Friday, June 29, 2012

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Remainder is one of those novels that tells of events so fantastical that the reader is sure the whole story must be an allegory. But the meaning is ambiguous and elusive and open to interpretation, so that the reader must actively think about it rather than experience it vicariously. It is strictly a head novel, not a heart novel in any way.

The unnamed protagonist has been injured in an accident which involved something falling from the sky and has received a gargantuan cash settlement. The severe nature of his head injury has produced partial amnesia and has required him to relearn how to perform all physical tasks, including feeding himself. Perhaps because he has had to learn how to move by thinking of all the mechanics beforehand, he constantly feels as if none of his actions are natural, true, authentic.

Then a chance glimpse of a crack in a friend's bathroom wall triggers a whole set of memories for him of a place where he thinks he felt authentic. With his vast financial resources and the help of Naz, a facilitator, he recreates an apartment building exactly as he remembers it, including the neighbors he remembers, using hired actors constantly on duty to play their parts. Once the set is complete, he rehearses the actors and then has them reenact scenarios again, and again, and again, to try to recover his sense of authenticity.

He moves from there to recreating a recent incident which happened to him at a tire shop. Again, the incident is reenacted again, again, and again. Then he moves to a reenactment of some murders in the neighborhood, with his information for reenactment gathered from police forensic reports. And then.......

And so on, and so on. All this is reported in factual, detailed, police-report style--hypnotically stupefying in its repetitions. The ending is chilling, as the protagonist finally feels authentic.

As I interpret this novel, it has an existential message--the search of Everyman for authenticity and meaning. The protagonist's fruitless search for authenticity through the endless repetitions of actions represents our daily existence as we go through the motions of our lives. Only when the protagonist breaks away from the rehearsed and experiences the violence of chance does he obtain authenticity.

This novel reminded me very much of Dostoyevsky, and it left me with very similar feelings of depression and anxiety. Sure, it made me think, but I do not enjoy thinking along those lines.

Recommended with reservations for those who like depressing head books.

P.S. This is being written several days later, after thinking about the book, and I believe the whole thing may have been a scenario going through the protagonist's head as he lies dying from a gunshot wound or explosion. Here's the reason--many times we have the mention that the protagonist smells cordite, and this seems out of place with no purpose. So, finally, I looked up cordite, and it is connected with a certain kind of bullet and with explosives, and has a unique smell. Armed with that knowledge, I found that several of the stranger aspects of the novel made more sense.
Whatever....I feel more than ever that the purpose of this novel is for the reader to feel admiration for the cleverness of the author.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I have always considered myself to be fairly imaginative, maybe even a bit more imaginative than most. But I could never in a million years have come up with the plot of this book. The Bigtree family runs a gator-wrestling theme park, Swamplandia!, on one of the small islands in the Florida Keys. The mother has recently died of cancer, the grandfather has started biting customers and has had to be taken to live at the Out to Sea Retirement Community, the big brother has run away to the mainland and gone to work for a competitor theme park, and the father has left to "take care of some business." Left by themselves on the island, the older sister has eloped with a "ghost," leaving the youngest, Ava, to try to deal alone with all the upset and confusion. About this time a mysterious Birdman comes along who offers to guide Ave on a trip through the swamps to the Underworld to find her runaway sister.

I ask you--what kind of imagination comes up with that story?

This is not magic realism, which inserts the fantastic into the mundane, but surrealism, where everything is exaggerated and askew. And it is often very, very funny. For example, the rival theme park is World of Darkness, which features blood-red swimming pools and whose customers are known as "Lost Souls." Its four-man team of pilots who take patrons on air tours to view areas of ecological devastation are known as "The Four Pilots of the Apocalypse."

For the first 150 pages or so I was enchanted by this novel. Russell has a knack of description and unexpected turn-of-phrase that is near genius, and I kept wondering, "Why did this not win the Pulitzer Prize?" Then she seemed to bog down in the plot turns, and the tone of the first half of the book seemed somewhat inappropriate when attached to the last half. Then I understood why the book did not win the Pulitzer.

