Reviews by Author: S-V
Jim Sanderson's Nothing To Lose
Four stars. Voice, voice, voice; setting, setting, setting—both come at you from the get-go in this hardcore novel about a fiftyish Texan detective: “The good thing about Beaumont in September is that it isn’t Beaumont in August. September is mostly hot and muggy with air so thick that you almost have to shove it up your nose with your thumb.” Sanderson has a good deal of fun by having his detective, Roger Jackson, mock the piney Texas land where even Roman Catholics turn Pentecostal: “Their snake handling and speaking in tongues just take on an older, more French, more Papal mysticism.” Roger Jackson does all the things you’d want of a hard-boiled detective, just not so swell, which of course endears him. When we first meet him, he’s in the midst of being duped by some new-money, Beaumont citizens. And he’s not much of a fighter: by my count he comes out winning only one of four fights. He’s not much of a lover: he gets along better with his girlfriend’s adopted daughter than with her mother. He’s pushed around by policemen, deputy sheriffs, and ne’er-do-wells in every county he enters. He can drink; let’s give him that. And it turns out he can at least partially see through blather and come to some evens in the end. Getting to that somewhat cynical end offers a good deal of cynical fun.
Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones
4 of 5 stars. Marrowed Bones & Fantasy Bones: On the cover of this novel, Jonathon Franzen—he who so angered Oprah—refers to The Lovely Bonesas a “fantasy-fable.” Fortunately, this aspect of Alice Sebold’s novel keeps to a minimum. Franzen refers to the work this way because right from the novel’s opening (“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered.) we are placed in a “heaven,” if you will, and can look down on earth along with Susie, the just-murdered teenager. What this approach gives Sebold is an effective vehicle for following over the next ten years the lives of all those concerned with Susie’s murder, even her murderer. And Susie’s capsulated biographies give the novel its beauty, its poignancy. There are people who are obsessed: Susie’s father, the investigating detective, and of course, the murderer himself. These are the lives that are all but destroyed by Susie’s murder. And there are those who slowly, sadly move on: these are mostly the young friends of Susie, her younger brother and sister, and her mother. But moving on doesn’t come easy. The mother has to desert her obsessed husband to work across the country in a California winery. And then five years after Susie’s death her younger brother finds her clothes in storage in a basement and decides to use them to stake tomatoes. Here’s what happens, as narrated by Susie from her “heaven”: “My father stepped closer, took the dress from my brother, and then, without speaking, he gathered the rest of my clothes. . . . I was the only one to see the colors. Just near Buckley’s ears and on the tips of his cheeks and chin. . . .” Buckley’s anger as shown by his aura leads to a confrontation between father and son wherein the son—rightly—accuses the father of driving away their mother with his obsession over Susie’s death. At the scene’s close, the father has a heart attack and is hospitalized. Soon after, the mother returns from California, where she’s lived and worked for several years. This seems to be one of the novel’s main points: how we humans work through, or muddle through, the messes that are dealt us in this life. Halfway through the novel it seems as if many of those touched by Susie aren’t going to even muddle through, for a flurry of inappropriate and even complicating actions takes place—including a bold, suspenseful illegal entry into the murderer’s house in search of evidence by Susie’s then sixteen-year old sister, and including the mother’s sexual encounter with the investigating murder detective. Sebold works all of these to a realistic, if not particularly happy, resolution.
I began by declaring that it was fortunate that the fantasy-fable aspects of the novel were kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, two such aspects occur near the novel’s end. It seems as though Sebold felt a need to resolve her story at least bitter-sweetly. Fine. But the vengeance undertaken against the murderer could have happened several ways for which Sebold has already laid her plot. And the possession of a young girl’s body by Susie so that she can make love—and thus become a fulfilled adult? a fulfilled spirit-being? a fulfilled character in a murder novel?—simply reeks. Too bad, for the rest of the novel takes unexpected turns and offers lovely insights into the bones of all who are affected with this tragedy. The novel is well worth reading, regardless, and if your propensity lies toward happy endings, then you will be doubly rewarded.
