Saturday, December 20, 2008

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut
A book that seems to be held together by a network of electrical wires. In a sense this is fitting, for the event Vonnegut was writing about was an inhuman one. The bombing of Dresden is presented in an apocalyptic light; the aftereffects flicker erratically on one of the survivors, Billy Pilgrim. The time travel and alien abduction he undergoes are possibly products of his imagination – his escape from reality. The book’s sci-fi aspect, the humor, the repetitions, the short sections that make up the text, the skipping around in time – all keep the reader from feeling grounded. Maybe the only way Vonnegut could approach his a subject was by using evasion and distancing. Though he produced a unique and effective work, one I respect, these very aspects were a barrier to intimacy.

The Dwarf - Par Lagerkvist (Swedish)
The Nobel Prize winning author impressed me initially; I thought this was an interesting philosophical novel, using a most unusual perspective. By the end I thought it was a foolish novel. The malevolence and destructiveness of the dwarf were overdone and became tiresome. Events – such as the poisoning at the feast – were unrealistic. The prose often took on a shrill tone. And it was all so damn dark that it became oppressive. There was not one character to relate to or care about. Pessimism can be bracing, but this was the kind that’s depressing – not a glimmer of humor or freshness or exhilaration. Total negativity cannot be absorbed for long in a relationship, nor in a novel.

The Middleman and Other Stories - Bharati Mukherjee
The author takes on a variety of personas – housewife, Vietnam vet/psycho, immigrant. She isn’t ladylike, which one expects of a female Indian writer; she’s mod, tough and sometimes sets out to shock the genteel reader. But her stories – or the five I read – could not, consistently, pass the “So What?” test. There’s a pulpy garishness to her subject matter and approach; the events depicted in “The Middleman” belong in a comic book. Other stories, as if to display her versatility, are sensitive, more sedately written, but they too were marred by superficiality.

Stepping Westward - Malcolm Bradbury
Initially this book was like comfort food – the characters and situations were satisfying in a mildly pleasant way. But “mildly” is the crucial word; even the humor wasn’t funny enough. I could have read on, but the factor that tilted the scales was when Bradbury stepped westward. He’s very good with the Brits but has a tin ear for how Americans speak and doesn’t seem to understand how we act. I wanted to tell him, Sorry, old chap, we just aren’t like that.

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