Nevertheless, it is a most interesting and amusing read, better than most. And it has an important message about family love and loyalty. Recommended.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Roses by Leila Meacham

I'm embarrassed that I even read this book--that's how bad it is. I feel as if I have to explain why I read it, so that my good name is not besmirched: I am always on the lookout for good books by Texans, preferably also about Texas, for book reviews I do for TexasLive magazine. This one is set in East Texas, was written by a retired teacher who lives in San Antonio, and was a best seller a couple of years ago. Reviews compare it to Gone With the Wind and The Thorn Birds. Sounds like a good bet, yes? Wrong.

This is a family saga, so it covers several generations. The two main protagonists are third-generation East Texans, the male a timber baron and the female the heir to a cotton plantation. The story follows them through the next two generations, to the grandson of the male and the grand-niece of the female.

How do I dislike this book? Let me count the ways.

1. While Gone With the Wind is not my idea of literature for the ages, it does portray a time and a place with believable drama. The only similarity between that book and Roses is the heroine's obsession with the land. I read The Thorn Birds years ago and don't remember much about it, but I would have remembered if I had been offended by it. Thus, I don't think the comparisons hold up.

2. The characters are plastic stereotypes and unbelievable. The two primary love interests are tall, slender, and unbelievably good looking. The female is often referred to as a goddess, and the hero is frequently referenced as a "golden Apollo." The secondary (read, inferior) characters are frequently short, often dumpy, and always ordinary looking. As subsequent generations come along, they continue this pattern, so that the romance at the conclusion of the book features two tall, slender, unbelievably good looking descendents who look amazingly like the original love-interest couple. (I was reminded so much of Ayn Rand and her "super-couple" Dagny Taggart and John Galt.)

3. Racial stereotypes abound. The black characters in the book are all obsequious servants. Their conversations all sound like Gone With the Wind, even in 1985. The one Jewish character is portrayed as ruthlessly taking advantage of the financial difficulties of others; in his "mean little office" he taps his forehead with a "jaundiced-nailed finger."

4. The plot is full of holes. For example, there's a family curse, we're told. It's that the possessors of the land have few children, and most of them die before adulthood. Was this situation that unusual? Who cursed them? Why? What were they doing wrong? Loving the land too much? Or what?

5. The writing is often ridiculously overblown: "Caution and decorum flew from their restraints in surrender to her need of him, and she welcomed his possession...." Enough said.

6. All-in-all, this seems like nothing so much as a puffed-up Harlequin romance. The publisher just put roses on the cover, rather than a photo of an impossibly beautiful, photo-enhanced couple, in a passionate embrace. (He--tall, golden blond, and tan; she--tall, raven-haired, and tan.)

It's a darn good thing I didn't work for the publishers of this book, because I would have rejected it and would have deprived my company of all kinds of profits. I obviously have no clear grasp of what may or may not be popular out there in the wide world.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

As long as we have had storytellers, we have had stories about families--good families, bad families, absent families even. We don't all experience high adventure, existential anguish, or even romantic love, but we all experience family. We all have had a mother and a father, and someone who took care of us when we were helpless infants and children. We can all relate to the family story.

This is one of the best family stories I have read. It is the story of not just one family, but two: the Pickle family and the Lamb family, who share a huge, ramshackle house on Cloud Street in Perth, Australia, covering 20 years, from 1944 to 1964.

Sam Pickle, an inveterate gambler, has had a run of bad luck, having lost the fingers on his working hand in an accident. He has, however, inherited a large house, and he decides to rent half of it to help maintain his family of a wife, a daughter, and two sons. Enter the Lamb family, who have also suffered a tragedy--the near drowning of a son which left him brain damaged. The two parents and the six children rent half the house, and soon open a small grocery on the bottom floor. And the story begins.

This family story includes deaths, births, drunkenness, adultery, loss of faith, guilt, hate, love, and forgiveness--both forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. It also includes ghosts, a talking pig, and a guardian angel. There's more than a touch of magic realism here. But that enhances the story, rather than detracting.

I think everyone could relate to at least one member of these two families. Quick Lamb says to his mother about the family, "Wierdos, Mum, flamin whakos." How many teenagers have felt that way about their parents? And then Quick says to his mother, "Let's face it, Mum....It's just that you're flamin bossy." I can certainly relate to that, because I happen to be "flamin bossy." I hope I can be forgiven, as this mother was.

A whole Course of Study of this novel could be written, including symbolism, use of opposition, etc., etc. But it's enough to say that it seems authentic and it's a damn good read.

