Wednesday, February 25, 2015

MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert

The notoriety stemming from an obscenity trial propelled this novel to fame, but, as you might expect, it’s chaste by today’s standards.  Emma Bovary, the second wife of a mediocre doctor, is bored and generally disillusioned with life.  To liven things up, she flirts with Léon, but he moves away before their relationship gets out of hand.  Next is Rodolphe, a wealthy womanizer, who leads Emma into adultery.  Their affair loses some of its luster, until Emma’s husband Charles collaborates with the local pharmacist to correct a stable boy’s club foot as a means of making a name for himself.  The outcome is so devastatingly horrific that Emma’s revulsion toward her husband reaches new heights, driving her to rekindle her passion for Rodolphe.  His ultimate betrayal leaves her distraught, until she encounters Léon at the opera and begins her second (and final) affair.  (Two affairs, with absolutely no explicit sex scenes, doesn’t seem very scandalous.)  She travels to Rouen for her trysts with Léon, under the pretense of taking piano lessons, but Charles is still none the wiser.  He’s equally clueless regarding the huge debts his wife is incurring and even grants her power of attorney.  Even if he doesn’t notice that her piano expertise has not improved, one would think he would notice all of the extravagances that he can’t possibly afford.  His oblivion certainly helps explain why he’s such an unsuccessful doctor.  He’s a textbook case of someone who sees only what he wants to see, and he worships Emma.  He is the true tragic figure here, beguiled by a woman who treats him like dirt.  Their daughter Berthe is almost a footnote, but she is another casualty of Emma’s misdeeds.  My edition has a foreword by Mary McCarthy in which she suggests that Flaubert knew several women who could have been the inspiration for Emma Bovary.  (Rule of thumb:  Save the foreword to read after finishing the novel.  The same goes for dust jacket blurbs.)  As they say, write what you know.  About the only compliment I can pay this book is that it was very readable.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t a struggle, because it was.  Also, I found the title mildly intriguing, as there are actually two Madame Bovarys—Emma and Charles’s mother, who, like her son, has a despicable spouse.  The contrast between the two women is striking:  Emma has the potential for a contented life but is too restless to find joy in it, while her mother-in-law soldiers on, making her own way, despite the burden of a dissolute husband.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT by Louise Penny

I am not really an art lover, nor do I like to read a book from the middle of a series unless I’ve read its predecessors.  I made an exception here, and I’m glad I did.  Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists living in a small village near Montreal.  Peter has always been the more acclaimed of the two, but now Clara is having a private show at a prestigious gallery, and Peter’s jealousy is making it tough for him to be happy for her.  As if their marriage isn’t strained enough, now art critic Lillian Dyson has been murdered in their garden.  Clara and Lillian were childhood friends, but Lillian became more and more acerbic as time went on, writing scathing reviews of Clara’s work and just about everyone else’s.  A convergence of gallery owners, art dealers, and other artists in town for the exhibition all come under suspicion, as all of them have reason to despise Lillian.  However, Lillian has recently joined AA and seems to be trying to make amends with all of the people she has antagonized, and her fellow AA members are all possible suspects as well.  Leading the investigation is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who is a friend of Clara’s and Peter’s.  He and his right-hand man, Jean Guy Beauvoir, are both recovering, both physically and emotionally, from a horrific incident in a prior novel.  I wasn’t wild about the fact that all this past history kept coming up, but I guess a certain amount of stage setting is necessary.  The mystery unfolds at a measured pace, as we become acquainted with all the characters’ possible motives for murder.  The backstory of Beauvoir’s crush on Gamache’s daughter seemed a little trite to me, especially since he basically blames his prescription drug addiction on this unrequited love.  Actually, my favorite section of the book is the beginning, in which Clara is nervous to the point of panic about her solo show.  We soon learn that she is fearful of the reviews, regardless of their take on her art.  If the reviews are negative, she’ll be devastated, but if they’re positive, her marriage may be unsalvageable.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

