21 October 2014

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

This book feels much more like guilty pleasure reading than I'd expected. Not because of all the graphic sex -- although there is plenty of that, it never feels gratuitous. This is one of those rare books in which the sex is explicitly (and beautifully) described in ways that tell you things about the characters and their relationships, in addition to being quite titillating. No, what makes this book feel a bit trashy (and maybe this is my bias) is the way it cycles through so many tropes of Victorian role-playing fantasy. It's all the sexiest parts of the what we often think of as the stuffiest and most uptight era, and thus most enjoy imagining with its hair down. So, I can't help but feel a tinge of embarrassment over my enjoyment of reading descriptions of elaborately tailored clothing and thrilling plays on the master-servant relationship. I guess in my mind, there is something suspicious and middle-brow about a lot of historical fiction?  It might also be some of the melodrama in certain stock tropes of lesbian stories.

But it must be said that this is a smart novel, and one that cleverly weaves in all kinds of issues circulating in the 1890s. It's also a mostly compelling story, though it tends towards the larger-than-life and perhaps goes on a little too long. Overall, it's an enjoyable read, and it's not like intelligent, sexy books about lesbians are a dime a dozen, so it's nice to see someone who manages to be taken seriously when writing them.

20 October 2014

Severina, by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

(translated by Chris Andrews)

While I was shelving the other day, one of my co-workers walked by, plucked this out of a stack and said "This is a great, weird book." So of course I bought it, and indeed. The story of a bookseller who becomes obsessed with a beautiful and mysterious shoplifter, it turns out to be a surprising, but quite pleasing, love story.

I have limited patience with tales of men stalking beautiful women they know nothing about, but this one is effective, perhaps because it is so short, one, because it strikes the right balance of sentimentality and a sort of emotional flatness, two, and because it does not idolize the young woman, three. Even while in her thrall, the narrator seems perfectly able to see her flaws, and their relationship is one of compromise and resignation. The plot is just strange enough to make the story feel a bit unhinged, but not so off-the-rails as to seem entirely silly.

A small book that will grab you, shake you a few times, set you down, pat you on the head, and walk away.

14 October 2014

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an interesting figure in the contemporary literary landscape. She is increasingly perceived as an important author, but she is perhaps a little bit too prolific to be comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of greats. A Thousand Acres is a masterpiece -- really an absolutely phenomenal novel. None of her other books quite achieves its heights, though most of them are warm, wonderful, and highly pleasant reads (I quite liked both Horse Heaven and Moo). She puts them out at a surprisingly reliable pace, about one every three years (with some young adult novels, which I am unfamiliar with, in between). Although one wonders if a better editor and maybe a little more time wouldn't help these texts ripen a bit, it must also be admitted that there is something wonderful about her energetic willingness to explore all kinds of different ideas and settings (clearly gravitating, however, towards the rural, particularly the Iowan).

Some Luck is a chronicle of the life of an Iowa family, year by year. We are told it is the first in a trilogy, one that will take us into 2020; an idea that gives me pause (I try to be open-minded about sci-fi, but I tend to find it dull and transparently ideological. I'm sorry.). In a lesser writer's hands, this format of jumping between characters and gathering up stories big and small as well as sundry bits of fluff could easily have resulted in a disconnected, dull, and overly cliche narrative. But Jane Smiley is such a masterful creator of characters that I was completely engrossed, and found myself deeply caring about the different people in the story. It's an interesting thing, one that makes me want to ponder the relationship between readers and characters and the reality effects at work, in that I was tempted to say that the characters are realistic, but that's not quite right. It's not that I form a relationship to them the way I do to actual people. It's also not that I come to feel like I know them as well as I know my closest friends -- though Smiley really is brilliant at "showing" you her characters rather than telling you about then, and also once again deploys her trademark move of getting into the mind of a being (in this case, a baby) that we generally see as unknowable. But I develop a certain intimacy and familiarity with them, and a sense of them 'coming to life,' that I don't often get elsewhere.

