Kennedy’s short novel is divided into seven chapters. The first four chapters at their best are astounding, at worst, solid. The last two chapters areKennedy’s short novel is divided into seven chapters. The first four chapters at their best are astounding, at worst, solid. The last two chapters are the most important to the story and the least compelling. The final effect is a reading experience that is thoroughly enjoyable coupled with disappointment upon completion. The protagonist, Francis Phelan, is well-wrought, complex, and believable. After killing a scab during a workers’ strike, an act which may or may not have been completely accidental, Fran goes into hiding. After returning to his home and family, he accidentally drops his infant son who consequently dies. Fran flees again, this time permanently embarking on a life of alcoholism and homelessness. Fran longs to make reconciliation to his wife and remaining children and yet knows such a thing to be impossible. It is made clear to the reader in Chapter I this is Fran’s primary character drive. This is dealt with in Chapter VI, making it the most important chapter of the novel. It is also the most underwhelming and directly results in this reader’s unfulfilling experience by the close of the novel.
Helen, Fran’s hobo companion, at first blush appears to be important to the novel. However, upon completion, Helen’s importance to the story is ancillary at best, except for the fact that a great number of words have been spent in her behalf. She does not appear for the first couple chapters, spends two chapters as a foil to Fran’s character, playing second fiddle much the way Horatio plays to Hamlet. Chapter V is completely dedicated to Helen and we are exposed to a great deal of character development quite masterfully rendered by Kennedy. Helen then disappears from the novel until Fran discovers her dead near the end, another excellently written scene, and the only such scene in the last two chapters. Ultimately, Helen is the first among a cast of peripheral characters, despite the amount of words Kennedy dedicates to her.
Kennedy writes like a ghetto prophet. His prose are at times exquisite, usually colloquial, occasionally corny, but never out of place. In particular, the passages concerning Katrina, Fran’s visions of specters which may or may not be literal, all of Chapter V, the epiphany Fran experiences late in Chapter VII while standing around the fire in the jungle, and the discovery of Helen’s body, are memorable and brilliant. Kennedy’s best writing rings true, original, fiercely adventurous in the use of language, compassionate, understated, and, yes, wise. For this, I would recommend Ironweed to everyone I know. I intend to read and reread passages from it for some time to come, despite the fact I ultimately found the novel a disappointment. ...more
Published in 1998 and chosen as a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, Circumnavigation is far and away the best collection of short stories by a conPublished in 1998 and chosen as a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, Circumnavigation is far and away the best collection of short stories by a contemporary writer I've read in the last several months. And I've read a lot over that span, mostly those written by faculty members of the more prestigious MFA programs. Ironically, Lattimore currently serves as faculty at no-name Webster College despite having written a better collection than anyone at Cornell, Iowa, Michigan, Virginia, or Texas-Austin. Go figure.
Lattimore is a child of the gritty realists, Carver, Ford, Wolff and their ilk. His stories embrace the sordidness of Denis Johnson and the well-crafted fullbodied sensibilities of Richard Ford or Tobias Wolff, but with redeeming epiphanies far more understated than any of the above mentioned. The primary recurring theme seems to be fatherlessnes, and shorter stories are interjected between longer ones to break up the rhythm a little, which I find highly agreeable. In "Dogs" and "My Best Day was the Third Grade," the firs-person narrators are both preadolescent boys coming to grips with the truth about the cruelty of children, but instead of being bullied by others, they are the themselves the bullies learning and being shocked by their own capacity for evil.
In "Circumnavigation" and "Answer Me This" young men struggle with impending fatherhood, the former when his drug-dealing friend leaves his five-year old with the protagonist for a weekend and never returns, the latter when the husband of a pregnant woman goes to the 7-11 for cigarettes and winds up contemplating the course of his life from a jail cell.
The protagonists of "Family Sports" and "Different States" are both young women very convincingly rendered. Each balances poignancy with postmodern callousness as they try in vain to make sense of their families, in particular their fathers.
