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.
Cathryn Alpert's Rocket City
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.
Kate Atkinson's Life After Life
5 of 5 stars
I have a quibble about small tone shifts. But Atkinson is such a grand writer, who cares? I have a quibble about the novel's last page. But Atkinson is such a grand writer, who cares? I have a quibble about the German sections. But Atkinson is such a grand writer, who cares? I guess you can get the picture. Atkinson has once again taken a young narrator (Emotionally Weird, Human Croquet) and done wonders. Not--despite what some blurbs might lead you to believe--a particularly funny book, Life After Life is at times quite disturbing as we follow Ursula through her mistakes and triumphs. Setting, action, and character--did I mention Atkinson's grand writing style?--wing this novel along. I've heard it compared to the movie Groundhog Day . . . yes and no. There is an element of learn-until-you-get- it right about Ursula, but I think Atkinson's sweep is grander to include not only Nietzsche's amor fati, but an appraisal of just how often minor--terribly minor!--actions can lead to terribly major mistakes, even tragedies. Become an Atkinson fan. That won't be a mistake.
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.
Robert Olen Butler Perfume River
273 pages. Five Stars.
For the first 30 or so pages, I thought I had a grip on this novel: Ah, a jazz riff on characters affected by the Vietnam War. Butler, however, had other ideas about the writing, for a compelling plot inserts itself, inextricably following the characters and their pasts. And what a mine of characterization, revolving yes, around Vietnam (and World War II as it happens), and revolving as much around the many ways we humans find to befuddle ourselves and others, forever so sadly masking our intent—from ourselves and others! While there are brief moments of humor—especially early on in the interplay with the two Bobs, one a homeless man, the other a Viet vet turned professor, this novel is deeply and rewardingly psychological. There is also a good smattering of social commentary on male-female relationships, on the naïve vanity of the hippie movement, and on war and warriors in general. Butler often masters the moment with understatement: Here is Darla, an FSU art professor, transferring her feelings about her dying father-in-law, a dyed-in-the-wool WWII vet, to the Civil War monuments she is lecturing on to local women’s clubs:
William Quinlan is the product of a victorious army, its monuments boiler-plated with conventional self-congratulation.
She turns her back to her computer. But she looks beyond its monitor, through the window to the live oak outside. This tree was already living when her ladies were composing their words. She invites them. She arranges them beneath her oak, their skirts spread out around them, basket lunches at hand.
Unexpectedly, they turn their faces towards her.
And she rises to look for her husband. . . .
A nicely nuanced scene of imagination overtaking reality, yes?
Surprisingly, the novel turns quite tense for the last 100 or so pages, in part because of the conflicts arising amongst the characters—one brother fled to Canada to avoid the draft, one volunteered for Vietnam—and in another huge part because of a twist in the plot. Enough said. A rewarding, fast, and insightful read.
A.S. Byatt The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eyes
The free will Bogeyman appears
The wonderful Ms Byatt again, with fabulous prose! Taken as a whole, these five "fairy stories" [publisher's phrase] offer insightful comments on story-telling in general and on that recurring boogeyman, free will. Taken separately, they are enticing stories, especially "The Glass Coffin," "Gode's Story," and "The Story of the Eldest Princess." "Coffin" and "Princess" are whiz-bang, semi-happy (semi? Byatt IS the author, remember) fairy tales. "Gode's Story," alas, alas, is all too true, even for a fairy tale. The star of the group is a short novel and the title story. Read in order the four tales, then sit back and enjoy Byatt's layered and wonderful love story.
Fred Chappell I Am One of You Forever
I just finished I Am One of You Forever, and now I’m even more thrilled with the letter you sent about Back to the Wine Jug.
Here’s the review I posted on Goodreads and Amazon. You may or may not be familiar with Goodreads: it’s a rewarding site. I’ve made several email “friends” and learned about several new books from that site. It’s free, to boot. Anyway, here’s the review: Fred Chappell, I Am One of Your Forever. Five stars. “Rewarding surprises in tone, moving from comic, to fantastical, to tall-tale, to tragic. Set before and during World War II, the novel follows a son—the narrator—his father, and a young male orphan the grandmother connives to adopt, so he can help work the farm. Reading what I just wrote reminded me how much like Huckleberry Finn this novel is in its overall narration. Chappell’s language is divine: it too moves from the best and most primitive country metaphor to silken sophistication. There are moments when I had to stop and let my heart catch up. Highly recommended!”
