Friday, February 28, 2014

MOSQUITOES by William Faulkner...an overachiever's second novel


MOSQUITOES
WILLIAM FAULKNER

Liveright
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Mosquitoes centers around a colorful assortment of passengers, out on a boating excursion from New Orleans. The rich and the aspiring, social butterflies and dissolute dilettantes are all easy game for Faulkner's barbed wit in this engaging high-spirited novel which offers a fascinating glimpse of Faulkner as a young artist.

"It approaches in the first half and reaches in the second half a brilliance that you can rightfully expect only in the writings of a few men. It is full of the fine kind of swift and lusty writing that comes from a healthy, fresh pen."--Lillian Hellman, New York Herald Tribune

My Review: Well, that's over. And thank goodness for that. I loves me some Faulkner, but this is a mediocre book.

It's an hour-by-hour, day-by-day account of a Lake Pontchartrain boat ride, peopled by the louche and the bohemian second-ranking artistes (spoken in a veddy, veddy affected tone) who infest the ever-pretentious city of New Orleans. (I mean, really, the place is a swamp, it's rotting around its own ears, it's poor as dirt, and it's so effin' hot that even mosquitoes have the sense to move out to the lakeshore for the summer. THIS is a place to build a city?)

It's a roman à clef, taking its "inspiration" from an actual boat ride Faulkner went on in New Orleans before moving to Paris. Where, not coincidentally, Faulkner met Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses, the famously banned-in-Murrika sexytime (for its day in the early 1920s) novel that "inspired" the hour-by-hour day-by-day format of this book.

Also not coincidentally, Joyce's masterwork (which I don't much like) "inspired" Uncle Bill to put in a lot of sex-talk, including *gasp* explicitly lesbian desires!! Maud Martha, bring the sal volatile and loosen my stays, the wimminfolk are runnin' amok!

Now that might seem a tad mean-spirited for a man writing 87 years later, to go after such a very surprising and open sexual transgression of the day, but trust me when I tell you: The roman à clef aspects of the book completely render the daringness of the author's choices into tawdry score-settling and Bret-Easton-Ellisy tittle-tattle.

Want to know why I say that? I'm tellin' ya anyway: Every character on the damn boat (the Nausicaa, "Burner of Ships," get it huh get it get it? Faulkner's bein' all erudite an' stuff!) is a loser, and Faulkner writes himself in as the only "successful" artist around:
"Anyway, I didn't go in swimming where the man got drowned. I was waiting for them, and I got talking to a funny man. A little kind of black man--"
"A nigger?"
"No, he was a white man, except he was awful sunburned and kind of shabby dressed--no necktie and hat. Say, he said some funny things to me. He said I had the best digestion he ever saw, and he said if the straps of my dress was to break I'd devastate the country. He said he was a liar by profession, and he made good money at it, enough to own a Ford as soon as he got it paid out. I think he was crazy. Not dangerous, just crazy."
The speaker goes on to remember his name was something like Walker or Foster, but whatever it was it started with an "F" like her friend's middle name, Frances.

Ye gods.

Well, it was only his second novel. And he'd just come home from Paris when he (most probably) wrote it, so he was still digesting the *huge* bolus of Kulcher he'd swallowed and wallowed in. He was young and this is a very young-man-overachiever kind of a novel. It's not the worst book I've ever read, and not even the least impressive Faulkner I've read (no fan of Wild Palms, me).

But it's just too good to dismiss and just too clever-clever to enjoy and just too coltish to admire in the context of the Faulkner ouevre. Neither fish nor fowl, as Mama said of suchlike creations.

Perfect title, then: Mosquitoes.

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A few other good quotes:

“Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.”

On a loser's "way" with women, spoken by a woman bystander:
“You tell 'em, big boy; treat 'em rough.”

Thursday, February 27, 2014

THE ENCHANTED LIFE OF ADAM HOPE is, in fact, enchanting


THE ENCHANTED LIFE OF ADAM HOPE: A Novel
RHONDA RILEY

Ecco Press
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is an unconventional and passionately romantic love story that is as breathtaking and wondrous as The Time Traveler's Wife and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

During WWII, teenager Evelyn Roe is sent to manage the family farm in rural North Carolina, where she finds what she takes to be a badly burned soldier on their property. She rescues him, and it quickly becomes clear he is not a man...and not one of us. The rescued body recovers at an unnatural speed, and just as fast, Evelyn and Adam fall deeply in love. In The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, Rhonda Riley reveals the exhilarating, terrifying mystery inherent in all relationships: No matter how deeply we love someone, and no matter how much we will sacrifice for them, we can only know them so well...

