Alphabetical by Author, rated up to five stars
Cathryn Alpert, 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, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 298 pages. 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 banality of 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.
Kate Atkinson A God in Ruins 5 stars, provisional.
This novel is an absolutely stunning tour de force, with one important exception, to be discussed in my last paragraph. But on to the wonder of Atkinson’s prose: The novel is mostly about Wing Commander Teddy Todd and is told in a deceptively easeful omniscient voice that flings itself across decades. This omniscience fine-tunes to underscore irony: “Viola was the solitary arrow they had shot blindly into the future, not knowing where she would land. They should have aimed better, Teddy thought as he watched her (having sidestepped marriage to Dominic, the father of her children) finally tying the knot in Leeds Town Hall to Wilf Romaine—a botch-up job of marriage if ever there was one.” This omniscience filters through every chapter, coasting forward and backward in time from the late 30’s to a decade past the Twin Towers in Manhattan. The effect of this naturally enough follows Wing Commander Teddy—surely a demi-god in his own right having bravely survived 72 bombing flights over Europe with the R.A.F!—from marriage and parenthood into his final dotage in a nursing home, presumably representing the “ruins.” But marriage, parenting, grand-parenting, and just the drudge of life require their own form of bravery, we learn. As we see, his daughter Viola is a disappointment at best. And we mourn with Teddy as he realizes his complicity in caving in to that daughter’s money-lust by sending her only son (born out of wedlock) to her lover’s decadent blueblood family in hopes of nebulous inheritance. The chapter concerning his choice’s aftermath, entitled “The Courage of Small Hours,” is one of the few not told mostly from Teddy’s viewpoint: it comes from his grandson Sunny’s viewpoint. In its own sad way, this chapter narrating Sunny’s captivity by his deranged dictatorial paternal grandparents is as harrowing as the several chapters centered on World War II. This chapter, too, shares in the omniscient time-jumps: “ ‘Stockholm Syndrome,’ Bertie [Sunny’s sister] said. ‘You began to identify with your captors, like Patty Hearst.’ This was in 2011 . . .” The chapter ends horrifically, though Teddy does manage to salvage his grandson somewhat. In sum, Atkinson’s prose is magnificent, her mix of voice works wonderfully, and the plot and setting are most compelling. She has humanized the experience of war grandly, subduing pathos and gore as much as one can. Too, Atkinson’s characters are drawn with nearly perfect empathy. This remains a key virtue of this novel, a moving depiction of a god in ruins.
But . . . And here comes the last paragraph with its “exception” mentioned in my opening. But I think it impossible to review this novel without examining the last dozen or so pages. **** Spoiler Alert! Skip if you need to. **** For this novel is not really what it seems to be, that is, a chronicle of a god in ruins. The last few pages flip flop like a bad science fiction movie: And then he woke up, and knew it was all a dream! But it’s not a dream, and Teddy was not taken prisoner of war for the last year in Germany we sadly learn. No, he went down with his bomber and died. So . . . all the characters—Sunny, Viola, Bertie, and mostly Teddy—that we as readers have invested in for over 400 pages, never existed! Atkinson claims in her afterword that she is not writing a “polemic” against war. And until these last pages, her statement holds true: there is a balance, however disturbing it may be, of judgment over the bombing of civilians in Germany for the last years of the war. As someone points out to Teddy, “They started it.” But suddenly in these last pages comes Atkinson’s point—her “moral” if you will—that war destroys so many, many, many possibilities. True enough. The novel’s form, however, must needs trick the reader to make this point. In Atkinson’s Life After Life, the reader understood the game plan soon enough: Ursula would bounce back trough whatever harrowing experience to undergo yet another harrowing experience. There is no such warning in this novel. The last dozen or so pages come across almost like tacking on an epilogue, a disturbing epilogue that negates most of what preceded. And though I did steel myself to this shift on my second read, I still would much rather leave Teddy dead in Poplar Hill nursing home, a god in ruins, just as he was before this tectonic shift.
Kate Atkinson, 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 woppingly clever novel that will keep you laughing even on second and third reads.
Kate Atkinson, 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, Penelopiad, 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’s 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 3.5 of 5 stars
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, A Fine and Private Place, 5 of 5 stars
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 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.
Charles M. Boyer, History’s Child, 571 pp., New Issues Press, Western Michigan University.
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, The Da Vinci Code, $24.95 3.5 of 5 stars. It’s a page turner for sure.
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 goddesslike 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 occuring 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.
Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye 4 of 5 stars
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.
Charles Bukowski, Post Office, 196 pages. 3.5 of 5 stars
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 be 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.
William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 3 of 5 stars
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, AllenGinsburg 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 any acts 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 drag I 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.
A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, 4 of 5 Stars
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.