I have several more of your books on Kindle. Did not know that you also wrote horror/fantasy. Looking forward to reading them.
I’ve taken the liberty of enclosing Pineapple, which is also a comic novel in verse. It’s mostly set in Los Alamos. I was fortunate enough to visit there before the Grand Lodge, where the brainiacs all met and partied while concocting the bomb, burned down in a forest fire. Hope you like Pineapple as much as Wine Jug.
I think Jacob Smullyan of Sagging Meniscus may have contacted you. I was a bit embarrassed to pressure you, so I foisted that communication on him. Obviously I’ve gotten over my stage fright.
Livingston Press is publishing a last posthumous novel by William Gay next summer. Did you know him? What a completely unpretentious guy he was. And, reflecting his own writing, he had a nicely understated humor.
With many regards,
Mark Childress Crazy in Alabama
An unlikely combo
Five of Five stars.
While this is the best Childress novel I’ve read thus far, I still would recommend starting with V for Victor, which builds more evenly and conveys an almost nostalgic mood, despite its subject matter of World War II and Nazi infiltration. But. Crazy is grand Childress.
At first, I thought the two storylines in this novel entirely too disparate to work : a mostly comic tale of a thirty-something woman who murders her husband and trots off to Hollywood—with his decapitated head!—to cameo in a TV sitcom counterpointed by the first-person narration of a young white boy violently thrown into the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. After my second reading, though, the light hit: Of course, just as women were kept voiceless by males, blacks were kept so by whites. The fantastical ribaldry of a youngish mother silencing her husband’s will by poisoning him then cutting off his head gets countered by the grisly realism of blacks being silenced and murdered by whites for daring to want to swim in a public pool. Lucille, the mother, laments of her deceased husband, “Chester had been killing me the slow way for thirteen years. You spend all day cooking a meal for a man and he gobbles it down in five minutes, and never says thank you, and a little piece of you dies.” In the same vein, Peejoe, the young white narrator, reports this on his way sneaking to hear Martin Luther King speak in his hometown: “An old colored man was down on his knees, edging a sidewalk with a hatchet. He nodded hello as we passed. A voice echoed down the street.” The echoing voice is none other than the Reverend King preaching freedom through a P.A. system. “The old man cocked his ear to listen.” So, just as Lucille wakes up, the blacks in the small Alabama town of Industry wake up, Peejoe and his brother and his uncle wake up. But it takes a goodly share of blood for this to happen; it takes everyone in Alabama going crazy. This novel offers a masterful blend of tragedy and comedy, and the light-hearted ending comes as a welcoming relief after the sorrows of the Civil Rights movement in the imaginary town of Industry, Alabama. Were that the events were imagined! Nicely peopled with interesting subplots and characters, by the way. A fine read.
Mark Childress Gone for Good
4 of 5 stars. Worth reading for the love scene with “Daisy,” aka Marilyn Monroe, alone. As with all the Childress novels I’ve read, this one balances a good deal of humor with some grandiose tall tales. And this novel, as with Crazy in Alabama, alternates narrators. The premise: a 1970’s folk-rock star named Superman Willis disappears in his solo plane flight and crash-lands on an island where other famous personalities seem to be living. These include Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Hoffa and several surprises. Are they dead? Is he dead? The island plot builds enticingly. Why are these people here? Who is the mysterious “magician” who is reportedly in charge? As mentioned, there is a love interest: after all, Superman Willis is either dead or forever stranded, he believes, so why not sleep with one of the world’s sexiest women? He wasn’t all that fond of his wife Alexa anyway. Befitting a rock star’s—even a folk-rock star’s—demise—there are plenty of drugs, lots of booze. So, party time at the island’s central “Discoteca.” For the next ten or so years the island’s mysteries roam into death, a revolution, and some fine and funny and sexy!, discoveries. Meanwhile—multiple narration, remember—Superman’s son, Benjamin, grows into teenhood. Blossoming independence, a drug-crazed mother, and a mysterious note found, yes, in a bottle, send Benjamin looking for Dad. Here is where I believe the plot weighs down a bit. We have seven chapters from Benjamin’s first-person viewpoint and one from wife Alexa’s viewpoint stacked up against 36 concerning Superman Willis and the mysterious island. It’s sometimes painful to leave Superman Willis and the mysteries surrounding him for the son. And . . . the island plot builds so wildly, with such a climax, that the other dénouement comes across anticlimactic. Still, there are 36 grand chapters of fun, luxurious reading. Go for it.
