Review 1506: The Broom of the System

We first meet Lenore Beadsman in 1981 as a 15-year-old on a visit to her sister at Mount Holyoke. There, three guys from Amherst invade the girls’ dorm room and more or less sexually assault them, except Lenore, who leaves. The point of this part?

We meet her again working as a receptionist in Cleveland and having an affair with her boss, Rick Vigorous. Her great-grandmother has disappeared from a nursing home along with a substantial number of patients and some staff. The manager of the home, which is owned by Lenore’s wealthy father, has been asked to keep the incident quiet, but he asks Lenore to contact her father. She is unable to reach him, however.

I tried hard to read this novel, which I know is considered brilliant and was recommended by my brother, but I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with it. Though I know it was considered innovative in its time (1987), it seemed dated to me, both in its bizarre zany humor, which reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, Tim Robbins, or Richard Brautigan, and in its treatment of women. I read about a quarter of it but saw myself completely lose interest when the cockatiel started spouting break-up lines. The novel just seemed too ridiculous, and I also felt it wasn’t going anywhere. The hyper-intellectual dialogue seemed completely unlikely. It also seemed pretentious.

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Review 1481: You & Me

I’ve got two words for this book. Not funny. Actually, I have two more. Not interesting. In fact, I found it unbearable.

Two guys are sitting on a porch talking. Their conversation wanders among many subjects. This novel is supposed to be a take-off on “Waiting for Godot.” I don’t know why “Waiting for Godot” needs a take-off. It’s sort of a take-off of itself.

I don’t know what the James Tait Black judges were thinking. A parody like this is funny for about two pages, not an entire book.

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Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1374: The Sellout

Really? This book won the Booker Prize? I know my sense of humor is getting to be out of date, and when I read on the blurb that the book was “biting satire,” I just sighed. There’s no subtlety in humor anymore, and this novel is a prime example. Its writing style is broad and hectic, like a really long stand-up comedy routine. I’m guessing you either love it or hate it.

The narrator, a black man whose name is Me, starts out the novel at the Supreme Court, where he is being tried as a slave owner and is getting a lot of hatred because of his race. He proceeds to tell the story of how he got there, spending lots of time getting to the crux of the story.

The beginning of the book, where he satirizes his upbringing as a subject of his father’s childhood development experiments, is over the top but amusing. When he introduces the character of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, his all-on employment of racial stereotypes (to make fun of them, of course) was too much for me. I quit about halfway, after he reluctantly made Hominy his slave.

Be warned that this novel makes extensive use of the N word. I’m not sure, but Beatty’s intent may be to desensitize us to it. If so, it didn’t work.

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Review 1371: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh is good at creating unappealing characters, and the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no exception. From a privileged background, pretty and with no need to work, she inwardly mocks everything, including her only friend, Reva. Depressed by the deaths of her cold parents and by being dumped by her cruel boyfriend, Trevor, she decides that she wants to sleep her way into a new life. So, she loads up with a cocktail of prescription drugs, supplied by her batty, pill-pushing psychiatrist.

This novel can be darkly funny, mostly in a cruel poking at Reva’s social ambitions or other characters’ taste, but also poking fun at the modern art scene. Still, I found it both oddly fascinating and distasteful, despite a more positive ending.

This novel is set in the early 2000’s and works its way resolutely to 9/11.

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Review 1350: Nine Perfect Strangers

Cover for Nine Perfect StrangersLiane Moriarty must be reading Carl Hiaasen or something. Her works have changed from being domestic thrillers to almost a satire of the genre. In the latest, it was difficult to get too worried about the characters.

Frances is a romance novelist who has just received her first turn-down of her latest book, after a long career. She has also read a nasty review of one of her older books. Finally, she’s been the victim of a romantic scam. To recover, she signs up for a 10-day cleanse at a health spa.

Masha, the charismatic owner of the spa, is trying out some new techniques on her clients. A powerful executive ten years ago, she changed her life after a stroke and took up the health field with all the determination she showed in her previous life. Only now, she wants her clients to have an experience that will permanently change their lives.

For about half this novel, I wondered where the heck it was going. It seemed more comic than anything else. Masha is a marvelous egoist, but it was also hard to take most of the other characters seriously.

When the novel finally started getting somewhere, the whole idea just seemed kind of silly, as does the section where the characters inadvertently take some illegal drugs, well, not exactly inadvertently, and we have to observe their silly thought processes.