Kirkus Review blasted Lattimore's work for its "white trash musings" and "tales from loserville." One wonders what the same reviewer thought of "The Lovely Bones." Indeed, Lattimore's fare is the white-trash fringe element a la Raymond Carver, but I don't see why poor white people are considered distasteful subjects for art. These are the same people who think middle class culture is culture. These are the same people who think the point of valuing hispanic and African-American artists is political and not artistic, which strikes me as particularly condescending. Recommended to Ben and Trent and anyone else who like well-written fiction that asks the BIG questions and don't having anything specific against "white trash tales from loserville." Bitch.
Faulkner reportedly claimed that his legacy would rise or fall on the reputation of this novel. The novel, combined with Faulkner's estimation of it,Faulkner reportedly claimed that his legacy would rise or fall on the reputation of this novel. The novel, combined with Faulkner's estimation of it, leaves me somewhat ambivolent. Told in the highly individuated and at times absurdly subjective first-person monologues of fifteen different characters, As I Lay Dying is difficult to follow, to say the least. Faulkner plays with the meaning/meaninglessness of language, experiments with a fragmented point-of-view, capitalization, italics, and punctuation, and utilizes a non-teleological chronology. The fame of the novel would suggest that all of these high-modernist window-dressings would be working towards the novel's purpose, either thematically or structurally, but I can't say this is true.
The italics for example seem to be arbitrary and meaningless. I thought at first they were used instead of a tense shift to differentiate between the present and the future, but upon further review, this doesn't hold water. The best explanation for the italicized passages I have been able to find suggests the italicized text represents ideas the characters find impossible to put into rational language. If this is right, the failure belongs to Faulkner for forcing "unspeakable" things into language. If Faulkner believed the ineptness of language to be something impossible to rise above, he perhaps ought to have chosen a more suitable vocation.
On the other hand, the novel has a lot going for it. The characterizations, the cadence and rhythm of the prose, the extended symbolism, and the tragicomic pathos of the plot are all excellent. So excellent, in fact, they make me wish Faulkner would have utilized his talents and written a damn good novel instead of subverting the "story" elements to the modernist experimentations that have come to define the novel, and that seem to me to be the most meaningless and superfluous components of the story. Rather than ellucidating and ellevating the novel, these tricks do more to damage what otherwise would have been an excellent story told excellently by an excellent writer. Faulkner's tragedy with As I Lay Dying is his inability to recognize and value what was wonderful about the work. He wrongfully values braver gadgets that undermine his genius and reduce the novel from a first rate work of genius to an oddity and a curio of twentieth century southern literature.
The question this novel makes me ask myself is: "Is an aborted god still a god, or is an aborted god still an abortion?"...more
I was just browsing at Barnes & Noble and the title caught my interest. I have also been accused of loving books too much. I delved. As it turns oI was just browsing at Barnes & Noble and the title caught my interest. I have also been accused of loving books too much. I delved. As it turns out, none other than Ken Sanders is the hero of this true crime thriller about the world's most notorious rare book thief (over $100,000 worth of rare books to his credit) and the self-described bibliodick, Ken Sanders, who brought him to justice. The book was written by a journalist who, I believe, works for the San Francisco Chronicle, and so, predictably, the prose is pretty blase. Newsprint. The story, though, is riveting, Ken Sanders, as anyone who has ever met him can attest, is riveting, and all the history of rare books and the nut-jobs who collect them, especially, is riveting. I love the legends of rare book finds. Apparently, a man found a forty page pamphlet he bought for twelve dollars from a dust-bin, only to find out it was the first thing ever published by Edgar Allan Poe. Southeby's hawked it for him for a cool $132,000. Stuff like that is why this is a very good read for anyone who likes detective stories, bad prose, books, or, of course, Ken Sanders....more
This is probably the worst Nabokov book I've ever read, which is to say it's one of the best books I've read in months. Essentially, its the story ofThis is probably the worst Nabokov book I've ever read, which is to say it's one of the best books I've read in months. Essentially, its the story of an illicit love affair, the inevitable destruction of a man who cheated, chose poorly, and ended up dead. But somehow, as with all of Nabokov's novels, it escapes being a morality play or a novel "with a message." The writing is first rate but the plot is utterly unspectacularly, plodding, and predictable until Albinus, the protagonist, goes blind following a car accident. His mistress proceeds to cheat on him with his best friend right before his unseeing eyes. In some instances literally. This aspect of the novel which comprises its final third is most worth exploring. The psychological texture of the situation is gut-wrenching and yet all the time you can sense Nabokov tittering hysterically behind the scenes. It seems his characters are most amusing to him when he tortures them, which in Laughter in the Dark he does unflinchingly and with results highly worth reading. An unremarkable read that inexplicably becomes an excellent read towards the end....more
Ern Mallory, apparently, was a famous Australian literary hoaxer circa 1940. The hoax consisted of a handful of faux-T.S. Eliot highbrow modernist poeErn Mallory, apparently, was a famous Australian literary hoaxer circa 1940. The hoax consisted of a handful of faux-T.S. Eliot highbrow modernist poems written by a pair of anti-modernist poets as a sort of a joke. The poems were intended to be cliche parodies illustrating all the worst, most self-indulgent, hyperbolic aspects of modernist poetry. The fictitious poet, Mallory, was conscientiously packaged as a Marxist class hero--a well-read, erudite, self-educated working man (bicycle repairman, in fact). The poems were published and heralded as works of great modernist genius. The hoaxers had a good laugh. But when the truth came out, as it is sometimes wont to do when the fictitious poet becomes an overnight sensation, it caused quite the scandal in literary circles. This much is historical fact.
