Monday, December 26, 2016

Electra by Sophocles

Electra spends her life lamenting the murder of her father

Electra mourns her wasted life, as her murderous mother and stepfather do not allow her to marry and have a family. Her sister and her mother do not understand why she keeps carrying on like this. Two young men approach – they bring news of the death of Electra’s brother Orestes in a chariot accident – a noble death. They carry an urn containing his bones. Electra mourns over the bones, but then one of the young men has a message: He’s Orestes, alive, and the news of his death is a ruse to allow him to kill the usurpers. His mother the queen arrives, the young man lies to her, brings her inside, then, with Electra urging him on, kills her. Another ruse follows. The king arrives – the fake news of Orestes's death makes him happy. A covered body is presented. The king lifts the veil to discover his dead wife. Orestes leads him into the house to kill him in the spot his father was murdered. The play abruptly ends.

This Electra is embittered, deranged by hatred. She certainly isn’t the instrument of blind justice getting its just due. I love how Orestes himself isn’t that much of a gung ho avenger – he’s only here because the oracle told him too. He is more disturbed than Electra with the fact that, in order to avenge the murder of their father, they must break an even bigger taboo and kill their mother. Also, I love the interplay between Electra and her younger sister Chrysothemis, who doesn’t want to rock the boat. Besides, as women, what can they do? Better to go along and not be on the outside looking in.

I read an old fashioned translation. I am coming around to the idea that the reader will get much more out of a modern translation.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Electra by Euripides

Electra can’t get over the murder of her father

Electra, daughter of the murdered Agamemnon and the murderous Clytemnestra, has been exiled to the countryside and marriage to a impoverished farmer, the premise being that any child of such an ignoble union could never consider avenging the death of his grandfather. Luckily for Electra her poor farmer is a gentleman and won’t take advantage of Electra, either for sex or for labor. Electra understands that, and appreciates it, but still goes about the village dressed in rags with a shaven head, bemoaning her inability to seek revenge. Meanwhile, her exiled brother Orestes, after consulting with Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, has journeyed to Argos, to exact the family revenge.  He is tasked with killing not only the hated usurper Aegisthus, but someone else: the woman who suckled him, Clytemnestra. Orestes is a little reluctant, but once he eventually makes his presence known to Electra, she devises a scheme for murder.

This Electra is young and sulky- she won’t conform, she won’t give up her hatred of her mother. Clytemnestra and even Aegisthus are presented at least a little bit sympathetically. Clytemnestra is killed when she believes she is going to see her infant grandson. Orestes stabs Aegisthus in the back. Yet what else do they deserve? The murder of the mother is presented very dramatically – Orestes is highly conflicted. Not Electra. Although directly afterwards, the siblings realize that they actually do love their mother, even while hating her and now must live with the fact of her murder. The play ends with two gods flying over the stage on a crane to wrap up the loose ends of the plot.

This play isn’t just stick characters bouncing along on a string, enacting the plot.  The family's actions are motivated and conflicted.  Orestes, especially, understand the unpleasant consequences of doing his duty. Electra is absolved from the duty of revenge, as she is a woman. She won't accept that, however, and is obsessed by thoughts of revenge.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Young women try to figure out where they fit in

These eight stories provide a glimpse of young characters moving into the larger alien world and then trying to reconcile their reality with this larger world. From Brownies molded to excel, but then quite publicly not excelling, to a nerdy girl attempting her own lunch counter sit in, the characters are surprised by how the world actually works. A number of the stories deal with the structure and vocabulary of the African American church. The characters in one story, “Geeses,” are all underemployed young people scrounging for food and shelter in alien Japan. The insecure young high teacher in “Our Lady of Peace” has trouble controlling her class of urban youth until Sheba, a statuesque young girl, a leader who lives in a shelter, joins the class.

When I started this collection, I was expecting the expected. And that was not the case. The stories were surprising. The prose was quietly satirical, the dialogue deadpan. I’m not sure this completely worked as a collection, however; there was a certain sameness to the stories, and I didn’t feel that the collection had an arc. The final story, Doris is Coming, did end on a punch to the gut.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

A man brings to life a vanished world and a long ago crime of passion

In a small Midwestern farming town, during the 1920’s, a man murders his wife’s lover. A sensitive boy, his mother dead and father recently remarried, the narrator is thrown together with the murderer’s quiet son, Cletus, igniting an odd friendship. Years later, in the much larger city of Chicago, the narrator encounters Cletus, and, from fear and shock, ignores him. Feeling guilty, the narrator imagines the scenes before and after the murder.

This was a novel? The entire time I was reading, I thought it was a memoir. An artful, technically proficient memoir. Slight in size, the book touches on numerous themes. Childhood. America, the passage of time. Fate, I guess. Lloyd Wilson, the murdered man, the lover. Clarence Smith, the insecure cuckold, the murderer. I kept mixing the two men up – I think that was supposed to be part of the book – their generic “American” names. The prose was pellucid and went down as easily as rain. Maxwell skillfully used different points of view – including that of a dog. The community felt claustrophobic, and then the writer punches holes to let in the light.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bird by Noy Holland

A doctor’s wife, mom to a pair of tots, reflects upon her bohemian youth misspent with sexy bad boy Mickey

Bird breastfeeds her infant daughter and prepares her son for school. Suzie, a half-crazed friend from long ago, keeps calling, to reminisce with Bird, also to remind her a bit too emphatically that Suzie gets to live the untrammeled life of an artist. Bird’s amiable husband, Dr. Said-So, decamps for work. Bird spends the day caring for the baby and losing herself in vividly tactile memories of the rise and fall of her and Mickey's passionate dysfunctional romance. A large chunk of the book is taken up with the memory of her and Mickey hiking a ride with crazed country folk Tuk and Doll Doll.

The prose was shimmering and beautiful, full of surprising sensory detail and evocative. There are two Birds in this story – the motherless girl drifting in the past, and the “crunchy” rural affluent multi-tasking Bird of the present. The tension between those two worked well. I loved the crazy philosophical conversations she has with her young son, filtered through his speech impediment. I like the way the wild memories are given equal weight with the hours and duties of a stay at home mom’s day. However, at times, I wondered if the beautiful writing covered up a low stakes humdrum romance story – Mickey comes off like a jerk.

The long interlude with Tuk and Doll Doll almost felt like another story inserted into this one.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Who is the savage?