Jenn Shapland's My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
266 pages. Confession: I misread a review of this book and thought I was getting a mixed-form novel. No, it’s a mixed form memoir/biography that, however, does read much like a novel. Shapland’s voice is clean and honest. Her effort to “out” Carson McCullers as a lesbian, while at the same time “outing” herself and her own struggles with sexual identity is eye-opening. Most of the gays I’ve talked with have assured me they were certain of their inclination at a very early age, one woman telling me the realization came at six years, though most gays mentioned nine to twelve as the period. I blithely accepted what they told me without realizing that knowing and acting on that knowledge can exist worlds apart. Carson McCullers and Jenn Shapland evidently were and are very well aware of that fact. Shapland writes early on, “You need a narrative with room for messiness . . . .” Yes, evidently so. There is, for instance a touching and depressing scene where Shapland’s mother confronts Shapland and her “roommate” about sexual identity, and the “roommate” later tells Shapland that her mother is right: they should just be friends. This must have happened in some recent period, say fifteen or so years ago. Similarly not even four years ago the director of the McCullers Center sat Shapland down in a Christian café and told her in “no uncertain terms” that McCullers and her psychiatrist Mary were never romantically involved. Contradicting this, Shapland at one point writes, “When Carson says she was in love, I believe she means that she was in love.” This is similar to Haydn’s commenting, “If Mozart wrote it that way, that’s how he meant it.” Yes. In conclusion this volume is a wonderful combination of Shapland’s forensic work as an archivist and her own self-examination. Shapland, near book’s end, paraphrases a letter from McCullers to her psychiatrist Mary: “The letter closes with Carson declaring that there isn’t a single word loving enough to call her. I imagine Mary blushing when she receives this letter. I imagine her quietly delighted. Is this projection?” Shapland continues just a bit later, “If this isn’t love, I don’t know what is. Or care.” A find read.
Sloan's Mr. Penumbra
This is going to be a “practice what I preach, not what I do” review, but more of that anon. . . . Mr. Penumbra’s has loads of everything: budding romance, social commentary, intrigue, suspense, and humor. Its narrator, youngish Clay Jannon, a web geek, falls victim to the Great Recession and has taken a job at a . . . gasp! . . . bookstore. But Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore epitomizes mystery: Its shelves seemingly ascend into the sky or at least the hugely vaulted ceiling. Its paucity of customers without fail return one single book and request one other single book to be fetched from those imposing shelves. Its next door neighbor is a strip joint. And the eponymous Penumbra gives Clay this opening rule upon hiring him: “You mustn’t read any of the books.” Well, no books from the spiraling shelves, that is, though a short grouping of shelves which actually have books for sale—normal books from normal best seller lists are eligible for Clay’s reading. But there is the same paucity of these “open” books as there is of customers. Clay hopes to change this. Being a web specialist recently let go from a “nouveau” bagel company run by ex-Googlers who designed a program to bake the perfect “platonic” bagel, he tries to attract bookstore customers with a very specific ad campaign run through Google. After weeks with no hits, Google suggests he might broaden his search. Then, BAM! In walks a beauteous woman who shows him the coupon she received via email and Google. Romance clearly lies ahead, for Clay’s algorithm for attracting customers has lured a girl whose “micromuscles are very attractive.” Yes, Clay is a computer nerd. And guess what, so is this woman, Kat; she works for Google. The plot, it thickens more when Clay’s pal—Clay’s a nerd, so friends are a rare commodity—comes in and dares Clay to break Penumbra’s only rule. Together, they open a book from the spiraling shelves to find it written in code. All the books, they discover, are written in code. Clay then builds a 3-d model of the shelves and the store. (“If this amazes you, then you are over 30,” comments Clay) And . . . he breaks the code . . . well not THE code, but A code. Penumbra is impressed, Kat is too. But more thickening plot: When Penumbra recommends using computers to break THE code he is immediately recalled to the clandestine headquarters where his essence may be burned. His essence? Is his life in danger? He dutifully disappears and the store is suddenly closed. How to save Penumbra? Sleuthing on the part of Clay and Kat, with monetary help from Clay’s entrepreneurial friend send them on a quest to NYC. Mystery upon mystery in this novel. Lots of fun with inter-generational face-offs in the entire novel: Penumbra and nearly all the customers are oldagenarians; Clay, BAM, and others are not yet 30 and dedicated computer whizzes. Twists and minor resolutions, and then a fine finale. So? So here comes my opening statement about practicing what I preach not what I do. Not to worry, no spoiler ahead. This novel appends what is becoming ubiquitous: an epilogue that wraps all the futures and all the characters into a neat pot pie of words. What is the urge for this? Who knows. Penumbra has a wonderful ending directly before this appended abomination, an ending that stays with the two main characters, Clay and Penumbra. Why oh why . . . oh well, I did the same in my forthcoming novel—more successfully, I’d like to think. So practice what I preach. I don’t.
