Friday, October 27, 2006

The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart, 2002

A Russian-born author and an immigrant character. Through his main character, Vladimir Girshkin, a twenty something Jewish immigrant in America, Shteyngart traverses the world of successful, Americanized professional immigrants (the hero's parents), the world of liberal New York academics (the hero's girlfriend and her parents), the Russian mafia in America and Eastern Europe, and the crowd of American expatriates in post-communist Prague with one purpose only -- to make fun of them. And he is very good at it! The witty monologue of his cynical hero is what holds the story together. The character's trajectory in itself is not very original but his commentary is hilarious. If I have to compare Jonathan Safran Foer's prose, another author who tries to capture the Russian idiom in English language, to Shteyngart's - I have to admit that the task of the latter was much harder - he captures the hilarious mutation of the Americanized Russian idiom mixed with the cliches of the Americans' notions of Russianness. And again - this was a winning approach.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Utterly Monkey. Nick Laird, 2005

The first novel of Nick Laird, (husband of Zadie Smith) is very entertaining and funny, but I am sorry to say he is no match for the talent of his beautiful wife. The language is witty and cool, and I enjoyed greatly the law firm experiences of the young Associate Danny, the main character. But thinking back about the book I wonder what its purpose is...Mr. Laird has the storytelling skill, no doubt, but he does not seem to know why he feels compelled to share his stories with reading audience.

Lulu on the Bridge. Paul Auster, 1998

The script for the directorial debut of Paul Auster is a genre-less highly cinematic text - a combination typical of everything penned by that author. It flows between the fantasmic and the literary-intertextual. The author explores an alternative train of events that follow the dramatic shooting scene at the beginning. The author traces the steps of the main character, the jazz musician Izzy, as he meanders into a parallel dream world of pain, guilt and true love. Is this the dream world preceding death--because the film ends with the actual death of the hero? Or just a "second chance"-story, an alternative plotting device for the author, which he needed to explore...The answer is not really of importance.
This plot line is cross-cut with a second one - the shooting of a film based on Wedekind's Lulu. And there is the rub - because what does it all have to do with Lulu, as fascinating a literary myth that may be...? The inteprlay between the two stories is very obscure, if present at all. Lulu's plot closes in on itself, and Izzy's plot just unwinds arbitrarily as a loose end...Still, some scenes especially in the beginning (Izzy roaming the streets of New York, encountering the murdered man, the mystic stone) are fascinating -- just because they contain so much promise...

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Amazing Adventures of Kavaliere and Clay, Michael Chabon, 2000

A very ambitious and quite finely written novel trying to emulate "Ragtime" or the "great American novel" as we know it... Not surprisingly, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2001. Unfortunately, learned and researched as it is, it leaves you cold and unengaged by its story and characters. The novel traces the life a two Jewish men - one an immigrant from the Czechoslovakian ghetto, the other a Brooklynite, during World War II -- both artists and both involved in the rise of the graphic novel or the comics. They become the fictional creators of a popular comic book character "the Escapist" inspired by Houdini and imbued by the energy of 1940s freedom-fighters, opposing antisemitism in a world, which had become hopeless for millions. Chabon diligently depicts the ten cent world of the comics industry, parallel to the most dramatic events in world history but his characters lack life and his novel remains mostly decorative.

The History of Love. Nicole Krauss, 2005

One of the most overrated books I have come across! Belongs to what I would define as "learned graphomania" - a perfect sample of the latter. Obviously a lot of formal education and a lot of a labour went into creating the novel. Graphomaniacs are very industrious and sometimes the complexity of effort can pass for complexity of mind. Not in this case, anyway.

Nicole Krauss was a runner-up for the Orange literary award? She is so mediocre compared to Zadie Smith, the winner.

