Monday, March 11, 2013

4. Deep Water

By Patricia Highsmith

This was the most unpleasant Highsmith novel I’ve read so far, mostly due to its cold portrayal of a disintegrated marriage, and the author’s razor-sharp misanthropic gaze is unflinching as ever. Vic and Melinda Van Allen’s marriage isn’t just loveless, it is also utterly dysfunctional and destructive. Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but instead of Richard Burton as a raging alcoholic, the husband is a burgeoning sociopath hiding beneath a quiet, civilized façade.

Deep Water was one of Highsmith’s early novels. Published in 1957, it seemed ahead of its time in its depiction of a highly unconventional marriage arrangement. Rather than having a divorce (and perhaps admitting defeat), Vic allows his wife Melinda to see other men. But this is complicated by the fact that the couple lives in the suburban town of Little Wesley, so Vic bears the social implications of the cuckolded husband with his sexually loose wife.

The fact that Melinda had been carrying on like this for more than three years gave Vic the reputation in Little Wesley of having a saintlike patience and forbearance, which in turn flattered Vic’s ego. Vic knew that Horace and Phil Cowan and everybody else who knew the situation—which was nearly everybody—considered him odd for enduring it, but Vic didn’t mind at all being considered odd. In fact, he was proud of it in a country in which most people aimed at being exactly like everybody else. 

But matters are also complicated by the fact that Vic and Melinda, each nonconformist in their own right, are so different from one another.  Where Vic - despite his lack of emotion towards his wife - cares deeply for his daughter, Melinda seems downright indifferent towards her own flesh and blood.  Where Vic is educated and literate, Melinda is vulgar and has terrible taste in men.

He wouldn’t object to her having a man of some stature and self-respect, a man with some ideas in his head, as a lover, Vic thought. But he was afraid Melinda would never choose that kind or that that kind would never choose her. Vic could visualize a kind of charitable, fair-minded, civilized arrangement in which all three of them might be happy ad benefit from contact with one another. Dostoyevsky had known what he meant. Goethe might have understood, too. 

The problem is that Melinda keeps picking the wrong sort of man who rubs Vic the wrong way. And Vic keeps thwarting Melinda, even falsely admitting he murdered McRae, one of Melinda’s former lovers, to frighten off one of her current paramours. Melinda gets frustrated and becomes increasingly vindictive towards Vic by making him look increasingly foolish and emasculated in front their small circle of friends.  Soon, she begins seeing a common bar pianist:

… And the thought of Melinda dragging Charley to parties at the Cowans’ and the Mellers’—she hadn’t done it yet, but it was coming, he knew—the shame of endorsing socially a guttersnipe like Charley De Lisle seemed more than he could bear. And everybody would know that Melinda had picked up the first man she could find after the McRae story had exploded. Everybody would know now that he was disgusted and helpless to combat it, however indifferent he pretended to be, because obviously he had made an effort to hold off Melinda’s lovers by telling the story about McRae. 

As with the way of most Highsmith novels, a murder soon occurs. And like many of Highsmith’s novels, you always feel some measure of empathy towards the murderer. Part of it is because the murderer is so rational in his justification of murder, he really does comes across as superior to those around him, but mostly it’s because Highsmith put a lot of herself in the character of Victor Van Allen. Like Vic, the author took pride in her misanthropy and nonconformity. Murder, in Highsmith’s thinking, was probably the ultimate act of nonconformity.

Another interesting detail was that both author and character kept snails as pets. In any case, though I found it an interesting read, I was also relieved to finish the book -- it was so dark and unpleasant. But for Highsmith fans, I think Deep Water gives you a gleam of insight into the author’s personality via Vic’s internal thoughts. From what little I know of Highsmith’s bio, she was a difficult person to like and get along with. If you don’t think you’ll ever read this book, I’ll include the last bit of the ending, which is both telling and chilling:

Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on the earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type, or potentially his type, and thinking it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson’s grim, resentful, the-world-owes-me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small, dull mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.

