Archive for March, 2011

Eclipse by John Banville – Review

March 26, 2011

Alexander Cleave – returning to childhood home, nervous breakdown? maybe. Wife is very…domineering? Strong. Basically calls him a child before leaving him there. He’s frail, almost call him fey. He doesn’t seem to have any real center to himself.  He talks of himself as a shapeless form, a litany of disguises, one piled on top of the other. Acclaimed for playing Iago and Richard Crookback (big guys are essentially gentle, small guys hard).

Lydia – wife, seems to put up with him. While he seems harmless, he also seems like someone who needs a lot of patience, so she gets high marks from me. BUt she also seems to be growing tired of Alex’s, well, weaknesses.

Cass – Alex and Lydia’s daughter, coming back, Lydia believes she favors Alex.

Quirke – Hired as caretaker for Alex’s home, been there for year’s, the antithesis of Alex. Solid, gruff, almost vulgar and intimately comfortable in the house in a way that Alex isn’t For Alex it’s a home of his past, a place he almost seems to be retreating into. For Quirke, it’s a home of now. In his own gruff way, he seems to try to befriend Alex, but they just don’t seem quite compatible.

Ghosts –  Alex sees a woman in the window. When waking up one morning, he thinks a woman is standing in the corner of his bedroom. More of him living in the past, or bringing the past forward to exist with him.

Lily – Quirke’s daughter, reminds Alex of Cass, sleeps in the bed of Alex’s mother. A weird “Lolita” vibe in how Alex relates to her.

130 pages in and nothing is really moving forward. Alex is blah, stuck in his rut, unable or unwilling to move out of it. He has discovered that his caretaker and the “girl” live in the house and have always lived in the house (one of the benefits of the job, to Quirke) but, while this unsettles Alex, it doesn’t really change anything. Instead, the whole novel just keeps plodding along, listing from one non-event to another.

Alright, this is coming off as far more negative than I intended. The actual writing of Eclipse is very good. The technical aspects, I have a hard time arguing with. But nothing is really happening. The characters aren’t growing. Alexander Cleave just continues to be a miserable, lost, pathetic little creature. I want something to happen.

– – –

Alright, the wife has shown up. Big fight without a lot of fighting, a lot of introspection by Alex. At the end, he retreats to his hole, fairly certain his wife is still in the house, and he promises to not leave his hole until she is gone. I’m guessing he’s out by the following morning.

– – –

He was out and about. He takes Lily to the circus where she rushes into the ring where she is bizarrely hypnotized by the performer (no coin on a string here folks) and Alex goes through some empathetic memory/thought of losing himself to something, literally, before he rushes into the ring and “rescues” Lily from the performance. In the midst of this, he declares himself her father before leading her away, and she bursts into tears upon leaving the circus tent.

Upon returning to the house, the news is delivered that his actual daughter is dead. He and his wife, Lydia, venture to the Italian seaside town where we learn his daughter was pregnant when she threw herself into the sea where the surf and rocks had literally obliterated her face. Upon flying home, Alex tells Quirke that he’s leaving the house to Lily with the provision she never sells the place and that she lets him visit. Alex comes to the conclusion that the spirits he had been seeing may not have been the past at all, but some sort of visitation from the future. He sees his daughter/ghost one last time, and as she disappears into mist from behind the window, Alex turns to see Lily apparently trying to look out the window, too. He wonders if she is trying to see what Alex was seeing or if she was only looking out into the world, the way all youth do.

I’m not sad to have finished this story. I’m sure something can be made of Alex’s taking ownership of Lily just before discovering that Cass is dead, but I frankly don’t feel up to it.  It’s a tedious read, though well written. At the end, Alex seems to be drifting back into a world of make believe, retreating from the introspective reality that had been his goal at the beginning. He’s also leaving the house, venturing back to his real home. We also find out that Lily had lied about the reason her mother wasn’t around – she wasn’t dead, she had ran off with a shoe salesman.

So at the end we are left with this impression that at the heart of everything there isn’t a kernal of truth, but of a well made up falsity. That perhaps the idea of truth is a lie in itself,  that what we believe is true is true because we choose to believe it to be so. I can’t say I believe any of this, at least not to any great extent.

If you have the patience for Eclipse, it’s well done. I wasn’t in the mood for it, but pushed my way through it anyway.  So if my thoughts on it seem less than complementary, be forwarned, it likely had a knock against it before it started. Still, it seems to be a work that focuses on one man’s hollow misery. I find it difficult to feel anything for it.

Sugar Town by Loren Estleman – quick review

March 23, 2011

I grew up watching Bogart movies and reading Sherlock Holmes short stories. I watched PBS for the video adaptations of Hercule Poirot novels. I like detective stories. I’ve had Loren Estleman recommended to me in the past and I finally got around to taking up the recommendation and giving it a shot, and I’m happy I did.

This award winning novel is now 26 o 27 years old, but it’s aged well, like most good detective fiction. Amos Walker is the easily recognizable gumshoe. The plot doubles back on itself as expertly as expected. The dialog is something that’s easy to imagine Bogart delivering with a glass in one hand and a pistol in the other.

What sets Estleman’s work off, and what seems to be a trademark of his, is setting it in Michigan; in this case, Detroit. A quarter of a century ago, maybe this would have seemed less remarkable, but given the outward appearance of Detroit (and Michigan in general), it’s good seeing someone giving the area a bit of life (as an aside, I’ve championed Detroit 187 for similar reasons, and think if Michigan loses this series because Gov.Snyder doesn’t want to give tax breaks to an industry he doesn’t have friends in, he’s doing Michigan a great disservice).