Most highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Home Place by Wright Morris

What a rare jewel of a book! I don't believe I have ever experienced a book which felt more authentic.

I say "experienced" rather than "read" because half of the book communicates through words and the other half communicates through black-and-white photographs, on alternating pages. And both tell the same story, but the total impact is increased more than twice, through the conjunction of the two.

The "story" follows the events of a one-day visit of a man and his wife and their two children to "the home place" on the plains of Nebraska, where he spent his summers as a youth with his aunt and uncle. With loving attention to detail, Morris pictures (both in words and in photos) the people and the surroundings and the way of life that shaped his central character.

I grew up on the plains of Texas rather than on the plains of Nebraska, but I am old enough and rural enough that I recognize all these characters--their meandering conversations sound like the ones I listened to in my childhood, and their worn-out and rural surroundings look totally familiar. Maybe you can't really go home again, but sometimes you wish you could.

This is a short review, but that does not mean the book did not impact me deeply. I don't know if younger people or city-bred people would enjoy it, however. It might not seem as authentic or evoke so much nostalgia, but they might still perceive the genius behind it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Geez. This book made me feel so non-hip and old and out-of-touch. Maybe it is clever and inventive, and maybe not. I don't know. First, it contains all kinds of cyber language, and I barely know how to blog and e-mail. Second, it takes place in Disney World and I imagine a good bit of enjoyment can be had by a reader recalling memories of the attractions mentioned. I have never been to Disney World, Disneyland, etc., etc. I just did not connect to this novel at all.

The plot goes a little something like this: It's the future and nobody dies unless they want to. In case of illness or accidental death, a clone is kept on standby, along with a back-up of the person's memory. People don't need to carry around smart phones or i-pads because they have computers and the internet implanted in their heads, so they just have to think about the information they need. Money is obsolete; people try to earn Whuffie--points from public approval, kind of similar to "likes" on a status on Facebook or the number of Tweet responses. (I think, although I don't really understand Tweeting.)

Our hero is a member of one of the numerous "ad-hocs" who are keeping the amusement parks running as an homage to the twentieth century. He and his group are dedicated to maintaining the attractions in the old style, with only a few high tech additions. Another ad-hoc group is taking over attractions using more sophisticated brain-to-brain interfaces. Duplicity and intrigue ensue.

I did not understand enough of this novel to really form an opinion, except along traditional lines. There was little character development, little suspense development, little thematic content, as far as I could discern. Maybe my son would like it, because he knows all about techno-stuff and loves The Magic Kingdom.

Sometimes young people are asked by their teachers to read books which are too mature for their understanding. I have been guilty of doing that. This is a case of a book which I am too mature (read "old") to really understand.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I chose not to read this book for a long time because of its title and subject matter, even though I knew it had glowing reviews and had been chosen as one of the best books of 2011 by numerous publications, including the New York Times. I am not a sports fan and have never watched even one full game of baseball. I guess I was inoculated against being a sports fan early in elementary school when it became apparent that I could not make physical contact with any kind of ball, no matter how hard I tried. I blame this now on undiagnosed astigmatism.

I kept reading that one did not have to be a fan of baseball to enjoy this novel, so I gave in. And it is true that I enjoyed the book, but I think my lack of knowledge of the sport kept me from understanding the book. How baseball can be a metaphor for life is a mystery to me still.

The Art of Fielding is interesting because it is good storytelling, not just of one story but of five. We have Henry Skrimshander, the perfect shortstop until one error leads to a loss of confidence; Mike Schwartz, the mentor and teammate who guides Henry to potential greatness; Owen Dunne, Henry's gay college roommate whose love affair impacts all the other characters; Guert Affenlight, the college president who falls unexpectedly in love for the first time; and Pella Affenlight, his daughter, who is seeking for a purpose for her life. All these unfolding stories make the novel compulsively readable.

And now for the criticisms: The writing is often very clunky. Some plot developments are not very logical, seemingly entirely divorced from any normal human behavior (in my experience, at least). Character development is minimal. And, as I said, the baseball as a metaphor for life aspect escaped me, but that is perhaps my fault. The ending was trite, reminiscent of several sports movie treatments. I fully expect a movie to be made from this novel.

