Sunday, February 22, 2015

Someone by Alice McDermott

Examination of a life

Marie is a little girl, waiting for her father to emerge from the subway.  From her stoop she observes all the Brooklynites. When her father does arrive, they are both delighted. Later he ducks into a doorway for a secret drink. Marie lives with her stoic mother and brilliant, destined for the seminary, brother Gabe. Her world is confined (possibly intensified) by a claustrophoic Irish Catholic environment. As the story continues, she is disappointed in love by a crippled boy, but finds a good man, a returning veteran, as a husband. In the suburbs, she raises three smartass kids.

I picked this up at first thinking please I cannot take 200 pages of Mother Macree but it wasn’t very long before I understood this book to be an exquisite work of art. A life depicted in tiny brushstrokes, surrounding a central pain. The pain of life. The book is full of beautifully evocative sentences, images that reoccur from childhood to old age, taking on a special resonance the second time around. One of the themes was a contrast between an earlier simpler time and today’s crass modernity. McDermott doesn’t shy away from the ugly. The novel is about love. And hope.

Marie refuses to learn to cook because her friend’s mother died after she learned to cook. Instead, after eating her deliberately terrible Irish bread, Marie’s father dies. Nothing is wasted here, no image, no declaration, no insight. Everything returns, tying into the plot and the central imagery. Dozens of characters fill the pages, all filled with the breath of life. A community is depicted. This is a jewel of a book.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

An African-American girl is required to pass as white, but at what cost?

Birdie Lee is the younger daughter of a black man and a white woman.  Both her parents are involved in radical politics. When a gun running scheme goes awry, her parents must split and go on the lam, her father and his girlfriend taking the darker older sister, and her mother stuck with the lighter skinned Birdie. Birdie is forced to pass as white as the pair travel under assumed names in New England. Can Birdie find her way back to who she is? She grieves the loss of her father and sister. She grieves the loss of her black identity.

This was an absorbing novel about the high psychic cost of passing as white, especially when you yourself have no particular wish to do so. The structure of the novel, however, was baggy, with creaky insertions of plot, and would have benefitted from some radical pruning. However, Birdie’s world was compelling, especially the descriptions of happier times with her older sister, their made up language. The parents are immature and have failed Birdie. Both prefer her older sister Cole.
When mother and daughter arrive in New Hampshire, Birdie must navigate adolescence as well as a false identity. I enjoyed watching her interact with the whites and the blacks at the school. The WASP grandmother is especially vivid.

The nominal plot was that the FBI was after the mother, but the consequences of that were unclear. Sometimes seemed that the mother was just plain crazy. Because the stakes were so high and the effect on the girls’ lives was so drastic – it was unsatisfying that this wasn’t clarified. Did they even need to go on the run at all?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn

Surfers seek the mystical and dangerous “Heart Attacks”

One morning, Jack Fletcher, the Doc, one-time hot surf photographer whose life is now a mess, gets a phone call.  A top surf magazine wants him for a job.  Only problem is that the job is to transport two spoiled surfers 600 miles in a broken down van  to the home of the fabled Drew Harmon, in order to photograph the three at the faraway dangerous Heart Attacks surf spot.  The men drive all night to the beautiful cloudy border between California and Oregon, much of which lies on an Indian reservation. Reclusive Drew isn’t very friendly, putting them up in his workshop, far from his beautiful wife in the house.  When a tragic accident sets them all on the run, to be tracked by Indian official Travis McCade, Jack has to forget about the perfect shot and concentrate on saving his life.

 Kem Nunn's earlier surf novel, Tapping the Source, was much more streamlined and a little easier to wade through.  Although the setting for this book was also highly evocative and the descriptions of waves and the surfers exciting, the plot got overburdened by having not one glowering macho man with a secret in his past, but three – Jack Fletcher, Drew Harmon and Travis McCade.  In addition, they all were in love with Kendra – Drew’s beautiful damaged wife.  Kendra seems like a combination of Stevie Nicks and Gypsy Boots, although I loved it when everybody she cursed met a mysterious death (like two seconds later).  The surfers are chased through the misty woods by a band of murderous Indians who seem to have run right out of Tom Sawyer.  The worst thing was that the generally ponderous prose completely lacked humor.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Revenge by Mary Morris


Manipulating the manipulator?

Loretta Parlow is a highly successful Joyce Carol Oatesish writer with more than a touch of creepiness. Her neighbor, Andrea Geller, is a ne’er do well younger artist with poor self awareness and a victim mentality. Andrea’s father is dead and she feels that his death wasn’t really an accident, that his death came about at the hands of her stepmother. She attempts to get Loretta interested in using the story in one of her novels. But Andrea is surprised (but shouldn’t be) at what happens next.

The story is about how great artists are vampires and have no real care for the human beings whose stories and lives they chew up and spit out. For the mechanics of the plot Andrea’s belief in her stepmother’s guilt is supposed to be an obsession, but it didn’t really feel like that to me. Andrea’s energy seems too low for obsessions. She is the prey and Loretta Parlow the predator. I found it difficult to keep reading, as the story was unrelievedly grim, humorless, and it felt like the author was torturing the characters. At the beginning, the stakes felt low although at the end the story was gripping (but unpleasant).

I probably require a chuckle or two embedded somewhere.