Friday, December 18, 2009

A Guide to Gifts in the Holiday Homestretch

Despite the 50-degree weather in Rome, it’s not difficult to tell the holidays are on the horizon. My chestnuts roasting on an open fire days ended when I left Tuscany, but almost every corner has some for sale. Sparkly lights rim the more commercial streets and if you’re lucky you can catch an Italian singing “Jingle Bells.” It’s past time to start shopping for gifts. All I want for Christmas is a 2,000-piece puzzle (for when I get lonely) but for those who like a book and a mug of apple cider, I have suggestions.
The fictional coup pulled by Hilary Mantel in her novel Wolf Hall was recently chronicled in the pages (?) of this blog. Here the reality of another time woven into fiction. Henry VIII is angling for his second wife and is taut wire of lust, insecurity and power. Mantel chronicles Thomas Cromwell’s ascent to indispensability and reconfigures his character in the process. His intelligence and surprising kindness are emphasized. The tone is humorous and carries the reader quickly through this pile of pages. In Wolf Hall the changes taking place in Europe are depicted as what they were; calculated evasions and manipulations by powerful men and canny women.
The narrative unfolded in the pages of Phillip Meyer’s American Rust is full of nitty, gritty reality despite the surreal beauty of Buell, Pennsylvania. Without a note of bitterness the author chronicles the dissolution of a once booming steel town. In the stale limbo of Buell opportunities are scarce and lack of direction becomes dangers. The near impossibility of success leads to mad attempts and criminal failures. Meyer’s characters are fusions of humanity and the metal of the region. They are beautiful and their confusion and missteps tragic.
For those exhausted by the recycled cast of characters running through fiction, Jayne Anne Phillip’s Lark and Termite will prove an uncommon delight. Phillips unfurls her story in a range of different voices and in two distinct periods of time. Corporal Robert Leavitt is enmeshed in the violent turmoil of the Korean War. Time becomes fluid. His memories are of Lola, his lover who is a blurry but strong presence in the novel. Leavitt’s mental return to her throbs with an urgent but gentle sexuality. Ten years later Lark cares for her disabled brother Termite with a wisdom beyond her years. She credits him with a reality of his own despite his inability to speak and Phillips’s entrance into the minds of each character indisputably real and new.
Everything about Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is captivating. In Wells Tower’s debut collection of short stories he focuses those recently set adrift. His characters, largely men, are regular. Their concerns are ordinary ones. But even ordinary navigations can be a struggle. Tower’s people are not always likeable but they are human and the reader is caught up in their plights to find something that will anchor them. The author has an excellent touch with language and will throw in the right sort of zesty verb or cutting adjective to the story interesting and the reader off-balance.
Finally, a little advice about the contents of the archives. Do not ever give or read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The final pages caught my interest but the preceding hundreds didn’t make them worth my while. If you are in Paris, or going, or have been, or love Hemingway, read A Moveable Feast. It isn’t really finished, a delightful mishmash of his genius and his encounters with other geniuses of the 1920s on the Left Bank. Colm Tobin has an excellent and dark collection of short stories called Mothers and Sons and in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral one learns huge amounts about gloves.
I’ll be dreaming of your white Christmases, book in hand.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poetry animated by Baker's Paul

After reading a review of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, I got the impression that the narrator, Paul Chowder, was a bit pathetic. Wrong. Well, not exactly wrong. But his pathetic qualities are entirely delightful. The narrative is lively, humorous and drowning in poetry. Paul’s obsession with poetry is similar to Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. But while Rob was a professional appreciator, Paul is a poet himself.
By the time the reader is introduced to Paul he has reached his fifties and is more of a struggling poet than a successful one. His current project is writing an introduction to his anthology Only Rhyme. After patient weeks of supporting him, his girlfriend Roz has finally left. He had avoided the daunting task of writing his introduction to his anthology by singing in his office, reorganizing and buying more books of poetry than he can afford.
Baker’s protagonist would be entirely pathetic if it weren’t for his extravagant adoration of poetry and language. The book is both an unraveling of Paul’s current distress and his fervent explanation of bits poems and sketches of the lives of his favorite poets.
Paul passes on reasonable bits of advice amidst his diatribes of loneliness and mild self-loathing. He suggests reading your poems aloud in different accents, and paying attention to the stories you hear every day; they just might wend themselves into a poem. Paul walks the reader through the rhythm of a poem with precision, concluding a line with his own triumphant BOOM to emphasize where the aural rest exists. His declarations about his circumstances are often acute and he uses words like “fulth” and “gimbleflap” with ease. I couldn’t help giggling. The exuberant nature of Paul’s approach to poetry would serve in many college introductory courses. (I was fortunate enough to have a more successful and socially adjusted version of Paul Chowder.)
The current that carries the book to its conclusion bears almost no relation to Paul’s love affair with Roz. There are few moments in the text when his preoccupation with his girlfriend rises above mildly dull. She seems very nice and entirely justified in her decision to leave her crumbling poet until he gets back on his feet. She isn’t and wasn’t a must. Paul addresses the necessity of suffering for a poet to be truly successful and admits that comparatively, he has nothing to complain about.
Paul’s meticulous untangling of rhyme, and his enduring battle against the iambic pentameter, burst with giddiness. He gets his perks from poetry and so does the reader. The title of the book is something of a misnomer because although part of Paul’s difficulty stems from the introduction he is attempting to write, his aim remains the poetry itself, not its collection. He shows the reader how a poem often turns on a single stanza. And in a funny moment in the text realizes that it is in fact a single line that mesmerizes him and finally a single word. The miracle is that the reader understands him and in fact agrees.
All passionate reader will identify with Paul’s anecdotes even if poetry never makes it on their reading lists. Baker gets at the pleasures, surprises and lasting effects that words have when strung together properly. Paul enunciates both sizzling criticisms and melting words of awe. His entrancement with his subject is engaging if not rousing. Paul’s intimate knowledge of his favorite poets awakens the reader’s interest in them and inspires one to search again for a half forgotten line in order to pin down why exactly that phrase demanded particular attention.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cromwell Resurrected

The first point that Hilary Mantel should be commended for in her lengthy historical novel Wolf Hall is the humor. Mantel writes about a epoch filled with scandal, blood, corporeal and spiritual wants. But rather than relying mainly on the sex (unlike the very sexy show the Tudors) or drying the narrative with clunky play by plays, Mantel infuses these stodgy historical characters with the wit necessary to afloat.

Thomas Cromwell, the corrugated self-made protagonist, is a master of self-control. He possesses a mottled history after his escape from beneath the fist of his father at the age of about 15 (no one had thought it necessary to record his birth).  When the reader meets him again it is after his shadowy years in Europe. Years that have schooled him in the ways of bankers, memory, control, as well as Italian, French, Flemish, to name a few.

Mantel succeeds in revealing all that passes beneath the impassive surface of Cromwell’s notably unattractive face. In her prose he has a rich internal life that is constructed from intelligence and shrewd observation. He both notices the person in the room everyone disregards and has the ability to fade from view himself.

Cromwell is made human by Mantel. His house at Austin Friars is first decimated by the sweating sickness, which takes his wife and daughters. Mantel crafts likely moments of tenderness between her hero and his family members.

Cromwell’s unlikely kindness is strewn across the pages of Wolf Hall. He takes in a number of wards as well as those fortune has dealt a bad hand. The man Mantel portrays is not soft; his are never acts of charity. When he fills his home with rouges he manages to transform them into indispensable persons. His generosity fills his house to the brim with wealth of influence, people, power and money. He is a force to be reckoned with.

Mantel’s novel makes it difficult, or impossible, not to like Cromwell. In addition to being clever, he is incredibly knowledgeable. His vast linguistic knowledge and his experience on foreign, military and marketing frontiers prove essential to his growing position of power. The nobles who surround him lack these qualifications. Cromwell’s common birth would hobble a lesser man. His shadowed past manages to count in his favor. Dirty dealings must have accelerated his acquisition of wealth and power but he does not appear to be fueled by greed. Smart calculations propel him forward.

