Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

This was a busy month; fun and challenging to the point where I almost felt a difficulty in writing this post.

I was chairman for the Bar Golf Association Midtown Championship Cup this month.  We played nine holes in Midtown--a difficult nine holes, nine holes that had to be strategically played, nine holes that not all could live through to tell the tale of conquest.  I was quite pleased.  Somethings I learned that should be shared: The Daiquiri Factory LCC is not to be underestimated... Ever.  Mezcal taste terrible (like smokey butthole, or something... ) and is a general travesty upon your palette.  Vortex Bar and Grill is over priced to def, with very poor service.  I discovered Wild Heaven and Pawel Kwak beer this month; both of which are exceptional.  Atlanta's own Red Brick should be avoided at all cost, well at least their blond; Left Hand Milk Stout on Nitro draft is as close to heaven as you can get.  Moving on...
I bought four books this month: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, The Folded World by Catherynne Valente and Breakable You by Brian Morton.  Never heard of the later but I'm reading it for a joint reviewing 'thing-a-mig-awesome-jig' I'll share soon.  I've talk about Barnes already, and if you just want the short version: read it; it's great.  The Folded World is the book I was looking forward to this year more than any other.  I have no doubt that it won't disappoint; I hope to tell you about next month in great detail.

I read six books this month.  Yeah, six; I'm surprised too: Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow; Memories of my Melancholy Whores and Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, This is where I leave You by Jonathan Tropper, Mother Aegypt and Other Stories by Kage Baker,  and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  I'm glad I don't have to pick a favorite book because I would give myself fits this November.

Concerning Ragtime, a book I didn't leave commentary for, but allow me to share my brief encapsulated reading experience of this novel.  I usually read books in my apartment: sitting on my couch, legs propped up in the recliner, crossed at the ankle, a glass of water/whiskey/rum/beer/whatever at my side.  This is how I read Ragtime.  Around the third word or so of the novel, Hollywood rigged explosives to my front door and blew it off the hinges with the power of 'Amazing.'  Not yet being satisfied, Hollywood then moved to throw a deluxe size Hefty bag, over-stuffed with 'Awesome' bricks each weighing thirty pounds at me while I sat on the couch and read the book.  This process continued to happen until I finished reading: that is to say; this was the most visceral and intense book I've read in a very long time, it's lost none of it's power since publication, and if it's not considered a classic, then those who determine such things are severely lacking in judgement and need to be replaced.

From a distance December seems extraordinarily busy; this is not a bad thing.  I'd rather report after the fact than speculate as to what will happen before; tune in for the following 'Month in Review.'

I'll state no plans for the future as doing so seemed to do me well in November.    

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others." Pg 88

The Sense of an Ending is narrator's Anthony Webster's reflection on his life.  The book feels like a memoir that starts with the good stuff rather than the very beginning.  We see Tony and his friends as they start college; spiteful of all they don't have and jealous of those in possession of what they want.  "You're just romanticizing what you haven't got."  Tony was guilty of this accusation as a young man and never truly manages to escape it later in life.  Seeing this earlier part of Tony's life shows him as hopelessly pretentious and wholly convinced of his own brilliance, but the self deprecating humor that he reflects back on his youth endears him to readers from the beginning.  

Adrian, a friend in Tony's gang, is a bit different from everyone else.  His intelligence attracts others to him if not making him distinctly singular.  While all Tony's friends thoughtfully muse on life and history, Adrian's seriousness leads him to contemplate, "Is the application of logic to the human condition in and of itself self-defeating?"  The first part of the book is far more philosophically engaging than driven by narrative with a post-modern 'make of this what you will' presentation of ideas.  The stories Tony relates are viewed through the lens of what Tony should have picked up on at the time or how he should have interpreted events as he looks back with the clarity of hindsight.   

