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.