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.