Darcey Steinke's Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life
For sure, this book is about menopause and all the related inconveniences, silly jokes, and notions—but it's also about sexuality, patriarchy, mortality, acceptance, spirituality, wisdom, and whales. Yes whales, for it seems those creatures that can live well over a century elect matriarchs who have experienced menopause to lead their packs in something of a crone's position. And why not? Experience matters. Lack of distraction matters. It’s called wisdom. And this, Steinke tells us, is precisely why women should not pursue hormone treatment, why men should not pursue Viagra. Acceptance of life’s stages and the accompanying wisdom, not denial and infantile retreat. This book presents Darcey Steinke par excellence, perhaps a bit angrier than her usual when discussing the mostly male-dominated medical and pharmaceutical fields, but then, as she would no doubt insist, she has earned that anger. As have we all.
Darcey Steinke's Milk, Clabbered and Sweet
5 of 5 stars Milk, by Darcey Steinke of Suicide Blonde, is a strangely sexy novel. It is also a strangely spiritual novel. But—strangely—it is nota loving novel. This strikes home especially upon considering its title and opening scene. When we first meet Mary, one of three protagonists, she is nursing her baby. Nine short pages later, both she and baby are experiencing a religious vision, what we soon find out is called an Aleph, a point where time stops to open into God’s universe and godhead itself. She mistakes the vision for an electrical short, but when she sweeps a broom through, it appears more like a holograph or even a reflected “magic trick.” Now, there is no doubt that we are meant to take this vision and her returning encounters with it as real—or at least there is little doubt, as I will explain later. Little or no doubt, because Mary’s baby becomes fascinated by the vision too and “bicycled his legs again and rocked his whole body forward.”
The overwhelming spiritual aspect of Steinke’s novel, however, derives not through any one organized religion. This, despite that Mary and both remaining protagonists are members of the Episcopal Church. (One is an Episcopal priest, the other a monk named John who has recently left the monastery in search of God.) In fact, not a single scene occurs inside a church proper. We’ve seen Mary having visions in her apartment; she later takes to praying in closets, since she claims they so resemble “little chapels.” Walter, her friend and the priest in charge of an economically strapped inner city parish, decides that a bar he enters is “definitely holy. Mostly because of the longing. God loved longing and imbued it with sanctity.” Similarly, John writes a letter justifying his departure from the monastery: “I want you to know that I now understand . . . that it [is] philosophically impossible for God to even think about evil, that Love is all and we must make ourselves into vehicles of Love.”
But—and this brings up a huge gap—for John and all the characters “vehicles of Love” persistently stumble into vehicles of sensuality. Mary’s sexual encounter with John leads to divorcing her husband, who has clearly been cheating and has lost all interest in her. John himself was warned as he left the monastery that the mystical woman he was leaving to search for was a “robot, an idealized notion of romantic love, impossible to replicate.” And the last protagonist, the homosexual priest named Walter, endures a series of devastating and degrading sensual encounters in his quest for stable love. Even Mary’s breast-feeding takes on a mystical intensity that cannot be sustained.
All this does not indicate a fault in the novel; rather, it indicates Steinke’s theme: longing. Mary remembers, upon returning to a husbandless home after her initial tryst with John: “Walter always said that the chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separate from him.” John, in a cab leaving the monastery, echoes Christ’s prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The answer God gives lines later is: “So you can know yourself.” Walter, the Episcopal priest, alters between believing that Mary is “some modern Hildegard or Mathilde, any of the early mystics who had experienced God firsthand,” and admitting she is becoming “a sort of spooky chick,” thus urging her to take her St. John’s Wort and get on Zoloft. Ultimately though, he “understood what fueled her longing. It was unconscionable to live separated from God, like a cork held under water.”
This novel offers a wonderful one-sitting read because it is so brief (130 pages) and so intense. And it is easy to read because the scenes and characters—even minor ones—are so well drawn, the plot so straightforward. The language too is lovely, though a warning is in order: much of its loveliness derives from rapid ascents into heavenly visions and equally rapid descents into hellish vulgarity. That is the novel’s challenge.
In her acknowledgements, Steinke offers praise for “the work and ideas of Thomas Merton.” Merton was a Trappist monk who once offered his own praise for the writer Flannery O’Connor, adding this admonitory question: “Must all her characters be so despicable?” If he were alive today, he would surely praise Steinke in a similar manner, asking whether all her characters must remain so unfulfilled and isolated. Both she and O’Connor would no doubt give the same reply: “Of course they must.” Just so, at one point Mary confesses to her long-time friend Walter: “I understand my soul is like a piece of God implanted in me, and while it’s the same substance as God, it’s much more cloudy because it’s so hard to be human.”
