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.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

A hardboiled private detective is disgusted by the depraved activities of the rich

Philip Marlowe takes pity on Terry Lennox, a drunk needing a ride home. Knowing he should walk away, he doesn’t, and provides assistance a few months later when Lennox is on the lam for the murder of his cheating wife. Once Lennox “commits suicide” in Mexico, Marlowe is warned off the case by representatives of powerful Angelenos, but will not comply. Later, he is hired by a beautiful woman to be the caretaker of her alcoholic author husband. Both husband and wife have a connection to the murdered woman. More characters meet a violent end with Marlowe just happening to be in the vicinity. There’s also a twist at the conclusion.

There’s something of a classical structure to this tale, as Marlowe minds his own business, yet still is visited three times by people warning him off the case. He doesn’t listen, but makes his own way. Marlowe is a truth teller, a misanthrope, outraged at society’s injustices. He’s also practically a socialist. Some pages in this novel are devoted to police brutality and how the police and the district attorney are in the pockets of the rich who run the town.

There’s a hallucinogenic quality to some of the scenes, with surreal dialogue, an example being the crazy drinking of the vodka gimlets with Mrs. Loring. Marlowe describes himself as “The pearl onion on the banana split.” This book gets a lot of energy from observing the human comedy, such as the dopey Ronald Reaganesque sheriff. Sexism and racism are flamboyantly present. This book felt qualitatively more literary than The Big Sleep – guess Chandler was hitting his groove, although the end was confusing, silly and not at all plausible. But isn’t that the point?