 For once, I read an online book review after writing my own, and was delighted to find a similar interpretation in this particular review from The Independent.

Friday, March 01, 2013

3. Play It As It Lays

By Joan Didion

I’ve been wanting to read Play It As It Lays ever since I saw it in the Time 2005 list of Best 100 novels.  But after years of fruitless searching in used bookstores, I gave up and asked my brother to give me this as a birthday present a couple of years ago. Maybe it was all that build up, but now that I’ve finally read it, I have mixed feelings about it.  Perhaps it has to do with Didion’s ambivalent place in Hollywood during the 70’s and the question of “whether this novel is a sour kiss-off or an acid love letter.”

The above was quoted from the eloquent introduction by David Thomson, who obviously considered PIAIL a modern classic. Thomson also wondered how Didion could have predicted that “her scabrous novel would be relished by people who might have been models for its worst characters”.

…That is why, far more usefully than a book about the film business, this is also a wonderful opening up of the nature of film narrative and what the concentration on exteriors does in the way of Novocain-ing internal things. 

The Novocain-ing of internal things is a perfect description of the protagonist. Even her name, Maria Wyeth, sounds like it should be spoken in a whisper, lest some memory from the past gets disturbed.

Maria Wyeth is troubled in so many ways: she has lost her husband; another beloved is married to someone else; her daughter, Kate, is in a clinic with some imprecise disorder; Maria has not made it as an actress in a very competitive system; she does some drugs; she has an abortion; she sometimes lapses into a kind of comatose impassivity—an amoral life founded on the thought that “nothing applies.” 

The novel is stylistically and structurally interesting, as it vacillates back and forth between the first and third person of Maria Wyeth. In its form, the book is comprised of short non-linear vignettes. In film language, it would be structured in “a sequence of short takes, some seeming broken or cut short”. To complement the form, the writing is sparse and the length lean: only 213 pages in my paperback edition but “stretched out over areas of white space and unfilled pages—there’s space to soak up the tears, and we hear from others that Maria cries a lot…”

There was already a 1972 film adaptation starring Tuesday Weld, which I haven’t seen yet, but I can imagine the narrator speaking in a hushed Terence Malick-esque tone over plenty of driving scenes, either along LA freeways or the empty Nevada desert as the sun is setting.

Play It As It Lays was probably the perfect feminist existential novel for the seventies, as it was a bestseller when in was published in 1970. It doesn’t have the hell-bent path towards self-destruction as in Appointment in Samarra (another one of Time's Best 100 Novels), as the self-destruction of Maria Wyeth is much more subtle and elliptical, more like a slow and gradual emptying out of her core. It makes for beautiful writing, but not exactly pleasant reading.

I’m glad I finally had the chance to read this, but I’m also glad I’m not the sort of person who would relish this type of novel.

SHE HAD WATCHED THEM in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamp chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper, the early edition with the comics wrapped outside. They would be very pretty some of the time, their skirts the right length and their sunglasses the right tint and maybe only a little vulnerable tightness around the mouth, but there they were, one lamp chop and some cat food and the morning paper. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household, gallons of grapefruit juice, quarts of green chili salsa, dried lentils and alphabet noodles, rigatoni and canned yams, twenty-pound boxes of laundry detergent. She knew all the indices to the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

2. Rule of the Bone

By Russell Banks

I spotted this mildly dog-eared trade paperback on the giveaway shelf at work. I’ve heard of the author, mostly because of The Sweet Hereafter, but have never heard of Rule of the Bone, which is a bit of a shame, since being about a teenager growing up during the 1990’s, it would’ve been in my wheelhouse. The blurb made the novel sound like it would feature a cool, modern anti-hero, so I thought what the heck, let’s give this a whirl.

