Thursday, December 06, 2007

Leonora Carrington - "The Hearing Trumpet"

Leonora Carrington is probably best known as a surrealist painter, and that is undoubtedly a shame if "The Hearing Trumpet" is anything to go by. A more delightful book is difficult to imagine.

One way to describe it would be as a Roald Dahl take on a Miss Marple mystery. Still it would be a way off. For Dahl would have to be informed by a grown woman's point of view - and that point of view would have to take in account the truly surreal life of Carrinton.

Whether or not, the young Leonora snipped her guests hair while they were asleep in order to serve them omelets stuffed with their clippings for breakfast, is truly besides the point. If she didn't actually do it, she at least thought of the prank which is too surreal for words.

Geographical constraints aside, her nanny is also supposed to have rescued her from a Madrid asylum where the young british debutant had been institutionalized (after a short-lived marriage with Max Ernst), by way of submarine. Once again Si non è vero è ben trovato.

"The Hearing Trumpet" has that cosy feeling only the british seem to get across with the surrealist touch of magic and color that one can't help but believe is consequence of Carrington's adopted country, Mexico.

Our narrator is an extremely lucid and good-natured, ninety-two-year-old. Marian Leatherby is perfectly content in the back room and garden of her son and his wife's home where she keeps two cats and two chickens and looks at the moon. Often she vists her friend Carmella, a sophisticaded mature woman who wears day-glow wigs and writes letters to people she chooses out of a phone directory (and is truly amazed they never write back, a surrealist at heart).

Marian's only handicap is that she is stone-deaf which most of the time does not take any pleasure out of her days. Unfortunately her son, and most importantly his wife, seem to find her an embarrasment, and her grandson agrees.

Petit-bourgeois that they are they take offence at the sight of old-age, and the fact that Marian has a beard doens't much help; neither does the fact that she likes to tell their dinner guests stories which, more often than not, lack a clear narrative line.

When Carmella presents Marian with a huge hearing trumpet, her deafness is solved. However, the first thing she hears is her family conspiring to put her away in an asylum.

Carmella takes her cats, and the maid the chickens (less fortunate) and off Marian goes to a surrealist asylum if there ever was one. The director and his wife seem to be involved in some sort of new-age cult the exact dogma of which is never very clear. The only thing required, besides some truly strange gymnastics, is for the women (it is a female asylum) to conform, forget about humour, curiosity and of course, voicing an opinion ("Personality is a vampyre", Dr Gambit avows). If however, one can feign a spritual connection to the other world as one of the women does, one is in the clear.

The women live in bungalows shaped as boots, cuckoo clocks, mushrooms, birthday cakes, igloos, circus tents and lighthouses. However the asylum used to be a catholic convent, and a strange portrait of a winking nun faces Marian everyday at dinner.

The story of Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva takes up part of the book, by means of a journal passed on to Marian, just as events seem to turn the way of a murder mystery: two women conspire to kill a rival (by means of poisoned brownies, how else?) and end up taking the life of another, glutonous woman, who on careful observation is not quite what she seemed.

Amid a mutiny in the asylum, late-night reunions where tribal drums sound, and where the elderly women find themselves compelled to perform strange dances, a strange creature is unleashed from the misterious tower which looks upon the compound.

Marian is led into a basement for a ritual initiaton and an ice-age ensues. It is all good fun, for Carmella arrives in a limousine driven by a chinaman with fur coats for all and an army of cats in tow, while Marian's long estranged friend, Marlbourough, arrives in an ark, straight from Venice, accompanied by his sister, a wolf-faced woman.

It is enough to make one crave for old-age if its going to be half as wonderful.

"The Hearing Trumpet" is a feminine book in which the few male characters are never as interesting as their wifes, mothers or sisters. There is no room for children, Marian's adolescent grandson is an idiot, and the adults tediously conservative, deluded, egocentric and full of their own importance. Only old-age, especially female, grants a magical eye and a colourful disposition, humour and serenity to withstand the adult world's boorishness. Cats abound and a small glass of "portuguese wine" makes everything endurable, especially coupled with a french éclair.

Alchemy is as attainable and delicious as tinned sardines. Wonderful.

Adolfo Bioy Casares - "Asleep In The Sun"

In "Asleep in the Sun" as in "The Invention of Morel", what happens, happens only in the last pages of the book.

In this sense the synopses of both Bioy Casares are somewhat misleading: they suggest a fantastic universe that will engulf the reader from the first pages, when really it's the other way around. What amazes in both books is how "normal" everything seems even with it clearly is not.

What conspires to make it so, is the very ordered and rational way in which both the unnamed narrator of "The Invention of Morel" and Lucio Bordenave tell their stories: they are utterly confused by the events which begin to take place in their lives and the only shred of sanity they can cling to, the only thing keeping them from complete madness is the careful, factual writing of their ordeals.

In "Morel" the journal of events is written for future perusal of persons unknown, while Lucio describes his story to a childhood friend, in order to beg his help. In "Morel" people appear where previously there were none, people who are unable to see or hear the narrator; in "Asleep In The Sun" the protagonist's wife comes back to him after being in an asylum, completely changed. What magic or science have the doctors worked upon her character?

Lucio's story can be read in many different ways of course, one of the most powerful might be as a satyre of modern psychoanalisys. But the important question is the one facing our narrator: if a loved one is transformed into someone devoid of all her faults and endowed with qualities you have always wished for, are they still the same person? Do you still love them?

The question is especially hard for Lucio who has always, if somewhat shamefully, believed he loved above all, his wife's beauty. As she is a very difficult person, one would believe Lucio should feel nothing but gratitude towards the doctors who took her away, for she returns, still beautiful but also loving, obliging, tender and humble.

However, Lucio cannot reconcile himself with the new Diana: she wants to take strolls in places she never cared for previously, has forgotten her most prized ability, cooking; never wants to leave the house except in his company, when before she went out alone and came back late at night, which caused Lucio a great deal of anxiety.

After fending off his sister-in-law's lewd advances in Diana's absence (all the more distressing because she looked so much like her sister); and battling the guilt of having allowed her institutionalization, (in one instance by acquiring a gentle alsatian, also named Diana, for the wife had been wanting a dog)the return of the new Diana is too much for Lucio to bear.

He starts, slowly, to become more and more distressed, and as he looks into his wife's eyes he cannot avoid the question "who are you?". The search for the truth about Diana's character change is finally what will plunge Lucio and the story into the fantastic, behind the walls of the asylum.

It is worth noting that in "Asleep In The Sun" the characters seem to be either wicked or clueless with not much space in between (except for his father-in-law who is both). The message might be that Lucio, and all good-natured people along with him, put their sanity at risk by wanting to find out the truth about the world. And also, that by wanting to seem perfectly reasonable and sane when faced with figures of authority (such as the doctor Samaniego), the insane and the mean, one is always taken advantage of.

More than once, I felt that the only thing that could save kindhearted Lucio was to allow himself a fit of hysterics and rage. But alas, that is the one thing he (or Bioy Casares)will not allow. Even in a world gone slightly mad, Bioy's characthers always believe pondered words will save them. The reader is all the more unsettled because he knows they won't.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bassani, Bioy, Bulgakov, Colgate and Dahl

I feel a change coming on.

For months I've been concentrating on books which are either brand new releases or fairly contemporary, and while I'm not about to plunge head first into the so called "classics" I do believe I will be reading more and more "older" books.

