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.