Mark Childress V for Victory
Four stars of five.
Double coming of Age
Certainly a fast-moving and action-filled coming-of-age novel. The young protagonist, Victor, has several tasks: watch over his dying grandmother, solve a World War II Nazi plot, and learn about his family and friends. Victor succeeds as admirably as a sixteen-year-old boy stuck with these monumental tasks can. The appearance of Butch as a sort of doppelganger adds a good deal in tension to the plot. Butch also resonates well with Victor’s character. This is a fast, enjoyable read, and the flaws of coincidence are in the main forgivable. The novel catches the 40’s war era quite well. It also portrays the split between classes quite well. And, the reader gets a double coming-of-age novel, in the sense that bad boy Butch also does some growing up.
Kate Chopin The Awakening
Rating: 1.5* of five, all for a few pleasantly turned descriptions The Publisher Says: This story of a woman's struggle with oppressive social structures received much public contempt at its first release; put aside because of initial controversy, the novel gained popularity in the 1960s, some six decades after its first publication, and has since remained a favorite of many readers. Chopin's depiction of a married woman, bound to her family and with no way to assert a fulfilling life of her own, has become a foundation for feminism and a classic account of gender crises in the late Victorian era. My Review: Tedious. Nothing at all worth calling a classic considered as a piece of writing; as a work of characterization; or in any way that I can discern. Edna is awakened by her desire for a man not her husband? And this is a feminist classic? That she then sends away her children to live with her mother-in-law and waves a vaguely affectionate good-bye to her husband as he moves away for ~6 months vitiates any sense of conflict or in fact of what the hell this boring broad is on about when she rattles around New Orleans painting (well enough to sell her work) and conducting the most desultory possible affair with a man so louche that he's a by-word for bad boyish nonsense...and not one word of gossip, not one scintilla of contumely, not a scrap of opprobrium appears to attach itself to her?! IN NEW ORELANS?! Folks, this is so incredible that I am gobsmacked. That's the gossipiest little burg in the Western world. People who don't know you know you there.Spend a week and there's some hear-tell about what you gettin' up to. Only tourists are anonymous, sort of, and that's pretty much a recent phenomenon. Nothing outside tedious, bland Edna's direct view is allowed any reality; no character exists except as a bald description; the action is reported much as it would be in a telegram of old, or a tweet of today, stripped to mere outlines to make it fit in as few words as possible. I've read worse books, much worse books in fact, but few that were so devoid of characterization. Why on earth anyone ever invested an erg of emotional energy in these silhouettes is beyond my ken. Pelletier, Edna's husband, does exactly nothing interesting and she herself feels no animosity towards him because she interacts with him not at all. How they came to have two children is beyond me. I suppose, in the indirect language of the time, she is shown to reject his sexual advances. So? Wives do that a lot. Especially then, before adequate birth control was available. He doesn't appear to make an issue of it, and she just...doesn't. Her children are left to the nurse unless she breaks free of the fog of indifference shrouding her every action and perception. So? Do something, Kate Chopin, to show me what effect this has on two little boys! As it is they're pawns on the chaotic chess board of this book. Someone who watched a few games of chess and tried to emulate it without troubling to learn the rules or understand the conventions is the closest analogue I can find to the impression the book leaves with me. Chopin read a few stories, then figured she'd write her own before understanding the demands of characterization, the need for motivations, the purpose of creating a setting...this is what I am left with. I've honestly never felt so at sea when reading a lauded classic as to why it attained the status. I detest Dickens' books, each and every one I've read, but I know why others love the verbose, tortured melodramas. Even Hemingway's pustulent, suppurating psychic wounds made for some moments of humor, and explained his enduring appeal to some people. This? This has nothing that grand or that icksome to offer. It really offers next to nothing. It can't be hated, that's like hating seltzer water. I can't imagine a less captivating way to spend a snowy Sunday afternoon.
