Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)

Some novelists, even most novelists, tend to repeat themselves from book to book, returning to the same milieu, variations of the same story, or, at the very least, to the same genre. Not so, Kazuo Ishiguro. All seven of his novels (five of which I have read) treat with different cultural and physical settings, and even follow the conventions of different genres. This one is a fantasy set in early Britain a few years after the death of King Arthur, and has the feel of an allegory.

A peace has been achieved between the Britons and the Saxons after years of strife, but a mist lies upon the land causing forgetfulness of the past, even the immediate memories of daily life. One old couple, Axl and Beatrice, have a dim remembrance of a son in a distant village and set off together to seek him. Sustained by their love for each other, they encounter many dangers, aided in their quest by chance-met companions -- a Saxon warrior, a dragon-bit orphan boy, and the elderly knight Gawaine. Through this fantastical tale Ishiguro examines both the blessing and the curse of memories, and whether it is better sometimes to forget. It is also a love story and a meditation on the moralities of war and vengeance.

One constant in Ishiguro's novels is that they are all pervaded by a vague melancholy. This one is no exception. Any who expect a fairy tale ending will be disappointed. Yet is it not a fact that even the happiest of lives is touched with the bitter-sweet.

Ishiguro's prose here is impeccable, as usual. He is never pretentious or showy; most modern writers should take lessons from him about letting the characters and the story and the message take center stage, rather than their own cleverness. I would also highly recommend his novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, two of my all-time favorites.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

The best thing about Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies is that it surprises, constantly flouting expectations. For example, it is the conventional wisdom that a good marriage must be based on honesty and openness, yet the long, apparently successful marriage at the center of this novel is based instead on omissions and deception. The omniscient narrator says, "Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you gave voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you'd crush them to paste." Think about it. Don't we all know this to be true? Isn't it often better, kinder, to keep some things secret within ourselves?

There are certainly plenty of lies and omissions in this story of the marriage of Lancelot (Lotto) and Mathilde, which is given to us in two parts. The first section, the fates part, is told in third person mainly from the viewpoint of Lotto, beginning with his childhood of wealth and privilege. Throughout, he is supported in his narcissism and grandiosity by a series of women, most notably his self-sacrificing wife of more than two decades. The second section, the furies part, is told from Mathilde's viewpoint, also beginning with her childhood, which is filled with deprivation and trauma. The woman who is revealed is a far cry from the one Lotto thought he knew.

The Greek theater motif suggested by the title is explored in various ways, including a kind of Greek chorus. Groff also references many Shakespearian plays which point at the same theme. This is a very clever novel, sometimes verging on being too clever for its own good; occasionally Groff seems to be just showing off rather than advancing her story.

Fates and Furies was a finalist for the National Book Award and is short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, winner to be announced in March. It is considered to be a strong contender for this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Although the novel is extremely well done, I don't see it winning the Pulitzer because its characters are generally unsympathetic and often behave in unrealistic ways.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2012) (Translated from Italian)

Elena Ferrante is the pen name of a mysterious Italian author about whom nothing biographical is known, since she (surely this is a she) has chosen to remain anonymous. That lack of information only adds to the distinct impression that this might well be a memoir or thinly fictionalized autobiography rather than a work of fiction, mainly because it feels so honest and reflective of real life.

This is the story of the growing up and friendship of two young girls in Naples in the 1950s, but the dynamics of the relationship are universal, or at least I would assume so since I remember many of the exact same feelings as those voiced by the narrator. The complex mix of love, jealousy, and one-upmanship which, I believe, is present in all close female relationships, is portrayed so faithfully that it feels entirely familiar. Women will certainly understand the book better than men, but, make no mistake, this is not chick-lit by any means.

Along with creating a portrait of female friendship, Ferrante has brought completely to life a place and its people -- a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, with its traditions and superstitions and family conflicts and violence. The struggle of the girls -- each in a different way -- to escape the limitations of this closed world becomes the thematic element holding the plot together.

This is the first of Ferrante's four-volume Neapolitan series, which follows the two protagonists through their lives. Obviously, since the books tell a continuing story, it is advantageous to read them in order. I look forward to the next three, because I liked this one very much.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Slade House by David Mitchell (2015)

I don't know when I have been so disappointed in a book. Mitchell has been one of my favorite living writers: I would give his first five novels an A rating, even an A+ in the case of Cloud Atlas. I was not as enthusiastic about his just previous book, The Bone Clocks, but I found in it much to admire, although with reservations. (Reviewed in October, 2014) I would give that one a B+. This one is a C, if even that.

The plot goes something like this: once every nine years a couple of soul-sucking vampires create Slade House and lure in a victim to feed upon to maintain their long-living bodies. Beginning with 1979, Mitchell tells the stories of five of these incidents. That's it.

This maybe could have been effective if the stories were not so repetitious (the last one does have a twist), but they essentially all read the same. If the characters of the victims had been more fully explored, a reader might have developed some involvement and empathy, but their backgrounds are perfunctory and sketchy. If the incidents had been creepy or scary, the book could have been a frightfest (think Stephen King), but they are not frightening, not at all.