It is perhaps a sign of the changes in England at the time that he was able to reach the heights he did.

Mantel’s excellent prose brings the stink and violence of Tudor times to life. Despite its length, the novel never lags. Mantel’s renders the historical characters at her disposal in all their complexity. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and King Henry are rendered from the viewpoint of man who served in their time, not by history. Through Cromwell, Mantel snatches at the human filament beneath the label of Queen, peasant, whore.

Aside from the feat of rescuing Cromwell from the historical slop bucket, Mantel pulls off a more literary coup. From page one the reader is directly alongside Cromwell. “He” is always used. Mantel takes seriously the concept that mentioning a character’s name distances the reader from him. Despite the occasional awkward moment, her ploy succeeds in immersing the reader into whatever clandestine mission Cromwell is about to achieve. The reader is on Cromwell’s side as he sculpts laws in favor of King Henry’s desires, changes the identity of the queen and creates the Church of England. Not an easy feat. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Spin" carries weight of Twin Towers

Colum McCann weaves stories betwixt and between the disparate neighborhoods and towers of New York in his most recent work Let the Great World Spin. His world of stories pivots on a single event, even as the characters’ lives dip and turn in ways that draw them far from what occurs early one morning in New York City. McCann passes the reader from narrator to narrator with ease. As is to be expected in a book where Manhattan is the backdrop, a wide range of characters appears in the pages of Spin.

Always at the periphery of their narratives hovers the solitary figure of a man traversing a grand distance, at a grander height, on the thread of a wire.

Phillipe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Centers was a fraction of a day decades ago. Its impact had faded from consciousness, having yet to be brought to the attention of the next generation. A different story now envelops the Twin Towers, casting the more innocent event in the dark. September 11 is only mentioned once in McCann’s collection but its shadow hovers behind the text. His stories evaluate the disparate reality of the transience and endurance of a moment. And despite its potential for dominancy, McCann deftly maintains control over the force he has put to use in his collection.

Spin provides entrance into the lives of a hooker, priest, nurse, artist, Park Avenue mother and many more. The person on whom McCann focuses his lens next is never predictable. He jumps and dodges through his cast of characters. The reader’s view of each one is intimate. With each acquaintance a new angle emerges from which to consider the walker’s feat. In some stories the man in the sky only flutters briefly against the structure of the character’s life. McCann does not suggest that lives were changed by the man’s walk through the sky. But the walk itself is emblematic. It is a resistance, a challenge, and a moment of beauty.

The time the reader spends alongside the walker proves the most magnetic. McCann has measured command over his craft and each story draws the reader into its twists. Swaths of characters’ lives are revealed in most of the stories but with the walker the material relates directly to the moment. He is attuned to the weather, the bend of the wind, the suppleness of his body. The anecdotes that examine the walker express the simplicity of what he wanted to do. In these sections nothing exterior exists. There is only balance, a wire, height and the sky. Desire, pure and simple, is frozen above the heads of people full of their own buzzing lives. The walk fulfills nothing more or less than a determined craving. Politics, Vietnam, death, crime, motherhood, marriage, remain reassuringly outside the scope of what this man set out to achieve. He capers. His body is life and movement as he gambols in space. In McCann’s print, the moment is alive again and it works to extinguish all the rest.

Of course the lightheartedness of the walker’s triumph is meant to stand against the events of 9/11 that occurred almost thirty years later. The bliss is momentary. McCann’s stories bear testimony to this as much as they create a patchwork view of New York. Inevitably the September 11 theme has been abused and can verge on wearisome when mishandled. But McCann’s collection examines the same buildings for chapters on end without succumbing to the obvious. His silence makes the event all the more powerful and the reader is immersed in other lives even as the Towers spin toward their conclusion. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Advantages of Breathing" often Intangible, Elusive

The title of Lydia Peelle’s collection of short stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, addresses the silver lining rather than the bulk of her tales. Reasons is about the lives of people who seem to have sufficient grounds to call it quits.
The people Peelle examines are grasping at the bottom rung. There is the obese taxidermist who has recently lost his leg, the unenthused carnie, and the girls whose summer fearlessness astride a duo of ponies is soon swallowed by the perilous dares of fast cars and drugs. The voices of these characters are not whining or sorrowful, but the dullness of loss or emptiness moves alongside them.
The despair arises from the common tragedies that disrupt life. A separation from the loved and familiar; a fork in the road and the doubt accompanying the new path; an attempt at escape and its loneliness. The upheavals are not revolutionary, and yet Peelle dodges the mundane. She probes deeper and brings to the surface people’s facets. Peelle’s characters are caught at the bottom of the hierarchy and amidst the hesitancies of their position.
The narrators have the mark of introspection even when they can’t see their own lives clearly. Despite the seemingly aimless drift that directs many of these characters, they remain fully rooted in life. Most are hoping to break free from where they stand. It is less dissatisfaction that drives them than a notion that there just might be something else. Some are desperate to escape, some merely wonder if they should.
There is another thread that runs through these stories aside from flight. In each of the Peelle’s tales there are animals at the center or skirting the periphery. Somehow the chanced glimpse of a tail or the silent winging of a bird in flight imbues Reasons with an atmosphere that feels particularly American. There is the mysterious, menacing presence of a panther, the myth of the thunderbird, a communion with horses, goats, and reptiles. Peelle’s characters are comforted or haunted by these creatures, be they tamed, feral or mythic. The ubiquitous appearance of animals stabilizes Peelle’s stories. The inclusion of other creatures and acknowledgement of their awareness, suffering and empathetic capacities, diffuses the bleakness of the stories, lending a universal sensitivity to the tales rather than the rampant self-absorption that can stem from human narrations of disappointment.
The animals are embodiments of fears and desires. They read people for their essence when others are blind. By and large the people are lost or foundering and while the animals do not quite provide direction they offer support of a sort and an alternative. Resolutions are unattainable and far from the point in Peelle’s collection. The stories conclude with possibilities rather than answers, and the possibilities are rarely heartening.
In the small spaces of Peelle’s stories, only slices of her characters’ personalities are revealed. Everything shown is cast in the shadow of where their lives have brought them. Despite there being an absence of a visible light at the end of the tunnel, Peelle manages to situate the reader alongside her characters without provoking despondency. It is less a note of empathy that she strikes than one of thoughtful observance. Little of the circumstances of these people’s lives drew parallels with my own, but something kept me afloat despite the weight of what was being experienced and despite the absence of novelty. The impetus to continue forward was quite unidentifiable, but there was a reason.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Lark and Termite" Proves Exceptional

