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.