Sunday, December 10, 2017

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

A Houston lawyer barely making ends meet accidentally gets involved in a murder case which is a lot more complicated than it looks

Jay Porter has a pregnant wife and struggling law practice in the booming oil town of Houston, Texas. He’s a former radical who’s joined the system and married the good girl daughter of a minister. His plan to treat his wife on their anniversary with a homemade budget river cruise goes awry when gunshots are fired from the bank and Jay jumps into the water to rescue a young white woman. He wants to forget that night, but can’t help trying to figure out the truth, especially after the boat captain disappears and Jay begins to be followed. His determination to solve the mystery reaches all the way to the top of Houston’s oil dependent society and the Mayor herself, Jay’s former lover.

I was instantly sucked into the story and Jay’s dilemma between doing the right thing and staying out of sight and making some money. The writing is “literary,” thought the somewhat unwieldy plot is not. The problem was fitting in all the different plots – the dockworkers’ strike, Jay’s wife’s pregnancy, the shooting on the river bank and then the grand scam being perpetuated by the oil companies. The book lost forward momentum and I started getting antsy and had to grit my way through to the end.

This is an old fashioned story that is pretty by the numbers. The unique and valuable thing about this novel is the black perspective. I liked the way the reader learned things about Houston and the longshoreman’s union and police brutality. The fear of being stopped by the police for a traffic infraction is effectively painted. Each one of the plots is also quietly political.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson

A social worker deals with the problems of his clients as well as serious problems of his own

Pete Snow, a Montana social worker who had requested to work in a remote part of the state, has a few clients he is observing. Though perhaps Pete should be keeping an eye on his own daughter. The novel is composed of vignettes alternating among Pete's colorful clients, his troubled relationship between his cheating ex-wife and his teen runaway daughter, and Pete’s relationship with a Posse Comitatus mountain man, Jeremiah Pearl, and Pearl’s dutiful son. In addition, Pete has a problem with drinking and falls into a liaison with a coworker with a screwed up past.

The novel provides a glimpse into Montana society, however, the plot, I think, proved to be too ambitious and the reader lumbers through this complicated story. Pete is an amateur detective chasing Jeremiah Pearl and interviewing everyone who ever encountered Pearl. The parts where he goes around talking to Montanans is interesting, however, in general the prose felt bloated and everything is overdescribed. I never understood why Pete is so interested in Jeremiah Pearl to the point of taking miles long hikes through knee deep snow. In general, the exposition is clumsy, and also there are some implausible happenings. Like, is it really that easy for drunks to pick up women?

Women are definitely the other here and there’s more than a faint whiff of misogyny especially when Pete interacts with his wife, girlfriend or daughter. Women are more body than soul, cruel creatures without a lick of loyalty. Every woman sexually betrays him. The ending left me cold probably because I ended up disliking deluded Pete Snow.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

A memoir structured around the violent deaths of five young African American men

Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, a coastal town whose racially segregated people and culture remain deeply damaged by the legacy of slavery. Each of the book's five parts is dedicated to  one of her young male friends and relatives. All of the young men died in violent careless ways, including, most painfully, her nineteen year old younger brother. They died young and society did really not care. Men We Reaped also chronicles Ward’s life: her growing understanding of her charming dad’s lack of dependability which fuels the no nonsense strictness of her mother, a domestic worker supporting four young kids. Thanks to her mother, Ward is offered a scholarship to a private school which leads to a gold plated ticket out of DeLisle: Stanford and the University of Michigan. Far from Mississippi, she can’t, however, shake her homesickness.

I read this book practically in one sitting. Ward is a master of establishing tension. The young men, their love of life and partying, are deftly portrayed. She relates their risky and not so great decisions as well as describes the oppression of small town Mississippi: early neglect in substandard schools, the overpolicing of the black population and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. These uneducated young men cannot have a single misstep. Otherwise they will pay a life altering price. Sadness permeates this book.

As her first class education takes her further from DeLisle, Ward can’t help but lead a double life. I felt panicky after she returned to Mississippi from Stanford and couldn’t even get a job at the local Barnes and Noble. This book achieves two things: A portrait of the artist as a young woman, and a spotlight shining upon unacceptable conditions existing in America today.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

A young woman goes across the world to go quietly mad

Elyria’s adopted sister jumped off a building. Her mother is an egomaniacal horror. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Elyria encounters her sister’s shell shocked professor, a young man whose mother also jumped off a building. The professor and Elyria get married but things don’t go well. Elyria starts to hate him and one day, leaves Manhattan and her great job and travels to New Zealand based upon a casual invitation from a visiting writer. After her husband cancels her credit cards, Elyria must rely on the kindness of strangers. And strangers, though kind, are basically uninterested, as the young woman enters more and more into an alienated state.

The plot wasn’t the point of this novel – it was the superb writing and the meticulous creation of a completely mad claustrophobic world. Little by little Elyria acts outside the boundaries, at first the reader thinks she is just taking a trip, but it is not very long before Elyria acts completely nuts. The New Zealanders start to treat her like she nuts, but Elyria refuses to deviate from her plan. She takes the reader along for the crazy ride. Perhaps her conflict is between the desire to be a supportive wife, sister and mother versus an asshole who needs to find out something about herself. The people in New Zealand react very reasonably to her extreme passivity.

The sadness, which is partly a result of the perfectly modulated voice, is also a function of the reality that no one really misses Elyria. Her husband is dumbfounded that she left and humiliated him. He’s not concerned about her in the slightest. A very unique novel.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

A woman tries to escape from her high tech husband

Hazel, an ordinary woman married to Byron, a high tech billionaire, Sergey Brin/Mark Zuckerberg type, flees her stifling marriage and escapes to her father’s house. Her father is not that thrilled to see her having recently purchased a perfectly lifelike sex doll and is eager for hours of privacy. Too late Hazel discovers Byron had a chip implanted in her brain, so that at noon each day all her memories and desires are transmitted to his lair. The situation seems hopeless until young Jasper, a Jesus resembling con man who cheats lovesick women out of their life savings, and is also addicted to dolphin sex, is dispatched to save her.

