Review Redux 11-23-09

Davis There’s little better in a bibliophile’s life than a ramblingly brilliant New York Review of Books piece that takes a page or two (or even three) to finally get around to the book under consideration. Sometimes, as in this instance, there’s a personal connection between reviewer and writer that enriches the review voluptuously. Paula Fox’s piece on L.J. Davis’ A Meaningful Life is not only a perfect example but just plain perfect. After sumptuous anecdotes drawn mostly from her own life but intersecting the author’s at points, Fox finally turns to him full-on:

“L.J. is a serious comic writer. His novels mingle Groucho Marx, a bit of Noël Coward, and some Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser, for those who have forgotten or never known him, is grim, grim. I add to the mix Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Voyage to the End of the Night), a masterpiece of loathing. Davis is not only serious, he is stern. Life is a hard business that we need to think about. But all our thought doesn’t keep it from being outrageously grotesque, unsuccessful, ridiculous. If I may bring in another illustration, he is like a novel-writing Buster Keaton.”

As for the title ostensibly under review, there’s this distinct description of the protagonist:

“Lowell Lake is the protagonist of A Meaningful Life. Although poor, he managed to get hold of enough money to attend Stanford, where he met his Flatbush-born wife. She, after graduation, wished to live in Berkeley, he, a westerner, in New York. Lowell had thought he would drive a cab and write. (Before that he had wanted to be a cowboy.) ‘Great!’ Betty had said.”

There’s much more, so click on over and savor it all for yourself. Meanwhile, Davis’ novel ascends a dozen steps or so on my to-be-read stack.

LivelyThe Washington Post has an amusing piece on Family Album, Penelope Lively’s latest, which Ron Charles apparently sort-of-liked but couldn’t bring himself to endorse entirely. Although he notes:

“… as the holidays approach, this might be just the novel to inoculate yourself against all the maniacal gaiety of the season. As one character notes, ‘Any family is intriguing, if you look closely.’ Lively knows that the way families avoid looking closely is intriguing, too.”

Besides, “the success of these chapters is uneven, but several of them are brilliant, full of glancing humor and spot-on truths about the way families maintain the peace through a process of willful ignorance and disciplined forgetfulness.”

Marias Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow and Farewell is the final installment of Javier Marías’ three-part epic. James Lasdun, reviewing it for the Guardian, couldn’t be more thrilled:

“… with this triumphant finale—the longest and best of all three—it becomes impossible to resist the thought that this deeply strange creation, with its utterly sui generis methods, its brilliant disquisitions on love and loss, its dark playfulness, may very well be the first authentic literary masterpiece of the 21st century.

Lasdun is a realist, too. He notes it wasn’t until the second volume, Dance and Dream, that he was able to find sufficient purchase in the story:

“I should say that it took me a while to succumb to its charms. There isn’t much of the instantly gratifying, high-gloss surface detail by which novels in the more empirical Anglo-American tradition ingratiate themselves with their readers.”

So, no ingratiation, got that? Good. Also, fortitude is needed, maybe even dogged determination: “A little patience, in other words, is required of the reader, but it is amply rewarded. By the second volume all cylinders in its large and powerful engines are purring smoothly.”

I may not be up for this book nor the entire trilogy, but Lasdun’s review delighted.

Bell I can’t recall a time when the oxymoronic Civil War wasn’t providing fodder for fiction. In recent memory, there have been titles from E.L. Doctorow, Russell Banks, Geraldine Brooks, and Charles Frazier. Now comes Madison Smartt Bell’s complex novel Devil’s Dream, focused on Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest but narrated by Henri, a Creole who joins Forrest’s forces.  His is the moral center of the book “which is a recoiling horror at the carnage of war.” The New York Times‘ Brenda Wineapple goes on to explain how

“hardscrabble Forrest emerges as a cog in a larger machine, a creature of a world he didn’t make, though complicit, to be sure, in its moral failures. North and South, ‘they’re in it right up to the neck with the rest of us,’ Forrest insists, speaking of slavery. For him, there’s no righteous high ground. ‘You don’t have to be a slave to think like one,’ he tells his wife. ‘Make yore ownself free,’ he tells his black son. But Madison Smartt Bell knows that such advice makes little sense to anyone wearing leg irons, that slavery didn’t end without unthinkable violence. And so, unlike Forrest, he whistles his devil’s dream to a different, more gripping, far more human tune.”

Hamilton In 31 Hours, Masha Hamilton paints a portrait of a home-grown terrorist about to embark on the one and only act that will define his life and death. The Washington Post praises the novel for balancing compassion with a clear-eyed look at the repercussions of one young man’s desperate mission:

“Sensitive, lonely and full of the anger and doubt many young people feel, Jonas seems in Hamilton’s hands not a stranger, not an
impenetrable figure of dread whose behavior is beyond our understanding, but the ordinary, fragile child of ordinary, fragile people. You don’t exactly want to look at the story of what happens to Jonas, but Hamilton has made it very hard to tear your gaze away”

Meyers Kent Meyers’ Twisted Tree has my name all over it, as a former barrel-racer myself—albeit in the Panama Canal Zone, and in the last century. By the New York Times’ reckoning, however, it’s more than just a Western:

“Twisted Tree, Kent Meyers’ fictional small town, is in rodeo country, somewhere on the eastern perimeter of the Black Hills in South Dakota, where the ‘creased and broken’ land is vast and veined by dirt roads. Drive past ranches and mud lakes and bone-filled buffalo jumps and you’ll spot the local bar, Ruination. The town’s inhabitants are still deeply haunted by the massacre at nearby Wounded Knee, and now, in Meyers’s impressive third novel, their grieving continues with the disappearance of Hayley Jo Zimmerman, a onetime barrel racing champion and one of the town’s young daughters.”

There is plenty of darkness to be had here, but also rich veins of black humor:

“People and objects disappear and reappear for different purposes—including that big blue Lincoln Continental. It’s a dirty, haunted
shell by the time Leonard Sends For Him, a quietly noble Lakota man,
purchases it. Leonard ‘is a kind of heyoka‘ (in
Lakota culture, a sacred trickster or jester endowed with a special
purpose). When Leonard parks the Continental on a frozen stretch of
Lostman’s Lake, to ice fish, the ice buckles and he maroons the car. A
festive community forms around Leonard’s mistake. People gather at the
lake ‘roasting hot dogs on sticks, eating Indian tacos and drinking
Budweiser,’ betting on when the car will drop. A tradition even comes
of it; that’s ‘how half the Indians in Twisted Tree came to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.’”

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3 Comments to Review Redux 11-23-09

  1. November 24, 2009 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    as a former barrel-racer myself—albeit in the Panama Canal Zone, and in the last century…Say what? This, as they say, must be a whole ‘nuther story, which I’d like to hear sometime!
    And A Meaningful Life does sound fine.

  2. Sean Long's Gravatar Sean Long
    November 24, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Alas, so many good books out right now and not enough coin. All I can say is that the Orange County Library better have Devil’s Dream. And speaking of Bell, I know the Haitian trilogy is classic, but I love his first book most, Soldier’s Joy.

  3. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    November 25, 2009 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Chazz, I consistently came in third whether I was riding Tex (Panamanian pony) or Savage (an almost quarter horse off the track who did NOT appreciate the drill). High-Boy was blind in one eye so he was off the hook.

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