A. S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories 4 of 5 stars
The Perfect Halloween Read? Boo! Boo-hoo. A. S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories offers the perfect Halloween read. Or does it? While it is a very good gothic collection, what good gothic depicts best is not terrifying monsters, but terrifying emotions and how those emotions can turn human beings into terrifying monsters. Each of the five stories in this short collection does just that. Take the opener, “The Thing in the Forest,” which begins innocuously with two British girls, Penny and Primrose [could anyone so named be other than innocent?], two innocent British girls sharing chocolate on a train. But this train has a difference, for it moves through wartime England and the girls are being sent to the country, to live separated from their parents in hopes that they won’t be killed by German bombing. Does the terrifying, unstated fear of isolation—on the girls’ parts, anyway—ultimately create the Thing in the forest? Does their terrifying, numbing fear allow them to blithely stand by while a horror akin to a mulching machine chews up a much younger girl who has imprinted on them and followed them into the forest despite that they ran away from her? When Penny and Primrose meet forty some years later, once again by chance, they go explore the same tragic forest separately. Penny finds “a collection of small bones, fingerbones, tiny toes, a rib, and finally what might be a brain-pan and a brow.” The young girl who followed them? She thinks of burying the bones but ultimately does not. Once again, disembarking from the train, she and Primrose stop speaking and fall into isolation: “They saw each other through that black imagined veil which grief, or pain, or despair hangs over the visible world.” Byatt’s book gives much more than complete gloom, however. Each story offers a redemption, for the spark of creative emotion within each character that moves first toward horror finally moves away from it and overcomes it. Penny, for example, works as a psychotherapist so she might “be useful.” Primrose becomes a children’s storyteller, much for the same purpose. And in the second story, “Body Art,” a young woman who endured a botched abortion in the previous year uses her body as a piece of art to cheer hospital patients. Sparked by her success, she then congeals pickled and dried body parts from the hospital’s medical museum into a grotesque sculpture of Kali, the Hindu goddess of Death. Oddly enough, as grotesque and as offensive as her depiction of the goddess has become, it provides the catalyst to allow the ménage à trois of her, her lover, and a mother-figure to carry her second pregnancy to term—no abortion this time. The third story, my favorite, “A Stone Woman,” depicts a woman whose emotions so clump at her mother’s death that her very skin and veins slowly wend toward becoming actual semi-precious stones. She takes a lover of sorts, an Icelandic stonecutter who regales her with tales of stone people living in the hills of Iceland. His tales and his home in Iceland eventually set her free—of all and every emotion—and she joins the stone people, lumbering away. There are two more stories: one a rendition of a creative writing workshop with an over-the-hill professor who can’t even get his interest up to seduce the young women in his class, much less read the class’s stories of sexual and sadistic fantasies. Then he comes upon an elderly lady’s compelling prose assignment—no sci-fi or murder fantasy, but a nostalgic essay about the prosaic subject of “black-leading a stove.” He is invigorated, enchanted. Not to give the story’s ending away, suffice it to say that a huge flip-flop once more underlines Byatt’s thesis that creativity or imagination can at one time lead humans to horror and save them from it. The last story, “The Pink Ribbon,” features . . . a ghost? . . . a reincarnation? . . . a supernatural messenger? Take your choice, but the conclusion that this . . . whatever leads the protagonist to is at one and the same time horrifying and freeing. Byatt’s prose is luxurious and her depiction of humans amid the throes of horrible emotions offers both an appalling and uplifting interpretation of human emotions. So . . . boo, boo-hoo, and hooray.
Mark Childress, Crazy in Alabama, 5 of 5 stars. 383 pages
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, 370 pages.
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 Victor. 4 of 5 stars
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.
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.
Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus, 3.5 of 5 stars.
A fun comedy with nearly meta-fictional qualities given off-stage comments by E. T. A. Hoffman, the historical romantic fiction writer whose fragmentary studies for his planned opera offer the subject matter and the spine for this novel. If you’re new to Davies, go back and read The Rebel Angels, as that novel contains almost all the same characters as this one. Davies is good at inserting oddball characters who move his plot along—in The Rebel Angels, it was Parlabane, a renegade homosexual monk and murderer—and in this novel we have young Schnakenburg who is finishing her dissertation in musical orchestration, plus her erstwhile mentor Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot. The two of them become lovers, and their love seems to prompt Schnak toward working wonders with the bare outlines of the Hoffmann opera, entitled Arthur of Britain, the Magnanimous Cuckold. Some fun and some not-so fun plot twists make this novel a treat.
Irvin Faust, The Republic of Suffering, 4 of 5 stars
If you’re going to read one book about the American Civil War, this should be it. Hell, if you’re going to read one book about ANY war, this should be it, for it reveals war’s true business: death and suffering. I picked this book up on my visit to Shiloh Park. Shiloh was the first battle in The American Civil War that hit both South and North with hard reality. The death toll for both sides was in the thousands, and it was clear the war wouldn’t be “over by Christmas” as both sides thought. Faust has neatly divided his chapters into topics that are at once isolated and connected: “Dying,” “Killing,” “Burying,” “Naming,” “Realizing,” “Believing and Doubting,” “Accounting,” and “Numbering.” The chapter on dying, for instance, discusses how the concept of a “good death,” became prominent during this war. A good death would be a brave one, of course. It would allow for closure in the sense of a last letter to kinfolk. It would allow for burial of the body in a marked grave. Good deaths were rare, unfortunately. This chapter impacts the later chapters of “Burying” and “Believing and Doubting.” Much as World War I impacted the continent’s attitude toward belief, the American Civil tried many believers in America. An interesting fact from the chapter “Accounting”—and this book holds many such interesting if sad facts—is that remains of unburied soldiers were being discovered as late as seventeen years ago, in 1996. So much for a good death. And so much, one might think, for a “good” war.
Joe Formichella, Murder Creek, 4 of 5 stars Murder Creek: The ‘Unfortunate’ Incident of Annie Jean Barnes, River City Publishing, 286 pages, 2008, $25.95
Joe Formichella (Twilight Unlimited; Here’s to You, Jackie Robinson) typically fills his non-fiction with the narrative pull of fiction, and his non-fiction investigation Murder Creek is no exception. From the opening two pages—an imaginary closing argument delivered by an imaginary prosecutor in the “unfortunate” murder of Annie Jean Barnes—to the book’s end, the reader is impelled with the tracking of this forty-year-old mystery. And track it the author does, interviewing witnesses willing and unwilling, relatives of the primary suspect (if such a word can even be used in a case that never made it past a grand jury inquiry), relatives of the victim (such a word can most certainly be used), lawyers and law enforcement officials at both local and state levels, and forensic specialists.
And what tribulations Formichella underwent to obtain public records! Herein lies the rub, the counterpoint that the author uses throughout the—I nearly wrote novel—throughout his investigation. For just as he did in his gathered recollections of the Prichard Mohawks, Formichella elevates a local issue into something much larger. In the case of the Mohawks, it was the ongoing battle of racism that infiltrated professional and semi-professional baseball. In the case of the “unfortunate” incident of Anne Barnes, it is the pervasive and evidently ongoing push against impoverished Alabamians as evinced by the gargantuan and tax-oppressive state constitution. Formichella, with help from generous quotes from Wayne Flynt’s Alabama in the Twentieth Century and the Official Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Alabama, uses the history of conglomerate and baron trader control of Alabama’s politics to mirror what went on locally in the Barnes’ case—a case that never became a case, because as her attending physician reportedly told her mourning family members, “you’ll never know how much money was spent” in making sure the case didn’t materialize.