I loved the prose – so sprightly and off kilter. Also I appreciated the observations about modern day America. However, there seems to be a problem with the plotting. The energy appreciably picks up the moment Jasper and his dolphin initiation/obsession subplot is introduced. The book might run aground on the primary plot which is: why would a billionaire be attracted to Hazel: Miss Ordinary or even perhaps Ms. Mediocre? Why would he marry her, and then, when she ran off, why would he pursue her? The story’s meaning and the Hazel plot remained at the level of entertaining confection, rather than a journey of illumination, where the two plots build on each other. It’s almost like there are three separate short stories or tales of “Made for Love”: Hazel and her technocratic husband; her father and his two sex dolls (their eventual end is hilarious) and Jasper and his eventual chemical/surgical creation of a heart/conscience.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Animal Farm by George Orwell

A fable about human nature

Farmer Jones, a drunk, get too careless with the security apparatus of the farm, and the animals, motivated by a new philosophy formulated by a revered old hog, eject him to run the farm himself. Their sacred hymn is “Beasts of England.” Free of the farmer’s tyranny, yet beset by enemies on all sides, the animals at first work together in harmony. However, little by little, a certain class of animals (pigs) betrays the revolution’s ideals and soon end up as bad as the human farmers. The animals are once again exploited, and what is even worse, betrayed.

This was a short novel, very direct and, to my mind, spoke to human corruption. I’m not sure if socialism, when compared to other ways of organizing society, is more susceptible to lying and greed. Part of the dramatic tension came from the animals slowly discovering that they had been conned – their deepest ideals had been violated. The sheep, however, never seemed to figure that out, but were happy repeating whatever stupid things the pigs told them. The most interesting part of this was the corruption of the language and memory in such a brief time period in order to support the ascendancy of the pigs. What is recently agreed to be the truth is not good for Animal Farm.

This probably was a very effective piece of political fiction. So there were aesthetic aims, and they were also political aims.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Life and a trip to the lighthouse

A beautifully written meditation divided into three parts. The first part concerns the hustle and bustle of mother-of-eight Mrs. Dalloway’s life one summer day as she tries to ensure her many guests have a wonderful visit at the Dalloways’ beach house. A matchmaker, she wants everyone to end up as fecund and satisfied as herself, though some tough nuts are visiting, among them Lily Briscoe, artist and spinster and a bit proud of being both. That summer’s day Lily is puzzling out the composition of a painting, and ignoring the match making pressures of her hostess. The second part is that same summer house in a sad decade later. The third and final section is the long awaited trip to the lighthouse, across the many miles of sea in a sailboat.

Wow, I really loved this. A beautifully conceived and executed work of art. There’s kind of a “gimmick” that happens in the middle that still works well. The omniscient third person point of view is full of insight and the long sentences feel very often like poetry. The repetition and echoes of the scimitar metaphor is particularly effective. Also the fruit tree. But why is Mrs. Dalloway always opening the windows?

Another subject is the relationship of men and women. Women, maybe according to Mrs. Dalloway, must be the admirer of men, the inspiration. Lily Briscoe, however, can envision a life for herself that does not require men. I loved the way the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway is portrayed – their silences, and their shifting relationship. They need each other. Who is in charge? When Mr. Dalloway says “Damn you,” to Mrs. Dalloway it comes across, even in this day and age, as shocking.

Mrs. Dalloway has eight children – this is presented as a sign of her happy life. In part three, we learn that at least the two youngest despise their gruff father. However, in many ways, this is a book where a lot of loving attention is devoted to the characters and also to the characters’ world. Part of what this novel is about is close observation. The final scene in the novel is mediated by Lily Briscoe, through an artist’s sensibilities. I didn’t realize till after I had finished that it is autobiographical. It’s a ghost story, and parts, indeed, are very spooky.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

All Things All at Once by Lee K Abbott

An ordinary Joe from New Mexico reflects upon life in these United States, women, and a few supernatural happenings

These stories are full of life and typically start in bravado fashion, opening with an extremely long and complex sentence. The rest of the paragraphs are mix of high falutin vocabulary and the vernacular. The most striking thing is that in this collection of 23 stories, every single narrator or narrative consciousness turns out to be a middle aged white guy from New Mexico who likes golf. This whole book is like a flashback from the Sixties. Not that there’s anything wrong with that narrative consciousness. But even in 1969, twenty three times in a row? There’s a lot of disappointed first wives in here, and good natured good timey gals. The themes are musty.

The Vietnam stories were good, especially “Love is the Crooked Thing” about a Vietnam war widow and the aforementioned New Mexico golf guy. Great descriptions are studded throughout, especially in those long sentences that typically open each story. I also liked the Columbine story –“One of Star Wars, One of Doom” maybe it was because it was not about a New Mexican golfer (although he of course was the narrative consciousness) but rather tried to create the life of a high school and come up with some idea of a motive for the massacre. Many of the stories have a UFO subtext, the mystery of a why a perfectly happy person, in a privileged position in their New Mexico golfing milieu, would risk it all with a tale of madness?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Twins with ESP feel an earthquake coming in St Louis.

Daisy and Violet, identical twins, grew up in a house filled with sadness. Their parents didn’t seem to get along. Both girls "sense" premonitions of things that might happen. Violet runs with her special ability, while, Daisy, sick of the more unstable, less conforming Violet, pushes it away. Daisy changes her name to Kate and manages to minimize Violet’s role in her life. She marries a kind man and they have two lovely children. Kate becomes a stay-at-home mom. Then one day Violet gets a premonition that St. Louis will have a major earthquake, and unwillingly, so does Kate.

