Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sentimental Education - Gustave Flaubert (French)
Some readers object to the unattractiveness of the main character, but Frederic is simply presented with his flaws, ones common to us all. Flaubert also truthfully (and ruthlessly) examines a French society rife with hypocrisy. The prose is choppy, it skips about, it understates; I found this style pleasing. The only problems were that Flaubert was writing about actual historical events, and I couldn’t follow them; I became confused with the many characters; and Frederic’s love for Madame Arnoux was effusively romantic (though, in Frederic’s mind it was just that – a grande passion). But this is the story of Frederic’s education, and Flaubert erases all romanticism in the two lines of dialogue that close the book; they constitute one of the great (and startling) endings in literature – and one of the saddest. *

The Circus in the Attic - Robert Penn Warren
The main pleasure to be found in this collection is Warren’s prose. Using thread of a rough and durable material, he creates dense tapestries. However, with most of the stories the hardscrabble Tennessee setting was the strongest element, not the people or plot. The two standout exceptions were “Christmas Gift” and “Prime Leaf.” In the first the character of a boy slowly emerges, in an atmosphere so vividly evoked that the smell of tobacco is pungent. The latter is a fully-worked out tragedy, done simply and moving to its conclusion with inevitability.

Far from the City of Class - Bruce Jay Friedman
These stories are lively and readable, often funny, often coming from an odd, even supernatural perspective. The title story and the two about the mother (“The Trip” and “The Good Time”) were the best. Friedman wrote a novel with his mother as the centerpiece (A Mother’s Kisses) – she’s a great character, and obviously someone for whom he had a lot of complicated emotions. But I didn’t read all the stories because too many lacked luster. And the odd perspectives, when repeated, seemed gimmicky. Still, Friedman is a likable writer.

Perpetual Kin - Pat Kaufman
Very good, though it acted upon me as a depressant. Such miserable people! It makes you wonder about life. Still, the emotions I’m describing are a tribute to the authenticity of the characters. This was a Publish-on-Demand book, which is a shame; some mainstream publishing house should have recognized its virtues. It needs editing, mostly in small matters. But it flows, it engrosses, it has vitality – it succeeds in the major ways. The prose is clear and simple, interesting and flexible. It covers many lives with efficiency; it hits on important moments, distilling these lives in set pieces. The instincts of a real writer are at work, combined with intelligence and an honesty that can hurt. But at times that honesty faltered. This book is autobiographical, and the character who is Kaufman, as she grows into adulthood, is not observed with the mordant rigor that the others were subjected to.

No comments: