Bald Mary's Bookshelf

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories by Joan Silber

Exquisitely told tales of sensual, spiritual journeys…

This is somewhat typical, if overly fawning, of the reviews for this National Book Award finalist—Joan Silber for her collection of short stories, Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories. But I had a slightly different take...*yawn*

Not only did I think her stories were unoriginal and uninteresting, I thought a lot of her writing was simply lazy. I found the very narrative structure of the stories irritating. The 50 foot overview or character studies, whichever, left these figures empty and lifeless. A book full of flimsy life stories/ histories strung together by gimmicky connecting characters. All of them uniformly dressed up with the same tired self-loathing and tortured love affairs.

A Ring of Stories has a mildly interesting premise.

An insignificant tertiary character in the preceding story becomes the main narrator of the following story. The collection ends with the re-appearance of the woman who we had met in the very first story. A Ring of Stories, get it? Yes, we get it. She makes the pattern easy to figure out for the first few stories, and then attempts to get clever later.

It isn’t really that I thought the stories were bad necessarily. Just…somewhat uninspired and mundane. The writing is good, but simple, often redundant and lacking in fervor. Each of the stories seems fashioned out of a short story template. There are characters who lead uninspired, listless lives, but eventually fall in love. The love frequently curdles in some way, and there’s usually a period of pain and sadness. At some point past the painful period, catharsis is achieved. There is closure. Lessons are learned.

Silber is trying to capture the spectacular in the ordinary. In the process, these lives become unintentionally uniformed in thought, insignificant and deeply un-spectacular.

I read this book months ago, and prompty sold it back to the used bookstore I got it from. Hence sadly, I have no damning evidence of mediocrity to show you. Reading the seattle review above, I am amused again by how completely I disagree with this Michael fellow. How is it that we were reading the same book? It is possible that the book is not as bad as I remember it, I suppose. Although Michael does seem to like Alice Munro, who I also think is un-spectacular (I must admit I have only read one of her books--that horrible "modern-day" recreation of Wuthering Heights...Heathcliff reincarnated as abusive jackass. *shudder*).

Update: Oops!! Not Alice Munro. Alice Hoffman wrote that horrible book reworking Bronte. I have never read Munro. My memory is failing me in old age:(

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Honey for the Bears by Anthony Burgess

This has little to do with Anthony Burgess, or my thoughts on his book, Honey for the Bears, but…I found the following note scribbled in slanty, skinny boy-handwriting on the front cover of the book.

“Prof. Brooks-I have enjoyed your class immensely and I have developed a much greater appreciation for Russian history and literature. I wish you all the best and a speedy recovery from your surgery. Sincerely—Ishai (dated)”

I left out the last name and date to protect the innocent. Prof. Brooks couldn’t have much cared for the book or he wouldn’t have sold it to some used bookstore in Brooklyn, NY. Or maybe he was moving (perhaps due to surgical complications?) and he only wanted to take heavy, text-book types with him, leaving behind skinny, not-what-Burgess-is-known-for-anyway fiction that doesn’t behave like Russian literature (which is uniformly depressing, gloomy and cold, right?:).

This is a funny book. More than once, I found myself chuckling out loud, and re-reading sentences put together quirkily with an odd flamboyance. High-brow literature written for the Three Stooges. Briefly, the book is about an Englishman, Paul Hussey, who is voyaging to Russia with his American wife, to engage in some nefarious capitalist activities. They are selling synthetic, gaudily colored dresses to fashion-whores in Russia. Drillion dresses, they are called. They have many adventures, or Paul Hussey does (his wife is sick and weak in a hospital throughout much of the book before she goes off and has some adventures of her own).

Paul Hussey is an endearing character. Even when he attempts an "erotic assault" on the Russian maidenhood. Whenever he gets caught breaking the law, lying or cheating, he is indignant and outraged like some wronged customer at a fancy store. Never does he feel afraid, ashamed or guilty. It works well, and has a slap-stick comedic feel to it.

But despite all this, I was never really engrossed by the book. A classic “it’s not you, it’s me” problem. Well-written, fresh, interesting, funny and indeed "fizzing with energy" as the book jacket reviewer proclaims giddily—I should have loved it. But didn’t.

I was almost bored by large parts of it. Especially when he is describing all the Russian architecture and boisterous, drunken oddities of the Russian people. But he never rambles on about it--not really. And it is clear that he has a soft spot for the Russian people so his jabs feel familial somehow, instead of cranky and dismissive.

Regardless something about the chemistry of my brain when I was reading it or maybe the cosmic address of the moon in the sky---something stopped me from devouring this book. It's slightly unnerving to have an indefensible opinion, which is why I went out and got A Clockwork Orange this weekend. Await firm opinions on Burgess.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike

Nobody describes humanity quite like John Updike. Like a scab picked clean--satisfying, and flinchingly thorough.