Here are the five I've just finished:

Roald Dahl - "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More"

Adolfo Bioy Casares - "The Invention of Morel"

Giorgio Bassani - "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis"

Isabel Colgate - "The Shooting Party"

Mikhail Bulgakov - "The Heart of a Dog"

Of these, the one I enjoyed the most was Bassani's. Set in the italian city of Ferrara just before the beginning of the II World War, it follows the life of a young jewish man and his relationship with a brother and a sister who happen to be the progeny of the wealthiest and most renowned jewish family of the city. The wonderful thing is how the book, a memoir told in the first person manages so skillfully to convey the intricacy and nuances of the jewish community (those who are observant, those who are not; those who are wealthy and those who are not; and those who supported the fascist party and their counterparts)while never loosing sight of the most important thing: for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" is first and foremost the story of a first (and unrequited) love between the narrator and Micól Finzi-Contini.
There are, to be sure, disquietening events (such as the expulsion of the young jews from the local tennis club) which point to tragedy ahead, but Bassani cleverly withdraws any suspense from the table: from the very first pages we already know none of the Finzi-Continis will survive the II World War. This allows the reader to give undivided attention to the events unfolding: the unnamed narrator's difficult relationship with a father who adores him but who is frighteningly unaware of the gravity of the political situation (as is most of the jewish community); a father who is quick to criticize the Finzi-Continis, and just as quick to bask in pride when his son becomes a good friend with the children of the family; the tragedy of Alberto's (the elder Finzi-Contini) homossexuality (which is merely hinted at, this being an italian book published in 1962); Micól's cryptic personality, who seems at times to flirt with the narrator just to rebuff him immediately afterwards; in effect, a normal nineteen-year old trying to grasp the complicated path between childhood friendship, adolescent fling and adult love; and the gentile Giampero Malnate (the objet of Alberto's affection) a young communist of the most intense and simultaneously, naive convictions.
But even tracing all of these (and several others) webs of relationships is just part of what made "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" so engrossing - it is also incredibly visual, or maybe cinematographic is a better word. I finished it feeling as though I had walked the cobbled streets of Ferrara, cycled through the snow on a chilly night, walked the paths of the Finzi-Continis garden,climbed its stone walls, felt the warmth of their Palazzo and, of course played a whole lot of tennis.

Bioy Casares' "The Invention of Morel" was the hardest to read. I felt the author was determined in keeping me and my rational impulses at bay, which of course he was. The book is presented as the written log of an escaped prisioner alone in an island, for soon after his arrival strange events begin to take place. A party of revellers appears on the big house (called "museum") which exists on the island, but even though, our narrator falls helplessly in love with one of the women from the group, when he finally confronts her, the girl acts as though she does not see him. For the reader it is instantly obvious that she really does not see him, and we aim to find out why: is he dead? is she dead (along with the rest of the group)? is the narrator suffering from dellusions caused by the comsumption of indigenous berries? Is the "museum" a mental asylum where all the characters are institucionalized?
Why is Morel, apparently the leader of the group, forever engaging in mysterious conversations with the others where it is hinted that all will be solved in a matter of days? What are the strange contraptions kept in the basement of the building? Why are the tides impossible to understand and why, on certain days can two suns be seen in the sky?
Our narrator, obssessed with Faustine, and with the idea that the whole thing is a complicated ruse by the police, to capture him, is of little help to the reader. He states at the beginning that he means to keep his records as clear and scientific as possible, and this he does, the result being that we feel as though we are watching the events at a great distance. We forever want to yell at him "look out" or "over there, you fool"!
Faustine was inspired by Louise Brooks the silent film star and that got me thinking that there is a certain feel of a silent film to "The Invention of Morel". Just as our narrator cannot seem to communicate with his beloved (or any of the others on the island), so did I as a reader feel estranged from the action. But that wasn't necessarily bad, it was just incredibly confounding and strange.
The answer to the riddle of the island was completely unexpected and again, bewildering. It also poses all kinds of philosophical questions. Very unsettling, and yet I ran out to get another of Bioy Casares' books, which must mean something.

Dahl's book was a gift and what a gift! His short-stories might delve into the fantastic but I loved them because the writting is so old-fashioned. And what do I mean by that? I mean good ol' no-nonsese story telling, not made to impress anyone or in order to fill an assgnment for a creative writing course (on this subject read Stephen King on the NY Times).
When the world just seems incredibly grey and full of cinics this a great book to curl up with (meaning any given day).

Isabel Colgate's "The Shooting Party" is pure, unadultered escapism of the highest order. I almost felt guilty reading it, so quickly did I dive right in the story, set during a weekend of "sport" (the birds probably don't enjoy the aerobics much)in an english country mansion, in 1913. If I could have gone back in time for a day, this would be a top destination. Julian Fellowes's introduction to the Penguin edition explains why, in 1980, this was a daring, even revolutionary book (Fellowes was the scripwriter of "Gosford Park"), which is all very well and good, but today it is hardly shocking, only great, which is even better.
You can hardly mistake "The Shooting Party" for a period piece since the servants are not only seen, but also heard. What's more they also think! There is even an (admitedly naive at least politically)animal rights campaigner/socialist at hand. A wealth of characters between the host family, their guests, their servants and workers provides a rich canvas for Colegate who achieves with equal sucess the voice of Ellen, the maid or Sir Randolph Nettleby. There are exotics, (an hungarian count and a jewish businessman from South Africa) mean gentlemen, clueless young girls, salt of the earth men, generous women and a couple of prodigious young people from both the "upstairs" and the "downstairs", not to mention a pair of star-crossed lovers and a dead body at the end (without which no english country weekend is complete).

Bulgakov's "Heart of a Dog" is a small book, which feels tiny after the lenght and breath of "The Master and Margarita". It is a satire in which an imminent Moscow doctor transplants the pituitary gland and testicles of a man into a stray dog, who shortly after starts to metamorphosize into a human and to develop the character flaws the donor displayed while alive (alcoholism and thievery), while also displaying the particularly irritating trait (for Doctor Preobrazhensky, at least) of taking up with the building commitee which is composed of ignorant and agressive revolutionaries.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Kartography" - Kamila Shamsie

The city of Karachi is the main protagonist of "Kartography", a city where the streets truly have "no name" and where directions are intimately tied with events.

It may be violent, chaotic and "brazilified", with the wealthy taking their cars between mansions and country clubs, but Shamsie had me believe it is also magical - somewhere beauty is hard to come by and all the more unexpected and precious because of it.

The story centers around a childhood friendship between Raheen and Karim. Just when they step into adolescence and could have naturally evolved into boyfriend and girlfriend, Karim's father decides to take his wife and son to London and away from the escalating sectarian violence in the city.

The distance creates some misunderstandings, but the greatest one is caused by family history, for Karim's mother was once engaged to Raheen's father, and the boy's mother to the girl's father. What happened is intimately connected to the political violence of 1971, when Pakistan fought East Pakistan (Bangladesh), and to the ethnic groups each of the grown-ups belong to.

How much (or how little) Raheen and Karim know about these events will drive a wedge into their friendship, even though they never discuss it openly.

After boy and girl separate at Karachi's airport, each 13 years old, we next meet Raheen at an Ivy League university in the States. Frankly I didn't much enjoy that part: I kept feeling I'd read it before in some other book.

It's complicated, because the reality is that so many Pakistani, Indians, Chinese etc do go to universities in the U.S., many to study writing (like the author)and yet on the page, those experiences usually read like a cliché.

The other thing is that Raheen, our narrator, grows up to be less than likeable. At 13 she is a spirited young thing, but at 20 she's a bit of a sulker, unable to withstand any real affection from men, and she really does believe everything is about her.

In all honesty many 20 year olds are like that, but it sure gets a little grating. But never mind, soon Raheem and Karim, along with best friends Zia and Sonia are back in Karachi and "Kartography" really takes off - scaling violence and political unrest seem to conspire in order to throw our protagonists into similar tragic situations as those faced by their parents 20 years earlier.

There are many interesting map lines in "Kartography": the different kind of emigrants Raheen and Karim become (she, oblivious to the political situation of her country; he, obsessed by it); the subplot of their parents tale explained in separate chapters dated 1971; and the shifting identification of country, social class and ethnic group.

Overall, "Kartography" is an enjoyable book, though it left me with some nagging questions. There seem to be a lot of young writers, born in third world countries and educated in anglo-saxonic universities who rely on their regions of birth for their subject matter. In itself, that should hardly constitute a problem, but good literature needs more than a first hand knowledge of an exotic location.

One gets the feeling that in american universities these writers are urged to "write about what you know", and so they do. But they seem to aim at a western audience and so, play the "exotic" card rather heavy-handedly, while the main characters, the narrators, are of an almost absolute western sensitivity.

I don't really know what driving at exactly, except that of course, I want my books set in Karachi or Beijing or Seoul, but maybe I don't need the "benefit" of a american/ british university educated narrator every time.

Would those books get published quite as easily? I don't know.

I guess I used to be more naive about book publishing and have only recently started to realize that, like everything else, it is also political. There are many new writers who come from different ethnic backgrounds being published in the U.S. yet, it seems to me that most of them, besides being mostly female, have in common a degree in "Creative Writing" of some sort in a well-known university. Sometimes I fear they are all being coaxed into writing in a certain way by american professors, or worse, that only those who do, get published.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"The Baby Business" - Deborah L. Spar

"How Money, Science, And Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception"

I truly believe reproduction is going to be one of the most important political issues of the next century. You only have to look at abortion being discussed back and forth, to realize that women's reproductive rights are far from being a settled issue.