 Travel is good for you, I kept saying to myself, it broadens you and extends your horizons et cetera but way down deep I was wishing I was back in Plattsburgh in the schoolbus again, just another homeless northcountry mall rat dodging the cops and copping a J now and then and spare-changing my way from day to day until my mom finally saw the light and split from Ken so I could go home and grow up living with her as her son again. 

This quote near the end of the book pretty much sums up the entire storyline. Fourteen year old Chapman “Chappie” Dorset gets kicked out of his mom’s house after squandering his collectible coin inheritance to buy weed. The kid’s full of attitude, but unbeknownst to his mom, the reader discovers  later that he’s been abused by his stepfather, Ken. From then on, we follow Chappie on his many misadventures, including couch-surfing at his best friend Russ’ place who lives with the leader of the local biker gang called Adirondack Iron. An accidental fire destroys the crummy apartment and kills the biker, so Chappie and Russ run away from Au Sable and take refuge in a boarded up summer house in the Adirondacks.

At some point Chappie adopts the new name Bone, but he and Russ have a falling out, so Bone is left on his own. The first two thirds of the book was great, especially the part where Bone rescues a little girl named Froggy from the creep Buster Brown and then encounters an old Rastafarian dude named I-Man in an abandoned schoolbus. The three form an unlikely ad hoc family where they make the schoolbus their home and live quite self-sufficiently by dumpster-diving at the nearby supermarket and making healthy Ital meals with the barely spoilt fruits and vegetables they acquire.

Sadly, however, the novel seems to lose focus and momentum after Bone, on a spur of the moment, flies to Jamaica with I-Man and quickly ingratiates himself into the local drug trade. Not only that, somehow Bone also ends up spotting his long lost father in Montego Bay. They get along at first, but eventually his dad turns out to be fairly lame in that he doesn't serve much purpose as a character. He doesn't affect any change in Bone, and the only plot point he serves is to get I-Man killed because he screwed his girlfriend. I’m also left wondering how I-Man, who had such a sweet setup with his cannibus farm and reliable crew of dealers and traffickers, ended up destitute in upstate New York? Of course, Banks does not explore much of I-Man’s history.

Critics have made comparisons of this book to Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn. Sure, Banks sometimes tries a little too hard to make Bone the Holden Caulfield of the 1990’s. But I enjoyed reading this novel for the most part and found the character of Bone quite engaging and insightful. Banks did a good job being consistent with Bone’s voice and there was some really good writing there. It’s not going to go down in the annals of literature as a classic, but it was a pretty decent read.

Basically people don’t know how kids think, I guess they forget. But when you’re a kid it’s like you’re wearing these binoculars strapped to your eyes and you can’t see anything except what’s in the dead center of the lenses because you’re too scared of everything else or else you don’t understand it and people expect you to, so you feel stupid all the time. Mostly a lot of stuff just doesn’t get registered. You’re always fucking up and there’s a lot that you don’t even see that people expect you to see, like the time after my thirteenth birthday when my grandmother asked me if I got the ten dollars and the birthday card she sent me. I said to her I don’t know and she started dissing me to my mom and all. But it was true, I really didn’t know. And I wasn’t even into drugs then.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

1. Ramona The Pest

I can’t remember whether I finished reading Ramona The Pest before or after 2013, so I decided this would make a better first book of the year than Rule of the Bone.

This is the second book in the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary.  And yes indeed, Ramona Quimby is hilarious and adorable. I love reading about her antics, but not sure if I would be able to handle having a daughter like her once mine reaches kindergarten age.

 I know Conan would prefer a Ramona Q. but I think I’d be much happier (and saner) with a Beezus!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Year End Wrapper Upper

It is actually February 10th as I write this.  All I can say is... 26 books - not bad for a new parent!

I was my closest ever to 50 books the previous year.  And I really don't think I'll have a chance in a long long long long time to even come close to 41 books again.  But never say never.

2012 saw a wide variety of fiction (from upbeat to depressing to downright disturbing) and non-fiction, though the latter was comprised mainly of pregnancy and birthing books.  There will be a few child-rearing type books this year, but I would love to continue exploring a diverse range of fiction again. 