Barnes' voice is beautiful and has what I thought to be a very fluid rhythm to his prose that makes the book very hard to stop reading.  While Tony questions everything in his youth and endears us to his vanity his eternal adult questioning of everything and second-guessing of much of what he has lived through does become a bit of a chore to put up with.

Years after Adrian's premature death the topic of his diary, which was bequeathed to Tony, brings Tony back into the world of his early twenties forty years later.  Veronica a one time girlfriend of both Tony and Adrian helps to drive the story forward by way of torturing Tony's memories; often filling him in on things he didn't know and altering his perception.  An oft repeated passage, "History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation," nicely serves to unify the symbols of whatever concrete information Adrian's diary may hold and the abstract recall of Tony's memory. 

There is a change of focus in the last quarter or so of the book; a marked shift from the philosophical musing to a more gripping story driven search for answers.  While Barnes handles matters deftly the move felt cheap as all previous material's open-ended questions give way to a quest for definitive explanation.  It works and everything is done very well (to the point where subsequent readings will probably yield new meaning and interest) I only wish these two aspect might have merged earlier in the book instead of presenting such a large change of attention at the end.

It's a wonderfully engaging story to read even if when finished the imprint on the mind fades rather fast.  There is a little bit of everything: humor, drama, melancholy, and surprisingly, resolution.  With such broad appeal and well-crafted prose I have a hard time imagining the reader that wouldn't enjoy this subtle, short read.        

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez

"The girl, daughter of an aristocrat and a commoner, had the childhood of a foundling.  Her mother hated her from the moment she nursed her for the first and only time, and then refused to keep the baby with her for fear she would kill her.  Dominga de Adviento suckled her, baptized her in Christ and consecrated her to Olokun, a Yoruban deity of indeterminate sex… Sierva María learned to dance before she could speak, learned three African languages at he same time… and to glide past Christians unseen and unheard like an incorporeal being… Over time the slave women hung the beads of various gods around her neck, until she was wearing sixteen necklaces." Pg 42-43
A young girl is bitten by a rabid dog and feared to have been infected with the disease.  That is all the plot needed for the author to tell a very dense tale of injustice.  Sierva María is a child of neglect.  Her mother had to force herself on her father merely to conceived a child so adamant was his desire to not be a parent.  While it is Sierva María that takes center stage it is the supporting cast that lends so much power to the story.
The novel's setting is perhaps García Márquez's greatest testament to his writing ability.  He is able to convey so much that will be foreign to many readers in so short a period of time and in so vivid a manner.  There is an immediacy to his setting: things don't develop in your mind as you read rather they are communicated instantaneously.  It's a strong trait for any writer but combined with a semi-exotic locale and a period of time that hasn't been overdone it is very easy to be swept away.  
It's made very clear that neither of Sierva María's parents want anything to do with her and her care is entrusted to the family's slaves.  Twelve years later she is fluent in Yoruban, Congolese, and Mandingo, and sings and dances with the grace and beauty to rival the other African slaves while she struggles with Castilian, literacy and courtly graces expected of her as one of the aristocracy.  "The only thing white about that child was her color."  This would be a reoccurring theme and a trait that would cause her much suffering for the perceived flaw.