Consider the following passage:
"A little touch of the hooker about her looks. The way her soft body wants to spill from these small clothes, the faded denim shorts and purple Paisley halter. The shining faintly freckled flesh of her shoulders and top arms and the busy wanton abundance of her browny-red many-colored hair, carelessly bundled...She has blue eyes in deep sockets and the silence of a girl from the country used to letting men talk while she holds a sweet-and-sour secret in her mouth, sucking it. An incongruous disco touch in her shoes, with their high cork heels and ankle straps. Pink toes, painted nails..He feels she wants to hide from him, but is too big and white, too suddenly womanly, too nearly naked. Her shoes accent the length of her legs; she is taller than average, and not quite fat, though tending towards chunky, especially around the chest. Her upper lip closes over the lower with a puffy bruised look. She is bruisable..."
Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of the novel, is describing a woman he fetishistic-ally believes might be his daughter. Greedily incestuous, the passage sets the tone for all of Rabbit's female encounters--lecherous and prurient. Not surprisingly, the often-described sex in the novel is insistent, claustrophobic and pornographic. There's a reoccurring, and strange obsession with female toes. What to make of all this?

On the one hand, Updike is a glorious writer. He describes every physicality to such a minute detail that you are left with searing images branded to your brain...which is unfortunately gross. How do you get past the stunningly vivid descriptions of oral sex, sexual urination, and every time Rabbit comes across a beautiful woman the reader’s gag reflex is triggered. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit...but it's still *eeww*

Set in the late 1970s, the book tells the story of Rabbit Angstrom, a successful car salesman, who is…well…rich. We meet his needy wife, and a sullen, vapid son, his country club friends, and the economic swirl of his father-in-law's car lot that he has inherited. The characters in Rabbit is Rich resemble John Updike’s Couples in more ways than one—the careless, seemingly banal marital affairs that they have, the greedy selfishness, and half-loathing vision of the upper, white class American social milieu. But unlike Couples, Rabbit is Rich is not pointless and bored with itself. Instead Updike fleshes out key relationships with finesse and style.

There is the ambiguity, shot with loathing between Rabbit and his son which includes Rabbit’s slimy, yet oddly endearing attempts at redemption. When Rabbit clumsily offers his son an “out” from an ill-advised marriage to a pregnant girlfriend, it is clear that Rabbit's predilection to run from his problems are thoughtlessly being passed on to his son.

There’s a whole “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” message that Updike manages to add interesting dimensions to and eek out beyond the cliché. There is also the strange apathy that he has for his dead daughter coupled with an unhealthy fascination with another daughter that he might or might not have.

I didn't realize Rabbit is Rich was the third installment in a series. So I spent much of the book thinking Updike was being uncharacteristically coy with Rabbit's lurid past. We get hints and pieces of his past, which the reader can comfortably piece together without deterring from present story. Once you get past long passages on Rabbit's rambling thoughts, and a needlessly informative sections on cars, this is a pretty good book to bury yourself into for a couple of hours.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

It’s hard to write reviews for good books without sounding like a paid-off jacket cover reviewer. Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore is one such book, that was a joy to read. I generally dislike reading translations and I don’t particularly like coming-of-age, voyage genres. But despite being both, Kafka on the Shore surpassed all my expectations and has become one of the most intriguing books I have read this year.

There's a scene somewhat early on that for me tipped the book from interesting to completely fascinating. Each subsequent scene was as gloriously strange, as unpredicatable as the fish that fall from the sky.
The scene involves cats, a dark and villianous Johnny Walker and the eating of the former by a grostequely snarky Walker. He eats their hearts to make a flute out of their souls which can be used to entrap larger, human souls. The passage is described with such clear-eyed bluntness that if it wasn't so skin-crawling, it would be really funny.

Set in Japan, the story follows two characters—a teenage boy named Kafka Tamura who is running away from home and an elderly, mentally impaired man called Nakata who is inexplicably following Kafka’s path. Kafka is running away to escape a hideous, Oedipal prophecy foreseen by his father—he will kill his own father, and sleep with his mother and sister. Eventually Kafka arrives in a small town where he befriends the local librarian who allows him to live in the library in exchange for work.

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Phil Robinson's 1989 movie Field of Dreams. Like the movie, Kafka on the Shore asks both his readers and the characters that populate the novel, to accept and trust the quirky mythology of Murakami’s world, without knowing any of the whys, whos and hows. And Murakami isn't too interested in making sure he answers all your questions either. Any second leeches could fall out of the sky, Colonel Sanders could tap you on your shoulders and lead you to your destiny (and a prostitute). And the woman you are in love with might be your mother...or your sister. Or not. You are compelled to keep reading if only to find out what the hell is going on.