Spar's "The Baby Business" is fascinating stuff even for those, like me, who are severely impaired when it comes to economics. The author is a professor at Harvard, but the book keeps away from pie charts and complicated theories.

There are however, many facts that everyone can understand: 12 thousand dollars per round of IVF (usually amounts to 60-100 thousand dollars before the couple gives birth); 4500 dollars for an egg (on average, since it can go much higher than that); 300 for sperm; and, on average, 25 thousand dollars for an international adoption.

These numbers relate to the american market, and there are some countries who provide assisted reproduction as part of the national health program. Still, it is staggering.

The aim of Spar's book is to show clearly that reproduction is a business, and for many clinics, pharmaceutical companies and adoption agencies it is a very big business. Prospective parents don't of course, view themselves as consumers, anymore than society considers babies a product, and yet, there is no doubt that infertility, or the need for a child, created a market, and a fast growing one, at that.

And where there is demand...

Western society has been consistently looking the other way while the reproduction business regulates itself in the absence of legislation, and the result, for now, is a society where the wealthy can use every kind of technology to have babies (and when that fails, adopt one), while poor women are unable to control their own reproduction.

Spar makes a strong case regarding the economy, and resolutely keeps away from the ethics. What she wants is a political eye and hand involved in this (especially in the U.S.A.) un-regulated market.

But there is much in "The Baby Business" that will have the reader keeping his/her own moral score - it is impossible not to.

I was especially surprised at finding out that in America, black women of modest means, are often employed as surrogates for white couples. The reason? The different ethnicity of the baby, would make it harder for the surrogate to establish her rights in regard to the child in court.

International adoption is an even harder subject to tackle, but one that I suspect will come under harder political scrutiny faster than IVF or other "technological" reproduction techniques. For how can we be sure that the mothers of these babies where not put under pressure to give them up for adoption (in Guatemala (2) the subject has already been raised)? If they are indeed orphans in need of good homes why do the prospective parents pay 25 thousand dollars? Who receives this money? Can we be sure we are not creating a market that will try its hardest to survive, and even thrive?

Are we creating a society where the poor will be reproductive machines for the rich: egg and sperm donors, surrogate wombs, biological parents? Where only the wealthy will be able to benefit from genetic advances that can predict which life-threatening diseases (and even physical traits)a certain embryo possesses?

Debora Spar does not provide answers to these moral questions but does, rightly, insist that we are keeping from looking to closely at "The Baby Business" at our own peril.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Like A Sister" - Janice Daugharty

The fifties in America are usually portrayed as an age of unprecedented wealth, which they certainly were, for many. Stay at home mothers, television, supermarkets and one automobile in every suburban garage.

Daugharty's "Like A Sister" presents a different reality. Set in a small Georgia town in 1956, the book takes the reader through a few tragic months in the life of Sister, a 13 year old girl.

Neglected by her young mother Marnie and her new boyfriend, Sister spends most of her days and all of her summer vacation acting as a mother to her 10 year old twin brothers and baby sister. She yearns to be "respectable" like her neighbour Willa Lamar, without knowing exactly what that entails other than wearing shoes on the street, not sleeping in her day clothes and going to church.

Unfortunately for her, the citizens of Cornerville seem to have made up their minds: the Odumses are nothing but white trash, and whatever goes on in the back room of the cafe her mother and boyfriend have taken over, it is most certainly not respectable.

Sister loves her mother almost as much as the woman ignores her and her siblings, and like so many abused children is fiercely protective of Marnie: she tears petitions tacked to the door of the restaurant, hides a charred cross she finds one morning in front of the cafe. When, one night, she watches, unable to move, men dressed in white hoods assemble in front of the cafe, her most powerful emotion is shame - she feels as if she should be helping her mother.

Both the southern dialect and the geographical precision of the descriptions make "Like A Sister" an absorbing read. We feel the hot tar under Sister's feet as she makes her way across town, her little body growing tired and crooked as she carries her baby sister (a baby which, almost a year old still has not been given a name by her mother) on her hip up and down the road all day long.

In the end, though, it is Sister herself that makes Daugharty's book so poignant. A child so beaten down she doesn't even question the morality of the slimy local politician's attention: she knows it's got something to do with "sex", and even though she ignores what that means exactly, is aware at that young age that it is some sort of currency between men and women and tries repeatedly so convince herself to enter the bargain; a girl that is so aware of her own status in the small town that she is grateful that none of Willa's daughters are in her class at school - even though they all play together at home, she doesn't expect them to acknowledge her there.

When her mother finally decides to leave her behind and keep on moving, the girl is so desperate to convince Marnie that she will not be a burden, that she offers "We could both be whores" and means it. Sister would do anything, even after her siblings have been placed in adoptive homes, even after Willa has offered to take her in, to keep close to this woman who is nothing more than footsteps coming in late at night, shouts behind a closed door and far way memories of happier times.

It is while refusing to believe she has been left behind, while keeping the lights on so her neighbours will believe she is not alone that Sister falls prey to the sexual attack that has been eminent throughout most of the book.

What happens next is a particularly satisfying kind of revenge - the kind that southern women seem to be so deft at, cleverly hidden behind macadamia pies, iced tea, pink sundresses and the scent of magnolias - with help of the respectable Willa.

Of my latest reads, only Jim Harrison comes to mind as an author so firmly anchored in a sense of time and place - enough to make you live there while you read, and take you back whenever you remember it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Foreskin's Lament - A Memoir" - Shalom Auslander

And now for something completely different.

See, maybe Coupland is on to something when he moans about not growing up religious: it most definitely will mess you up, but then you'll get to write an incredibly funny book.

I read the first chapter online and knew immediately I had to read "Foreskin's Lament" as quickly as possible. I've just finished it, and now I want to get as many people as possible on board so we can all start using my favourite sentence in unison: "That would be so God".

There are so many books coming out every month on finding God, or at least some new-agey version of the guy/gal, that the whole prospect of someone trying desperately to loose him is already a winner.

Shalom Auslanderwas raised in an jewish orthodox community in the state of New York and that wasn't his only problem: his father was abusive and his mother withheld affection in exchange for religious compliance. If he was smart, he should have become a rabbi (he did dabble, briefly, with orthodoxy in his late teens)and saved himself a whole lot of trouble.

Instead, since the age of nine he became an avid non-kosher binge-eater, consumer of pornography (here, he didn't stray from family tradition, we soon find out) and not much later, a doobie smoking, yarmulke wearing, serial shoplifter.

How can you possibly go wrong with this kind of material?

Auslander doesn't and his childhood and coming-of-age are rendered even more dramatic from his narrative standpoint: at 35, he has just barely gained some much needed geographical and emotional distance from his family when he's hit by the one great feud voider of adult life, the first-born.

I don't really know if Auslander's book is as hilariously funny the absence of any kind of religious upbringing, but I'm pretty sure it's non-denominational: I had only a mild catholic education, but a lot of it rang true, especially the constant dread of punishment and the little deals you make with God in order to (try and) get something out of the bearded one.

The ironic tragedy of Auslander's position is not that he isn't religious, of course, but that he his. But like many others he sees a wide gap between God and the seemingly random prescriptions that organized religion sets up around him, the way that rabbis and priests want to be the sole brokers of a relationship that should be personal and maybe a lot more private.

That many people in religious communities are not as pious as they would have other believe, is a given. That a mother would cast her own child away for non-compliance is harder to swallow - or maybe not, given that whole Abraham-Isaac episode.

In the end, saying "Fuck this shit" and going out on your own way, is how many of the world's religions got their first break. At least, that's what Auslander is telling himself, and those of us with any sense will be shouting "Amen!" as he goes forth to find his own, private, Promised Land.

"I believe in a personal God; Everything I do, He takes personally."

"The Gum Thief" - Douglas Coupland

This one had me stumped for days. I finished it last sunday but I just couldn't make up my mind on "The Gum Thief".

The thing is, I couldn't believe Coupland actually wrote something so mediocre and derivative and was trying desperately to justify it. But I can't - if "The Gum Thief" had been written by an unknown author, I believe it would never have seen the light of day, and readers everywhere would have missed absolutely nothing.