Marlowe, a young Englishman seeking his fortune, accepts a position as riverboat captain for a Belgian ivory exporting concern. His journey to the interior of the African continent is arduous, lengthy, surrounded by all encompassing growth of the jungle. The natives he encounters have filed teeth and scarifications, content with cheap beads for salary. The whites cling to their starched linens and dream of riches. Along the way Marlowe hears admiring tales of the company’s most effective station master, Kurtz, who brings in more ivory than all the others combined. On the way to Kurtz’s compound, the ship is attacked by arrows. Soon Marlowe discerns that those are not fenceposts surrounding Kurtz’s house – those are severed heads. Kurtz has made himself into a god. The river boat returns the dying Kurtz to civilization. Marlowe makes a special trip to visiting Kurtz’s fiancĂ©, lying to her about the final words on Kurtz’s lips.

The set up reminded me of the set up of The Turn of the Screw: a story inside of a story – like the Decameron. A group of people gathered together, one of them with a spooky yarn. I admire the structure, skillfully beginning with the image of the lonely Roman soldier in the wilderness, the savage Celts hiding in the grasses. A lot of this story takes place in the dark. Delaying the entrance of Kurtz nearly to the very end is also effective. And the descriptions of the river and its banks (both in England and Africa) are simply beautiful. Finally, as in James, some of the scenes are truly scary – the fog surrounding the boat – the natives screaming on the shore.

The only “normal” sensibility here is the world of the white man. White women are deluded, living in their sentimental bubble. Marlowe starts with the starry eyed maiden aunt and ends with the completely deluded “My Intended.” Marlowe realizes what he truly encounters is folly. The Europeans have great plans that come to naught when faced with the remoteness, the heat, the completely different orientation. The silliness of the French gunboat firing into the foliage. The ineffectiveness of the European guns, of the European consciousness in making a dent in the mysterious fecundity which is Africa.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

A girl discovers her heritage

Purity Tyler, 23 years old, $130,000 in debt, toiling away at a horrible telemarketing job, enamored of her unattainable married roommate, receives a mysterious message from Annagret, an older, extremely beautiful German woman. She tells Pip to apply for a Bolivian internship with the famous charismatic Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange type of Internet warrior. Andreas, who grew up a child of the nomenklatura in oppressed East Germany, shares a dark secret with Annagret. Long ago, he disclosed this secret to Tom, caretaker of his missing wife’s $1 billion trust fund. All three main characters try to break free from the childhood molding of their crazy obsessive mothers. The numerous plot threads come together (somewhat) in the last quarter of the book,

The novel begins with two long compelling character studies. Pip and Andreas, each in immediate trouble, and each suspecting there is much much more to life than Santa Cruz or East Berlin. Neither knows the true story of their conception, or the name of their real father. Both have larger than life mentally ill mothers. I was completely sucked in. I cared about them and wanted to know more. Tom and Andreas also have parallel lives. Each with a nutty German mother, and each having painfully learnt that the expectations of a wife stunt a man’s ambitions. Little by little, the reader understands the threads that connect the blocks of character development.

The novel is like a set of Chinese boxes, leading to a most delightful box: the angsty, highly humorous sex scenes between lower middle class responsible Tom and his completely insane billionaire young wife. The characters’ names: Anabel. Annagret. Purity. What do they mean? All the characters grapple with the conception of purity, though most, including Pip herself, a little, are not so pure. Not at all. They struggle with their need to make sure others see their desires as “pure” when their desires are rolled up with greed and lust and murderous anger. Franzen’s sweet spot is character development and the novel certainly delivers on that. For the most part I found the women believable, although in places the behavior of certain woman got silly.

This was a quick read for an almost 600 page book, although I felt at the end Franzen was winking at the plot silliness which brought everything together.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

The brother of a murdered fictional character finds his life stunted by that murder

Harun was just an Arab boy in colonial Algeria, the abandoned son of a night watchman, when for no reason his brother was murdered by an enervated French colonist. The boiling desire of his illiterate mother for revenge deformed Harun’s life. Now old, a heavy drinker, he lives in the devoutly Muslim village as an outcast, never having married, never having been with a woman. Eventually the reader learns, however, that Harun's mother got her revenge.

Ultimately this was a sad book, in a way The Stranger was not sad. Harun has wasted his life. Also, could it also be that maybe Algeria has wasted her revolution?  Harun is haunted not only by his murdered brother, whom he barely remembers, but by the expectations of his tough ignorant mother who will not let the murder go.  What the mother and most of the Arabs want is revenge on the French. And when they get their revenge, at last they get some relief.

I like the way Daoud, right from the very beginning, enters into the outright comparison with Camus. There are two conceits here – first that The Stranger is a non fiction book, the testimony of a real life man. Emotional truth meets fictional lies. Also, that this book is narrated to a young student. Can this novel stand on its own? Can you read it without having read The Stranger? I don’t think so.

I also not this novel began with more than a whiff of misogyny. When your central metaphor is that Algiers is an old whore’s vagina, there's going to be a lot of negative references to whores and also to vaginas. The misogyny faded away as we got closer to the end, and realize Harun is a pathetic loser.   A loser who learned to love the French language.  Also, at the end, we get an obligatory iman scene to match the famous scene with the priest in The Stranger. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Stranger by Albert Camus

A man is indifferent to society’s rules, even those rules concerning murder

In the French colonial city of Algiers, a young man’s mother dies, inconveniencing him as he must leave town to sit vigil and attend the funeral. When he returns, he meets a woman at the beach and begins an affair. A rough man in his apartment building has girlfriend troubles and Meursault is asked to help. When he and the man go to the beach, they get involved in a brawl with some Arabs. Afterwards, in the hot sun, Meursault walks up the beach to find one of the Arabs. The man draws his knife, Meursault kills him. Somewhat to his surprise, Meaursault is imprisoned. Also to his surprise, at the trial Meursault is found guilty and sentenced to death. When a priest tries to comfort him, Meursault lets him know he doesn’t care about any of the priest’s (or society’s) values.

This is a comedy, right? It definitely starts off that way: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday…” I’m not completely sure what all the hoopla is about - a callow youth kills an Arab for no reason, gets locked up, and is perturbed when the prosecutor paints him out to be a murderer. Meursault has no opinion on anything. On the other hand, the colonists are so certain and self satisfied about their own little society, all their strictures and judicial institutions that are basically meaningless because Meursault doesn’t buy into them. But how would life be in a Meursault run world? There would be no strictures or institutions. We would all be sitting around waiting for the strong man to tell us what to do.

