Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Mars Room (2018) by Rachel Kushner

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Two-time National Book Award Nominee Rachel Kushner, will the third time be the charm?
Book Review
The Mars Room (2018)
by Rachel Kushner

     Rachel Kushner is a two-time National Book Award finalist, increasing the likelihood that The Mars Room, here new book about life inside the lifers unit at a California Woman's Prison, will actually win said National Book Award.  It could win other major prizes as well, or at least make it to the nomination stage.   There has been a reasonable amount of corresponding commercial success, with the Amazon page carrying a "New York Times Bestseller" notice.  Given the diversity of voices that Kushner deploys around the central character, a young-ish white woman from the unfashionable Sunset District in San Francisco.   Romy Hall grows up with an absent/non-existent father and a mother who seems depressed and uninterested in here.  She drifts into life as a stripper, working at The Mars Room of the title.

  What is clear from page one is that Hall is in prison, serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering a stalker. (Never made clear is how one gets two consecutive life sentences for a single murder- I'm saying that as a practicing criminal defense attorney from the state of California.)   Kusner introduces different voices- a Latina gangster from Southern California who becomes Romy's friend, Doc, the ex-cop who helped a female death row inmate kill a hitman who had killed her husband.  Eventually we even get around to the dead stalker himself, who as it turns out, isn't that bad a dude.

  Kushner shies away from treacly maudlin prison narrative story lines, laudatory quotes from Stephen King might have a potential reader thinking otherwise- but Kushner has a strong grasp of the realities of the criminal justice system in California, and she doesn't go overboard making Hall into some kind of saint-like victim.   The Audiobook version I listened to, narrated by the author herself, was exceptional, and I would recommend it.  I would say that The Mars Room has a decent chance at winning the National Book Award this year, certainly a shortlist nomination.

The Maze at Windemere (2018) by Gregory Blake Smith

Book Review
The Maze at Windemere (2018)
 by Gregory Blake Smith

  Gregory Blake Smith is no stranger to the literary fiction scene.  He has four novels under his belt, a couple collections of short stories and a handful of literary prizes.  Unlike his other books, The Maze at Windermere has a major publisher behind it (Viking) and it also has a mixture of high concept flair and careful character development that make it a potential major literary prize winner.

  What he doesn't have is a major best seller.  The Maze at Windermere is an ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between literary and popular fiction, cutting across four centuries of the lives of the denizens of Newport, Rhode Island.   Smith uses a handful of narrators: A young woman living in the late 17th century, left orphaned when her father fails to return from a trip to the west indies;  and English military officer who falls in love with a local Jewess, a gay man about town from the 19th century, seeking the hand of wealthy heiress; the young Henry James, who falls in love(?) with the daughter of a local factory owner and a present-day tennis pro, who is the lead narrator- who falls in love with Alice DuPont, the (fictional) heiress to the plastics fortune, who suffers both from cerebal palsy and bi-polar disorder.

 Each of the plots deals with a different aspect of love and it's difficulties.  The different stories are unified by the character of Newport itself, which gets its own narrator via the excitable ramblings of present day Alice DuPont.   The other narrative threads are more or less effective- the Henry James thread often reminded me of The Master by Colm Toibin.   The other major characters are thoughtfully drawn, Smith has both a clear grasp of period convention and the expectations of modern audiences, and he manages to satisfy both.

  Six months after release, it doesn't appear that The Maze at Winderwere is a major commercial hit- leaving Viking hoping for a Pulitzer or National Book Award Nomination. I'm not sure I see that coming, but I am wrong all the time.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Nose (1836) by Nikolai Gogol

Book Review
The Nose (1836)
 by Nikolai Gogol

   What is crazy about The Nose, a short story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, is that it was written in 1836, almost a century before ideas like dadaism and surrealism began to break down the borders of so-called "reality" in a way we now find intimate to our day-to-day existence.   Certainly 18th century literature has some wild moments, but those are broad about more usually by authorial eccentricity than any ideological attempt to subvert reality.  Whatever could Nikolai Gogol, writing in the early to mid 19th century, been thinking, or doing.  Was he high? Mad? Mentally ill?   There is some comparison to a fairy tale, greek myth or even the conventions of gothic fiction in the 18th century, but the satiric tone differentiates The Nose from those other categories of prose.  Even the more familiar trope of social satire was not hugely popular in the early to mid 19th century.  You wouldn't call Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Turgenev "funny" by any stretch of the imagination.

  Unfortunately as to the circumstance which animated Gogol to write The Nose: The introduction by the Czar of "Tables of Rank" which allowed civilians to become aristocrats via service to the crown, even the most well equipped modern reader is likely to miss the significance without an advanced introduction to the back story. 

