Thursday, July 20, 2006

Anne Tyler's
Back When
We Were Grownups

Rebecca Davitch loves her family, she loves her business and she loves her town but after thirty-three years of being dependable and entertaining she is wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t married Joe Davitch.

When Rebecca met Joe he was exciting, a true grownup whose wife had left him with three small daughters and a business organizing parties in their big, old house. When Joe Davitch entered her life, she was a studious, quiet girl who already had a boyfriend named Will. Joe came into her life and swept her off her feet and into the role of instant stepmother and party host.

Now at Fifty-three years-old, Rebecca looks back over her life. Joe died just six years into their marriage leaving her with the sole control of three stepdaughters and one biological daughter all pining for their father and continual family conflicts and challenges. The house needs continual repair, plaster falls from the ceiling at an alarming rate, Uncle Poppy, Rebecca’s ninety-nine year-old uncle-in-law who lives on the top floor is obsessed with his forthcoming 100th birthday party and Min Foo (aka Minerva) Rebecca and Joe’s daughter is just about to give birth to her third child from her third "exotic" marriage.

Against this backdrop Rebecca starts to wonder what would have happened if she had never met Joe and decides to contact Will, her old boyfriend, with interesting results.

Throughout Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler keeps her brilliant humor as she gives us quirky, slightly offbeat characters surrounded by chaos, trying to make it while sliding downhill all the time. This work is all about the choices we make and the big "What IFS" we all experience in life.

The Collected Tales and Poems
of Edgar Allan Poe

Inside Flap Copy: Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most original writers in the history of American letters, a genius who was tragically misunderstood in his lifetime. He was a seminal figure in the development of science fiction and the detective story, and exerted a great influence on Dostoyevsky, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and Charles Baudelaire, who championed him long before Poe was appreciated in his own country. Baudelaire's enthusiasm brought Poe a wide audience in Europe, and his writing came to have enormous importance for modern French literature. This edition includes his most well-known works--"The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Annabel Lee," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"--as well as less-familiar stories, poems, and essays.

The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, which also includes humorous pieces ('The Devil in the Belfry' is a hilarious tribute to the father of American literature, Washington Irving), detective fiction (Irving's 1838 story-cycle 'The Money-Diggers' stirs fluidly beneath 'The Gold Bug'), and early examples of what would come to be known as science fiction, brings together most of the author's important work.

I never realized until reading this volume of Poe's works how funny and witty he could be. He is as good of a comedy writer as he is a horror-story writer. In fact, I have come to like his humorous writings more than I like his horror writing.

This collection is a must for Poe fans.
Cristina Garcia's
Dreaming in Cuban

From Library Journal: Garcia's first novel is about Cuba, her native country, and three generations of del Pino women who are seeking spiritual homes for their passionate, often troubled souls. Celia del Pino and her descendants also share clairvoyant and visionary powers that somehow remain undiminished, despite the Cuban revolution and its profound effect upon their lives. This dichotomy suffuses their lives with a potent mixture of superstition, politics, and surrealistic charm that gives the novel an otherworldly atmosphere. Garcia juggles these opposing life forces like a skilled magician accustomed to tossing into the air fiery objects that would explode if they came into contact. Writing experimentally in a variety of forms, she combines narratives, love letters, and monologs to portray the del Pinos as they move back and forth through time. Garcia tells their story with an economy of words and a rich, tropical imagery, setting a brisk but comfortable pace.

This is truly an unforgettable book. I could feel the ocean breezes as I read Garcia's descriptive illustrations of the life of Celia, the grandmother; her daughters, Felicia and Lourdes; and Lourdes' own daughter, Pilar. There is violence, murder, passion, birth and death in this book, but all told as one reviewer put it "in a sort of lyrical mist, so that the reader feels the torpid heat of the Cuban day, the gentle warmth of the sea, and the breezes that stir the palms." While beautifully written, this novel provides a little bit of understanding of this small nation-island.

Monday, July 10, 2006

George Orwell's
Animal Farm

Although Orwell aims his satire at totalitarianism in all of its external appearances — communism, fascism, and capitalism, Animal Farm
owes its structure largely to the events of the Russian Revolution as they unfolded between 1917 and 1944, when Orwell was writing the novella. Much of what happens in the novella symbolically parallels specific developments in the history of Russian communism, and several of the animal characters are based on either real participants in the Russian Revolution or a mixture thereof. Due to the universal relevance of the novella’s themes, once doesn't need to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Marxist Leninism or Russian history in order to appreciate Orwell’s satire of them. However, an acquaintance with certain facts from Russia’s past, however, can be helpful in understand the Orwell's criticism.

Animal Farm, known at the beginning and the end of the novel as the Manor Farm, symbolizes Russia and the Soviet Union under Communist Party rule. But more generally, Animal Farm stands for any human society, be it capitalist, socialist, fascist, or communist. It possesses the internal structure of a nation, with a government (the pigs), a police force or army (the dogs), a working class (the other animals), and state holidays and rituals. Its location amid a number of hostile neighboring farms supports its symbolism as a political entity with diplomatic concerns.

I found the novel to be quite simple, actually which is probably why it has been a required read for high-school students. Themes contained within the novel are easy to identify, such as, the corruption of socialist ideals in the Soviet Union, the societal tendency toward class stratification, the danger of a naïve working class, and the abuse of language as instrumental to the abuse of power.

Animal Farm is filled with songs, poems, and slogans to serve as propaganda, one of the major conduits of social control. By making the working-class animals speak the same words at the same time, the pigs evoke an atmosphere of grandeur and nobility associated with the recited text’s subject matter. The songs also erode the animals’ sense of individuality and keep them focused on the tasks by which they will purportedly achieve freedom.