The prose and metaphors were beautiful and flowed like water. The novel was short but I was sucked in and deeply interested in the mundane things that made up this young man’s life. He has no strong feelings or attachments to things. Nonetheless, he cold-bloodedly kills the guy on the beach, supposedly because it’s really hot out. Perhaps the very aimlessness of his life made him do something drastic.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Odyssey by Homer

Odysseus encounters many obstacles on his way back to Ithaca

Odysseus, King of Ithaca, wily hero of the Trojan war, sets out for home with twelve ships laden with booty. Ten years later he washes up naked on a beach, resorting to burrowing into a pile of olive leaves for warmth. In the interim, he has experienced many adventures, seen many wondrous things and even bedded two goddesses. However, the kingdom of Ithaca lies neglected and his wealth is being depleted by the 108 suitors come to court his presumed widow Penelope. Penelope, still in love with Odysseus, and needing to preserve the kingdom for their son Telemachus, has delayed and delayed her choice of a husband, but can delay no more. Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, finally arrives, and with the help of the goddess Athena, wreaks a terrible revenge.

The Odyssey seemed far more “narratively constructed” than the Iliad. In every scene, the hero has an unstoppable motivation – I want to go home. The use of secrets (and secret scars) combine to support gripping scenes of high emotional intensity. What Odysseus longs for is what we all long for: home. Perhaps this was the original video game: surprises and monsters, capped with an orgiastic mass murder. The meeting of Penelope and the disguised Odysseus is masterfully told.

Women play an important role here, starting with Athena. They want to protect the hero yet they also want to contain and maybe even imprison him. Women are both a source of emotional longing, and what is harder for the modern person to understand, a source of currency or wealth and property. I’m not sure if I completely understood that. Everyone deeply respects Penelope, yet Penelope must be married.

Both kings and swineherds provide hospitality, even though Odysseus is not that nice. He certainly lies a lot.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Brink by Austin Bunn

Stories about people at a turning point

In the world of “The Brink,” diverse characters across history discover themselves embroiled in spectacular predicaments. From nuclear war to the sex lives of the disfigured to a conquistador’s ship at the edge of the world to a group of cultists preparing for their imminent exit on the Hale Bopp Comet, the main characters wrestle with a profoundly changed world. In every story, the prose was pyrotechnic and perfectly calibrated.

I have mixed feelings about this collection. The stories reminded me of Karen Russell’s: technically proficient, and yet, with a coldness at their core. My preference is for something hot. These stories were glib, about possibly tired subjects: The children of divorce. The video game world. Some of them I really enjoyed: The End of the Age is Upon Us: written in a sprightly compound sentences, about one of the residents in San Diego’s Hale Bopp cult. I also loved Ledge, about the explorers in their ship encountering the monstrous end of the world. The display of writerly“chops” was amazing. Also I was totally into “Griefer,” about the end of a virtual world. He breathed life into it.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Square Wave by Mark de Silva

An overeducated security guard searches for a sociopath compelled to beat up prostitutes

Stories alternate then start to merge: The ubiquity and manufacture of porn; the weaponizing of rain clouds, ostensibly under the guise of conquering drought; the terroristic destruction of municipal landmarks; the origin of modern music; the messy European conquest of Ceylon. The desultoriness of an uncertain relationship. Over many pages of dialogue, characters discuss their situations.  The night watchman's search for the sociopath leads him to encounter many other phenomena.

After a rough start, not helped by forced prose that at times lacked clarity, I started to get into the erudite rhythms of this longish novel. The historical fiction sections were the best, about the colonists trying to get home and the wily Emperor trying to preserve his kingdom. There the varied characters felt truly three dimensional. In the rest of the book the characters toted explanatory billboards on their backs, even though, for the most part, these billboards were pleasantly interesting. Sometimes a unsettling whiff of misogyny rose from the pages, and I’m not sure if the stories ever truly climaxed or combined. Nevertheless, the book held my interest.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

A pastor confronts the sins of the world

Tyler Caskey, newly ordained Congregational minister, a local Mainer, is assigned to the small town of West Annett. At first Tyler is happy with his vocation, his lovely young wife and newborn daughter. But inexplicable tragedy strikes, and it takes time and healing before Tyler can lead his flock again. As he struggles with his weaknesses, his inefficacy, he muses often on the life and writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a minister executed by the Nazis, though the Nazis were unable to quench his eloquent witness. As the pettiness of his congregation's concerns, the gossiping ladies, the Christmas and Easter attendees, erode his patience, he finds a kindred spirit in his housekeeper, uneducated eccentric Connie Hatch. Tyler endures his sorrow and learns more about actual human nature, finding it increasingly difficult but necessary to love the deeply flawed residents of West Arnett.

I hated Olive Kitteridge, but I admired this deceptively simple story, which opens like a fairy tale or folklore. At opportune moments, the stakes were raised and surprises unveiled. All Tyler wants is to live his life as a devout Christian and teach his flock to live as Christians, but over and over he is confronted with surprisingly serious Ten Commandment level sins. At first he doesn’t know how to respond. The fully developed slightly comical characters of West Arnett are, most of them, ornery.  This novel also succeeds as the portrait of a town, a town with some resemblance to Peyton Place. The careful delicate prose was deployed effectively. As the novel proceeds, the story gets dark – even Tyler is guilty of serious things. The happy ending feels a little tacked on. I definitely will go back and reread Olive Kitteridge.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Iliad by Homer translated by Alexander Pope

The overpowering wrath of Achilles is no match for all too human Hector and his beloved city

Agamemnon, chief of the Greek armies assembled to defeat the walled city of Troy, grievously insults Achilles, his best warrior, by appropriating his war prize, the beautiful slave Briseis. Achilles then decides he’s had enough of the whole glory and honor thing, and removes himself and his fearful Myrmidons from the fight. Without Achilles, the Greeks in battle are overmatched by the newly emboldened Trojans. Meanwhile, Hector, crown prince of Troy, must rally his people and comfort his wife, all the while staving off the destruction of his culture just because his pretty boy younger brother abducted a Greek wife. After that introduction, there are lots and lots of killing: arrows through jaws, heads lopped off, javelins through hearts, steaming entrails falling to the mud. Lots. Once kind Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend, is killed by Hector, Achilles goes on a rampage that concludes with the death of Hector and the ignominious drawn out degradation of his body. King Priam goes to Achilles’ tent in the dead of night and humbly asks for Hector back and the book ends with Hector’s royal funeral.