Almost immediately this book rubbed me the wrong way, though I was reading on the plane and stuck with it and grew to admire the plotting. The cutesy dialogue at the beginning between the two sisters really grated. I don’t think two sisters would talk like this, or especially if they were psychic. The dialogue felt very expository. Kate, who narrates the story, has the most rounded character. What puts this in the women’s fiction or genre category is the importance of plot at the expense of character. Plot comes out of character, but there weren’t really any characters. The one bit of life for me was when Kate surprisingly confirms Violet’s earthquake prediction with her own.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Bakkhai by Euripides

A young king doubts the power of Dionysus

Dionysus was born of a human mother, Semele, but Semele’s royal family rejects this proposition as ridiculous. Therefore, Dionysus shows up in disguise at the court of his young cousin, Pentheus, accompanied by a chorus of his barbarian female worshippers (the Bakkhai). Dionysus is disguised as one of his priests, a very handsome long hair priest who carries the sacred staff, the thyrsus. Before his arrival, however, Dionysus has charmed all the women of Thebes to be his sacred worshippers, and they have fled to the mountains and run around in a frenzy with fawnskins on, killing wild animals with their bare hands. The women include his royal aunts, including Agave, Pentheus’s mother. Young King Pentheus is disgusted by this display of female wildness and he takes Dionysus captive, cuts off his hair, and pens him up. The god then erodes Pentheus’s reason and, rather than sending the army to capture the woman and return them to the city, Pentheus decides to dress as a woman, and climb the tallest pine to spy on their carnal rituals. But his mother, assisted by the other Theban woman, think he is a mountain lion and tear his body to pieces. Agave enters the stage bearing Pentheus’s severed head and is talked back into shocking reason by her grieving father.

The heart of this play is the dialogue between the captured good looking Dionysus and the curious (bicurious?) young King. The erstwhile priest gets this rational controlling young man to dress up like a woman, preen, and sends him off to the mountain to spy on these frenzied women. Once Pentheus gets what he came for, the rest of the play is Dionysus taking his terrible revenge. Don’t ignore the call of the wild, because it will come get you at the end. Part of the question is why does the whole family have to suffer? Dionysus is not merciful.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Orestes by Euripides

Three desperadoes try to get out of a life or death situation

The Furies torment Orestes for killing his mother, even though the murder was committed at Apollo’s command.  Only his sister Electra can comfort him in his sickness.  Orestes pleads with his uncle for help.  His uncle declines – now Orestes and Electra must go before the citizens and argue their case.  Alas, they lose and Orestes and Electra must now kill themselves.  Orestes’s loyal friend Pylades arrives.  The trio concocts a plan to free themselves, which involves killing Helen their aunt, and Hermione their cousin and foster sister.  Luckily Apollo swings overhead from a crane, removes the death sentence and orders everybody to marry each other.

This Greek tragedy felt like a spaghetti western or like Bonnie and Clyde.  Orestes and Electra have no compunction about murder – they are only interested in getting out of their death sentence.  They try to reason with people.  When people will have none of it, they enact their rescue plan.  Orestes is persuasive at the beginning, as he suffers from guilt and madness.  Electra’s devotion to him is touching.  Their solution, however, is too cold blooded (perhaps only for modern readers.)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

An American slaving ship transports an African tribe and their mysterious god

Rutherford Calhoun, the somewhat slick and sticky fingered recently freed slave of a master who tutored him in the finer points of Biblical and Greek scholarship, finds himself in trouble in New Orleans. Torn between marriage to a plain-faced spinster, or certain death at the hands of a crime kingpin, he stows away on board the Republic, a slave ship captained by the evil yet learned dwarf, Ebenezer Falcon. Once in Africa, the ship takes on board the enslaved members of the Allmuseri tribe along with a mysterious large crate. Strange things start to happen on board, storms and mutinies, and Calhoun, a much changed man, returns to the United States.

This was a great idea for a novel, touching upon America’s original sin, and its ramifications. In addition, this book had all the makings of a ripping good adventure yarn. However, the execution was lacking and the book finished in a welter of confusing action. First of all, Rutherford is the dreaded passive narrator. Things happen to him; he hardly lifts a finger to save himself. The book is barely 200 pages, and for most of it the pacing is staid and perhaps even marmoreal, yet I was left at the end with the feeling that I needed more pages to explain what had happened. I especially wanted to know more about the Allmuseri’s god in the hold, in that crate. I got that Calhoun was Ishmael; at the end I was disappointed to realize that Rutherford was supposed to be Odysseus as well.  The weight of all these references crushed the natural arc of the story.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

Surreal stories about America

These fabulist, comic and smart stories are unusually, more often than not, explicitly political rather than implicitly political.  The stories feel very American, suffused with racial unease, border wariness, and dealing with a buffoonish President.  Every story was humorous.  I loved “Visitors”, a 98 percent dialogue story about a young couple and her stubborn, asking for directions averse, parents.  “Saving Face” was surreal and so very good, about a dictatorship and its dictator, and the dictator’s omnipresent face. “Miracle,” like some of the other stories, draws its energy from white affluent American’s racial anxiety.  One of the strengths Budnitz has is a lack of fear.  She really goes there. The stories I didn’t like so much were the ones that felt “expected.”  “Elephant and Boy” seemed a easy – ok got it, clueless white Americans abroad are destructive.  “Immersion” is another thank god for saintly white folks type story.  “Preparedness” is about the world’s stupidest President.  Once you start out there, however, with that moronic President, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver the plot.  “Motherland” about a war ridden land where all the children come from rape.  Again, moving, but nothing happened that was unexpected.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bough Down by Karen Green

The aftermath of a suicide

In exquisitely written paragraphs surrounded by white space and supplemented by haunting collages, a wife recounts in bits and pieces the story of her emotional recovery from the shocking assault of her beloved husband’s suicide. So many of the paragraphs are flat out funny, blackly humorous. Practical problems like dogs and dental issues circle the wife’s often times overwhelming feeling that maybe she should die as well. Surprisingly and wonderfully, part of the book is also about the wife missing her sexual partner. At the end the wife seems to come, or must come, to an understanding of the perishability of all things.

