Monday, July 30, 2012

An Age of Madness by David Maine Aug-Red Hen Press

The Age of Madness by David Maine, Red Hen Press

I first thought Regina, the darkly ironic central character in David Maine's The Age of Madness, was a chick-lit standard, the successful professional woman, who knows something's missing from her life. Almost a caricature of the type, Regina's a runner obsessed with her performance, a fervent health food consumer, a home-owner fixated on light white spaces,classical music, peace and quiet. But this Regina is a psychiatrist,  a hard-headed rationalist, a non-believer, who doesn't suffer fools easily and yet suspects she is one.

Maine cracks open her facade to reveal a woman shell shocked by the simultaneous deaths of her husband and son. "Facing the facts," Regina wonders if she's the cause--the evil feminist, who forced her husband to abandon literature and become a househusband.  Was this the reason for his suicide or homicide-suicide?  She's obsessed with the question of what happened. And so are we, as Maine peels off the layers of this psychological mystery.

The author's brilliance is to show not just the tortured conscience of this profoundly ethical woman but her unexpectedly generous heart. Regina truly empathizes with patients, while summing up their diagnosis and treatment. She wants to heal but doubts she does more than dispense pills to ease pain and perhaps hope. Though a devotee of  "reality" without sentimental sugar-coating, it's clear she's wrapped herself up tightly to keep madness at bay.

Regina's healing is the plot of this novel and its movers are an unlikely pair, the estranged daughter she believes she failed and a handsome gentle hospital worker, who persists in wanting a connection. .
As Regina's self-delusions unravel, her reliance on the facts of existence seems akin to the madness of our times. Assumptions of what life is and how people are supposed to act--from roles and professions to race and class--have broken down. Ours, like Regina's, is an Age of Madness.

Her escape is in her work, her hospital practice with patients, who keep returning after improvement. And in her private practice, an elderly couple still struggles decades after their son's disappearance, a Korean-American daughter seeks prescriptions to relieve pressure from her family's expectations, a delusional minister serves a fervent flock of believers. Regina sees her work as a band-aid for the sorrows of the world. But after awhile, she can't escape. "Physician heal thyself" comes to mind, as Reginia's daughter takes up Shakespeare and creative license becomes an avenue of healing Regina can't dismiss.

Acting gives her daughter confidence to communicate what will save her mother, who's of course obsessed with her daughter's mental health.. Then, like many a Lifetime movie, love almost saves the day. There's a bit of a literary contradiction with The Age of Madness. Maine has written a commercial novel by blasting the formula. This is thinking woman's chick-lit but then so is Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I found this book surprisingly insightful about how we live and think.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

American Boy by Larry Watson- Elemental mystery

American Boy by Larry Watson, August 2012, Milkweed Editions

Matthew Garth, the 17 year old narrator of AMERICAN BOY, is a hard-scrabble not quite hard-boiled boy in the early 1960’s in Willow Creek, an isolated town in Minnesota. Families here have known each other for generations and newcomers, like the charismatic Dr. Dunbar, are both admired and viewed with suspicion. Raised by a struggling widow, Matt’s from the “wrong side of the tracks,” grateful for his status, as an unofficial member of the Dunbar family. And like a Dreiser hero, he knows it’s strangely provisional. His friendship with Johnny Dunbar gives him access to the luxurious Victorian house, holiday parties, but most of all to the charismatic Dr. Dunbar.

When Matt’s father died, the pain of that event was muted by Dunbar, who credited him with enough intelligence to be able to understand the medical causes. Flattered that Dr. Dunbar encourages him, as a future physician, Matt considers his comfortable place as Johnny's “older bigger brother” essential to his happiness. While lifelong residents of Willow Creek, like his mother, don’t even allow themselves to hope for a better life, the Dunbars go to Minneapolis for concerts and good clothes. Matt wants thats wider world. Being included in this family, negates the drab reality of  life as the fatherless boy of a waitress.