“I understand my soul is like a piece of God implanted in me, and while it’s the same substance as God, it’s much more cloudy because it’s so hard to be human.” I'm not sure what I could write that would better entice you to read Steinke's Milk than that quotation from the brief novel. But I will add a warning of sorts: Milk, despite its title, does not offer a big-eyed, happy approach to religion. When I assigned this book as a reading several years ago, one student told me she threw it against her dorm room wall.
Milk, it strikes me, approaches religions with the same intensity that Flannery O'Connor did in her short stories and novels. That should be warning enough. It strikes me that Ms. Steinke's novel and approach to religion is one of longing. Of longing in the persistent face of absence. And the absence comes not only from a non-answering God, but from mis-communicating people interacting with/against one another.
A fine, fast read--a one-nighter--that will challenge your spirituality.
Darcey Steinke's Sister Golden Hair
In many ways this novel reminds me of Atkinson's Life After Life, for Jesse, Steinke's young protagonist, undergoes different scenes in learning from experience after experience. This is not to say, however, that Sister Golden Hair uses fantastical elements as did Atkinson's novel. The situation in Sister is this: there are six sections, five of which are devoted to Jesse's sequential friends, four female and one male.
Each friend pushes Jesse in one direction or another. Though all the sections are harrowing in their own fashion, I found the "Sheila" section, which goes over familiar Steinke ground of edgy sexuality, especially poignant in its ending. Sheila convinces Jesse to join her in mimicking Playboy Bunnies--the novel is set in the 70s--even to the point of homemade suits and Bunny tails. Sheila is obviously "acting out" as social workers say. As the action and plot in this section dictate, Sheila moves from being an elite girl in her school to being an outcast. At section's end, Jesse observes Sheila outside with the kids with “hunched shoulders” and dark circles under their eyes, “in an angle of sunlight, doing the Bunny stance all by herself.” Throughout the novel, Jesse’s mother has been someone for Jesse to avoid. Jesse measures her mother’s moods on a scale from 5 to 1, with 1 being the most volatile. Fittingly, though the mother never rates her own section, she becomes less and less prominent as Jesse matures. Jesse’s father, an ex-preacher, has also been fairly peripheral, presented as a hippie reading books on their couch, spouting dream interpretation and disillusioned religious pronouncements.
Sister concludes in a section reserved for Jesse herself. It also emphasizes the omnipresent though peripheral religious theme when her father “gently lifts” Jesse out of a pew and pushes her “in the direction of the altar” to witness her friend’s born-again Baptism. The father somewhat redeems himself in this and another act near the novel’s end. Jesse, now nearly 16, comes into her own by this time, too, as is indicated by the section’s title, “Jesse.”
This is a character- and action-driven novel that I highly recommend.
Guillermo Stitch's Lake of Urine
200 pages. What an oddball novel! On one hand, it’s a psychological saga of child abuse in perpetuity, on the other hand it’s a satire about vacuous language, and on the other, other hand—why not, right?—it sports plot and action from the Planet 14.
The abuse: Emma, mother of half-sisters Noranbole and Urine (note well, that is not Ur-een, but yes, Urine), was raised by a mother who never came in contact with her during childhood but spied on her through drilled holes in the walls. And a father who seems the epitome of an old-time Calvinist preacher. Is it any wonder that Emma has run through nine, by my count, husbands, and that she is infatuated with giving men—any men!—hand jobs? Is it any wonder that she hires an incompetent, somewhat crazed man to guard her two daughters?
The satire: Noranbole escapes with her beau and goes to Big City, where she becomes an all-powerful executive of Terra Forma. Here’s a brief speech by her press secretary, who goes by the name of . . . ahem, Vacuity: “Oops, going to have to correction that, Nor . . . Ms Wakeling . . . We already have an extraordinary meeting schedule for early next week—your own, to go over the new proposals. Excitement! To avoidance any confusion, I’ll go ahead and allocate superextraordinary status to the meeting already underway.” The meeting underway comes up with little concrete detail, other than some “pipeline” that seemingly won’t be built. “Disaster,” “catastrophe,” “radical re-think,” “fiasco,” are tossed about. Noranbole asks if the leader in charge likes money. Everyone at the table is quiet. Finally someone asks if Noranbole is suggesting they bribe the leader. Nope, Noranbole replies. “What I’m proposing is . . . we give him lots of this money.” “Clever,” “Inspired,” now get bandied about.
