Wednesday, November 25, 2015

INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon

I hope this book is not your typical Thomas Pynchon novel, because, frankly, I do not feel that I have consumed a great piece of literature.  It is sort of a cross between an Elmore Leonard novel and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road but lacking the virtues of either.  It’s 1970, and Los Angeles (or thereabouts) private eye Doc Sportello never turns down an opportunity to smoke some weed or drop some acid.  How he manages to make a living in this line of work in his state of consciousness is somewhat of a mystery, but he is amazingly resourceful and does manage to keep his wits about him somehow, most of the time.  The storyline, though, is so convoluted that I couldn’t quite follow it, much less describe it here.   Basically, Doc’s former girlfriend Shasta Fay has taken up with married real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann and has come to Doc for help in keeping Mickey from being committed to a mental institution.   Then both Mickey and Shasta Fay disappear, possibly kidnapped by a sinister syndicate called the Golden Fang.  As a counterpoint to their disappearance, a musician/informant who supposedly overdosed seems to have resurfaced but fears for his life and the well-being of his family.  Meanwhile, Doc’s longtime nemesis, LAPD’s own “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, has pegged Doc as a possible murderer, so that wherever Doc goes, Bigfoot is lurking somewhere nearby.  This kind of craziness is not really my thing, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish reality from Doc’s hallucinations.  The names of the characters (Vincent Indelicato, for example) alone are enough to dilute the seriousness, if any, of the subject matter.   So if you’re in the mood for a detective story with a bit of silliness and a 60s/70s vibe, this just might be the ticket.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

CROOKED HEART by Lissa Evans

They say that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that adage certainly applies to Vee and her new ward, Noel, a 10-year-old evacuee from the London blitz during WWII.  Noel is an orphan who has shuttled from his godmother Mattie’s home after her death to the home of a couple who are distantly related to Noel and are relieved when they have to pack him off to St. Albans during the bombing.  Vee takes him in, not out of the goodness of her heart, but because the government will pay her a small stipend.  In her defense, Vee’s life has not been exactly a picnic, either.  She has a grown overweight son Donald who lives with her and uses his heart murmur as an excuse not to earn a living.  His cardiac issue, however, keeps him out of the military, and he soon finds that he can use his defect for illegal personal gain.  Ingrate that he is, he does not share the fact of his scam or his profits with Vee.  Vee, too, figures out that she can make a quick buck going door-to-door asking for charitable donations that she will pocket for herself.  Noel becomes her willing accomplice, finally having something to look forward to, making smart choices about which neighborhood to canvass and which charity to impersonate.  In some ways, this story is sort of a twist on Oliver Twist, but what I loved about it is the burgeoning relationship between Vee and Noel, two skeptical misfits, who become partners in petty crime.  They both have a moral compass of sorts, especially Noel, who becomes outraged when a senile woman’s jewelry is stolen, but he fails to see any hypocrisy in the fact that he and Vee have been milking that same woman for gigantic contributions to their fake causes.  Vee and Noel may have “crooked hearts,” but they’re both lovable and funny, not to mention good for each other, during an extremely difficult time.  This novel never wallows in tragedy or sentimentality, but I found it touching in just the right way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

FAMILY LIFE by Akhil Sharma

What happens to a family when the brilliant older son suffers acute brain damage in a swimming pool accident?  Now imagine that the family are recent immigrants to Queens from India.  They straddle their Indian and American cultures as best they can, negotiating the American healthcare and legal systems, while praying that Indian rituals will somehow restore their son Birju to normalcy.  The younger son Ajay tells this story with occasional bouts of humor but always with an overall cloud of survivor’s guilt.  To compensate for the tragic turn that his family life has taken, he tells whoppers at school and uses the pickup line “I love you” with the girls he thinks would make good girlfriends.  Meanwhile, his father sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, which could cost him his job and therefore the medical benefits that Birju requires.  I would not say that Ajay’s parents are neglectful of him, but certainly they’re not aware of the toll that Birju’s condition is taking on him.  Ajay’s coping mechanisms are alternately funny and poignant, but his parents quarrel constantly and they often vent their anger at Ajay, rendering his childhood almost unbearable.  The fact that this novel is basically autobiographical makes it that much more gut-wrenching but also more revealing in some ways.  In one section, Ajay decides that he could become rich as a writer, without having to study law or science.  He then researches Hemingway’s style without actually reading anything Hemingway wrote.  Then he takes a stab at putting Hemingway’s techniques to use in his own short story, and I thought the result was pretty amazing.  Reading this book, however, is a whole lot easier than reading Hemingway.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon

Nat and Archy are co-owners of Brokeland Records, which sells vintage vinyl, in Oakland, CA.  Their wives, Aviva and Gwen, are also business partners—in a midwives practice.  Both families, then, have their livelihoods tied to rather retro ventures, and both of those ventures are in danger of disintegrating.  A former NFL player-turned-mogul plans to build a mega music store near Brokeland that will surely put Nat and Archy out of business.  Nat pulls together a ragtag protest group, while Archy considers a job offer at the new store.  Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen nearly botch a birth with complications, and Gwen’s rant of indignation may cause the hospital to suspend their privileges.  Gwen herself has a baby due in just a few weeks and discovers that Archy has been unfaithful.  A teenager named Titus also puts in an appearance, looking to reunite with Archy, his biological father, even though the two have never met before.  To complete the generational mayhem, Archy’s drug-addicted father, a former blaxploitation actor, is back in town, trying to raise money for a comeback via blackmail while he lives with his sexy  former costar in a garage.  The plot is just as madcap as it sounds, with a healthy influx of vintage music and movie references and a colorful cast of vividly-drawn characters, including Nat’s son who happens to be in love with Titus and can’t let go of his 8-track player, a funeral director, a lesbian band, an undertaker, and a few goons.  Ultimately, though, this book is about people having to let go of the past and forge a path into the future, even though they may encounter a few thorns along the way.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon

I have never read a single Sherlock Holmes novel, but Michael Chabon apparently has.  This novella is an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous gumshoe.  Holmes is known here simply as a nameless old man who once solved sticky crimes and can still recognize the merest trifles as clues to the case he’s investigating.  We have a murder and a missing parrot who spouts forth number sequences in German.  In fact, the murder probably stems from a dispute over the parrot, who may harbor some sinister secret, to which the numbers are a key, such as the combination to a safe or a Swiss bank account number.  The parrot has a completely different value to a mute boy, as both a beloved pet and as the boy’s lost voice—sort of.   The plot is really pretty simple, but Chabon’s language is anything but.  The writing is so beautiful that it somehow camouflages what is really happening—so much so that I found myself frequently having to reread critical passages. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

WORLD'S FAIR by E.L. Doctorow

This book doesn’t have much of a plot, but then neither did the movie Boyhood.  In this case, the primary narrator is Edgar, a 9-year-old boy growing up in the 30s in New York City.  In fact, this novel is sort of a love letter to New York, guiding us through the streets of the city and eventually through the 1939 World’s Fair, seen through the eyes of 9-year-old Edgar.  His mother Rose and his much older brother Donald narrate a few chapters, but the book primarily belongs to Edgar.  There are funny moments interspersed with sad moments, frightening moments, and historical events, such as the Hindenburg disaster and Hitler’s ascension, alongside the occasional family upheaval.  The writing is very fluid and, fortunately, more sophisticated than what we might expect of a young boy.  Near the end, he enters an essay contest whose topic is the Typical American Boy, and that essay neatly sums up who Edgar is and portrays his writing style, which really is not all that different from the language used throughout the book.  The peripheral characters are more colorful, actually than the main family, especially Norma, the attractive mother of Edgar’s pal Mae, and Edgar’s father’s sisters.  Since Edgar’s father does not narrate any chapters, we see him through Edgar’s and Rose’s eyes, and the portrait we see of him is a little blurry.  He’s something of a flirt and probably a gambler, but just as Edgar never witnesses these faults firsthand, neither do we.  The author provides a nice little bio of Donald so that we know how his life turns out, but there are no corresponding details regarding Edgar’s future.  Even so, what we see of Edgar’s life is much more than a glimpse.  He describes his surroundings and his emotions so vividly that we experience his resistance to surgical anesthesia, his anguish when he has to give up his dog, and his joy in attending a Giants football game with his father and brother.  While momentous events are occurring in other parts of the world, this family experiences their own momentous events, and those are the ones that shape who they are.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

LOON LAKE by E.L. Doctorow

This is not the easiest book to follow, with its multiple narrators and changing person, sometimes from first to third in the same paragraph and referencing the same character.  Joe is the vagabond protagonist, riding the rails and working for a traveling carnival in the 1930s.  Then he happens upon the lavish compound of super-rich tycoon F. W. Bennett, where Joe survives a vicious dog attack and makes himself comfortable while he recovers, ingratiating himself with the master of the estate and two other hangers-on—one who is a gangster’s moll and the other a poet.  This experience changes Joe in a radical way, in that he catches a glimpse of a lifestyle that is as seductive as it is elusive.  His next stop, with the beautiful Clara in tow, is an Indiana town with a factory owned by the above-mentioned Mr. Bennett.  Joe and Clara’s neighbor is involved in an effort to unionize the workers there, and Joe’s association with him makes Joe’s life a little more dangerous.  Reviewers have compared this novel to Theordore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and I get that, but I kept thinking of The Great Gatsby, with the ostentatious display of wealth and the theme of longing for something or someone just out of reach.  The writing style of this book, though, is a chore to navigate with endless run-on sentences and a sort of stream-of-consciousness feel.  In many ways this is a picaresque adventure novel, but I think its confusing form limits its appeal.  I enjoyed the characters and the storyline, and especially the wrap-up at the end, and I would have loved the prose if the sentence structure had been a little more conventional.  Sticking to conventions, though, does not allow a writer to distinguish himself, I guess, but here I felt that the storyline sometimes was buried and hard to unearth from the chaos of the writing.