Friday, November 30, 2012

American Pastoral

by Philip Roth

Blue-eyed, blond student athlete Swede Levov, son of a Jewish glove maker in Newark, has built his life around the virtues of hard work and assimilation.  Without expressly repudiating his father’s culture (he inherits and excels at the elder Levov’s trade), he marries a Catholic former Miss New Jersey who raises cows, moves to a grand home in the countryside, and lives in a manner that upsets the natural order of things as little as possible; he placates Catholic and Jewish fears alike; he gives off-putting people the benefit of the doubt; he relies on the quiet strength acquired by not using one’s physical strength.  He and his wife Dawn have a stuttering daughter, Merry, who is doted upon and who at adolescence becomes enraged at America’s involvement in Vietnam and falls into the grossest ignorant, maniacal anti-Capitalist vitriol at every turn.  She throws the Swede’s life into bitter, recriminating chaos when she bombs a post office in town and becomes a fugitive; he spends most of the book wondering how such a thing could have happened, poring over minor incidents in Merry’s childhood and how much he is to blame.  His wife takes refuge in a sanitarium; he is tortured, psychically, by a vicious young woman who may or may not be an ally of Merry’s; he wonders about the health of his marriage and what his father thinks.

Over 423 pages, this overly verbose novel alternates between flashes of genius – musings on how we can ever really know another human, or what the consequences may be of the actions we take, to which we ascribe no particular importance but which may redound heavily on others’ lives and psyches – and numbing, indulgent repetition – the Swede scours the shards of his life, over and over, asking the same unanswerable questions, to no effect.  The book begins with a first-person narrator who knew the Swede as a child, and who attends his forty-fifth high school reunion, meets up with some old crushes, and fades utterly from the narrative shortly afterwards; his existence, I suppose, was merely so Roth could tackle the subject of going home again, and to exorcise some thoughts on his Boomer cohorts.  Who knows.  There is some very high drama in a dinner party at the end of the book, in which emotions run high – the guilt, the resentments of spouses and neighbors, the accusations and confessions of adultery, jealously, class and culture resentment, panic, and secrets all roil in the Swede as he considers some new information about his daughter – and it would have made a very powerful novella, but this tome is just too much.  It’s exhausting, not galvanizing.

three stars

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Book Of Lost Books

by Stuart Kelly

A chronological survey of lost books and books that never were, from ideas for novels that never materialized on paper to valuable manuscripts burnt or censored or mislaid, from the anonymous ancients who assembled Gilgamesh and possible attributions to Homer to Sylvia Plath’s never-completed novel of adultery and the hecatomb of her manuscripts by Ted Hughes.  Each chapter is a page or two, five at most, of musings on what this or that author might have accomplished, or how his or her reputation would have changed, if the work in question had survived or been born in the first place.  At times there is so little of a “work” to have been “lost” that Kelly merely gives a prĂ©cis of the author’s most-known work and its importance, as in the Dante or Pound chapters (the Cantos were never lost so much as never unified into Pound’s ambitious, later crazed, vision).

As with any book with so wide a scope, especially one that stops so briefly at each way station through history, this book is heavy on anecdotes, but fails to take the time to convey any deep understanding to the reader.  That’s not to say that Kelly doesn’t know the material; he appears to have read everything, indeed he comes off as a bit too clever and writes with a sometimes off-putting erudition: he uses even obscurer forms of already archaic words (exegete, euclionism, daundering, fallalery, etiolated, versifex), sometimes to rather poor effect (“he scurried like an inverted smolt” – what?!); he doesn’t translate French titles (although he translated the other languages); at one point he abruptly writes a paragraph as a logogram without the letter e, and without explanation either.  There’s a good bit of intriguing information, of course, such as Kelly’s suggestion that the lack of a trial in The Trial might be “due to textual fragmentation” rather than a philosophical point; but the choppy format and frenetic pace ensured that little stuck with me, I’m afraid.

two stars

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

China Wakes: The Struggle For The Soul Of A Rising Power

by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The authors, married Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists, write about the emergence of capitalist China in the mid-1990s.  Alternating authorship of the chapters, they analyze China in terms of its progress in the areas of civil rights and business in the face of government repression. The authors argue that the communist government is remarkably similar to those of past dynasties but that, given their entrepreneurial energy, Chinese people are living better now than ever before. At the time of the writing, the authors seemed unsure whether the communist government would last much longer, but their observations lead them to conclude that rotten as the whole system is, with its routine bribery and brutality, the slow change of Chinese culture indicates that the “dynasty” was not yet moribund.  On a positive note, they see China as a nation that is beginning to appreciate the benefits of law, as well as material wealth, over imperial rule.