Writing about this particular book was a challenge. There are myriad, untried ways to pick at a flaw; innovative praise defiant of cliché proves more difficult. Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips, is, in a word, superb. The characters were ones I had never met before. With the narrative moving fluidly between locations in America and Korea, the uncertain map of these people’s lives brings the reader into contact with new perspectives, tribulations and joys. Phillips handles the demanding intricacies of her characters and the importance of their stories expertly. The narrative is startling corporeal even when it crosses the boundaries between the seen to unseen, the proven and the understood.
The novel opens in Korea alongside Corporal Robert Leavitt. Transferred from a post in Japan to Seoul, Leavitt finds himself tangled in the confusion of the Korean War. Due to its situation between WWII and Vietnam, the Korean War often gets lost in the shuffle of transformative, twentieth century events. It appears as a minor blip on the screen of history compared with the involvement of the world in the 40s and the revolutionary rage of the 60s. A blip if you weren’t there, excruciatingly real to the soldiers and refugees whose lives were destroyed by death or by survival. Merely witnessing the atrocities devastated just as certainly. Entering into the head of Leavitt, Phillips brings this screeching reality to the surface.
Ten years later, the petals of other characters’ stories unfold around Termite, Robert’s son. Termite was born unable to walk or speak and he participates in the world on an indeterminate level. His awareness is quantified differently by his observers. He is tranquil and perceptive, exhibiting a deep response to the sounds around him. Lark, his half sister, ascribes more to him than their aunt Nonnie, though both women care for him with the depths and heights of dedicated love.
Nonnie is the novel’s pillar of strength. For reasons initially unrevealed she is caring for both of the children of her inexplicably absent and incapable younger sister, Lola.
Lola is never seen head on. An image of her is constructed through the lenses of those shattered or made whole by her. Lola is depicted as a force. For Robert she is the constant for him to cling to on the battlefield. He calls up a gentle, pungent procession of memories of their love affair. Moments both carnal and tender. And in the context of the bodily and mental destruction he is facing, they are wrenching. Even in these scenes there is a hint that Lola’s entirety is not simple, but Robert’s resonance with her lends a profundity to her person that might not be grasped through another’s perception.
Every relationship in Philips’s novel possesses a multitude of gradations. No one is simply a lover, brother, mother or aunt. This awareness of overlap in human rapports constructs the reality in the narrative. And within this reality, Lark’s relationship to her brother is situated. Philips crafts an incredible connection by these two. They are linked through the blood of their mother but Lark’s affinity for her damaged brother exceeds sisterly bounds. Lark reads the emotions of Termite without effort. But ultimately her awareness of his conscience merely corroborates his interior, Philips allows Termite his own lens.
The story is measured and Philips navigates time and her broad array of voices with ease. I left one character with reluctance only to find myself caught up in the intricacies of the next. Stratums of understanding exist in this novel and its richness caused it to figure as much more than a blip on this reader’s list.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Flavor appears too late in "Broccoli"

It took me awhile to hunt down Lara Vapynar’s short stories Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love. It is a short collection and one I never felt I was able to sink my teeth into, despite the subjects.
Vapynar is a Russian immigrant and the tales she tells are those of other immigrants. Food has obvious cultural significance and in each story the characters are trying to connect with or rediscover some part of themselves through the dishes they create and consume. The familiarity of a dish or the taste of a specific ingredient has the ability to transport people into the past and back to whence they came. This is certainly one of the fascinating attributes of food; it has the remarkable ability to link a person with other moments in time and with the people who shared the meal.
I appreciate Vapynar’s acknowledgment of the power of what we fill our bodies with. But unfortunately the power instilled in the dishes she honors does not manifest in many of her characters.
The immigrant’s dream of America is often an unfulfilled or poorly sketched one. Anything put on a pedestal is bound to fall short of the heights expected of it and America’s superior virtues have been questionable for almost as long as they’ve been praised. For most of Vapynar’s characters the prevalent sentiments are loneliness and disappointment. These emotions rarely incapacitate but certainly affect the young woman who loses her husband to the novelties of America and the rug layer whose wife in Russia is content to stay apart as long as he continues to send money.
Solace is sought or appears in unlikely places. A nanny who doubles as a prostitute to make more money for her family in Russia soothes a man whose resolve has faltered with her borscht; two elderly women slave over meatballs to win the heart and stomach of a Russian widower in their English language class. There is humor amidst the adjustments necessarily made for a new life and the author has an eye for the ironic twist.
Most of the dishes described by Vapynar were unfamiliar to me. To my delight, the author included the recipes for the meals her characters consume and cherish at the conclusion of the book. It was in these post-scripted moments of the collection that Vapanyr came alive as a writer. Her relationship to these foods evoked far more than the supposed predilections of the characters she created. The reality of the food and its familiar and nourishing comforts twinkled with their real worth from these final pages.
Within the boundaries of the stories themselves everything has a much more abstract form. The background for these stories, New York of course, never emits any energy of its own. It remains a two-dimensional backdrop of hardly any consequence, a strange lens through which to view that bustling city. As a result, the characters who play against this static setting are flat themselves. Vapnyar’s are portraits of hypotheticals, not of people. Thus the appearance of the animated recipes at the book’s finish is particularly heartening. Unfortunately the taste of her expertise came too late and I was left with the sweetness of the final course could not disguise the blandness of those that preceded it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Atkinson lacks suspenseful flair of Christie, Doyle

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14 I decided to read all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot. I plowed through what was in the library and used the virtue of my being “such a good reader!” to persuade my parents to buy me the ones I couldn’t track down for free. I loved the funny little Belgian and the appearance of his various sidekicks. All of this is to say that I am not unfamiliar with British crime writing (during another summer I read every one of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures). Kate Atkinson is a writer of this variety. Her novel "When Will There Be Good News?" is the third she has written that includes former policeman Jackson Brodie and the only one I’ve read.
First off, it’s a quick read. The characters are amusing and Atkinson is capable of enticing the reader forward with the carrot of the next sensational event. The prologue is a gruesome murder that sets a particular tone for the rest of the book. The events that follow occur some thirty years later, but that first murder and other murders like it are never far from the surface.
Jackson Brodie is only one of the characters from whose perspective the novel unfolds. He is semi-retired and too young to be cantankerous but approaches something like it.
Reggie is sixteen years old, alone, but for her thief of a brother, in the wake of her mother’s accidental death. She works for Joanna, the only survivor of that first murder. Reggie cares for her toddler daughter and worships both mother and child.
Finally, there is Louise Monroe. She and Jackson have a history of working together and there are undertones if what might have been more. At the moment Louise’s life is filled with the burdens of a new, not particularly suitable marriage, (though the husband is jolly and adjusted, perhaps too perfect) and the protection of women who have been the victims of brutal crimes.
The lives of the three protagonists become tangled in various ways that rely heavily on coincidences manufactured by the author. Together they work to discover the solutions to the various, lengthy mysteries that present themselves.
All three carry on amusing inner monologues. They have quick tongues and each possesses a particular twist of humor. It is not difficult to glide along beside them as one thing or another is bemoaned or discovered. But despite the light tone of the characters, they are all somewhat grating. Much of consequence is taken for granted in this narrative and trivialities explicitly explained. The book is packed with dramatic events because the characters lack the complexity to carry the story forward on their own.
Atkinson’s novel is not particularly mysterious in the sense of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. There is not a carefully placed trail of clues, which only the brilliance of an uncommon mind can link together. That approach is not necessarily essential for a successful detective novel, but there should be some suspense as to the way the outcome unfolds. In "When Will There Be Good News?" any urgency to turn the pages was linked to an obvious cliffhanger as opposed to the titillating suspense of not yet having found the answer. I always knew the answer was coming with Atkinson, a great mystery makes you forget that the formula demands an answer.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quick read fails to properly gauge the meaning of Help