Formichella’s writing is easeful and enjoyable. Here’s his opening look at Brewton from an approaching highway lined with pines: “An occasional trunk is snapped halfway up and folded over on itself, like a nearly closed switchblade, the tuft of needles at what was the crown gone brown.” As does any good mystery writer, Formichella knows how to create mood. And he also knows how to end chapters with an absolutely eye-opening hook to carry the reader on. One such chapter’s ending that sticks out for me comes halfway through the book when the author at last gets to interview the son of the doctor who was having an affair with Barnes and who would have surely served as the main murder suspect, had the case ever made it to court. “ ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute,’ he [the son] stopped me, leaning over the table. ‘You really think she was still alive when they found her at the cabin.’” Well, yes, up until now, all testimony has indicated such, has indicated that she died in the Brewton hospital (whose medical records were burned in a mysterious ‘fire’ that no one in Brewton can ever remember occurring).
And that revelation just skims the surface of contradicting testimony coming from everyone involved—and I’m sure author Joe Formichella must have been constantly shaking his head, because everyone means just that: from very close relatives to the victim to law enforcement officials at all levels.
If you want a mystery that twines and doubles back, if you want rich anecdotes about Alabama’s history from pre-constitution days onward (“Railroad Bill,” you may have heard the song, but did you know that he was a Robin Hood bandit killed and displayed on a flatcar all up and down a railroad line in Alabama?), if you want all this, Murder Creek is the book for you.
Neil Gaimon, The Ocean at the End of the World, 4 of 5 stars
This is a brief novel and it is very entertaining. The three main characters, Lettie Hempstock, Ursula Monkton (Skarthach), and the young unnamed male narrator, are engaging and the plot builds nicely in terror. At one point the boy’s father submerges him in a tub of icy water–to kill him? To teach him a lesson? There is not, however, the wealth of magic that was in The Graveyard Book, which was equally short. There are, however, some fine Gaimon lines: “but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative.” And there are some fine Gaimon touches of magic–“snip and cut,” being one wherein time can be altered. And the boy’s response to that alteration of time-cloth: “If I burn this . . . will it really have happened? . . . I want to remember . . . Because it happened to me. And I’m still me.” The “flea” from primal time, Ursula, aka Skarthach, is evil enough, though her ignorance might have been played up a bit more to make her more multi-sided.
SPOILER ALERT! READ ONWARD AT YOUR OWN RISK!
A problem I had with the novel–which is wonderful and entertaining, have no fear!–is the surrounding frame tale. It does not provide a happy conclusion, or even any conclusion. The frame asserts that Lettie wants to see the boy-now-man to check and find if her sacrifice and exile were really worth it. Well, she must have known that already for as a boy he had put his life on the line and braved the hunger birds to save his family and perhaps the world.
Final judgment: a fun, involving tale, though not so much as its counterpart The Graveyard Book.
Ernest Gaines, In My Father’s House. 5 of 5 stars This novel runs just like a strong locomotive, from the beginning until the devastating—but amazing and redemptive—end. Unlike A Gathering of Old Men, which lands plenty of humor amid the drama, this novel’s tone comes across more like a Greek tragedy’s. A plus is that the novel conveys the disarray Blacks nationwide were undergoing after Martin Luther King’s assassination. An amazing read.
Ernest Gaines, In My Father’s House. This novel runs just like a strong locomotive, from the beginning until the devastating—but amazing and redemptive—end. Unlike A Gathering of Old Men, which lands plenty of humor amid the drama, this novel’s tone comes across more like a Greek tragedy’s. A plus is that the novel conveys the disarray Blacks nationwide were undergoing after Martin Luther King’s assassination. An amazing read.
Joey Goebel, Torture the Artist and the Anomalies, 3.5 of 5 stars Bang-bang! Two novels by Joey Goebel Torture the Artist and The Anomalies, 2004 and 2003 respectively. MacAdam Cage
A young author who pops out two works in quick succession certainly assures the reader that he (in this particular case) has more than the one proverbial novel that every human carries. And two novels in succession afford an interesting opportunity to look for growth—or lack thereof. Joey Goebel certainly is deepening stylistically in his first and second novels, The Anomalies and Torture the Artist. And he certainly takes an angry stance at the vapidity of drive-thru American spelling, language, and culture. One hopes that his vehicle will deepen equally with time. But more of that later.
The Anomalies, ostensibly about a new-wave band of the same name, offers good, basic comedy through the voices of five main and various supporting characters. Even before they speak to us, the characters drip with comic Southern grotesque: Opal, an eighty-something sex-fiend on the lookout for any and all men; Aurora, Satanist daughter of a TV preacher who in her teenage idealism shuns sex and men; Raykeem, an Iraqi searching for forgiveness from the American soldier he wounded during the Gulf War; Ember, a feisty, knife-wielding eight year old; and Luster, the band’s leader, a lanky black genius who tosses out quotes from Dostoevsky and Camus while stocking beer at a local dog track. These five and an abundance of cameo narrators who pop up nearly to the novel’s end, give the novel a punch-punch, one-two, one-two. Therein lies the novel’s charm, though there are plots—of sorts—to be sure. Luster’s band gets itself together, has one firework-filled gig, and then . . . demises. Raykeem finds his wounded veteran . . . to his chagrin. Aurora forsakes Satanism . . . and plenty of other things. But the one-liners and the cameo voices are what really make the novel tick. Here, we have beauteous and busty Aurora the Satanist, who pretends to be wheelchair-bound to hinder male admirers, lifting her glass of puritan water: “I’ve recently become fond of toasting because it’s one of those things you can do to make yourself feel grown-up without spreading disease.” There we have Luster, the band’s lanky black leader and the youngest of 12 crack-dealing brothers, all named Jerome: “The only thing I have in common with my brothers is a hardcore Jedi hatred for cops. My brothers hate cops because they interfere with their drug dealing. I hate them because they interfere with my life progress since they are the muscles of The Thoughtless Confederacy.” And everywhere we have minor characters whom we are obliged to hate despite their amusing moments. Take the “Customer” who speaks to his friends when the five band members congregate at a restaurant: “‘Guys . . . we are no longer at the cool table.’ They laugh. I kick ass. So I’m thinking this must be like a field trip from wherever they keep crazy or retarded people or something. . . . Who’s going to show up next? A rabbi? A midget? A robot? . . . ‘I bet that group really knows how to party,’ I say to my boys. Not a huge laugh, but I’m still the man. I laugh really loud at myself to compensate.”