The Planet 14: The man Emma hires to take care of her two daughters uses string to test the depth of a local and unsoundable lake. He tries several times and finally ties daughter Urine to the string and drops her in the lake. Four hundred, five hundred feet, and more, down she goes. Well, that’s one oddity, wouldn’t you say? And then Noranbole’s boyfriend, Bernard, speaks in every language except English it seems. Cyrillic, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew—even binary at one point. Noranbole is the sole interpreter. So is Bernard a genius? Well gee, he’s awfully good at chores, anyway. And . . . he does win the International Meat Flipping Championship, so don’t ask too much.
Occasionally this novel becomes too convoluted in either its plot or language for my taste, but overall it’s a fun, oddball read. And the abuse part? Well, yeah, it’s served out true enough.
Colm Toibin's The Master
4 of 5 stars Toíbín’s The Master and the Spinoza Award
Colm Toibin’s novel The Master is one of hauntings. It is so because it discusses the seeds for Henry James’s “ghost” stories, notably The Turn of the Screw, and because James’s brother William, the American psychologist, was a spiritualist who claimed to have contacted their dead mother. But mostly the novel is haunted by Toíbín’s tender presentation of the novelist Henry James as a man himself haunted not only by the people he’s known but also by the possibilities life presents: “He wanted to sleep, to enter a lovely blackness, a dark, but not too dark, resting place, unhaunted, unpeopled, with no flickering presences.”
That “flickering” represents the novel’s construction, for though it outwardly moves from October 1895 and the disastrous opening of James’s first play in London, to October 1899 and the visit of brother William, its chapters revolve around characters or musings. And, of course, around the wealth of emotions and ideas fermented in James’s mind by that character or musing. For like many writers, James was an unabashed thief. He used his dying sister Alice in two novels. He used a father-daughter couple he frequently visited for Portrait of a Lady. And he used himself.
A fine example of the novel’s so-fine flickering comes with the chapter set in April of 1898 when Henry receives a photograph depicting the Boston unveiling of a bronze statue of Colonel Shaw. Shaw was the white man who led a basically black regiment during the Civil War. Henry’s younger brother Wilky served in the regiment and was severely wounded, and Henry’s older brother William spoke at the statue’s unveiling. The chapter seemingly vacillates to describe how Henry’s father’s wooden leg resulted from an act of heroism. And then it moves to depict Henry’s questioning of his future: preacher or lawyer? But the Civil War interrupts, and we find Henry and William boarding at Harvard University. A fellow boarder named Francis Child, who collects folk ballads and teaches at Harvard, boasts virulent abolitionist tendencies and seems “on the verge of stating that those who remained at home, including his fellow diners . . . were cowards. . . .” Indeed, in this chapter Henry questions his own motivation for not enlisting. He sees the horrors of war intensified when Wilky returns home severely wounded. Wilky gives seed to Henry’s first published story about the imagined return of a wounded veteran and the “earthy smell” of an army issue blanket. Note this single chapter’s rich movement from idealism as presented by Professor Child to realism—both shameful and prideful—as presented by the James brothers. The chapter ends with the publication of Henry’s first story, a story raiding “his own memories.” Every chapter in the novel thus subtly weaves characters and themes, always to return to the haunted James, a haunting he manages to tranform into literature. Again, despite its straightforward timeline, this is not so much a novel of plot as one of emotion and discovery.
I’ve held off mentioning that this novel was a finalist for the Lambda Award for Gay Men’s Fiction, since that pigeonholing does the book a disservice. T. S. Eliot commented that Henry James “had a mind so fine that no idea ever crossed it.” Eliot did not intend insult; he meant that James’s fiction understood human complexity and never simplified matters into ‘A therefore C.’ So too, while Toíbín’s portrait of James is indeed concerned with homosexuality in Victorian England, that concern is overshadowed by other concerns. Only two chapters confront the homosexual issue directly. A third discusses Oscar Wilde, who was flagrantly carrying on with a young man throughout proper London. But what we read more is James’s appraisal of Wilde’s pandering to the public in his drama and his inability to spell sodomite when he sued the Marquess of Queensbury for calling him one. “Spelling, I imagine, was not ever his strong point,” James tells a friend. The chapter especially covers James’s imaginings about Wilde’s two abandoned sons as their father is sentenced to prison, to echo James’s own father, an overbearing mix of drunkard, idealist, and Puritan. Similarly, in an ending chapter we meet the sculptor Hendrik Andersen. Will this sensuous young man, who plans a “world city . . . where princes and potentates . . . could gather,” break through romantically to James? No. In fact, what James takes from Andersen is the seed for one of his most enduring stories, “The Beast in the Jungle,” about a man who consumes so much time imagining himself fulfilling a great, vague destiny that both life and love pass him by.