I loved this deeply moving and entertaining book. The writing is not, “not bad for a visual artist”, but truly superior. One of the best aspects is how many other characters are tellingly portrayed, even as the main character is in an understandable state of shock.  As I think about it, this writing is the exact opposite of David Foster Wallace’s writing. The compression, the truth in the lyricism valued almost above all else. The glancing insights require that the book be read at least twice to appreciate the structure..

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Scarred by a nightmarish dictatorship, Dominican immigrants try to adapt to a cold society

Oscar, the nerdy chubby son of a Dominican immigrant family, gets his entire family, tragic mother, adopted grandma, hot sister and best friend Junior involved, when he falls in love/lust with a Dominican policeman’s sexy girlfriend. This story is interspersed with the escape story of Oscar’s mother and the love story between Junior and the hot sister. All the parts add up to a mosaic of the evil Trujillo years.

I was really disappointed. Junot Diaz’s strength is his voice, and the voice here was flat. At the beginning the voice even felt strained, explaining everything in Oscar’s world with unneeded juvenile footnotes. Also I don’t believe this was a novel. A novel is not just beautiful language, a novel must have a structure, preferably beautiful, and Oscar Wao lacked any semblance of structure. The layout was Chapter One, Chapter One, Chapter One, Chapter One, and then the book ended. This wasn’t even one of these novel-in-stories deal.

Part of the problem is I didn’t care about the characters, and I felt I should have, especially for Belicia, Oscar’s tragic mother. But I had to wade through  lots of paragraphs describing her tits. I felt the book was attempting to be an emotional history of the Trujillo years and how the festering corruption infects an entire society. The entire thing was stunted.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Trojan Women by Euripides translated by Nicholas Rudall

What war really means

After ten years of siege, the Trojans are defeated by the Greek invaders. Therefore all the men are killed and the women and children enslaved, about to be scattered to many kingdoms. Hecuba, Queen of Troy, her daughter-in-law Andromache, her daughter Kassandra and her grandson Astyanax all must suffer grievously. Who is to blame for this suffering? Hecuba says Helen of Troy, the cause of the Greek invasion. A trial commences and it seems Helen is condemned. Or is she? That plot, sketchy as it is, must bear the emotional weight of the severe suffering endured by the defenseless defeated women.

Euripides is a courageous artist. This play is an indictment of Greek society, an indictment of the Greek’s foundational myth of the Trojan war, and an indictment of essential human nature. Our society lacks the platform and maybe even the courage to do create confrontational piece of art that is supported by the establishment. Although apparently this play came in last in the competition. It must have outraged many people.

It was difficult at times to read this – the dead baby on the shield at the end.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

A young woman is trapped in a suffocating life

In 1964, shy awkward Eileen, twenty-four years old, lives in a small Massachusetts town with her drunken widower father and works in the office at the boys’ prison. She hates her life and dreams ineffectively about moving to New York. She nurses a crush on a handsome prison guard and hides her father’s shoes in the trunk of her car so he won’t terrorize the neighborhood with his revolver. Then one day, near Christmas, a new employee arrives at prison – a beautiful young teacher. The teacher has a scheme and entices Eileen to join in.

It’s almost as if Moshfegh came up with the oddball characters and dismal setting and then deliberately inserted a preposterous plot, almost even flaunting the ridiculousness of the plot. The oddball trapped characters are vividly drawn; they are monumental and snap into focus. The structure of the book is the old woman Eileen looking back. Eileen herself, at least in the past, spends a lot of time pondering disgusting things. All the lyrical descriptions of taking a shit are gross and funny, although after a while, I was asking myself, is that all this book is, very lyrical writing about taking a shit? Moshfegh has a dim view of human nature.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Medea by Euripides translated by Robin Robertson

Medea will not accept being abandoned

Jason, a noble Greek, and Medea, a barbarian sorceress, have had many adventures and two sons together. Now, Jason, much to Medea’s surprise, plans to marry the king of Corinth’s daughter and prefers that Medea step gratefully aside. Medea, who because of her murderous actions on Jason’s behalf can never return to her home, will have none of it, and achieves a savage revenge on everyone who would have cast her aside.

Euripides is my favorite Greek playwright so far, not interested in playing nice or in cosseting the audience. The play is cleanly plotted, its detonations are perfectly timed. There are many hints of what Medea will do well before she does it. The theme is the sometimes deadly unpredictability of women, and the untrustworthiness of the barbarians. And yet, the viewer, I’m sure, is supposed to feel sympathy for Medea. It is so easy to understand why she can’t accept the sound logic of Jason’s argument. The truth rings out clearly throughout the centuries. The final image of Phoebus' carriage takes the play into another realm all together.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

A waitress has her first taste of adulthood

Tess, a recent college graduate, flees an unhappy family life and comes to New York City. She finds an apartment in Brooklyn, and based on her personality, not her experience, gets a highly sought after job as a backwaiter in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive restaurants. Waitressing in this rarified setting is physically and mentally demanding, and at first,Tess can’t cope. Little by little, she learns, with the help of Simone, the cultured server who educates Tess in the finer points of wine and oysters, and Jake, the brooding Heathcliffy bartender, who teaches her about sexual desire. Jake and Simone, however, apparently have a much deeper relationship with each other than either could have or want to have with Tess. Tess is determined to change that.