Torture the Artist also holds funny moments, though Goebel switches to a central first person narrator, a nefarious manager of a promising young—very young at the novel’s start—artist. Despite the single narrator, Goebel has inserted in his 265 pages a stunning 156 chapters (chapulets?), which provide a one-two feel of their own. And once more we have plenty of up-to-the-nano-instant lingo, and plenty of satiric barbs pricking contemporary America. But this second novel gives us a shift, for the narrator, Harlan Eiffler, who essentially buys 7 year-old Vincent, the potential artist, off his 22 year-old mother, undergoes both growth and regret by the novel’s end. And, too, the novel’s end shifts with a nasty seriousness as murders and scheming and missing characters increasingly inhabit the pages. Alas, we need to return to my opening because the vehicle of the carefully pruned artist, Vincent, whose puppy is killed by Harlan and whose successive girlfriends are bought off by that same Harlan to insure Vincent’s artistic sensitivity, fails. For after enduring all these silly machinations to insure productivity, what does the tortured artist Vincent write to raise America from its intellectual slumber? An epic? A razzle-dazzle cyber-world blending of music, film, plastic art, and text? No. He pens lyrics to pop songs and scripts to TV shows. (The text of which, by the way, we rarely see and then only in glimpses.) Likewise, the vehicles of artistic manager Harlan and his clandestine New Renaissance talent agency fare no better, for they reside too in-the-midst-of-the-vapidity to mock the vapidity. For example, Harlan’s favorite way of encapsulating someone’s personality is to assonate that person’s favorite pop tune and movie. Indeed, the entire ensemble of artist, manager, and agency comes across as too light not only to effect any biting satire, but also to uphold the twisting murders and intrigue. (Don’t forget that the first “murder” victim was a puppy.) All in all, though, Goebel remains an author worth reading. And he’s certainly a young author to keep an eye on. Be assured: when he grows the moustache similar to the one he penned on my cover, his subject matter, his vehicle, will be there.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, 5 of 5 stars
With this book, I finally learned why Plato was so obsessed with math, despite the fact that he included very little of it in his dialogues. He evidently saw the undeniable truth of math as being key to an assurance that there is a higher world of Truth, and also that math serves as a pathway to learning that Truth. Be the truth of that as it may, Goldstein’s work offers a wonderful mishmash of forms—no Platonic pun intended. She shifts from updated and often funny Platonic dialogues to straightforward, detailed, and insightful historical assessments of Plato and his time. If you’re a novice philosopher (though who isn’t both Plato and Goldstein would surely agree), you might care to approach this book in the following manner: Start with xxxPLATO, which is purportedly a love advice column by Margo Howard, who’s enlisted the help of none less than Plato himself. The approach is light, and this helps the subject matter, which is not light. And, of course, the individual queries (“Dear Margo, I’m a female graduate student, and though I’m sexually adventurous, I’m no slut”) are all about love problems, which will pique even the most philosophically reticent reader. This section is the shortest in the book, seventeen pages, and as I mentioned, it offers great fun. Next, read Plato at the Googleplex, one of the updated Platonic dialogues. If these two sections don’t grab you, head for a Harlequin or a cozy. But if they do grab you, you will be amply rewarded by starting with the Prologue and moving onward. Kudos to Goldstein.
Suzanne Hudson, In a Temple of Trees 5 of 5 stars.
Suzanne Hudson’s recent novel, In a Temple of Trees, is knockout. Just how good a writer is Hudson? She turns a sexual encounter between a white male abductor and his black female abductee into twenty-three of the funniest pages you’ll ever read. Brothers and sisters, if that doesn’t take writing skill, then my childhood cracker name wasn’t Billy Joe.
Those two themes, racism and sexism, predominate the remainder of the novel in a much more serious manner, however. When the Klan appears days after a young black boy named Cecil, witnesses a murder at a white hunting camp, the novel turns as haunted as it was comic. Cecil is sexually debased before the Klan, as is his adopted white Jewish mother. Her reaction? “It was then that she let the fire have her, curling into the bowels of it as if it were some glowing embryonic membrane silencing the world.”
Set on the Alabama-Mississippi border, the novel’s spine revolves around Cecil’s reaction, his enduring memory of the rape-murder at the camp. When he witnessed it, he was an apprentice cook for five white men. The men have brought a young woman from over the state line to “entertain” them for the night. When matters turn nasty, young Cecil, who’s been befriended by the woman earlier that day, is at a loss to help her. –Guilt over his lack of any helpful reaction haunts Cecil for thirty-two years. Here the plot thickens, for Cecil’s inherited a radio station from his adopted white parents (one a Jew, remember, so an outcast in her own manner). And—this should sound familiar to Alabamians—a statewide voter referendum on charging timber companies realistic taxes is forthcoming. Cecil’s radio station reaches several pivotal counties where the black vote could swing matters. So . . .
Hudson is a master of intertwining suspense, tone, and scenes into a plot that will keep you reading throughout the night. And her characters are so real that you might want to sit with a canister of mace to keep some of them at bay.
Elmore Leonard, Hombre, 184 pages
“At first I wasn’t sure at all where to begin,” to quote the narrator of this novel. I’m not sure because this novel is much more of a character study than a western. And I suppose that the genre “western” invokes cacti, gunfights, and general bravura clichés. There are cacti and gunfights, and there is also bravura. But you can forget about clichés in Hombre. First off, Leonard takes a risk by creating a narrator, Carl Everett Allen, who isn’t particularly likeable. He’s so because he’s too much of an Everyman—a bumbler, a romantic dreamer, and something of a coward to boot. But he does have a story to tell, and that is about John Russell, a part Mexican, part white man who was kidnapped and consequently lived with the Apaches for several years, then “rehabilitated” (in the white man’s eyes), and finally returned to live with them on his own. Conflict first arises in a bar, where two white men are giving two Apaches a racist hard time. Russell slams the barrel of his rifle into one man’s mouth, telling him to leave money for the mescal that the man knocked form the Apache’s hand. Then another conflict: Russell has inherited the boarding house that his adoptive father left him. Should he take it, as his Mexican friend Mendez suggests, or should he simply remain with the Apache? He sells it. And then comes the stagecoach ride with the infamous hold-up. There is this twist, however: the stage is being held up because a government reservation agent has bilked money from the nearby Apache reservation, shortchanging them on beef, leaving the Apaches half-starving. The agent is carrying this money, and the cowhand whose mouth Russell smashed knows it because he works for the cattle ranch supplying the beef.