The Iliad is one of the foundational classics of Western Civilization. The characters are completely recognizable, fully three dimensional – responsible Hector, inhuman Achilles, sneaky Ulysses, regretful Helen, arrogant Agamemnon, gentle Patroclus.  The list of characters includes the Olympian gods, who aren’t above fighting dirty. Like Dante, the poet uses humble metaphors to strike an emotional chord. Scene after scene concerns a parent’s protective love for their child. The stakes are huge, especially for the Trojans – their culture will be destroyed if they lose.

The gods hardly ever appear as themselves, but take a human form. For them, this all encompassing war is entertainment, but for the humans, it’s life or death. I loved the beautiful description of Achilles’ shield - forged by a god; it depicts the sun and the moon, the ideal Greek life in peace and Greek life in war. It took me a while to get used to the depiction of women here– fully human, fully respected by their family members, however, once captured, the women become currency. That is why Andromache, Hector’s wife, fears having to draw water as a slave. The whole idea of consent is a modern one, apparently. And it does seem that Briseis, after her entire family was killed, had made her peace with being Achilles’ concubine. She weeps for Patroclus, who was nice to her.

I am not that eager to return to the poem – the endless hacking and the decapitations and the soldiers slipping on the gore caused by the human sacrifices started to get to be too much, started to bore me. A huge chunk of this falls in the Song of Roland and Aeneid prior to television teenage boy entertainment. Most of these pages were exactly like a video game. Or like a Red Sox/Yankees game.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

A sensitive girl loves her disabled brother

A girl, brought up fatherless in an overanxious religious Irish home, reaches maturity, alternately dismayed and protective of her brain-damaged older brother. As a thirteen year old girl, she loses her virginity to an uncle by marriage. Eventually the bright girl leaves home to attend college in England. On a trip back to Ireland, she re-encounters the uncle. Their sexual attraction ignites and he secretly starts to visit her in London. Meanwhile, the girl tries to numb her pain through excessive drinking and masochistic sex in the bushes with random local lads. Once the brother’s brain cancer re-appears, the girl must decide what she is going to do.

This was a unique book – a big part of the experience was the stream-of-consciousness prose style, headlong and rushed, a unique language driven experience. The novel adapted the structure of Portrait of the Artist as well as the The Sound and the Fury, that is, a plotted story told, at first, through the voice of a child. The unusual prose, stuffed with cursing and prayers, did not bother me – I felt I understood what was going on; especially what was going on with her emotionally. However, I wouldn’t call this a beach read. The book was also a social window into an Ireland growing richer, up from the sheep farm and the fifteen kids, towards with the college educated and the fancy cars.

The novel rests on the older brother’s disability.  Nobody in the family talks about it; the schoolchildren cruelly taunt him.  His fate he cannot escape, while she wastes no time getting out of town. What makes this book work is the love between the sister and the brother; otherwise, the story would collapse into a steaming pile of victimization. At times, it was a chore to read the girl’s humorless take on life and the book ends with a monumental masochistic, perhaps not motivated, Liebestod.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Canada by Richard Ford

 A couple's foolish decision affects the lives of their children

The story of a mismatched pair’s brief career as bank robbers is narrated by their son, fifteen year old Dell Parsons, who lives in Great Falls, Montana with his parents and twin sister Berner.  Dell is shy, still physically a boy, loving school and longing for a well ordered life.   He has begun to study chess and beekeeping, imagining participating in those clubs as a freshman, eager to embark upon his new mature life.  However, his parents’s almost immediate arrest after their ill conceived scheme sends his and Berner’s life spinning off into other, more dangerous, directions.

I loved this recursive novel – the story is tentatively painted, then repainted, using foreshadowing and suspense.  Right from the beginning Dell tell us what the story will be about.  The novel is a meditation on chance, how a stupid decision can derail your life and the lives of those you love.  Many chapters end with:  And I never saw him, her, it again.  The novel was much longer than average, but the storytelling gripped me.  The surprises are effectively doled out, especially the surprise of the mother’s fate.  Themes reoccur – the bees, the bell on the Lutheran Church, Niagara Falls.  The casual cruelties of the townspeople are shocking, as well as the life changing kindness of a stranger.

The book is split into two halves, recreating the same situation – an older man, unable to recognize the boy’s innocence, trying to draw Dell into a crime.  The sorrow of losing the parents and their replacement by other much more imperfect parents.  I was trying to figure out why I loved this so much, and I think ultimately it was the characters – they were fully three dimensional and memorable, at least a dozen of them.  And they all are just trying to do the best they can.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney

A young man searches for maturity in 1980’s Berlin

Jed, screwup son of an upper middle class Chicago family, comes to Berlin after rehab, to stay with his accomplished second cousin Cello, her German husband and her cute band of biracial boys.  Only he understands that sophisticated beautiful Cello was once chubby Ruthanne, music student who literally choked her way offstage at every recital.  Cello is being charitable, but Jed is clearly aware of his inferior status.  Meanwhile, he is fascinated by hot German men and by the mysterious philosophical architect who takes a shine to Jed.

I bailed on this one after attempting fifty pages a night for three nights, each night falling asleep about fifteen pages in.  This novel is a textbook case of the perils of the passive main character.  The tension never built and never even started building, I think, to any sense of emotional stakes.  I am still puzzling out why this happened as the setting was great, the initial setup with blood relative/twin Cello seemed fruitful, the narrator’s sometimes snippy tone and his pithy nuggets of information were interesting.  I believe it was because there was no orchestrated conflict between Cleo and Jed.  You can't build a novel on aphorisms.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

American Copper by Shann Ray

The daughter of a stern copper baron defies her father by her choice of a man

Josef Lowry is a man “hard as granite,” a no nonsense son of an immigrant who has conquered the Montana copper market by his take-no-prisoners approach.  Suspicious of avaricious strangers, he cruelly destroys the family of his son’s intended wife.  A mining accident kills the son, and after that, his chastened daughter Evelynne immures herself in her room.  After several years she ventures into the world only to encounter two very different men, first the monosyllabic giant, horse trainer Zion, known as Middie, and then William Black Kettle, a Cheyenne rodeo rider.  Her father wishes her to never leave his side so Evelynne’s eventual choice of a mate, no matter who it is, will inspire murderous paternal opposition.