Carey's (fictionalized) version of the literary hoax takes a decidedly Frankensteinian twist that makes for some good reading, if, in the end, the conclusion doesn't quite live up to the novel's early promise. Traditional fans of Carey should beware. This is basically a literary thriller in the vein of The DaVinci Code or The Book of Air and Shadow. It poses as high literature, but really its just a well spun mystery yarn marketed towards book geeks. Christopher Chubb is a convincingly creepy and ambivolent character but otherwise all the personages who populate My Life as a Fake are functional because, as I said before, this is at heart a straight forward mystery novel and in straight forward mystery novel, however literary their trappings, the primary purpose of all characters is to serve a practical function. A damn good read, but not the usual fare from Peter Carey....more
First of all, it bears saying that Doctorow is an exceptional writer. His prose is lean yet evocative and exceptionally effective. Ragtime is a page-tFirst of all, it bears saying that Doctorow is an exceptional writer. His prose is lean yet evocative and exceptionally effective. Ragtime is a page-turner. The plot is unwieldy and in the hands of a lesser storyteller would fail abysmally. It succeeds, more or less for all the same reasons a well-wrought hardboiled mystery succeeds: the action propels the reader forward. That said, Ragtime has far FAR more flaws than strengths. While reading I was constantly reminded of Thomas Carlyle's History of the French Revolution. Carlyle's charm was that he wrote a first rate nineteenth century novel and expected us to accept it as history. Doctorow's failure is that he wrote a second rate revisionist history of the early decades of the twentieth century and expects us to accept it as fiction.
The greater number of Ragtime's characters are real historical personages, ranging from the sex-kitten Evelyn Nesbitt to Harry Houdini to the anarchist activist Emma Goldman, and while I have to tip my hat to Doctorow's ambition, I can't say he pulls any of it off. We cannot speak about "Doctorow's Houdini" or "Doctorow's J.P. Morgan" as we can "Shakespeare's Caesar" as opposed to "Plutarch's Caesar" as opposed to the historical Caesar. Shakespeare and Plutarch painted character interpretations of historical personages. Doctorow tells us nothing about Morgan, Henry Ford, Houdini, or Nesbitt we couldn't learn better from a history or even a period newspaper. These historical characters are utterly superficial in Doctorow's hands. The only exception is Emma Goldman, who, apparently, was a blustering, narrow-minded, pedantic bitch, if we're to take Doctorow's "interpretation" at face value. In fact, the only remotely interesting thing Doctorow says about any of his historical personages comes quite early in the novel in a five page long chapter concerning Sigmund Freud, who then disappears never to be seen again. Doctorow points out that the generation in question was, because of Freud, the last generation of Americans not to be ashamed of loving their own mother. Freud, Doctorow tells us, ruined sex in America. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly interesting, and it is Ragtimes one shining moment of the novels ability to recast history.
