Paul Theroux’s Mr. Bones is a brilliant study of family dynamics. The narrator describes his father as a heartbreakingly kind milquetoast with a dead-end life and an unappeasable wife. When the father turns to a second life as a blackface performer in a minstrel show, the narrator’s queasiness is more than just palpable – it’s gut-wrenching, as he’s both sympathetic to his father’s desperate need for escapism and yet justifiably ashamed of his behavior. Even better, the story doesn’t end with a cop-out insanity plea; the father doesn’t go insane doing it, he does it to keep from going insane. It’s messy, funny, pathetic, and rendered completely true to life – that is, if discovering your own father in blackface could ever be called as such.
Luda and Milena seems like an old trifle of a story. It’s about two old Russian women bent on seducing a man in their ESL class by cooking progressively more and more elaborate dishes to win his stomach and heart. I wish I could say there’s more to this, but that’s pretty much it. It really is short. And the ending seems a bit too pat and throwaway. My guess is that Vapnyar cooked this one up in her mind while cooking for herself – the giveaway is when she describes Luda (or was it Milena? I had trouble telling them apart, though I blame this primarily on my own attention span) trying to learn skills from the Food Channel. This sly reference to one celebrity chef made me smile:
On the third show, the host explained how to make tiramisu, which might have been helpful were it not for the host’s cleavage—so prominent that Luda couldn’t concentrate on the movements of her hands.
I guess those who’ve been making fun of me for my recent Giada obsession will feel vindicated, but I still don´t see it. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the only one I want to learn from.
I realize my last few posts have not only been infrequent but also heavily steeped in the Literary (capital stuffy L), so here’s a nod back to my (other) roots. Stay with me now.
So apparently those lovably bilious writers at Uncov are now attempting to publicly crash Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch 20 conference by asking the real and hard questions, videotaping them and uploading the shenanigans to YouTube. I’ve got similar reservations about the conference itself (that $2,495 ticket price is just ridiculous), but I’m really curious how Uncov is going to evolve the more public their personae become. It’s kind of the fundamental quandary of any critic who gives a bad review to an artist he meets/knows in real life, albeit a million times worse since Uncov rarely gives a positive review of anything: how do you socialize and interact with the very same people you’ve been publicly slamming? And if you’re about to release your own product/work of art, how can you possibly avoid others attacking you in kind?
All I can say is: God bless these “Spare the Air” days. This is actually yesterday’s crop, since this morning I was too engrossed with Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone (due today at the library!) to do much surveying.
Mags: SmartMoney, The New Yorker, Newsweek
Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
We do book reviews too now! Sweet!!! So there were two main thoughts that occurred to me while I was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go:
It really is unfair how nearly every review of this book had to give away the secret to the story (they’re clones!) – this unspeakably lame review from The Village Voice pretty much gives up the whole plot in its opening line. I understand that you can still enjoy the book once you’ve been tipped off and the fools in marketing needed a hook, but I still lament the fact that because I’d accidentally read a review when the book first came out I wasn’t able to have the discovery process all to myself.
I wish I’d read The Remains of the Day first. I’m betting the narrators of both of these novels are pretty similar, and though Remains won the Booker prize I worry that if I go and read it now my experience with Never Let Me Go will ruin some of its freshness.
Overall, I admire Ishiguro for tackling such a sci-fi topic yet grounding it in a small, meticulous world. The voice of his female narrator (Kathy) is impressively authentic, though not being female I suppose I’m not fully qualified to judge. Ironically, that voice is why I both admired and felt distanced from the book – Kathy’s a well-drawn character, or at least her thoughts are; but those thoughts often seem cloying and small-minded, to the point where it’s hard to sympathize. Ruth (Kathy’s best friend and the other main female character in the book) is also drawn remarkably well, but demonstrates such selfish and manipulative qualities that again it’s hard to enjoy spending time with her.
What I enjoyed most was the simple yet quietly unnerving atmosphere the novel is set in. We realize we’re in a slightly parallel universe, with a few select sci-fi elements thrown in, but Ishiguro really does very little in the way of explaining how it all came to be – he uses that mystery and unsettling quality to craft a world where anything seems possible, yet the focus is always on his characters and how they’re immediately feeling.
Lastly, I thought I should just note that the paperback copy I read had the first cover shown above. When I’d finished the book and started reading reviews, though, I discovered that the original hardcover looked like the second picture, which I prefer a lot more – the doll-face on the paperback is certainly creepy, but I think the original does a better job of alluding to that entire creepy, isolated atmosphere.
So I checked out the Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker from the library, which will hopefully lead to more New Yorker stories being read. They’ve had a pretty decent lineup in the past few weeks (go here to check it out) but I haven’t found the time to stay caught up. I figured I’d start a new blog feature where I review each New Yorker story as I read it; this gives me regular material for the blog, lets me practice a more thoughtful style of writing and should inspire me to read more stories.
Last week’s story was “Shauntrelle” by Antonya Nelson. I’ve read a few other Nelson stories in the New Yorker, and they’re generally better than average. This one is about a middle-aged woman named Constance, who’s recently left her husband for a younger man. Unfortunately, the new man has turned out to be a total deadbeat and not worth the effort. In the aftermath of severing ties with her husband and estranging her daughter, she moves into a corporate housing complex and rooms with a rich, eccentric older woman who’s constantly getting plastic surgery and talks a mean blue streak.
Not a whole lot happens plot-wise, but Nelson renders some rich moments: her descriptions of corporate housing are spot on, reminding me of our corporate apartments in Tucson. She even includes the outdated answering machine messages and mystery callers asking for former occupants, just like the ghostly messages Casey and Ming got on their room phone. The story’s also got some surprisingly modern touches: Fanny Mann (the older woman) is from New Orleans and a refugee of Hurricane Katrina, and she’s constantly hunting around for a wi-fi signal with her laptop or screening calls on her cell.
Constance’s situation is explained adequately, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that this woman would call off her marriage before diagnosing her new man wasn’t going to hold up his end of the deal. Fanny’s best friend has contracted cancer and is on her deathbed in the hospital, but this plot point seems a little underutilized. The real pleasure in the story comes from Fanny’s dialogue and behavior – she’s described as being in her 60’s, yet she’s always there to crack a joke or goose the moment with a dirty thought. That risqué, over-sexualized grandmother character gets me every time.
I’ve gotta admit, I’m really curious how The Sopranos ended. And not having watched any of the series beyond its first three episodes, the dilemma is truly epic: should I just go ahead and find out what happened in the finale, or do I start from the beginning and pray that nobody spoils it before I reach the end? I’m pretty surprised it hasn’t happened yet, actually – I lay the odds at 50/50 that I’ll either hear or read about it within the next week.