This novel began compellingly, clearly establishing the monumental Montana landscape, the furious wills of Joseph and Evelynne and the shared tragedy that forms them.  However, after those chapters, the reader gets becalmed.  Why on earth this sheltered rich girl would want to go live with a Cheyenne rodeo rider is not made clear.  She likes his hair, his masculinity apparently.  And why he, the future leader of his tribe, would want to live with a sheltered rich white girl is also not made clear.  There is a triangle love story and I don’t understand why she chooses William over Middie.  They seem like the same sort of stern resolute Western hero, although Middie struggles with his violent tendencies.  The historical details, however, such as the life of the Indians on the plains, were interesting.  The reader learns of how they coped with the authorities wanting to exterminate them.  In many ways a textbook historical novel,

Sunday, August 14, 2016

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

A dentist finds himself stalked, and, in fact, chosen by a five thousand year old tribe of publicity shy agnostics

Paul O’Rourke, successful dentist in Manhattan, obsessive compulsive Red Sox fan, cannot figure out why he can’t achieve permanent (or even temporary) happiness. Throughout his life, he has found himself at times “cunt gripped,” obsessed by a woman who later rejects him, also becoming enamored of their large ethnic families. These families are connected to something larger, in many cases, a religion, even though rational Paul can’t go there. But he comes on too strong, too weird, and turns people off. Could it have something to do with the fact that Paul’s father blew his brains out when Paul was a child? Soon odd things starts happening, someone is impersonating him on the World Wide Web, creating a dental website and leaving optimistic posts on Red Sox fan sites. The stalking gets more personal and Paul takes action, only to discover something unusual about himself.  He is (or is he) an Ulm.  Now he must find out what an Ulm is.

This was right up my alley: God and the Red Sox, and I enjoyed the story quite a bit, including the hilarious first person slightly autistic digressions. As in Ferris’ previous novels, supernatural elements are seamlessly combined with the mundane details of modern daily life. The novel is also a social commentary on “me-machines” (cellphones), obsessive money making, men and women, and the significance (or not) of existence. The stakes are enormous. The life and death of humanity perhaps. Why do humans make significant meaning out of meaningless tragedy, why do some, ever optimistic, leap from bed in the morning to do good? Does it make a difference?

I love that the reader slowly realizes that Paul’s ex girlfriend, a poet, who he is still sort of obsessed with, remains in his employ as the receptionist in his office. Finally, he plays the dentistry metaphor like Paganini.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Eumenides by Aeschylus

Tortured Orestes throws himself on the mercy of wise Athena

Orestes, pursued by the terrifying Furies after murdering his mother, journeys to Delphi to seek Apollo’s help in freeing himself from the unceasing torment. Apollo sends him to Athens where Athena convenes a jury of twelve freedmen to discover if Orestes truly deserves this horrible vengeance for the murder of a blood kin. After all, he was only asserting justice. The jury is tied, so Athena lets him go. The Furies object, but then Athena persuades them to move on from their primitive female-centric ways and join her in becoming the happy Guardians of the City of Athens.

Once again, the action is crystal clear, the theatricality imaginative and immense, the poetry tremendous, but this play, unlike the preceding two, adds additional level of meaning, a political one. Aeschylus is describing a civilized progress from a family based understanding of justice, to a society based understanding of justice. The gentle harmony at the end, the invoking of love, the purest opposition to the savage images at the end of Agamemnon. This play applauds the movement from the darkness of blood vengeance to the civilized light of Athena.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus translated by Robert Fagles

You can run, but you can’t hide

Orestes, exiled from Mykonos since his mother slaughtered his father and took up with his father’s cousin, is tasked by Apollo to kill the unnatural woman who has attacked the very seat of family and social authority. However, as Orestes well understands, the murder of one's mother violates the most basic human instinct and is everywhere regarded as taboo. On his return to Mykonos, Orestes leaves a lock of his hair at his father’s grave, hiding at the sounds of his sister Electra's approach with a retinue of once noble slaves. They bear libations to sooth Agamemnon’s soul, as apparently, years after her crime, Clytaemnestra feels the pangs of guilt. Electra recognizes the lock of hair, reunites with her brother and they sing a song of vengeance over the grave. Orestes disguises himself, kills the usurper, then after some back and forth, leads his mother offstage to kill her. He then displays to the chorus the bodies as well as the net the murderers used to entrap and kill his father. However, immediately afterwards Orestes is hounded by invisible Furies, outraged at this killing of a blood relative, a mother no less, and he takes off, stage left.

Once again the imagery is amazing and fresh, the conflict crystal clear and never sidetracked. The blatant theatricality felt very modern to me, maybe even very Broadway. These plays feel elemental to me, the human soul stripped down to its essence. Humanity crushed by society. Orestes has an impossible task -- torn between his sacred duty of obtaining vengeance for his murdered father and protecting his murderous mother. Such is life with no organized system of justice. I’ve been watching the Peter Hall productions on You Tube and I am learning how much of acting is in the body, not the face; in the voice, and not the eyes.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Agamemnon by Aeschylus; translated by Robert Fagles

A seething queen lies in wait to kill the king

For ten years, Clytaemnestra has been anticipating her husband’s return from the Trojan War.  Outwardly rejoicing at his arrival, inwardly she murderously resents his decision to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia at the war's outset, in order to propitiate the goddess Artemis and summon the winds to blow the Greek fleet to Troy.  To make things worse, Agamemnon has brought back a present for himself, one of the spoils of Troy, Priam’s daughter, Apollo’s priestess, Cassandra the prophet.  Clytaemnestra honors her husband by laying down precious crimson tapestries for him to tread upon as he enters the house.  At first the King demurs, then acquiesces to the presumptuous idea.  Cassandra, dressed as a priestess of Apollo, refuses to speak.  The Queen enters the house, then Cassandra has a prophetic vision of death, her death, Agamemnon’s death, and all the previous deaths that have occurred in the house of Atreus.  She rips off her priestly garments, curses Apollo and goes inside.  The door to the house opens, revealing a ghastly scene.  Meanwhile, a chorus of old men comment on the action.

This was amazingly good, so profound, so angry at the evil in the world, and studded with amazing imagery.  The play is about war and the legacy of war.  There is also a strong feminist streak.  Clytaemnestra has had enough – she is going to overthrow the patriarchy.  The Athenian audience would contrast her with Penelope – one gone half mad with vindictive hatred and the other with hopeful loyalty.  The truths this 2,500 year old play tells about war and human nature are the same truths today.  The joy of the warrior at returning home; the resentment of the women at being pawns.  Women bear the brunt of the brutality.

