The Violent Land – Jorge Amado (Portuguese)
The violence is between two “colonels” (plantation owners) vying for a tract of virgin forest on which they can cultivate the highly profitable cocoa tree. The action takes place in the early 1900s in Amado’s native Brazil. In his introduction to the 1965 edition, he describes the cocoa colonels as “indomitable, titanic men of unlimited courage, for whom life had no value.” But are there such men? Emotions in this book (everyone’s, not just those of the titans) are outsized; anger is deadly, love is wildly passionate. Amado attempted to write a saga chronicling the origin of a land that was “fertilized with human blood.” His story clearly moved him; but the garish, over-the-top quality kept me at arm’s length, and I remained merely entertained. His scope, being so broad and including so diverse a cast, proved to be unwieldy, and at the end even major figures are left unaccounted for. I wondered what happened to Sinho Badera. But it was curiosity that I felt, nothing more, and it soon passed.
God Bless the Children – Toni Morrison
It was a huge mistake for this eighty-four-year-old Nobel Prize winner to attempt a novel that was set in the present day hip culture. It’s about serious matters, but the synthetic characters and silly plot combine to make it cartoonish. Bride is a “midnight black” woman who becomes wealthy as the originator of a line of cosmetics called YOU, GIRL. She uses her blackness (which is what her light-skinned mother rejected her for) to become a much-desired “panther in snow.” Bride drives a Jaguar and wears boots of brushed rabbit fur. Her “friend” at the billion dollar firm of Sylvia, Inc is named Brooklyn (sample dialogue: “The dude splits, you feel like cow flop, you try to get your mojo back, but it’s bust, right?”). The dude in question is the enigmatic Booker; they meet while Bride is dancing in a packed stadium and someone puts his arms around her waist: “Then his hands are on my stomach and I am dropping mine to hold onto his while we dance front to back. When the music stops I turn around to look at him. He smiles. I am moist and shivering.” Booker turns out to be more than a dynamite lover; he’s deep, and he splits with the words “You not the woman I want.” She finds some things he left, including a shaving brush, which she use to fondle herself. Had enough? Well, okay, a woman by the name of Sofia is released from prison after serving twenty years as a child molester; Bride follows her to a motel; she knocks on the door and presents Sofia with a Louis Vuitton shopping bag containing five thousand dollars in cash, a three thousand dollar Continental Airlines gift certificate, and a box of YOU, GIRL products. When suspicious Sofia learns Bride’s real name, she proceeds to beat the crap out of her. Sprawling on the street with her gifts scattered around her, Bride calls Brooklyn instead of the police because, in her disfigured state, she would go in the public eye from “YOU, GIRL to BOO, GIRL.” Had enough? No? Okay. Bride, trying to find Booker, is driving her Jag at night on a curving mountain road and “trusts to her high-beam headlights and accelerates,” promptly crashing into a tree. A child named Raisin finds her, and her father and mother make room for Bride (her ankle is broken) in their humble abode; they’re aging white hippies, and sometimes they sit outside at night, strumming a guitar and singing songs: “This land is your land, this land is my land . . .” See, they don’t have a TV. But you do, girl, and I suggest you turn it on and watch some junky show. Because even if you haven’t had enough of this nonsense, I can’t provide any more because I stopped reading at this point.
Mulliner Nights – P. J. Wodehouse
Wodehouse is known mainly for creating two characters, the butler Jeeves and his master Bertie Wooster. I could never rouse interest in this duo. But Nights is a collection of stories told by Mr. Mulliner over drinks in an English pub. I gave it a try, and now I can understand Wodehouse’s appeal; he delivers light, enjoyable fare, he has a deft touch with humor, and his prose flows with a pleasurable smoothness. Mr. Mulliner’s tales are about some male relative, often a nephew, and most involve the efforts of the young man to gain a girl’s hand in marriage (the obstacle is commonly her formidable and disapproving father). Wodehouse knew where his talent lay, and he knew what his audience wanted. He produced close to a hundred novels, and I’ll wager that in none of them did he get serious or make any sort of demands on the reader. He wrote diversions, nothing more. That said, his diversions were intelligent ones; even when absurdity sets in, which it often does, it’s not the dumb type. Is Wodehouse a writer I’ll turn to in the future? No, but I don’t regret the evenings I spent in Anglers’ Rest.