My Review: The landscape of a life is common as pig-tracks. All the same milestones, either hit or missed, all the same parameters laid down by minor variations in genetic code, broadly indistinguishable. So why is it we're always so interested in others' lives? Why read novels about marriages that last or love affairs that sour or basements that exude more than the natural degree of fungal fetor?

Because solitude isn't loneliness, which isn't grief. All involve a person not having companions. All are intense emotional states. But they spring from causes not dissimilar with effects radically, wildly different from each other. Just like we, architects of or tenants in or travelers through out life's landscape, are intensely and inarguably different from each other.

Stories moves us through those landscapes at speed. The milestones are there, but rather than majestic sweeping mountain vistas seen while hiking, they're glimpsed from the highway while moving at speed. This is wonderful on many levels. We experience many different lives this way, fiction being a highway through the landscape of another's life; but it can lead to a jadedness and a sense of "been there, done that" as we whip past the wedding night, the first child, buying a house...read this how many times now?

So with this in mind, hear what I tell you now: Adam Hope and Evelyn Roe aren't the usual suspects. Adam comes to Evelyn in a wonderful and deeply beautiful metaphorical blaze. I won't spoil it for you, but it left me both amused and so touched and moved that I was always ready to well up at the oddest moments in the tale, remembering that first contact and putting the moments of a life against it.

And, in the final analysis, isn't that the thing one most often does not get and resents the absence of in a story? An ordinary, relatable life rendered truly and beautifully Other by a simple reorientation of one detail?

So hear me clearly. Understand my urgency in telling you this. Life feels bad and unfocused and unlivable and unlovable sometimes. The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope will, if you let it, shift your perception that bubble off true that makes rain into rainbows.

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My favorite quote from the novel has all the strengths and all the weaknesses of the book in one place:
“Countless times, I have imagined A. rising through the rivers of this land, to the surface of Florida to be found again, pulled into the air by new hands. The possibilities are endless, but most often I imagine him found by children. Above him, the sky shimmers and undulates blue through transparent springwater. Then four small brown hands break the surface and pull him into the air and into their excited and frightened vocabularies. The delicate bones of their arms and ribs absorb his voice, shattering their knowledge of what is possible.”

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

COLD WAR by Adam Christopher...prequel novella



COLD WAR
ADAM CHRISTOPHER

Tor.com
Free novelette, available online only

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Dropped on a frozen planet under suspicious circumstances, a group of marines struggles to discover the true objective of their mission. “Cold War” is set in the same universe as Adam Christopher’s novel The Burning Dark.

My Review: MilSF is a pleasure to some of us, a bane to others. I'm a fan, usually. In the case of this tale, I'm more a fan of Christopher's imagination than I am of this particular story. I'm intrigued by the concept of Psi-Marines. I like the boots-in-the-dirt (well, snow in this case) reality of the PoV character, Kat Grec. I am pleased with the tone of the piece, its matter-of-factness and its clarity. These remind me of Karl Marlantes' wonderful novel Matterhorn, and that's praise indeed.

The aliens, the Spiders...a little 1959 for my own taste. The story itself, being so short, can't give more than a quick hit of the scariness of the Spiders. But really...from Starship Troopers down to Ender's Game, the trope is well, well, well-worn.

That said, it's Adam Christopher, and he's a man to watch. Still...I feel...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY...surprisingly not soon to be a major motion picture


THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY
RACHEL JOYCE

Random House Trade Paperbacks
$15.00, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.

A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.

My Review: I take strong exception to the publisher's sales copy calling this book “unsentimental” because it most assuredly is as sentimental as it's possible for a story to be. It is Dickensian in its sentimentality. Anyone who has ever interacted with me will know I do not intend that as a compliment.

The Mouldering Mound of ~Meh~ is the natural home of this Grail quest. Sentimental encounters with many characters, all of whom unlock Harold's frozen memories (frozen, may I add, for excellent reasons that spoiler aversion forbids me to so much as hint at) and, in turn, leave Harold to his long walk being changed in their turn. So nothing new there.

The mildly humorous, mildly silly tone of the narrative is mildly pleasant, and Joyce makes every effort to be an engaging companion on Harold's walk with the reader. I got quite fed up with the book around p50, and soldiered on for one reason and one only: The MAN Booker people put it on the Prize list. It didn't win, obviously, but this got nominated? Why? Is there something on p310, p186, any whole number you can name up to 316, that will make this make sense to me?

