Friday, January 26, 2007

"Special topics in calamity physics" - Marisha Pessl

Marisha Pessl’s “Special topics in calamity physics” has been hailed as one of this year’s most promising debuts and is one of the New York Times five fiction books of 2006. Due to the critical acclaim I was expecting to be swept of my feet by this novel, a murder mystery set in a private school, whose narrator is eighteen-year old Blue Van Meer.
Unfortunately, Pessl’s book turns out to be the literary poster child for too-smart-for-its-own-goodness.
We catch up with Blue in her first year at Harvard (and what is it with the Ivy league obsession in the latest years of American pop culture?) where she was admitted without doing much studying visible to the naked eye and where she sees fit to start reminiscing about the events that took place in her high school. The girl’s father is a college professor with a penchant towards radical politics and social theories and who also takes upon himself the role of Oracle in Blue’s life – her mother died in a car accident when she was five – a sort of sociological Oscar Wilde who has little turns of phrase for just about any situation under the sun, “Dad said” being one of the most repeated expressions in the book. Since father and daughter relocate about three to four times every school year so Gareth Van Meer can illuminate the students of the most obscure colleges of middle America, it is a welcome surprise for Blue to discover that she will spent the whole of her senior year in Stockton, North Carolina. By now it’s page fifty (of a total 513), and while I’m already annoyed I can’t say I’m dispirited – Pessl’s style seems original alright, just like the reviewers promised. So, why the attitude, I hear you clamor? Well, Pessl’s book is also a prime example for too-much-of-a-good-thing. She sees it fit to illustrate almost every other paragraph with a literary reference real or made-up, with publisher and year between comas in bibliographic style: some are hilarious like “Christ it’s been done before: celluloid jesuses from 1912-1988, Why Hollywood should cease committing the son of God to screen”, but it’s just gets old real fast, and Pessl’s doesn’t relent until the end; the other thing is the similes, she’s good with them but once again doesn’t know when to stop, and it gets a little nauseating – people look like animals (with bibliographical references), buildings look like people or like animals, everything looks like something else and it gets even more confusing because everything also reminds the narrator of something else, leading the reader along some winding path to nowhere in the middle of the action. Throughout the first third of the book there are also blanks in some of the sentences - which reminded me of Laura Palmer’s missing diary pages - that meant apparently… nothing. It’s just like every little thing, witty, funny remarkable or poignant Marisha Pessl thought during her 29 years on this earth had to be included in the book.
But I swear I never meant to hate this book – only after page 113 it got really, really hard. Blue hooks up with a clique of five rich, handsome, personality deprived kids (which is hard to believe for a girl of such erudition and who worships a father who stands for the opposite of privilege) Charles, Milton, Nigel, Jade and Leulah through a film teacher, Hannah Schneider, who is the object of my favorite passage in the whole book: “Most extraordinary was the air of Chateau Marmont bungalow about her, a sense of RKO, which I’d never before witnessed in person, only while Dad and I watched Jezebel into the early hours of the morning”. As I say I never meant to hate “Special topics”, even though it kept reminding me of some annoying episode of “Gilmore girls”, then, in page 113, Pessl whips out the “transformation”. You know what I mean: that scene replayed ad nauseam in teen (and not so teen) movies in which the average character gets the beauty treatment and comes out a knockout (you know, musical sequence, salon, shops, the works). In Pessl’s world, only the attractive can be confident and intelligent or at least blasé (which I suspect might mean the same to her), and Blue of course is no fugly, I believe the expression goes, only in dire need of highlights, contacts and some lace lingerie.
Fast-forward – if you read the back-cover you will already know that Hannah Schneider turns up dead, hanged, but don’t hold your breath because that will only happen on page 336 – until then you will probably share my hopeful feeling at various moments that the book is really going to “start”, just to be sadly disappointed. None of the characters gain much texture – until the very end I kept confusing Milton and Nigel and Jade and Leulah (guess that’s what the “visual aids”, the author’s illustrations, are there for). Only Hannah and Gareth seem to evolve and Blue remained to me a thin character – most of the time she seemed a silent witness – you knew she had been there because she is the narrator, but where the hell was she? And if we are inside her head, throughout the story, why does it feel so empty?
Even though “Special topics” appears in category for “young women”, I’m not sure I would recommend it to a young adult: the underlying message in the book towards sex seems to be that it’s something sleazy best conducted in motels, or in the handicapped bathroom stalls of road-side bars. Of the adults that serve as guides to the teens not one is in a serious relationship, and the one’s that are, are portrayed as lame and unexciting. Although Blue’s dad is forever besieged by impassioned women, not one of which has apparently, ever stayed the night in any of the Van Meer residences, leaving the reader to guess that the amorous encounters took place elsewhere in the women’s homes or motels. Gareth Van Meer is forever running away from some woman who didn’t get the I’m-not-looking-for-a-commited-relationship memo, and the women always make fools of themselves trying at all cost to get him back (curiously Blue doesn’t see anything wrong with her father’s behavior, at least not for much of the book). Hannah Schneider is spotted by the youngsters in apparently random one-night stands that end up in nearby motels. Jade and Leulah engage in intercourse with forty something truckers in the bathrooms of local dives. Blue rejects her one suitor in the book because he is too much of a nice guy (in the end he becomes more attractive in her eyes, mostly because he has shaved off his head, thereby giving him a more rugged look).
Maybe I’m being too literal? Maybe this whole portrait is actually supposed to criticize modern society’s mixed messages about sex? When I read passages such as the following, regarding Blue’s discovery of Hannah’s sexual proclivities, after she already knew about Jade and Leulah’s, I’m not so sure:
“Of course when I considered Jade, Lu, and the handicapped stall, I also felt queasy; but with Hannah it was worse. As Dad said, the difference between a dynamic and a wasted uprising depends upon the point at which it occurs within a country’s historic timeline (see Van Merr, “The Fantasy of Industrialization”, Federal Forum, Vol. 23, Issue 9). Jade and Lu were still developing nations. And thus, while it wasn’t fantastic, it also wasn’t terrible for them to have a backward infrastructure and poor human development index.” In Pessl’s world sexual promiscuity is only sad if you’re old. Blue herself never has sex, but you get the sense that it’s less because of ethical qualms than from the fear it would, somehow, upset the balance of her relationship with Dad. Gareth never brings his girls to stay over and Blue believes (rightly or not) that he will see any boyfriend of hers as an opponent. Yes, it’s a really healthy father-daughter relationship.
As to the end, it leaves off a series of untied laces which to me felt more lazy than deliberate. The author, kindly provides a pop-quiz to her own work in the end (yet another less than charming quirk), and I hear you can also look for more clues to the mystery in her website – I’ll pass.
As I said, I felt Gareth Van Meer, obnoxious though he is, was a well sketched character, and it didn’t seem feasible that he would do what he’s supposed to do in the end. He thought the world of himself and hated superficiality just as much as he loved his daughter. In fact, I’m pretty sure Professor Van Meer would hate Marisha Pessl’s book.