A well written, perspicacious, trenchant series of observations, the book is an easy, accessible read that covers several issues of major interest to Western observers (human rights, pollution, energy production, women’s rights, modernization), relying heavily on "human interest" type stories; in this case, these are vignettes such as a retarded man who is beaten to death by police to clean up the streets of Beijing before the Olympics, a girl who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, a journalist friend who is jailed for criticizing the government, a political refugee turned smuggler, and so on. Their emphasis on the rotten aspects of the communist dynasty has drawn criticism from other reviewers, who say that a particular brand of corruption and specific scandals are hardly representative of any country, especially one as large and heterogeneous as China.  However, the authors themselves note the limitations of their “human interest” approach; in one memorable passage they imagine that the tables are turned, and a Chinese journalist who covered an American beat strictly in terms of its horrifyingly violent street crime would be scandalized that despite the high murder rate, most Americans simply go about their everyday lives not thinking much about it, and the journalist would go away with a very skewed understanding of America.  The book is also, inevitably, outdated, but remains a fascinating time capsule of the state of China watching post-Tiananmen Square. 

four stars

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Double Whammy

by Carl Hiaasen

Hot-headed private detective R. J. Decker is hired to prove that TV host Dickie Lockhart cheats to win fortunes in Florida bass-fishing tournaments. Decker soon finds out that the stakes are so high people are willing to kill to keep secrets, but he finds an ally in an apparently deranged, roadkill-eating hermit who calls himself Skink, as well as a couple of honest cops.  Adding to the cast are a trio of moron hillbillies, an amoral hottie who seduces Decker and helps frame him for murder, and the good Reverend Weeb, Lockhart's sponsor on the Outdoor Christian Network, whose hobbies include prostitutes, fake faith healing, and land-grabbing.

It’s just as madcap as the summary sounds, with colorful heroes and villains (such as the killer who spends the final scenes of the novel with a decapitated, rotting bulldog’s head clamped on his gangrenous arm). This is the second Hiaasen novel I’ve read, and it’s seems much of a piece with Tourist Season: the same crazed pace and surreal satire, as well as the same dubious plot points (I’m not sure how the gruesome death of Decker’s client, after the death of Lockhart, helps Decker fight the charge of blackmail and murder).  It’s not worth dissecting, of course; it’s just manic zany fun.

three stars

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lost on Planet China

by J. Maarten Troost

[subtitle: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid]

Troost, in no way a China expert but a veteran traveler, spends several months in China, from Beijing to Hong Kong, from small villages to Ferrari dealerships in Shanghai.  Troost does his homework and gives a good account of some of the history behind the places he visits, such as how the Yongle emperor, Zhu Di, exterminated his enemies’ families “to the tenth degree.”  His own personal observations, such as just how pestilential the polluted air of China’s cities is, are of more value than statistics about China’s carbon footprint.  Troost is a highly amusing and empathetic writer and has produced a very good resource for someone’s first book on Western travel in China.

If, however, if it is one’s tenth or twentieth travel book on China, this book offers mostly the same old same old: the language uses ideograms instead of an alphabet; Chinese people have no sense of personal space; they hack big nasty loogies on the street; they eat dogs and cats and live octopus; they drive at unsafe speeds and never stop laying on the horn; they don’t form orderly lines.  And so on.  Troost has no understanding of the Chinese language and at one point gives misinformation on how dictionaries are used.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone would go to, say, Poland knowing nothing about it and come back confident enough to write an entire book, starting with such wide-eyed ignorance as “their language has a lot of k’s and j’s and l’s!”  Yet this is exactly what every new Western traveler to China does.  This is a well-written and often funny book, but a non-essential addition to the endless parade of “China sure is foreign” books. 

three stars

Monday, November 5, 2012

Time's Witness

by Michael Malone

The sequel to Uncivil Seasons.  This time, it is Cuddy Mangum, now police chief in Hillston, who is the narrator, and the eccentric scion of North Carolina aristocracy Justin Savile, now married and an expectant father, is relegated to a minor role.  In this novel, George Hall, a black man on Death Row for the murder seven years previously of an off-duty white cop in a bar in the black side of town, is given an unexpected reprieve by the governor.  The governor is running for reelection against war hero Andrew Brookside, whose heiress wife, Lee, just happens to be an old flame of Cuddy’s and whom he still loves desperately.  When Hall’s brother, a vocal activist, is shot and killed, Cuddy starts to uncover a vast web of conspiracy and crime, from gun smuggling out of a rich paper magnate’s factory, to political intrigues by white power militia yahoos, to attempted blackmail of the philandering Brookside, to underhanded brinksmanship by the governor.  After Cuddy’s friend, larger-than-life attorney Isaac Rosethorn, gets George Hall a new trial, some of these secrets threaten to come into the light, and Cuddy is targeted by the now-fugitive rogue cops.

Over 535 pages with a cast of dozens, this opus evokes not just the south, or the American justice system, but all of life’s rich pageant: the tattered glory of very old, very rich families who believe their money grants them superiority; the casual racism of the populace; the institutionalized racism of the death penalty, especially in the south; the dizzying highs and crushing lows of love won and lost.  There are no “good guys,” and characters who come into conflict with Cuddy are not straw men but fully realized characters who have their own ideals and morals.  Characters get married, have children, die; Cuddy tries to maintain his equilibrium as he walks a fine line between his affair with Lee, providing protection to Brookside, who has been getting death threats, and uncovering possible malfeasance in his lover’s husband’s campaign.  Malone is a fine writer, capable of pathos, Wodehousian wit (“Fattie’s whole body, of which there was an unbridled glut, relaxed with a shiver…”), action, suspense, romance, and deep perspicacity.  Malone doesn’t shy away from any issues; the novel culminates in a searing courtroom speech at Hall’s retrial, then quietly notes that about a month after this sensationalist event, another black man was executed without fanfare.  This may not be the Great American Novel, but it’s a contender for the Great American Novel About Justice.

five stars