Sunday, May 1, 2016

YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY! by Dave Eggers

Though not his first book, this is Dave Eggers’ first novel, and I hope that the subsequent ones show a little maturity for both the author and his characters.  This is sort of a 21st century version of Kerouac’s On the Road, minus the drugs and alcohol.  Mercifully, it spans only one manic week, but the setting is Senegal, Morocco, Estonia, and Latvia, and that’s worth something—as a travelogue, if nothing else.  Will and his pal Hand are traveling as far as they can in a week and giving away $32,000 in the process.  They become very frustrated at how long it takes to get from point to point, but all in all, they manage to pack quite a lot of activity into a short period of time, doing without sleep or bathing.  The writing style matches the frenetic pace of the story, but I thought it was borderline silly.  Occasionally the characters find themselves in scary situations, but mostly their madcap misadventures are pretty harmless.  There are a few LOL moments, especially when the two guys are reminiscing about their childhood aspiration to grow up to be Hollywood stuntmen.  They continue to practice for this vocation while on the trip, with mixed results.  At the other end of the spectrum, we find that these guys were perpetrators of some pretty serious animal cruelty in their youth, reminding us that they’re not as generous and warm-hearted as we might like to think.  I felt that they were divesting themselves of the money as a way to shed their grief over the death of their buddy Jack.  They do come up with some crazy but creative ideas for how to distribute the money, even as they deliberate as to who is worthy to receive a payout.  Still, a novel about two American guys making fools of themselves in foreign countries, behaving more like adolescents than grown men in their late twenties, is not really my idea of a great read.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides

Mitchell, Leonard, and Madeleine are Brown University students in the 1980s, and Mitchell is the odd man out.  He’s in love with Madeleine, but she only has eyes for Leonard, who is undergoing treatment for manic depression.  Leonard is smart, handsome, and poor, while Madeleine is smart, beautiful, and rich.  I could never quite fathom what the well-adjusted Madeleine sees in Leonard, as she is not a natural caretaker, and I attribute my bewilderment to a failing of the author for not making Leonard a whole lot more charismatic.  Mitchell, on the other hand, who is considering divinity school but not joining the ministry, seems pretty vanilla until we get Leonard’s take on Mitchell as a young Tom Waits, which turned my opinion 180 degrees to the good.  For me, that’s the point at which Mitchell comes alive.  After college, while Madeleine and Leonard are wallowing in despair in Cape Cod, Mitchell sets out with his friend Larry on a pilgrimage to India, by way of Paris and Athens.  My favorite part of the novel is after Mitchell and Larry part ways, and Mitchell becomes a volunteer at a charity hospital in Calcutta.  Here, I think Eugenides does an excellent job of describing Mitchell’s struggle between his squeamishness over the condition of the patients and his profound desire to do something worthwhile.   Dispensing medications, shunning rickshaws, and chastising his friend Mike for his relationship with a 17-year-old Thai girl, he strives not to be the typical American tourist. Unfortunately, this section has to end, and we have to return to the Madeleine/Leonard story, which seems to be a rehash of Leonard’s battle with mental illness and Madeleine’s questioning of whether she is up to the task of coping with said battle.  Mitchell is the only character whose self-awareness actually grows in this novel, and I would have liked this book more if there had been more Mitchell and less Madeleine.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Lisbon family has five alluring young daughters, until one, Cecilia, succeeds in killing herself on the second try.  We know that the remaining four will follow suit within a year, and this novel is all about looking back on that year.  Our unidentified narrator(s) track the sisters’ grief and the ever-tightening lockdown imposed by the girls’ parents.  The fact that the girls become increasingly less visible in the community only adds to the intrigue surrounding them, as does the spooky decline of their untended house.  Much of the story is told in a voyeuristic manner, from the outside looking in, with the viewers hoping for a rare appearance by one of the Lisbon girls, with the help of a mostly ineffective telescope.  I totally do not understand the appeal of this novel, except that it is sort of darkly comic.  Also, I can’t fathom how the parents get away with keeping their daughters out of school and basically keeping them imprisoned in their home.  Even in the 1970s there were truant officers and social services.  The parents themselves become so reclusive that Mr. Lisbon stops teaching his classes at the high school, and the family has to raid the shelves of their bomb shelter for food.  I don’t get the title, either, since the most well-drawn of the daughters, Lux, is wildly promiscuous.  I know that Lux means “light,” but the name strikes me more in its similarity to the word “lust.”  The book is largely about the town, especially the boys, for whom the demise of the Lisbon family provides fodder for their adolescent curiosity and imagination.  I suspect that there is quite a bit of symbolism at work here, related to dying things (fish flies and elm trees), virgin sacrifices, the Virgin Mary and who knows what else.  (One of the Lisbon girls is named Mary.)   My favorite scene in the book is a telephone conversation in which popular songs express the sentiments of the participants on both ends of the line.  “On the stereo, Garfunkel began hitting his high notes, and we didn’t think of Cecilia.”  Cecilia, the character, or “Cecilia” the song?  I like the ambiguity, but it’s not enough to make me like this book.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

