Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow (1987)

I'd been meaning to read some Saul Bellow for quite some time, and picked this one up on the dollar shelf at a now-defunct used bookstore. This is later-period Bellow (his tenth novel) and not one of the ones he is famous for, so I probably could have picked a better one to start with. Still, even though it had a rough start, I really grew to enjoy this psychological bit of fiction.

Our rather neurotic narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg, grew up in Paris, the product of two Midwestern expatriates. His father is widely known for being irresistible to the ladies and quite a womanizer, while Kenneth is a relative dud in that department. In order to both flee from his father's reputation and to be closer to his beloved uncle, Kenneth takes a job as a Russian Literature professor in the Midwestern town where his mother's family is from (unnamed in the book, but I'm guessing Detroit). His uncle, Benn Crader, is a distinguished botanist who has an uncanny, almost psychic relationship with plants. Kenneth's aims are a little obscure (although he spends a claustrophobic hundred pages or so explaining them), but have something to do with making his life a turning point and translating Benn's understanding of plants into an understanding of humans: "As earlier stated, unless you made your life a turning point, there was no reason for existing. Only you didn't make, you found the turning point that was the crying need (unconscious, of course, as the most crying needs are) of humankind."

Once you get a little further into the book, the story expands into Benn's sudden marriage to Matilda, a beautiful woman with very wealthy parents who have manipulative plans for Benn that involve his estranged and very rich (and very corrupt and very old) uncle. Kenneth puts himself in the role of Benn's protector while simultaneously pining over the mother of his child (who left him for a snowmobile salesman in Seattle) and starting a relationship with a doting former student.

This book definitely has the same kind of east-coast, masculine, sex-obsessed vibe as Philip Roth, but while that can sometimes be a little trying, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Bellow is often very funny, and the pay off in the narrative for his characters' obsessive traits makes it all worthwhile.

A few more quotes that I couldn't resist:

"Also, it would be against my rule of truthfulness to conceal the fact that I am fond of preposterous people. And what stunning offers you get from the insane!"

"I kept seeing Bethe's mask face, like human features painted on the sole of somebody's foot, and Teller like the atomic Moses coming down from Sinai with the Commandments on hydrogen tablets."

"Once you get into the erotic life, modern style, you are accelerated till your minutest particles fly apart."

[Also, I couldn't find a big enough version of the cover of this book that I own (and I was too lazy to scan it), but it really couldn't look more like a Danielle Steele cover and was apparently published in a series of bright romantic colors -- mine is a lovely turquoise.]

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Singing Detective

Although I consider myself more of a movie person, there are a lot of nice things out there in TV Land. We just finished watching The Wire, recently started The Sopranos, and have found ourselves deep in lots of other series and miniseries. Rarely, however, does a TV show really eat at me the way a movie or a book, can. I found a big exception to that rule in the 1986 British mini-series The Singing Detective, which is one of the best things ever created for TV ever.

In just six episodes, Dennis Potter (the writer), Jon Amiel (the director), and Michael Gambon (the star) weave together an amazingly complicated and moving story. Philip Marlowe, a writer, is hospitalized with a debilitating skin condition. From his bed he brings together memories of his boyhood, the plot of his detective novel, the perceived machinations of his ex-wife, and some truly wonderful musical numbers. You really must watch it.

This is definitely in my top three favorite television productions (right up there with Twin Peaks and Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz). If you have NetFlix, I suggest you order it right now. Or if you see me, let me know if you want to borrow it. We watched this months ago, and I still think of it all the time.

There are lots of clips from The Singing Detective on YouTube, but it is hard to find one that makes sense on its own or that doesn't give too much away out of context. But, for a taste of what I'm talking about, try this out:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892 by Rick Geary (1997)

Oh hey, look! Another graphic novel! That a friend lent to me (thanks, Joolie)! This one, however, is not a melancholy coming of age memoir. Instead, it is The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary (1997), part of Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder that I would truly like to explore further.

Although the well-known story of Lizzie Borden and the murders by axe of her father and step-mother in their home in 1892 are also rather disturbing, I found this book to be an uplifting change after reading Stitches. The bold drawings, the straightforward, procedural text, and the direct physical tragedy were a nice escape from the beautiful but sad look at human nature in Small's story.

I particularly enjoyed the (somewhat dated but still valid) comparison between Lizzie Borden and OJ Simpson on the back of this book: both were wealthy defendants, accused of killing a man and woman, with no motive and no other likely killer. And yet, both of them were acquitted, the murders never solved, and they were generally assumed to have gotten away with it.

Of particular note are Geary's attention to the homes, rooms, and furniture in his story. All the backgrounds are detailed without being overdone and add just the right amount of realism to the sordid tale.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (2009)

Continuing my trend of reading graphic memoirs that have been loaned to me by friends, I just finished David Small's Stitches: A Memoir (2009), which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

This book is heartbreaking, but the whole time I was reading it I kept looking back at the author's picture, showing a happy looking man in his mid-sixties, and reminding myself that he was nominated for a National Book Award, so obviously things turned out relatively okay.