The poetry is excellent, written by a soldier writing about war. One of the first images is the truly terrifying one of a gagged Iphigenia hoisted up like a goat to be slaughtered.  The echoes in the plot and the imagery are found in the framing story of the House of Atreus – the child murders.  The play is riddled with net and yoke images, of people trapped by fate and their own choices.  The King walks on the tapestries, the Queen stabs him to death.  The violence at home echoes the violence at Troy.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

A woman’s fortunate escape from a murderous ex-boyfriend colors the rest of her life

Lacy, a 19 year old college student, after a conservative childhood and a somewhat wild adolescence, begins a lengthy affair with her 38 year old Spanish instructor.  They move in together, he takes her to Europe, he educates her.  However, he is controlling and when he gets physical one too many times she leaves, returning with her father and a policeman to help reclaim her belongings.  That doesn’t sit well, and soon afterwards, the boyfriend meets her on the street, requesting a ride.  She agrees, but then he holds a stun gun to her neck, blindfolds her, brings her to a sound proof room, strips her, rapes her, then chains her naked to a chair.  Severely underestimating her persistence, however, he leaves the apartment (to get an alibi, he says), and she breaks her bonds and escapes to the police station.  Afterwards, he runs to Venezuela, where he cannot be extradited, although he does find time to send periodic emails asking her to drop the charges.  Most of the memoir concerns her attempt to create a normal life on “the other side.”

This memoir fell between two stools, I think, not really succeeding as a purely prurient thriller, (since there were too many momentum sapping chunks of “theory”) and then not really being a successful launch pad for deeper more philosophical musings on such subjects as power dynamics, family history and feminism. Although the book succeeded as a treatise on memory – for me that was almost the most interesting part of the book.  I learned a lot.  I disliked the labeling of each character: “The Older Sister”, “The Younger Sister”, “The Man I Used to Live With.”  Her description of her mother rang a little false to me – the reader infers Lacy had been a handful, but I didn’t really feel/understand that from the narrative.  Overall, the memoir reminded me of Room, which also had a prurient hook, but then played with concepts such as language and myth as well as displaying high technical writing skills.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

An ex-model reflects on her wild ride of a life and her relationship with an older woman who resists society’s conforming rules

Pretty Alison escapes her suburban New Jersey existence and becomes a top model in Paris, the mistress of a powerful man, enjoying all the decadent perquisites of the position.  Her hubris destroys that situation and she soon finds herself back in New Jersey, attending community college with her little sister.  At a temp job, she meets Veronica, the outspoken somewhat pitiful older woman who will not act the meek part she is expected to play.  Then Veronica gets AIDS. Alison pities her and tries to help though most of the time condescends.  Once again Alison leaves the family home for a shot at modeling, this time also successful, but also this time fraught with drug and sexual abuse. Finally, disabled, on the West Coast, her beautiful face ruined, she takes a charity job cleaning an office.

I really admired this novel.  For its ambitious structure, its top notch writing and its wrestling with messy subjects such as forgiveness and ambition. the work is ingeniously structured, opening and closing with a fairy tale, alternating between Alison’s current humble life, her memories of Paris, the story of her working class family, and her time with Veronica, how infuriating and fascinating Veronica could be.  The reality was that Veronica was a pitiful cat lady with AIDS, yet she acted like a queen.  The title of the book says Veronica, but the story is really about Alison’s journey from beautiful yet selfish young woman to her fall as a cleaning lady with a messed up face, hepatitis and yet a deep love for nature and appreciation for life. 

The writing, its technical virtuosity, is so beautiful, the book got painful at times to read.  The voice is beautiful when it uses plain words and beautiful when it’s using fancy words and fancy constructions.  This book needs to be savored, not blown through.  Although at times it dips into slightly precious overwriting, in which I became too conscious of the style and forgot the story.  And the story is Alison searching for some sort of meaning in the painful vicissitudes of life.  And how love seems to redeem the pain.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Solaris by Stanislaus Lem

A confrontation with the alien means a confrontation with oneself

Kris Kelvin, research scientist, is dispatched to Solaris, a distant planet, to work on an orbiting space station. The second he lands, he understands something is dreadfully wrong. Dr. Gilbarian, his contact, has committed suicide, and the two remaining scientists are tight lipped about the circumstances. In addition, the space station is wracked with strange noises and apparent apparitions although these apparitions also seem quite fleshy and insistent. Humans have been studying Solaris for decades – a planet with two suns, covered by a strange oily sea. This sea creates giant imitations of the scientific equipment – gigantic facsimiles rising from the sea like flakey icebergs.  After several months or years, these structures collapse back into the waves. But now the scientists have bombarded the intelligent ocean with x-rays, and the facsimiles, the encystments, Lem calls them, that are now produced are human forms with human memories, emerging from the deepest part of the scientists’ subconscious. These forms, however, lack calluses on their feet, must stay in sight of their “beloved” at all times, and cannot, no matter how hard they try, die.

What I liked about this novel is that it began like a total Buck Rogers adventure, highly technical and highly boring. I thought about giving up, then the story got suddenly deep and good. The novel went off in two directions - a tender exploration of domestic love and highly cerebral musings about the nature of intelligence, the nature of individuality. The novel starts riffing on scientific language, and on sensuously written descriptions of Solaris’s two suns, and the ever present rolling oily sea, whose mimicking waves are muscular and insistent. The humans cannot figure Solaris out and that fact drives them crazy. They study and study the liquid patterns. What they end up really needing to understand is not the alien planet, but themselves. This was an amazing creation of the imagination.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

Using an old song to look at modern America

J., a thirty-something journalist, a hack, keeps his head down and survives by scavenging the buffet tables at press junkets, reliably turning out puff pieces at the gilded requests of public relations executives. Almost accidentally he starts trying for the record – a junket a day as long as his body and mind can hold out. He is called from Manhattan to West Virginia to report on the unveiling of new postage stamp commemorating American folk hero, John Henry, who foolishly challenged a steam drill to a duel, won, then promptly died. The stories of other characters are interwoven here – the ghost-seeing mistress of a motel, an upper class African-American girl forbidden to play blues music, an obsessive collector of John Henry memorabilia and his resentful daughter, a stamp collector relegated to the basement of his home, and many more.

This was a real American novel, a tour de force. I admired its ambition, the use of the different voices. Among the many themes were trading your talent for a nickel, turning away from true love and connection, navigating your way through white-centric America, and the multifaceted origins of myth. The technique, that of the several vignettes, the several voices, reminded me of The Blind Assassin. At some level, the book is about nerds, obsessive compulsives feeling more at ease with their wonky collections than with other human beings. The author also skewers something that really needs to be skewered -- junket journalism which has conquered almost all sections of the trade. (Although I think the days of the free spending expense accounts are over.) I loved the Altamont vignette -- sheer genius. The story was also well plotted, skillfully placing the nuggets of information, the little mysteries that keep the reader reading.

