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 fiancĂ©e 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.