Abandonment Issues: Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

First paragraph of the first story, “The Brown Coast”:

Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants. He’d come in late, his spine throbbing from the bus ride down, and he had stretched out on the floor with a late dinner of two bricks of saltines. Now cracker bits were all over him – under his bare chest, stuck in the sweaty creases of his elbows and his neck, and the biggest and worst of them he could feel lodged deep into his buttock crack

There’s actually more, but this is where I gave up. “Buttock crack”? No one in the history of English language crudity has said “buttock crack.”*

Michiko Kakutani gave it a glowing write-up in the  Times Book Review, which is another reason I don’t trust the Times Book Review.


Vacation Reads: June 2016

A trip involving no Internet and a couple of four-hour ferry rides is a great opportunity to knock some to-read books off my shelf…so many that I’m splitting the round-up into two posts.

Geling Yan, The Flowers of War

Too many characters for a book that struggles to get over two hundred pages.

Pamela Ribon, Why Girls Are Weird

I’ve had this on my floating book list – those books you know you’ll read at some point, so there’s no rush – ever since it came out. Television Without Pity is the connection point. It doesn’t disappoint. Like a playbook for fame on Web 1.0.

Daniel Arsand, Lovers

Too many half-page chapters for a book that struggles to get over one hundred pages.

Brando Skyhorse, The Madonnas of Echo Park

First of two “Madonnas” books I read (didn’t realize I was following a theme here). Didn’t blow me away, but I did like it. Interlocking short stories set in a gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood, with characters with as many hidden connections as in a Victorian novel.

Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad

Second “Madonnas” book. Has what I’ve called an Amy Tan problem, where the immigrant parent’s narrative overshadows the American child’s framing. The mother is great character, though, and the portrait of Russia during WWII is killer.

Abandonment Issues: Monika Fagerholm, The Glitter Scene

Imagine The Secret History if, instead of Richard’s being the narrator, every single member of the club – Charles, Camilla, Francis, Henry, Bunny, Julian, plus, like, the college president – was jostling for perspective in the first sixty pages. The Glitter Scene is Fagerholm’s fourth novel! How is she not better at this?

Read-in-Progress: Historical Fiction Roundup

Paul Horgan, A Distant Trumpet

Horgan was also a historian who won a couple of Pulitzers for his nonfiction. A Distant Trumpet looks to be about the post-Civil-War Indian campaigns. An early paragraph ends with the sentence, “[The Civil War] gave to the future a fabric of common experience which made our national condition.” I dunno how true “common experience” is, given the evidence of the last couple years.

Also, I may be alone in this, but: brilliant protagonists who breeze through difficult situations and are always, obviously right – aren’t really my thing.

R. F. Delderfield, Give Us This Day

Fin de siècle England as told through the eyes of an elderly magnate’s grown brats, plus the magnate himself. See comment above about brilliant protagonists. This seems to be a problem with historical fiction. I mean, when you’re writing in 1973 and you know combustion engines replaced horse transport, it’s a thumb on the scales to make one of your narrators be the lone voice pushing automobiles. Also, kinda hacky prose.

Jeffrey Lewis, The Meritocracy Quartet

I’m cheating a bit, since Jeffrey Lewis is still alive and is writing about his lifetime, but…I felt like it. Like Delderfield, Lewis is not the greatest prose stylist in the universe (apparently he wrote for Hill Street Blues). But the first novel, Meritocracy: A Love Story, does a great job connecting idyllic Ivy League life in the 1960s to the natural consequence of that life: the George W. Bush presidency. (Too cynical? Probably. Hee.) Oddly, in all the autopsies of the Bush II administration that I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve run across that angle before. Maybe I need to read more meritocrats.

The Centennial: February 25, 1916

The unseasonably warm weather had given way for a day to something more like winter. Wind whipped across the campus, blasting breath away. With the Flanders-like damp of the last week, Eran had forgotten how to hunch and huddle. Shivering, he entered Wilson and made his way up to his carrel.

In the hour and a half between his classes, Eran had fifty pages to read. He fired up his Kindle, thumbing to the page he needed, while opening OneNote on his laptop. Within minutes he was reading, typing notes one-handed, darting his other hand over to the laptop if he wanted to record a comment for the next seminar.