"He always believed he loved his daughter, but the fear of rabies obliged the Marquis to admit to himself that this was a lie for the sake of convenience.  Bernarda, on the other hand, did not even ask herself the question, for she knew very well she did not love the girl and the girl did not love her, and both things seemed fitting.  A good part of the hatred each of them felt for Sierva María was caused by the other's qualities in her.  Nevertheless, to preserve her honor, Bernarda was prepared to play out the farce of shedding tears and mourning like a grief-stricken mother, on the condition that the girl's death have a seemly cause.
"It doesn't matter what," she specified, "as long as it's not a dog's disease." Pg 16    
Upon the incident of the dog bite and the possibility of her going mad and dying from rabies, Sierva María's father takes an interest in her and in the course of a few days attempts to make up for a life time of neglect.  This change of mind greatly helps alter his own life in a positive way, yet even after being convinced by the best doctor in town that Sierva María is fine and rabies has passed her by her father, the Marquis, comes to find that he doesn't know his daughter at all.  He finds her odd and many of her actions fey.  He convinces himself that something has to be wrong, that she is mad and needs to be institutionalized in a convent to await exorcism.  Though it is initially his love and concern that harbingers the demise of his daughter his, and the love of others ultimately interfere with Sierva Maria's happiness and condemn her.
The intervention of the church complicates matters immensely.  The Bishop and Abbess see all Sierva María's superstitions and inexplicable occurrences as African magic and works of the devil.  While Cayetano Delaura, the priest charged with performing the exorcism who has a peculiar past with the Inquisition and his sights set on a position in Rome, can't find one rational argument to justify her being possessed, rather many to suggest she be canonized as a saint.  
The novels strongest interactions involve Delaura.  His unlikely and short friendship with Abrenuncio, the doctor who first vouched that Sierva Maria was free of rabies, shows Delaura to be too smart a man to believe in possession or risk an exorcism that could mean death.  And yet he can't surrender to the logic his mind has told him to be true or the comfort of an atheist like Abrenuncio who, without the restraints of faith, has proven himself even smarter than Delaura.  As the two spend more time together, Delaura sees himself as much a heretic as Abrenuncio who is outside of faith and in possession of every book forbidden by the church.  Theirs is a relationship of shared intelligence when those around them seek the scapegoats of demons when their reason fails them.  Abrenuncio sums up their friendship bluntly in a conclusion that undercuts all of the sentimentality and respect the two share: "I leave you with this enigma," Abrenuncio concluded as he spurred his horse.  "No god could have created a talent like yours to waste it scrubbing lepers."  Both a powerful literal statement of Delaura's life and a euphemism for what he could be.         

I think García Márquez's best feat is writing a historical novel without the standard narration that is so common today: "In the year X, in the country of Y, there was a small town of Z in which..."  He writes the book as if it were being read by someone of the time and from that area.  The presentation demands a little bit more from the reader but it is in no way demanding.  Taking into account the simplicity of this kind of narration it's odd to think that I or anyone else would champion the style as it is nothing more than exactly how contemporary fiction of today is written.  The story is as much about Sierva María's parents and her doomed relationship with Delaura as much as it is about herself.  (There is an absolutely gorgeous paragraph at the end that encapsulates the beginning, middle and end of Sierva María and Delaura's relationship.)  With characters this strong and material this powerful I remain in awe of how García Márquez worked it all in a mere one hundred and fourty-seven pages.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mother Aegypt and Other Stories by Kage Baker

Baker's diversity and creativity are on full display.  While there doesn't seem to be a setting she is not comfortable with, there certainly are some that play to her strengths more than others.  Much like another collection of hers from Night Shade Books, Dark Mondays, there is a lot of great quality writing here, it is unfortunately surrounded by other quality writing that isn't particularly great. 

There are two stories that happen in the world of Baker's novel The Anvil of the World; 'Desolation Rose' and 'Leaving his Cares Behind Him.'  In both the characters are well defined and exist in a simple fantasy world that readers have encountered before; except the world's "Dark Lord" is married to the "Saint of Light" and the exploits of their children take center stage. While 'Leaving his Cares Behind Him' feels like an introduction where a magical prodigal returns home with nothing to the reprimand of his parents, 'Desolation Rose' was more fleshed out and showed the anti-hero, Lord Ermenwyr, taking advantage of a family in ruin for his own benefit and how he is forced to atone.  There were layers of depth in this story that made me think the novel could be something worth checking out. 

'The Briscian Saint' showed three soldiers on the run contemplating the rational mind versus faith and superstition; people and gods; and the reality of people's work juxtaposed with god's supposed intentions.  The story itself is strong, but secondary to the thoughts and ideas represented.  One facilitated the other and the narrative didn't suffer in any way.