There’s something compelling about the Bildungsroman. This one reminded me of Love Me Back, another restaurant novel – the na├»ve young heroine and her fine mind getting put through a fast paced thresher, all in pursuit of making a buck and serving up hash. The seduction of the partying, the drug abuse. How the terrifyingly unfamiliar becomes second nature and how a team is forged. Love Me Back was a better constructed novel, however, as it actually told a story. Sweetbitter is the classic case of Vivian Gornick’s the situation not the story. The situation is intriguing – which is why I was sucked in the first hundred pages. But after the heady rush of the beginning I wondered – now what? Now what turned out to be more of the same. The prose is great, although the narrator takes herself and her backwaiting gig a mite seriously at times. I enjoyed the structure, which is that of the four seasons.

The reason why the story spins its wheel is because the three main characters are incompletely realized. Simone, the mentor, speaks in philosophically dense paragraphs that more often come off as silly. Another problem with Simone’s educational monologues is that food, in some aspects, like many fashionable things, is inherently trivial. The ancient Greeks did not hand down recipes. There are too many forgettable characters so the reader’s emotional reactions to their problems are muted. The presumed engine of the plot, the love story between the narrator and laconic Jake, naturally, like all love stories, has low stakes attached to it. Part of the plot is her advancement from back waiter to server – another low stakes mechanism. A reoccurring crisis is that there are never enough bar cloths.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Herakles by Euripides translated by Anne Carson

Hera gets irrational revenge on Herakles

Herakles’ wife and father are not sure if he will return from Hades, where he has been dispatched on his final labor.  Lycos, King of Thebes, is at the palace gates, demanded the execution of Herakles’ two young children in order to protect himself from future usurpation. Just as the children are about to be led out to death, Herakles returns triumphant (as he always does) and kills Lycos, much to the joy of his happy family.  As Herakles and his family offer prayers at the temple, Iris, handmaiden to Hera, and Madness enter.  Reluctantly Madness accepts her assignment, which is to drive Herakles insane.  She does so.  In his deluded state, he murders his wife and children.  His father mourns.  When the bound Herakles awakes from his madness, he is downcast.  But his friend Theseus takes charge of him and leads him off the stage and into his new bereaved life.

The gods, Hera in particular, put a heavy strain on humans.  For no really good reason, she destroys Herakles’s life.  His father hidesso that in his madness he will not commit the unforgivable sin of patricide.  But at the end of the play, Theseus, a fellow human, allows Herakles to lean against him, taking him back to Athens and sharing half of his wealth.  Trust in humans, not in the gods, although I love the personification of Madness.  She does not want to do what she is sent to do.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The two children of performance artists resent their unusual childhood.

Caleb and Camilla Fang are performance artists who delight in staging uncomfortable situations.  Their art is only strengthened by the birth of their children, Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B), who participate (unwillingly) in their elaborate scenarios.  Once the children grow up, they break from the family's artistic endeavors.  But then for different reasons (nervous breakdown, getting hit in the face with a potato gun), the children are forced to go home.  But once they get there, it seems as though their parents are bent on staging the most elaborate trick of them all.

This book was like a textbook of on how to deploy quirkiness, although it didn’t take very long before the quirkiness became monotonous.  Also, the story seemed to rely on long stretches of dialogue.  In many ways, the central idea is delightful, a confection, only I felt that the plot, in some places, felt forcibly wrangled into place.  The big sister actress is fiery, Buster is a little more unsure.  Their relationship drives the story. The main problem is that I didn’t particularly care whether the parents were alive or dead.  They weren’t very nice, and, more importantly, they seemed one note and boring.  Finally, the end felt forced, fantastical and a bit crazy.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Three strong women are viewed through the prism of a fourth

The unnamed narrator recalls her childhood escapades with Tracey, her similarly biracial friend.  They meet in dance class where it is quickly discovered that the narrator has flat feet, but Tracey is truly talented, though dragged down by the ignorant working class values of her white mother, and scarred by the abandonment of her father.  In adulthood, Tracey’s fate is entwined with her enraged insanity.  The narrator’s Jamaican mother is a big fan of self-improvement, the course of which takes her to Parliament.  Meanwhile, the narrator gets a job as a personal assistant to a Madonna-like rock star.  The rock star establishes a school in a small West African country, and the narrator travels to the village to help establish the school.  In the course of that journey, she learns some lessons about who she really is. 

I was disappointed in this.  Zadie Smith’s previous novels had deep structural flaws which consistently resulted in unsatisfactory rushed endings, but in which the reader also was rewarded with deeply moving scenes and brilliant observations and dialogue.  In comparison, Swing Time had long stretches of dullness, as well as long stretches of mildly interesting reportage.  Part of the problem is the passive first person narrator.  Her conflict wasn’t clearly articulated or compelling.  She didn’t seem three dimensional, not in the way that the ambitious mother or even the unambitious father felt three dimensional.  The narrator is joined in that flat universe by the Aimee-Madonna character.  Aimee is not even really a charming egomaniac, she’s just grating.

There are numerous good scenes in here – the scenes in Africa and with the mother and the early childhood scenes are good.  It’s just that the story never comes to a dramatic peak.  The main plot twist doesn’t feel correctly established or supported by the desultorily doled out plot points.  The narrator keeps referring to some event that changed everything, but that gimmick feels hoary, and the actual event, once revealed, is stupid. This book might contain the world’s most half hearted love triangle.  Also, for no apparent good reason, Darryl Pinckney is thrown in.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hekabe by Euripides translated by Anne Carson

A traumatized queen has had enough

Queen Hekabe has endured the violent death of most of her children and the loss of her glorious Trojan empire. Now she is a slave in the camps of the Greeks. Her suffering, however, continues -- Dead Achilles has appeared as a ghost, demanding the sacrifice of Hekabe’s youngest daughter, Polyxena. The Greeks are a little reluctant to communicate this to Hekabe but Polyxena comforts her mother and bravely goes to her death. Next, Hekabe discovers that her youngest son Polydorus, whom she entrusted to close family friend Polymestor, was murdered by his host. Now Hekabe is out for dramatic revenge.