I read "Generation X" when I was 12 or 13 years old and became a fully fledged fan at 16 with "Life After God". I grew up reading Coupland and he is probably the one author of which I read everything (fiction). I loved the "uppers" ("Shampoo Planet", "Microserfs", "Miss Wyoming", "All Families Are Psychotic") and grew to appreciate the "downers" ("Girlfriend In A Coma", "Hey, Nostradamus", "Eleanor Rigby"). Last year's "JPod" felt like his best work ever.

So I was looking forward to "The Gum Thief", set in Staples and featuring Roger, a divorced forty something and Bethany a twenty-something goth. After the first entry by Roger, though, the book just seems to go nowhere, slowly. I had to force myself to keep going - I actually fell asleep three times reading it (and not at night).

It's not just the fact that so many of the ideas are recycled from previous novels (life after a certain age is meaningless and empty; fear of the pending apocalipse; sadness at the absence of faith, or at least a religious education; loving the new, hating the old ergo, hating Europe; fear of not being able to love or connect with other human beings)because Coupland always played around with the same set of fixed notions. And it's not that the format of narration (circumscribed to written communications between Roger, Bethany and her mother) seems to keep the characters and story at a fuzzy distance.

It's just that it's no good. And while on the one hand, I got the feeling that Coupland was aiming at a younger audience of new readers (hence the summary of all his ideas), on the other, it was pretty clear that his heart wasn't in it.

"The Gum Thief" makes life seem completely bleak and hopeless, and then, in the very last pages, as Bethany tries to take her own life, Roger (who certainly contributed to her feeling that way)suddenly changes his tone dramatically and tells her, in a completely sappy epistle, that life is worth living: sure, there's not any real hope of attaining knowledge or happiness, but's great to be alive!

Honestly, it felt like the last, life-affirming and then "hey, the whole thing was a joke! Lighten up!" pages were ordered by the publisher, in an effort to curtail a wave of teen suicides in British Columbia.

Look, don't spend 250-plus pages persuading me that life in the new millennium is utterly hopeless and depressing and then try to tell me you don't really mean it. That's just wrong.

As for "Glove Pond" the novel within the novel, that Roger keeps feeding Bethany and that critics found "a camp reconstruction of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” directed by a young John Waters" and "campily funny", I thought it was beyond terrible. I still don't know what the point was, and if there was one, it still doesn't justify how completely uninteresting it was.

My husband had a dream where I said "Look not only Douglas Coupland doesn't want to grow up, he also doesn't want his readers to grow up". I don't know if that's it, but "The Gum Thief" left me feeling a little sad. I almost wish it had left me feeling old.
That, I could deal with.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Free Food For Millionaires" - Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee's first book is quite the tour de force. For starters its length is staggering at 560 pages but it is also ambitious in the number of characters it follows during a period of more or less five years.

The protagonist is Casey Han, daughter of korean immigrants in the United States. Just out of Princeton where she studied economy, we first meet her during a stressful family dinner after she has just decided to defer her entry into Columbia Law School for a year.

Her parents are very conservative and her father in particular expects nothing short of complete devotion and obedience of the two sisters (Casey's sister Tina is going to Medical School). The dinner ends in a violent confrontation where Joseph Han strikes his daughter and tells her to leave her home permanently. Casey goes home to find her white boyfriend engaging in a threesome.

These are the events that set "Free Food For Millionaires" in motion. Casey is an extremely likable character: though she has gone to Princeton and engaged in most of the social activities the university threw her way (vacations in the Hamptons, eating clubs, golf) she doesn't consider herself an Ivy leaguer. The fact is, her parents work in a dry-cleaners (the family has never had a vacation) and live in Queens, and even though she is loan-free because of a scholarship she can hardly indulge in the sort of carefree spending that seems to go with the territory. Not for Casey the benefit of a masters degree in Italy (in which her best friend Virginia is about to embark), or the gift of a Manhattan apartment bestowed by her father (such as her childhood friend Ella receives). She doesn't even have the financial support of being admitted into a banking program like her boyfriend.

She has no job, ambivalent feelings toward a career in either finance or law, and her love of well tailored and expensive clothes and hats, quickly throws her into a bottomless pit of credit-card debt. Whenever she can, she slips off into a rooftop or terrace and smokes about five cigarettes in a row.

Following Casey in her after school years, as she grows estranged from her parents and searches for meaning, money and love, would have been more than enough. Yet Lee, influenced by an admiration of XIX century novels (as she states in this interview), gives voice to the stories of many other secondary characters. And this is where the book lost its stamina, and freshness as far as I was concerned.

It is arguable that Casey's goody-two shoes friend Ella, deserves her own story, as does her korean-gone-mogul boss, Sabine, her sister Tina, her mother Leah, Virginia or her co-workers - even Ella's husband Ted gets his two cents - but I constantly felt as if Casey's voice was being robbed of depth in order to accommodate this vast cast of supporting actors. And more often than not, their respective episodes felt forced and stilted.

At the beginning of part II I was surprised and upset when I was told two years had passed - what had Casey been doing and thinking those 24 months?

And there was little final resolution for many of the characters. Tina, the younger sister, I felt was especially badly treated by Lee's choice of narrative: just as she shows some sign of being more than the dutiful daughter we abandon her broke, taking an indefinite break from med school in order to take care of her first-born. Casey's mother is also left at an impasse after having a miscarriage, being made pregnant by her choir director.

Even Casey's finale is left vague: she probably won't go to business school, or will she? Is getting back with the boyfriend she so carelessly cheated on?

There were great moments in "Free Food For Millionaires" and I wouldn't necessarily say no to another book by Lee. But after more than 500 pages I was left with the feeling that the real story was about to begin just as the book ended.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Franny And Zooey" - J. D. Salinger

"It's everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so - I don't know - not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and - sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way."

"Phooey, I say, on all whiteshoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day."

On college professors:
"They make everything they touch turn absolutely academic and useless - Or worse cultish."

Well, you get the gist of it. Franny and Zooey are sister and brother, 20 and 25 years old respectively. The year is 1955 and the kids are going wild - actually, they seem to be going mental. They are obsessed with acting in almost the same way they are obsessed with zen buddhism, hindu sacred texts, and christian sects - but mostly, they can't stop going on about how everyone else is so dense and frivolous, so absolutely incapable of glimpsing their deep personal moral dilemmas.

Well screw Franny, Zooey and Holden while you're at it. You know what it is, don't you? These kids are rich. Period. That's their number one problem. 1955, 2005 whatever. They're still around, looking pretty and distraught at the lack of meaning, Truth and beauty in life. But guess what? They never worry about the rent, carfare or lunch.

They all annoy the hell out of me. But. I'll never be that witty, dahling. Nor that insightful. Like it or not, Franny's evaluation of campus life, the self-aggrandizement of teachers and general emptiness of students is still true today. It still drives many away from college and turns many more slightly insane.

Franny and Zooey aren't lovable - they are much too self-conscious for that. But at least they don't seem to make up excuses for themselves. In a way, they know they are privileged and detest the way they can't just blend with the crowd of Ivy league nitwits. They are both exceptionally clear-eyed about human nature - which, no matter what anybody says, is not, necessarily, a good thing. They are fiercely critical and more than a little judgemental - also, of their own motivations.

You probably wouldn't want neither of them as friends but you end up wishing them well. For Franny and Zooey, despite their background and upbringing (or precisely because of it), are the kind of young people you could imagine being institutionalized a few years down the road.

It can be argued that right beside Holden Caufield they are J. D. Salinger's closest alter egos. They are a little bit mad and a little bit sad. Sometimes they talk like insufferable snobs and sometimes they're right on the money. Just to be on the safe side we best keep a couple of them around. Preppy kids keepin' it real, and all that.

"I don't think it would have all gotten me quite so down if just once in a while - there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn't, it's just a disgusting waste of time!"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"The Wars" - Timothy Findley

The War to end all Wars - more than dead, almost as many missing, injured.

Findley's 1977 "The Wars" is the story of a nineteen year old canadian, Robert Ross, who enlists in 1915 to fight in World War I, and is driven, partly through his own character and partly as a response to the bloodshed and cruelty he witnesses, to perform an act of both madness and beauty.

The story is told by an unnamed historian, who relies on photographs, letters documents and interviews in order to trace Robert's story from his childhood in Canada to his death.