The last chapter of
Animal Farm brings the novel to its logical, unavoidable, yet chilling conclusion. The pigs wholly consolidate their power and their totalitarian, communist dictatorship completely overwhelms the democratic-socialist ideal of Animal Farm. Napoleon and the other pigs who have taken control have become identical to the human farmers they had overthrown, just as Stalin and the Russian communists eventually became indistinguishable from the aristocrats whom they had replaced and the Western capitalists whom they had denounced.

Cormac McCarthy's
All the Pretty Horses

McCarthy is most probably the greatest writer of Western novels in American history, to such a degree that his novels also transcend the "Western" genre. He may write in the tradition of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, but he is certainly also an heir to America's towering literary geniuses, such as William Faulkner--from whom McCarthy learned his long, flowing sentences--and Ernest Hemingway, whose attitudes of heroic stoicism and quiet romanticism pervade McCarthy's prose.

McCarthy's great epic Border Trilogy--whose first novel, All the Pretty Horses, has become McCarthy's most famous--tells the story of cowboys in the middle of the twentieth century, men who pursue a romantic Western idea that has vanished and turned from history into myth. McCarthy writes about the dark and unseen side of the Western idea: you will read in McCarthy's novels what you will never see in most Western movies, stories about tragedy, cruelty, and blood without a heroic or redemptive ending. The irony of All the Pretty Horses is that it exposes characters desperately trying to inhabit the cowboy myth--to subscribe to the cowboy code of stoicism, understated nobility and great physical skill--in the realities of exploration in a savage and uncivilized land. What emerges is a picture of what the West might really have been, together with a picture of the human spirit under awesome moral pressure.
William Trevor's
The Collected Stories

This 1280-page compilation contain tales from Trevor's seven highly acclaimed short-story collections which tell of life in rural Ireland, as well as four that have never appeared in paperback form in America.

One reviewer sums his works up perfectly: No one weaves a tale as fine as William Trevor. His ability to place the reader into the hearts and souls of his characters is nothing short of remarkable. His stories do not focus on plot but rather on human emotion. They center on ordinary circumstances with extraordinary consequences. From the young schoolgirl with a crush on her teacher, to the betrayed wife, to the obese lonely man longing for love, Trevor covers a wide variety of people who are besieged with despair and striving for purpose.

I didn't read these in any particular order, and it took me a long time to make my way through these 85 stories, but it was definitely worth the time I spent with them. Trevor's prose is simple and clear, yet the detail and variety of characters and plots are brilliantly captured .

Most of these stories deal with Irish and English characters, and many revolve around the realities or possibilities of extramarital affairs. "In Isfahan," one of Trevor's best stories, a married middle-aged man carries on an unintended affair with a young woman he meets while in Iran; in "Lovers of Their Time," another excellent story, a married man carries on a long-term affair with a shop girl by meeting her in a hotel's second-floor public bathroom. Trevor is also quite adept of presenting the romantic yearnings of women. In "The Ballroom of Romance," a country girl's dreams and consequences are highlighted in her trips to the local dance hall; in "Afternoon Dancing," a middle-aged married woman dallies with the idea of an affair with her dance partner after the death of her close friend. Like Chekhov, to whom Trevor is often compared, this writer also has an admirable sense of comedy. "Mulvhill's Memorial" finds an unlikely pornographic set-up within an office; "The Trinity" has a couple booking a vacation to Venice and ending up in Switzerland. Accidents spiral out of control in "The Penthouse Apartment," and in "A Complicated Nature," a man is forced to help his upstairs neighbor when her suitor unexpectedly dies. Another one of the best stories of this collection is "Broken Homes," where an elderly woman suffers the indignities of having her kitchen painted by a team of indifferent youths. Other first-rate stories include "The Smoke Trees of San Pietro," where a boy's sickness propels his mother into an affair, and "Death in Jerusalem" where a mother dies while on vacation.
Switch Bitch
by Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch is a collection of four well-plotted, and often surprising adult tales written by master storyteller, Roald Dahl. I wish Dahl would have written more stories for the adult reader.

One critic writes: "Mr. Dahl's stories are stories to be read. That is, read on a dark night, with a strong drink close at hand, by the light of a single reading lamp.... Then you get the full effect. Yes, these stories are chilling and bizarre and simply wonderful. "

And I have to agree. Roald Dahl could easily be the best ever writer of 'twist in the tale' short stories.

The first story, "The Visitor," introduces us to Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, noted seducer extraordinaire. It's a story-within-a-story that begins as the narrator explains how he came to inherit all 28 volumes of his uncle's memoirs. After inheriting his long-absent uncle's books, the narrator reads through them all and desperately wants them to be published and shared with the world. Unfortunately the books contain many salacious details, including the names of many (married) woman that Oswald slept with and whose husbands would not find such a scandal appealing. I won't spoil it and tell you what happens, but it gets quite complicated (and very amusing). The "saga" continues in the final story, "Bitch".

In "The Great Switcheroo," Vic lusts after Samantha, the wife of his best friend and neighbor Jerry. Samantha is a faithful woman, though, and Vic knows he stands no chance of seducing her. So he concocts a plan that will allow him and Jerry to switch wives for an evening without the women knowing it. Again, I won't give it away but things don't work out quite as Vic has expected.

"The Last Act" is not a nice story, but life isn't always nice and tidy now, is it? When Anna Cooper finds out that her beloved husband Ed has been killed in a car accident, it nearly drives her crazy and she doesn't want to live without him.

Both "The Great Switcheroo" and "The Last Act" illustrate the power of desire that is a double-edged sword, both pleasurable and potentially catastrophic.