A quick aside – “Nunca dormindo” is not an even remotely correct translation of Nightwatchmen to Portuguese, contrary to what can be read in page 512, which makes me doubt a whole lot else.

Friday, January 19, 2007

"Lisey's story" - Stephen King

We live so close to the people most important in our lives that, after some time, it’s almost as if a temporary blindness sets in. To really see them involves remembering things we would rather forget, face facts better left in the dark, embark on journeys that expand through whole decades, interpret signs we mostly shrug off as coincidences. Yet, at certain turning points, if we want to save them and ourselves, we have to look into old journals and memories. We have to look.

If I were to sum up “Lisey’s story” that’s how I’d start, but Stephen King’s latest is also about a whole lot else. The book starts as Lisey Debusher and her sister Amanda (there are three other Debusher sisters) set off to clean out the old barn, which Lisey’s husband, Scott Landon, deceased two years before, used as an writer’s studio. Landon was somewhat of an oddity in the literary world, since he managed to be a popular best selling author and yet courted by the academia - whose representatives of various institutions keep hounding Lisey to donate Scott’s papers, in the midst of which, they can smell unpublished works. Lisey has been the woman “behind the great man” most of her life and contentedly so; his “gal pal” as one particularly ignorant photo caption names her.

Life with Scott wasn’t all roses. There were episodes of writer’s block mixed with depression and alcoholism, many lonely nights as Scott encloses himself in his sound proofed studio, writing feverishly and listening to country music at levels probably detrimental to the health of the human ear. Their marriage has been childless (and pet less) and maybe that’s why the universe they both created has proved so enduring, even two years after one of them has disappeared from the face of the earth.

Since Lisey will remember many episodes from her twenty something marriage to Scott,
“Lisey’s story” has been described as a book about marriage, widowhood and the pain of letting go (and some describe it as his first foray into the “everyday” – to those I recommend 1999’s “The girl who loved Tom Gordon” about a little girl lost in the woods for two days – King has been at ease with both the everyday and the fantastic). But to me it is just as much about sisterhood. Some of the passages that take place with Lisey and Amanda felt so true to what my experience of life with a sister I felt sure King must have watched them himself (and indeed in the end he acknowledges his wife’s five sisters); the way that sisters can be so rude and even funny at the most horrible of times, when you wouldn’t accept such talk from anyone else; how you hate them sometimes but would help them commit unspeakable acts without so much as a moment’s notice. That all rang true, and is one of King’s major achievements in this book.