J.M. Coetzee Disgrace
3.5 of 5 stars
J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace is surely meant to be read on two levels: the allegorical and the realistic. It’s a novel about modern South Africa, a novel about the changing racial relations there, a novel about academia—and it certainly is a novel about disgrace. As far as the allegorical, the hammer gets a bit heavy at times when punching down the coffin nails to make point: Native South Africans are deservedly furious because of past treatment; power was abused; retribution must be expected. And indeed the white protagonist, Professor David Lurie, does abuse power by sleeping with an Indian hooker and, then, with a student. Hence the title, Disgrace, don’t you see? But there’s bad and then there’s evil. And here is where the allegory becomes strained and whatever realistic aspect the novel has—and it does have a plenteous abundance of gruesome description—begins to creak. First, let’s back up: the hooker is a hooker after, all: she’s making money. The professor’s fault other than being a john is trying to contact her on a personal level when he sees her around the city. This is a fault? Well, allegorically, sure: he’s denying the truth that he is oppressing her by trying to convert her into something other than a female sex organ. Beginning to sound a bit PC to you? Read on. . . . The student, then? Seventeen, right? Underage, right? No, she’s 21 and is coming off an angry spat with her boyfriend. A typical enough seduction scene. Lurie is certainly taking advantage of his power, is caught, and the student newspaper slaps him hard with harassment as does an academic review board. In turn he gets his academic hackles up and while admitting guilt has “reservations of a philosophical kind” about the admission the review board wants him to sign. The entire scene reads like a meeting of stubborn children:
“We want to give you and opportunity to state your position.”
“I have stated my position. I am guilty.”
“Guilty of what?”
“Of all that I am charged with.”
“You are taking us in circles, Dr. Lurie.”
Well, no he isn’t; both sides are taking themselves in large, self-important circles. Lurie loses his job plus a good deal of his retirement. This is only one of many inane steps that this protagonist and his daughter make in this novel.
. . . Now we start into the allegory. Lurie moves in with his daughter, who lives alone in the countryside, among the natives. She makes a living by selling vegetables in the market. Are we to read that she is unlawfully raping the land? Evidently so. On this raped land where his daughter lives, Lurie plans on writing a comic opera about Byron. Are we to read that this is a foppish and frivolous waste at best? Evidently so. One day, three male South Africans show up and ask to use the phone. What ensues is a rape and torture scene, with the daughter ending up pregnant and Lurie ending up with lighter fluid thrown on his face and lit. But wait, oh ye in search of allegorical PC justice, for more will come. The daughter later spots one of the rapists but both she and Lurie refuse to act. Instead, she becomes a concubine of her South African neighbor (who evidently knew the rape was going to happen). And Lurie? He begins working with abandoned dogs, humanely shooting them. Are we to read that perhaps he and his ilk should thus be shot? Apparently so. Dogs, by the way, seem to have some symbolic significance since they are used by Whites to oppress South Africans. His daughter tells of her plan to become one of several wives, and Lurie replies,
“How humiliating. . . .”
“Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. . . . No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.”
“Like a dog.”
“Yes, like a dog.”
Lurie, angered, moves back to the city, to find that his house ransacked and his notes destroyed. He goes to a play to watch the young girl he had an affair with. She’s taken the lead role and he stupidly, proudly believes that she’s matured because of him and maybe they can resume the affair. (Ahem, you can see that learning curves are rather steep for this man and his daughter.) No, her boyfriend warns the good professor; if she saw you, she would “spit in your face.”
So Lurie does the only logical thing (?) and moves back to the country where he can resume his job of shooting stray animals. There, instead of saving one dog he’s become attached to, he bears “him in his arms like a lamb” to be shot. So . . . Lurie and his daughter have become symbolic dogs? Evidently. And we are to believe that this is justice? Evidently. And we aren’t to want to shake both Lurie and his daughter against a hard concrete wall to knock a modicum of sense into their heads? Evidently not.
Coetzee’s short novel (220 pages) obviously pushed my buttons. It is well written and, as I noted, gruesomely descriptive. Maybe it will push your buttons differently.
Kirk Curnutt Raising Aphrodite
4 of 5 stars. The nearly 40-year-old father in this novel loves to listen to music; his 16-year-old daughter loves to make it. Turning on that metaphor, the novel sets up the relationship between a bumbling, suspicious father and his lovely, creative, and gutsy daughter. There are plenty of wonderful slapstick scenes in the novel—one delightful one where the father gets his slacks caught in his daughter’s bedframe while trying to pull out a small box from under her bed. Guess who comes home early to find him thus? Not only the daughter but her best friend Nina. And Dad is a terribly slow learner, for he repeats one form or another of this goofball mistake throughout the novel, despite his daughter and a cadre of women trying to teach Dad the proper way to raise a teenaged daughter. His bumbling pays off in the conclusion, however, with one fine discovery. A fun read.