If you understand why it's interesting to mix Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, Mahler's Kindertotenleider, Cage'...moreIf you understand why it's interesting to mix Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, Mahler's Kindertotenleider, Cage's Musicircus and Harry Partch's Barstow up with a plot about a retired composer being pursued for bioterrorism, then you should move Orfeo to the top of your "to read" lists. If you don't and are open to what we loosely and mostly inaccurately call "classical music," you'll come out of the novel knowing and feeling a lot more than you did going in. I've been reading Powers since he began publishing back in the 80s and every one of his 11 novels has offered both challenges and pleasures. He's probably the smartest person I've ever had the pleasure to speak with--equally at home with science, music, literature and computer engineering-- and that's always been a part of his novels. But as he moves through the middle stages of his career, it's become increasing clear that the intelligence is always at the service of a profound vision of shared, suffering and sometimes transcendent humanity.
Like its immediate successor, Generosity, Orfeo presents a surface which seems less complicated than The Gold Bug Variations or The Time of Our Singing. But, also like Generosity, the inviting surface--there's something resembling a genre plot focusing on the protagonist's flight from the authorities--opens up to reveal depths that will keep me re-reading. Powers almost always has musical structures in mind for his novels and, while Im not certain whether there's a specific one in play here, it's clear that he's working with three large clusters of time and theme: one a set of tweets that incorporates numerous quotes from composers and poets--there's a nice run of Whitman; one the story of protagonist Peter Els' tangled and sad, though not tragic, life with women, family and friends, including an unforgettable collaborator who shares the author's first name. You could probably count the story of music, unfolding from the mid-20th century to the glorious jumble of the new millennium, as a fourth cluster. And perhaps DIY genetic engineering.
And for all of that, what hit me most about Orfeo was its lyricism, its flat out heartbreaking beauty. When Generosity was published, I commented that it reminded me of Brahms, seemingly conservative, actually radically challenging and disquieting. Something like that remains the case for Orfeo, and together the two clearly signal a slightly different phase in Powers' career. I'll have to let it sink in and I'll certainly re-read with my playlist of the music referenced handy. But my first response is that it ranks at or near the very top of the list of Powers' work.
Very likely to be my novel of the year for 2014.(less)
Impossible to categorize this fine small novel into any genre niche. It starts out like one of the quieter Stephen King novels, with a young woman who...moreImpossible to categorize this fine small novel into any genre niche. It starts out like one of the quieter Stephen King novels, with a young woman who may or may not be "crazy"--the word doesn't mean much by the time the novel ends--and the therapist who's ostensibly treating her but is actually dealing with his own demons. Barbara Hall's traversed some of this turf before, especially in her work with the Joan of Arcadia TV series; the original Joan makes a significant cameo here. Her strength, as always, is insight into the way people's psychology and social circumstances interact. I've been revisiting some Sixties classics recently and in a way you can look at Charisma as a cross of The Bell Jar--women in the psychiatric mill--and The Crying of Lot 49--a quest that may or may not be grounded in "reality."
Close to a five star, but I found the last section anti-climactic and didn't fully buy the ending.(less)
The best way to read this book would be with Francke's CD, Swimming in Mercury, playing in the background. Both pieces chronicle Francke's experience...moreThe best way to read this book would be with Francke's CD, Swimming in Mercury, playing in the background. Both pieces chronicle Francke's experience as he's diagnosed with leukemia, undergoes a marrow transplant, and faces the challenges of drug addiction and psychic imbalance as he returns to life with his family. Francke's unsparingly honest, irrepressibly hopeful--not to be confused with optimistic--and profoundly committed to creating a world in which we confront illness with much greater honesty and compassion. At times, the book will make you wince--Francke describes the details of his treatment without flinching; but it also offers a vision of a community--family, friends, a large number of medical professionals (especially nurses)--that provides the support that brings Francke through.
Stew's a friend of mine and I saw the book develop through several stages, so I can't pretend to any sort of objectivity. I love his music--blue-eyed soul with a strong touch of Pet Sounds Beach Boys would be the shorthand--and it's pointless for me to try and separate his writing from the echoes of SunflowerSoulSeranade, Swimming in Mercury, and his masterpiece, What We Talk Of...When We Talk, which bears a deep imprint of his love for Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On.
Reading this book will help those who know people with cancer understand what they're going through, and think about how to help. It will certainly raise awareness of the need to develop a stronger network of potential donors for African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos.
What Don't Kill Me is a gift and I'm grateful that it's part of our world.(less)
DEROS (Date of Estimated Return from OverSeas) fills an important gap in the literature of the Vietnam War. Drawing on his experience as a military jo...moreDEROS (Date of Estimated Return from OverSeas) fills an important gap in the literature of the Vietnam War. Drawing on his experience as a military journalist stationed in Long Binh (MOS 71Q20), Bradley has assembled a tapestry of short stories accompanied by "interlinear" vignettes focusing on the experience of the REMFs (Rear-Echelon Motherfuckers), who comprised, depending on how you count, well over 75% of the troops who served in Vietnam. In his afterword, Bradley identifies Hemingway's In Our Time as his structural inspiration, which is fitting given the spare, direct language. In addition to sketching the day-by-day conditions of life in the rear, Bradley provides insightful portraits of GIs struggling with feelings of loneliness, anger, guilt. There's a nice mix of comedy and tragedy, seasoned with a sharp sense of the political contradictions and failures of the American mission, which comes to a head in the final story "You Baby Ruth." Each of the stories contributes to the impact of a book in which the whole is definitely larger than the sum of the parts, but my favorites include "The Beast in the Jungle," "The Art of War," "DEROS," and "The Gospel According to Shorttimer Sam." What those have in common is a thematic concern with the problem of story-telling, of how to tell the truth in a context where lies were as common as M-16s. As a journalist, Bradley saw that up close and he's been grappling with the problem ever since. Put this on the Vietnam fiction shelf next to Alfredo Vea, Karl Marlantes, Tim O'Brien and Larry Heinemann.
On the surface, The Fight for Home is a gripping set of stories about people and communities struggling to rebuild in the wake of Katrina. Wolff is a...moreOn the surface, The Fight for Home is a gripping set of stories about people and communities struggling to rebuild in the wake of Katrina. Wolff is a first-rate stylist, as he's demonstrated previously in his biography of Sam Cooke (You Send Me, which is quite a bit better than Peter Guralnick's more widely publicized Dream Boggie); How Lincoln Learned to Read; and Fourth of July, Asbury Park. His portraits of his main figures are memorable, and he sets scenes with economy and grace. There's a mixture of determination and suffering reminiscent of the blues.
That's more than enough to justify a strong review, but Wolff goes beyond the story by incorporating a kind of shadow book focusing on the possibilities and problems of various approaches to political activism. He gives serious attention to the relationship between church-based activism, secular community organizing (based on various types of political belief), celebrity charity initiatives, and the almost-entirely ineffective government programs. He demonstrates the problems with white volunteerism in primarily black communities; probes the changing demographics of New Orleans; acknowledges the reality of infiltration and betrayal. By the time I finished, I was convinced this is a near-perfect book for would-be activists, one that provides test scenarios in their full complexity. That's close to my working definition for great fiction: it provides us with thick models of reality that allow us to think through moral and political and existential decisions before we encounter them in our lives.
One of the top half-dozen books of the year.(less)