The end of that charmed life begins with a chance event. An unconscious girl, Louisa Lindhal, is laid out in the doctor’s clinic. When the doctor lifts the sheet to show the boys the bullet wound that almost cost her life, Matt receives a fleeting but unforgettable glimpse of her breasts. His passion for Louisa is fanned by contradiction. She’s turned down very desirable boys, yet lived with a degenerate in a tar paper shack. The mysterious Louisa is beautiful but shabby, ignorant yet worldly wise. He's completely smitten, when she says the truth--both he and she are “strays” taken in by the Dunbars. 

The story accelerates as Matt, pursues Louisa and tries to figure out what’s going on in his world. Like most teens, his hypocrisy meter's on overtime and he suffers from Dr. Dunbar’s hostility, as the idol begins to crack. Matt also suffers from his mother’s depressive resignation and his own shortcomings. He hates how he manipulates Johnny to get close to Louisa. What he finally discovers about her ambitions, delivers him to his core. In this passionate very intelligent novel, the roles people play and what’s actually happening with them, is part of Matt's mystery. There’s also the sexual mystery of what women will and won’t do, and how that affects men. Matt experiences elemental forces in this novel. Nature mirrors human storms that threaten survival. Sanctuary, the family-human affection are but fragile constructs. And, in the end, he understands what's of value.

AMERICAN BOY seems oddly 1930’s in its noir-like soul. Early 60’s optimism, Vietnam or pot doesn’t touch this town. But perhaps that’s the point--this place is that insular. It’s a very small quibble. This is a heroic coming of age story. I was riveted by its layered mystery.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gates of Eden has answers "Blowing in the Wind!" A gutsy uncompromising read.

In my opinion GATES OF EDEN by Charles Degelman (August Harvard Square Editions) can well be compared to Gone with The Wind, in describing huge cultural and political upheaval. In GATES it's the 1960's--Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the historical ending of the war by the most massive anti war movement in American history and its aftermath. Degelman's novel describes the war in Vietnam and the war at home, through the passionate drives and idealistic committments of a cross-section of very real characters.

This ambitious novel begins with a nuclear blast seen by the boy Roger in Bronco, Texas. In Chicago, young Louis wants to go to the funeral of a black boy killed in the South. Middle class Connie, college bound, worries about her boyfriend, Eddie, a smart but poor kid bound for nowhere--or as she later learns, Vietnam. David and Madeline are New York sophisticates, privileged kids who want to make a mark, where it matters.

Despite their differences in background and ambitions, they will unite to build the antiwar movement that changed American history. And GATES, which won the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Award for historical fiction, also includes "The Masters of War," sections on the decisions of Presidents, Generals, Cabinet Members, that fuelled the mass marches of Americans of every age, race and class.

The young people at the core of this novel, become committed to change, because of what they experience. Connie and Louis are with the Freedom Riders, when they narrowly escape violent murder in the south. It makes them organize to end discrimination, the draft, the war in Vietnam.  David, a folk singer, becomes a leader in the SDS after he's gassed and beaten up among peaceful demonstrators. Later, he witnesses truth about the Vietnamese enemy, contrary to offical propaganda. Eddie goes to Vietnam and is unprepared for what he encounters.

Dylan's "The Answer is Blowing in the Wind," is an anthem for these kids trying to make sense of their world. They are radicalized by a leadership and media determined to hide reality, reported widely in the underground press, and a political system that won't address change.

These kids throw their lives into the struggle. Fighting injustice sends them to the Chicago Convention, where SDS leaders futilely meet with candidates, trying for a peace plank. One by one the avenues to peaceful change close. King is assassinated and with him nonviolence. When Malcolm X dies and rioting ensues in major cities around the country, the group experiences out of control police violence, deaths. And their affiliations make them fugitives.

The Answers seem to lead one way, armed insurrection, a path rejected by Eddie, who wants salvation in nature. The book's prologue is a bomb blast in a Manhattan Townhouse, and it's ending gets back there. You feel the waste of life, but understand how it happened. You have lived the dire quest of the survivors.