Overall a very moody read because the narrator, Allen, continuously wonders about all the characters, especially John Russell. But everyone’s motives, including the narrator’s, come under inspection, and that makes this novel well worth the read, even if you’re not a fan of Westerns. Come on, be adventurous . . .
Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams, Panteon Books, 179 pages. 4 of 5 stars
Italo Calvino, my literary hero and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (not necessarily in that order), said of this book that he hadn’t “been so excited by a novel . . . for a very long time.” And Dreams hit the NYTimes bestseller list in fiction. But is it a novel? Let me back up a bit. Whatever Dreams is, it is wonderfully moving, thought-provoking, well-written, and emotive. To return: is it a novel? We normally think of novels as having a central character(s), plot(s), and theme(s). As far as character, the theory of relativity itself might fill that item. After all, this work purports to give us Einstein’s dreams in the months before he published his paper about relativity. But human characters? Here’s what we often read: “A man or woman suddenly thrust into this world would have to dodge houses or buildings. For all is in motion. Houses and apartments, mounted on wheels, go careening. . . .” And this chapter stands as typical for all the brief chapters. The preceding chapter to the one just given offers a different glance of another world: “This is a world of sudden opportunities, of unexpected visions, for in this world time flows not evenly but fitfully, and as a consequence people receive fitful glimpses of the future.” Oh, there is sparse (very sparse) dialogue from characters: “Stop eating so much . . . you’ll die before me and who will take care of my silver.” This is spoken in a world where time is trapped within a flock of nightingales. Naturally, everyone wants to capture a nightingale, but this rarely occurs, for children have no interest in stopping time and the elderly are too slow to catch it. Whenever someone does manage to capture a nightingale, they “savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness.” But guess what? The nightingale soon expires, “its clear, flutelike song diminished to silence.” You can see that there is a central theme building, the differing perceptions of time. And this, it strikes me, eventually reveals the work’s real central character, not time, but Everyman. For all of Lightman’s worlds affect the people within that specific world, and all of those specific people are then forced to make a life choice. In the second world I wrote of above the conclusion becomes, “Who would fare better in this fitful world of time? Those who have seen the future and live only one life? Or those who have not seen the future and wait to live life? Or those who deny the future and live two lives?” So while there is no central plot but a mishmash of tiny plots or situations, there certainly is a central theme—and I reluctantly suppose, a central character, the human comedy itself. Two out of three. So yes, Einstein’s Dreams is a novel, and it’s a novel well worth reading, maybe even twice, if your world of time allows that.
Tao Lin, Eeeee Eee Eeee, 4 of 5 stars
Though this is even less of a novel than the author’s Richard Yates, I like Eeeee better. It’s less of a novel because while both are basically plotless, the Yates novel does involve character change—though for the worse—by the novel’s end. Eeeee, on the other hand, is an extended yelp of anguish. Example: When confronted with his poetry’s meaning, Lin’s protagonist, Andrew, replies to his creative writing class, “It’s just how I feel.” Likewise, much of Eeeee conveys just how Andrew “feels.” And his feeling sways between boredom and the desire for a “killing rampage.” But swaying between those emotions are also a good deal of humor and insight. Late in the novel Andrew and friends decide to “network” with the President at a sushi bar. “Listen to me, since I’m the ruler. You chose me. People need to process what I say. I’m the—I’m the fucking president.” This bald, goofball statement is followed immediately by, “Patriotism is the belief that all human lives are not worth the same. . . . Patriotism and everything else like language denies the oneness. . . .” Eeeee is filled with such puthy obesrvations. And while the Yates novel used an insistent droning repetition to convey boredom, Eeeee spreads phrases and images over pages and chapters in a more effective (because more decaying) manner. For instance, a Stevie Smith poem, “Not Waving, [but drowning]” returns pages later as “drowning,” and a chapter afterward as “not waving.”
Though Tao Lin’s writing can still turn bothersome with its insistence on edgy, angular emotion, Eeeee is rewarding for its humor and its occasional pearls.
Tao Lin, Richard Yates, 3 of 5 stars
This novel by Tao Lin will challenge the reader’s concept of art in much the same way that Andy Warhol did with this Campbell’s Soup can and his eight-hour movie of a man sleeping. Lin’s novel has insistent deadpan dialogue and a slew of emails just as insistently deadpan. A random—I swear—choice: “What’s going to happen”” said Haley Joel Osment. / “I don’t know. I can’t leave here. She won’t let me leave.”/ “Is she calling the police?” said Haley Joel Osment. / “No, I don’t think she will. I have to go. She’s here.” / “ I don’t know what to say,” said Haley Joel Osment. . . . And that was one of the more exciting exchanges. Just as Warhol argued that the act of freezing something completely realistic into an artifact de facto turns it into art, Lin must believe that freezing banal conversations between a sixteen year old girl and a twenty-three year old young author too constitutes art. And I’m not arguing the fact.
Moreover, I believe his two—three if you count the mother—all change in this novel. For the worse, unfortunately for each. The two younger characters seem involved in a folie a deux much akin to the characters in Angela Carter’s lovely but depressing novel LOVE. I’m not a stickler who claims that there must be at least one likeable character in every novel. Nope. Not at all. My overall reaction to this short novel (206 pages) is that it was painful to read. Painful in a good way in that the wandering exchanges were so angst-filled and young; painful in a bad way in that there seemed to be little or no arc in the novel’s plot—which is nearly non-existent, other than the changes that the characters undergo ever so slowly.
One last criticism, and this isn’t of the novel, but of a review I read of it: I’m loathe to identify Haley Joel Osment with Tao Lin. I’m also loathe to believe that Osment is inspired by a Richard Yates novel to leave the 16, then 17 year old Dakota Fanning at novel’s end. Rather, I believe that this novel could have continued for a thousand or more pages of painful dialogue before Dakota Fanning’s suicidal urges came to fruition, from the imbedded urges of both her mother and her lover. The two characters are stuck and intend to stay stuck.
Roy Lisker, In Memoriam Einstein
My favorite quote from this book: “Providentially for some, cosmology is a subject in which almost all relevant information is either inaccessible or unknowable.” If you’re interested in amateur physics, this book, which follows a then-young math dropout turned reporter’s bluffed foray into a centennial celebration of Einstein’s birth, is right up your alley. Lots of tidbits about the bureaucracy of scientific academics. The saddest part of this book: a waitress whose niece suffers from a disease similar to Stephen Hawking’s has a chance to talk with the great man, who is in attendance at the conference, but cowers out after Lisker sets up a meeting. The caste system, Lisker notes, is overwhelming.
