Reviews By Author: A-C
Cathryn Alpert's New Mexico's Weirdness Realized
Three and a half stars. There are some very nice moments. The publisher billed this as a “road novel.” Well, in part, I suppose. It’s really two novels, and therein lies a problem in my opinion. The novel shifts between Marilee, a young woman travelling from CA to marry her sweetheart in NM, and Enoch, a dwarf who does indeed supply much of the “road” aspect of the novel; and Figman, a fugitive claims adjustor, and his landlady Verdie, and his nymphette lover, Oma. SEMI-SPOILER ALERT: While these pairings do meet, it’s not in any substantial way. In a sense Alpert’s novel mimics Faulkner’s The Wild Palms in this sense. We are to take Figman’s and Marilee’s differing epiphanies about love as a connecting thread, I suppose. Both of their love problems get resolved—in vastly different ways. Figman’s financial problem, however, never gets resolved—and it is a rather pressing problem. I guess another thing that detracted a bit was that I found both main characters—Figman and Marilee—wobbly in their presentation. Marilee grows mundane as the novel continues, nearly disintegrating; Figman’s main charm—his continual linking of his past claims experiences with present day happenings—also disintegrates. Lots of fun scenes in the novel. And New Mexico’s weirdness is nicely realized. I liked the novel well enough that I’m checking for Alpert’s other work.
Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem
Everyone should read a book about Hitler’s Final Solution every ten years or so, just to get re-grounded in the terrible possibilities of being human. Arendt’s reportage of the post-Nuremburg trial of Adolf Eichmann certainly offers such re-grounding. She chillingly moves through the steps that Germany took—often in counter-productivity to its own war effort—to cleanse Europe of Jewry: first, deportation; second, concentration; thirdly, extermination. In many places, this is a report to skim, especially as Arendt discusses the legality of the entire trial in Israel. In many places, this is a report to follow closely, as when Arendt goes through each country’s specific response to the demands of Nazi Germany. (Alas, only one country, Denmark, effectively denied Nazi demands for killing its Jewish citizens.) Arendt’s final three chapters are marvelous—if such and adjective can be used to describe Eichmann and what went on. Her summation of his trial and execution read thus: “in those last minutes . . . the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—[was] the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought defying banalityof evil.” I think that the word “sociopath” was not available to Arendt; she seems to alternately see Eichmann as a buffoon, as a banal, self-promoting civil-servant, and as someone willingly self-deluded. Perhaps all of those are involved in some degrees in the diagnosis of sociopath. And, I suppose, sociopaths are banal in that they are one-dimensional and lacking in imagination, a requirement of empathy.
Emanie Sachs Arling's The Terrible Siren Victoria Woodhull
This book catches much flak for being "sensationalist." Well, Arling doesn't hesitate to include gossip--BUT she always labels it as such. And as we know, wherever gossip abounds so liveth some small foul truth. Arling is the only--I believe--biographer who was able to interview those who knew the Woodhull/Claflin clan, so that surely counts for something. Arling also has a nice touch in the understatement department, often enough pointed at said gossip. Worth the read if you're looking for another source on the infamous Woodhull.
Kate Atkinson's Emotionally Weird
5 of 5 stars At times the epithet “clever” is used to belittle a novel’s worth. Certainly not in this case, for Atkinson’s cleverness plays an intricate role in Emotionally Weird’s theme of “just what is fiction.” A student in a class I taught commented after reading this book that the novel was having a dialogue with itself. That is perfectly correct. Everything--from Effie’s paper on Henry James’s assessment of Middlemarch as forsaking plot, to Nora’s urgent comments to hurry the plot along, to the various amateur novels being written by students and professors and others—works toward one large comment on fiction. And, happily, there is a plot and there are characters. A rather involved plot with a bang-up conclusion, and a cast of characters that all are absolutely hilarious in their portrayal. Effie, the narrator, is wonderfully sarcastic, as is her maybe-maybe not mother, Nora. And Chick, the detective? He and Professor Cousins in essence work a comedy tag team every time they appear. Want more? A lost yellow dog, murders, drugs, and a totally hilarious and scary dysfunctional family—Atkinson’s specialty. So. A whoppingly clever novel that will keep you laughing even on second and third reads.
Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad
Devastating Irony 4 of 5 stars Ore from the mine: Penelope: 'What more do you want from him?' I ask them. By this time I'm crying. 'Just tell me!' But they only run away. Run isn't quite accurate. Their legs don't move. Their still-twitching feet don't touch the ground. An emotional up and down ride, with the contrasting sections by Penelope and the 12 hung maids. Penelope offers an intriguing untrustworthy narrator--was she or wasn't she complicit in the hangings? Her depiction of the famed Helen is priceless. Sometimes the 'chorus line' comes off a bit cheap, as when Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks passes the hat. Mostly though, the irony is devastating. Well worth the read.
Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending
3 stars Minor Consequence of conflict in the plot is hurtful, seeming anticlimactic at best. Ore from the work: "Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been." While Barnes is a wonderful stylist and while this short novel has many grand lines and insights, I think that the overall conclusion of the novel and its plot are too minor in consequence to support all the guilt and all the intrigue of the main character Tony's unearthing of the past. One is left with, "Oh, that's the result then? Oh." Still, as I wrote, there are many fine lines and insights.
Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place
This comic fantasy novel will make you would-be authors sick with envy because A Fine and Private Place was published when Peter Beagle was 21. Beagle then published a forgettable travelogue and another fantasy entitled The Last Unicorn. And then rested for twenty-some years before publishing again. But to the novel in hand: a talking raven who steals bologna for an ex-pharmacist who’s lived in a graveyard nearly 20 years since losing his license, an alcoholic caretaker named Campos, a Jewish widow, and two recently dead people who are falling in love. Dead people? Well, if a raven can talk and carry bologna, why can’t dead people fall in love? There’s a fine and private hitch, though, and that enters with Michael’s past as a . . . murder victim of his beautiful wife. Or are matters more complicated? Outwardly, they seem simple enough. For instance, when the raven comments about his diet of robins’ eggs, Laura, recently deceased, declares her shock: “You ate a robin’s eggs?!” “Egg,” the raven replies laconically, “more than one egg and I get the hiccups.” It’s often the raven who heralds just such plain truth—but the truth isn’t always as simple as it appears, as we learn while the raven brings in newspapers from the outside world. And in the end, love and not death rules this novel. Dead Michael falls in love with dead Laura; the living ex-pharmacist falls in love with a living Jewish widow visiting her husband’s grave. What’s to be done? Can love be consummated in a graveyard? Every English major knows that “The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.” Indeed, neither couple will remain there. But to find out how and why they leave, you’ll have to read the book—there may be some left in the campus bookstore from this summer. The laughs will be well worth your time.
Larry Beckett's Amelia Earhart
This long poem is part of a sequence-in-progress entitled American Cycle. As with Beckett’s Wyatt Earp, the reader is advised to read a bit about the life of Earhart, so that many of the poem’s references won’t slip by. Well worth the trouble.
This particular poem accomplishes four wonderful tasks:
First, the entire poem is told by Amelia Earhart’s corpse “unburied, by the wreck/Electra, withering in the salt, -3 miles/altitude.” This narration allows Beckett to clear the air about the many conjectures concerning Earhart’s last flight, since the plane’s wreckage was never found. “Oh listen, the blue flight had no landing, the worlds are out of balance.” No, she was not taken prisoner by the Japanese and held as a spy. No, she was not released after the war to return as an heiress on America’s east coast. No. No, “oh/for the love of pity, listen, till morning/is here and I go dead.” Not many plays on words in this serious poem, but there sits one: dead, as in radio communication; dead as in a corpse with “coral . . . on my white bones.” The tone lifts in the fourth canto (for lack of a better word) and we relive Amelia’s life as a tomboy, when a family dog frightens the neighbor boys, but young Amelia outs her “hand to/his hackles” and leads him, harmless, to the kitchen. Thereafter the poem entertainingly mixes biographical facts from her personal life with those of her life as an aviator.
