Friday, December 13, 2013

Sexist Nonsense in Beautiful Sentences 13 December 2013


Vintage Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in the haunting landscape of eastern Australia, this is a stunningly accomplished debut novel about the inescapable past: the ineffable ties of family, the wars fought by fathers and sons, and what goes unsaid.

After the departure of the woman he loves, Frank drives out to a shack by the ocean that he had last visited as a teenager. There, among the sugarcane and sand dunes, he struggles to rebuild his life.

Forty years earlier, Leon is growing up in Sydney, turning out treacle tarts at his parents’ bakery and flirting with one of the local girls. But when he’s drafted to serve in Vietnam, he finds himself suddenly confronting the same experiences that haunt his war-veteran father.

As these two stories weave around each other–each narrated in a voice as tender as it is fierce–we learn what binds Frank and Leon together, and what may end up keeping them apart.

My Review: How awful it must be to be know, with the full force of society's blasting, trumpeting inculcation of knowledge that your Object of Desire will not, can not, indeed may not, ever make sense to you.

Evie Wyld presents the stories of three generations of miserable men and the women they screw up in this, her debut novel. Lady's got guts, let's hand her her just props...she writes of the horrors of war as experienced by these men with the assurance of a far more mature (in experiential terms) writer. She fails signally to give these three generations of men any distinguishing characteristics. She tells the tale through the eyes of two of the three men, in (for no apparent aesthetic or organizational reason) alternating chapters.

She writes well when we're considering lines (plenty of examples, just open the book anywhere and you'll hit a good 'un); but why did Evie Wyld tell this particular story? I don't know. And that, ladies and gents, is a problem.

So am I supposed to think she's brave, for writing about men, or am I supposed to think she's sensitive, for understanding them? I don't think she's brave because she's created one man, a miserable loser with no delusions as to his own adequacy still less superiority; a character who, no matter which name-label she slaps on him, doesn't grow, change, or even demonstrate more than lizard-brain function. I don't think she's sensitive because each and every man she limns is a shit of the first water, abusive of or vampiring off the women in the book.

I'm really, really sick of women portraying men in this light, and then having other women yodel their praises for doing this eternal, socially acceptable hatchet job on men. This book, for reasons I can't understand, is a longlister for the Orange Prize. She's got promise, I grant you, and she's got some native *thing* that makes her place evocations arm-hair-pricklingly good. But this isn't a book I will ever read again, and I don't recommend it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Beautiful Tropical Getaway (to 1845!) for Snowed-In Folks 10 December 2013


Akashic Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1845 London, an engineer, philosopher, philanthropist, and bold-faced charlatan, John Adolphus Etzler, has invented machines that he thinks will transform the division of labor and free all men. He forms a collective called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES), and recruits a variety of London citizens to take his machines and his misguided ideas to form a proto-socialist, utopian community in the British colony of Trinidad.

Among his recruits is a young boy (and the book's narrator) named Willy, who falls head-over-heels for the enthralling and wise Marguerite Whitechurch. Coming from the gentry, Marguerite is a world away from Willy's laboring class. As the voyage continues, and their love for one another strengthens, Willy and Marguerite prove themselves to be true socialists, their actions and adventures standing in stark contrast to Etzler's disconnected theories.

Robert Antoni's tragic historical novel, accented with West Indian cadence and captivating humor, provides an unforgettable glimpse into nineteenth-century Trinidad & Tobago.

My Review:
We sat in silence, exhausted, filled-up. We didn't move. We couldn't have moved--not a muscle--because we didn't exist yet. Neither me nor him. Only the story existed, during those few final moments of silence after my father's voice had come to a halt.

Catnip. This book was catnip for me, pure uncut catnip of the finest grade. Robert Antoni teaches master's degree fiction-writing classes at the New School. Lucky men and women who take the classes, to hear him tell his stories!

At its heart, this is a simple tale of greed, passion, and the lifelong effects of believing in a dream. Chicanery is always a worry for the True Believer, because the promise of a dream come true is ever the best bait to lure them into disaster, personal and financial and, not infrequently, mortal. Something dies when a person's True Belief is taken from them, or lost, or simply abandoned (as if this abandonment is ever simple). Many times, I suspect, the pain of it is unendurable and the bereft believer sees no reason to go on...disease or despair carry him off.

Others, like our narrator Willy, live on and make life, actual life, work for them without dreams, but with some weird, warped hopes left, hopes that don't see much daylight as the ex-dreamer isn't likely to chat them about. Willy doesn't really want to have hopes. He wants to find his dreams. I think all of us know that quest's end. But the novel, well, a novel is a place to work out the truths of endings and the frailties of beginnings. This novel's truth is in the ending, and it stings the soft places of a tender soul. It also rings perfectly true and wistfully beautiful. A family, once created, is a hard thing to leave, to destroy; even death doesn't do the job.

