Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Five Acts of Diego Leon by Alex Espinoza

A Mexican boy comes to Hollywood to become a movie star

Diego Leon, an orphaned half Indian boy, is sent away to his rich grandparents’ house during the time of the Mexican Revolution.  After being groomed to take over his patrician grandfather’s legal business and becoming engaged to a devout young heiress, Diego chucks this preordained life away and leaves for Hollywood to pursue his love of acting.  Once in Hollywood, he is looked down upon because he is Mexican.  Diego sweeps floors, then get a few roles as an extra, then meets a handsome producer.  Suddenly he starts getting bigger parts.  The producer grows tired of him, but eventually Diego, in his final film, perhaps learns to act at last.

The structure is simple – five big chunks. Diego the mestizo living in the Indian village, Diego the young bourgeois living in the city, Diego the immigrant sweeping the floor of a LA cafĂ©, Diego the struggling actor, and Diego the quasi movie star. The opening part of the novel, set in the Indian village, was truly compelling, and I was gripped wondering what would happen to the boy.  However, after that, the plotting is pretty much nonexistent, the scenes lined up like train cars one after the other, rather than having the events in one scene trigger the next.  The dialogue is expository.  The main problem is that Diego Leon is a robot being pushed along the path of his life.  Is he gay or straight – that seems to be a conflict every so often he encounterse.  He doesn’t seem to consistently feel any lust (either for bodies or for achievements) and I’m not so sure that conforms to real life.  Also, his prime motivation is to be a famous actor, but again, I’m not sure why.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Glimpses of California in the Sixties

In this collection of magazine essays, Joan Didion turns her cool gaze on some California phenomena: a young Joan Baez, hippies in Haight Ashbury, a fishy San Bernardino murder and her childhood memories of the "original” California. Even though Joan Didion is a native, there’s something a little condescending here, a bit East Coasty – oh those nutty West Coasters, with their pomposity about silly things. There’s a Jeremiah flavor going on as well, poetic, completely authoritative, and warning of imminent disaster.

Joan Didion must be one of America’s finest prose stylists.  She also seems like a true conservative, preferring John Wayne to LSD taking toddlers. In the essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she has no sympathy for the earnest hippies, in fact, oozes disapproval. Near the end, the perceptions felt repetitive. After the passage of time, the celebrity pieces, the Joan Baez and John Wayne stuff are essentially slight. But she certainly knows how to dramatically end a scene.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Eccentrics live on houseboats by the River Thames

Led by Richard, the upper class skipper of Lord Jim, the various houseboat owners in Battersea, maintain not very fixed lives. Nenna, an abandoned wife with two small daughters, lives on the Grace. Maurice, a charmer involved with various criminal enterprises, lives on the Maurice (name changed from the Dondeschiepolschuygen IV) and Willis, an optimistic retired painter, lives on the Dreadnought. Much of the nominal plot concerns a leak on the Dreadnought. The community rallies around Willis when he is injured, and Richard and Nenna form a closer bond when Nenna tracks down her loserish husband. The book ends inconclusively, as all the inhabitants appear headed for new destinies.

Exquisite is the operative word here (however condescending and sexist that term might be). However, this novel definitely is exquisite, packing a dozen characters into a slight number of pages, and composed of miniature scenes which deliver outsize pleasure. The tidal flows of the Thames are the real stars of this book, lifting flotsam and jetsam, moving the plot along, and providing a subject for beautiful flights of prose. The best part of this novel is the dialogue between Nenna’s daughters, the preternaturally responsible Martha and the irrepressible Tilda. Although only six, Tilda knows how to live.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr

A man ponders his wasted life

Jun Nakayama, a Japanese actor who possessed a smoldering eroticism on the silent film screens of the past, is invited to audition for a movie. But much has happened in the forty years since his last role, including the wartime interment of the Japanese and the mysterious brutal murder of a popular director. The highlights of Jun’s elderly life are his mountain hikes and studious avoidance of regret. As Jun considers whether to take the part, he revisits the long ago incident which caused him to quit acting. As part of the process of remembering, he meets with his former colleagues, the silent film stars of the past.

Now I’ve had two books in a row with people driving around a specific landscape interviewing people who were witnesses to a traumatic event. Nominally, Jun is trying to find out the chances that his “secret” will leak; the reader is trying to find out what this secret is. The reader is also trying to find out why Jun quit not only his career, but quit on life. That question is never fully answered. Was it racism? Was it sexual fear? Is he afraid of his own emotions? The problem for me was that I didn’t care what happened to Jun – his voice is so restrained and passionless I find it hard to buy that he was a successful actor. And the violent murder at the core of the novel lacks emotional resonance or motivation.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

A traumatized young woman tries to solve the mystery of her family’s murder

The carefully coached testimony of seven year old Libby Day, who barely escaped the night her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, sends her devil worshipper brother to life in prison. Now an adult, ornery, short of funds, she gets involved with a club of nerdy mass murder enthusiasts who convince her, by means of cash infusions, to ask questions of key figures in the case. After talking to some witnesses, Libby starts to doubt her prior beliefs, and is spurred to continue the search. Eventually she comes to conclusions of her own, conclusions which upset a few people.

I’m not sure if this type of brutally violent murder mystery is my cup of tea. I read this because I loved Gone Girl, and this book happily contains the same kind of pointed social commentary, but this plot and these characters felt a bit more “gimmicky.” Also the solution to the mystery seemed implausible. Not just logically implausible or emotionally implausible, but mechanically implausible. I guess that it usually is. I admired the different points of view, especially the brother’s, which successfully evoked the terror of being guilty of a little thing but getting accused of a much bigger thing.