Second, throughout the novel a refrain tumbles repeating the last known transmissions of Earhart and the American Navy crew tracking her. Though not immediately apparent, this refrain begins on the poem’s seventh line, for “Radio Hong Kong” just happens to be transmitting on the short wave frequency of 6210 mhz—one of the two frequencies that Earhart used on her last flight. These refrains, such as “KHAQQ TO LAE AT 7000 FEET AND MAKING 150 MPH,” work much like the “Honest Iago” refrain in Othello, or the witches in Macbeth. They keep the ending in front of us at all times—in this case, Earhart’s crash and death in the Pacific. The refrains come on faster as the book continues, giving urgency to the reading of the poem, nearly working as a plot device in effect.
Third, the ambition, the pride, the fear, the desires of Earhart are fully realized throughout the poem as Beckett relays snippets of her life, her loves, her obsessions. Earhart’s adventurous streak started early and continued. She’s nearly killed when a bobsled runs beneath a dray horse’s feet. She cajoles World War I pilots to teach her to fly. She puzzles her cousins by hopping a fence rather than walking through in a ladylike fashion. Starting on page 46, there’s a very fine five-stanza listing the many adjectives the press applies to Earhart: “”Why am I a chalkboard on which they love/to scrawl adjectives? They call me simple, complex, thorough, grand, pioneer above/ my age . . .” These adjectives continue for 31 lines. As Blake insisted, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Her listing them reveals her frustration at being seen in simplistic terms, not the least of which is “a female Lindbergh.”
Fourth, this long poem is very much—and rightly—a celebration of feminism. On Earhart’s first flight with a barnstormer she had to be accompanied by a second man: “Who’s this?/ —He’s flying with us. –Ah; why? They grin/until I catch on: they think I’m a woman/ and frail, I might crack up, into hysteria,/ jump, oh and the man’s there to be my hero:// —I’ve been around aeroplanes, and I’m cool;/ —Sorry, lady, if he don’t go, you don’t.” Or at an Air Rodeo: “You race? —I guess I can . . ./ —Oh, he’ll do the flying, you just ghost it,/ and land, the lady winner. —No.”
So. A sixty-page poem about Amelia Earhart, a poem that at times has the intensity of a stage play or a novel, a poem that illustrates an important character in a completely compassionate and convincing way, and a poem that elevates womanhood through its narrator. When the newspaper headlines read, “Girl Crosses the Atlantic,” the poem’s persona wryly comments, “I was 31. They can handle girl, get anxious/ at woman.” Indeed.
Larry Beckett's Wyatt Earp
Well, well. Form should reflect matter, the yo-yo says. The form in this poetic novel is complicated. It’s tough. It’s often a puzzle. But I do believe that form reflects certain aspects of Wyatt Earp and his times, as Beckett sees them. First, the dialog in the book is terse, hard. To reflect Earp’s times and life surely. Second, the rhythm of the poems and the dialog and descriptions come across with a cadence that is hypnotic at times, at times ineluctable. Just as Earp’s many conflicts must have appeared to the Earp brothers and to his antagonists. Third, the dialectical misspellings (“well” for “we’ll,” e.g.) certainly reflect the disregard for education of the time. (Ring a current bell in your head?) I’m going to quote a few lines. Don’t worry if you don’t understand, for they come a dozen or so pages into the book. After the quote I’m going to “translate.” I think you’ll find the rhythm does indeed captivate. This scene presents the first meeting between Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. They are in a saloon. Wyatt has been directed over by the bartender, who thinks Doc might have information. “morning Mister Holliday I'm Wyatt Earp eye to eye call me hacking call me curling over his chest his hand out to shake no palm up wait until the coughing call me Doc everyone does absolute misnomer strong steady grip for some reason they dont want me leaning over them while they open wide Wyatt smiling” First line: Wyatt speaking Second line: description Third line: Doc speaking Fourth line: description of Doc Fifth line: Doc speaking again Sixth line: Description, ending with Doc saying “no” Seventh line: description, Doc saying “wait,” action Eighth line: Doc speaking Ninth line: (from Wyatt’s viewpoint) description of Doc’s action Tenth line: Doc speaking Eleventh line: Doc still speaking Twelfth line: Wyatt’s ironic reaction. See? It’s kindly tough, as one might say of squirrel meat. But it is worth the trouble, for it is quite satisfying, something of a puzzle solved. If you are completely unfamiliar with Earp’s life, you might want to Google the same before tackling this book. ‘Twould be helpful. I almost gave it a five, but the back and forth does seem to get tangled now and then. Still very, very (to quote our President) satisfying.