This novel has one of the best opening chapters ever.  Arthur Leander, a well-known actor, has a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear.  A paramedic-in-training named Jeevan rushes to help him, but his efforts are ultimately unsuccessful.  Then several of Arthur’s acquaintances congregate in a bar to trade stories about Arthur, and the author stuns us with the promise that all of the people in the conversation will be dead within three weeks.  We soon learn that a deadly flu with an incredibly short incubation time is sweeping the world.  A friend warns Jeevan, who immediately stockpiles food and water and holes up with his disabled brother.  Meanwhile, Clark, a longtime friend of Arthur’s, lands in a Michigan airport after his flight is diverted, due to the epidemic.  All of the main characters are like spokes on a wheel with Arthur as the hub.  In addition to Clark and Jeevan, they include Arthur’s first ex-wife, Miranda, and Kirsten, a child actor.  The action of the novel jumps around in time, covering the characters’ lives both before the epidemic and in the aftermath--a post-apocalyptic society in which none of the infrastructure has survived.  Kirsten belongs to a troupe called the Traveling Symphony, which moves from outpost to outpost giving musical and theatrical performances.  They have a customary route which passes through a town that has now been subjugated to the terroristic rule of a religious nut known as “the prophet,” who threatens anyone who tries to leave without his permission.  Some reviewers have complained that this novel is not dark and frightening enough, given the circumstances, but the prophet and his minions provide enough horror for me.  The author does a wonderful job of keeping hope alive for both characters and readers, and, despite the non-sequential timeline, I found the book very easy to follow.  At the end, I wanted to keep on journeying with these characters who had lost so much, but, at the same time, I would not want to trade worlds with them.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius Reilly is an obese man in his thirties who lives with his mother in New Orleans.   His mother is struggling financially, while the well-educated Ignatius overeats and writes in his notebooks, from which long and painful passages are occasionally reproduced in the novel.  Pressured by his mother to get a job, he stumbles into a clerical position with a pants manufacturer, where he basically does nothing useful and files important documents in the trashcan.  After creating a shambles of the office, he moves on to a job as a hotdog vendor, but he routinely eats more product than he sells.  All of this buffoonery is supposed to be funny and satirical, I suppose, but I found it to be just plain silly.  Ignatius is a cartoonish character whose adventures did not interest me much.  On the other hand, the lives of his mother, her bowling friends, an inept cop, and a vagrant named Jones filled the pages with material that was at least mildly entertaining and afforded me a welcome break from the distasteful Ignatius.  In fact, Jones’s dialog, was probably the most fascinating aspect of the book for me.  The author’s phonetic spelling of Jones’s mispronunciations struck my ear in such a way that I could mentally hear him, loud and clear.  Mostly, Jones just drops final consonants, but some mispronunciations persist today, and this book was written in 1963.  One other character deserves a mention, and that’s Myrna, Ignatius’s gal pal from college, who is now an advocate for social change in New York.  Their correspondence indicates that Ignatius lives to one-up her, while she seems to see Ignatius as a sort of project, even offering him a theatre role as a means of giving him purpose.  Now, who is the true genius in the novel, surrounded by “a confederacy of dunces”?  Ignatius out-dunces all the other dunces, with the possible exception of the people who hired him.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera

This book is for readers who like a hefty dose of philosophy with their fiction.  The author addresses the reader directly on such issues as God’s digestive system and the fact that dogs were not ousted from the Garden of Eden, as humans were.  He also spends a few pages talking about how events happen only once, so that if we set goals or plan for the future, we are striving toward something we have never experienced.  Achieving the goal may not actually bring us the satisfaction or happiness that we anticipated.  (Many people would say that retirement is one such goal.)  In any case, the story takes place mostly in Czechoslovakia during the late 1960s when Russia invaded the country and stamped their brand of communism on it.  Tomas and his wife Tereza actually move to Zurich before getting out of Czechoslovakia becomes impossible.  However, Tereza decides to return to Prague, and Tomas follows her, despite the fact that he has several mistresses.  One of those is Sabina, who lives in Geneva.  She is also the mistress of Franz, but she loses interest in Franz as soon as he leaves his wife and family for her.  Tomas, a surgeon, writes a newspaper article, deemed by the authorities as subversive, and goes through a series of demotions, until he eventually becomes a window washer.  This line of work, and the widespread knowledge of his tumble in status, actually fuels his extramarital sex life.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I had read it when it was current.  It may be a modern classic, but it’s certainly an offbeat one.  The catch phrase of the novel, “It must be,” becomes Tomas’s excuse for his philandering and his career plunge, as well as the political situation.  This acceptance of fate seems human, but I expected something a little more out of the ordinary.  One thing I did like about the book is that we learn the fate of Tereza and Tomas well before the end and then get to see how it plays out.  I don’t think I would normally want to know in advance what’s going to happen (“it must be”), but then this isn’t a normal book, and the ending is much more palatable when reached in this way.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS by Chris Bohjalian

A nuclear plant meltdown in northern Vermont should not have left teenager Emily Shepard homeless.  However, since her parents were both alcoholics and worked at the plant (scary!), Emily is guilty by association and assumes the name Abby Bliss in order to fly under the radar for a while.  She builds an igloo out of frozen trash bags in order to survive the winter, all the while turning tricks at truck stops and indulging in a little self-mutilation.  All she really wants to do is go home, despite the fact that it’s in the fallout zone, and her parents certainly died in the explosion.  She keeps it together by assuming responsibility for a nine-year-old foster-care runaway, but her quest to keep them both as incognito as possible eventually implodes.  I never cease to marvel at how well some authors imagine the aftermath of a disaster, and Bohjalian paints a vivid picture here of a girl on her own, trying to survive, after her world has been literally blown apart.  She makes some critical errors in judgment, but she manages pretty well, given her chaotic circumstances.  I was also concerned that a teenage girl’s voice would sound too much like a valley girl and that I would find it annoying, but for the most part that was not the case.  Emily has a passion for Emily Dickinson’s poetry and immerses herself in the life of the reclusive poet whose first name she shares.  The narration jumps around a bit in time, but I didn’t find it difficult to follow, and the jagged timeline seems appropriate for a teenaged perspective on the cataclysmic events that leave her young life in disarray.  We also learn that all of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.  Who knew?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

THE DOUBLE BIND by Chris Bohjalian

While Laurel was in college, two men attacked her while she was cycling alone in Underhill, Vermont.  Now she no longer bikes and has never returned to Underhill, although she still lives in Vermont.  The two perps, one a drifter and one a murderer, are now in prison, and Laurel is attempting to get on with her life as a social worker in a homeless shelter.  When a mentally ill homeless man named Bobbie Crocker comes to the shelter with an armload of photos that he purportedly shot, Laurel, a photography buff herself, becomes obsessed with researching Bobbie’s past.  Laurel has enough problems without burdening herself with Bobbie’s, especially since he has recently died of a stroke.  One of the photos, however, is particularly unsettling, and Laurel’s quest for answers becomes increasingly more frenzied, as she begins to avoid her roommate, her boss, and her boyfriend, for fear that they will distract her from her mission.  Meanwhile, her friends are becoming alarmed at Laurel’s behavior, but she is in a race against the clock, because other parties may be interested in Bobbie’s photos and may be willing to go to great lengths to acquire them.  I was on Laurel’s side until she started lying about her whereabouts and forgetting to shower.  This literary mystery also appears to be sort of a semi-sequel to The Great Gatsby, and I found the incorporation of iconic characters Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan in the storyline somewhat disconcerting, but not nearly as disconcerting as the ending.  I didn’t see this one coming.