Book Review: Red Clocks (2018) by Leni Zumas

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Red Clocks author Leni Zumas, of Portland, Oregon.
Book Review
Red Clocks (2018)
by Leni Zumas

  I would call it a fair argument that the commercial and critical success of the Hulu version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has spawned a tidal wave of novels which combine dystopian genre conventions with feminist concerns to produce work which appeal both to a popular and critical audience. For proof, look no further than The Handmaid's Tale itself, but also The Hunger Games for an example on the more popular side of the spectrum.  Or, there are a half dozen works of literary fiction published in the last year that maybe haven't obtained a huge popular audience, but succeeded in drawing a combination of writing talent and publishing savvy.

  Red Clocks arrived- in a well produced Audiobook format- as a best-seller from earlier this year.  Reviews have downplayed the genre-dystopian influence- a widely circulated quote by the author mentions that the events that precede the action of Red Clocks: A constitutional "right to life" amendment that bans abortion as well as in-vitro fertilization, could take place, "tomorrow."   I'm not normally someone who picks apart science fiction books for lacking "realism," but I would beg to differ that the events in Red Clocks are potentially around the corner.

   Again with the caveat that I am not usually someone who questions the plausibility of a fictional work, as a criminal defense lawyer who works in federal court, I take issue with one of the central elements of the book: A prosecution, at the state level, by a district attorney, of a local (rural Oregon) witchy woman who is accused of trying to induce an abortion at the behest of the wife of the local High School Principal.   Assuming the accuracy of the statement that a Constitutional Amendment was passed outlawing Abortion, a prosecution for a violation of this amendment (and any resulting law) would be in Federal and not state court.

   Perhaps the author's defense is that she was trying to simplify the plot for a best-seller level of popular audience, and I would accept that, but if the Federal Government got it together to outlaw abortion totally and start prosecuting people, those prosecutors would be working for the federal government, and they wouldn't be state court District Attorney's, as portrayed throughout Red Clocks.   An easy, and accurate analogy is the situation under Prohibition.   Bootleggers were prosecuted under Federal law, in Federal court.  I guess...Oregon could pass a law saying that attempted abortion is attempted murder under state law, but that is not how Zumas writes it- all the legal talk involves the federal laws involved.

  I wouldn't even point it out but for the fact that Red Clocks made it to a best-seller list, so people are obviously taking the ideas seriously- and they should- because the central dilemma of the rural high school student who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy is already true in many parts of the country where abortions are dramatically restricted at the state level.   A major strand of plot concerns the attempts by a teacher of the high school student and her attempts with artificial insemination.  Zumas is on shakier ground from an audience empathy point of view with the teacher, something the character herself struggles with on almost every page.

  The paths of the major characters: student, teacher, mid wife/healer and wife intersect in surprising and unexpected ways, blending the concerns of plot with the larger explorations of the attitudes towards child bearing and child rearing.   Zumas differentiates the perspectives of the different characters by using the title of the character, "Student," "Wife," "Healer." etc.  I may not be using the exact right terms, not having the book in front of me.  A necessary component of almost all dystopian fiction is that the societal changes happen off stage and in the past.  Any in depth discussion wouldn't make it past the pen of editor looking for the human dimension.  At the same time, the societal changes can't be so far back in the past that the characters don't understand the difference- again- characters that have no framework towards the "before" time are likely to alienate any substantial audience, one that lacks the patience to decipher a new language or guess at character motivations.

  In this way, the very near present of Red Clocks pushes the boundaries right to the point of departing from genre convention entirely, making it a straight forward work of domestic fiction with a avowedly feminist perspective , the like of which have now been winning awards for decades.   It's hard not to visualize an HBO level version of Red Clocks as a television show.  With four major perspectives there are plenty of roles to go around, and length to be drawn out.  I'd be surprised if the visual rights haven't already been sold.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

Pointed Roofs (1915) by Dorothy Richardson

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Dorothy Richardson, whose Pointed Roofs was the first "stream of consciousness" novel- beating Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by a year. 
Book Review (Book 1/13 Pilgrimage series)
Pointed Roofs (1915)
by Dorothy Richardson

  Pointed Roofs is book one in her thirteen book Pilgrimage series, basically a life long roman a clef covering the experience of Miriam Henderson- in Pointed Roofs, Henderson moves to Germany to work as an English teacher/chaperon in a girls school.   Richardson's claim to fame is that the first usage of the term "stream of consciousness" as applied to a novel was a description of this book, making Pointed Roofs the first stream of consciousness novel, by definition.  In case you were wondering, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce was published in 1916.

  Status as literary trailblazer aside, Pointed Roofs most resembles something written by D.H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, down to the reference points- the sending of an English girl abroad to Germany in the time before World War I is a very common plot point/characteristic in the English literature of this time period.  Miriam Henderson, the Richardson stand in, is that spectacular in that regard.  Compare her, for example, to the Lady Chatterly of Lady Chatterley's Lover, who boasts of being deflowered at a German summer camp.  Hendersons' adventures are plain to the point of banal, which I suppose is on purpose, but it doesn't make for scinelatting reading in 2018- the library copy I checked out was the original American edition from the mid 1920's- sure sign that there is a total lack of audience in this country.  Call her a forgotten trailblazer. 

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