Charles M. Boyer's History’s Child
A wonderful but at times harsh novel set in Poland (Belarus) and the Soviet Union. The novel starts the day before Hitler’s and Stalin’s mutual invasion, and ends some twenty years later, after the death of Stalin. These concerns readily convey that the tone won’t always be light, though Boyer manages to insert the levity of youth through a good part. History’s Child is a sort of coming of age novel, I suppose, that follows its protagonist, a young Tadek, through teen infatuation into adult . . . stoicism seems the best word, but considering all that Tadek undergoes, that stoicism is a victory. And in many senses this novel reminds me much of Hesse’s Siddhartha: its third-person oddly removed narration, the growth of the protagonist, and yes, it is even set beside a river, which plays an important role. The novel won the AWP Award for the Novel, and I suspect rightly so.
Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code
A Step Above
The Roman Catholic Church often presents itself in a paradoxical relation to women. One the one hand, it has raised Mary to a near-goddess (claiming that she is not only a type of co-redemptrix but was born and lived “immaculately” without sin sounds goddess-like to me when I consider humanity in general). On the other hand, the Catholic Church has refused to allow women into the clergy proper unlike other “high churches” such as the Presbyterian and Episcopal where female ministers are accepted. Not to mention that the Catholic stance on birth control strikes many women as oppressive. So why start a book review by discussing the Roman Catholic Church? Because the crux of The Da Vinci Code centers around a “secret” cache of material intimating that God and Christ’s original plan was to set up a male/female vision of religion that featured Mary Magdalene as a co-prime mover with Christ. This “cache” is guarded by a secret brotherhood related to the Templar Knights, and some radical members of the Catholic organization known as Opus Dei are heaven-bent (as opposed to hell-bent) to prevent the public opening of these documents. If you haven’t noticed, we’re quickly moving into fantasy. And that’s in good part what Brown’s book is: an intricate and fantastical mystery novel that occasionally forays into theological/sociological speculation. Brown is not Umberto Eco; he doesn’t infuse each page of his novel with historical and arcane material. But don’t misunderstand: Brown offers a fine mystery with plenty enough intrigues and a luxurious Parisian setting that begins with a bizarre murder in the Louvre. And the twist of a red-herring suspect who must go on the lam along with the murdered man’s granddaughter will make any mystery reader gleeful. Lastly, there are over half a dozen murders occurring by various methods including an allergic reaction to peanuts, as well as more mundane shootings and stabbings. In sum, the novel offers more than enough mystery to satisfy, and just enough intellectual speculation about contemporary religion to boost it a step above the mystery genre. It’s a fun read.
Rebecca Brown's They Become Her
The cover copy claims that this novel “Provocatively questions identity, the relationship between texts and their authors. . .” Well yes, but there are several more salient avenues this novel travels also: A) A harrowing descent into madness is portrayed ably. B) The use that some males append to religion, and the acceptance that some females accept of this use. C) The synchronicity—to employ an outmoded psychologist’s phrase—that can run through lives separated by ages. D) An amazing style that employs the reversal of expected syntax to render exciting and revealing sentences.
Starting with the latter: “We stunned with pleasant shock these moments.” “Shifting produces circulation in-between words. I keep this pastime a cipher, a secret.” “In the good book, a mess of families makes a mourn of everything.” “I know how feelings can shake a night lunatic.” “My words seem to unsentence on their own.” “I cannot be certain because of the improbability of both memory and love.” “She lay in bed covered with damp quilts that stank of sweet smelling mushrooms feverously sleeping.”