My output has definitely slowed, even though I'm on mat leave, it is no surprise what a time-consuming task this baby raising thing is.  But I'm finding time, whether it's taking a brief soak in the tub or just before going to sleep, even a couple of pages a day is something!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

26. My Friend Dahmer

By Derf Backderf

I don’t think I had ended up posting about having read the Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen, which I read last year (I think). Both GRK and My Friend Dahmer were loans courtesy of DS. Not counting From Hell, this is the second graphic novel I’ve read about modern day serial killers.

Obviously, comics about notorious serial killers have to tread carefully with utmost sensitivity for such a gruesome subject. It helps to have a personal connection, like how Jensen’s father was one of the lead detectives investigating the Green River Killer case that lead to the (very) eventual capture of Gary Ridgway, and how Backderf was a high school classmate and one-time “friend” of Jeffrey Dahmer. It also helps that both these comics were well-researched, well-written and nicely illustrated – gripping without being too sensational, and thoughtful without being too indulgently maudlin.

Both comics make a point of exploring how Ridgway and Dahmer tried to stop or control their dark compulsions. Ridgway would put rocks inside his victims bodies so he would not be compelled to go back to their corpses. Dahmer became a hardcore alcoholic by the time he graduated from high school in a desperate effort to dull his increasingly powerful urges. This is not to excuse their crimes but more to provide some modicum of humanity as Ridgway and Dahmer struggle vainly to battle their own monsters.

 Like most people, I’m mildly fascinated about serial killers. It’s not just about the horrific crimes they committed, but because I’m so freaking normal, I can’t help but wonder how they got that way. My Friend Dahmer makes a notable attempt to understand how a sad and lonely teenager who grew up in a bucolic 1970’s suburb became one of the most infamous serial killers in history. And frankly, Backderf’s graphic novel satisfied this morbid fascination of mine.

Friday, November 30, 2012

25. Beast In View

By Margaret Millar

I was following a yoga video while Olman was bathing the baby when all of a sudden there was a loud boom and then everything was plunged into darkness.

My eyes were immediately drawn outside the window where just across the street a bright shower of sparks rained down from above like fireworks. Oil splattered on our poor neighbour’s black Audi. Turns out that the transformer across our building blew up. Perfect timing too, since this was the first cold night of winter (I think it was supposed to drop down to -15 C)!

The reason why I mention this event was because I finished reading Beast In View by candlelight. It turned out to be a cozy evening where we went out for dinner (shared a steak at Burger De Ville) and came home to read since there’s not much you can do sans electricité. Beast In View was a great read, even though I probably did not love it as much as Olman did.

It was Olman who happened to borrow this book for me when he was at La Bibliotheque Nationale. Since I’m a newish parent, I’ll let Olman’s review speak for me as well. But in a nutshell, the book starts off with a very intriguing mystery:  wealthy spinster, Helen Clarvoe, receives a prank call one day that impels her to hire an investigator. The story then evolves into a twisted tale full about a deeply dysfunctional family and the psychological (and homicidal!) ramifications that can bring.

… Then Miss Clarvoe stretched out her hand and Blackshear took it. 
    Her skin was cool and dry and stiff like parchment, and there was no pressure of friendliness, or even of interest, in her clasp. She shook hands because she’d been brought up to shake hands as a gesture of politeness. Blackshear felt that she disliked the personal contact. Skin on skin offended her; she was a private person. The private I, Blackshear thought, always looking through a single keyhole.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

24. Beezus and Ramona

By Beverly Cleary

It’s probably a little bit ironic that I chose the name Ramona for my baby daughter, yet I have not read any of the Beverly Cleary books when I was growing up. Though I was quite aware of their existence, somehow I just missed out on them. Guess I needed someone to push these onto me, which never happened. Well, soon after Ramona was born, Olman’s Aunt V sent us a package that contained the first two Beezus and Ramona books.