One of the rare pleasures of this book is that sex and drugs are not gratuitious. In the heated atmosphere of the war at home, these were ecstatic outlets. Self-indulgence was not the point, in people who were giving up their education, security, and futures, because they really were dedicated to changing society.  You see women, sick of being subservient, wanting to make their own choices, especially about their sexuality. They enjoy good sex and bad, endure illegal abortions and men who are faithless or crazy. The sex and drugs in this book are part of history, not a Hollywood fantasy.

The achievement of this book is to accurately and with great emotional logic, describe the events and personalities that enabled America to make major historical change. The Antiwar movement, which ended the draft, was supported by Vietnam Veterans against the War. They joined with groups, like SDS, to galvanize an America already sick of a war that cost a generation of dead children. This is a wonderful, gutsy, uncompromising read. Buy it!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Son by Lois Lowry, the 4th book of The Giver Series is a moving read on its own!

This book is the last of The Giver Series and it’s to be published in October by Houghton Mifflin.  I read The Giver when my son was eleven and depressed by the book.  As a student of science fiction, I like dystopias, but didn’t understand why 11 year olds were reading about a kid with the job of killing old people. It seemed unrelentingly bleak, though probably not, if compared with the reality of life in North Korea.  As I learned from the teacher, The Giver’s educational value was to provoke thinking about society.  I did the question sheets, coaxing my son to feel less for the hideous lives of characters and think more about why their life was organized that way.  These books say 12 and up, I urge caution for teachers assigning for 6th grade.

At fourteen, my son is eager to read SON and may have read Gathering Blue and Messenger. The heroine, Claire, is 14.  And without reservation, I recommend this book for older kids and adults, even if they haven’t read the other three. I found SON emotionally moving, psychologically convincing, and magical in a tangible way that’s surprising.  SON reminded me of the classic Howl’s Moving Castle, made into a Miyazaki movie (Spirited Away director).  The mythological beauty and cruelty in SON is both akin to that story and a completion of THE GIVER.  Claire’s journey takes her out of the hopeless dystopia to a place of homecoming, celebration, fulfillment.  But to get there she has to be willing to give up everything she possesses.  And the vehicle for her transformation is mother love.

Ridiculous as that might sound, Lowry’s talent makes this love both heroic and an atypical compulsion. In Claire’s world, where utility is the highest value, emotion is a shameful secret.  She first feels this forbidden love, when she gives birth to a “product.” A birthmother unlike others, Claire feels empty when it’s carved out of her. Reassigned to a fishery, she tracks her child to Jonus’ father, a nurturer, and manages to mother him. But his failure to fit the community narrows his options and Jonas flees with the boy.  Claire must follows on a perilous journey.  Along the way, she almost dies at sea, but is brought back to life by an herbalist, and grows to womanhood in an agricultural community surrounded by dark lethal cliffs.

Claire trains years to scale them and makes it, only to encounter a supernatural evil with whom she makes an impossibly cruel trade to find her son. Hidden and wraithlike, she reaches an end of time. Her only deliverance is her son Gabriel, raised by Kira and Jonus. Then It becomes Gabriel’s turn to battle evil and take his place in the idyllic community founded by refugees.  By the end of this book, you see how people could make a utopia, if they can join their cumulative wisdom.  Having left other societies, Lowery’s people gain the courage to remake the world.

Gone Girl is clever but noir light

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a clever novel. My book group chose it and oddly enough, we all had similar reactions. We admired how the book draws you in, using alternating letters between the husband and wife. And how you keep reading, wanting to know what did happen to the wife, who’s disappeared. Still about half through we got annoyed. All the detail of the wife’s letters become tedious. And most of us had inklings of what happened too early so it wasn’t so shocking.

I found myself thinking of great noir—James Cain’s The Postman Rings Twice or  Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. This book might be a homage to those, but it lacks the riveting directness, the punch and irrefutable endings. Postman creates a sense of horrified inevitability as you see two passionate people cross the criminal line toward insanity. In Mr. Ripley, the  chilling narrator is already there. Gone Girl seems to flirt with what these great noirs make a beeline for—the chilling realization of murder as an almost prosaic human potential and the psychopathology that seems so porous in our animal brains.