In part these convolutions reflect the characters of the women. There are four, Delia Bacon and three contemporary women all named Rebecca Brown. The convoluted language also certainly reflects Delia Bacon’s descent into madness, and it also ties the four women together in a most synchronous fashion. This synchronicity almost always serves as an “aha!” treat for the reader: Delia Bacon has a sometimes fictional, sometime real nurse named Elaine. Rebecca Brown the serpentine writer has a lover—mostly absent though searching archives in the sanitarium where Delia Bacon was committed—named Elaine. One of the Rebeccas has a brother who died named Francis. Delia has a brother named Francis who was tramped by horses—not to mention her forebear, the Francis Bacon, the man whom she is certain wrote all of Shakespeare’s play in collaboration with Marlowe and with anyone else besides Shakespeare, the “Prankster.”
And religion as male weapon. Delia Bacon’s brother Leonard uses it thusly. Her false lover Alexander uses it thusly. And the Arkansas Rebecca Brown is seduced at a bowling alley by a man worming his way into her body through her Christian soul. Delia Bacon, on her way downward, makes this observation about her public lectures, “By bringing in the Lord, people believed most everything I told them.” So she’s not above adapting to what the males do, though the perceived male conspiracy of the Cross and Bones finally proves too much for her.
Delia’s descent into madness is indeed harrowing. I’ll not give away its final scenes, but I will note that Rebecca Brown of Arkansas and Rebecca Brown of Seattle, she of the serpentine body, do seem to share an obsession that almost—not quite—delivers them into the same metaphorical straitjacket.
This is a tough read, but it is a read well worth the undertaking. Bring along your pen or pencil to keep the Rebeccas straight.
Charles Bukowski's Post Office
Bukowski’s prose is a straightforward as prose gets. And his characters are as harsh. Hank Chinaski, the novel’s protagonist, for instance, plays a perfect fit for working at a post office, since Hank himself seems ready to go postal on the first page: “I think it was my second day [at the post office] as a temp that this big woman came out and walked around with me as I delivered letters. What I mean by big was that her ass was big and her tits were big and that she was big in all the right places. She seemed to be a bit crazy but I kept looking at her body and I didn’t care.” Well, he does, and she does, and they do. Tits and asses are one of Hank’s preoccupations, along with fighting the “soups” and regulations at the post office, drinking, and playing the ponies. Oh yeah, he smokes too—cigars, and even starts a fire in the third class mail with one. Next week, No Smoking signs are posted and Hank boasts, “I had all by myself, Henry Chinaski, revolutionized the postal system.” That sentence, by the way, is about as intricate as Bukowski’s syntax gets. To be sure, his simplicity is a pleasure.
Now, the dedication of this novel reads, “This is presented as a work of fiction and dedicated to nobody.” Therein comes a second overwhelming aspect of this novel, its general veneer of misanthropy. That veneer is occasionally given the lie by Hank, however. Here he is thinking about his common-law wife, a peace-loving, protesting, hippie wannabe writer who’s now at the hospital ready to deliver their baby: “Maybe she could save the world. I was proud of her calm. I forgave her the dirty dishes, The New Yorker and her writer’s workshop. The old gal was only another lonely creature in a world that didn’t care.”
And just as Bukowski breaks his veneer on that, he also breaks—wonderfully—his one-man fight against literary adornments, for near the novel’s end he has a pre-med student, who certainly seems real enough, awaken a drunken and destitute Hank in his room to declare, “I’m going to be your own personal physician.” Hank says sure, but insists that his “physician” get rid of a pickled human heart labeled “Francis” that is placed on a coffee table. The kid refuses, but Hank later convinces a young drunken couple to take the heart away. Ah yes, you see, Hank indeed is throwing his own heart away, bit by bit by bit.
