I like a book that’s unafraid of big themes, and this one has a beauty: mortality itself, the reality waiting behind our illusions of security. It’s a mythic idea, Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, and Bowie clearly intends us to understand it in terms of the universal as well as the particular.
The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (Ogee Zakamora, 342 pages) begins rather slowly and at too much length, but pacing is less of an issue once the Palm Sunday riot at the Southwest Ohio Correctional Facility is fully underway and the initial explosion of violence settles into unmitigated tension. Length works then, mimicking the ongoing, endless strain. Personalities emerge, and we begin to hold our breath. Continue reading
Gifted chronicler of American life, Jonathan Franzen offers a rather quiet plot in The Corrections (FSG, 568 pages), which follows the lives of the Lambert family headed by Enid and Alfred, typical Midwestern parents, whose children have scattered, eager to find their own definitions of happiness. The oldest, Gary, is a money manager, an asshole son, whose inner workings are described with surprising compassion; the middle son, Chip, is a lecherous and pretentious academic who’s just lost his position and his girlfriend and is working on an autobiographical screenplay that betrays a dreadful lack of self-awareness; the youngest, daughter Denise, is a talented chef who keeps throwing herself into undesirable relationships. Will they succeed? Is the aging patriarch going completely mad? And why is Alfred such an unhappy old man? Will Enid get all her children to come home for one last Christmas together?
As Ivan Goldman’s Isaac: A Modern Fable (The Permanent Press, 222 pages) nears its conclusion, one of the novel’s narrators makes a telling observation: “Whatever we think we know, we’re just guessing, like everyone else.” In context, the narrator, Ruth, is commenting on her familiarity with a slippery and sinister academician named Borges, but the line also captures the essence of the novel itself. Drawing heavily on the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, this “modern fable” serves as a telling commentary on humanity’s ongoing struggle with questions of religion and our intimations of the divine. To wit: What’s the difference between those who claim to hear the voice of God and those who are just plain crazy? Continue reading
Oy vey you say. Another funny Holocaust book?
Now is the month of holidays, from the Jewish New Year through the Feast of Tabernacles and ending with Celebration of Torah. My (Orthodox) friend of forty years came to visit. I showed her a page from Witz (Dalkey Archive Press, 817 pages). She closed the book, fast. “There’s a lot in there I wouldn’t approve of,” she said.
Yes, O WickedWitz. Continue reading
Going Native (Vintage, 305 pages), published in 1994, was Stephen Wright’s third novel. Meditations in Green (1983) was inspired by his experiences in Vietnam during the war. M31: A Family Romance (1988) is set among UFO cultists, who rely on an autistic child to communicate with aliens. Going Native is—more or less—a picaresque novel that follows a sociopath who abandons his Chicago family to travel to Los Angeles. It is not an easy trip. It is not an easy book. But it is a fascinating one, and, as I hope to show, one that says important things about modern American life. Continue reading
In the ‘bad old days’ when there were a dozen publishing power houses in New York that controlled the industry, everyone knew what a genre books was. If it was a mystery, it started with a murder. If it was romance, it was boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-gets-girl-back. It was all very simple and quite generic, the root of the term genre. But all of that has changed. The industry has outsized and now books that would not have gotten so much as a nod a decade ago are in print. Continue reading
Bernard Hawkes is a cynical, disillusioned journalist who finds himself in a spot of trouble when someone starts enacting the theoretical terrorist plots described in his satirical newspaper column. So begins this sardonic tale of conspiracies within conspiracies set in modern-day London.
With the sinister Tranquility Foundation (a New Age conglomerate promising “serenity with security”) on one side and the Primitive Front (a group bent on shaking people out of such complacency) on the other, Bernard’s previously humdrum existence suddenly becomes quite interesting as he is drawn ever deeper into the intrigue behind the bombings. Adding to his problems are Inspector Pitmarsh, the paradoxically chummy yet menacing police detective, a vivacious young revolutionary calling herself Animal, and Dillwyn, his alternatively rational and paranoid neighbor. Continue reading
Randolph’s One Bedroom (CreateSpace, 156 pages), for me, wasn’t so much about Randolph as it was his state of mind, specifically how he dealt with the everyday oddities of his world. The truth is stranger than fiction, and where Randolph lives, pretty much everything is strange. What I think I loved most about this story collection was that none of the characters were all that out of the ordinary. We are surrounded by the bizarre every single day, and we, like Randolph, have become unaffected by the goings on around us. If we didn’t insulate ourselves in this way, we would all be mental by now. When I see some of the things my own neighbours do, I swear my husband and I are the only normal people on the block. That’s a stretch, all things considered, but then we think, hey, they probably think we are weird, and they wouldn’t be that far off base. That’s really the whole point of the book I think: it’s an abstract look at society’s various psychological tics. Randolph’s cursing pet parrot is really the only thing predictable in his entire world, well, that and he never gets any mail. Continue reading
“Male violence did it.” Martin Amis has a bit of a reputation for making sweeping, declarative statements like this one that ends the first paragraph of Yellow Dog (Mirimax, 339 pages). I’ve read all of Amis’ books except Pregnant Widow and Koba the Dread (on my list, next) and I’m very familiar with the Amis conception of gender. I can make sweeping generalizations about his Men and his Women. Continue reading
In The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 183 pages), Jack Pendarvis has the kind of wit that ambushes you – and then bludgeons you until you can no longer suppress the laughter. This collection of nine stories and a novella mocks bad writing and moronic thought through a complete submersion in each, with protagonists believing in absurd premises (like the dead-beat husband who imagines himself as a famous historian and the unemployed drinking buddies who want to be writers without doing the work.) The subtitle – “Curious stories” – Continue reading