Scott and Amanda are the two driving forces in Lisey’s adventure. Scott is a writer, and as with other King characters that share his profession, he looks at the world a little more closely than the rest of us: not only does he not easily forget, he strives to remember at all cost and still is sensible enough to understand that some of us, particularly his wife, need to enclose certain truths behind a “purple curtain” in order to function in this world. Lisey will learn nothing new but she will have to do something much braver, in order to save herself – go back to memories she has long ago erased.
Amanda is a psychologically fragile woman, who has once before slipped into a state of semi catatonia, and who even in her middle age falls prey to “cutting behavior” most often seen in adolescent girls. She is the sister who the other four have to “keep an eye on”, and if the phone rings during the night it’ll be her name that immediately pops into the other women’s minds.

Now, as anyone married to a sensitive and caring person will know, your partner will often have surprising insights to share about your own family, words that shed light on people you thought you knew better than anyone. This is the case with Scott: long after his death, Lisey will realize that although she and her sisters are the one who cared after Amanda in her troubled times, it was Scott who really saw her for what she was.

The story takes place during a couple of days, during which Lisey will find her life threatened, and will need to remember a whole lot she would rather not, in order to elude her would-be torturer, and also save her sister Amanda. To do so she will have to play a game her husband learnt from his brother as a child a “bool hunt” which will turn out to be the emotional opposite of a trip down memory lane.

As with other King books, the childhood universe, the real and the imagined (and who knows which one we see when we “remember”) are of great importance. Sisters and brothers are intrinsically part of these worlds we create, but what this author understands and conveys so masterfully is that in a marriage, if each of the partners dares to open the door of his own inner world, then you can move through the joys and horrors of memories that somehow become your own.

It’s like this: sisters have the same set of keys to a secret world they shared. Sometimes, they meet someone great enough to give a spare one, and receive one in return. Of course some caution is in order because, as my favorite sentence in “Lisey’s story” goes: “(…) husbands were all too often the back door by which secrets escaped in to the outside world”.

King has got the marriage thing, and the sister thing down, he moves through this world through the next with the classiness of automatic, transparent glass doors; he’ll make you laugh when he’s trying to be funny; he’ll make you hungry when he talks about food and feel pain when someone is hurt. Also, when he’s good and ready, he’ll scare the shit out of you.

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Black girl white girl" - Joyce Carol Oates

Well, this was by far my least favorite book of the last few months. Joyce Carol Oates is a very important American author, or so I hear, but after “Black girl white girl” I’m saddened to say I won’t be enlarging her fan base.
I had great expectations for this one: because of the author, the period (seventies), the scenario (college campus) and theme (the relationship between two female students, one black one white), but I was deeply disappointed. By page fifty I was already feeling slightly annoyed, and even though I got through the 272 pages I felt cheated in the end.
Genna Meade is the daughter of an infamous radical lawyer, the white girl of the title, who throughout the novel seeks the friendship of an aloof Minette Swift the daughter of a black minister. The lives of these two girls collide when they are assigned to be roommates in an all-girl dorm at Schuyler College, an institution founded by Quaker ancestors of Genna, a fact that she tries, and mostly succeeds, to keep from her colleagues. Now I hear you say, “what’s wrong? It sounds interesting enough” and it does. The problem is it doesn’t go much further. Already near the beginning the characters felt one-dimensional, and they never got any better; what’s worse they started to seem unbelievable (you just start going “Oh no she didn’t” every few pages). The fact that the girls’ fathers are featured so prominently tends to get a little thin, too. Okay we get it: Genna was brought up to believe in “white guilt” and equality as important social and personal guidelines for behavior; Minette steers her life by the course of her daddy’s religion. But really, are we supposed to believe that two nineteen year-olds hold their fathers opinions of the world so dogmatically in their hearts and minds that they can’t even begin to fathom that the world might be a little more complex, a little more grey, than their black and white views? So much for liberal education. In Genna’s case, the narrator, it’s even more hard to swallow: the girl obviously suffered of neglect (and even some hinted abuse), and from the near complete absence of her father, and spent the final years of high school in a boarding school, yet we are expected to believe that she is the quintessential “good girl” always eager to protect her roommate, even though, right from the beginning it is obvious Minette does not wish to be protected or even befriended.
There is a particular event, that seems to me so completely incredible as to be ridiculous: Genna’s mother, also neglected by her husband and emotionally unstable, visits her at college and presents her with an expensive Italian leather bag Genna didn’t particularly want; as the last day of school before Christmas unfolds, Genna decides to leave the bag behind as a gift for Minette, a girl which never encouraged any friendship, and often avoided her completely.
But, you’ll say, some girls elicit that kind of devotion, they can be bitches and still others pine for their friendship. But that’s just it, Minette is not a bitch, nor is she beautiful, nor intelligent, nor funny or even interesting. In fact, what we know for sure about Minette is that she is deeply religious, academically way behind her colleagues, incapable of humor even though she is sometimes unintentionally funny, quick to take offense, and most astonishing of all, seems to repudiate every single girl, white or black, who tries to befriend her.
These two girls seem to live only to embody their fathers’ ideals, for they have none of their own. They don’t question, don’t doubt, don’t resent, they just…don’t. What’s more there are no other characters of note, because these two, at least in Genna’s memory, seem to have spent the entire first year of college consigned to their bedroom and their stifling and barren imaginations.
And the mystery of the alleged “racial assaults”? Why, Oates seems to have had enough of that in last pages of the book and just pins the whole thing on Minette, which again feels unbelievable: why would a girl who so insistently shunned everyone, go to such lengths to draw attention to herself? So her bad grades would have an excuse? I might have bought that Minette did it, or may be even Genna, except that when I got to the end there was no way I believed these characters were that spunky. Or that interesting.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Twilight of superheroes" - Deborah Eisenberg