The heavy class load was doing him any favors. The reading was in one eye and out the other. He was often too tired in class to respond even when addressed directly. His two presentations thus far had received acceptable feedback from his professors, but it was clear to him that he was jeopardizing his otherwise secure future of tenure-track intellectual-dom in his attempt to cram his remaining coursework into a single semester.

Eran tried not to think about this. He thumbed to the next page.

There could not have been more rain. Great gray sheets of it curtained the world from view. Standing in the downpour was like occupying a partially opaque bubble that an extended arm would pop.

The sergeant had them crawling forward toward the fort. It seemed impossible that they had not been fired upon. Perhaps, said Emil, they can’t see us. The rain.

Perhaps they’re asleep, Eran’s host – Konrad – replied.

Perhaps they’re planning something.

They’re going to kill us. We can’t keep going!

The sergeant, unworried and unhurried, was crawling inside a coffre. There’s a door! he shouted.

Konrad hung back as if frozen. Emil knocked into him and he stumbled. His knee landed hard on a bare, wet stone. The skin split. Blood pearled and blossomed from the opening.

The sergeant turned back. His face was inscrutable. Then I’ll go on without you.

Eran came back to himself. Of all things, he was resentful. He had, of course, lost no time, but it would take him ten minutes to collect himself, and he would fail to complete his reading.

He did find himself wondering: Konrad and Emil. R2-D2 and C-3PO?

February 25, 1916In the first week of the Battle of Verdun, German troops take Fort Douaumont without a single casualty.

Read-in-Progress: Carmine Abate, Between Two Seas

I’m a sucker for good book design (and I’m easily offended by bad book design), and Europa Editions nails it: trade paperbacks with flaps, standardized spines in varying colors, classic typefaces. They have me reading a lot of Italian fiction that I wouldn’t otherwise pick up (The Chill was a particularly pleasant surprise).

Between two seas” refers to the village of Roccalba, located in southern Italy between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas. In Roccalba sits the Fondaco del Fico (“House of the Fig Tree,” according to Google Translate), a ruined inn once run by the family of the narrator, Florian. Florian’s maternal grandfather Giorgio Bellusci seeks to reestablish the inn, but he quickly runs into trouble from, ah, “legitimate businessmen.” The story cuts back and forth between Florian’s travels in southern Italy, Giorgio’s early years, and some business with Florian’s paternal grandfather, a German photographer with a trophy wife and a history with Giorgio.

Thus far Abate is a pleasant read, but inessential. Giorgio is said to be unforgettable, but thus far he seems like any other hapless, starry-eyed literary grandfather. Florian is a serviceable child narrator. There’s been so much temporal jumping around in the first fifty pages that I can’t get a bead on what’s important to the story so far; that’s a long time to be in the dark for a 200-page book. Feels like a “finish, and move on.”

Abate’s work is said to focus on “migration and the encounters between disparate cultures.” I guess that’s the pairing of Florian’s Italian mother and German father? The topic hasn’t been explored in depth, which is too bad; it’d be a better hook for the story.

Read-in-Progress: John Gardner, The Sunlight Dialogues

Two years ago, while reading John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain, I noted this:

Gardner’s writing is tight in a way that I’ve come not to expect of American literary fiction. Every sentence does something; every word tries to be something. The introspection, the navel-gazing, isn’t there; Gardner’s characters think about themselves, but compactly, not at length.

The Sunlight Dialogues is four hundred pages longer than Nickel Mountain, and Gardner manages to maintain the prose quality. It’s the storytelling that doesn’t quite work.

TSD is structured around a series of tape-recorded (god, the 1960s) conversations between the doughy, hapless police chief Clumly and his archnemesis the Sunlight Man. The latter has a real name and a history in the smallish town of Batavia, NY where the action unfolds, but you have to wait to learn it.

As for his purpose? Keep waiting.

Why [the Sunlight Man] should get a new lease on life from teasing, perplexing, confounding an old man who sat half-asleep, witless and innocent as an ancient bull with a ring through its nose – who could tell?

That’s on page 408 (of 690). That far in, I was expecting one of two things to be the case. Either I’d know why the Sunlight Man was yanking Clumly’s chain – but I didn’t – or the motive would be a big reveal at the end of the book. But instead, it’s as if Gardner just threw up his hands and went, “Let’s say Moe.”

There might still be a big reveal, or I might have missed the Sunlight Man’s motive in an earlier section. But if neither is the case, then that’s basically Gardner destroying all the old-growth forests with a galactic shrug.