So I'm sorry to report that, even though David Mitchell has it in him to be a wonderful writer, I really cannot see the point of reading this book at all.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (2015)

Welcome to Braggsville is the story of a quartet of earnestly self righteous UC Berkeley students who decide to teach a Southern town a lesson about racism by staging a "performance intervention" during the community's annual reenactment of a Civil War battle, with unforeseen tragic results. The tone is satirical and ironic and often very humorous; the language is hip and trendy and often very inventive; the social criticism is far-reaching -- academic elitism, liberal self-righteousness, and covert racism are the principle, but not the only, targets. This is a provocative and creative endeavor, which only errs by being a just s shade TOO MUCH.

The first part of the novel features the trendy, ultra-hip slang of the Berkeley students and the academic jargon of their professors, exaggerated for satirical effect, of course. But sometimes it is exaggerated too much (surely), so that some passages become unintelligible to the average reader. The latter sections of the book, set in Georgia, feature a South too exaggerated in its overt racism to be believable at all. In today's political climate, every racist with any pretensions of gentility knows that it must be hidden, certainly not displayed in lawn ornaments. The inventive language is carried just a little too far, with a profusion of similes and metaphors, not all of which make much sense.

I recommend this novel, with reservations. It was long listed for the National Book Award and is considered a possible Pulitzer contender, but I believe it to be too tied to this specific time and too hipster-tinged to win that prize.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (2015)

If you are looking for a cheerful, feel-good book to read, run away from this one as fast as you can. It begins with a gas explosion which kills June Reid's daughter and the daughter's fiance', her ex-husband, and her lover. Filled with sorrow and survivor's guilt, June withdraws into herself, finally leaving everything and driving to a place that had made her daughter happy.

Clegg tells his story through short chapters from the viewpoints of a large cast of characters, a good many who have suffered tragedies and losses of their own. Some chapters are written in first person, some in third person, some in past tense, some in present tense, all providing a small piece of a kind of puzzle. This makes for some awkwardness for much of the book, because some characters' stories don't initially seem to have anything to do with the central plot. It does all comes together in the end, however.

This novel has received a great deal of critical praise and was long-listed for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, but I feel it may have earned some of its appreciation because its author is a major literary agent, prominent in the publishing world. While the book is cleverly put together and intellectually entertaining, it seems to me to have some major flaws.

Though the plot would seem to be one to elicit extreme sympathy for the tragedy-plagued characters, the tone is curiously detached and emotionless; the first-person narrators all speak in the same voice as the third-person narrator; in describing the non-restored vintage stove that is the cause of the explosion, Clegg has combined features of mid-century stoves with pilot lights and modern electronic ignition stoves, when a vintage stove would have neither and would have to be lit with a match. This might seem to be a small detail except that much of the plot centers on how the stove came to have escaping gas.

I believe most would find this novel interesting, but it is not nearly as good as I had expected.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)

This beautiful book begins when seventy-year-old widow Addie shows up at widower Louis's house with a proposition: "I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me?" she asks. "I'm lonely," she says. "I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk."

Thus begins a unique love story about two decent people in a small town at a time in their lives when public opinion and the urgency of sexual attraction have ceased to be important. Instead, with the wisdom gained from experience and awareness of past mistakes, the two come together through honesty and sharing, with no role playing or false expectations. Who has not longed for that kind of love?

The book is especially poignant when one knows the background of its writing: Kent Haruf had received a cancer diagnosis which gave him only months to live and was unsuccessfully attempting to keep his mind occupied by writing short stories, when he told his wife that he would "write a book about us." He died shortly after the book was completed. What a precious gift he gave her.

In a writing career that began late in life, Kent Haruf wrote simply about small town life with characters who were sometimes damaged but who were basically decent and well meaning. His novel Plainsong earned his first wide recognition, being a finalist for the National Book Award. It is one of the Top 100 of my favorite books ever.

I don't know if younger people would understand or treasure this book as I do, but I'm sure all above about 55 would. I finished it with tears running down my face, not at sadness about the ending of the book but at sadness about all the lonely people who never experience this kind of closeness.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)

In this collection Angela Carter retells fairy tales, but these aren't your grandmother's stories. You won't find your helpless heroines who have to be rescued by handsome princes. These fair maidens take charge and refuse to be victims. The thinly-veiled sexual themes of traditional folk stories are made explicit. The message is that females are fierce and sensible and sexual, making them forces to be reckoned with.

The language is extraordinary -- lush and baroque. In all its various retellings, "Beauty and the Beast" never before sounded this good. Angela Carter was an author of great talent; her novels Nights at the Circus and Wise Children are two of my favorites.

It's difficult to know how much the patriarchal stories (and now films) of our youth influence the way we view gender roles. These feminist fairy tales for adults offer a differing viewpoint.