in exposition. However, An Untamed State very definitely is a literary novel. The literary part, however, the sensitive examination of an immigrant family, is welded onto the tale of a damsel in distress. The rape scenes, while brutal, are not titillating (at least not for a long time) and the reader sympathizes with Mireille -- at first she believes her wealth and connections are going to save her, then she realizes she is on her own. A key plot point, one that I didn't connect with, was Mireille’s anger at her father for delaying payment on the million dollar ransom. His points sounded completely reasonable to me.

The peripheral characters are sharply drawn, such as the careful depiction of the strong-willed immigrant parents.  A theme is the immigrants’s children being weaker than the tough parents who had to endure racism in a snowy country. Maybe this story is about a woman trying to break free of the tyranny of the father.  The shame of Haiti being a dump and Mireille's anger at the American husband clearly communicating his opinion that Haiti is a dump also works well. Certain other parts, however, especially the goopy passive nature of that Ken doll husband, did not work that well.  Also Mireille was more than a little bit of a princess.

The prose is sensible, not really workmanlike, more like unadorned, although I’m not sure if a single metaphor was used. If they were, they were used discreetly. Also, the story gets lost, a little dopey, after Mireille is freed from captivity. She is traumatized and spends a lot of time on the prairie wringing her hands, causing the forward momentum of the story to come to a halt.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Surf Guru by Doug Dorst

Stories displaying technical virtuosity

The locations of these short stories range from a suburban house, a truck stop, a magically realistic Latin American town, and a nineteenth century French village. The title story is written in simple advertising-ready snippets and is about a surf business mogul and his feelings (or lack of them) when he gazes on the waves. My favorite story was Splitters, told through a series of mini biographical essays penned by an insane botanist. Behind the academic jargon and hilariously constructed sentences, a moving story emerges of a deranged narrator, who, despite his protestations of invulnerability, is broken like everybody else. A hallmark of this collection is using literary tricks as a key into hot emotions. I also liked Dinaburg’s Cake, about a rich New Yorker seeking a wedding cake for his daughter, and the disappointed losing baker who becomes obsessed with him. She's a woman with an angle on love – she can’t approach it straight. The story gripped me, reached down into deep emotion, even though eventually the ending felt tacked on. And finally, I also liked Vikings about two losers stuck in a truckstop, finding an acquiescent baby, and scoring some fun.

The first story, The Surf Guru, I hated. Glib crap, I thought and almost gave the book up but luckily persevered because most of the rest of the stories were weird, deeply moving and technically surprising. Ultimately very enjoyable. The stories were crazily imaginative, although hovering on the line between being clever in a bad way (The Surf Guru) and clever in a good way (Splitters). The former pushes the emotions away in favor of a slick fake coherence and the latter uses apparent gimmicks to catapult the reader into a deeper understanding. I loved the conceit that you could tell a story through encyclopedia entries. I really enjoyed this collection although I’m not sure if the author’s strength is in the short form. In general, I wanted the absurdity to go on longer.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

Three decades in a little town in North Dakota.

Fidelis Waldfogel, master butcher, survivor of Germany’s WWI defeat, marries his dead best friend’s girl, cooks up a suitcase’s worth of sausages and emigrates to North Dakota.  He establishes a meat shop, raises four sons with his wife Eva, all the while maintaining an uneasy relationship with town native, half-wild Delphine, who works in the shop and is Eva’s best friend.  Meanwhile, the many town eccentrics, including Delphine’s alcoholic father Roy, interact, creating a tapestry of inventive  almost folkloric tales.  The town members persevere through the tough times of the Depression and then World War II.

What a storyteller.  The novel was almost 400 pages but didn’t feel long at all.  I was completely entranced, eager to find out what happened next.  (Even though what happened next was, for the most part, pretty quotidian, just like real life.)  The novel was chockablock full of crazily detailed anecdotes.  The new young immigrant holding extended for hours his suitcase of sausages to raise money for a train ticket further west, Delphine balancing a guy and six chairs on her stomach, a little boy trapped beneath a mountain of dirt, the town hobo suddenly finding the funds to open up a bric-a-brac shop.  The stories kept coming, yet they only helped fuel the momentum of the novel.  Also, they were funny in a deadpan way.

There are also some beautifully written scenes, scenes purely celebrating the joy of life.  I loved the bit with Eva and Delphine drinking beer and pouring some out for the slugs in the garden.  Finally, the story barely touches on the singing club and I think that title was nothing more than a good joke.