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.