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.