Deborah Eisenberg’s new book of short stories “Twilight of superheroes” is just…how can I put it? A goddam joy to read. If like me, you usually shun collections of shorts – because you get to the end and a couple of days later remember only one story, if that – rest assured that the six you’ll find here are all memorable. Eisenberg is a believable narrator whether she embodies a gay forty something, a slacker youth, a housewife or a battered teen bride. And boy does she love words! You can just feel that Eisenberg loves the English language like… like some tailors must love cloth, or some hairdresser’s hair. You feel that she takes you for a dip in frothy, warm bubble bath made of words. Now normally I don’t like it when authors use stylistic devices that call attention to them, and take it away from the story, but when someone uses “obstructed” and “obdurate” in the length of two lines, and it doesn’t even feel weird, or slips you expressions like “beringed claw” (it took me a while to figure out it meant icy as in Bering, Alaska) while referring to an old-woman’s hand stretched out to receive the obligatory kiss, or “spongy platitude”, you just have to smile in amazement and wonder “how does she do it? Eisenberg uses alliterations as “Irritably raking back the streaky hair, the rectangular glasses…” or “Sunlight and silence shimmered” and it sounds poetic, instead of silly as most often is the case. Even her wittiness his expressed by carefully chosen words “Jeff and I were having sort of vaguely severe money problems”.
Maybe Eisenberg’s short stories are powerful because they actually have little in the way of plot, when you get down to it. Yet they feel luxurious, thick and mysterious like a cup of something warm and wonderful, brimming with aromas and little hints of flavors you can’t quite place (see? It’s contagious). They delve into the character’s words and thoughts, and in their surroundings – Eisenberg uses imaginative metaphors and so, instead of feeling slapped by them, you feel like you’ve just read something utterly new: “The older one even had a wife, whom Corinne treated with a stricken, fluttery deference as if she were a suitcase full of weapons-grade plutonium.”
Reading “Twilight of superheroes” reminded me I don’t just like books because of the stories but also because of language and words. And when an author revels in them as Eisenberg does, the shortest of stories becomes a roller coaster, a piece of cake and a warm blanket all wrapped into one.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Good, clean fun

Sometimes you have so much in your head you just can't bear to dive headfirst into what, in other circumstances, would be a great book. You just don’t have that sort of space in your imagination. Well, I've just had a month exactly like that, and I must have started and abandoned some five books, my mind kept wandering off from the thickly woven characters and plots. But despair not! There are books that by demanding less of you, end up being a solace in times of trouble. These three opened up a ray of sunshine in an otherwise difficult month:

"Still life with chickens" - Catherine Goldhammer

Poking fun at "year in Provence/somewhere Mediterranean" might become a genre of its own. The first sentences made me smile and I just kept on going. Goldhammer is a friendly narrator, and you might want to hold the roast chicken for a while afterwards.

"Friends lovers chocolate" and "The right attitude to rain" - Alexander McCall Smith

I had been meaning to read the second installment of the Sunday Philosophy Club for quite some time, but it turns out it was a good thing to wait, because this way I had the third ready in line! Isabel Dalhousie is such a great character, that I can't help believing (or hoping) that she is an actual person. Her sometimes annoying habit of over-analyzing everything makes her even more life-like. In fact, she is such a compelling character, that McCall Smith seems to be gradually dispensing with the artifice of a mystery to be solved. And he is right; spending time with Isabel wandering through Edinburgh is a treat in itself. However prepare yourself for a wonderful surprise in the end of the third book. I never saw it coming and it had me laughing in delight. I can't wait for the next one.

December Books

Here's what I read last month:

Radical Simplicity - Dan Price

Back when we were grownups - Anne Tyler

Still Life with Chickens - Catherine Goldhammer

Love works like this - Lauren Slater

The Wild Braid - Stanley Kunitz, Genine Lentine Photos Marnie Crawford Samuelson

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - Alexander McCall Smith