While in transit, I always find myself studying what others have brought to pass the time. Is it something from work, something mindless, something to savor? Despite the crowds it may be among the only meditative moments people have regularly, before stepping out into the flurry of activity that usually marks their lives. On the New Jersey Transit, I sat next to a young woman reading a copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I’d seen the yellow jacket frequently throughout the summer and had had it recommended to me once or twice. I asked her how she liked it. “It’s pretty good,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I started it yesterday,” she added while demonstrating that she was more than halfway finished.
My conclusion, when I read the book a few weeks later, was about the same. It reads well, you can’t really put it down for long, and in the end it is little better than okay.
Stockett chooses three Southern women to recount their stories. Aibileen has brought up 17 white children and is currently raising Mae Mobley, whose own mother lacks real affection for her child. Aibileen loves the children whom she is hired to care for. After the first few she learned to detach before their environment developed their perception of color. Aibileen lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and at the time her narrative begins it is 1960. Stocket has chosen a particularly fraught moment in history during which Aibileen and other black maids make the decision to tell their stories of what it is like to be the help.
Their confessions are prompted by Stockett’s second narrator, Skeeter Phelan. She had a black nurse of her own, Constantine, who has disappeared without a trace while Skeeter was in her last year of college. Skeeter does not conform to the Southern standards of femininity and beauty, she is too tall, her hair is unmanageable and since graduating she has harbored ambitions of becoming a journalist. Given a somewhat implausible chance by an editor in New York, Skeeter embarks on her exposé of what really transpires between white mistresses and their maids.
The Help is full of the drama of a society constructed on an explicit understanding of manners and demeanor. Minny, the sass-talking maid who has to date lost 19 jobs, and is the most feisty of the three narrators. She currently works for Celia, a woman of poor white upbringing, who doesn’t understand that nothing she does will provide her with entrance into the world of highfaluting Southerners.
Much of The Help’s content is the politics of feminine society. The dynamics between the maid and her mistress are manifestations of other personality traits. It is disheartening to see these catty dynamics unfolding across the page. But Minny’s exclusion from white society and Celia’s are hardly parallel injustices. Crossing boundaries for Minny has far more dire consequences than for Celia. Although it is the men who perform the lynching’s and other atrocities, the maids make it clear that it is the wrath of the mistress that should be most feared.
The largest flaw of the novel is one that the characters frequently acknowledge. That is Skeeter’s failure to comprehend the danger of what she is asking. The weight of the risk is never depicted with enough force. The book contains a few reports of brutality and unjust behavior, but the era Stockett is dealing with is the early 1960s in Mississippi. Her inability to drive home the gravity of the Aibileen and Skeeter’s endeavor deprives The Help of being a serious novel about the realities of the time.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Evasions: Wilson's employ of the Bizarre

Many of Kevin Wilson’s stories in his collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth are structured around the plausibility of the absurd. Spontaneous human-combustion, scrabble-tile sorting as a profession, and paper cranes determining an inheritance sound feasible and not at all unlikely. The oddity of the events that Wilson uses as scaffolding for his stories does not interfere with the sharp insights into the composition of his characters.
At the start of the collection I wasn’t entirely wooed by the frequent transpiring of the weird. For a few stories it felt a little like a ploy. Not halfway into the collection, however, my mind was changed. When the stories are seen as a whole, each odd twist of plot and personality fashion themselves into a comprehensive and well-executed examination of individuality.
Wilson’s stories are amusing, and more suddenly heart-breaking. He has a light touch with the irregular angles of the personalities he captures. Those who appear in his stories are somewhat fragile. They operate slightly outside the predictable boundaries of society. But they are functioning, some with grace, some patience, some despair.
The two friends in “Mortal Kombat” are outsiders due to the stereotypical marks of the geek. Their predilection for obscure knowledge removes them from the sphere of popular high school culture. They spend their lunch hour locked in the library together, quizzing each other on historical and pop trivia. While waiting for the interminable span of high school to come to a close, the boys amuse themselves with each other and video games. By proximity and accident they move from playful physicality to a rough embrace. The revelation of this intimacy disrupts their friendship. Neither fully understands his feelings; trepidation and electricity edge their discovery. Within the space of this story Wilson delves into the uncertain territory of adolescence. A turbulent world of choice lies beneath the surface and it is impossible to exclude anything from the realm of possibility.
Like the boys in “Mortal Kombat”, others of Wilson’s protagonists are reluctant if not entirely opposed to forming attachments. They are aware of the repercussions of connections and reluctant to address them. One woman works in a museum dedicated to the odd collections of other people (spoons, rubber bands, tinfoil, etc.) while refusing to keep even the odd book for herself. Another woman works as a stand-in grandmother for various families; she enjoys the occupation but has no desire to create a family of her own. In the story that titles the collection, three recent college graduates dig a complex maze of tunnels underneath their town. For the moment they have nothing better to do and the retreat into the dark depths of the earth provides solace from the emptiness above. The world is open to these people but it is up to them to find their way into it.
It is difficult not to feel alongside the people that populate Wilson’s stories. In each he channels a different mode of survival, confusion, joy or triumph. There are many who are adrift and those that find anchors are to be envied.
All of Wilson’s characters are in search of something. Understanding, significance, and entrance reside at the center of their pursuits. The remarkable aids them; retreat and participation abets their cause in various measure. It is not for everyone to find what they seek. The satisfaction and the crucial struggle sometimes resides in the search alone.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Duncan guides readers through "A Day A Night and A Day"

In his novel A Day A Night and A Day Glen Duncan bookends a fiery love affair with two equally combustible eras. Selina and Augustus, the enticing protagonists, fall in love in the heat of the 1960s. Their relations are startling and carnal. The sight of them together in public turns heads; Augustus is half black and Selina is a white woman of wealth. The duo alarms its audience and the couple is very aware of this effect and its power has a channel in their relationship.

Duncan situates the reader in an alternative timeline almost four decades later, in the wake of 9/11. Augustus is being tortured for information in a sterile cell by a man called Harper. Initially, the reader does not know what could have occurred that would deliver Augustus to this fate. There is the suggestion that the corporeal abuse he suffers is connected to Selina, but the ties do not reveal themselves until later in the narrative.

The tone of Duncan’s narrative is declarative. His sentences firmly direct the reader’s understanding of the events that unfold; he leaves wiggle room for reactions but not speculation. Duncan handles the seething tensions of the 60s with grace, giving voice to the passions and fears that surrounded new liberties and new fears.

Augustus and Selina’s love story is passionate and full of the intensity of youth. Their strong attraction to one another is complicated by Selina’s relationship with her brother, Michael. He is a soldier in Vietnam and his reasons for going, she believes, are at least partly because of her. Selina’s relationship with Michael was at one point physical, and while she has resolved to bury that dynamic, Michael is unwilling to do the same. The vengeful ex-lover is a common figure in literature and the incestuous feature is a difficult twist to add. The immediate, inherent reaction to this revelation is revulsion and leads to feelings aversion toward Selina, a character formerly revered. The author does not condone the violation of boundaries between brother and sister, but neither is the breach condemned. He shapes the reader’s sentiments, without force, so that the incident resonates as an element of Selina’s past as she wishes it to. It is a blemish but not a disfigurement.

Duncan examines the dynamics between aggressor and victim with as much attention as he does the attractions between lovers. He recognizes the opposing scenarios as fundamentals of human nature and addresses them equally.

Harper is the worst kind of interrogator. He expresses sincere interest in Augustus. He is cheerful and purposefully pauses between interrogations to talk freely and deeply with his prisoner about the state of the world in the aftermath of 9/11. Many of his theses are valid, cold in their lucidity. Harper’s occupation does not draw him as far beyond reality as the reader would like to believe such an occupation demands. He thrives on the energy his job requires and approaches it without sensation. Harper sincerely likes Augustus, but when he arrives at the point when it is required of him to shoot him in the head, he would do so; and he would think it a shame, but he would execute him without hesitation nonetheless.

Duncan refrains from gratuitous explanations of the corporeal pain Augustus is made to suffer. His descriptions do not resemble the scenes in an episode of 24. The author is precise in the moments he reveals about pain and pleasure. He respects them and their effect is communicated without obscenity.

