Lit Up : M. L. Stedman – “The Light Between Oceans”; Anthony Doerr – “All the Light We Cannot See”

ABOVE: “I’m going to show you my lighthouse. Yeah, that’s my name for it.”

A lighthouse in post-WW1 Australia provides the picturesque excuse for M. L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans.” Now, this is a very pretty romance, for the most part; a Nicholas Sparks pot-boiler solemnized by history and setting. The premise is genuinely good: Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife, Isabel, are still mourning over her inability to bear a pregnancy to term. They stumble upon a dying man and a baby, presumable the dying man’s daughter. The couple then makes an ethically questionable choice that is justified by their grief and their location: they keep the baby and raise it as their own.

The baby, of course, belongs to a family that knows as much about grief and loss as the couple.

The first two thirds are absorbing: lyrical language, sympathetic characters, enough Aussie-ness to make the foreign reader feel like they’re getting their educational worth…That will do for most readers. But the resolution disappointed me.

SPOILERS:

A tear-jerker should accept its intentions. Even at their little-girl-killing worst, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens had the courage of their convictions. But “The Light Between Oceans” half-asses its tear-jerking. We’re promised melodrama of nearly operatic power. Instead, we get a climax that is nearly undone by a triple set of flaws.

First: An element is introduced for cheap suspense- and it does not pay off. (It is hinted again and again that Australia’s wild life, in particular snakes-in-Eden and scorpions, will bring about a deadly denouement. They don’t, and it pisses off the Anton Chekhov in me.)

ABOVE: They even put the frikkin scorpion in the cover!

Second: The potentially horrifying climax is built upon the frustrating, clichéd, ridiculous contrivance of people refusing to tell a simple truth out of proud reticence EVEN IF IT MEANS KILLING SOMEONE THEY LOVE.

Third: Let’s say we accept the melodrama and we’re biting our fingernails over it. I half did! But THEN- it all comes to naught. Without further spoiling: imagine if a novel’s final act was about how a husband refused to give his wife an alibi because he was upset about a cold soup, so he puts her in a position to be given the death sentence- and then a judge was like: “Eh, let’s give her two months community service instead. Oh, and the couple should make up.” VERY DEFLATING.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH


“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.
—Joseph Goebbels”

ABOVE: All the poetry we cannot grasp

Anthony Doerr’s WWII novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” ticks off any number of crowd-pleasing melodramatic tropes on its way to some eventual Oscar-bait cinematic adaptation two or three years down the line. Pulitzer prize winners have rarely been this mild and conservative, (“Did you know that Nazis suck?” might very well be its most provocative statement.) I’m a sucker for this stuff, (how can I resist the fact that Marie Laure, a blind French girl, is a Braille-reading fan of both Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas?). But I’m hating on it because nearly universal praise should always be punctured a little.  Doerr can endure my insignificant hate. This IS a lovely novel, a delicate novel, but surely these are times when Pulitzer prizes should go to sturdier stuff, not to lovely and delicate novels about little blind French girls and sweet German boys forced into the horrors of war!  (The National Book Award did indeed go to “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, which caused an uproar among the very, very small circle of people who care about such things.) “All The Light we Cannot See” is a very conventional, respectable novel, is what I’m saying. But, I mean. WWII? Again? It’s kind of playing it  safe, isn’t it?

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

 

 

 

 

Haitian Butterfly : M. Ketsia Theodore-Pharel – “Rope”

“Everywhere in the world, the roving Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit, indifferent to all risks. He drops anchor at random.”- Giaccomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” as quoted on the liner notes to Weezer’s “Pinkerton.”

The tale of the invading Yank who impregnates the naïve native only to abandon her to the painful consequences goes back much farther than Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” It is, after all, a stark symbol of colonialism’s callous penetration made palatable by the operatic melodrama. It’s a story that can inspire both Boublil and Schomberg’s “Miss Saigon” and Weezer’s “Pinkerton”; it lends itself to revisiting and re-setting.

M. Ketsia Theodore-Pharel’s “Rope” takes the basic “Butterfly” concept and sets it not in the East, but much closer to American shores: Haiti in the 20s and 40s. It’s useful to know that in 1915, U.S. Marines occupied Port-Au-Prince in efforts to a) punish the popular lynching of U.S.-friendly dictator Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, b) protect the interests of the Haitian-American Sugar Company and c) keep the dreaded Imperial Huns’ supposed claws out of the Caribbean, roughly in that order.

