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.