Cleverly and with fascinating results, Murakami describes a world in which memories are tangible valuables that carry enormous powers. A body’s spirit can flit across our arbitrary notions of time, and sexuality is as potent and powerful a force as any on this earth. All of this makes this an understandably kooky book to read, while being completely endearing. After Kafka tells his librarian friend his secret fear that he might sleep with his mother, he replies,

"For a fifteen-yr-old who doesn't even shave yet, you're sure carrying a lot of baggage around."
It's as if Murakami knows what you might be thinking, and he writes it up as dialogue instead of explaining. Similarly, there's a point when the librarian asks Kafka why he chose the infamous author's name as his pseudonym. There's a discussion about Franz Kafka's story, The Penal Colony, and an explanation given for his name. This happens often, where characters will somewhat abruptly have a seemingly tangential discussion about art, history, music and particularly Greek mythology. It adds an oddly informative, even worldly, feel to the book that is unusual and engrossing. It also exemplifies how nicely Murakami draws parallels and connections between wildly disjointed ideas and philosophies and creates his own reality and his own rules. Reading Murakami has that wonderful feeling that I sorely miss of stepping into a brand new world that is wholly unexpected in every way, each turn of events anticipated with delight.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

at the sign of the naked waiter by Amy Herrick

At the sign of the naked waiter could have been a really fun novel.

It could have sprinkled its magical-ness into the drone of the everyday; described beauty, love and your place in this world with a poignant sweetness that wrenches at your heart. It could even have asked probing questions about the fine line between madness and enchantment. But it does none of this.

Instead, it is hopelessly mediocre, and often feels abrupt, incomplete and oddly skeletal as if the author wrote parts of it in a rush. In the book’s defense, I don’t really know how to judge this novel because I think this is young adult fiction. Would the teenage me have liked this book? Actually yes, very much. It has the sort of fantastical, magical realism that I was really into as a kid. But does that make it a good, competent book? I honestly can’t say. While it does not claim to be young adult fiction anywhere (I looked), the characters overflow with superficiality and teenage-angst. Even when they grow into adulthood, they have infantile tantrums and display a stunning level of immaturity. There’s an especially inane scene when Sarah, a lawyer and her fiancé, another lawyer, are having dinner when the immigrant waitress asks them for legal advice. “All she can do is marry a citizen”. The legal research for the book was apparently done by watching Perfect Strangers.

We meet the main character, Sarah when she is a teenager, on one pretty night “watching the moon sail high above the treetops”. She is about to spot her first, naked man across the way from her window. He apparently has wings, and he flies off into the night the next time she gazes at him. Who is he? Why does he have wings? We never find out, it ceases to matter once the chapter ends and she grows up some more. She also encounters two sponge-like, round alien balls from out of space that emit odors as a form of communication. Nothing more is said of them as well. The fantastical—while they occur with regular frequency—do not ever really faze the characters involved. They are as inconsequential and as worthy of contemplation as a parking lot—never interrupting the everyday business of growing up.

When we first meet Sarah, she is an awkward, shy teenager who is just beginning to feel the first pangs of love, school, and friends. In every chapter that follows, she grows up a few more years, has had a few more boyfriends and eventually a husband, and has climbed a new rung in her professional career. Oddly, while Sarah spends much of her time brooding about her future soul-mate, we are never really sure if she is even in love with the man she ends up marrying. This is mildly interesting.

At the sign of the naked waiter strives so hard to be pretty, with air that is always “soft” or “clear” or “touched with gold” or some combination there of. Starting with the mostly nonsensical title (there is an obligatory naked waiter at the end), the whole novel has an air of such forced whimsy, that I almost feel sorry for it. Like watching someone be willfully cheerful. It has crappy sentences like this all over. “She had the odd thought that a heavy weight was lifting from her head, a crown maybe, that she had been toting around with her since she was quite a young girl, a dumb gold thing, trimmed with fruit and white veils, little cakes and silver babies.” It’s as if Herrick strung together her creative writing exercises and called it a novel. A quick, forgettable book.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer

There's a moment fairly late in the book, when events and characters come to an unexpected, and shocking denouement—I remember this passage clearly, I was reading it on the metro, and I gasped out loud (startling the other metro riders). Such are the problems of reading characters that leap out of the pages with such intensity and power that the world around you disappears.

In a small, mostly white town of Leyden, New York, Daniel Emerson—who is himself involved in a serious relationship—is fiercely in love with another woman—a married, black woman named Iris Davenport. After a series of richly detailed, exquisitely written chapters, the two eventually have an affair whose consequences fracture both their lives. There’s nothing really special about this story when laid out in this way, but I am reluctant to say much more. So much of the joy in reading this book, is in discovering each new twist, and waiting for the inevitable which arrives in startling, unpreditable waves.