Small was sickly as a child, and had lots of problems with his sinuses. His dad, a radiologist, gave him radiation treatments, which were thought to be helpful at the time. Several years later, the family noticed a growth on the side of Small's neck. They thought it was just a cyst and waited a few more years, when he was fourteen, to have it removed. During that surgery, the doctors realized that the growth was cancerous and ended up removing one of Small's vocal chords, leaving him voiceless and scarred when he woke up. Small's family was a family of silences, outbursts, and grudges and no one told him that he had had cancer. And the more you learn about the family, Small's cancer is just a small piece in the larger scheme of illness, betrayal, and cruelty.

The drawings are amazing -- especially the postures, the faces, and the washed out backgrounds. The perfect illustration for this book of memories, pain, and ultimately, escape.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

World's Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1985)

My next dip into Harold Bloom's western canon list is World's Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1985). This is the first Doctorow I've read (although I hear that Ragtime and Billy Bathgate are very good), and I'd love to read more.

World's Fair is a story of Edgar, a nine-year old boy growing up in the Bronx in the late 1930s with his music-salesman father, his often-frustrated mother, and his much older brother. The strengths of World's Fair aren't in breathtaking action sequences or tightly structured plot twists -- instead, the book slowly creates a fully experienced time and place for the reader in a way that few historically-set books can do. Doctorow's own life closely mirrors that of Edgar, including a coveted trip to the World's Fair, so it is understandable that the details of the neighborhood, family, and house are so vivid and moving.

The book is written in first person, from Edgar's perspective (with occasional brief chapters from other relatives), but the voice of the narrator masterfully moves between the emotions and naivety of a young boy and the poetry and philosophy of a grown man remembering his past. Even more than the detailed descriptions, this narrative voice is the heart of the book.

[also, I haven't watched the whole thing, but if you are interested in the 1939 World's Fair (or Westinghouse, or little boys wearing ties, or parental guilt trips -- skip to about 8:30 for the fair), this is probably worth a look.]


Just remembered that I had marked a particularly nice passage to quote:

Death was on my mind, I thought about it, brooded about it, and studied its representations. I had an old book of nursery rhymes that I hadn't looked at in a while. The letters were large, the drawings tinted in pale orange and pale green. The children and other beings in nursery rhymes were peculiar, ethereal, they inhabited nations, worlds, with which I was not familiar. Their characters were a source of uneasy imaginings. Little Miss Muffet: I would not call any girl of my acquaintance Miss anything; this one was so prissy and girlgood as to be insufferable, fully deserving her fate. I did not like Humpty Dumpty, who lacked all manly definition and was so irrevocably fragile. Georgie Porgie, Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, all seemed to me unnatural abstractions of child existence; there was some menacing propaganda latent in their circumstances but I couldn't quite work out what it was. It was a strange planet they lived on, some place of enormous fearful loneliness and punishment. Or it was as if they were dead but continued to be alive. Whatever happened to them kept happening over and over, good or bad, and I perceived a true moral in this repetition of fate, this recurring inevitable conclusion to the flaws in their beings. They suffered humiliation, damage, and shame, all forms of death or the feeling of death. They were like my dreams -- birds flew out of pies, children ran with kings and queens, sheep, those most docile and slow-moving of animals, ran away, whereas the sheep in the Farm exhibit in Claremont Park in the spring didn't even move when you touched them. No human, animal or egg acted quite right in these stories. My final unalterable judgment was that nursery rhymes were for babies and I would not suffer hearing them again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003)

I had planned to put it a bit further down in my pile, but the copy of Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003) that the always-amazing St. Murse lent me was calling my name, and I couldn't resist. To be honest, I was also influenced by the fact that this book is as giant as Good-bye, Chunky Rice is slender, and it was about to topple over my very precarious "to-read" pile.

Blankets is a coming-of-age memoir about Thompson growing up in rural Wisconsin with his brother and parents, being teased at school for being skinny and poor, navigating the Evangelical Christianity of his family, and falling in love for the first time at a winter bible camp. The story moves back and forth between childhood and adolescence, focusing much of its time on a pivotal two-week visit to Michigan to stay with the family of Raina, the girl he met in bible camp.

The narrative in Blankets is much more concrete than Good-bye, Chunky Rice, but the feelings of necessary separation, of growth, and of fond sadness are the same. So are Thompson's knack for humorous details, vulnerable revelations, and an emotional (but not manipulative) connection with his readers.

Thompson also draws a Midwestern meathead bully better than anyone else on earth.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor (2002)

The always-amazing Choo recently lent me a copy of William Trevor's tragic novel The Story of Lucy Gault (2002). I've never read anything by Trevor before this, but he is a well-respected and prolific Irish author and playwright, and I would imagine that his age and experiences make him well qualified to pen such a classically told exploration of morality.

