Sunday, February 28, 2016

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan have an opium tinged discussion

Kublai Khan, most powerful monarch in the world, stays in his luxurious compound being debriefed by ambassadors of his vast empire. One visitor to his court, the Venetian Marco Polo, who grows to be a favorite, relates his journeys to different cities, presenting his reports in an outlandish philosophical style. These cities are all named after women and categorized in several buckets: cities and the dead, cities and desire, etc. Each city is described in a lyrical flight of the imagination.

Although the book is short, I quickly grew tired of it. In many ways the book feels like a writing exercise - beautiful vignettes. I would love to read it in Italian. And perhaps this is not meant to be read like a regular book, but savored – perhaps the cities are not even meant to be read in order. There’s a reason why the two of them are always smoking opium – the worlds have a dreamy crazy feel to them. Sometimes neither Marco Polo or Kublai Khan (or the reader) is sure whether they are even saying anything out loud.

In some way, the work seems dated, like from the Seventies, including the decorative sexism. Every city has some chick brushing her hair or peeling a tangerine.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Gunnar’s Daughter by Sigrid Undset

Despite serious setbacks, Gunnar’s daughter makes her way in the medieval world.

Vigdis is the proud spoiled daughter of Gunnar, a regional Viking chief. One day, handsome equally arrogant Viga-Ljot comes to the court, almost immediately getting into fights with people. He and Gunnar flirt, then he lures her into the woods and tries to seduce her. When she’ll have none of it, he rapes her.  Later, with growing dread, Vigdis and her loyal servant realize she is pregnant and hide in a remote cabin. The baby comes and Vigdis exposes the child. She thinks. The years pass and both Vigdis and Viga-Ljot painfully grow wiser, but still her hatred of him leads to tragedy.

Vigdis does not forgive. Undset uses deceptively simple storytelling and plain prose that is highly effective in creating a mood and an alien world. This is not the typical run of the mill romantic historical fiction – it’s about something other than boy meets girl. It’s about, Who am I? Am I tough enough for this tough world? And even though the novel paints a picture of medieval society, those questions are asked by people of every time. The encroachment of Christianity is presented very realistically, at first these foreign beliefs barely impinge on Vigdis’s consciousness, but Christian tenets start to inform a lot of the other characters’ decision making. It’s also about how revenge doesn’t actually make you feel any better.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Ball by Tara Ison

Stories about women afraid of love

The stories in this collection, for the most part, concerned women who are afraid of loving someone so much they must break the tension in a horrifically transgressive way. The stories are about women with nutty obsessions. The bass line is sex and the release from the sex is a betrayal. I liked the title story, Ball. About a young woman and her little dog. I also liked Staples – like many of the other stories, it concerns a young woman in a sick relationship with a not very nice man. Many of the stories are funny with unexpected crazy details. Fish was another good one about an older woman waiting impatiently, again, nuttily and impatiently, for the death of her elderly uncle.

The prose was wonderful, pitch perfect, and vivid. And really the point of most of the stories is the very compelling voice drawing the reader in unquestioningly to that point of view. At the beginning, the characters seem normal, possibly neurotic, then the characters, not completely out of the blue, do shockingly bad things. I’m not quite sure, however, that all these stories lumped together like this work as a collection. The stories are so thematically similar that a little of this (the sudden turn to shock and gore) goes a long way.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Stories of ambitious men, held together by the journey of a young woman wanting to be an artist

The unnamed narrator, an aspiring artist from Nevada, arrives in 1970’s New York knowing no one, but is soon pursued by the handsome Italian expatriate Sandro who makes art from metal boxes and who introduces her to major figures in the art scene. Sandro, heir to the Valera industrial fortune, reluctantly assists the narrator in her artistic quest to race the Bonneville Salt Flats by getting her the latest Valera motorcycle. Soon afterwards, she is invited to Italy to promote the Valera brand. Again reluctantly, Sandro accompanies her to his family estate, where his aristocratic family is simply nasty to her. Our narrator flees to Rome, which happens to be convulsed with proletarian riots. Somehow she gets involved in something secret, mysterious and revolutionary and the novel concludes with her keeping watch over the white snowy face of Mont Blanc. Her story is interspersed with the stories of daring men who don’t care what people say about them. Revolutionaries perhaps.

There is a series of certain repetitive images in this novel; one is that of blank spaces – the unbroken snow, the expanse of salt flats, unmarked spaces that the young woman plans to mark as her artistic project, with her will. She is an artist of the blank space. Sandro’s father, Valera Sr., the fascist industrialist, is also an artist. An artist of destruction. And Ronnie, Sandro’s intriguing friend, is another sort of artist – his art is never specified but here he is an artist of the spoken word perhaps.

The unhappy love story of the narrator and Sandro is interspersed with glimpses into gangs of violent men, the Arditti, the Motherfuckers, the Red Brigades. Men believing they understand the future of humanity.

The book is structured with a number of bravura set pieces – beautifully detailed highly ambitious scenes critiquing war, greed, human nature and artistic endeavor. This magnificent tapestry is held together in key spots with Scotch tape/gimmicks, specifically, the romance between her and Sandro. She becomes a completely passive woman, dependent on him for her identity/wellbeing. It’s hard to believe this tough competitive girl falters when she visits the evil mother in law and I didn’t buy her diffidence. The scenes after she goes to Italy are static and dull, probably because she is completely an observer. Is that deliberate?

Also, the photos embedded in the text feel a little gimmicky, not moving or eerie like in the Sebald novels. I liked how at the end the chronology gets mixed up. Mystery helps. I loved the behind the green door metaphor, and the cake box girls.