In the terrain of both love and hate, Duncan is an excellent guide. He does not need to magnify the strength of either; his clear presentation and direct prose are sufficient.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"New Valley" plunges through varied terrain

The valleys of Virginia are not vastly populated. And yet they are inhabited by the complex and simple people of Josh Weil’s first book The New Valley. The debut contains three novellas. Each utterly distinct from the others despite the fact that they share the same locale.
In the fist novella, a man, Osby, has just lost his father. For years the two of them lived and worked side by side on their farm. They bred cattle and lived a controllable if not entirely contented life as bachelors in a house too large for just two of them. Osby finds himself marooned by the grief his doesn’t know how to express or even own. Left with no one to care for besides his cows, Osby attempts to navigate the new waters he finds himself adrift upon. Innocent and reluctant to open himself up to the world, he approaches everything with good intentions and is bewildered by his inability to succeed.
Stillman Wing is the main character in Weil’s second novella. At seventy he is forced into retirement and in a rare break from his customary caution, Stillman makes away with an ancient Deutz from his former employer’s yard of machines, planning on fixing the tractor up like new.
Stillman lives with his obese daughter Caroline. Her tremendous weight plagues Stillman and he begs her to abide by his own fastidious approaches to physical health. Caroline continually rebuffs him. He has raised her on his own since she was a toddler and his love for her is evident and immense. But his devotion to her is incapable of stabilizing his impetuous daughter.
Two elements of this novella are particularly intriguing. The manner in which Weil deals with time is remarkable in Stillman Wing. Within the space of a single paragraph inside Stillman’s head, a whole year has gone by. The transition is absolutely fluid and once one tunes into his strategy, Weil’s approach to the seasonal cycles is both striking and delightful. Time resides at the axis of the story, and the author’s unique approach to its unfurling makes its importance all the more conspicuous.
Secondly, there are wonderful illustrations splitting up the text in this narrative. The drawings are intricate and surprising. They complement the story beautifully, adding another element of mystery.
Finally, Weil introduces the reader to the last of the Sarvers in the final, longest novella. All of Weil’s stories do a dance on the heartstrings, but Sarverville Remains is particularly affecting.
Weil strikes an entirely different tone in this story. Geoffrey Sarver is the first-person narrator of this dark narrative. He is writing to someone and it becomes evident through his prose that he is mentally impaired to a minor degree. At the age of thirty Geoffrey spends his time with high school boys who are looking for sex and trouble. The company he keeps leads him to his first love affair, an event that disrupts the placidity of the life he had made for himself.
Weil’s ability to enter the minds of the characters on his pages is remarkable. The variations in their lives and personalities are complex and yet ring with a similar searching tremor. None of them are resigned. All three male protagonists strive toward something beyond what they have known; their largest obstacle is only that they are unsure of what lies beyond their immediate existence.
Weil’s debut has rare depths and penetrates into minds and communities that are rarely explored. A literary trend toward the exploration of those outside the spotlight is emerging, a phase that Weil proves to be compelling and profitable.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Hedgehog" has prickly intelligence but falls into fairy tale predictability

Capricious little girls have the capacity to be annoying or incredibly endearing. Crotchety concierges can be as gnarled as they appear or unpredictably erudite. Muriel Bradbury’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French, seeks to examine those who are usually overlooked, peeling back exterior presentations to reveal the subtlety or the prickles that lie beneath.
Renée presides over number 7, rue de Grenelle in Paris. She is a self-described inelegant lady, plump, ugly and utterly uninteresting. This is an image she cultivates as the concierge of a building filled with wealthy men and women, broods of self-important children, and pampered pets. Behind her façade of stoic tedium Renée reads Tolstoy with a vengeance, peruses philosophy, and fosters a deep love for art and classical music. The reader is privy to her scorn for the inhabitants of her building and to her admiration of the academic realms she is not supposed to have access to or interest in. Through Renée’s ponderings and observations the crass and disappointing behavior of modern, wealthy Parisians is revealed and soundly judged.
On the other side of the financial divide is Paloma. She is the 12-year-old daughter of the Josses who live in one of the upper apartments of rue de Grenelle. Like Renée, she is ferociously bright. She also has no tolerance for the frivolity of her mother and elder sister and the tedious politics of her father. Paloma has become so disgusted with the lives around her that she has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Renée’s musings are interspersed with Paloma’s Profound Thoughts and her entries in her Journal of the Movement of the World. She marks down moments that resonate with her, wondering if something will appear in her last few months that might make life worthwhile.
Paloma and Renée’s withdrawn scrutiny of the world is interrupted by the arrival of a new tenant. He is Japanese and his coming captures the entire building's attention. Much to Renée’s chagrin, her behavior and the offhand quoting of a Tolstoy line, catches Kakuro Ozu’s attention. He senses that something more lies behind the stern exterior of his concierge and works to break down the barriers Renée has constructed to protect herself.
Both Renée and Paloma’s musings verge on tiresome. Intriguing insights glimmer among the precocious ruminations of Paloma, and Renée’s somewhat overdone erudition. But both parties’ decision to conceal their intelligence struck me as odd and disappointing. Renée’s disguise might be explicated by an inability to break out of the class her working class birth dictated, but that notion seems antiquated and Renée’s will too strong to succumb to such prescriptions. Paloma’s suppression of her mental capacity felt childish and somewhat ridiculous. It suggests an adolescent desire to dupe the world, indulgent and immature. Her despair was believable but her behavior made me pity her less.
After the appearance of Kakuro, the novel too closely follows the path of a Cinderella story. He is the exotic prince, come to deliver Paloma and Renée from the farces they have created for themselves. Kakuro plays his role down to the delivery of a new wardrobe for the drab Madame Renée. The transformations occur too quickly and lack the disciplined unraveling that would make them resonate truthfully.
Bradbury does salvage the novel with something of a surprise ending. The upward trajectory of the story comes to a screeching halt and Paloma has a final revelation that strikes a significant chord. But by the conclusion of the book the reader has tired of both ladies’ musings and has little invested in their fates.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interiors excavated by Wells Tower

As I believe is becoming clear to anyone who reads my reviews regularly, I have a penchant for things like names and titles. I came across the name Wells Tower two summers ago when I was working at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. At the time, Tower’s book wasn’t even in galleys but I knew I wouldn’t forget that moniker in a hurry. This spring, FSG published Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and I rushed to the bookstore as soon as I received graduation funds from my grandparents. I vanquished Tower’s book promptly, much like his Vikings vanquish whom they choose in his final story.
Tower’s prose is fairly plain, straightforward. But he knows when to throw in a zesty noun or verb, like ravaged, to prick your attention. The simplicity of his language is deceptive, and neither are his characters hot shots. More often than not, they are regular Joes, playing at bigger roles and quickly determining that what they are suited for is less glamorous and more comfortable.
The internal troubles of Tower’s characters manifest in their surroundings. The helplessness of a recently separated man is embodied by the decimation of his gigantic fish tank, while a boy’s fear of his peers and stepfather is encapsulated in the lurking presence of a leopard. Tower mostly focuses on men in his stories, men and boys who are adrift, have lost or have not yet found their anchors.
In most stories, the events that Tower turns into revolutionary moments are fairly basic. My favorite occurred in “Door in Your Eye.” A man who has just moved in with his daughter believes that their neighbor is a prostitute. He watches a wide variety of men enter said neighbor’s house while perched on his daughter’s porch. Aside from the man’s endearing nosiness, what I liked most about him was what he occupied himself with while spying on the neighbors. Every morning he goes out to paint the sky. It is these sorts of details that distinguish Tower’s people from the usual characters on the fringe, making them unique and plausible.
Tremors of despair certainly loiter beneath the surface of these stories. The fundamentals of the lives described are not dramatically awry, but neither are they particularly secure or even pleasant. These characters are not setback by customary hiccups of existence but they are affected and Tower allows them to be shaped by these occurrences without pitying them or hanging them out to dry.
The men, women and children of these stories are flawed. Few have magnanimous or glamorous goals. Managing their god-given peccadilloes and learning to construct them into something satisfactory is enough work. Tower gets into the heads of the ordinary and unravels their emotions and ponderings with a sensitivity and patience not always seen in a writer.
Tower’s debut is attracting a lot of attention. He is being compared to a number of masters and mistresses of the short story. The praise is largely rooted in his vernacular abilities and the tightly bound quality of each story. Anything of excess has been battered from the lines of his polished first work.
This collection is both amusing and brooding, two moods one can usually expect from life. Despite the down and out situations many of Tower’s characters are found in, the bitterness they might possess remains absent. They maintain their humor: Life gives you lemons, and if you can’t find a way to make lemonade why not crack a grin.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Some Fun" scrutinizes familial love