So. . . the entire novel considered, I propose nominating it for The Spinoza Award, should such an award ever appear. Spinoza, to remind you, was the Jewish philosopher who claimed that everything and everyone serve as an aspect of God, who of course is neither male nor female. So . . . the Spinoza Award since the novel treks into a miniature god’s mind for whom nothing human is foreign. Consider the novel’s last vision of James: “He walked up and down the stairs, going into rooms as though they, too, in how they yielded to him, belonged to an unrecoverable past . . . and would join . . . all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world so that they could be captured and held.”
John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces
5 of 5 stars Big Chief Funny You’re a college student and you live within a four hours’ drive of New Orleans. So what’s your problem? But before you make the obligatory college trip there, maybe you should read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole won—posthumously—The Pulitzer Prize for this comic novel set in the French Quarter. It absolutely rollicks with Quarter atmosphere and characters. You’ll meet Lana Lee, owner of The Night of Joy Club who’s making money on the side by selling porno shots of herself to schoolchildren. (The novel’s worth reading just to find out how she gets caught.) You’ll meet Ivory Jones, a young black male with an attitude (“You want quiet sweepin’, you hire an old lady. I sweep yawng.”) And officer Mancuso, who’s in the doghouse with his Captain, who orders Mancuso to dress in outrageous disguises and sit in the Greyhound Station toilet for two weeks until he catches someone suspicious. The cast continues with a senile office worker named Miss Trixie, a stripper named Darlene who’s intent on training her cockatoo to help her strip on stage, a Jewish activist and nymph named Myrna Minx, and three butch lesbians intent on whipping up on any male who gets out of line. And last but not least, Ignatius J. Reilly. How disgusting is Ignatius? His father conceived him in a romantic moment after he and his wife went to a movie; he never went to a movie again, as long as he lived. Ignatius weighs in at about 400 pounds, he wears a green hunting cap year around (this is New Orleans, remember), and he writes reams of treatises on Big Chief tablets urging the rejuvenation of the middle ages. Why Big Chief tablets? Because he likes the Indian’s head. Ignatius, who has a master’s degree in medieval culture, is so hopeless that he gets fired from pushing around a hot dog cart. (You’ve seen those carts on Bourbon Street, right.) He’s so hopeless that his momma decides to send commit him to a mental institution. Will she succeed? Or will Ignatius take the entire world back to the “glory” of the middle ages while coincidentally bringing about world wide peace by filling the military with gay men? Read Confederacy of Dunces and find out. By the way, when you take your New Orleans trek, be sure to stop at D. H. Holmes department store on Canal Street and pat the bronze statue of Ignatius for good luck in love.
Catherine Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland
Another "Young Adult" book that is only marginally for young adults, but that's fine.
There are plenty of wonderful observations in this novel: When September, the young protagonist, runs into a witch who has had her magical spoon stolen, September comments, "Where I come from, if a person has a spoon, no one came come and take it, just because they're the governor or something." To which the wronged witch comments, "You mean to say that one day the governor or something came and took your father even though you were quite sure he was yours and yours alone?" Touché, for you see, September's father was drafted into the army to fight in WWII. And Valente has written one of the more imaginative treatments of death that turns a mainstay of many fantasies into something quite touching and interesting. Don't want to give the poignancy away, so I'll stop there. My sole qualm with this novel is that it falls into something of a overdone SF/Fantasy move with its neologisms (Wyffery, spriggans, Marids) and depends upon a somewhat frantic pace of new scenes and situations that are surely meant solely for the purpose of . . . a new scene or situation, rather than an organic growth. Such gives the novel more of a picaresque feel than a questing feel. Forgivable, after all, for the arching quest does shine through in the end. Entertaining for sure.
Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions
Vonnegut’s favorite sci-fi author, Kilgore Trout, plays a big role in this one. His counterpart is a car dealer named Dwayne Hoover, whose brain is deteriorating and making him insane. Trout will lend him the needed push for the loony bin. In many ways, this is Vonnegut’s most racially aware novel. Most of the time, characters are referred to “white” or “black.” And although Vonnegut uses the N-word (I don’t want Goodreads to flag this review), my idea is that he is using it for the shock value of making the reader aware by putting it in the mouths or thoughts of blatant racists. While this isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel—it delves rather deeply into the meta-fictional well, and the build of the incipient meeting of Trout and Hoover sags at times—it does portray an absolutely stunning moment. This comes when a minor—a very minor—character who is an abstract painter (something Vonnegut never tires of berating) has a brilliant insight about his painting, entitled “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” The picture shows a singular line on a field of green, something any child could paint. And people are irritated that so much has been spent to purchase it. And they’re irritated that Rabo Karabekian, the artist, has been invited to participate in an arts festival in Indiana, where Hoover’s car dealership lies and where Kilgore Trout has also been invited. At a bar the night before the event, this prelude conversation takes place:
“This is a dreadful confession, but I don’t even know who Saint Anthony was. Who was he, and who would anybody have wanted to tempt him?”
“I don’t know, and I would hate to find out,” said Karabekian.
“You have no use for truth?”
“You know what truth is?” said Karabekian. “It’s some crazy thing my neighbor believes. He tells me, and I say, ‘Yeah, yeah—ain’t it the truth.’ “
So far, Karabekian’ s a jerk, full of himself, right? Vonnegut, inserting himself in the novel, thinks as much: “I did not expect Rabo Karabekian to rescue me. I had created him, and he was in my opinion a vain and weak and trashy man, no artist at all. But it is Rabo Karabekian who made me the serene Earthling I am today.
And soon enough Karabekian goes on to announce a surprising, rewarding, insightful analysis of his abstract painting, while at the same time giving an insightful and nearly miraculous analysis about life itself:
“It is a picture of the awareness in every animal—the ‘I am,’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”
Kudos, Rabo Karabekian! Kudos, Mr. Vonnegut!
Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick
You owe it to yourself to read some Kurt Vonnegut. Why? Doing so will make you a better human. How? Doing so will make you tolerant of the foolish mistakes humans make. Vonnegut himself was an American prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire bombing of that city, a two-day campaign that killed more civilians than the atomic bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The war in the European theater would be over not three months later. This was overkill on the same scale, for instance, as Sherman’s march.
To the novel: the narrator is Dr. Swain, King of Candlesticks and New York, President of the defunct United States. He and his sister share thoughts and become super-geniuses when they are close together, though they dub themselves Bob and Betty Brown when they are separated. They stay together long enough to research gravity, and the Chinese will later look through their diaries and learn how to manipulate the same. You males will like this part: on “light gravity days,” all males walk about with an erection. And female readers will appreciate that on “heavy gravity days” such erections are impossible. As with all of Vonnegut’s work, by the way, the science-fiction elements are really secondary. They serve much the same purpose as those in Voltaire’s philosophic novels; that is, they offer comedy and symbolism.
As I’ve indicated, Slapstick is set in the future. The Chinese have transformed themselves into microscopic beings to save the ecology. There’s one problem with this, and that is that normal-sized people inhale them and die. This plague has nearly disintegrated the western world. Dr. Swain and his sister, Eliza, have long since been separated for she died on Mars some years before. In comes “The Hooligan,” a device for talking with the dead, whom we learn are completely bored in their state, feeling as if they’re condemned to a “turkey farm.” Swain and his dead sister do make contact, though a boy with Tourette’s Disease stands nearby and interrupts their super-genius dialogue with vulgarities: “Bugger . . . defecate . . . semen.” The multitudinous dead people listening judge the boy to be “a kindred spirit, as outraged by the human condition in the Universe” they are. They egg the boy on until “bedlam” develops and the sibling dialogue disintegrates. You can no doubt tell that plot isn’t one of Vonnegut’s strong suits. Neither is psychological realism. However, he’s superb at insight into humanity; he’s superb at black humor, and he’s superb at one-liners. For instance, answering the standby “Those who fail to learn by history are condemned to repeat it,” the King of Candlesticks says, “History is merely a list of surprises.” Read some Vonnegut. You’ll be happy you did.
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five
5 of 5 stars An Anti-Glacier Book: Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five amazes me each time I read it. In the book’s opening chapter, Kurt Vonnegut quotes a friend who’s just heard that Vonnegut is writing an anti-war novel, “‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacierbook instead?’” Vonnegut admits the friend is no doubt right and that war will always be with us—with or without the help of the Old Testament and other religious inspirations. Nonetheless, this novel describing the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, certainly gives one pause, much as the angel in Mark Twain’s infamous “War Prayer” does. Alas and dismally, probably with just as little effect: “Boom! Bang! Let’s get on with the slaughter and bring the boys (and girls these days) home by Christmas.”
