Sunday, August 29, 2010

London Fields by Martin Amis (1989)

The black cab will move away, unrecallably and for ever, its driver paid, and handsomely tipped, by the murderee. She will walk down the dead-end street. The heavy car will be waiting; its lights will come on as it lumbers towards her. It will stop, and idle, as the passenger door swings open.

His face will be barred in darkness, but she will see shattered glass on the passenger seat and the car-tool ready on his lap.

'Get in.'

She will lean forward, '
You,' she will say, in intense recognition: 'Always you.'


And in she'll climb...

The novel London Fields by Martin Amis (1989) takes place in a crowded and distracted London in 1999. And as the world hurls towards the uncertainty and potential Crisis of the Millennium, our four characters hurl toward their inevitable conclusion. We have Nicola Six, the sexually controlling femme fatale and murderee who has foretold her own death; Keith Talent, the professional cheat, verile womanizer, olympic drinker, and aspiring darts champion; Guy Clinch, the wealthy but personally and sexually dissatisfied new father whose son, Marmaduke, is a truly amazing physical terror; and our narrator, Samson Young, a failed non-fiction writer, dying of a terminal disease, who comes across the triangle of Nicola, Keith and Guy and decides to document their drama and turn it into a best-selling novel.

The book abounds with black humor (the attacks of Marmaduke, the epic and excruciating hard-on of Guy, the charmed squalor of Keith) and post-modern meta-narratives on the act of writing (every chapter "written" by Samson is followed by a short section in Samson's voice commenting on his process of gathering information and putting it into his novel). Dark comedy and post-modernism can so easily fall into the trap of a winky and substanceless exchange between the reader and writer, but Amis counters that with his enticingly rich descriptions and gradual escalation of the panic and loss of control of his narrator and cast of characters.

This is a wonderfully strong and engrossing novel that is both fun to read, literary, and impossible to stop thinking about when you are done.

Speaking of enticingly rich descriptions, here are a couple of my favorites:

Keith's crowning glory, his hair, was thick and full-bodied; but it always had the look of being recently washed, imperfectly rinsed, and then, still slick with cheap shampoo, slow-dried in a huddled pub -- the thermals of the booze, the sallowing fagsmoke.

Here was a blonde to whom everything that could happen to a blonde had gone ahead and happened.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Company of Heaven: Stories from haiti by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (2010)

The always intriguing LibraryThing Early Reviewers program recently sent me a copy of Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell's short story collection The Company of Heaven: Stories from Haiti (October 2010).

Besides writing short stories, Phipps-Kettlewell is a visual artist and poet (you can see some examples of her work on her web site), and her work in these other artistic mediums is reflected in her often lyrical storytelling and economical description. While most of the stories stand alone, there is a subtle interlocking of characters and events that strings through the collection. Her narrative criss-crosses her native country of Haiti, touching on the black and the white, the rich and the poor, the old and the young. All the stories were interesting and readable, and some (like "Dogs," "River Valley Rooms," and "At the Gate") were just about perfect. Definitely worth a look.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Would-Be Gentleman by Molière (1670)

My next stop on the non-stop literature train that is Harold Bloom's Western Canon list is the French play "The Would-Be Gentleman" by Molière (1670).

Molière is known as one of the great masters of comedy and "The Would-Be Gentleman" is no exception. Here Molière pokes fun at the greatly expanding French middle-class, typified by Monsieur Jourdain, a nouveau riche merchant who has plenty of money to spend on learning how to be a "person of quality." To this end he hires music instructors, dancing instructors, and fencing instructors who all gladly take his money and put up with his gauche opinions while waiting for a commission from a real noble.

Jourdain has a very practical and witty wife, and a lovely daughter, Lucile, who is in love with Cléonte. Madame Jourdain would be very happy for her daughter to marry Cléonte, but her husband is bound and determined for his daughter to marry a nobleman. Through a series of disguises, and leaning heavily on the suggestibility of Monsieur Jourdain, the romance is brought to a suitable ending for a comedy.