I read Antonya Nelson’s short story collection Female Troubles five or so years ago and was immediately enraptured. Part of this had something to do with the title, which I thought incredibly clever. And then there was the fact of her distinct narrative voice. It has a decidedly female tone to it, as well as an edge that is unmistakably Southwestern. It could be argued that her stories sound Southwestern because most are set in that region, but I would suggest looking more closely at the people she chooses to uncover in her stories, and the manner in which she does so before pinning down her style to mere narrative location.
Her collection and novella from 2006, Some Fun, slices through run-of-the-mill domesticity. Nelson exhibits a particular interest in the relationships between parents and their children. Often her stories zero in on the dynamics between a mother and her son. She spends less time on these familial bonds once the children have aged, preferring to focus on the attachments created in the childhoods of her subjects. Happily there is nothing sinister in Nelson’s exploration of these connections. She probes the intricacies of relationships that are merely result from plain old paternal and maternal love.
These relationships, as we quickly discover, are fraught with a smorgasborg of issues, which Nelson expertly draws out. There is abandonment, protection and fear to be wrestled with as well as difficult and shifting dynamics of power within the familial unit. Nelson examines the factors and tensions that sway the balance of authority in a family, whether it be age, mental health or the presence of a person who exists outside of the domestic sphere and threatens to disturb if not destroy it. Nelson, one feels, speaks the stories of the people whom one might run into at the grocery store but whose full lives are never revealed.
Nelson refuses to let her characters off easily. They confront situations that push their beliefs, sense of propriety, and security to the limits. Rarely do they return unaltered. Nelson recognizes and allows for the ugliness in people. She brings these darker facets to light without forcing anyone’s hand or putting them on trial. This is an author who is not particularly gentle with her characters but neither is she forceful. It is easy to keep pace with their turns in mood. Their intentions can always be grasped from one angle, even if their actions are somewhat off the mark.
The love stories that appear in this collection concern the kind of love that isn’t chosen. The relationships that are unwound for the reader depict the depths and weaknesses of familial love. Nelson understands and embraces the fact that the love between parents and their children is both wonderfully exquisite as well as the pits of misery.
The most important thing I learned my first year of college was unpacked for me in a poetry class. It had to do with the desolate realization in adolescence that your parents’ love is incomparable. This is, of course, coupled with the discovery that you desire a different sort of love that they cannot provide and that most people in the world won’t. Meaning, that as much as you might love the world, very little of it will love you back. This concept struck a chord, caused romantic little me to burst into tears and I have been unable to shake the truth of it. Nelson encapsulates this certainty in her characters' relationships. Mothers yearn to forever protect their sons, and daughters are at a loss when they see their fathers slipping from them. These are impossibilities. But what is preserved and exposed by Nelson’s stories is the intrinsic depths of this unchosen love and its undeniable intensity.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Beauty conflicts with decline in debut "Rust"

Opening up the newspaper in the morning you read that the police have found the body of a homeless man in an empty shack not far from the train tracks. He appears to have been murdered. There is, at this time, a single suspect, a young man who has a history of assault. It looks as if he doesn’t stand a chance in court, especially not with the new DA. He had it coming, is your first thought. He got off easy the time before because the sheriff helped him out. It’s a tragedy for his mother, but probably no less than he deserves. Reading American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, is like reading the truth behind this kind of newspaper story.
Isaac English is smart; he may in fact be brilliant. But at twenty he is still living with his father, unable to get out of the dying steel town like his sister did when she left for Yale. His staying is due to a mixture of stubbornness and filial piety. But after two years of tending to his broken father, Isaac decides to get out of Buell, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Having stolen $4,000 of his old man’s money he sets off west down the train tracks, headed for Berkley and the education he knows he deserves.
But first, Isaac stops by the trailer where his friend Billy Poe lives. The two are an unlikely pair. The former is frail and bookish, the latter a star football player, who wasted his chances at a college scholarship. Isaac tries to get Poe to come along with him, and his friend apathetically agrees to see Isaac as far as the next town. A rainstorm hits and the two wind up in a shed with three bums, at which point the trouble begins.
A fundamental that must be understood about Buell is its beauty. This aspect of the steel town is repeated continuously throughout the novel. The extraordinary loveliness of the place only belittles the community’s inability to retain the dignity it once possessed. There seems to be no way out.
Meyer uses the lens of his novel to examine the dying industries of America and the lives they take down with them. Poe and Isaac represent one faction of the disintegrating community. They are the misdirected youth, each brilliant and capable in their own ways but neither is given anything to thrive upon. The fathers of Buell toiled at the steel mills and the community prospered. But when those were closed down there was little for them to do and even less for their wives. The towns that once flourished with relative comfort sunk into disrepair in the space of a generation.
Lee, Isaac’s sister, is as much of a concrete character as her younger brother. She made it out, married into a wealthy family even, and her motives are just as complicated and understandable as her brother’s compulsion to stay. Grace, Poe’s mother, has stayed and shedding light on her reasons broadens the scope of the novel, giving the plight of the town’s residents a three-dimensional form.
The aftermath of the shed leaves both Poe and Isaac in an intricate moral predicament. The novel tracks their progress and decline, factoring in the presence of the town’s sheriff, Buddy Harris. I liked and connected with almost all of the characters in American Rust and found Harris particularly appealing. Meyer is careful not to work too hard on a single dimension of his characters and as a result they all materialize as complex people with a thick variety of shortcomings, expectations and disappointment. A human face on the law further strengthened the structure of Meyer’s exceptionally well-developed and multi-dimensioned American novel.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Drama of debut makes "April & Oliver" hard to put down

While reading April & Oliver, the debut novel by Tess Callahan, I frequently went back and forth between thinking it was superb and wondering if I was being conned. Notably, I couldn’t put the book down during this debate. I was certainly caught up in the intrigue and the danger. Upon realizing how mistrustful the content of the story made me, I began to pay more attention to Callahan’s craftsmanship. Having finished the novel I am still not sure if I have been played, but I have to admit that I not only fell for the dramas of the characters but fell a little bit in love with them too.
April and Oliver are cousins, kind of. Their fathers grew up calling April and Oliver’s Nana “Mother” but neither shared the same father or mother. April and Oliver’s proximity and age led them to be inseparable. As children they appeared to have internal radar that kept them aware of the other’s location.
The novel begins with the death of April’s younger brother Buddy. His death brings the family together again and April and Oliver begin to become reacquainted after years of separation.
As teenagers April and Oliver’s approach to their lives had already begun to diverge. April developed quickly, into a bold, sexy and vulnerable young woman. Oliver, on the other hand, exhibited almost excessive responsibility. Despite being an exquisite and talented pianist, he quits the instrument he loves cold turkey and sets off for Stanford, bound for a life less uncertain than that of a composer. Despite Oliver’s desire to protect April from herself and her unfortunate choices in men, as a teenager Oliver is helpless and she is soon lost to him.
When Oliver returns, it is with his fiancée. Bernadette is overwhelmingly kind and beautiful. She is in many ways the antithesis of April, but is canny enough to recognize that the place April holds in Oliver’s past is one that threatens the stasis of her own relationship with him. Because of the attachment to April the reader develops early on, it is difficult to not automatically reject Bernadette as inferior.
Plenty of drama ensues. April has a severely troubled and jealous lover who fails to leave her alone. His presence in the novel is frightening and April’s attraction to him reveals a number of weak spots in her character.
The tension that constantly undercuts the exchanges between characters, and particularly between April and Oliver, is well managed by Callahan. There is not a single dynamic between two people in this narrative that is repetitive. Each relationship is charged in a different and believable way. The most striking is the intensity of feeling between April and Oliver. Their mutual attraction is palpable but at the same time contains an element of danger. The extremity of their differences might possibly be the ideal complement to the other’s nature, but Callahan ensures that the opposite is just as likely.
The author marvelously constructs intricate qualities of both the primary and secondary characters in this novel. I felt I knew these people well and I had a lot invested in the decisions they came to and their respective fates. Again, I do not know if this is partly because I was conned into needing to know about them due to the high level of personal drama in this narrative. Ultimately, I do think there is more to the novel than the sensational aspects of it. Callahan’s ability to tell a good story is finely tuned, and the depth of her character construction suggests an impressive understanding of the intricacies of emotion that make people tick.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The rich and fabulous lack luster in McInerney's short stories