The story is convoluted and contrived. The very notion of "love" - the premise on which the whole book is supposed to build, is lacking. The book is tasteless in its efforts to imitate Borges, or Marquez, or Eco, or whoever she is trying to be. Images such as the man made of glass are preposterous, ridiculous - the character has to put a cushion on his behind when seating?! - how more helpless the imagery can get... Or, take for example, the whole idea of the "age of silence", or the idea of a man dancing from grief (after learning about the death of his son...) - I can't even comment on the lack of literary talent or originality that makes a book a helpless vehicle of narcissistic self-envisioning as a writer. Because, that is why N. Krauss has taken to writing - she wants to be a member of a highly regarded (by herself) club - that of writers. Well, unfortunately, membership is open to the public, but not necessarily to people with money or Oxford University degrees.

Brooklyn Follies. Paul Auster. 2006

Remember the story from Paul Auster's film "Smoke" told by Harvey Caitel's character towards the end of the film? It was a Christmas story about a man visiting a blind woman in the "Projects" and pretending to be her nephew...The new novel of Auster feels like it is being told by the same character -- there is similarity in the narrative's pace and style. The language is the everyday life conversational language of Brooklynites but Auster endows it with depth and beauty, which transcends the pettiness of the mundane. The narrator, Nathan Glass, is an insurance agent who goes back to his birthplace - Brooklyn, to spend the final stage of his life after cancer treatment. But the book is not dark -- Nathan's stories sound optimistic - sad but glorifying the beauty of life despite its tribulations.

The novel ends on a nostalgic note - a longing for a pre 9/11 innocence.

The plot is a "snowball" plot, which gradually involves more and more characters whose lives become entangled with Nathan's. In addition to dramatically exploited relationships of lovers, spouses and parents-children, Auster pursues some unusually prosaic blood relations -- uncle-nephew and uncle-niece. (I can't recall of another recent novel that explores such relationships unless I go back to Dickens). In general, the narrative style itself reminds of nineteenth century techniques - for example, the device where the narrator injects suspense in the story with sentences like : "Had I known what would happen after that, I wouldn't...." or "what happened next was very unusual and etc." or "if I hadn't made the decision to ..., most of the events of this novel would have never taken place..." I am glad Auster returns to classic narrative techniques even though he has not entirely abandoned "post-modern" devices like self-references and hidden-quotations. And if the Kafka story worked beautifully, the "Book of follies" penned by Nathan seems unnecessary and does not contribute in a meaningfully way to the book. The mini-plots utilized by Auster involve scams -- one that reminds of "Ripley Underground" (Patricia Highsmith), another (Hawthorne-related) - told with great enthusiasm for the Rascal and his/her life-loving energy. The book is definitely addressing a "reading" reader, who would probably derive the most of it, but its beauty lies beyond the literary references - it is in the intertwining small bitter-sweet events of life, the yarn of living and storytelling delivered with seriousness and an almost revelatory tone, which seemingly does not correspond to the pettiness of the subject matter - a waitress with a jealous husband, a perfect mother sending her kids on the school bus, a guy mowing his lawn...

All these miniatures perfectly tie together with Nathan's idea at the end of the novel to start a publishing enterprise dedicated to recording the biographies of the forgettable -- the ordinary people.


"I want to talk about happiness and well-being, about those rare, unexpected moments when the voice in your head goes silent and you feel one with the world. I want to talk about the early June weather, about harmony and repose, about robins and yellow finches and blue-birds darting past the green leaves of trees. I want to talk about the benefits of sleep, about the pleasures of food and alcohol, about what happens to your mind when you step into the light of the two o'clock sun and feel the warm embrace of air around your body."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada.Lauren Weisberger, 2003

The book is just one more example of "chick lit" and the hugely successful college grad prose of late. It is though too long and repetetive to be a very good sample of that trend - a 300 page cut would have been beneficial for the whole enterprise. The language though is not entirely devoid of wit and reflects the mentality of the current majority of 20-something female population.