THE ART FORGER by B.A. Shapiro

Unlike some struggling artists, Claire Roth has real talent.  However, she has made some very poor judgment calls.  Like Margaret Keane, the subject of the movie Big Eyes, Claire has allowed a man to take credit for her work.  The fallout from that mistake has made her a pariah in the art world, until a prestigious gallery owner, Aiden Markel, offers her a deal.  Claire has been eking out a living reproducing famous paintings, and Markel will pay her handsomely and give her a showing at his gallery in return for reproducing a stolen Degas.  This opportunity to restore her reputation is a temptation that Claire can hardly pass up, even if what she’s doing may not be strictly legal.  She figures that forgery is only a crime if she is misrepresenting the reproduction as the original, but still she’s walking a thin line here.  Markel claims that he will return the original to the Gardner Museum, from whence it was stolen in a heist of several masterpieces.  Things start to look fishy when Claire begins to suspect that the original Degas she is copying may actually also be a forgery.  In that case, the thieves unwittingly stole a forgery that was hanging in the museum, causing Claire to wonder what happened to the original.  Markel is charming and persuasive but perhaps a tad shady and not completely forthcoming about where the “original” came from and where Claire’s copy is going.  Claire, on the other hand, is just suspicious enough of Markel to keep her doubts about the original’s authenticity to herself.  This is a juicy, highly entertaining novel about betrayal, obsession, scandal, subterfuge, and certainly the art world, from the perspective of Claire, a blackballed outsider doing whatever it takes to maneuver her way back in.  She’s dedicated, meticulous, talented, and tenacious, and deserves a break, despite not necessarily having followed the straight and narrow path.  Flawed characters often make the most compelling characters.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham’s remarkable life should make for a wonderful historical novel, but I just don’t think this is it.  Abandoned by her mother as a child and married off at sixteen when her father’s Kenyan horse farm fell into financial ruin, Beryl did not have an easy start in life.  Financial difficulties forced her into some bad decisions, and I recognize that as a young woman in Africa who scorned education, her options were limited.  Since the author was also separated from her mother for most of her childhood, I expected a little more insight into how this abandonment affected Beryl’s early life, but I found the author’s treatment of this situation a little cavalier.  Maybe it’s a sore subject?  I also did not particularly like Beryl, who slept with her friend Karen Blixen’s boyfriend Denys and later risked her own life and that of her beloved horse Pegasus for an assignation that didn’t even pan out.  Karen Blixen went on to write Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast, both of which were adapted into movies, but I did not discover her literary identity until after I finished the book and did some Wikipedia investigating.  Anyway, let me get back to Beryl, who became an intrepid aviator and licensed horse trainer—both of which were difficult propositions for a woman anywhere, but especially for a woman in Africa in the early 1900s.  For those accomplishments, I certainly had to admire Beryl.  However, I do not particularly admire the author’s writing style.  The novel is full of Beryl’s ruminations on her purpose in life, and I found that most of these sections detracted from the story, rather than enhancing it.  Hemingway claimed to be very impressed with the writing style in Beryl’s own memoir but said that she seemed to be “very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch.”  I couldn’t agree more, and perhaps West with the Wind, in Beryl’s own voice, would be a better book club selection than this novel.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

THERE BUT FOR THE by Ali Smith

Gen and Eric (GenEric?) have a dinner party, but one guest barricades himself in the guest suite and refuses to leave.  Actually, Gen and Eric had never even met Miles before that night, when he came along with Mark to the dinner party.  This novel has four sections, each of which is about someone tangentially connected to Miles, so that we can gain some sense of who he is.  First is Anna Hardie, nicknamed Anna K., to sound like “anarchy,” who met Miles many years ago as a teenager.  Gen finds Anna’s email address in Miles’s phone and begs her to come see if she can persuade Miles to come out.  The next section is Mark’s, who also did not know Miles well but met him at the theatre and casually asked him to join him at the dinner party.  Third is May Young, an elderly woman whose connection to Miles I’ll let you find out for yourself.  Finally, there’s 10-year-old Brooke who tagged along with her parents to the dinner party.  Brooke is precocious, to say the least, sparring with her parents over puns and endlessly intrigued by new vocabulary words, such as “metaphorically.”  She’s currently reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, which I personally found incredibly dense.  The author’s word gymnastics are delightful, and I’m sorry that I won’t remember most of them.  I’m also bummed that I didn’t get all of the puns.  In any case, the book was unusual but still a pleasure to read, with very real and likeable characters.   The wordplay, however, is extraordinary, and I never felt that it was excessive.  Sometimes when I read really clever stuff, I get the sense that the author is showing off, but in this case, so much of it comes out of the mouth of a 10-year-old that it seems more playful than erudite.  And if the ending leaves you scratching your head, go back and reread the prologue.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco

Unless you’re interested in esoteric 13th century debates on religion, such as did Jesus ever laugh and did Jesus own his clothes, then this is not the book for you—or me, for that matter.  I thought this was going to be a murder mystery, and it is, to some degree, but that aspect of the novel is buried in unending discussions of what constitutes religious heresy.  This novel is very long with reams of inscrutable allusions, incomprehensible vocabulary, and lots of untranslated Latin passages.  I can’t help wondering if some of my issues with this book are actually with the translator, William Weaver, but I’m certainly not going to read it again, if, in fact, another translation exists.  The action takes place in an Italian monastery, and the main character is Brother William of Baskerville, who has a Sherlock-Holmes-like knack for interpreting clues in the mysterious deaths of several monks.  William is the mentor for our young narrator, Adso, who tags along on William’s week-long investigation of the monastery, as the body count rises.  Several startling facts come to light, including the periodic visits by a woman, the more-than-brotherly affection between several monks, and the extreme inaccessibility of the library.  There is more than one history lesson here, but I found most of the historical discussions too dense for me to really grasp.  I did gather that Pope John XXII and Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV were seriously at odds, and the monks aligned themselves with one or the other, but I couldn’t keep up with who believed what.  There are the Minorites, the Fraticelli, the Dolcinians, the Catharists, the Cluniacs—just to name a few factions.  At one point, Adso’s response to a monk’s description of one of the sects is “What a complicated story.”  My sentiments exactly.