The bigger themes; how fragile are society’s law to contain our primate instincts, what roles do morality, decency, play in creating a behavioral norm most people respect?  Can anyone cross that line to commit murder under the right duress?  Is conscience an artificial construct or an evolved human instinct?  These are, in to my mind, what any great noir brings to question.

Ultimately, a great noir gives you the mesmerizing chills, twists and turns you enjoy, while perhaps wishing they were not leading where you think they are. And at the ending, despite inevitability or a shocking surprise, you feel an enormous sense of regret. GONE GIRL gives you a more ambiguous ending and no hero or anti heroine you might actually want to triumph. We liked it but were disappointed. I hope her next book is less clever and more direct to the darkness and it’s primal meaning.

This is not to say it's not worth reading. I just think it is good enough to generate expectations that aren't quite there. I look forward to Ms. Flynn's next one.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

NEW Kurt Vonnegut, "We Are What We Pretend to Be"

WE ARE WHAT WE PRETEND TO BE: The first and Last Works w/special commentary from Nanette Vonnegut has never before been in print. Vanguard, a member of the Perseus Book Group, will be publishing it this Fall. The book is a treat for any Vonnegut fan and useful for aspiring writers.

I love Kurt Vonnegut for his strong heart, whether breaking with irony or crackling with humor. His wit was beyond rapier, even off-center going after unexpected targets and he improvised like a clairvoyant. He's full of spontaneous feeling and more accurate than not. I was once waiting for a plane in the Iowa City airport, as he was getting off one. He caught my eye and pointed to the book I was reading, Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up.” He made a “thumbs up” gesture and touched his heart. He mimed a finger across his neck about it being suicidal. Vonnegut loved the book, Fitzgerald, and, though I was across the room, correctly perceived me as a fellow traveller.

WE ARE WHAT WE PRETEND TO BE tells a lot about Kurt Vonnegut. Written 50 years apart, and autobiographical, the two stories show where he started and where he wound up-- the journey from youth to maturity of this singular man.  Basic Training was written two years before his breakthrough novel, Player Piano. His daughter, Nanette, says in her unsentimental introduction, it was never accepted for publication. Around the Vonnegut house were  years of rejection slips, enough to cover the trash cans.

If God Were Alive Today is the beginning of a novel that was never finished.  Nannette's introduction ends with the tribute “ Even as an old man my dad defied gravity and did the audacious thing of creating something out of nothing.” She also acknowledges (If God) was the work of his "slightly charred 78 year old brain."

His improvisational wit is all over the place. The chaos of his protagonist, may reflect Vonnegut's dissolving marriage and the state of his health, but it's full of madcap vaudeville; farts, a hermaphrodite savior, drugs and sexy psychiatrists. Unfinished at his death, we don't know how it would have ended but it's some crazy process.  

In Basic Training, there's a boy of sixteen, an aspiring pianist, who's forced to become a menial worker on the General's, his uncle's farm. The loss of his previous "soft life” and the harsh discipline of his uncle’s uncompromising military ethos conspire to make him quite unhappy, a fact a little eased by the General's lovely daughter. Here you see Vonnegut themes of an innocent unjustly blamed and trapped in an authoritarian situation. And he must escape!

After lots of comic scrapes, the hero runs off with the homicidally insane hired hand, and ends up on Chicago’s skid row. But like Bringing up Baby, at the end everyone's misconceptions are revealed to be mistaken and the situation is happily resolved. It’s a romantic comedy but you also see the embryonic stage of Vonnegut’s satire on pompous militarists and the plight of hapless rebels. It's light fun, but I can also see how Vonnegut's pursuit of his talent, would lead to his breakthrough book a couple years later.

What's might be of interest for writers is that Basic Training shows Vonnegut actually writing what he did know. According to his daughter, in later years he yearned for this farm life in the Midwest. But that hoary cliche that aspiring writers should write what they know only makes sense if you transform it into something else. Otherwise, get it out of your system so you can write your own breakthrough novel.


We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works