Yann Martel, Beatrice and Vergil, 3.5 of 5 stars
Four elements form this novel, listed in order of appearance: 1) A narrative following a thinly disguised Yann Martel; 2) fragments of a story entitled “St. Julian the Hospitaler” by Gustave Flaubert; 3) a play concerning a donkey and a monkey—Beatrice and Virgil ; 4)a set of “cards” describing Gustav’s Game(s). Don’t let the disguised narrative bog you down as it did me the first go around. It serves a purpose. The Flaubert story too, serves a purpose. The play—ah, the play has marvelous moments! And too, does Gustav’s Game. This is a novel that grows more intense with a slow build. While it is worth reading for that intensity, most readers will come away wishing that the build had developed in a more orderly, less biographical fashion and that the ending was not thrust on them in the last twenty or so pages.
After re-reading this novel, I can appreciate the structure a bit more, and even come away with some appreciation of the (auto)biographical wanderings in the first part. The narrator, I suspect, is meant to be an Everyman.
Yann Martel, Life of Pi, 4 of 5 stars
Early in this novel, an elderly man tells the supposed author, as they sit in a Bombay café, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And this story winds up being about a teenage boy who survives on a large lifeboat for (ahem) nine months, supposedly with a crippled zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a fully grown Bengal tiger who were part of the ship’s freight being shipped to various zoos. That’s a gulping lot of supposes. And when Pi and the lifeboat finally come ashore in Mexico, two hard-nosed Japanese insurance adjustors impatiently listen to Pi’s beautifully fantastic story of survival with these same animals, a story wherein all but Pi and the tiger are killed. (The tiger has supposedly escaped into Mexico’s dense forests—one more supposed.) Finally the insurance adjustors question the tale’s veracity, and Pi replies, “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. . . . You want dry, yeastless factuality. . . . You want a story without animals.” The two Japanese adjustors happily agree. So Pi asks for a moment to collect himself, and then he delivers a story just so. The problem is that the story he delivers is horrific—believable, but horrific. He finishes and asks the two Japanese men whether they didn’t prefer his first story about how he trained the tiger and fed it raw fish and in essence co-existed with it, much the same as Pi himself co-exists spiritually as a Moslem-Hindu-Christian. Yes, they admit, they did like the Bengal tiger story much better. “Thank you,” Pi answers. “And so it goes with God.” Now I must admit that Piscene Molitor Patel’s second and horrific story had just the opposite effect on me: it confirmed the impossibility of any God interested in compassion, justice, or mercy. You, along with the Japanese and Pi Patel, may conclude differently: for you the God plate might turn up half or even completely full. Regardless of your final spiritual stance, if you are drawn to stories about animal behavior (used in the loosest of terms) and zoos, and if you are curious about other religions, you will be enthralled with Martel’s novel about a zookeeper’s young son who survives on a lifeboat in the Pacific for nine months. The details surrounding Pi’s survival of the hyena’s wrath, the “murders” of the crippled zebra and orangutan, and the peace-making process with a Bengal Tiger are informative and mesmerizing. Indeed, that story, which claims nearly two-thirds of the book, is highly preferable to the grisly “true” account.
Charles McNair, Land O’ Goshen, 4 of 5 stars
Margaret Atwood taught a year at The University of Alabama and reportedly derived inspiration for her dystopic and completely dark religious novel The Handmaid’s Tale from that stint. Charles McNair was born and raised in Alabama, on the other hand. Perhaps this explains the addition of not only humor to his dystopic novel, but a visionary impulse as well.
McNair has a Southerner’s penchant for imbedded metaphor and colorful language. Of a barroom fight, he writes, “His hands gripped that pool cue so hard . . . I thought sawdust might come out between his fingers.” And he has a Southerner’s penchant for the grotesque since surely one main character in this wondrous novel is “The Wild Thang,” an outlandish, smelly full-body disguise that the young fourteen-year-old hero, Buddy, snitches from a circus. In the circus tent, the Wild Thang struck fear into the onlookers. With Buddy’s additional dead animal skins and feathers garnered from the wild woods, the disguise becomes nearly supernatural, instilling complete surrender and pandemonium. It’s Buddy’s plan to use the Wild Thang, aka “Sack,” to correct the hatred that has been fomented by “The New Times,” a religious right movement separating people into Christian Soldiers (literally) and Devils (figuratively) and bringing on a second bloody Civil War.
Early on, Buddy’s plans encounter a snafu when during one full moon rampage, a young girl spies Buddy lifting off Sack’s headpiece. Ah, but romance sets in. This positive impulse is certainly something else that separates McNair’s novel from Atwood’s. Read them both, for they serve as an artistic warning to theocracy.
Christopher Moore, The Lust lizard of Melancholy Cove. 4 of 5 stars. This is a fun, quick read that blends fantasy with some satire. Things happen pretty much the way the reader wants them to happen when a prehistoric monster–named Steve by a retired porno action star–starts emitting pheromones to turn a quiet tourist town into a hotbed of lust. A goofball town sheriff appointed by the county sheriff for nefarious reasons we learn, a blues singer who once tried–too successfully–to give his best friend the blues so they could sing together, a psychiatrist who decides to put all her clients on a placebo rather than real antidepressants–lots of fun characters. And of course, both love and lust interests as the title indicates. Now, the cover compares Moore to Vonnegut. Well . . . partly so. But you won’t find Vonnegut’s existential sadness floating through this novel. Which may be good or bad, depending on your taste.