The main character dreams of writing for the "New Yorker" but winds up instead in a fashion magazine, where she has to take the abuse of her monstrous queen-of-the-fashion-world boss. This 'drama' of the heroine is not really exploited by the writer - it builds up towards a schizoid menal scheme which we see demonstrated also in the character's admiration for her boss whom she considers "a true" lady while discribing her totally inhuman proclivities in great detail....?!

Identification with the corporate victim is one of the reasons, I suppose, for this novel's popularity - the average person hates their boss and the novel provides a final sublimation of that hatred through the character's liberating declaration of " you" thrown in the face of that boss. The other reason for the book's success is its subject matter -- fashion, glamour, designers, page-long description of racks and racks of toilettes, boxes of accessories, and shoes (given out for free). The abuse we are ready to take in exchange for clothes and shoes - this is mindboggling...

Everyman. Philip Roth, 2006

This is a great book! It felt like a punch in the stomach - the sensation of reading it is almost physically painful...This is the American "Death of Ivan Ilych" written with the cruelty, and compassion, and lack of sentimental pity typical of a Tolstoy. The story of Everyman is the story of betrayal - the graduate betrayal of our body perpetrated on us with inevitability and indifference. It is also about the betrayal we commit against others and the loneliness of both - happy and unhappy creatures. There is a great scene towards the end of the novel, which compares to the grave-diggers scene in Hamlet. Yet, it the book is totally devoid of philosophizing. The language is matter of fact, simple, and bruising.

You have to have guts in order to read this book, let alone - write it.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. Ayelet Waldman, 2006

Before reading that book, I read that Waldman was author of some mystery books series, where child abandonment was the crime around which the plot revolved; and that before "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" she wrote "The Daughter's Keeper," which is about a mother/daughter relationship/power struggle and drug laws.

I also read that she had forsaken her Harvard law degree job in order to breed (she has four children) and write. Worth mentioning as well is, that she is married to Pulitzer Prize winner, writer Michael Chabon, and that she has a column on about..., you guessed it, motherhood. She has a blog on her site about the books she reads - and she reads a lot! One even wonders how she manages to read so much. But she provides the explanation in one of her interviews - she works in the morning (while her kids are at school), she has lunch and a conversation with her husband (who wakes up around noon because he writes during the night), then they both spend the remaining part of the day with the kids. After her husband puts the kids to bed and goes off to write, she goes to bed and reads. All that happens either in Main or in Berkley, I don' remember exactly.

If you put the first 100 pages of the book (that's how far I read) in the context of the above, you can already start feeling sorry about the nice-looking red-head featured on the dust-jacket of the book. The self-absorption of the ambitious female breeder...can it sustain itself for 300 hundred pages? I can't say "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" is a bad book nor I find it badly written. But why couldn't I read past page 100?...The book meticulously reports the stream of consciousness of a mother, who has lost her two-day old baby to SIDS and has difficulties loving her step son - a peculiar five year old...After being taken through minute by minute accounts of elevator rides, taxi cab rides, cup-cake eating, smart baby talk, etc. and all mundane trifles of mothering, I flipped to the last page of the novel to get reassured that the heroine will eventually come to terms (love?) her step son. What else? -- the cliche is so convenient. Some of Ms. Waldman's observations may merit communicating to a wider reading audience - for example, I found interesting the description of the differences between mothers and nannies in the waiting room of the upscale Manhattan daycare... But who would really want to spend time reading about the length and shape of the nipples of a woman who recently gave birth? Can the world be exhaustively perceived and rendered for contemplation through the eyes of a mother, a mother, and a mother obsessed with mothering -- because Waldman's central character is nothing else but a Mother -- capitalized?

I have to admit -- what made the character sympathetic to me was the fact that she thought the film "Frida" sucked.