The stories collected in How It Ended by Jay McInerney spans almost thirty years. They are assembled in no particular order and include McInerney’s first published story as well as a number that he produced rapid fire in 2008. What struck me most about these stories is that I could never guess in what year each was written. I was almost always surprised by the date at the end. This disconcerted me. Rather than being illustrative of a particular style, it suggested stagnation.
The content and characters of How It Ended are particularly fascinated with wealth, beauty and too many drugs. McInerney excavates the terrain of infidelity with much the same vigor as John Updike applied to the same subject. Trust in one’s partner appears to be a naïve fantasy in almost every story, a fundamental I find depressing, inaccurate and a tad sensationalist.
The message in most of McInerney’s stories is that his characters are by and large decent people with relatively good intentions. They just always seem to stray. Whether this means another drink, line of coke or affair, the repercussions are never too severe. Usually the protagonists come to in an alleyway they would prefer to avoid or saddled with lawyers fees they would prefer to avoid. The stakes of the aftermath rarely include death or consequences that might teach these wayward individuals a lesson.
A minor, almost silly, point that I have to mention is McInerney’s utter lack of imagination in the department of names. Being drawn to complex and odd names myself, I was chagrined not only to be acquainted with the regular Tom, Dick, and Harrys, but also with the repetition of monikers. I can understand using a non-descript name once for one protagonist, but then to have another character who takes center stage as well with the same boring name was much too uninspired for my liking.
McInerney roots most of his stories in New York, though there are a few trips to the lush South as well. The lives he describes are either full of riches and glamour or they concern people who are brushing against the linen lapels and satin skirt hems, hoping to get in with the proper crowd and experience the lush life, as is their apparent due. It was difficult for me to feel sympathetic toward these people.
It was not difficult, however, for me to believe that these people exist. McInerney does not use fancy language to describe the fancy lives his characters live. This contributes to the credibility of the conversation and even makes the presence of a potbellied pig fathomable in the master bed. He paints the facts of his protagonists lives clearly, if not coldly.
The stories are delivered in such a well-mannered and matter-of-fact tone that McInerney’s intentions ultimately remain unclear. Is he providing the reader with a peek into the lives of the inordinately wealthy in order to reveal the pitiable qualities of a life of excess and absurd and dangerous luxury? Or is the author asking that the reader to feel empathy for these characters, characters who are just as lost in their lives as those less fortunate financially and far more lost than others?
My inclination was to be somewhat contemptuous. The love stories and indiscretions that McInerney recounts neither struck me in their simplicity, beauty or authenticity. These characters fell in or out of due to boredom or because they lacked imagination. The tragedies and disappointments that these decisions inevitably led to appeared to be exactly what was deserved. As the collection progressed I saw few characters develop any self-awareness and this rendered McInerney’s rich far less valuable than their bank accounts would suggest.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Despite engaging pace, debut novel fails to hold attention

Laila Lalami's debut novel Secret Son enters the streets and houses of both the wealthy and poor of modern day Casablanca. Through the eyes of characters young and old, Lalami works to illustrate the struggles of identity and the reconciliation of class, politics and beliefs within Morocco.
In the slums of Casablanca, Youssef El Mekki lives with his mother. She is a widow, working in a hospital to support her only son. Youssef is thoughtful, excels at school, and though he wishes he had grown up knowing his father, he is a loving son.
Soon after a flood destroys much of Youssef's neighborhood, a Muslim group calling themselves the Party sets its headquarters up in the old cinema. It is at this juncture that Youssef's life and the lives of his friends begin to diverge. Amin heads to college with Youssef, while Maati is hired as security for the Party, a position that is questioned and scorned by his friends.
Soon after entering the university, Youssef learns that his father whom he believed long dead is very much alive. Nabil Amrani is a successful businessman and he resides in Casablanca, though the life he leads might as well be worlds away from the one Youssef has experienced. The discovery of the truth about the encounters between his parents causes Youssef to question his mother who for years has raised him on lies describing a man who never existed. He wonders how many other secrets she has kept from him. His distrust leads him to seeking out his father and revealing to Nabil his identity.
Surprisingly, Nabil invests time and money in his illegitimate son. He has recently fallen out with his daughter and Youssef’s appearance seems an answer to his disappointment. Amal is studying at UCLA and Nabil has discovered that she has an American boyfriend. His displeasure with her fuels his relationship with Youssef who is the son he was unable to have with his wife. Youssef is his second chance.
Nabil’s wealth and opinions are enticing. Youssef willingly accepts his father’s offer of an apartment, as well as a job and fine clothes. He leaves his mother behind despite her warnings about the fickle nature of people such as Nabil, along with his childhood friends and dedication to school. Youssef’s entrance into the world of the wealthy is disorienting, pleasurable and brief.
As Youssef’s brief sojourn among the affluent unwinds, he is left stranded. Having had a taste of a more comfortable life it is both arduous and shameful for him to return the life he had led quite happily.
Lalami combines a number of human factors to explicate the circumstance of Youssef. Everyone In the novel plays a role in the disintegration of Youssef’s prospects including the young man himself. Greed, pride, stubbornness, naïveté and love are all essential and understandable factors in the disastrous repercussions of Youssef’s desire to participate in his father’s life.
Secret Son is a quick and engrossing read. But having finished it nothing lingered. The development of some characters, particularly Youssef’s mother, occurs too late. What is revealed is too little and distressingly detrimental to Youssef.
Casablanca never fully came alive in this novel. I vaguely knew that Youssef’s neighborhood stank and that there were no sidewalk hawkers by the apartment Nabil owned but at no moment did I cringe in disgust at the absurd luxuries or the wretched stench. Lalami is a fair storyteller and hers does say something about the atmosphere in Morocco. Unfortunately her prose does not drive the weight, danger and complexity of the circumstances home, leaving the reader with only a vague impression of what has just been read.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Meetings with the Gods in Gaiman's novel