But most families have invisible members. Some have more than others. Willy...Mr. Tucker, as he becomes...carried the invisible members of his family until, exhausted, he lost the eternal battle with gravity. How, and why, and what he made, these are all the subject of the novel, and the meat of life as we all live it.

Only most of us don't have beautiful words to wrap our truth in. Fortune smiled on William Tucker. His truth comes enrobed in lovely, lovely language, satisfyingly musical in the inward ear.

A pleasure of a read. A lovely artifact of a book. A delight on many levels, and a deeply felt, deeply moving novel.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, December 2, 2013

AMERICAN SALVAGE, extra-special story collection from a new-to-me Michigander

AMERICAN SALVAGE (Made in Michigan Writers Series)
Wayne State University Press
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.6* of five

The Publisher Says: American Salvage is rich with local color and peopled with rural characters who love and hate extravagantly. They know how to fix cars and washing machines, how to shoot and clean game, and how to cook up methamphetamine, but they have not figured out how to prosper in the twenty-first century. Through the complex inner lives of working-class characters, Bonnie Jo Campbell illustrates the desperation of post-industrial America, where wildlife, jobs, and whole ways of life go extinct and the people have no choice but to live off what is left behind.

My Review: Solid craftsmanship, a fearless imagination, and a complete lack of corrosive, cynical piety and pity make this collection of short stories exceptionally enjoyable.

I share nothing with these characters except the right to trial by jury, and yet I was enrapt by them. I loved "The Solutions to Brian's Problem" the best, since I never expect to see a male PoV on abuse by women. This book is seething with the rage of characters whose lives turned out bad, as in the TV series "Breaking Bad," and are flat-out irredeemably broken. This same territory was trodden by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed from the factual was revolting to read that book, it hurt me in ways I can't recover from, but Bonnie Jo Campbell has brought home to me the true emotional cost of indifference.

I don't thank her for that.

But I do recommend the book highly. Now, my thoughts and a rating on each story using the Bryce Method.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

MY FIRST MURDER, a Finnish Scandicrime Procedural...An Umlautfest!

MY FIRST MURDER (Detective Maria Kallio #1)
LEENA LEHTOLAINEN (tr. Owen Witesman)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Maria Kallio has just been assigned her first murder investigation. To prove to herself and her squad that she has what it takes to be a detective, she’ll have to solve the death of Tommi Peltonen. Found floating facedown at the water’s edge of his Helsinki villa, Tommi had invited his choir group to spend a weekend at his retreat. But beneath the choir’s seemingly tight-knit bonds seethed bitter passion and jealousy. As Maria sets out to determine the difference between friends and foes, she uncovers the victim’s unsavory past—and motives for all seven suspects. Now it’s up to her to untangle a complex set of clues before the killer strikes again.

The first book in Leena Lehtolainen’s bestselling Finnish crime series starring Detective Maria Kallio, My First Murder offers hard-boiled realism from a female perspective.

My Review: I gave in and read a Scandicrime book. It's a serviceable police procedural told in first person by thirtyish Maria Kallio, law student and relentlessly single female interloper in the world of career police detectives. She appears as a replacement for a broken-down cop who injured himself in the line of duty, and she rapidly worked her way up the chain of command because 1) she's a girl and b) she's tough as nails.

Now, as to the mystery part, I liked it fine but didn't love it. Some interesting characters were adequately developed. What made my eyebrows rise was the reportedness of the atmosphere in which Maria works. She tells us a wee bit, basically a log-line, about the other crimes she and her department are pursuing; not enough to make us care, more than enough to make us curious, and just enough to bring the sense of urgency about the main case of this book to a halt. Can't put this down to first-book-itis, either, since this author had her first book published when she was twelve!

So what was I left with? A sea of Finnish names, all of which look wrong to me, and locations I know nothing whatsoever about, and a sense of being slightly seasick as Tommi and Tomppa and Tiina and Tiiu and Riku and Antti all blended into a mass of UUUUUIIIIUUYYPPPPAAAA. Finnish, when spoken, raises my hackles with its sheer alienness. When written, it causes me distress because it's got nowhere for me to grab hold of anything to give it meaning to me. Plus everything seems to wear umlauts, those freaky-deaky fangmarks that make all previously comprehensible sounds turn into strangled moans.

It's free to borrow on your Kindle, and that's what I'd recommend you do. At $4.99, it's not a break-the-bank download, but see if you can hang with the sheer Finnishness before committing actual funds to it.