Findley has been described as a great "teller of tales" but to my mind his strength lies elsewhere. It is not that his stories are imaginative, which they are - rather, they make up a whole world into which the reader dives, retaining not an ounce of disbelief. Just as in "Pilgrim" written 22 years later, "The Wars" is an entrancing book, which kept me mesmerized for the two days it took to read it.

Once in it, you can barely stand to look up from its pages, and while reading it you loose all sense of being a reader - you are someone who has fainted, or has fallen into a particularly heavy nap, and been transported, not into a dream world, but into a reality so far hidden from your personal knowledge, that is nevertheless, undeniably true.

Cleverly weaving his descriptions into the action, Findley never allows you to slip from his grasp. "The Wars" has no descriptive features that aren't part of the narrative - everything you see, hear and smell is rendered through your different narrators with the natural rhythm of life and death.

You go down the steps to the hold of the S.S. Massanabie with Ross and smell the stench of hundreds of horses kept frightened in their own filth, with not a single porthole opened for fresh air, you see the only light provided by an oil lamp and feel the heaving of the ship. Your own revulsion is indistinguishable from the boy's as he is required for the first time in his life to kill a living being, a horse that has fallen and broken his leg, and you see the white of the horse's eyes as he stares with confusion and pain at his murderer.

It is in the trenches, where Robert is kept from the front line through his officer status, that the madness of war quickly starts to pour through: some of the boys go mad, some turn into cruel beings, most simply die.

Then there is Rodwell, a man who does the unthinkable: in the middle of the carnage he collects small wounded animals, birds, rabbits, hedgehogs, toads and nurses them in a makeshift hospital under his bunk bed. His suicide, after he is forced to watch the torture of a cat by his comrades in arms, and the letter he leaves Robert to deliver his daughter, provide the emotional climax of "The Wars".

After a leave of absence in England, Robert goes back to the front and the events precipitate: he is raped by fellow officers whose identities he will never know and from there on we feel him slowly retreating into his own mind. He is constantly, inexplicably, spared while men all around him are killed during attacks.

It is in the aftermath of one such attack that Robert, accompanied solely by a black mare and a dog he has found among the debris, sets loose one hundred and fifty horses trapped into a burning train. He means to save them, and stables them nearby, but the army is, of course, in pursuit of the young traitor.

The horses end up burned alive and we are denied the relief of seeing Robert go down in martyrdom with them. He would survive, horribly disfigured, to be court marshaled and die at 26.

"Someone once said to Clive: do you think we will ever be forgiven for what we've done? They meant their generation and the war and what the war had done to civilization. Clive said something I've never forgotten. He said: I doubt we'll ever be forgiven. All I hope is - they'll remember we were human beings."

During his months on the front Robert Ross killed three people: inadvertently, a german soldier who was assisting his escape, a senior officer who prevented him from saving a herd as their stable was under attack, and a soldier who tried to stop him as he made his final ride surrounded by 150 free horses.

Monday, October 08, 2007

"Joe Gould's Secret" - Joseph Mitchell

"Joe Gould's Secret" is made of two different articles, both published in The New Yorker about a down-and-out poet and would be historian, resident bohemian at several Greenwich Village diners and bars, Joseph Ferdinand Gould.

The first, shorter piece is dated 1942. Joseph Mitchell was writing profiles of New Yorkers with an eye toward the excentric and unusual and Gould seemed a natural fit. He had been traipsing around the Village for years, much of the time drunk, gathering an informal circle of friends (and some enemies) among the more famous poets and artists of the neighborhood, whose hand-outs kept him just one step ahead of homelessness and hunger.

The interesting bit of curio about Gould was his monumental work in progress: a massive Oral History (of the world) in which the conversations of everyday people (and some famous ones) where noted down in grammar school writing pads.

"Professor Seagull" is funny and tragic, but it is the second, lengthier "Joe Gould's Secret" written twenty-two years after, that brings Gould and Mitchell's characters into focus while allowing a very rare glimpse into the backstage of journalism. It is here that we learn what happened after, the way that life muddied the carefully written words of the author.

Gould became a frequent and with the months passing, unwelcome, visitor of Mitchell's office almost every week. His verbosity would not be stopped and the journalist, ever the southern gentleman, becomes an unwitting confidant of every detail of Joe Gould's life story.

For, putting the ambition of his Oral History aside (of which Mitchell never saw a single page during the first assignment), it is his own life that seems to capture Gould's every waking thought: the son of a wealthy and puritan New England family, he was unable to fulfill his father's expectations but, though he left home at a young age, never solved his heartbreaking relationship with his parents.

The reader sharply feels Mitchell's discomfort of being inconvenienced by the mostly drunk, repetitive Gould to the point that he tries, quite frantically, to get a publisher interested in the Oral History, seeing it as the only means of getting the old man off his back.

It is Mitchell's stepping forward in "Joe Gould's Secret" that makes this book such a treasure: we witness his southern traits of politeness, loyalty and honour as they shape this remarkably honest chronicle of what came after the final period. The reader empathizes with his frustration, suspicion, anger and finally the respect he develops toward the tragic Gould.

If the Oral History is but a figment of Gould's alcoholic and mentally ill mind, is it less remarkable just because he failed to put the words on paper? Is the absolute truth the most ethical course of action where dignity and respect are concerned? These are the questions Mitchell grappled with for decades before setting down to write "Joe Gould's Secret" - his answer is to look the reader straight in the eye and tell a sad story that is not only a beautiful epitaph to his subject, but also a testament of undying admiration to the city of New York, its fools and holymen.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"The Enchanted April" - Elizabeth Von Arnim

Can our surroundings influence our nature? The classic "The Enchanted April" offers a resounding positive answer.

Lotty, Rose, Caroline and Mrs Fisher are four strangers brought together by the promise of a newspaper advertisement:

"To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.
Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times."

The Londoners suffer from neglect at the hands of their husbands and themselves: While Lotty stifles in the day-to-day duties as a middle-class housewife, Caroline suffocates in the glitter of the jet-set and Rose forces herself into a life of churchgoing piety to atone for the perceived sins of her husband; Mrs Fisher seems to have settled herself among dead friends, gloomily waiting her turn, a true Victorian.

San Salvatore, inundated with fragrant and colourful blooms, with its view of the sea and italian food will change these women forever - in fact, when they finally arrive, it will also change their husbands and lovers.

As the Von Arnim puts it, the castle forces its inhabitants into the opposite of a vicious circle - a virtuous one - where everyone is nice and so everyone feels well, and predisposed to niceties.

I was sad at how Lotty's character, which won me from the first page, seemed to disappear as the action moves to San Salvatore, and yet it makes complete sense. For she in fact dissolves into the italian garden, woods and water, and as soon as she sets foot on the path to the castle is at one with it. It is the other three who will take some time to ripen in the sun and abandon the constraints of politeness, haughtiness and distrust, the various grey London coats in which they hide their fear of life, death and love.

As Lotty puts it in the very beginning:
"What we both need is a holiday."

Monday, October 01, 2007

"Lost & Found" - Jacqueline Sheehan

You're right. It was the cover that did it. But how could anyone resist?

I didn't have high expectations for "Lost & Found". In fact, the sweetness of the cover made me anticipate a watered down novel, targeted at busy women in need of a weekend book.

In fact, Jacqueline Sheehan's was surprisingly profound.

The synopsis might suggest light-lit (of which there is nothing wrong with, per se) but the writer's eye for character detail delivers a lot more.

Rocky is a 38 year-old psychologist who is delivered a terrible blow: her husband dies of a heart attack and she, a trained lifeguard, is unable to revive him through CPR.
Unable to slip quietly into widowhood, she leaves her old life behind and moves to a small island where she takes up a post as animal control warden, not disclosing to anyone her past occupation and tragedy.
Enter a big black lab, with a serious arrow injury and in serious need of a foster home.
Here's where I thought it would get sappy - dog saves girl through undying love etc.
But even though Lloyd the dog ends up saving a lot of characters, Sheehan never gets sickly sweet.
Instead we are treated to a valuable insight into the hearts and minds of the female characters. And between Rocky's panic attacks, her teenage neighbour's anorexia and her older girlfriend's fear of death we get a whole spectrum of women's complicated relationships with themselves, women and men, their bodies and food.
That Sheehan is a psychotherapist can only have helped with these portrayals, which are, to my mind the strong suit of "Lost & Found".
The mystery that surrounds Lloyd's injury, the thriller in which it develops, Rocky's interest in archery, and the fumbling way in which she develops a love interest are also very well achieved - but they are the icing in this very chocolaty, perfect comfort reading with a twist book.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"American Born Chinese" - Gene Luen Yang

Yes, some people didn't grow up ashamed of something - their family, their family's religion, ethnicity, finances, reputation or simple uncoolness. I wonder how they end up building their personalities...must be that well-adjusted frame of mind we hear so much about...