'Miss Yahoo Has Her Say,' a story set in the world of Gulliver's Travels was strong enough to hold my interest despite the presentation of speech that I find so irritating in all fiction: slave speech, for want of a better term.  'Her Father's Eyes' had a complex setting and the most potential for development, yet it seemed that Baker didn't want to go anywhere with the material established.  The whole story took place on a train where the world is shown through the eyes of two children: a world in a dome, people that can't be seen by others, and so much intrigue to make me want to keep reading yet when the train ride is over; nothing continued.  Rather everyone just packed up and went home.  There was a great deal of set up that went into so modest a payoff.       

'What the Tyger Told Her' and 'Nightmare Mountain' were the two stories that I would make someone read if I put the book in their hands.  'What the Tyger Told Her' dealt with a child's observations of family conflict and political maneuvering in Victorian England.  We see that a little girl is able to learn and infer what will happen next with the help of her friend, a caged tiger, and the fact that she--as a child--is invisible in the eyes of adults and her intelligence is written off due to her age.  'Nightmare Mountain' was a fairy tale replete with a woman who was cursed to never touch the earth, her son who would die if ever seen by another person, plenty of evil spirits, and house that was nothing short of Gormenghast (Technically, that link goes to Titus Groan but I plan on reading Gormenghast shortly) that they all lived in.  The son's marriage and the drama that ensues has "Hollywood" all over it and was a great joy to read.     

While I feel this collection was much stronger than Dark Mondays with a few standout stories and a strong supporting cast, fans that have come across Baker's name in best of anthologies and themed collections may be best advised to wait and check out the table of contents from 'The Best of Kage Baker' collections I hope we'll be seeing in the near future following the authors untimely passing. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

This is Where I Leave you by Jonathan Tropper

I've never liked the genre appellation of 'women's fiction.'  The umbrella term is too big, and offers too many points of contention no matter how well it may work as a marketing phrase.  Previously, 'women's fiction' primarily bothered me because it somehow inferred that there were elements of human existence outside of biological imperative that were unique to the female sex, like relationship difficulties; family problems; sexual assault; how one's life changes upon having children.  (I admit the possibly of still being wrong in this regard.)  I haven't read much of what is labeled women's fiction and have previously refused to give it any credence until I come across something called, 'Men's fiction.'  I'm not going to present it this way, but if someone wanted to, it would be easy to make the argument that This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper is decidedly 'Men's Fiction.'        
Judd Foxman is in his early thirties, no longer as physically fit as he used to be, and recently unemployed by way of his wife sleeping with his boss.  When his father dies and his family has to sit shiva, spend seven days and nights together to honor their father's memory, he is made to examine every aspect of his life by way of spending time with his family and seeing things in a different perspective.  
This first thing that came to mind when I finished this book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  Both novels are hilarious.  Both are about a seemingly dysfunctional family (both novels are perhaps about the average American family and that is their strength in that readers can identify, no matter how bizarre, on some level.)  Tropper's novel is more intimate focusing solely on Judd where Franzen encompasses the entire family.  While Judd is not 'everyman', he is a close enough approximation that 'every reader' can embrace, reject or commiserate with him at some point.  
We see how Judd handles his age and deals with his insecurity concerning how he sees himself and how he thinks others see him in his interaction with his youngest brother Philip who is a good looking, charming, womanizer and life long prodigal.  The weight and effects of Judd's guilt and his ability to avoid uncomfortable--no matter how important--events are made clear as he is made to spend time with Paul his older brother whose future, post high school, was irreparably changed in an incident where Judd was a crucial figure.  Perhaps most poignant was Judd's observance of Horry, a neighbor and childhood friend who now requires assisted living due to a traumatizing childhood.  Judd sees how Horry is living with brain damage, how he manages to keep going and slowly but surely takes hints that time isn't going to stop for him.  No matter how absurd his life is.  
The women in Judd's life: his wife, his brother's wife, the girl from high school he bumps into while in town, and every other woman that he lays eyes on, show Judd's desperation for a loving relationship with anyone who truly cares about him.  As he says many times, Judd loves the idea of being in love; particularly so when he has massive relationship problems to work through which are probably best left uncomplicated by new physical relationships.    
Time marching on is one of the book's themes that all characters struggle with.  Judd can't see past the current nightmare of his life, Horry's feelings of everyday being the same as the last, Philip's inability to grow up and stop making the same mistakes, Paul's hurt and anger that has kept much of his mind and emotion in the past contrast with the one character who has already moved on from the tragedy of her husband dying and started a new chapter of her life: their mother, who somewhat presides over and originally demanded that they all sit shiva.  And while she may have had a bit of a head start, or anticipation, in getting over the death of her husband it is through her that the family comes to see that at the end of seven days even though their father has past, life will continue.  
It sounds like a highly dramatic, somber and bleak book with weighty themes and not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.  It is dramatic, but what separates This is Where I Leave You from anything anyone else that could have written is Tropper's humor.  This is the funniest book I've ever read.  No matter how dark or irresolute the situation everything, is humorous; mainly by way of men behaving badly.  There are no punch-lines, or situational comedic setups.  There is nothing so preconceived as building a scene for the sole purpose of telling an appropriate joke.  Everything is organic, very contemporary, most of it will leave you slightly embarrassed or wondering if in the same situation would you have been able to say the same thing.  
In addition to being hilarious Tropper has a great way of stopping time in his writing and going over multiple conflicting thoughts or feelings in an instant within various characters without being tedious.   
This is a book about men: how the talk, how they feel, how they think; it's as funny as it is honest.  Dare I say some women may not like it, others maybe surprised. 