So, if you’re looking for some good detective fiction, I think it’s hard to go wrong with this one.

Voir Dire by Don Lee – a story review

March 17, 2011

Voir Dire

Hank Low Kwon- lawyer with moral dillemas

Molly Beddle – lawyer’s squeeze

Chee Seng Lam- coke addict

Simon Liu – dead kid

Ruby Liu – dead kid’s mom, whore and drug addict

“The funny thing is, you wouldn’t be able to tell. No one would. If I’m not blatantly incompetent, no one would ever know.”

Hank’s biggest case in four years, defending Lam who beat his g/f’s kid to death with a doubled up electrical chord. Was looking for a triangle to match the earlier story, but the only thing I could come up with was a manufactured structure connecting Hank, Molly and Hank’s work. It just doesn’t work, though. There is a tension within Hank that weighs his career against his family life. He’s defending a despicable person, someone who makes it fairly well known (in private, not in court) that he feels no remorse for his actions, and the type of world that might allow such a person to walk freely out of the court against the prospect of starting his own family and bringing a kid into such a world.

Behind Hank’s contemplations, there is Molly, who surfs, who uses a trampoline to request sex, and who, at the end, we’re told will someday “crush” him as she catapults herself towards him. She comes across as carefree, physical, perhaps shielded from the ugly world of Hank’s profession. But she also offers the common sense advice that Hank’s work is just work, it goes with the job. The unspoken half of this conversation seems to be that he needs to just quit worrying, compartmentalize it, and live his life.

The work/life duality feels too mundane to follow. This might just be one of those stories where it is an enjoyable enough read but there isn’t a whole lot to off of after that. It says what it says and that’s all. If there’s anything to be said of the story, it might be its universiality. Hank’s doubts about the world are doubts that the majority of us are likely to share at some point, and it’s to be expected that such doubts would creep up at a point when Molly is pregnant.

Hank’s ex-wife, Allison, is introduced about halfway through the story, and we find out that her refusal to have children was a bit of a sticking point in their relationship, something that would come up in arguments. However, outside of this info, I’m not sure she plays any real role in the story. She shows up, we find out she’s Korean (same as Hank, whereas Molly isn’t), labeled a “Kuppie” by Hank (Korean Yuppie) and that neither seems to really desire the other at all at this point. So the only purpose behind her appearance seems to be to establish that, in the past, Hank had used the refusal of children as part of a larger excuse to get out of a relationship, and now he is having doubts about having a child. But, again, this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary – there is always a difference between wanting something and actually getting it and realizing there might be more to it than what you were expecting.

In the end, the emotional core of the store might just be more than its tangible components. The frailty of life, and the avenues of pain, opened up by committing to a relationship and to having children, are clearly reflected in the main character’s dealing with his significant other and his having to defend a despicable character. In an odd way, though, Hank’s having to deal with Chee Seng shows Hank that he could never become that bad of a father/spouse. It’s a case that almost seems to “scare Hank straight” on where he stands with his relationship and where he wants it, and needs it, to go.

Alright, there’s my slapdash review of Voir Dire. I can’t help but feel there is more I want to add, but I also have the feeling that I will wind up repeating what I have said and proceed to go nowhere. So I’m going to leave this where it is.

One foot in front of the other, one page at a time

March 11, 2011

I haven’t posted in awhile, partially from sheer inertia that I’m having a difficult time overcoming lately, but also because I have just become so horribly bogged down in reading a book that I don’t have a whole to post. I don’t usually run into this problem. I usually just plug through a book, if not with ease, then with considered aplomb.

Sometimes I run into a book like Eclipse by John Banville. It’s not long (around 200 pages) but there is something about that I just can’t access. My reading slows to a crawl. Every page becomes a labor. It’s painful. It’s slow. Even if the book is good (which I think Eclipse is), it becomes something I nearly dread as I sip it down in four or five page increments before going back to something I enjoy more.

Maybe it’s just a reflection of my general mood but I find that as I get bogged down in a book, I get bogged down in most other things, too. It seems to become a bit harder to maintain concentration on anything I’m trying to do, from grading papers to re-writing a short story. I’m always getting up to wander around the apartment, to look through cupboards, to look out of the windows.  I find ways to stall everything.

So either I need to be in a better mood or I need to find a book that doesn’t totally screw it up.

Sudden Fiction Latino – a brief review

March 2, 2011

All right, I haven’t finished this yet, but it’s due back to the library on Tuesday and  I can’t renew it. So I’m putting up what I have. I’ve been getting more interested in Latin literature for a little while. Admittedly, it’s on the back of Roberto Bolano but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Unfortunately, outside of names like Bolano and Marquez (and, recenly, Llosa), the pickings are somewhat slim unless you have some idea of what you’re looking for – which I soooo didn’t.

So finding this book on the “new” shelf at the library was a bit of a godsend. Not only does it give a big, gob smacking number of names to look for and explore, but it gives them in such a way that they are presented in easy-to-digest tidbits.

Luis Alberto Urrea has a fantastic short at the beginning, “white girl,” Borges and Bolano make visits from beyond the grave, and Allande and Gabriel Garcia Marquez make noteworthy contributions. There’s also a litle gem from Mario Benedetti, who I just bought a collection of while at AWP.

Being Latino and not South and Central American Latino, you also find a smattering of fine Latino writers from the States. The previous mentioned Urrea, Daniel Alarcon and Junot Diaz help make sure the north of the border is very well represented.

With this being a collection of short shorts, I wasn’t sure if there was much I could or should say about the individual stories. It’s a fine collection, a good way to burrow into a foreign land of literature and find some names to go looking for. And even if you’re just looking for a good read, I think it’s hard to go wrong with this.