Not to forget Bukowski’s humor: When Hank is facing dismissal from the postal authorities, he writes an appeal by getting drunk and pulling down a dictionary: “Every now and then I would flip a page, find a large incomprehensible word and build a sentence or paragraph out of the idea. It ran 42 pages . . . I was full of shit.” He gets off and is reinstated, after hearing one of the “soups” comment, “Well, all geniuses are drunkards!”
A fine read, if you can make it through the anti-feminist tirades and the drunken bouts by keeping all the above in mind.
Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye
Ore from the work: "It was like grammar school all over again. Gathered around me were the weak instead of the strong, the ugly instead of the beautiful, the losers instead of the winners. It looked like it was my destiny to travel in their company through life. . . . In any event, it was hard to have them hanging around while I was eating my bologna sandwiches."
About halfway through this novel I thought, "Gosh, Bukowski hasn't used a single metaphor or simile yet." I was wrong, but that and the above quote give you an idea of his prose's terseness. So terse that it is very compelling. . . . Now, having written that, this is a very angry, very male book. There are several chapters, however, ladies, those being 28-35, which reveal Bukowski as something of a romantic. These chapters also reveal the inhumanity of public medical services to the poor. Still, I do think Bukowski is a writer worth pushing through and past all the anger.
William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch
The most interesting things about this novel aren’t the novel. There’s a 22 page preface featuring a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling finding the novel not to be pornographic. In it, Allen Ginsburg claims that Naked Lunch’s author is “taking a very moral position, like defending the good here, I think.” Of next most interest is an appendix that Burroughs (a master drug addict) published in The British Journal of Addiction.
Come on now, you’re thinking, a novel tried as pornographic material and the most interesting parts are . . . Yeah, I’m afraid so. If you want pornography, go to Anne Rice’s soft-porn vampire novels or the stronger stuff in her Anne Rocqeulaire Beauty and the Beast series. Why doesn’t this novel qualify? One reason is that like his pal Jack Kerouac, Burroughs writes with an amphetamine speed that piles images so fast that sexual arousal becomes impossible. The other reason is that the act of sexual congress—just as the act of selling or taking drugs—blatantly becomes a political act of dominance or submission. More than that, all and anyacts become societal attempts at dominance. For example, one psychiatrist, Dr. Fingers Shafer, the Lobotomy Kid, practices brain surgery on out-of-line humans who don’t conform. Another, Dr. Benway, drugs people into conformity. In one scene he gives a young man named Carl a “psychic fluoroscope,” a test for latent homosexuality. The test consists of pinups from which Carl is to choose a favorite.
When he does, Dr. Benway comments, “You have good taste, my boy. I may tell you in strictest confidence that some of these girls . . . are really boys. In uh dragI believe is the word???” Poor Carl says with disgust, “The whole thing is unreal. I’m going now. You can’t force me to stay.” Dr. Benway’s response? “Where can you go?” Thus, the novel’s dark point: Where can you escape the addiction to power society imposes? The Massachusetts Supreme Court was certainly right in ruling that this novel isn’t pornography, that it has literary intents. The court didn’t have to rule how successful those intents were.
Jessie Burton's The Muse
Bouncing between Civil War Spain of 1936 and London of shifting 1967, this novel presents two disparate worlds that reveal ever more links brought on by chance and not-so-chance encounters. The setting in Spain concerns a Jewish German art dealer, his talented daughter, his frustrated wife, and two Spaniards, a brother and sister who wind up working for the family. The setting in London concerns a Trinidadian émigré, Odelle, a rich young Londoner named Laurie, and a crotchety woman named Quick. “Never call me ‘madam.’ Nor am I ‘Miss,’” she tells Odelle on their first meeting when Odelle is hired as a secretary a the prestigious Skelton Art Institute. Laurie and Odelle meet when Odelle reads a poem at a party for Odelle’s roommate, and here the plot thickens, for Laurie has a painting he wants appraised. We learn quickly enough when the novel turns back to Civil War Spain, that the this painting is by Olive, the art dealer’s daughter, not by the supposed lost male rebel. The Spanish setting is lush and harsh—the Civil War, remember. The London setting is a study in racism and love and it reflects well on the Spanish setting.