But enough about Ayelet Waldman. Regardless of how she projects herself, she is a mass market author, very intelligent, with a good sense of language, and taking credit for being liberal only because the majority of the American reading public is ridiculously conservative.
The Divide. Nicholas Evans,
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005

Nicholas Evans is the author of the bestseller "The Horse Whisperer", turned later into a not so bestselling film of the same name. I could not make myself see the film or read the book because I find the idea of a horse-shrink preposterous. Choosing to read "The Divide" is not a nod to popular literature - it was prompted by a need to find out why this author is so popular. I remembered an reader's comment about the style of the first book, which had made me laugh: "An example of (Evans') bad writing? --"And he felt no shame nor saw any in her, for why should they feel shame at what was not of their making but of some deeper force that stirred not just their bodies but their souls and knew naught of shame nor of any such construct?" I could not find anything that funny in the fourth book of Evans, but still the prose is second rate. It patches together descriptions of natural beauties (so cliche that they can't turn into anything visual or stir an emotion) and a very dumbed-down version of a "psychology of marriage" or "coming of age psychology". I can't deny the author the intelligence of plotting - he kept me reading till the end. He has tapped the great source of popular yarn - the existential fears of female readers: the first one being the fear for the wellbeing of their children, the second one - that they will be abandoned by their husbands for not being passionately responsive to their sexual demands. And indeed, the main female character looses her daughter and her husband to cause fear and trembling in the weak sex.
The title of the novel is such a transparent metaphor, still I have to admit that picking up the novel from the bookshelf has to do with the title as well - the "Divide"....Who would not want to read about what divides people, families, lovers, etc. And again, the characters are very cliche - for example the two women - the one that is abandoned and the seducing one. The first one is a bookstore manager, who wears cream v-neck sweaters and white shirts, the second one is a turban and green dress wearing painter, who is also into yoga and finding her inner self (or something like that).
The second half of the novel dedicated to the eco-terrorist plot line totally lost me. The Patty Hearst story can definitely generate more profound literature but in Evans' case it did not.
Summer Crossing. Truman Capote, 2006

A new book from Capote in 2006, 22 year after his death! - That is a gift from eternity! It is amazing how the book survived and how good it is! Capote began writing it in 1943, which practically makes it his first novel (his first published novel "Other Voices, Other Rooms" dates from 1948). Then, before entirely abandoning "Summer Crossing" (and declaring the manuscript lost) he worked on it -- on and off-- for the course of a decade.
The book tells a girl's coming of age story but unlike other mediocre writers Capote's coming of age is not just about sex and sexuality. It adds an unexpected and profound streak to it - class. The novel's heroine Grady is a teenage socialite from the Park Avenue/Hamptons crowd who falls in love with a Brooklyn Jewish parking attendant. She had never spent a summer in New York but this time she had convinced her parents (who are off to southern France on their regular summer crossing of the Atlantic), that she will be OK alone in the city. Left alone Grady plunges with abandon in the relationship with the handsome lowlife boy from Brooklyn only to find out (especially after a visit to his home and meeting his mother) that this love is impossible. After a first encounter with passion and inexplicable attraction, Grady is tired, bored, and has acquired a sense of belonging - a belonging which love, or whatever it is, can never transgress.

Capote's style is as good as ever. He makes literature within the framework of a sentence, a phrase, just putting two word together...Just look at this description of New York in the summer: "Hot weather opens the skull of the city, exposing its brain, and its heart of nerves, which sizzle like the wires inside a lightbulb. And there exudes a sour extra-human smell that makes the very stone seem flesh-alive, webbed and pulsing." Or a glimpse of the Central Park zoo -- "The cat house of a zoo has an ornery smell , an air powered by sleep, mangy with old breath and dead desires. Comedy in a doleful key is the blowsey she-lion reclining in her cell like a movie queen of silent fame; and hulking ludicrous sight her mate presents...Somehow the leopard does not suffer; nor the panther: their swagger makes distinct claims upon the pulse, for not even the indignities of confinement can belittle the danger in their Asian eyes, those gold and ginger flowers blooming with a bristling courage in the dusk of captivity."
To be able to write like that...