Ultimately, the problem with Ragtime is that it clocks in at a mere 266 pages. Doctorow's ambition was to write a grand, sweeping, all encompassing epic of the early twentieth century a la Les Miserables or War and Peace, but he also wanted to cater to the diluted sensibilities, prejudices, and impotent attention spans of late twentieth century American readers. The two conditions are antithetical and so the novel cannot achieve anything greater than becoming a platform for Doctorow's wonderful capacities as a yarn spinner. A very good, if conceptually obnoxious, read. ...more
I reread this book in the car on the way to and from Moab, and if you don't get carsick reading, I strongly recommend it for this purpose. What I loveI reread this book in the car on the way to and from Moab, and if you don't get carsick reading, I strongly recommend it for this purpose. What I love generally about Kundera is his way of taking an overtly philosophical theme and an almost cliched postmodernist narrative voice and communicating these things to the ready in a totally readable way. Everything about this novel should be alienating and laborious, but because Kundera is a master story-teller, it isn't at all. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a history lesson, political diatribe, philosophical meditation, situational comedy, fairytale, titillating erotica, and metafiction all in one. The playfullness of the narrative, the way Kundera runs the entire gamut of available tricks and delivers the whole thing in an off hand "I'm just an old man spinning a yarn" kind of way, are what continue to attract me to this book. Its genius is holistic and structural. They exist in the big picture conception of the novel, and not on the "one sentence after another" level. Perhpas this is what turns so many people off about him, but for those who are intrigued by the capabalities of the novel as a genre and enjoy good writing for its own sake, Kundera is definitely a good read. ...more
I decided to read this book when I learned Ms. Orringer had received her BA from Cornell and her MFA from Iowa. Here are nine well crafted stories expI decided to read this book when I learned Ms. Orringer had received her BA from Cornell and her MFA from Iowa. Here are nine well crafted stories exploring the lives of contemporary young women ranging in age from nine to twenty-something. The best of them are the longer ones, I would guess between 6,000 and 7,500 words. Death, loss, alienation, and the role of religious faith are recurring themes. As a collection, How to Breathe Underwater starts off strong but wanes down the stretch. Ultimately, what could have been an excellent story collection still manages to be very good. Orringer’s style is literary in the late twentieth century sense of the word. The author’s voice fades into the background (which really means it doesn’t draw attention to itself by being wonderful). The sentences are neither too short nor too long. Her plots are interesting without ever becoming adventurous. Orringer possesses a keen ear for dialogue and a deft hand at character treatment, compassionate without becoming overly sentimental, critical but not condemning. She is good at drawing minor characters in a few strokes that makes them memorable enough and the protagonists are psychologically convincing but without psychological development taking over the course of the narrative.
My favorite story, “The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones,” deals with a teenaged Jewess who is sent to stay with extended family members in a traditional Hasidic community while her lapsed parents work out the details of a painful divorce. Orringer’s description of traditional Jewish life is masterful. She explains contextual customs to the non-Jew without allowing the story to become a lesson. The way she contrasts the religious life with the secular is enviable.
“Note to Sixth Grade Self” employs a clever narrative device. The story is told as a “note” to the protagonist’s self as an awkward sixth grade girl, through which she is able to tell the story while at the same time pointing out what she ought to have done had she known then what she has learned about the world in the subsequent years. As a technical trick, it is clever and different without becoming gimmicky, since its strengths inform the story and improve it. The frustrating nature of time and maturity enter the thematic material in a fresh way, saving it from being the same as a thousand other stories.