It is not a perfect book -- Smiley occasionally tends towards corn-fed folksiness, and some of the plot turns feel more contrived than others. But it is a very enjoyable read. You can certainly wait for it to come out in paperback, at which point, perhaps, the next installment won't be too far off.

03 October 2014

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher

The reviews and general buzz around this book had led me to think it would be a bitter, angry bit of grousing at the absurdity of university bureaucracy, an attack on institutions of higher learning from within. To my pleased surprise, however, it was a quite affable, and often very funny sort of book. And curiously enough -- a powerful advocate for the very institutions it seemingly pokes fun at.

The book is a collection of letters of recommendation. Many of these are for positions within academia; students trying to get into graduate school, professors seeking tenure, etc. But one of the charms of the book is that a good quarter or more are for former students seeking regular jobs in the "normal" world -- data entry clerks, paintball park supervisors, high-profile corporate types. It is an interesting reminder of just how many people a college professor educates, and how varied are the paths they take from there. At moments, the protagonist goes even further, offering explicit arguments for the merits of English majors. I'm biased, of course, but I very much appreciated the novel's subtle bid to argue for the relevance and importance of literature and creative writing programs.

Perhaps I should be somewhat concerned that I found the main character, whom others have described as a pompous, self-centered jerk, to be fairly sympathetic. I had a similar experience when I read The Anthologist -- I was surprised, later, to learn how much people despised the narrator. Look, nobody is perfect. We are all trying. I guess I am more tolerant of people, even flawed people who have been total jerks to people who love them, if they are aware of and regret their mistakes, and  deeply care about many other humans, even those not especially close to them. And I think this character does.

Although the back story woven into the letters feels a bit shoe-horned in at times, and the plot makes some overly extreme moves, it is overall an entertaining, thought-provoking, and even somewhat moving book, a light read that stays with you after it's over.

30 September 2014

Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

The first 50 pages of this novel are some of the best I've read in a long time. It's a marvelous set-up -- the narrator meets a man on a train and, with a wonderfully detached sort of bemusement, is gradually drawn into the orbit of this mysterious, bizarre character. I wasn't completely taken with what Isherwood decided to do with the story from there (it was quite literally on page 50 where I suddenly thought, oh, hmmm. Ok.), but his prose is so archly fantastic that you're happy to go along for the ride ("She could drink most of the English journalists under the table, and sometimes did so, but more as a matter of principle than because she enjoyed it.").

It's a kind of sub-genre, I think, the story of a narrator who meets a strange person and becomes somewhat entangled in an utterly unfamiliar and not entirely appealing world, ultimately managing to retreat, usually mostly unscathed, as the hurricane of this strange individual passes by. Diana Athill's Make Believe, which I read recently, actually follows a similar model. There is something not entirely satisfying to me about the narrative form -- it places you in the perspective of the ipso facto less interesting character, who is meant to be the screen that displays the crazed meanderings of the real point of interest, who always remains a little bit mysterious and is vaguely being judged as flighty, immature, unstable, etc, whereas the milquetoast narrator gets to be the sensible, wise, responsible one. Or, alternatively, the wildcard ends up seeming like such a self-centered monster that you both despise him/her and blame the narrator for putting up with this nonsense for so long. Either way, my interest is often tempered by a sense of indignation.

Isherwood ameliorates the problem somewhat by giving us a narrator who is a bit of a cad, just aware enough of his tendency to romanticize deadbeats as to allow us to feel comfortable doing the same, and willing to go along with the craziness enough to clear him of the charge of priggishness or prudery (there is a particularly delightful scene where he gets rip roaring drunk and floats along through scenes of chaotic decadence: "Here one of the anaesthetic periods of my evening supervened. How the Baron got me upstairs, I don't know. It was quite painless."). What is more, Isherwood cleverly inserts several other judgmental characters, friends of the narrator's who warn him that Mr Norris is not to be trusted, leaving it open as to whether they are close-minded or sensible.