Striving to be like everybody else is every one's childhood dirty little secret - and with adolescence this path usually takes us right down to arrogance and meanness, just like Yang's characters.

A graphic novel that like (or rather, more) than Tintim can be enjoyed by anyone from 7 to 77 years old, and arguably more important, since it portrays a moral lesson we are mostly keen to forget.

The ethics of "American Born Chinese" rang very close to my own, so it was no surprise to find Yang is a catholic. I'm of the lapsed type myself, but hey, dogma dies hard. Still, I believe anyone can enjoy this - we just feel more guilty.

Most of us regain our senses somewhere along the line and develop a sense of pride about our unique background, but Yang's book is remarkable in that it takes the reader so vividly back to those playground/high school days when we just wanted to be like the other blond, blue-eyed, thin and pretty kids.

The only thing that made me sad was realizing this story is happening to some kid right this instant...
Why can't we inject the little monkeys with some age-old wisdom?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"A Year In Japan" - Kate T. Williamson

A great deal of the attraction about Japan for westerners, is the visual side of the culture, the attention to detail and social emphasis on beauty and balance.

Kate T. Williamson's book of watercolors and carefully thought out commentaries on seasonal and cultural events is the perfect antidote for those of us who will have to wait a couple more years before travelling to the land of the rising sun.

Other books I've read with a Japanese theme:

"Hokkaido Highway Blues" - William Ferguson
My favourite of these by far. On undertaking a hitchhiking odyssey across Japan, Ferguson unravels many a curious lore.

"Kimono - Fashioning Culture" - Liza Dalby
A bit too detailed unless you want to know absolutely everything about this traditional costume.

"Memoirs Of A Geisha" - Arthur Golden
I really, really loved this book (must have been nine years ago) but the movie really ruined it for me. Well, it didn't ruin the book, but the idea of it, if you know what I mean.

"Geisha Of Gion - The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki"
I don't remember too much about this one, but I seem to recall enjoying it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Safekeeping - Some true stories from a life" - Abigail Thomas

"She would (if she could) put her arm around the girl she'd been and try to tell her, Take it easy, but the girl had no receptors for Take it easy."

Like the small skipping stones her father had kept - and that she unwrapped only years after his death - Abigail Thomas gives the reader these smooth, heavy and understated vignettes of her life.

Her tone is motherly, like a warm winter blanket as she shares what has been an incredibly full emotional life.

By 26 she had three small children and no job. She made do in a small apartment until husband number two, almost twenty years her senior, came along. The relationship was uncomfortable on both ends, but left Thomas with a forth child and a slowly blossoming friendship cut short by death.

Death is everywhere in "Safekeeping". Parents, loved ones. There is also loneliness and anxiety. Yet it is the poetry of Thomas' writing that lingers after the book is closed.

On chocolate liquor:
"It wasn't liquor. It was candy with attitude"

"They had a big window installed in the kitchen that looked into the woods. In the fall afternoons she used to watch them empty of their light like a glass of bourbon being filled to the brim."

More melancholic than "Three Dog Life", "Safekeeping" feels like one those jagged moments in life when we are forced to stop and take stock. Some much is taken away in what seems an unjust manner, and then, amazing gifts are bestowed when we least expect them. The only protection against dark times, Thomas seems to suggest, is memory. However unreliable it may be, it is our only thread of understanding, the only shot at making sense, the only wisdom we can leave behind.

"It was a party in what was to become Soho, lots of drinking, lots of smoke, and somebody said something I didn't catch, and another man replied, one hand on the back of his own head, the other holding a cigarette, both men wearing togas as I recall, "Oh honey, any sense of security is a false sense of security". Everybody laughed, but I didn't get it. What was so funny?
Now I get it."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Worker's Write!"

These short stories are published by Blue Cubicle Press and each has a theme. I read the first three (Tales From The Clinic will be released shortly): Tales From The Cubicle/ Classroom / Cash Register.

The one I enjoyed the least was Tales From The Cubicle, but don't blame the authors. I too was a cubicle slave for more years than I care to remember (okay, only four but it felt like a lifetime), and most of the stories brought back the anxiety and the meaninglessness of it all. Which is a great credit to the authors.

In Charles Conley's "Cubicles From This Angle" the sentence "Coffee rooms designed even more ingeniously than the cube unit, if you can believe it, for the simple reason that they imply ease, relaxation, a moment to yourself, but in fact suppress repose and banter." felt like an epiphany. I can't say how many times I cut my own fifteen minute breaks short because of a vague feeling of discomfort I couldn't quite place, and went back to my station early. Of course the company wouldn't want you to enjoy you free time and like an idiot I never realized this was a planned thing.

My favorite was "Cubed" by B. A. Goodjohn, not incidentally because her main character makes a run for it in the end of the story.

I was also a substitute teacher for half a school year but, while it was enough time to understand I would probably not enjoy it full-time (as I always said, mother), I didn't stay long enough to become bitter. Maybe that's why I enjoyed "Classroom" more: I experienced just a tiny bit of the hardship of teaching and cannot help but feel immense admiration for those who pursue it for decades. And I'm not talking about the new teachers who come in bright-eyed, believing they will change everything; I mean the ones who stay even though they understand they can change very little.

Kindergarten, primary school, high school and college. My favorite tales in this volume covered all the educational steps (respectively "Cupid's Chaos" by Helen Price Walters, "Resistance" by Dale-Marie Bryan, "Twenty-Five Pounds" by Christina Cabrera and Kenneth Pobo's "Friday Afternoon"). Bryan, Cabrera and Pobo all address, in various degrees of poignancy the dilemma of the teacher who feels useless in the face of the student's pain and disinterest, Walters' tale was pure, much needed, sweetness.

I tended to like the stories that presented the work in a straightforward manner better, while the more fantastic ones sort of went over my heart.

Finally, "Tales From The Cash Register". I never had that particular experience, so think what you may, but this was my absolute favorite. Working the register might be the more narrative friendly of these occupations or (very likely) I read these tales with rose tinted glasses on. Brian Brown's "Dinner Alone" and Michael Giorgio's "Killer Shift" are the most memorable, but I also loved Diana Eid's, Rose Gowen's and Robin Svedi's. Even Sierra Bellows' "Shift Work", with more of a bittersweet tone to it, felt cosy.

I couldn't help noticing that two short stories in different volumes start with the exact same sentence, maybe the result of a creative writing workshop. Most of the contributing writers are still struggling to make the pen their primary means of financial support, and just for keeping at it they deserve support. But regardless of that fact, there are many great tales here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Town House" - Tish Cohen

Heck, I thought I was going to be sooo smart with my "About A Boy" reference, but a quick google search (Town House movie) proved I'm way behind. The big screen adaptation of Tish Cohen's "Town House" is already in the works, and it's been dubbed "About A Girl" so obvious are the similarities with the film starring Hugh Grant (itself based on a book by Nick Hornby).

When you already know the book you are reading is being turned into a movie, there is no way you are reading it the same way: you're wondering about who will play which role, how close the adaptation will be to the plot, the visual aspect of it all. I couldn't help doing a "Hollywood version" of "Town House" in my mind instead of the "regular" one I do with every book.

But it's silly, isn't it? The only thing that should matter is how much you enjoy the story itself.

I already knew "Town House" was on its way to the screen when I started reading it. But I wasn't prepared for being reminded constantly of films while I read it - "About A Boy", "As Good As It Gets" and that awful one where Bruce Willis meets his younger self. It brought back every movie with a anti-social male adult facing a psychological mid-life crisis with the help of a precocious/ adorable child, and a female character that he doesn't quite deserve, but in the end, gets.

Jack Madigan is an agoraphobe, who occupies a Boston Townhouse he inherited from his rock star negligent dad, who passed away when he was an infant. His wife has left him and his son Harlan is 17 and obsessed with "uncool": 70's shag carpets, polyester, Shawn Cassidy, disco balls etc.