Other excellent stories are “Pilgrims” and “The Isabel Fish.” The stories that are not excellent are still very good, but suffer from an unrealized potential. In stories like “Care,” “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” and “Stations of the Cross,” the reader is taken to the precipice of something awesome without ever being sent over the edge. This becomes frustrating after a while and results in some cases from Orringer’s generous talents not being quite developed enough to consummate the job, while in others it stems from her compassion for the characters not allowing her to do the unspeakable. This collection is a dark vision of childhood and adolescence that refuses to become a nightmare even when the story seems to demand it. Consequently at its best How to Breath Underwater teases the reader with something deep and true about the human condition without ever quite fully rewarding us. Not withstanding, I recommend it to readers of top quality contemporary fiction for its ample ambition, power, and originality. ...more
Here are sixteen of the best stories I have ever read. MacLeod ranks among the very best writers of the twentieth century from any country. I have heaHere are sixteen of the best stories I have ever read. MacLeod ranks among the very best writers of the twentieth century from any country. I have heard him compared to Isaac Babel and John Cheever, both wonderful storytellers. MacLeod is better. He chronicles the lives of the rural Gaelic population of Cape Breton Island on the Atlantic coast of Canada. The world he has created is as exotic, alien, and enchanting as any fantasy realm. Cape Breton, however, really exists. Most of the stories take place in the late twentieth century and concern themselves with the passing-away of an archaic way of life. The protagonists are either the last of a dying breed or the thoroughly modernized children of Cape Bretoners. MacLeod’s genius lies in his ability to make the reader nostalgic for a time and place the reader has never visited. He is the true prophet of the New World. In these pages we remember a life that was never ours. He shows us a brutal, poverty-stricken, superstitious world in which life clings to the edge of death with dangerous intimacy and he makes us mourn its passing. I envy anyone encountering this book for the first time. Most first-rate authors are famous long before we come to them and we come to them with certain expectations about their greatness. MacLeod is not famous outside of Canada, but he ranks among the very best writers of this or any age. A rare treat and one that has changed my life. Particular favorites include “The Boat,” “The Vastness of the Dark,” “In the Fall,” “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” “To Everything There is a Season,” “Second Spring,” “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” “Vision,” and “Island.” These nine are excellent stories. The remaining seven might not be excellent but they are all better than good and well worth reading more than once....more
What relevance do fairytales have in adult life? What relevance do they have in a technological overly determined world such as ours? Are they importaWhat relevance do fairytales have in adult life? What relevance do they have in a technological overly determined world such as ours? Are they important, and if so, how and why? These are some of the questions I was hoping to find answers to by reading Ms. Bernheimer's book. At its most effective, The Complete Tales... skates flirtatiously close to magic realism in the Garcia Marquez vein. When Ketzia's sister turns her into a bird, the author is expected to belief this literally, but is offered no explanation for (a) how Merry turned Ketzia into a bird, or (b) how Ketzia ever got turned back into a girl. Bernheimer keeps a straight face throughout the episode and refuses to make excuses. Bravo. On the other hand, when Ketzia embarks on her surrealistic sojourn through the desert, the reader feels less in the midst of the adventures of a contemporary fairytale and more in the muddled vision of a confused and half-baked allegory. One explanation for this--the one that disappoints and scares me--is that this failure is not Bernheimer's; it is the failure of the fairytale's ability to translate into a contemporary narrative. Bernheimer's imaginitive powers outreach her chosen medium and reveal all the fairytale's limits and shortcomings as contemporary literature. The novel is saved, though, by Bernheimer's intense and believable dipiction of her main character, Ketzia Gold. Halfway through, I found myself reading more out of interest in Ketzia as an authetic personality and less for the fairytales. The final analysis is that The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold is both ambitious and effective. However, the parts that are ambitious are not entirely effective and the parts that are effective are not at all ambitious....more
Raymond Carver is generally accepted as the master of the contemporary American short story, and while I have a knee-jerk balk at such high praise ofRaymond Carver is generally accepted as the master of the contemporary American short story, and while I have a knee-jerk balk at such high praise of Carver's work, no one more deserving of the epithet comes immediately to mind. Don't get me wrong. I love Carver. He's a very good, very talented, subtle, and perceptive writer. On the other hand, I do not believe he's a very good stroyteller. What he pens aren't exactly page-turners. I've read stories that were difficult to describe because so much is going on in them, but Carver's stories, stereo-typically enough, are difficult to describe because not much of anything happens. Especially in his early work, which is why I'm so stingy with the stars when it comes to rating "Where I'm Calling From." The volume is more of an anthology of Carver's career than a greatest hits collection. All of his collections are represented and the stories appear in chronological order. A handful of as yet unpublished tales round out the fare. Early on the stories feel half-baked, lazy, unrealized. Everything feels like a sloppy first draft. One wonders how it ever got published, let alone collected. At best these stories, such as "Fat," are intriguing character sketches, the kind of brainstorm that might someday result in a good story. Carver doesn't seem to understand the difference between a story and an anecdote or scene, such as in "What's in Alaska?" and "Neighbors." Or perhaps he's challenging the notion that there is a difference. Or perhaps he's one of those people who likes to keep their fingers busy while drinking himself into a cryonic torpor.