Unfortunately, the first book had the cover from the 2010 movie, and since I’d rather not have to look at Selena Gomez, I replaced it with the book you see here (only $2 from BMV when I was in TO last – love that store!).

In any case, the first book turned out to be delightfully charming and sweet. It’s the perfect book for any girl (or boy) who has a sister, or ever wondered what it might be like to grow up with one. I’m looking forward to the day when I can read them to Ramona when she’s a little older.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

23. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

By Alan Bradley

 I had acquired the first two Flavia De Luce books based on the assumption that I would be into the whole series. However, I was lukewarm about the first book, The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie, so it took me a while to read the second one.

Though I enjoyed it, more or less, as much as the first, I was still lukewarm about Alan Bradley’s creation. Like the Harry Potter books, it’s just not my thing. It’s just a little too cutesy for my liking. Or trying just a little too hard to create a charmingly eccentric and precocious young heroine who talks like an old English gentleman.

Basically, I found the second book to have the same flaws as the first.  Worse, I didn’t really care too much about the characters, nor was I dying of curiosity to find out the who, how, why and what of the plot development. At the best of times, I was only mildly intrigued.

Part of it is because the novel was rather long, about 343 pages, and the plot took a while to really get going, spending too much time in the setup. By the time the murder finally occurs, we’re almost halfway through the story at page 147. Sadly, I’m putting this my giveaway/trade pile, but thankfully this is one series I need not invest my time in, as I can read other books I’m more enthusiastic about, such as the next three Patrick O’Brian installments in my on-deck shelf!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

22. Last Exit To Brooklyn

By Hubert Selby, Jr.

This was my first Hubert Selby Jr book and, man, it was pretty intense. I watched the 1989 film many years ago so had a good idea of the subject matter I’d be encountering. Still, it has taken me several months to finish reading Last Exit To Brooklyn as I'd read bits of it at a time when in between other novels (and pregnancy books!). There was only so much I can take looking inside the wretched lives of lower class Brooklynites in the 1950’s.

Each of the six chapters focuses on a character and their personal turmoil with usually the same recurring characters in each story. The Queen Is Dead section featured the most pathetic portrayal of unrequited love I have ever read. Georgette, a transvestite hooker so lacking in self-awareness and introspection, that her irrational longing for macho douchebag Vinnie and her child-like internal monologue made me think of her as an adolescent chimpanzee.

The most notorious story of all was probably Tralala, in which the title character, a foul-mouthed prostitute and thief, falls into a self-destructive bender and voluntarily gets gang-raped. This was without doubt the most intense portrayal of pure, unadulterated female rage and self-hatred I have ever encountered.

And then there was Strike. All the characters in Last Exit to Brooklyn so far have been pathetic, unlikable losers in their own way, but Harry, a closeted homosexual and wife-beater, really took the cake. As a barely competent machinist and union rep, he gained temporary status and importance when his factory went on a several months long strike. I found him to be the most detestable creature in LEtB, a real nasty piece of work. The only bright side to Harry’s chapter was that it featured some of the more darkly funny passages in the book:

His stomach knotted, a slight nausea starting. He went into the living room. Mary dressed the baby and put him in the crib. Harry heard her jostling the crib. Heard the baby sucking on his bottle. The muscles and nerves of Harrys body twisted and vibrated. He wished to krist he could take the sounds and shove them up her ass. Take the goddamn kid and jam it back up her snatch.


All of the characters lacked any shred of insight into their own interior lives (let alone other people’s) that you wondered if they even had a soul. That and Selby’s unique stream-of-consciousness style made me think of the first-person narration of an adolescent chimpanzee from Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. I guess Selby had this exact thing in mind when he wrote Landsend where a group of women on a bench were giggling and grooming each other, actually looking for nits in each other’s hair!

Last Exit To Brooklyn was not exactly a pleasant trip, and it won't be easy to forget its raw, emotional energy.