Deftly and elegantly, Spencer unpacks the racial and sexual implications of the relationship between Daniel and Iris in deliciously ambiguous ways. There’s a beautiful passage early on that describes Daniel’s torture when he imagines telling Iris that he moved back to Leyden from New York City because he has developed a fear of black people (due to being beaten up by a few). Similarly, Daniel’s girlfriend (practically wife), Kate Ellis's privilege and often brash intolerance makes for some beautifully uncomfortable racially-tinted moments.

There’s also Hampton, Iris’s husband—a highly successful investment banker—a man whose racial pride and self-regard is so potent, so over-powering that little else matters when he enters the scene. Here’s a passage that describes Hampton’s reaction to a letter in which there’s an implied slight made against his wife, Iris, who has been taking years to finish up her doctoral studies.

Yet. His heart feels queer, as if it is suddenly circulating blood that is a little oily and a little cold. Hampton is vulnerable to the suggestion that Iris might not be in possession of a first-class mind. There is a vagueness to her, a lack of precision. Sometimes, he thinks this is a result of her profoundly feminine nature, yet in his line of work he meets dozens of women whose minds are scientific, logical, calculating, aggressive. Iris’s is not. Both she and Hampton have been explaining her long career in graduate school to themselves and to the world at large as somehow a result of an excess of intellectual curiosity, an unwillingness to be pigeon-holed, and the demands of motherhood, and Hampton is perfectly willing to stay within the confines of this official explanation. What he is not willing to say, except to himself…[is that..] because she is simply too confused to complete her work; that, in other words, the machinery of her mind is not quite up to the task.

In a lot of ways, Ship Made of Paper manages to do what movies like Crash only make half-baked attempts at—relate racial ambiguities without resorting to high-minded, yet cheap messaging and condescension. Instead, it offers up it's racially potent world in startlingly imaginative and sensitive ways.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie

I savored the moment when I would read Shalimar the Clown, anticipated it as one might a lazy Sunday afternoon. I remember when I first read Satanic Verses in the same way one remembers falling in love for the first time--fondly, with real affection. Midnight’s Children, Last Moor’s Sigh, his short stories in East/West. These books are the reason I get excited when I hear that Salman Rushdie appeared on Seinfeld or Bridget Jones’ Diary or that he gave an interview at the restaurant down the street from my work. A writer whose wonderfully chaotic genius plays out in each page he writes with all the might of a true magician.

Which is all the more reason why it was so dismaying to find rampant mediocrity in his latest book, Shalimar the Clown. With the same dizzying rhetoric that has become his trademark, Rushdie lays out a multi-generational, multi-continental, multi-historical story of one man, his wife, her lover and all the people that populate their world. The book opens in Los Angeles, with the violent, and bloody death of the brilliant, and charming Max Ophlus—former US ambassador to India. His death spins out into the story of Boonyi Kaul and her husband, Shalimar, the clown—characters from two adjoining villages in Kashmir that enjoyed communal harmony, beauty and love before the terrible realities of personal and national infidelities. It’s a story of cruel betrayals, love, war, and death.

It's a story that despite all of its decorations, is uncomfortably simple. Two young people deeply in love are ripped apart by a beautiful outsider who whisks away the simple village girl for a fling that destroys all their lives. The husband becomes rabidly, murderously vengeful. A daughter named India/Kashmiri is born who grows up predictably troubled. Woven into the background, is the larger histories of WW II, the Indo-Pakistan war, and the LA riots.

Surprisingly clumsy at times, with overly-drawn out thought bubbles from characters whose maudlin self-importance was embarrassing. Take this passage for instance:

“The words right and wrong began to crumble, to lose meaning, and it was as if Max were being murdered all over again, assassinated by the voices who were praising him, as if the Max she knew were being unmade…” ...and so on.

There was a particularly hollow scene where Rushdie slyly alludes to a “writer against God, who spoke French and had sold his soul to the West”. He gets killed off by Islamic terrorists.

Aside from half-baked philosophsi-fizing, Rushdie draws problematic conclusions about the dangers of breaking free of one’s role and place in life. The characters in his novel suffer horribly for having ambitions, and dreaming big. Love is possessive and jealous and will always either stifle or betray you—it is an inescapable curse.

But despite all of its disappointing shortcomings, Rushdie still delivers an engaging story that lays out tempting morsels, after every disenchanting moment. At its best, Shalimar the clown soars high on its author's uncanny ability to tell a story. At its worst, the history that Rushdie uses to clog up his passages, feel like fillers--background noise to distract from the emptiness of his characters. It is like catching the magician slip a rabbit in his hat--the trick still works, but you now know the secret and it's not magic anymore.