However, as the novel progressed, it began to remind me of that Annie Proulx novel about the accordion. Which I hated. I mean, it was too cold.  This is most definitely a satire and perhaps a satire is a little too sour and cynical to be loved. To be great? Also I felt beaten over the head. Got it, journalists are craven. Yet there also seems to be an aversion of passion. The one true hero in the book, John Henry, is kind of a dunce. As J. asks as a child, “If he died, did he win?” The system is rigged. John Henry is presented as sort of an emptiness around which the legends and songs coalesce. Despite these misgivings, there are some beautiful emotionally clear scenes in here, especially the digging of the grave. In the end, however, I felt that the balance of the book was too unfeeling.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History of Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble

Jigsaws, the history of toys, family, and death

The aging author reflects upon her beloved maiden aunt Phyllis and their shared companionable time spent doing jigsaw puzzles. At first interested in producing a short book to be sold in museum gift shops, Drabble, a writer and a scholar, follows different trails, writing brief ruminations on children’s primers, needlepoint, and homey anecdotes of the privates lives of royals and the great English authors. Not only Auntie Phyl, but Drabble’s father, Robert Southey, Jane Austen and a host of other historical characters come to life.

Three hundred fifty pages about jigsaw puzzles. Near the beginning my will grew faint – I remembered the time I tried to read that Alice Munro memoir and bailed on page 7. However, I like, no, love, Margaret Drabble and hung around to find my patience rewarded. The book is deceptively simple in structure – it seems meandering, but it possibly is not. There are certainly plenty of references to the Oulipo school. The book is also a meditation on growing old, a lookback over a writing life. It’s hard to categorize. Jigsaw puzzles and Auntie Phyl and her rural village are the touchpoints the author returns to. Throughout history, society has tried to emphasize the pedagogical nature of jigsaws, even though they are essentially just time killers. Certain people seem attracted to the deep satisfaction finishing one brings. It’s a treatise on going on off on tangents.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Foreigners by Maxine Swann

An American woman is entranced by Buenos Aires

Recently divorced Daisy (named after Henry James’s Daisy?) suffers a few inexplicable fainting fits. For a complete change of scene and to recuperate, she accepts an assignment researching the public waterworks of Buenos Aires. She finds her new city to be strange, full of greenery, and its inhabitants even stranger, standoffish with an inferiority complex. Daisy soon meets the enchanting half-crazy Leonarda, who likes to shake things up. Daisy is charmed by her, as Leonarda intends. Soon their friendship progresses to an intense sexual flirtation, supplemented by Leonarda’s insane affairs with insane men. Meanwhile, proper yet penniless Isolde, a chubby blonde Austrian, tries to crack Argentine society, by virtue of her education and fair skin, but soon learns Argentines may long for European polish, but not at the price of neediness.

This weird beautifully written book was compelling. At the end the author doesn’t shy away from the conclusions implied in the first half. Daisy realizes that what she really wants a girl with a dick and Leonarda obliges her. Isolde runs out of money and discovers she is good at an occupation forbidden in her aspirational world. This book reminded me a little of Le Grand Meaulnes, that dreamy feeling of another world, a much desired world, and a much desired object of desire. Except Le Grand Meaulnes did not have spanking scenes. I also enjoyed the somewhat Melvillian encyclopedic interruptions of descriptions of Buenos Aires canals and trees.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A prodigy and his mother try to live their life according to Kurasawa’s masterpiece

Sibylla, a difficult person, an academic, gets pregnant during a one night stand with a celebrity author. Disgusted at his bourgeois sensibilities, she does not tell him of the child. Little Ludo turns out to be a genius, reading Homer at age 4 and pestering his mother for help with the vocabulary. The little family is poor, their only income coming from the transcriptions she types of such periodicals as “Carp World” and “Advanced Angling.” That means that sometimes in the winter the two must ride the Circle Line all day to keep warm. Ludo begins to get curious about the identity of his father. The first half of the book is Ludo’s education; the second half is his search for a father figure.

This is almost like two books in one. The first is the compelling story of a young mother cursed/gifted with a precocious toddler. Maternal love and the bright eyes of the child. The second half is the story of the 11 year old searching for his father. This section lacks the comical claustrophobia of the first, and is presented as a series of fabulous anecdotes, stories of heroes, enjoyable to read but it pulled the reader away from the intensity of the novel. Also, the mother, who is the emotional center of the first half, pretty much drops out of sight.

My expectations were too high, I think, based upon what I had heard about how amazing this novel was. This was a perfectly enjoyable book but it could have used some cutting. Early on I got it – the two of them are SMART. The novel also served as educational device, introducing the reader to elementary Greek and other languages. Also, it was interesting to see all the different structures one could build a novel around: Verb declensions, a movie, and dusty old periodicals. I enjoyed the prose in the first half too: a mash up of dialogue, classical excerpts and scenes from the movie.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Mr and Mrs Macbeth find out what's done cannot be undone

Macbeth, simple and brave general under good King Duncan, is accosted by three witches who address him as King. Their spooky salutation/prediction plants an idea in Macbeth’s head, and even more urgently, the head of his wife. Spurred on by her merciless words, Macbeth kills the king as he sleeps. Initially panicky, the couple washes away the royal blood with a little water, then claims the throne. The once trustworthy Macbeth finds he now cannot trust anybody, and since murder has become a quick and effective tool, begins to murder friends and innocent women and children, all to keep his grasp on the crown. The list of his enemies grows long. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth cracks beneath the guilt. Foolishly trusting the ambiguous words of the weird sisters, Macbeth believes he is invulnerable. Once he realizes all is lost, however, he dies like a warrior.

I forgot how good this is. How compact.  How it is a tiny sharp portrait of marriage.  The play hurtles along, supported by the clean and wonderful poetry. (The deceptively simple nursery rhymes of the witches – lingering on the “o” sound.) In many ways, the plot is that of a horror movie, though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not villains. The horror is the murder, and yet, at the same time, the horror is that the murder could very well be meaningless. Everything could be meaningless.  Murder, don’t murder – in the long run, does it make a difference? The Macbeths try for a better life, spotting a once in a lifetime opportunity, intending to keep their crime hidden in the dark. Instead the murder infects everything, the peace of their sleep, indeed the entire country.