No. No, there is not. It's all nice, pleasant, amusing, beige-carpet-and-cream-walls stuff. Don't even dream that there's an Ugly Secret lurking here. There's no monster in this lake, unless you subscribe to the theory that evil in its purest form is banal.

For all its banality, Joyce tells us about the anguish that lives in most hearts, and even roadmaps the way for the disconnected to reconnect. She's got the chops to make that happen without overt, eyerollingly hammy Declarations and Heart-to-Hearts, thank goodness. I said it was pleasant! But, well, it's just so....

Untoasted Wonder Bread with Velveeta, tuna salad, and cream gravy sound good to you? Here's you a book.

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So...why rate this novel with three stars? A question I've been asked a lot. I found several quotes that I found trenchant, amusing, and even a bit profound. That's the source of a good one and a half of the stars I've rated the book:

“I miss her all the time. I know in my head that she has gone. the only difference is that I am getting used to the pain. It's like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with, you forget it's there and keep falling in. After a while, it's still there, but you learn to walk round it.”

“The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time.”

“If we don't go mad once in a while, there's no hope.”

“You got up, and you did something. And if trying to find a way when you don't even know you can get there isn't a small miracle; then I don't know what is.”

“Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways.”

“It was not a life, if lived without love.”

“If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I'm going to get there. I've begun to think we sit far more than we're supposed to." He smiled. "Why else would we have feet?”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

THE AWAKENING...one of life's better soporifics


THE AWAKENING
KATE CHOPIN

Kindle Freebie

Rating: 1.5* of five, all for a few pleasantly turned descriptions

The Publisher Says: This story of a woman's struggle with oppressive social structures received much public contempt at its first release; put aside because of initial controversy, the novel gained popularity in the 1960s, some six decades after its first publication, and has since remained a favorite of many readers. Chopin's depiction of a married woman, bound to her family and with no way to assert a fulfilling life of her own, has become a foundation for feminism and a classic account of gender crises in the late Victorian era.

My Review: Tedious. Nothing at all worth calling a classic considered as a piece of writing; as a work of characterization; or in any way that I can discern.

Edna is awakened by her desire for a man not her husband? And this is a feminist classic? That she then sends away her children to live with her mother-in-law and waves a vaguely affectionate good-bye to her husband as he moves away for ~6 months vitiates any sense of conflict or in fact of what the hell this boring broad is on about when she rattles around New Orleans painting (well enough to sell her work) and conducting the most desultory possible affair with a man so louche that he's a by-word for bad boyish nonsense...and not one word of gossip, not one scintilla of contumely, not a scrap of opprobrium appears to attach itself to her?! IN NEW ORELANS?!

Folks, this is so incredible that I am gobsmacked. That's the gossipiest little burg in the Western world. People who don't know you know you there.Spend a week and there's some hear-tell about what you gettin' up to. Only tourists are anonymous, sort of, and that's pretty much a recent phenomenon.

Nothing outside tedious, bland Edna's direct view is allowed any reality; no character exists except as a bald description; the action is reported much as it would be in a telegram of old, or a tweet of today, stripped to mere outlines to make it fit in as few words as possible.

I've read worse books, much worse books in fact, but few that were so devoid of characterization. Why on earth anyone ever invested an erg of emotional energy in these silhouettes is beyond my ken. Pelletier, Edna's husband, does exactly nothing interesting and she herself feels no animosity towards him because she interacts with him not at all. How they came to have two children is beyond me. I suppose, in the indirect language of the time, she is shown to reject his sexual advances. So? Wives do that a lot. Especially then, before adequate birth control was available. He doesn't appear to make an issue of it, and she just...doesn't.

Her children are left to the nurse unless she breaks free of the fog of indifference shrouding her every action and perception. So? Do something, Kate Chopin, to show me what effect this has on two little boys! As it is they're pawns on the chaotic chess board of this book. Someone who watched a few games of chess and tried to emulate it without troubling to learn the rules or understand the conventions is the closest analogue I can find to the impression the book leaves with me.

Chopin read a few stories, then figured she'd write her own before understanding the demands of characterization, the need for motivations, the purpose of creating a setting...this is what I am left with. I've honestly never felt so at sea when reading a lauded classic as to why it attained the status. I detest Dickens' books, each and every one I've read, but I know why others love the verbose, tortured melodramas. Even Hemingway's pustulent, suppurating psychic wounds made for some moments of humor, and explained his enduring appeal to some people.

This? This has nothing that grand or that icksome to offer. It really offers next to nothing. It can't be hated, that's like hating seltzer water. I can't imagine a less captivating way to spend a snowy Sunday afternoon.