His therapist of 15 years has proven, to say the least, unhelpful: Jack can't even retrieve the newspaper without suffering a full-blown panic attack.

It just so happens that the house, Jack's hub of security, is mortgaged and about to be sold, since he hasn't been able to meet the payments. His talent lies in a keen eye for colour, especially the subtleties of white, but being house bound has made his customized paint business nearly defunct.

The two characters that get Jack's recovery in motion are Dorrie Allsopp, a young blond bubbly real-estate agent (Reese Witherspoon or Kate Hudson could get the gig according to Cohen) and a nine year old girl (also blond) who despite having egocentric parents is full of joy and bravery (the author suggests Dakota Fanning's kid sister for the part).

From the start it's pretty obvious that a) Jack will find some last-minute way to save his house; b) that through his affection for both Dorrie and Lucie he will conquer his fear of the outside world.

The only question is, will Cohen make the road that leads to that inevitable end interesting, funny and surprising?
Not so much, would have to be my answer.

Some of the characters, most notably Harlan the son, never get off the ground. Even Dorrie is more of a sketch, and she deserved better. Lucie is life-like but then she is based on Cohen's memories of her own childhood. The house, that should have been a major character, actually suffers from a lack of it.

Every loose end is tied so nicely that I couldn't help but feel disappointed.

You see, what I felt Cohen portrayed very well is the despair of Jack's agoraphobia. I could feel the dizziness and his pounding heart when he left the house, his despair at wanting and failing to be normal. In the end it seems to go away so easily...
I couldn't help but wonder who he was - his phobia was what defined him throughout the entire book and then, he sort of disappears into a happy ending of promised normalcy.

I'm sure the romantic finale will play well on camera, but if it's a good read you're looking for, I'd suggest something different.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Lapham Rising" - Roger Rosenblatt

For those who enjoy sarcasm, and secretly (or not so secretly) deride the rich and (pseudo) intellectual, especially when the two combine - which, if one were to believe everything we read and hear, is very often indeed, "Lapham" may well be the perfect summer book. Although you could definitely use it this winter as an antidote against the cold.

Henry March is the fortunate proprietor of an old family house, that sits in that most prized piece of real-estate called "The Hamptons". Middle-aged, his children have left, and recently, so has his wife ("the last straw" of the relationship is told in an hilarious chapter, featuring a Hamptons dinner party).

March used to be a writer ages ago, but has since left that particular métier alone - he considers himself a mediocre talent and is adamant not to add anything to his body of work. In fact, March would be content if only the Hamptons were not the most socially active place in the planet, and therefore the worst for a self proclaimed hermit.

But our narrator could deal with that particular problem - what he cannot deal with is the babelic construction going on just opposite his island - a gigantic house of summer (complete with all-inclusive air-conditioning)for Lapham, the heir of a asparagus-tong fortune.

For the reader's benefit, Rosenblatt (who by his own admission, only dreamed up Hector, in the final stages of writing) provides March with a talking buddy - an evangelical west highland white terrier, fully convinced of the benefits of capitalism and a socialite setting.

We follow Henry in his quest to put an end to the "real statement" across the bay, and his hope that it will spark a continent wide guerilla movement against the aesthetical (and other) crimes of the wealthy. To say that it does not go according to plan would be an understatement.

Beneath all the laugh-out loud moments there is also quite a lot of serious stuff here, for those who might bother with that reading: Rosenblatt describes poignantly the working classes of the Hamptons (who, even though I had seen many film representations of the area, I never thought about, and imagined did not exist). Unlike the historical british "help", they don't even enjoy the priviledge of being needed, so expendable to the rich are their existences.

All the injustice Rosenblatt (or March) see, the way everybody wants to be like everyone else and yet "special", are catapulted back to their neighbours in healthy doses of irony and disdain. Some of my favourite lines:

"Several summers ago a homeless was spotted wandering the grounds of the Meadow Club in Southampton. The members did not know what to do with him, so they threw him a party."

About the "once-able writer" Vandersnook
"He had written two good novels long ago, but then he had become himself."

And finally:
Hector - "But isn't a career important?"
March - "Not when it interferes with a life"

Enough said.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Life: the wonderful, the schmaltzy

"Three Dog Life" - Abigail Thomas

"The Good Life" - Jay McInerney

Sometimes (most of the time, for me) it’s more difficult to write about a good book than about a bad one. I’m more articulate in loath than in awe. So, here it goes:

Abigail Thomas’s book is a series of mini chronicles documenting the accident which left her husband without any short-term memory and unable to function autonomously.
One night, walking Harry (the dog the author had insisted on getting), Richard ran after him through oncoming traffic when the leash broke, and was run over.

Instead of widowhood, Thomas was left to confront a different, less discussed purgatory: she had to arrange the daily life and care of a loved one who, though present in body was, if not completely gone, utterly transformed.

That Thomas never blamed Harry the beagle, and adopted two other dogs in the following years, will probably not seem very far-fetched to other dog owners. That she is able to write without a hint of cheap sentiment and yet so vividly portray her ordeal is what truly brought me to tears – once when I read the ending, and a second time, when I told it to my mother.

McInerney’s book is the complete opposite: it reeks of cheap sentiment, schmaltz and soap-operism and the 9/11 back-drop made it even more unbearable. I was surprised at how much I hated it, since I read “Bright Lights, Big City” when I was 11 years old and thoroughly enjoyed it. I guess I grew up in the subsequent 19 years, whereas McInerney is confined to being for ever an increasingly juvenile writer. However, I also enjoyed his anthology of wine chronicles: sure, you could tell he was a pompous, indulgent (and indulged, by his circle of fawning fans), name-dropping idiot, but he was also funny. “The Good Life” started off by giving me a warm feeling inside, as it described the lives of wealthy and wealthier manhatanites – the continuous craving for more goods of superior quality, be they in the shape of real-estate, textiles or celebrity friends and events. I felt smug and superior until the story started going nowhere fast, while the characters failed to develop (until the end of the book I could never memorize their names, so indistinct where they from the supporting characters). These characters can’t take life’s no for an answer – as illustrated by Corrinne’s adamant pursuit of conception (finally achieved via younger sister’s eggs), and Luke’s acquisition of his socialite wife, Sasha. McInerney then tries to convince the reader that these two are transfixed by their chance encounter amid the rubble of a day-old 9/11. Fat chance of anyone believing these self-serving two are capable of a mature love affair – so the author gives a hand by providing them both(!) with philandering partners. One wouldn’t want to face New Yorkers with too much of a moral dilemma, after all. It’s all so damn convenient that Luke’s 14 year old harlot daughter – caught in the oral act by her father one day and overdosing on prescription drugs the next – is really just a sensitive girl who wants to live in rural Tennessee with her paternal grandmother and practice the family business of equine therapy. Turns out she was only engaging in casual sex and recreational drugs because she didn’t want to become a rich bitch like her doped-up mother. Sure, it makes sense…
In the end they decide - as their families brush each other at a Christmas rendition of “The Nut-Cracker” by the NY Ballet (pass the bucket)-, that their love is too pure to be spoiled by the ugliness of divorce and subsequent pain for the involved children. I couldn’t figure out why McInerney chickened out at this final bit of sentimentality – making his leading characters walk off into the sunset – after all, he had already commited the worst of novelistic faults – boring the reader to tears.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"The Lost - a search for six of six million" Daniel Mendelsohn

There are many reasons to investigate your family’s past: for some it’s about status, proving the wealth and importance of your name; for some grasping in a foggy history a sense of who you are, who you might become; some of us are suckers for a good story, be it a drama or a comedy.

When you’ve grown up amidst whispered rumours regarding part of your family, your curiosity will almost surely be piqued, and the same goes for relatives inhabiting far away lands. However, few of us will have spent our formative years hearing, always in hushed tones, about members of our family who were “killed by the nazis”. The sheer vagueness of the affirmation, makes it even more compelling, more horrid in all the details it leaves to the imagination.

At a time in our adult lives where most of us are starting to face the emotional ghosts in our genealogical trees, Daniel Mendelsohn had already reconstructed his, as far back and wide as possible – a hobby he approached with the extreme seriousness of an academically inclined child. Still, the fate of his maternal great-uncle Shmiel, his wife Ester and their four daughters from 10 to 19 years old approximately, was still a puzzle in his early forties.