Two things that make this novel, which was written in 1935, particularly interesting are the ways in which it handles the rise of Nazism and the gay subculture of Berlin. I haven't read many novels written in the 30s that actively portray life in Germany in the 30s (are there many?), where there is no awareness of the tragedy that will follow (or is there, is of course the question). Not knowing what is to come, the book leaves all possibilities open (what Michael André Bernstein, in a very smart book, called 'side-shadowing'), so the sense one has is of a vague undercurrent, not explicitly discussed. The book's treatment of homosexuality, strangely, seems similar -- it seems completely apparent, I think, to a modern-day reader, but one wonders whether Isherwood's contemporaries were slower to catch on (I vaguely seem to recall reading something where a person mentioned being very surprised to realize it). Only once in the novel is it made completely explicit that a character is gay (when one character asks another if he knew that someone was "a fairy"); there is an amusingly euphemistic quality to the rest of the novel, where two men will disappear together for a few hours and resurface later, rather like the fireworks scenes of films from the time.

In any case, I certainly look forward to reading more of Isherwood's writing.

The Thin Man

Tonight was a homecoming of sorts -- after a day of working at the bookstore, I went to my beloved Doc Films. I went at least once a week while I was in graduate school, and it was soooo good to be back. I've always loved movies, but going to Doc regularly really shaped my tastes. Although I grew up going to arthouse theatres and watching independent and foreign films, I got to know and love a lot more classic movies -- especially noir and stuff from the 30s. In many ways, it was like taking a film studies course, except I didn't have a teacher to tell me what I was supposed to appreciate about the movies, so I have ended up with more of the naive enthusiasm and idiosyncratic knowledge of the autodidact. But I digress.

It is often considered blasphemous to say that a movie is as good as the book it is based on, but in the case of The Thin Man (and, I would wager, a lot of other film noir), it really is true. I read the book last summer and very much enjoyed it, but the movie is equally entertaining, and in some ways, better.

One of the great strengths of the novel is the delightful banter between the hero, Nick, and his wife Nora. The film captures it wonderfully, even improves it with a dash of physical comedy and some truly wonderful facial expressions. What is more, while one certainly notices how much the characters drink in the novel, in the film version you can actually tell how drunk Nick is -- he lurches and teeters and looks a bit dazed, even as he is figuring out the intricacies of the case.

Another advantage of the movie is that it's much easier to keep the characters and plot lines straight when you can match a face to the name. Granted, there are an awful lot of blondes in the movie, which made it a little bit more difficult, but I wasn't nearly as muddled as I was when reading the text. At the same time, the movie does hustle through the story somewhat, probably cutting quite a bit of the storyline (not that I missed it), and zooming past the end without really bothering to flesh it out, thereby reinforcing the sense -- which one also has when reading -- that the mystery is rather beside the point.

It isn't the greatest social comedy or the best mystery you'll ever see, but on the big screen at your favorite local theatre, it sure is a treat.

24 September 2014

Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac

I taught On the Road a few times and grew to love it, mostly for its prose* but also for its wild, somewhat desperate adventure. I happened upon Tristessa somewhat randomly in a used bookstore and was totally captivated by the description on the back, written by Ginsberg: "a narrative meditation studying a hen, a rooster, a dove, a cat, a chihuaha dog, family meat, and a ravishing, ravished junky lady, first in their crowded bedroom, then out to drunken streets, taco stands, & pads at dawn in Mexico City slums." Don't you want to read that book? I do. Unfortunately, Tristessa is not that book.

So, it may be that Kerouac's charm has somewhat worn off for me, or it may be that I just wasn't in the mood for it at the moment. But despite occasional moments of beauty, the book did not quite work for me. There would be these lovely sequences where the hum of the novel's rushed prose lifted into music and swept me up into the ride, and then a sudden clunk would pull me out and make me think gosh, I'll bet Kerouac was kind of an annoying blowhard if you actually hung out with him. There are these moments where you become vividly aware that these are the inflated ramblings of a spoiled white boy looking for thrills in Mexico, romanticizing the local drug addicts even as he remains somewhat contemptuous of them. It's kind of gross.

*Turns out I wrote this oddly contemplative blog review of it at the time -- I guess this blog used to be a lot more personal? Perhaps it will be again; life has been taking some unexpected turns lately and I want to explore various kinds of writing more...