This play is stark and beautiful. In many ways, these great classic plays feel like a response to the glorified indiscriminate war making and murdering found in the Iliad. The horrible plight of women is a theme, along with the consequences of being absolutely powerless. How are you to retain your dignity? You can’t – you can only endure. Polyxena’s death scene, as recounted by a messenger, is amazing. She doesn’t want to die being held down; she wants to die free rather than live as a slave. Much of this play is about the dishonor of being manhandled. The ending of the play, in a twist right out of an action adventure movie, is Hekabe’s outsmarting the murderer of her son and wreaking a terrible revenge.

There’s also something going on with the Greeks about the exposure of the breasts. What does it mean?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

A childhood evangelist tells her story

Jeanette, the talented daughter of devout Pentecostalists, describes the goings on with her mother’s colorful friends from the church. Jeanette, however, destined by her mother, and her speaking skills, for missionary greatness, keeps getting derailed by sex. As she grows from precocious child to anointed orator, she finds it hard to resist getting into trouble with pretty girls. In the end, the church and her mother consider that she has willfully profaned her holy mission, and Jeanette is exiled.

When I read this book before, I was completely entranced. The heart of this novel is the very compelling voice, and I love the way fairy tales and Biblical structures are key. That being said, this time the showmanship of the writing (which at times veered almost into cuteness) turned me off a little. The narrator always felt “on” and it grated.

The mother is a great character. “She had never heard of mixed feelings.” Jeannette is also a great character – she wants to be a preacher proclaiming her religion, but at the same time she can’t help being who she is. And who she is separates her from the community. I’m not sure if there was enough of plot, however, to keep my interest or to provide a compelling climax to the story. Also, what’s the deal with the repetition of the oranges? Finally, I loved the way the chapters were named after the books of the Bible.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Townie by Andre Dubus

Young Andre goes from skinny bullied boy to rageaholic to eventual wise man

Andre, a teenager, lives with his mother and three siblings in various depressed Massachusetts failing mill towns. His exhausted mother simply does not have enough money to pay for rent, clothes and food. Each month the family comes up short. Their father, a college professor, also financially straightened, on his weekend visits chooses not to see their material and spiritual poverty, even though he seems to have sufficient money and time for womanizing, drinking and the Red Sox. Andre, a small skinny kid, is bullied by the neighborhood toughs. One day, after his sister is beaten up and his mother called a whore, he stands there, too afraid to act. After that humiliation, he dedicates himself to never being hurt again and begins to methodically work out and wills himself into becoming a guy who likes to get into bar fights. He studies boxing and thrills to knocking men out with one punch. For the first time, his father pays attention to him. After some close calls, however, Andre realizes he must get control of his anger, or he will end up getting killed.

This memoir was absolutely gripping and crafted with an idea of maximum tension. The sad story of the fucked up family is effectively presented. The failure of the father and mother to protect the children from chaos. The lack of money and more importantly, the lack of attention. Andre can only learn the brutal values of the ignorant underclass in the depressed milltown. He reaches bottom, then decides to turn himself and his fists into deadly and capricious weapons. The end of the book was artfully constructed – he doesn’t need to use his fists anymore. It’s almost a religious sequence, his lying down in his father’s coffin, in his father’s grave that the sons dug. What’s left unspoken is that the sons are better men than he.

Part of what makes this memoir unique is that the self centered father is Andre Dubus, noted short story writer. It certainly puts his life and possibly his writing in a new light, considering his deeply held religious worldview, as expressed in his heartfelt stories of working class desperation.  This book contrasts that with his blithely doing whatever he wanted to do, abandoning wife and kids to grim uncultured poverty, so he could have love affairs with his college students, quiet time to write and the freedom to take off on his runs. Were the children sacrificed on the altar of their father’s art? He comes off as despicable with no self knowledge, although at the end, after the father suffers a debilitating accident, the family seems to come together, although the siblings and the mother are drawn something thinly and don’t seem quite come off as quite real.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

A bequest sends a woman across the country and into a new life

Leah, the narrator of The Red Car, lives in New York and has a perfectly decent job and a perfectly decent Austrian husband (ok maybe not so decent) when she receives a call from San Francisco. Judy, her long ago eccentric life loving boss, has been killed in a car accident, and she intended Leah to come to her funeral and collect her inheritance. Leah, a wannabe novelist, struggling to make ends meet, agrees to come against the wishes of her highly domesticated husband. Almost immediately she starts feeling giddy. On the West Coast, strange liberating things start happening. It turns out Judy has left her a car. Unfortunately it’s the car Judy died in. Also, Judy’s voice lives on in Leah’s head, giving direction and encouragement.

I really enjoyed this. The light touches, the tone that shifts paragraph by paragraph. A novel loosely structured around a journey, but the real point of this book is the voice, droll and penetrating. Leah, who in her twenties had so much potential, is now mired in a dull marriage. A dull life. The novel begins with Leah reviewing incidents from her past. Someone she has gotten stuck. In this ostensibly realistic novel, things happen that can’t be explained by the laws of space and time. These strange things go unremarked upon, however, they do move along the plot.