(NOTE: when did goodreads finally get a spellchecker? I'm not sure I like it. This was the last place I had in which I could spell poorly without being reminded of it.)
But then, a little less than halfway through the collection and, effectively, Carver's career, we start hitting disturbingly brilliant little nuggets like "Why Don't You Dance?" and "So Much Water So Close to Home." Finally, down the home stretch, are the real classics, finishing off with "Vitamins" (my all-time favorite Carver story), "Where I'm Calling From", "Fever," "Feathers," "Cathedral," and "A Small, Good Thing."
I once read, and liked, that pitchers lose their arms and construction workers lose their backs, but writers just get better as they get older. I can think of half a dozen instances that make this false, but in the case of Raymond Carver it is quite true. Not recommended but for the very staunchest of Carver supporters. For everyone else a "Greatest Hits" collection would do just fine. Otherwise, pick up "Cathedrals" and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" and call it good. ...more
In the author's forward to the tenth anniversary edition, O'Connor called her first novel a comedy and observed that all great comedies are concernedIn the author's forward to the tenth anniversary edition, O'Connor called her first novel a comedy and observed that all great comedies are concerned with matters of life and death. What I found most interesting about this was how significantly my expectations for the novel as a comedy shaped my impression and interpretation and experience of the novel. To think of Wiseblood as a comedy and read it from that point of view is quite an other experience from anticipating the novel as a tragedy, which it more closely resembles at first blush. If it is comedy, it is because the God who rules the cosmology of Wiseblood truly and passionately hates us all. Hazel Motes, the protagonist, is as authentic, grotesque, and likeably unlikeable as any character in O'Connor's vita. Perhaps more compelling, however, is the Hazel's foil, the downtrodden dreg with the wise blood, Enoch Emery. Hazel is a rich character, but less intriguing that Enoch. I understand Hazel. Enoch remains an enigma. O'Connor's use of the wise blood device in ingenious, original, and ultimately confusing. The Oedipal motif of enlightenment-through-an-act-of-blinding is convincing and interestingly wrought. The resolution of the Enoch thread of the narrative is frustrating and entirely disatisfying, the only thing which keeps me from giving a perfect rating.
These are just some rambling observations about the novel. To boil down, Wiseblood is a novel easy to read yet complex and difficult to digest in its themes. It is vintage O'Connor, excellent as tragedy, intriguing as comedy. The characters ring true, the theology is heavy though never sentimental. This is a troubling book so rich in its parts and its effect that I will return to it again and again for years to come, I think, in an attempt to discover just how O'Connor does it. A devastatingly good read....more
**spoiler alert** Spoiler alert: The CIA did it. Now we can al rest easy. I read recently that it had become impossible to write an effective satire o**spoiler alert** Spoiler alert: The CIA did it. Now we can al rest easy. I read recently that it had become impossible to write an effective satire of American society because reality had become so perposterously absurd that any attempt to satirize it will strike the reader more as a prophetic nightmare than as a satirization. This is one of the primary texts Oliver Stone used to plot out the film JFK, and is basically the Encyclopedeia of JFK assassination theories. This also proves the satire quote from above, since the whole time you're reading this you think, "Oh my god! That could NEVER happen!" But it did. Or, at least, I think it did, which brings me to the main point of what is interesting about this book, the JFK assassination in particular, and conspiracy mythology in general. That Lee Harvey Oswald was a patsy, that our own government murdered the president because he wanted to bring an end to the American military industrial complex matters very little as history, even if it is true. It matters not. What matters--why conspiracy theories are important to us--is as personal mythology. It doesn't matter if it happened. That so misses the point. What matters is that MILLIONS of Americans and HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of people around the world believe it happened. They believe in the conspiracy to assassinate JFK like some people believe in Jesus or Quantum Mechanics. It is part of their personal mythologies. It explains the internal workings of their personal cosmology, the spiritual universe in which they live. Paranoia. Determinism. Shadowy forces. This is what we believe in. This is the world we believe, in our guts, we live in. It cannot be explained. It is not benevolent. It doesn't want to kill us, it just wants to control us. We're okay with that....more