Saturday, March 26, 2011

Four books

Four novels I recently read, each worthwhile...or better.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris - If you can buy the premise - a successful dude who suddenly finds himself in the throes of a condition which forces him to walk enormous distances, without regard to weather, terrain, obstacles or reason, which departs as suddenly as it came on, and recurs at irregular intervals, this is a damn good read.  I bought it.  I didn't quite buy how he and his wife decided to cope with it, but not being able to keep things under control is essential to the narrative.  Basically, what we're shown is a mind literally at war with a body.  Some good food for thought there.  Incidentally, the writing in the last scene is off the charts good.  If you only read one Ferris novel, I'd still go with Then We Came to the End.  Definitement worthwhile for book groups.

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter - Part of this novel about a reporter who loses his job and tries to keep afloat by selling marijuana made me laugh aloud.  But there's a deeper element at work than mere stoner romp, and you may find yourself coming to care about the characters.  Not an especially good book for discussions, but a great way to pass the time.

Love and Summer by William Trevor - Trevor's one of my all time favorite novelists.  His writing  - and there's a whole lot of it - consistently demonstrates an uncommon economy and grace.  Love in Summer is a simple story about an young Irish woman tethered more by obligation than love to a marriage and farm.  The narrowness of her life is exposed to her by what begins as a chance encounter with a photographer from another town.  Ultimately, there's a choice to be made.  But whose choice and whose consequences are less clear.  I've read more than 10 of Trevor's novels, and there's not a poor one in the bunch.  But unlike Fools of Fortune (my favorite), The Silence In The Garden, and Felicia's Journey, I don't think Love in Summer is prime fodder for book group discussions.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy - Nobody writes like McCarthy.  I don't know how he does what he does, but what he does works for me.  It's stark, apocalyptic, and shocking.  It's also dazzling to the point of forcing me to reread passages just for the thrill of hearing the words in my head again.   Here we have a story about a loner who has no moral boundaries.  He lives for his urges.  The narrative is straightforward and immensely compelling.  In the end, it may be regarded simply as a tale well told (albeit an extraordinary tale, extraordinarily well told), in which case book groups should pass it by.  On the other hand - and this is true those other novels of his that I've read - there are deeper themes at play.  If your group functions on that level, I'd recommend this to you.   I'd also (and more strongly) recommend Outer Dark, the McCarthy novel I find most similar.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Terrific book(s)

Just finished Charles Baxter's Feast of Love.  Gotta say, I was quite taken with it.  If you're a fan of character driven novels, you probably will be, too.  Unless you don't read it.  But that's not my problem, now is it?

Here's what I dug about FoL.  First, it's quite a writerly accomplishment, built around an eponymous author, Charles Baxter, who's thinking of his next novel.  He doesn't yet have a solid idea of what it's going to be about.  Taking a walk one night, he runs into Bradley, an acquaintance and fellow insomniac.  Bradley give him an idea for his book along with a working title, "The Feast of Love."  What we end up with is love seen through the eyes of four major characters: Bradley, his second wife, Diana; his employee, Chloe; and his neighbor, Harry.  We also get a mercifully brief take on love from Kathryn, Bradley's first wife.  Each voice is distinctive, and each adds to the universe of love's meanings and nature.  Kathryn's love is homosexual, Diana's narcissistic, Chloe's lustful and idealistic, and Harry's parental.  With one exception, the voices are authentic to my ear, which is the second quality that makes this a standout.  Third, it takes on some big issues while remaining true to the characters.  Harry's a philosophy professor, which provides a character to give voice and context to those ideas.  Finally, it moves along quite well.  The writing's straightforward and, in it's own way, elegant.  There's an appropriate dramatic climax (emphasis on appropriate, as opposed to contrived) and a more than satisfactory ending.

So what's not to like?  Only one thing, really.  Kathryn's character's voice.  Kathryn herself is pretty damn unlikeable.  She leaves Bradley for a woman, which is cool.  Her attitude toward men, which covers the expanse between condescension and contempt, is cool, too; I don't have to like a character to appreciate a well-drawn one.  But Kathryn's voice is just too authorial, too excruciatingly precise, even accounting for the idea that we're reading the fictional Charles Baxter's rendering of it.  Unlike everyone else, though, Kathryn's only given one chapter.  Twenty or so pages and we're done with her.  Maybe the real Charles Baxter felt the same way.

Diana is also unlikeable.  Beautiful, smart (but clearly not as smart as she thinks she is), and strong (she never seems to tire of complimenting herself on her strength), she's too taken by her own self to have much room in her heart for anyone else.  But she's well rendered and believable.

Harry, the philosophy prof, is there mainly for his ideas.  He and his wife, Esther, are (to put it mildly) estranged from their son, Aaron.  Though Harry's parental issues are marginal, they're touching.  His struggle reminded me of a similar one in Russel Banks's The Sweet Hereafter (another excellent read).

I expect that most readers' take on this will be aligned with their feelings toward Chloe.  She's an employee at the coffee shop Bradley owns.  Young, street smart, rompingly lustful, her character has the most to say.  That's good, because she's delightful.  Frankly, I'd go further and say she's unforgettable.

Bradley himself will probably elicit a mixed bag of opinions.  I think that's meant to be.  Everything revolves around him and his love life, but we don't really see into his soul.  I found him easy to root for, though I wonder if men and women will, in general, line up on different sides.

Book clubs should have fun with this.  Uncomplicated as it is, it's easy to get and get through.  On the other hand, there's lots of room for discussion about the novel's characters, its structure and the issues raised in its exploration of love.

I've got three more books deserving at least brief mention, and I'll get to those next time.

B/t/w - FoL was made into a movie.  I haven't seen it, but I'm prepared to believe it's terrible.  I'm not sure why that is (except for the general rule that Hollywood ruins 95% of the good books for which it buys the movie rights).  The only hard clue I have comes from the montage of stills from the flick on the paperback's cover.  There's one of Chloe and her boyfriend, Oscar, and it shows her with long hair.  Chloe can't have long hair any more than Richard Nixon can wear an Afro.  Not possible.  Just plain wrong.  She looks entirely too wholesome.  If they screwed that up, they probably fucked up a whole lot more.