In the past, Judy functioned as a mother figure, letting Leah do what she wanted, encouraging her dreams. Judy was always her number one cheerleader. The day Leah finishes her novel is the day she finds out Judy is dead. At the end of the book, as she follows Judy’s instructions to attend her niece'sBat Mitzvah, Leah discovers a new assertiveness. It’s hard to pull off a novel about novelists, but Marcy Dermansky does it. Flatly declarative, deadpan funny.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Four kids stick together after the tragic death of their parents

The Morrison family, Scottish Presbyterian farmers living in a remote part of Northern Ontario, suffers a major tragedy when the parents are killed in an accident with a logging truck. The aunts and uncles decide that the four children, two older boys and two young girls, must be divvied up among the relatives.  The oldest son sacrifices his chance at college to try to keep the family together.  Meanwhile, they have disturbing neighbors.

Had to bail on this one.  Too much heavy handed dialogue and too much repetition.  The structure of the story is the older daughter ruefully looking back and too much of the plot propulsion came from her ginned up referencing but not explaining an unspoken situation that happened in the past which caused the loss of their dreams.  This was an example of “situation, not story.”  The narrator just sat back, wringing her hands.  Too much weight was placed upon the big reveal, and I didn’t care enough about the rather passive characters to wait around to see what might happen.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus

King Eteocles must defend the seven gates of Thebes

The two sons of tragic Oedipus agree to share the kingdom of Thebes.  Eteocles takes power, but then refuses to give it up to his brother Polynices.  Polynices raises an army, featuring seven brave heros, including himself.  After analyzing each attacker’s shield, Eteocles assigns an appropriate Theben defender.  The final attacker is Polynices -- Eteocles goes to fight him himself and each brother kills the other.

This is a drama that is not so very dramatic, but I liked it.  It’s more like a philosophical logical musing, a story that, like Song of Roland, comes from a time before television and novels, when people were entertained by the lengthy descriptions of valiant warriors.  Eteocles describes each of the attackers and assigns a complementary defender.  It reminded me of a children’s card game, or of Tarot, in which the strengths and weaknesses of each card are analyzed.  The best one was the warrior with the blank shield.  He could be anything you wanted him to be.  You would have to do something really interesting for the staging, however, to keep the audience engaged.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Things That Are by Amy Leach

Glimpses of the natural world

This book is composed of miniature essays, typically only three or four pages long.  The book is also divided into two sections, Things of the Earth and Things of Heaven.  Written in a highly imaginative style, the writer takes great joy in categorizing different things on heaven and earth.  Unfortunately, I was not a fan of the writing style and had to bail after seventy pages or so.  The prose seemed highly precious and grated on me, though I admired the ambition and I admired the quirky determination.  I actually think these pieces may be more like poems, savored one at a time, rather than read like in a normal book.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

An old man desires peace and quiet

King Oedipus, an outcast tormented by fate, wanders Greece, impoverished, old, blind, accompanied only by his loyal young daughter Antigone.  He seeks shelter on holy ground in Colonus, soon learning that an oracle has informed Thebes that he must return so the city can avert a dreadful fate.  Creon, the new King of Thebes, arrives in Colonus, to force Oedipus home. Theseus, King of Athens, stops them, allowing Oedipus to be swallowed up by the ground and enter Hades in peace.

This is a retelling of a myth, but also a meditation on the indignities of old age.  Supposedly Sophocles was 90 when he wrote this and the play is full of lyrical outbursts on life, old age and family loyalty.  In the end, Oedipus finds redemption, after severe punishment.  He tried to run from his fate, but couldn’t.  At the end, all he can do is accept it.  I love the way these ancient plays grapple with life and death.

The reader cannot think too much about the relative ages of Antigone and Oedipus.  How can a 99 year old man have a 16 year old sister?  By the same mother?


Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

A charismatic war criminal hides in a little Irish village, unmooring a local woman

One day silver-haired brooding Dr. Vlad arrives to the village of Cloonoila.  He is a healer who gives erotic massages, scandalizing the local farmers.  An infertile woman, Fidelma, who owns the failing dress shop, is fascinated and goes to him for treatment.  In a crazy wonderful scene at an old hotel, he realigns her chakras and impregnates her.  However, Dr. Vlad is soon arrested as a war criminal, a pitiless general who oversaw the massacre of civilians in Bosnia.  His associates take revenge on Fidelma, and disgraced and traumatized, she moves to London, to live in the lowest caste of society, with the refugees.  The conclusion of the book finds her attending Dr. Vlad’s trial at The Hague.

I really enjoyed this book.  The rhythms of the sentences were simply beautiful, very often ending on a comic twist. The novel depicts, as so many of O’Brien’s previous novels have depicted, the residents of the Irish countryside, and then, in a stroke of genius, the story moves from the from the parochial confines of the village where everyone who is pretty much the same, to the uncaring streets of cosmopolitan London.  The nitty gritty of being penniless.  The fear and the homelessness.  Fidelma must put herself back together among refugees from many different cultures, no longer the affluent wife, but an alien scrubbing toilets and feeding dogs.

The title refers to an artistic exhibit that commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo – 11,541 red chairs were set on the main street of Sarajevo to represent each citizen killed in the siege.  Six hundred and forty three red chairs were small and represented children.  The deaths of the children are never referred to or depicted in the book, apart from the sole paragraph on page one. 

The refugee women Fidelma encounters in London have some amazing narratives.  It shows how little you need of a plodding plot.  If only one third of the bridge is built, the reader can still get to the other side.  Edna O’Brien is a master writer.  It’s hard to believe she is 85 years old.  An amazing work.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Antigone by Sophocles

The unwritten law of the gods versus manmade decrees

Antigone has two brothers – one attacks their home city of Thebes, the other defends it. Both men die in combat. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, decrees that the brother who defended the city shall be buried, the other shall lie unburied, food for wild beasts. Whoever attempts to bury the traitor’s body will be executed. Antigone is the only one to obey the ancient edict from the gods that bodies cannot be unburied and sprinkles ceremonial dust on the rotting corpse. Creon cannot believe she defied him and condemns her to be walled up in a cave. The crowd is afraid to dissent. The blind prophet Tiresias chastises him, tells him he has left the dead unburied and buried the living. Creon repents, but not before tragedy strikes.