James Morrow, Towing Jehovah , 4 of 5 stars
Through no fault of Nietzsche’s, God is dead—at least that’s the case in James Morrow’s comic fantasy Towing Jehovah. In his novel a sea-captain suffering immense guilt after causing a devastating oil spill has been appointed by the angel Raphael to tow and bury God’s corpse in the Arctic. Wait, God has a body? Captain Anthony Van Horne asks. Raphael answers: “Bodies are immaterial essentially. Any physicist will tell you as much.” While Raphael convinces Captain Anthony, Gabriel convinces the Vatican, “Let me be explicit: we want an honorable internment. . . . No stunts. . . . no carving him up for relics. . . . You run a tenacious organization, gentleman. We’re afraid you don’t know when to quit.” Gabriel’s right: the Vatican doesn’t know when to quit, for they mandate a deadline for Captain Anthony to tow the two-mile long corpse into Arctic waters in case God’s brain cells are still capable of being resuscitated. When responding to an SOS will put them behind schedule for reaching the frigid, brain-cell preserving waters, the Captain faces a dilemma. Steps in Thomas Wickliff Ockham, a Jesuit priest and physicist. Ockham convinces Captain Anthony to respond: “Believe me, Anthony, acts of compassion are the only epitaph He wants.” The shipwrecked woman they rescue brings further complication, for she’s a feminist, and the corpse of God represents what she’s fought all her life: a white, bearded male. Sink Him, cremate Him, lose Him, she insists, hiring a band of World War II recreators to do just that. And here comes the grandest plot complication, for if God is dead, then all is permitted. Indeed, an island replete with pagan idols pops up—attracted by God’s corpse, a “strange attractor” if ever was one—and Captain Anthony’s supertanker once more flounders. On the island, the crew go berserk. Death, famine, sickness, and war reign.
The Denver Post compared this novel’s author to Salman Rushdie, “only funnier and more sacrilegious.” Funny yes, and at times sacreligeous. But the brunt of Morrow’s novel covers theological and moral implications with anything but disrespect. First, let it be noted that God once more (Jesus and the crucifixion) dies of empathy for humanity. And, as noted, the absence of God causes unwanted moral results. While the Jesuit Ockham invokes Immanuel Kant (a philosopher) and his rational moral law within, we’re never certain that it isn’t a bizarre act of communion that really saves the crew from its chaotic amoral behavior.
The novel is fast-moving, it’s funny, it’s provoking. You may not catch all the intellectual jokes (Thomas Wickliff Ockham’s name being a prime example as it’s composed of a church apologist for Aristotle, Thomas; a reformer who wanted to translate the Bible into English, Wickliff; and another church father whose infamous “razor” was to dissolve the “how many angels fit on a needle” debate, Ockham) but there are plenty of other jokes and situations to laugh at and ponder. Highly recommended.
Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, 4 of 5 stars
Nagel has received a good deal of criticism over this book, whose point is that consciousness is so very qualitatively different that it cannot be explained by natural means of Darwin’s evolution. The sliding scale doesn’t work, according to the book’s argument. If I were going to argue for an intervention on some exra-natural scale, I would push this argument back to either the appearance of life, or to the creation of matter in general. I am not, however, and would not argue either. Nor do I agree with Nagel that the concept of consciousness is so vastly different: I think we can see that is indeed on a scale, running from viruses to porpoises, to take this planet’s highest life form (chortle, chortle). Nonetheless, this is an engaging book and certainly worth the read for anyone interested in this controversy from a non-Bible thumping perspective. The book requires some concentration, so take your ginkgo and don’t sip whiskey.
John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War
Okay, so this is a sprawling novel with lots of characters and by-ways. But, guys and gals, the read is certainly worth it. If I might pry into Nichols’ mind, I think that he’s concerned with giving a feel for two cultures clashing—with perhaps Horsethief Shorty and Lawyer Bloom in the middle—and thus his Russian novel approach. The sense of build works well, moving from a small beanfield planted by a “half-pint sonofabitch” to armed standoffs and sheriff’s posses and near riots.
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife, 4 of 5 stars
Not to fear: The Time Traveler’s Wife is to science fiction as Wuthering Heights is to a ghost story. While both novels employ these respective modes, both also rise above mere genre to deal elaborately with human passions. And Niffenegger’s novel presents passions—most especially love—in compact scenes with such clarity of place and action that there’s no wonder why Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston opted Time Traveler’s Wife for film rights. Nor is there any wonder why United Kingdom’s Random House will bring the book out this January. To the novel: Henry DeTamble suffers from a genetic disease called chrono-displacement. His consequent time-traveling trips are brought on by stress; indeed his brainscan resembles that of a schizophrenic. Nonetheless, Henry’s doctor, who believes Henry only after being convinced in a most jarring manner, thinks Henry the forerunner of a new breed. Henry himself remains unconvinced, for other than the soothing trips back to a younger Clare, whom he eventually marries, his time travels are mostly dangerous as they land him unexpectedly nude in places and weather unknown. The novel moves narrations between time-traveling Henry and his wife Clare. Multiple narration can be a reader’s nightmare, but Niffenegger deftly places the narrations in bundles concerned with either a specific scene or emotion, where each subsequent narration illumines the previous. In a grouping entitled “Secret,” for instance, we learn that Clare has “cheated” on Henry with their best friend Gomez, a lawyer representing abused children. Since she did this before Henry met her in real, sequential time, does it count, she wonders as she stares at him lying next to her. Henry himself has just returned from a time-trip where he made love to a virginal Clare on her eighteenth birthday, the age they’d agreed upon throughout his multiple time visits to her younger self. Now, a married thirty-three year old Clare watches him lying next to her “happily postprandial, sated with the charms of my younger self, and the image of . . . Gomez’s bedroom in morning light flashes across my mental theater.” The real-time Clare soon confesses her indiscretion. Henry’s reply? “Since I just got through telling you to go out and experiment I can’t really . . . I dunno.” He means that his time-traveling self just finished advising the eighteen-year-old Clare she should experiment during the two-year separation when they would not see one another. Subsequent vignettes in “Secret” have 1) Gomez’s wife admitting to Henry that Gomez is still obsessed with Clare and is “just waiting” for something to happen to Henry in his time travels; 2) a younger Gomez agressively approaching an unsuspecting younger Henry who has yet to meet Clare in sequential time.
To aid in tracking such time jumps, Niffenegger prefaces narrations with the narrator’s name; she also places headings above each narration, noting Clare’s and Henry’s respective ages. Sometimes Henry has two ages listed, for his time travels allow him to visit himself. This duplication highlights another aspect that raises the novel above genre: a fine, understated humor threads throughout. At their wedding, a future Henry steps in for the real-time chrono-stressed Henry at the altar, while the real-time Henry time-travels to his apartment, only to land indecorously naked, after the ceremony, in the church’s men’s room. Henry’s lifelong friend Kim notices the switching duplicate Henrys and asks Clare if they’re planning a menage a trois for their wedding night.