At times, their judgment is off - Lady Macbeth fairly begs for demonic possession – typically a bad idea. They underestimate the long term consequences of cold blooded murder. It is at the end, when all hope is lost, that Macbeth becomes fully the hero.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Felicia's Journey by William Trevor

An Irish girl in trouble encounters an epicurean canteen manager

Felicia, an unemployed Irish teen who shares a bedroom with her 100 year old great grandmother, meets handsome Johnny Lasaght, worker in a lawnmower factory, and is smitten.  Johnny, however, is cagey about letting her know his exact address.  Despite her father’s warnings, once her period is late, Felicia realizes she must locate the now departed Johnny.  Armed with nothing more than the name of a town in England, Felicia runs away to find the lawnmower factory.  However, as it has become perfectly obvious to the reader, Johnny has no intention of being found.  The frightened girl wandering the streets of the inhospitable city rouses the curiosity of fastidious Mr. Hilditch, who loves cookies, as well as apparently "rescuing" lost young women.  Rescuing them and perhaps more. Anyway, the previous five girls he rescued can now be found in his own private “Memory Lane,” a shadowy place in which he often contemplatively strolls.  Once the lawnmower factory turns out to be a fiction, Felicia has more gumption than expected.  She encounters a religious cult, squatters, and once again the chilling Mr. Hilditch before finding her own kind of peace.

The reading of this was at first slow going.  The characters seemed stock and Felicia’s ignorance was annoying.  What pulled me in was the pure self centeredness of Mr. Hilditch, the insane care he takes with food shopping and preparation, his own personal wellbeing.  He thinks of nothing but himself, although the reader soon starts to feel sorry for him, sorry for his loneliness.  He is the patient spider laying a trap for the fly.  The writing was extremely beautiful, the descriptions were exquisite. But reading this was a little like drinking soda pop out of a silver chalice.  The plot is basically Psycho.  I didn’t buy the ending, though it had a certain kind of beauty.  Arrayed against the sweet cookie selection and the never described murders, we witness goodness and good people.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

An urban farmer comes up with a plan to help his people

Bonbon, homeschooled by his black studies professor father, the last (or only) farmer in Dickens, a blighted neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, finds himself in a funk after his dad is shot during a routine traffic stop and bleeds to death on the street. Reluctant slave owner of the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, and spurned lover of MTA bus driver intellectual Marpessa Dawson, Bonbon decides that the way to put Dickens back on the map and inspire its underachieving black and Mexican populace is to resegregate. Strangely enough, his plan begins to work, but not before outraging the country. The book opens and closes with Bonbon at the Supreme Court, defending his case.

This book rubs the reader’s face in outrageous racial stereotypes (as well as perhaps some subtle ones – significant chunks of the book are in fairly hilarious Latin). The meager oft mislaid plot is secondary to the poetic riffing on what it means to be black, to be an Angeleno, to be the child of a nutty professor trying to forcibly mold a child free of internalized white judgments. And also what it means to be a black man in a racist society. Or an amazing farmer who makes friends all over town by growing the sweetest oranges and the most kaleidoscopic weed.

The cadences are amazing – this book must have taken forever to write. The elaborately crazy sentences force the reader to slow down, to linger, to take pleasure. For the most part the imagery is beautiful, despite Bonbon’s journey always bumping him against unpleasant racist realities.  I loved the scene where Marpessa takes her newly resegregated city bus and drives it up Pacific Coast Highway onto the beach so that Bonbon and Hominy and the night shift at Jack-in-the-Box can go skinny dipping. This truly is a book about Los Angeles – how its beauty is a secret pleasure enjoyed by its laid back inhabitants. There’s freeway rides in here and surfing and the beans at Tito’s Tacos.

If you laugh at the outlandish stereotyping, are you racist? Maybe there’s a scene in the book that addresses that – maybe the answer is yes. Also, I wasn’t sure about the title – who’s selling out? Bonbon is nicknamed The Sellout by Foy Chesire, his father’s wealthy nemesis, who rewrites classic books for African Americans, such as Measured Expectations. But isn’t Foy is the real sellout?

This would make a great movie with some great scenes of LA but that would never happen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

A girl, a woman, and a horse.

Velveteen Vargas, 11 year old daughter to an illiterate Dominican immigrant, gets a chance to visit the country as a Fresh Air Fund kid. Her foster parents, Ginger and Paul, live near a rundown stable, and in that stable, caged, for she is too aggressive to run free, is a scarred horse called Fiery Girl, disparagingly referred to as “Fugly Girl.” But Velvet has a calming effect on the dangerous horse. Velvet's love for horses and riding grows and it is soon revealed she is a natural equestrienne. Meanwhile, Ginger feels a powerful bond with the disadvantaged child while realistic Paul feels she ignores his commonsense advice about getting too involved.  Also maybe he feels that she ignores him. As Velvet enters adolescent, she encounters the boys of the neighborhood, who are at danger of being shot, and falls in love with one. Meanwhile, Silvia, Velvet's mother, attempts to beat the waywardness out of Velvet and resents the pull this white couple and what they have to offer has on the girl. She says they treat Velvet like a pet. The story always heads toward the climax, the competition with the white girls at the upscale stable.

This novel is plotted like a children’s book (specifically National Velvet), but written with high technical virtuosity, bringing the characters and the conflict to life using brief (sometimes only a paragraph) first person narrations. The writing and the imagery are simple and beautiful, showcasing the unmitigated pain of the characters. Velvet, seemingly unloved apart from a dead grandfather, childless recovering alcoholic Ginger, mourning the death of her mentally ill sister. And Fiery Girl, unable to trust, after being brutally punished by an earlier owner. The three are able to comfort each other, but only partially and only temporarily.

Nominally about a girl and a horse, the book is actually about so much more. This is about race and class in America, the huge and perhaps irremediable differences these two things make in the stability of people’s lives. It’s hard to be even tempered when there’s not enough money for rent, or when your mother’s unsavory tenant molests you, or every boy you know seems to get shot. Like Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood, one of the points of the book is social commentary, presenting a first person narration of American society from someone at the margins, someone not possessing or using the vocabulary of the elite.

In addition to the brilliantly written prose, I also enjoyed the way the tension was skillfully, almost unbearably, ratcheted up, as the plot points planted near the end of each section detonated. One of the questions asked (and not answered) is why do people have such painful lives and why do those people end up making things more painful? The final scene, Velvet’s triumph is also, (I guess) her defeat.