The Story of Lucy Gault begins in Ireland in 1921. Captain Gault comes from a prominent Protestant Irish family, and he and his English wife have a young daughter named Lucy. Being Protestant, married to an Englishwoman, and a former member of the British army puts Gault on the wrong side of the Irish War of Independence, and when three young men from a nearby village poison his dogs and attempt to burn down his house, Captain Gault accidentally shoots one of them in the shoulder as he tries to scare them away. A fear of vengeance leads the Gault's to plan a move to England, and while the household prepares for retreat, little Lucy gets more and more frustrated and angry at the idea of having to leave the beautiful country home that she loves.

Shortly before they are to depart for England, Lucy makes a last bid to stay in Ireland by packing up some food and clothes and running away through the forest to the home of a recently-let-go chamber maid. She figures that her parents will take her seriously and change their minds about moving if she does something drastic. Lucy trips and hurts her ankle in the woods and can't make it to town or back to her house. Her dad then finds some of her clothes washed up on the shore (she left them there after swimming by herself -- something she wasn't supposed to do), and when she doesn't return for days, her parents, the servants, and the townspeople all believe she drowned in the ocean. Her parents, distraught with grief, leave as planned -- but instead of going to England, they travel blindly around the continent and cut off all contact with Ireland. When Lucy is found by Henry, the groundskeeper, a few days after their departure, there is no way to contact her parents to let them know she is okay.

From this one action, a young child playing at running away, the lives of all our characters are completely broken, and the hurt keeps on coming. And just when you think you can't take any more of it, life goes on. Characters age, find routines, avoid their pain, and keep their vigils for past mistakes. While there are some reunions, there are still more heartbreaks before the end of the book, and Trevor has a perfect sense of when to twist his knife and when to give his characters some breathing room.

This novel is almost theological in its insistence on the ability of humans to transcend tragedy and find beauty and comfort in the natural world and the routine of the everyday. The dialogue is sometimes a little stiff, but Trevor's old-fashioned writing style works perfectly with this heartbreaking story. Not a barrel of laughs, but if you appreciate the calm that comes after a nicely structured tragedy, this is the book for you.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pursuit of the Screamer by Ansen Dibell (1978)

I bought a copy of Pursuit of the Screamer by Ansen Dibell (1978) at a used bookstore on vacation in Fort Collins this summer, partly because it was only a dollar, and mostly because of its very entertaining cover. I'm still kind of mortified / fascinated by the odd crotch drapery of the woman's outfit. Not particularly comfy-looking...

When I started reading this book, I suspected that the author was a woman, mostly because the name Ansen Dibell couldn't possibly sound more like a pseudonym, and the reason many genre authors use pseudonyms is that they are actually women. In Dibell's case, she was not only a woman, but also a professor of English literature, who probably didn't want her CV filled up with books featuring creative crotch draping on the cover.

Pursuit of the Screamer gracefully tells a pretty complicated story of a distant planet made up of a native people (the Valde -- warriors, able to read minds and communicate telepathically, very empathetic to the environment, mostly women), a colonizing group of humans (the Bremneri -- mostly merchants in strict feudal settlements run by women and guarded by Valde), and a technologically advanced and now Deathless race called the Teks (as well as some other sub-groups that have split off and formed over the last several thousand years). Jannus, a young Bremneri man, falls in love with Poli, a Valde woman at the end of her 10 year military service guarding his town. He also finds himself responsible for Lur, a Deathless Tek who is first in the body of a young boy, and later in the body of a giant cat (that is when the cover starts making a little more sense).

When the Teks ruled the planet, they discovered a way to create a recording of all their memories and experiences that could be stored away in a vault and implanted in a new living body at the time of their death. This essentially gave them immortality and took away the finality of death. Suicide became an artistic statement. People were murdered just to prove a point. Death could even be a simple way of traveling since you could kill your body in one location and then be reborn in a new body in a distant keep. A series of circumstances and a whole lot of time eventually led to a breakdown in the system and although Teks were still dying and being reborn, they were locked into their own territory and forced to fight over water and kill each other for food, only to be reborn again in a sick Groundhog's Day of an eternal life. Talk about comeuppance for grasping at immortality...

The intricate history of the planet and the motives of the main characters are more than a little too complicated to get into in the course of this review, but eventually Jannus, Poli and Lur, along with their capable partner Elda, find themselves responsible for bringing a welcomed death to the deathless and pushing the planet away from an inevitable war.

Dibell nicely balances the big social and political movements of this world with an intimate story of the love between Jannus and Poli. This is a well written and engaging book with an entertaining (although misleading and ultimately unfortunate) cover. I'd definitely like to read the rest of the series.