One small thing that annoyed me excessively: The term "freshman" is substituted by "freshperson." "Freshmen" are called "freshpersons." Since this is a college setting, these terms occur with great frequency. Do people actually talk this way now? Has sexual and political correctness gone so far? Should a school principal or college administrator say, "All freshpersons should do such-and such"? That sounds so ridiculous to my old-fashioned mind.

All-in-all, an interesting read.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I still remember seeing the movie version of The Day of the Triffids at a drive-in theater sometime in the early '60s. It scared the bejeezus out of me, even though I was an avid fan of '50s and '60s horror and science fiction films, which were standard drive-in fare. I told my dorm mates about it, and the next night when I pulled back the covers on my bed, I found it filled with dandelion seeds. I knew it was a joke, but still....

This is my first time for reading the novel, however, even though it was written in 1951. I found it not as scary as the movie, but more interesting in a different way. The movie intimated that all the trouble came from an outside source, probably from an alien intelligence. The book proposes that all the trouble is brought about by human beings in their tinkering with bioengineering and in their quest for military supremacy. That shift makes a catastrophe of this kind more likely, even (or especially) today.

The catastrophes here are the blindness of most on planet earth, caused by the viewing of a spectacular meteorite shower; and triffids, a new plant species which has spread across the earth and can move from place to place and kill with a poison stinger (think large Venus fly traps). But these have not been delivered by aliens. The meteorites are most likely the result of the break-up of a satellite, sent up by one of the Cold-War powers, circling the earth with some sort of luminescent weapon which blinds. The triffids have been engineered by a major power (probably the Russians) and spread worldwide. Remember all this was written in 1951, before all suchlike was commonplace science and technology.

As in all "end of civilization as we know it" stories, the novel follows a few principle characters as they try to survive. Also as usual, some people just give up and die or commit suicide, some die from ignorance and incompetence, some sit around waiting for a rescuer, some take advantage of the situation to prey on others, some want to recreate the same type of world which just destroyed itself, and some survive through a combination of common sense and intelligent humanity. Our protagonists are obviously the surviving type.

This novel has a bit of a different ending from most of its type, and certainly a different ending from the movie, as I remember it. It is more of a cautionary tale than most of this genre, emphasizing that the end of civilization as we know it will probably be a product of our so-called civilization. The fact that it was written in 1951 and is still pertinent today makes it extraordinary.

Recommended as both suspenseful and thought provoking. It is also very literate; not pulp-fiction writing at all. Thanks to Jonathan Aaron Baker for recommending it to me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

I can't imagine why I bought this book. You see, I keep a little notebook with the names of books I want to read to help me when I shop, particularly at used book stores. This novel was listed in my notebook--I must have seen some mention as I was noodling around on the computer which made me think I would like it. Well, I didn't like it, not at all. I can't imagine anyone liking it, but evidently my judgment of the potential popularity of a book is dead wrong, because I now find out that this must have been wildly popular around 1997-98. Consulting the Amazon site, I see that the novel has over 1,000 customer reviews, most favorable.

The book jacket bills this as a historical novel about "God's women." It is the story of Dinah, who is only briefly mentioned in Genesis. She is the daughter of Jacob and Leah, the granddaughter of Isaac and Rebecca, the half-sister of Joseph (the one with the coat of many colors), and the indirect cause of the slaughter by her brothers of all the men in a town.

Here are the reasons I disliked this book.

I have always presumed that the author of a historical novel took reported history and then added embellishments, interpretations, motivations, whatever, but hitched the narrative to established events. That is certainly not the case here. The only historical account of these people and events is in the Bible, and Diamant chooses to change that history to suit her narrative purposes. Dinah is not raped, as reported in Genesis, but falls in love and willingly has sex. Her father Jacob does not work for seven years to win his first love, Rachel, but for seven months. (This is a famous biblical love story, if you not familiar with it.) And so on--there are many departures from the source history.

And these are not "God's women" at all. They are portrayed as having a kind of Moon Goddess, new-age-sounding religion which includes a very graphically described piercing of the hymen in a coming-of-age ritual. According to this novel, the women do not subscribe at all to Jacob's monotheistic beliefs. Which makes no sense--how do the children learn to follow the one god?