Colvin Donner is one of those Marines, a rapist and an expert tracker whose grand achievement is to take care of the hanging of Chango Champagne Pepla, a legendary rebel “caco.” The hanging takes place with the novel’s titular rope, one that holds a curse which changes Colvin’s life, and leads him, curiously enough, to evangelism. Cut to 1945: that rope ties together the lives of Colvin; his son, Robert Donner; and the “Butterfly” of this tale, Moiselle, a girl who, like many before and after, believes that marrying a foreigner is the only ticket out of a limited Third World life.

Haiti’s society of the period is envisioned vibrantly: this is a locale where seemingly strict racial and class lines are frequently crossed; so are the lines between the mundane and the magical. The action scenes in “Rope” are as brutal as the romance between Donner and Moiselle is tender, (but is it a plot spoiler to mention it is doomed?) One only wishes Theodore-Pharel had provided more context to fill in the historical background; a certain familiarity with Haiti is assumed, and those who don’t necessarily know a lot about that country’s history beyond Toussaint Louverture and Papa Doc Duvalier (guilty!) might feel compelled to seek additional info elsewhere. It doesn’t matter: abundant plot twists (and knots) will entertain the rest, as the novel unfolds to its sequel-setting conclusion. “Rope” appears to be the first in a purported “Grace Donner” trilogy.

RATING: COOL!

 

Blurbin’ : Phony McFakename – “Fast Breaks” and “Best Sellers”

Fastbreaks

Weirdly, I’ve been on quite a few Acknowledgment pages so far. It comes with having talented, writerly friends. Up to now I felt like it was a conflict of interest to review those books (I’m IN them, darn it!) so I’d abstained, but I’ve decided to come around on that policy. After all, I read books, I review books, someone thought kindly enough of me  to put me in there – why not talk about the books?

Why not blurb?

I mean, you DO realize that all those lines of praise snaking around the front and back of books were written by the author’s buddies? That most of them didn’t even read the book before pronouncing it “a rip-roaring roller-coaster thrill-ride!  A sensational tsunami of suspense! A violent burst of volcanic vocabulary power!”

But you blurb, because you do want to get the word out about the friend’s efforts. But then you’re caught in the trap.What if the book sucks? If you give the book a positive review, you look like a fraud, flattering your friend. If you give the book a negative review, then that friend ain’t gonna be so friendly anymore.

It’s a lot of pressure!

Luckily, my friend, by the pseudonym of Phony McFakename, has written two really funny books in a row and neither sucks. I read “Fast Breaks” and “Best Sellers” on my iPhone while taking long walks and I must have looked all sorts of idiotic as I cracked up continuously, and if I did not literally roll on the floor laughing, that’s because I was outside, and the “floor” was the sidewalk, and the sidewalk was not very attractive from a hygienic point of view.

Literary humor is such a rare elusive beast. Honestly, once you tick off your Mark Twains, your P. G. Wodehouses, your Robert Benchleys, suddenly you’re down to Dave Barrys. Who’s the humor writer of the 2010s? We do have Christopher Moore. But it feels like fewer and fewer writers set out to create laughs on the page (humor is doing just fine in other media.) This is partly why “Fast Breaks” is such a joy; it doesn’t hurt that McFakename and I share similar senses of humor, so I was very much the demographic. The book compiles McFakename’s humorous flash fiction, and includes a series of light-hearted, surreal vignettes, as well as longer pieces – and even a zombie love story (zombies seem to be McFakename’s metier.)

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“Best Sellers,” an even more accomplished piece, uses a hilariously deranged narrative framework to skewer and parody pretty much every literary “phenomenon” that has plagued the New York Times best-seller list within recent memory. What I’m gonna do is let you glimpse the table of contents, and let me assure you, McFakename delivers in every instance:

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(I laughed particularly hard at “Important Literary Fiction Story,” which knocks good old targets like Jonathan Franzen down a peg or two.)

In any case, I thought I would make things easy by coming up with two blurbs, so that no one has to scramble through the post to gather one of those crudely assembled Frankenstein quotes that go like:

“I laughed…(this is an) important literary…story. Good… like Johathan Franzen.”– The Pageaholic.

So here they are:

“‘Fast Breaks’ is a fast read that goes right for your funny bone and isn’t afraid to break it.”

“‘Best Sellers’ reads like a tornado passed through your local Barnes and Noble, except that tornadoes aren’t this quotable, and aren’t likely to cause howls of laughter.”

“Fast Breaks” can be purchased at Amazon.com, and “Best Sellers” is on its way.

Dispirited St. Louis : Jonathan Franzen – “The Twenty-Seventh City”

I’ve never been to St. Louis and have no intention of meeting anyone there. As a self-diagnosed agoraphobic, when I see touristy views of the St. Louis Arch I find them not only unattractive but downright perverse. “The Twenty-Seventh City,” Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel,  is a paean of sorts to St. Louis- but a conflicted one, and  one I don’t see the Tourism Board recommending.

gateway-arch-st-louis

ABOVE: No, thanks, I’ll pass.

In Franzen’s eyes, St. Louis slipped from its 1870s zenith as America’s 4th city, (and hey, there WAS  that 1904 World’s Fair that Judy Garland was all crazy about) to its unofficial 1984 status as “America’s 27th City.” The political drama of St. Louis stems from the subtle takeover of the city by a female (Asian) Indian police chief named S. Jammu, and in particular her intricate attempts to destroy the Probst family: Martin, the architectural force behind the St. Louis Arch (we’re told); his wife Barbara, who ends up kidnapped in a bizarrely melodramatic detour; and Louisa, their eloping daughter.The characters are memorable and engaging, Franzen sustains his improbable fiction throughout, and believe it or not he even gives us a no-kidding shoot-out / car chase (it was the 80s, even literary fiction had that “Lethal Weapon” feel).

But I never quite got at his meaning: was he seriously suggesting that Indian interests were taking over his hometown’s integrity and fracturing the American dream? I’m not sure if Franzen was being xenophobic or simply suggesting the inevitability of a global future.In any case, the emergence of the Internet makes most of this novel’s paranoid points seem quaint in retrospect. Jonathan Franzen’s novels always feel like he’s alarmed about SOMETHING that’s sneaking up on him.The present.

 

Pissarro World : Alice Hoffman – “The Marriage of Opposites”

Camille Pissarro was the honorably bearded elder statesman overseeing the Impressionist movement through its eight major exhibitions from 1876 to 1884. He counseled practically every French exponent of the movement (and its Post-Impressionist aftermath) as well as selected foreigners – such as Vincent Van Gogh. Presumably, Parisian galleries would have been left poorer without his presence, had Pissarro spent his whole life sharing the shadow of a palm tree with his parents in the island idyll of St. Thomas, where he was born.

Above: Self-Portrait, with Beard.

Those parents, Frederick and Rachel Pomie, were engaged in a minor tropical scandal that comprises the bulk of Alice Hoffman’s “The Marriage of Opposites.”

Unwarranted, inexplicable comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in several major review sites led me to this “magical realist” romance. No, not every story set south of the Continental U.S. needs to be accused of “magical realism.” After racking my brains, I figured what the reviewers mean is that the novel’s COVER reminded them of Isabel Allende’s “Portrait in Sepia,” and Allende IS fairly famous for her Marquez impersonations. (I welcome any alternate theories as to why Hoffman’s flat-yet-overwritten Harlequin romance should be compared to the Colombian winner of the Nobel prize.)

ABOVE: Painting by Numbers

ABOVE: Seeing double!

“The Marriage of Opposites” has many little sins: no emotion is left unexplained (twice, if possible); the characters are modern to a fault; at least one plot twist is so obvious that when it is “revealed” the reader should feel insulted; and there’s a nearly total failure to accurately capture Caribbean folklore (no, werewolves are NOT a big part of tropical superstition; save all that fur for frosty Europe.)

But I doubt the novel’s target audience will care. They’re looking for a familiarly framed romance daubed with historical edutainment, and the book’s first half provides that. Sure, Rachel Pomie may be a familiar Jane-Eyre-type, but no one who picks this up would demand otherwise. It’s in the second half, when Pissarro’s upbringing takes over the picture, that “The Marriage of Opposites” turns into a hasty, unconvincing, eye-wounding sketch.

That’s when even Hoffman’s most assiduous fans might want to sue for a divorce.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH for Hoffman fans, MEH for me.