It’s no doubt because of the previous sentiment that Twain felt compelled to call upon higher beings to deliver a blatant truth about all wars. And partly for that same reason, Vonnegut concocts an alien race called the Tralfamadorians, who abduct the protagonist Billy Pilgrim to display him and a porn star named Montana Wildhack as sample earthlings on their planet. It is the Tralfamadorians who inform Billy that war is inevitable; it is also they who tell him that free will is a dubious quality at best. How dubious? The Tralfamadorians know that the end of the universe will come about when one of their own kind experiments with a new rocket propulsion system. Well, why don’t you stop experimenting, Billy logically asks, wide-eyed. Because the scientist always has ended the universe and he always will, the Tralfamadorians answer. Don’t bother with an anti-glacier book, in other words.
While this stoic philosophy threads the novel, it is countered by two things: humor and unlimited sadness. Vonnegut actually was an American POW in Dresden during the Allied fire-bombing of that city. So, one might presume that the novel’s description of twenty high school girls boiled to death by the firestorm’s heat has a basis in fact. One also might presume that digging out corpses for several days until the stench overrode that possibility also happened. (The Germans finally resorted to flame-throwers to prevent the spread of disease.) And one surely presumes that the Tralfamadorians and the humor surrounding hapless character Billy Pilgrim, also a POW in Dresden, represent Vonnegut’s attempts to deal with what he witnessed in real life during World War II.
The novel is told in episodic “telegraphs” that supposedly imitate Tralfamadorian novels. Vonnegut has deftly woven several timelines and plots into such a seamless form that the reader rarely skips a beat between the “telegraphs.” His details of Dresden and the war are so convincing, his plotting so simple, and his characters so real that the reader follows the movements easily. In Slaughterhouse-five, Vonnegut has accomplished the near-impossible: he’s written an escape novel and a comic-science fiction novel that at the same time packs a literary and philosophical punch.
Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake
Three Stars I have just read a raft of books purporting to be novels, and this is one. Well, I exaggerate: I've read two books, this one and Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt. At least Byatt's publisher had the grace not to list that book as fiction, though heavily insinuating the same with, "As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside, etc." Of the two, Timequake does come closer to being a novel.
Good things about Timequake? It has plenty of Vonnegut zingers: "Most Europeans back then couldn't read and write, either. The few who could were specialist. I promise you, sweetheart, thanks to TV that will very soon be the case again." Or, "If I'd wasted my time creating characters . . . I would have never gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter: irresistible forces in nature, and cruel inventions, and cockamamie ideals and governments and economies that make heroes and heroines alike feel something like the cat drug in." I have a special affinity toward the last—by the infamous Kilgore Trout—since it reflects my writing philosophy.
Bad things? Lots and lots and lots of rehashed personal family material that winds its way into some insight, and very, very, very little plot. Unfortunately, Timequake lives up to its thesis--that all humanity spends ten years repeating its past--in this sense, for Vonnegut has spent 250 pages mostly doing this.
I recommend skipping this one unless you're just a Vonnegut junkie.
Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue
4 stars A story novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a novel about a purportedly undiscovered Vermeer painting. The story, by Susan Vreeland, follows this painting—in a backward time sequence—from its destruction by purposeful fire to its physical painting by Vermeer. The painting itself, Vreeland seems to tell us, remains the one island of truth and beauty (ahem, a nod to Keats’ Grecian urn) amid all the terrible things happening. And plenty of terrible things do happen, not the least of which occurs in the opening story when we learn that a mousy math teacher obtained this painting from his SS father, who stole it from a Jewish house in Amsterdam after sending the entire household, along with a visiting child, to a train headed for a concentration camp.
There’s also a witch-burning, an orphan set afloat in a basket with the painting (an attached note urges, “Sell the painting. Feed the child.”), a madman thrashing his pregnant sister until she miscarries, and . . . you get the picture. But Vreeland succeeds, for the painting itself emerges as central to all the stories. Yes, stories; and yes, novel. Vreeland’s work represents a new form, a story novel, that is becoming quite popular. Stories, because the characters and plots change; novel, because a theme predominates. For example, in one story a farmer’s wife answers her husband’s outrage because she sold their seed potatoes instead of the painting by saying, “You’re holding a grudge. . . . not against me, because of the potatoes. Or because I didn’t sell the painting. . . . you know who it’s against? It’s against God. All you see in life is the work. Just planting, hauling, shoveling, digging. That’s all life is to you. But not to me. . . . There’s got to be some beauty too.” A story novel combines the best of fictional worlds: continuity plus brevity. You can finish one part quickly, but can return to the entirety over weeks, like a friendly conversation.