During my tenure as a student at the Waldorf School in Santa Fe, I became well acquainted with the gods. In second grade we learned about Native American beliefs, in third grade we studied the Old Testament, and by sixth grade I knew a little something about the Norse, Greek, Indian, and Egyptian gods. The title of Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods, didn’t immediately put me in mind of what I learned ten plus years ago, but it wasn’t far into the novel before I caught on.
Shadow is on the verge of getting out of prison when he learns that his wife Laura has died. He is released three days early from his three-year sentence in order to go home and take care of the funeral arrangements. Shadow is stunned and somewhat incredulous that Laura has actually died. Very quickly, however, her death becomes the least impossible phenomena he encounters.
Soon after Shadow has left the confines of his cell, he is met by Wednesday. Wednesday enlists his services with almost no explanation and a very vague list of tasks for Shadow to complete. Believing that he has little or northing to live for now that Laura is gone, Shadow agrees to work for the mysterious Wednesday.
Laura appears in Shadow’s motel room the night he buries her. While it is clear that she is dead, her skin is cold to the touch, there is clay from the grave in her hair, she unquestionably enters his room and talks with her husband. Shadow is a particularly even-keeled guy, and though Laura’s appearance unsettles him, he manages to take it in stride.
This bodes well for him as Wednesday takes him on a journey to a number of astonishing and even impossible places.
Interspersed with Shadow’s adventures, are vignettes that depict the manner in which certain gods were carried from the old world to the new. A wanton British lass brings her beliefs across the ocean on two different voyages and African lore is passed through generations of slaves. It is due to these transportations of faith that America has the sprites and spirit of the old world.
The trouble for Wednesday, and by association for Shadow, is that these beliefs have begun to fade. They have been replaced by worship of TVs, the media, material goods. People no longer leave out a bowl of milk for their gods nor are there sacrifices in their names. Wednesday is gunning for a war between the old gods and the new.
The characters that populate American Gods are an incredible cast of oddballs, hot tempers, and seductresses. Shadow spends a prolonged amount of time in Wisconsin. Those who come to the surface in this small town are both endearing and complex. It is the only place that seems to be absent of all danger and where the reader gets to know Shadow more completely. He is a gentle man and aside from his meager assortment of coin tricks, he has very little up his sleeve. It is impossible not to want to look out for him.
Gaiman brings up interesting issues of worship and faith in this novel. I am partial to the idea of moody gods and they were abundant here. The perennial Norse trickster Loki makes an appearance as does the Indian Kali. I was surprised to find the Greeks absaent, however. Their pantheon fails to make a peep despite being infamous for their meddlings in the mortal world.
Ultimately it is Shadow’s relatively easy acceptance of what happens to him that makes the novel plausible. His tranquility in the face of all the strange events that occur after his release from prison makes the story believable. It does, however, frequently and delightfully dip into the fantastic. For worshipers of gods, fantasy, and America alike, this is a quick-paced, intriguing novel.

Friday, June 5, 2009

All Alone in Livesey's "World"

For some reason I am always surprised by role of sadness in Margot Livesey’s novels. This has much to do with her excellent character construction. She brings the reader into the minds of her protagonist, shedding light on their doubts and insecurities. The people she introduces become intimately known, making their tribulations all the more affecting. Having read The House on Fortune Street, I should, perhaps, have been prepared for the sorrows of The Missing World, a novel whose premise is fairly dark.
Hazel is crossing the street when she is hit by a car. Though she is not immediately affected, an hour or so later she winds up in the hospital in a coma. On the phone with her ex-boyfriend, Jonathan, at the time of her collapse after the accident, he is the one to retrieve her from her apartment and deliver her to the emergency room despite their recent history of animosity. Hazel awakes with no memory of the last three years, conveniently providing Jonathan with an opportunity to recreate the life they had together before things began to disintegrate.
Parallel to Hazel’s disaster, Livesey introduces the reader to Freddie. Freddie is an American who has taken up residence in London, currently supporting himself by repairing the roofs of the British. It quickly becomes clear that Freddie is unlike many other roofers. Years before, on the verge of graduating from Stanford, he abruptly dropped out and left the country. He has survived by picking up odd jobs across Europe, trying to escape something long unnamed. Freddie’s work takes him to Jonathan’s house, where he is struck by Hazel’s beauty and the fragility of her condition. He senses she needs to be helped and becomes tangled in Jonathan’s complex evasion of the past.
Finally there is Charlotte. She is equally as lost as Freddie, but her denial of her destitution intensifies her situation. Charlotte is a failed actress; she is behind on her rent, delusional about the scope of her charms, and prone to inviting herself where she is unwanted. Having exhausted every possible source of support, Charlotte winds up living with her disapproving sister Bernice, who has been hired as a nurse for Hazel.
Slowly and precisely all the characters that Livesey initially tracks individually manage to collide. Sexual attraction and indiscretion muddy the intents of the protagonists and the atmosphere of the story accrues elements of danger and the perverse. Despite the contrivance of placing all these characters within the same boundaries of exchange, Livesey does not let the plot devolve into a series of predictabilities. While rescue and renewal are achieved to some degree, little is resolved.
The melancholy of these characters’ lives is more tangible in some instances than others. Charlotte’s life pulsates with destitution that she manages to diffuse with alcohol and a falsified self-importance. Heroism edges Freddie’s persona, but it emerges that little of what he does satisfies his own needs, leaving him incomplete. Hazel is the one to be most pitied it seems. She, however, is the one into whose head very little entry is made. I felt sympathetic toward her, but never felt I knew what made her tick as I did with some others.
Suspense runs at a well-controlled rate throughout this enjoyable novel. The characters are etched with persuasive precision and their plights are convincing. The conclusion of the story contains premonitions of what might follow. The men and women of Livesey’s work pulsate with so much life that it is unfathomable to imagine their lives stop once there are no more pages.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Details in Ondaatje's "Divisidero"

Unlike my mother, I didn’t love The English Patient. I also didn’t read the book; I saw the movie, which is unlike me. Because I found the film tedious and sentimental I never returned to the novel. For these reasons Divisdero was my first introduction to Michael Ondaatje. As a work of prose, the novel is incredibly beautiful. The stories contained within it are much less straightforward, cavernous and tinged by the tragic.
The book begins with a family. There is a father with two daughters of the same age and an older son. Upon closer inspection, however, the family reveals itself to be patch-worked together. Only one daughter, Anna, is connected to the father by blood. Claire was adopted when he lost his wife in childbirth and she lost her mother. Cooper found his way into this family after his own was brutally murdered.
Ondaatje’s skill lies in his attention to details and the California countryside on which the three makeshift siblings thrive is rife with beauty. The reader experiences the depth of a mesmerizing tranquility emblematic of childhood and retrospection. Contentment unites the family for years, Coop teaching the girls to drive and to get rid of farmland pests.
The pastoral, contented isolation is shattered when the family’s patchwork qualities become visible and the fabric disintegrates. Sex and ardency replace familial love and the discovery of this altered dynamic irrevocably divides the family.
The novel continues to track the lives of the improvised siblings. Ondaatje plunges the reader into the underground realm of gambling at Cooper’s side. The orphaned man acquires loyal if dodgy friends, as well as expertise that can only serve him in the world he has chosen. Ondaatje constructs a convincing backdrop for Cooper’s exploits, convincing, at least, to someone who plays poker with potato chips or some other form of sustenance.
Alongside Anna, we travel to France where she has gone to study the life of writer and poet Lucien Segura. Inhabiting the house he dies in, she meets Rafael, a Frenchman with his own complicated past. Ondaatje has a particular gift for illuminating the sensuality that develops between a couple, drawing forth exchanges that reveal and deepen their characters, emphasizing the splendor and the physicality. In illustrating many of his character’s lives he calls into focus impractical details. The superfluity of the moments he mentions somehow manages to sink the reader deeper into the scenery. Once immersed in the bucolic serenity of France or the grubby danger of Tahoe, it is difficult to extricate oneself from the scene and determine the unnecessary elements.
Both the voice and the setting of this novel oscillate with a slightly disconcerting frequency. It might take a moment to get one’s bearings. This bothered me less than the varying changes in perspective. Sometimes Anna is narrating, and then suddenly she is being observed in the third person. Or there is a jump to Lucien’s childhood in his voice with little or no warning. At a certain point these switches make it difficult to track a linear narrative through the novel. It is possible that this is Ondaatje’s purpose, to evade a progressive storyline and focus on the undergirding theme.
In the case of Divisdero, this theme appears to be loss. Separation and a tangible hopelessness run through the story. What remains are varied incarnations of love: enduring, dead, unrequited, misled, intricate, despairing, triumphal. And, one must recognize, Ontaatje’s own love for language. It marks every passage of the novel, transforming the stories from ones of recurring desolation and division to magnificent illustrations.