 "There is no talking to her.  And now the tears come, just like that.  Where have all the happy, well-adjusted women gone?  Every one I talk to these days is one wrong word away from a crying fit. (...)  "Thanks for understanding, Judd," she says, and she must be joking, because, Alice, honey, I would travel to the ends of the earth, kill or die, just to find one single thing that I could understand."  Page 297 

Tropper sure is tough on his narrator as things start out bad and only continue to get worse.  There never is an impending feeling of 'happily ever after' rather something more like, 'everything will work itself out.'  Amidst all the humor ( every page--every single page--had me laughing about something ), drama ( of which most is understated to keep the narrative focused on the outcome and not the exposition of how the drama came to be ), broken; mended; and open-ended relationships, Tropper succeeds in a blunt, concise portrayal of family finding a way to deal with each other in the most adverse of circumstances.   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Difficulties of Reading New Books

I had a goal this year to read at least five books published within this calendar year.  A pretty simple goal; five isn't much by anyone's standards.  There were a few I was eagerly anticipating, and I figured there would be a few that would pop up and excite me.  Halfway through November and this goal has been accomplished.

A few other books have recently caught my attention; books that have been published in the past few months and I've decided to double-up on my reading goal of new books read in a year.  What I've come to find is if you want to read new fiction and talk about it with the 'in' crowd (which is basically anyone who received an ARC) you have to buy the book, join the cool kids in the in crowd, or win the lottery.  The lottery would be your local library.

My library system is great.  I have no complaints, but if I want to read The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, or The Folded World by Catherynne Valente and get the book through my library, I'll be waiting for a couple months.  I'm glad there is demand (such demand is reassurance of my interest in a book) but jumping in the queue at number two hundred forty-three to read A Sense of the Ending by Julian Barnes feels a bit like joining the rat race of bloggers who eagerly try to post their thoughts first on the latest received ARC that the industry is raving about: it doesn't make me lose interest in the book, but my sense of urgency and desire to read such a book is stymied by the wait, or the threat of having to spend fifteen bucks.  That, and I presently own fifty books I haven't read...