I really enjoyed this play -- it is predictable, but in just the way you want a good comedy to be, and many of the jokes and gags are just as funny now as they were over 300 years ago. All plays are meant to be performed, of course, and not just read, and since this play also includes several music/dance numbers, it perhaps loses even more than most by being read on the page instead of watched on the screen. Still, Molière's sense of fun and the comedy of his characters comes through in this archetypal French comedy.

Luckily for me, I got my copy of "The Would-Be Gentleman" in a collection of Molière's plays that includes four other plays from Bloom's canon list, and which I have bookmarked to read later. Since there were just two plays in this collection that Bloom overlooked, I read them this time around.

The first: "The Doctor In Spite of Himself" (1666) is a very funny story of a poor man who gets mad at his wife and hits her (that's not the funny part) -- she gets her revenge by telling two men who are in search of a doctor to cure their rich master's daughter that her husband is the greatest doctor of all time, but he has the eccentricity of denying that he is a doctor unless you beat him senseless. After you do that, he will agree he is a doctor and cure your patient. As you might imagine, everything eventually works out, and along the way is a play that is so funny I can't figure out why it didn't make the big W.C. list.

The second is "The Mischievous Machinations of Scapin" (1671) which focuses on the entertainingly conniving valet Scapin who gets himself and his masters into plenty of trouble, but always manages to get them back out again. Some really nice gags in this one, which also features the familiar doomed love affairs that end up working out just perfectly.

Friday, August 06, 2010


Hey jerks, this is my 1000th post! What have I been doing for the past five and a half years (since February 16, 2005), you might ask? Well, lately I've been writing a lot about books, of course. I've also explored the intimate world of my secret boyfriends. And there was that wonderful spring that was dominated by The Serious Debate (which is by far the most popular post on this blog).

Thanks for stopping by for the first 1000 posts, and maybe over the next five years or so I will grace you with 1000 more.


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (2010)

The always lovely choo thrust this book upon me a few months ago, and it took quite some time to work its way up to the top of my ever-expanding pile. Once it did, though, I zoomed through it in a day and a half and enjoyed every second of it.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2010) by Heidi W. Durrow is a coming-of-age story, a novel about race, a psychological study, and an engaging read. The book tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish woman and an African-American military man who has mostly grown up overseas on military bases. When she alone survives a family tragedy, she is sent off to live with her father's mother and sister in Portland. Rachel tries to put on a happy face while inside she struggles with her racial identity and her lost family.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Rachel, the diaries of her late mother, her mom's boss and friend, her father, and a boy from Chicago who witnessed her family's last moments. While the story seems like it could be a heavy-handed or simplistic look at race and growing up, Durrow's straightforward (and yet sometimes poetic) prose, gradual revelations about the family secrets, and her perfect control of the plot keep things from getting too easy or clichéd. A great book for anyone, and one that I think would particularly resonate with teenagers.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Banana + Lime = Jam??

Do you like bananas? Do you like limes? Do you think you could even figure out what Banana-Lime Jam would taste like?

Lucky for you I took the plunge and made this recipe from Cooking Light (very nicely described and photographed on the Noble Pig blog). It was weird. But good! But also weird. I honestly can't describe it entirely, although it is more tart than I thought it would be, and the consistency is extremely satisfying.

To make myself seem even more awesome, I made buttermilk biscuits for the first time in my life as a vehicle for some of the jam. Both making biscuits and making jam were way easier than I thought they would be. Is there a life lesson in there somewhere?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Happy Endings edited by Diana Schutz (2002)

Dr. M bought this Dark Horse comics anthology [Happy Endings edited by Diana Schutz (2002)] when we were on vacation in Fort Collins, at the same comics shop he would sometimes get to go to as a kid. From the same grumpy comic book guy. With the same awesome grumpy cat.

The anthology, like most anthologies, is pleasant enough, although not particularly mind-blowing. Schutz brought together sixteen established comic artists and had them each produce a short piece on the theme "Happy Endings." Some interpreted that quite literally, some poked fun at the idea, but they all tackled it creatively and true to their own style. I liked the entries by Bernie Mireault, Craig Thompson, Farel Dalrymple and Harvey Pekar the best -- especially the Craig Thompson piece, which was by far the strongest in the book.

Which reminds me, does anyone have a copy of Blankets I could borrow? I'd really like to get more Craig Thompson into my life...