In “The Lost” Mendelsohn invites the reader to follow in his footsteps as he unravels the last and most difficult knot of his family’s past.

It is not a straightforward journey, for Mendelsohn has spent his life immersed in Classic Literature, and learned at his grandfather Abraham knee, the value of a good yarn. But the reader will never, in its 500 pages, feel like “The Lost” is taking him for a ride. All the detours that the author apparently leads us on, are nothing other than precious stitches of an amazingly complex embroidery- in the end the pattern doesn’t just make sense –it is truly beautiful.

The Holocaust involved such ungraspable numbers –that it is humanly impossible to think of those six million as individuals – real individuals. We know, of course, that these were real people covering the whole spectrum of economic occupations and emotional temperaments, but still. They can never be truly rendered, rescued from oblivion by official registers or even photographs. As Mendelsohn discovers himself, the only people who can bring these dead (maybe all dead) back to life are those who knew them.

With this in mind, the author spent the last five years travelling the globe, accompanied by his brother Matt, desperately trying to record the last memories of the last jewish survivors of the polish village of Bolechow (now in the Ukraine). And in the “In Memoriam” page at the end of the book we realize how close he came – several of his subjects died months after his interviews. Some had known his cousins personally – one had been a boyfriend of one of the girls, another a girlfriend.
It is speaking with these holocaust survivors (who have each their own startling story of horror and near escape to share) that Mendelsohn comes across what I find the most important and emotional discovery of the whole book: he might share a last name or genes with this family, he might own some photographs of them, but all the DNA or genealogical software in the world will never bring them closer. Their stories, their true inheritance lie in the minds of those who knew them and loved them, and as those last friends slip off the face of the Earth, so will them, finally.

In the end we are left feeling victorious: the author has saved six people from the oblivion of the mass killings of the nazi regime, and we held steadfast through descriptions of incredible cruelty and sadness, and Mendelsohn’s resolve to educate his readers on several parashot (chapters of the Hebrew Bible). And yet.

And yet one can’t help thinking of the meaninglessness of it all – how those millions of deaths never gave pause, didn’t stop a single genocide or mass killing since then –not even in Europe. Memory is obviously something complex and somewhat malfunctioning in the human mind – and as the last Holocaust survivors vanish from our planet it’s impossible to believe we are not inching closer to an unknown abyss.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Lazy doesn't even begin to cover it...

...but only when it comes to updating this blog...
Here's what I've read since the latest entry (chronologically):

A Hedonist In The Cellar - Jay McInerney

The Island Of Lost Maps - Miles Harvey

Birth: A History - Tina Cassidy

Hotel California - Barney Hoskyns

Haight-Ashbury: A History - Charles Perry

Borges e os Orangutangos - Erico Veríssimo

Bartleby & Co - Enrique Vila-Matas

The Paper House - Carlos Maria Domínguez

The Romanovs And Mr Gibbs - Frances Welch

The Dead Beat and the perverse pleasures of obituaries - Marilyn Johnson

A Gente Se Acostuma A Tudo - João Ubaldo Ribeiro

With Borges - Alberto Manguel

Pilgrim - Timothy Findley

Old School - Tobias Wolf

A Mother's World: Journeys of the heart - Ed. M. Bond & P. Michael

Great Dream of Heaven - Sam Shepard

New Yorkers - Cathleen Schine

It's A Dog's World: True stories of travel with man's best driend - Ed. C. Hunsicker & M.Goodavage

The Blue Jay's Dance - Louise Erdrich

Magic Bus: On the hippie trail from Istambul to India - Rory MacLean

Tales From The Cash Register

Eating The Cheshire Cat - Helen Ellis

Biodegradable Soap - Amy Ephrom

Bee Season - Myla Golberg

Life Studies - Susan Vreeland

Love Is A Mix Tape - Rob Sheffield

The Summer He Dindn't Die - Jim Harrison

One Sunday Morning - Amy Ephrom

To See Every Bird On Earth - Dan Koepppel

The Cat Who Came In From The Cold

Out Of Your Townie Mind - Richard Craze

The Last Kabbalist Of Lisbon - Richard Zimmerman

Child Free And Loving It! - Nicki Defago

Families Of Two: Interviews with happily married couples without children by choice - Laura Carroll

My favorite reads are highlighted
For southern humour choose "Eating The Cheshire Cat"
For New York sophistication and romance, "New Yorkers"
"Old School" is the perfect, boarding school themed, fall book
I'm still reeling from "Pilgrim" - amazingly complex, learned, imaginative, surreal, athmospheric, hypnotic, detailed. This one is the gem of the list...
"Birth" and "Families" are pretty specific but I think most people can enjoy them: the first is a keeper for the honest (and therefore, sometimes gory) history of what women have endured (there's just no other way to put it) over milenia in both pregnancy and labor."Families" should be required reading for anyone thinking of starting a family - in fact, they both should.
"Life Studies" is a collection of short stories that are art-themed, but where the protagonists are always on the fringe of the production itself: a painter's mistress, widow or daughter, a woman who chooses to model naked for an art class, etc. Divided into eras starting with mostly impressionistic artists I was partial to last stories in the book, set in contemporary times.
I have been wanting to read Harrison for a while and "The Summer..." was lot better than I imagined.

Friday, March 16, 2007

What I've been reading

Yes, even a bookworm must work occasionaly - which makes her grouchy and a slow reader - in order to buy more books.
In what little time I've had, this is what I managed to read, since February:

Jpod - Douglas Coupland

I really don't like re-reading books. I haven't re-read a book in years (although I've re-read many of Coupland's books), but since I was feeling to tired I figured Jpod was a great antidote to a day's work. And so it was.
Some years ago I used to imagine I was in a Coupland novel - it's a great daydream, try it sometime. But Jpod is even better.
However I never got to end because...

Girlfriend in a Coma - Douglas Coupland

One morning I woke up at 6 a.m. (which is obscenely early for me) and in the midst of insomnia (yes, it's still insomnia at 6 a.m.) started thinking about Jpod and about how I had never realized before so much of Coupland is verging on sci-fi.
Suddenly I had an epiphany: I realized my two least favorite Coupland's (Girlfriend in a Coma and Hey! Nostradamus) were actually his best books.
Feeling post-apocalyptical I picked up Girlfriend first and having re-read it I am now completely convinced it's one of his best.

Hey! Nostradamus

The jury's still out on this one. I re-read two thirds, and I don't think it's as good as Girlfriend. However I do like it when Coupland goes all religious (meaning when he writes straightforwardly about religion)

If I were to re-read another of his (and I just might) it would be
Eleanor Rigby
I think he's best with mom characters and teenager / young adult characters - his adult characters seem a little dry, but going over Rigby again might change my mind

anyway he's wonderfully canadian - and one day, when I'm not so tired I'll try to explain (to myself first) what I mean by that

The Genius Factory - David Plotz

To quote a much loved sentence here at home about wine, from the movie "Sideways" - this little book is "tighter than a nun's ass". There is not one lost sentence in this non-fiction account of a sperm bank dedicated to storing the seed of Nobel laureates and the ensuing offspring. The rhythm is also great: Plotz always leaves you hanging at the end of the chapters, just when you're dying to know more about a kid or his donor dad.
The story is fascinating - and in 262 pages it packs an amazing amount of information that is never short of mesmerizing. The best thing about it, is the individual kids' stories. And it's not even a guilty pleasure, because Plotz is very ethical in the treatment of his sources.
Even cross eyed from staring at a laptop screen all day long I always felt like reading more at the end of the day. If that's not a compliment I don't know what is.

One In Three - Adam Wishart

I'm not done with this one yet, but I can safely say it's pretty good too. It's also non-fiction about the author's dad cancer, but simultaneously about the history of treatments and public reactions to the disease. Not as comfortable to read in bed, being a hardback, and a slow starter for me (all those descriptions of the cancer treatments administered in the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries left me a little queasy) but ultimately a relief to read - cancer is such a scary thing in our otherwise, mostly confortable lives, most people don't even want to talk about it, that to get facts feels liberating. There is so much to know. One of the reasons I got this book was that I read in a review that the author never falls into the sentimental trap - I wanted a clear account, not a teary eyed one, and that's exactly what Wishart delivers.
I learned a lot and crushed a mostly full pack of cigarettes into the dustbin (but to be truthful I've done that a couple of times before).