So in an effort to double-up on my reading of books published this year by the end of this year and my dislike of the freebie handouts, I am enabling myself to do something I haven't done in a very long time: buy a handful of books from Amazon.  (And no I'm no excited about spending the money, but I'm calling it an early Christmas gift.)  So, I'm about to order an armful of books; everyone wins, right?

Monday, November 14, 2011

No one Told Me!

So The Folded World by Catherynne Valente is out... I'm gonna have to add her to my author watch list.  Last I checked on this book I thought publication had been pushed back to next year.

I absolutely loved the first book and The Folded World was a book I planned to read this year in an effort to read more recently published fiction.  I've already hit my goal, but please believe I just ordered The Folded World.  Was anyone else looking forward to reading this or surprised that it has already been released?    

Just talking about this one gets me hot and bothered.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garia Marquez

"I could not bear it any more.  She sensed it, saw my eyes wet with tears, and only then must have discovered I was no longer the man I had been, and I endured her glance with a courage I never thought I had.  The truth is I'm getting old, I said.  We already are old, she said with a sigh.  What happens is that you don't feel it on the inside, but from the outside everybody can see it."  Page 98
A cursory glance at this short novel could be very dangerous and highly misleading.  The title and the first few pages would indicate an immature recollection of an old man's colossal sexual exploits.  For a ninety year old man who was twice awarded 'client of the year' in the red light district and kept a log of all the women he had sex with up until he was fifty--and recorded an epochal five-hundred fourteen--you'd think, 'Well hey, this will be interesting if not absurd…'  I was blown away by this novel for reasons you wouldn't believe from what I've said thus far.
At the heart of this book are two themes the author has dealt with in many of his other works: getting older, and what it means to be in love.  The narrator is ninety, hideously ugly, has never once allowed himself to be in love, and has paid--monetarily paid--for everyone of his sexual encounters.  He is terrified of commitment (and arguably a spineless sap in general) and seeks fleeting relationships that are finite and business like in nature.  
We see his age through his interaction with other people: an editor at the newspaper where he works that is young in good health and in possession of good looks; how people treat him as an old man after making a prominent mistake in public; how 'Delgadina' sees him (rather how he envisions her seeing him) as time goes on and he falls in love with her, a fragile fourteen year old girl.  Readers and the narrator learn the most about him as he falls in love for the first time at ninety and behaves with the angsty eye-rolling behavior of an adolescent.  Being in love has taught him more about himself than ninety years of life experience.  
"When the storm had passed I still had the feeling I was not alone in the house.  My only explanation is that just as a real events are forgotten, some that never were can be in our memories as if they had happened.  For if I evoked the emergency of the rainstorm, I did not see myself alone in the house but always accompanied by Delgadina."  Page 59
The most unexpected pleasure in this novel was the title and how it factored into the narrative's presentation.  A 'horse-faced' man of ninety years old with a jaw-dropping laundry list of sexual exploits is absurd in itself, but that we only learn of him from the women--some of whom our narrator is out of line to call a whore--that he had relationships with, not merely sexual encounters but relationships, is amazing.  The three perfect women that he was presented a chance of marrying but didn't and the one who procures Delgadina, who he may yet chain himself to, present the narrator in the best of light: ugly, flawed, and as far from a hero as possible yet virtuous (in his own corrupt way) to a fault that he has lived, or perhaps suffered, for ninety years.  
One could argue it lacks the objectivity that third person narration could offer, and I'd be the first to agree.  I'd love nothing more than to get inside Delgadina's head, but the intimacy and awareness that we gain with the narrator isn't worth giving up and to paraphrase the narrator, it was better when Delgadina was asleep and didn't talk…  There is a very coarse sentimentality here, tempered by the narrator's age and experience and the fact that readers have a difficult time being moved to sympathy of feeling on his behalf.  It's a fully realized telling of a story the author hinted at in Strange Pilgrims 'Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane.'  I challenge you to find a better book at one-hundred and fifteen pages, or perhaps if you're feeling adventurous, even more pages than one-hundred fifteen.