I love the stark simplicity of these plays. The direct dialogue between opposing point of view. And the themes which resonate today. Are there universal laws which must be obeyed, above any other? We have all met an Antigone, we have all met a Creon. (Probably more Creons than Antigones.) I love that Antigone doesn’t sneak around to bury her brother, she does it and eloquently defends herself. She won’t back down from Creon who is the voice of reason, of what’s best for the city. The viewer sympathizes with both of them.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

You Too Can Have a Body LIke Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

A woman can't find herself in America’s consumerist culture

A is roommates with B. The two roommates, slight young women with long dark hair, closely resemble each other. Their apartment is located in a completely normal suburban neighborhood, complete with a Wally’s Superstore.  There the workers walk around wearing giant Wally’s heads. A’s boyfriend is C, a borderline abusive guy who loves watching tv and spending quality time with his porn videos. Meanwhile, in America, dads are disappearing. Across the street from A and B’s apartment, a nuclear family "ghosts" - sheets over their head, abandoning their house. A is fascinated by the many inventive commercials for Kandy Kakes, a particularly artificial kind of pastry. B seems to have an eating disorder. She likes popsicles and oranges; she likes stealing A’s makeup. It turns out that, behind the Wally superstore, behind the Kandy Kakes, there lurks a cult, a cult bent on reducing the corporeal body and concentrating on the spirit. This is done by eating Kandy Kakes, twinning with another supplicant, and closely observing your body as it wastes away. Our narrator joins the cult.

This novel was skillfully constructed. Three clearly delineated sections with imaginative themes that repeat. Kandy Kakes, Wally Superstores, “ghosting”, eating disorders. I also love the way that, little by little, the boyfriend is painted is a sadist. My problem was: what does it all mean? This idea would have worked well as a short story, but felt bloated and repetitive as a novel. About three fourths of the way through, I seriously considered giving up on the book. And I was on a plane. This novel reminded me very much of The Flame Alphabet. The stakes are supposed to be life or death, but the stakes to the reader dribble away. The Columbia MFA produces a lot of fabulist type writing which leaves me cold.

Got it –America is weird and corporate and obsessed by appearances and sugar. A and B – Who’s who? The situation in the roommate with the apartment extends into the new cult, in which a candidate is twinned with another slight dark haired girl, Anna, to help her on the spiritual journey. I loved the turn the story took towards the metaphysical, however, I wish the talent evidenced in this novel had been put in the service of a story with more tension.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ajax by Sophocles

A man will not accept the indignity of being laughed at

Ajax, second greatest warrior in the Greek Army, fails to be awarded the dead Achilles’ armor. Apparently valuing brain over brawn, his compatriots felt wily Odysseus deserved the honor. Humiliated, and helped along with a spell of madness doled out by cranky Athena, Ajax kills a herd of cattle, the spoils of war, thinking them humans, thinking them his Greek oppressors. He tortures a ram in his tent, believing it Odysseus. Ajax’s concubine, Tecmessa, is frantic and does not know how to help him. Once Ajax regains his sanity, and realizes he not only has failed to achieve his revenge, but has in fact made himself a fool, he decides to commit suicide. He seems to let Tecmessa talk him out of it, but instead goes to a remote location and falls on his sword. The remainder of the play is occupied with the question of whether such a person as Ajax should be buried. Ajax’s half brother Teucer declares he will be buried; Agamemnon declares he won’t. In the end wise Odysseus advises that, even though Ajax was his enemy, such a noble warrior should be buried. Because if such a horrible thing happened to Ajax, it could happen to anyone.

So many things in this play felt familiar. The terror of searching for the lost mentally ill family member, and then the sad discovery. I’m not sure a modern audience is capable of understanding Tecmessa - a slave, but it also seems like she has some sway over Ajax, like a wife – someone whom he cares for. In this play, Odysseus comes off as truly wise, moving away from emotional revenge (where Ajax most definitely is) towards more nuanced view of things. The language throughout is beautiful and evocative.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Selected Stories by Andre Dubus

Men come to terms with justice

This collection features stories written throughout Andre Dubus’s long career. A theme is the stoicism of working class men. Another is the vulnerability of women and what these stoic men are supposed to do about it. Virtually all the stories take place in the industrial towns north of Boston. They are mostly about men, but always about families. “Rose” is about a guy in bar talking to an older woman who has quite a story to tell. A sad story he can do nothing about, putting him in mind of another sad story. “A Father’s Story” is about a decent man, who, with the quiet support of those close to him, takes a matter of extreme injustice into his own hands. “Voices from the Moon” is a novella about a family with an unusual problem.

Some of the stories were very good and some not so good. The good ones, with their simple sentences and skillful juxtapositions of two apparently jarring images work well and demonstrate a mastery of the well timed emotional effect. For the most part, the descriptions are beautiful and meditative. There's a somewhat creepy fascination with young women – wanting to protect them or wanting to control them. Cuckoldry and its pleasures and pains.

In “The Pretty Girl,” Dubus lulls the reader into the homey rhythm. Then he inserts words like “rape” and “pistol.” The surprise of violence in the middle of the mundane.  “Voices from the Moon” is a novella that combines Dubus’s obsessions with a straight faced silliness. That one seemed to take forever to get through.  At times the bad stories were unintentionally funny, like a bad Hemingway imitation. The ritualistic drinking of the tequila, for example, made me laugh.

Often the stories often felt like they were written in another era- because they were. The unquestioned gulf between the roles of the sexes. The vanishing of the shoe factories and local bars where the characters worked. Also, the surveillance camera society of today would render most of these plots irrelevant.The stories felt quaint and a little dated, then along came “Killing,” which had me on the edge of my seat.