And the men--almost all portrayed in a very derogatory light--are variously involved in bestiality, incest, self-pleasuring in public view, and so forth.

And the writing, which is terrible. Diamant constantly just tells about events rather then portraying them. It's like the biblical account in that way, with its "And it came to pass." Or as when a child tells you the plot of a movie and says, "and then," over and over, just hitting the high points. At no time did I forget I was reading a novel and not living the narrative, and I am a most susceptible reader for any writer even remotely capable of creating a fictive universe.

So I say, to the few potential readers who might still not have read this, don't bother.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

I like Stephen King--I like him as a person, because I think I understand him very well. (I could be totally wrong, of course.) I think he grew up as a smart kid in a place where being a smart kid was not particularly valued. I think he was awkward and shy and not particularly good looking, and was afraid of many things. I think he retreated into books and into his own imagination, where he could picture himself as the frightened but plucky hero who could defeat evil. I think inside his aging body he is still that misfit kid. And I sympathize...and empathize.

I have long loved Stephen King books, maybe because I share some of his fears and fantasies. But I have always thought that he could tell a good story better than almost anyone, and that he could portray characters so well that readers would feel as if they knew them. I have sometimes felt that he was the modern equivalent of Charles Dickens, even.

So, I am very unhappy to write that this book (and several others of his recent offerings) have not impressed me very much. Sadly, I found this novel only mildly interesting.

This is a story within a story within a story. Its framework story is part of The Dark Tower saga, and King says it is volume 4 1/2, reporting events coming between volumes 4 and 5. This part is very sketchy, only reporting how the Gunslinger ka-tet holes up through a storm.

The second story, which Roland the Gunslinger tells to his ka-tet during the storm, is a tale from his youth, of when he is sent by his father to investigate the murders committed by a mysterious shape-shifter, or "skin-man," who has seemingly taken the form of various wild animals to rend his victims. Along the way, Roland rescues a young boy, and he tells the boy the story of "The Wind Through the Keyhole."

This third story tells of a magical quest undertaken by a young boy to find a way to heal his mother of a terrible wound.

I don't know what to say: This all seems so rehashed and pieced together. I was not drawn into the story, and I did not stay up late to finish it. Maybe King has just visited the same scenes and the same types of characters too often. Maybe he is just getting older and has no fresh ideas. Maybe I am just getting older and more cynical.

Whatever. I am sorry, but I do not recommend this novel, even to King fans.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

One of the conversations in Kafka on the Shore goes this way:

"It's not something you can get across in words. The real response is something words can't express."

"There you go," Sada replies. "Exactly. If you can't get it across in words then it's better not to try."

"Even to yourself?" I ask.

Yeah, even to yourself," Sada says. "Better not to try to explain it, even to yourself."

That's the way I feel about this book. I really can't get it across in words, and I really can't say exactly what it means, even to myself. The meaning is like the truths revealed in dreams, which seem graspable for a moment but then slip away like sand from between the fingers. To report the plot is akin to saying that Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is about a man who turns into a giant bug. But here goes, anyway, in the interest of information to those who have never read this wonderful novel.

The chapters alternate between two stories: that of a runaway teenage boy who is escaping a (perhaps) abusive father and the Oedipal prophecy that he will murder the father and sleep with his mother; and that of an old man who is simple and cannot read or write due to a mysterious wartime occurrence. Their paths converge, as both are propelled toward a seaside city by mysterious forces. I forgot to mention, the boy awakes one morning covered in blood and later discovers that his father was murdered hundreds of miles away on the same night. I also forgot to mention that the old man can converse with cats and cause fish and leeches to rain down from the sky.

All of this sounds like something that China Mieville or Neil Gaiman would dream up, but their books are to be taken literally, just set in alternative times and places. Murakami obviously intends for his story to be taken metaphorically, and his time and place is present-day Japan. Mieville and Gaiman both provide amusement with their imaginative creations. Murakami provides enchantment, and a dream-like state where profound truths are almost graspable.

I read that the Japanese publishers of this novel invited readers to submit questions to the author in an on-line forum and received a reply of 8,000 questions. That makes me feel better, as I am evidently not the only one left puzzling about the meaning of the book and not the only one passionate enough about it to want to understand more. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. That being said, it is probably not for everybody. If you can't enjoy magic realism, pass it by.