Humor aside, this novel threads a completely serious theme throughout. Henry’s father is a former concert violinist unable to work because of growing alcoholism after his young wife’s death in a car wreck five-year old Henry survived because he time-traveled at impact. When Clare meets the long-grieving father, she says, “But don’t you think . . . that it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?” This serves as the novel’s theme, since Henry and Clare have been allowed what many lovers wish for. Who hasn’t said, “I’d give anything to have known you as a kid.” Henry and Clare live that fairy tale, though as Niffenegger clearly knows, fairy tales are just that. But the tragic thread’s inexorable movement does shift bittersweet by the end. “Do you really believe that?” Henry’s father asks Clare. She pauses and thinks over the many times that Henry time-traveled to her for comfort during her youth, from six years onward. “I do,” she replies. Just so, Niffenegger’s novel provides its final summation.
The Dalkey Archive, Flann O’Brien, 202 pages
As far as comic writing and style go, this novel pushes a five; as far as plot integrity goes, however, it skids a good deal, especially with the introduction of a posthumous James Joyce as a character just over halfway into the text. Mick, the protagonist, does offer a solidly entertaining trip as he moves from amazement with the occurrences and theories being proffered—time being halted, the end of the world, and the “mollyculer theorem” proving that men are transforming into bicycles through too much contact—into haughty consideration of becoming the next pope or at least a Jesuit. I’m hoping O’Brien’s other novels offer more, so at least this one got my curiosity up, and it is riotously funny for the first half.
Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones, 4 of 5 stars
On the cover of this novel, Jonathon Franzen—he who so angered Oprah—refers to The Lovely Bones as 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. The Pi(e) Plate: Half full, half empty?
Darcey Steinke, Milk, 5 of 5 stars
“Milk, Clabbered and Sweet”
Milk, by Darcey Steinke of Suicide Blonde, is a strangely sexy novel. It is also a strangely spiritual novel. But—strangely—it is not a 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 a 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 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.
Colm Toibin, 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.”
Daniel Wallace, Big Fish 4 of 5 stars
Trout Almondine or Blackened Grouper: Book and Movie
Big Fish, Daniel Wallace, Penguin, $12.00
Tim Burton’s Big Fish versus Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish—they don’t really pose a conflict, rather a choice of fruits, say apples or pears, or to keep with the original artistic metaphor, Will you be having the trout almondine or the blackened grouper tonight, ma’m? In order to get a grip on Wallace’s tight, brief novel, it’s interesting to look at what the movie inserts and extracts. First, the movie has a narrative voiceover which only includes the son briefly at the beginning and then for a minute or so at the end. The rest of the narration comes from the father. Wallace’s novel, however, is told completely by the son, as he tries to come to grips not only with his father’s impending death, but with his father himself: “My father’s youthful exploits were many. . . . But perhaps his most formidable task was facing Karl, the Giant.” In facing Karl, Edward Bloom offers himself as a human sacrifice for the giant. The giant balks, as he does in the movie. The chapter ends with, “Karl became the biggest farmer in Ashland, but my father’s legend became even bigger. It was said he could charm anyone, that he had a special power. But my father was humble. . . . He just liked people and people liked him. It was that simple, he said.” But it’s not that simple for the son, who doesn’t want to hear about the giant or the two-headed lady, but just talk with the real Edward Bloom about real things.
With Karl the Giant comes another difference: the movie emphasizes the exploits and the outlandish characters even to the point of adding a circus impresario, a pregnant wife for the son, and for all practical purposes, a mother and wife for the father Edward Bloom, for Mom is rarely more than a footnote in the novel. Now, no one would want to miss Danny DeVito’s interpretation of the impresario who takes in Karl the Giant. But no impresario appears in the novel. Instead, the novel’s exploits are much less sustained and more episodic—Karl is mentioned in one chapter and then is left. And double instead, the father incessantly jokes with the son. Just as no one should miss DeVito’s performance, no one should miss the wonderfully extended joke about Pinnochio in the chapter entitled “My Father’s Death: Take 2.” It’s not only groaningly funny; it’s also groaningly painful, for even on his deathbed, Dad is using Son as an audience, even as a prop for his jokes. This is where the movie and the novel definitely swap intent: the movie focuses on the dad and his exploits, threading them together; the novel focuses on the son’s slow realization that his father—if not a myth—lived at least as a very big fish. The thread running through the novel comes with the different takes on Dad’s death. With the chapter “My Father’s Death: Take 4,” the son’s transformation begins. The father, in a seeming moment of breaking through the constant stream of jokes and stories, asks his son Will, “A father worries. . . . So what I want to know is—you think I did a good job?” But before Will can answer, his father tells him not to. Will does anyway, and imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, he answers not directly but with a story: “There’s this man, and he’s a poor man, but he needs a suit, and—”
Now, not to give the ending away, but it’s in the ending when movie and novel almost come together. Almost. Oddly enough, in the movie it’s clear that son Will is fantasizing and embellishing Dad’s death for the enjoyment of story-teller Dad as he lies on his deathbed . In the novel, there’s a strong hint that the fantastical ending actually takes place. Or does it? Again, both film and novel manage to work toward the same theme of a son becoming like his father and thus understanding and appreciating him. See the movie and read the book both. You’ll be uplifted.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five amazes me each time I read it. In the novel’s opening, Vonnegut quotes a friend who’s just heard that Vonnegut is writing an anti-war novel: “‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book 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’s description of 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 a higher being in the shape of an angel 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. There, the Tralfamadorians inform Billy that war is inevitable; they also tell him that free will is dubious at best. How dubious? The Tralfamadorians know that the end of the universe will come about when one of them experiments with a new rocket propulsion system. Well gee, why don’t you stop experimenting, Billy logically asks, wide-eyed. Because the scientist has always ended the universe and he always will, the Tralfamadorians reply. Don’t bother with an anti-glacier book, in other words.
But do bother reading Slaughterhouse Five. It’s at once riotously funny and achingly sad.
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, Timequake, 3 of 5 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, Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a novel about a purportedly undiscovered Vermeer painting. Susan Vreeland’s plot follows this painting—in a backward time sequence—from its destruction by intentional 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 storynovel, 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 after she sells their seed potatoes rather than 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.” This storynovel 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.