A hmmm for this one.

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Review 1342: The Garden of the Gods

Cover for Garden of the GodsThe Garden of the Gods is a fitting conclusion to Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy. In the book, we meet a few more eccentric characters and are treated to funny events and lush descriptions of the island of Corfu.

The centerpiece of this book is a visit to Corfu by the King of Greece. This event brings about a multitude of opportunities for incompetently executed patriotic displays.

One of the most entrancing new characters is Jeejee, a visitor from India whom Mrs. Durrell takes for royalty because of his first name, Prince. (That is, Larry sends her a letter saying that Prince Jeejee is arriving for a visit.) He is a charming person who entertains us with his attempts at levitation.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThe final chapters of the book deal with a typically over-the-top party that the Durrells throw for Jeejee’s birthday. All goes well until Margo’s cabaret, in which the various characters entertain the other guests with acts that include an interminable saucy sea chanty by Captain Creech and an escape act by Mr. Kralefsky and Theodore that goes badly wrong.

The trilogy is funny and entertaining. Although the first book is the source of the original Masterpiece series, the newer series is suggested by characters and events in the last two books. I think most people would enjoy these memoirs.

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Review 1324: All Done by Kindness

Cover for All Done by KindnessMy friend Deb recommended that I read All Done by Kindness based on a post she read by Furrowed Middlebrow. Such is the power of the web, though, that by the time I looked for it, the few copies available were expensive. I had to borrow hers.

Caper books and movies were popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, and All Done by Kindness fits the description, telling the story of a crime committed with worthy motives, a light-hearted caper with a dash of romance. It begins with a visit by Dr. Sandilands to an elderly patient, Mrs. Hovenden. Mrs. Hovenden’s family has been wealthy, but since the war, Mrs. Hovenden has fallen into hard times. She tells the doctor she is badly in debt for the first time in her life.

Dr. Sandilands offers to lend her the money, even though he can hardly afford it, but Mrs. Hovenden is too proud to take it. Instead, she offers to sell him some boxes of clothes and linen from her attic, including a box of pictures. When the Sandilands family opens the boxes, the results provide Beatrix Sandilands, the doctor’s sharp-tongued daughter, with a great deal to say, for everything is either worthless to begin with or is mouldering away. About the pictures, however, daughter Linda suggests that they consult her knowledgeable fellow librarian, Stephanie du Plessis.

Stephanie thinks that the paintings might be quite valuable, even Old Masters. She does some research that indicates they may have been removed from an Italian villa. Beatrix thinks they are worthless and wants them out of her house. Finally, the family agrees to consult Sir Harry Maximer, an art expert who has the reputation for integrity.

Here, the plot thickens, for Sir Harry recognizes the paintings as Old Masters, but he tells Dr. Sandilands they are only good copies. Why? Because he intends to have them in his own collection.

This is a charming little novel, a delightful book for when you want to read something light.

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Review 1320: The Hypnotist’s Love Story

Cover for The Hypnotist's Love StoryEllen O’Farrell makes a charming, slightly ditzy heroine. As a professional hypnotherapist, she is experienced in helping her clients detangle their own relationships, but she’s not so good about her own. She hopes to find someone with whom to build a life, and she may have found him in Patrick, a surveyor and single father. Things seem to be going well except for two issues—he still seems to be madly in love with his deceased first wife, Colleen, and he has a stalker, his ex-girlfriend, Saskia.

Oddly, Ellen seems much more concerned about the dead wife than the live ex-girlfriend. Saskia seems rather harmless, even after Ellen discovers she already has her as a client under an assumed name. On the other hand, Patrick mentions Colleen several times a day. Ellen, who has a tendency to over-analyze things, begins wondering if she’s making a mistake.

The Hypnotist’s Love Story is unpredictable. For one thing, it is a long time before you figure out which genre it falls in. Is it a thriller, a comedy, a romance, or chick lit?

I always find Moriarty eminently readable. Her approach is empathetic and her characters usually likable, even the stalkers. This book is lots of fun, and I recommend it for witty light reading.

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Day 1288: Seven Keys to Baldpate

Cover for Seven Keys to BaldpateJust as a side note, the Classics Club Spin number is #1, which means I will be reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the end of January. That’s quite a coincidence, because I just checked it out of the library to read last week. I haven’t started it yet, though, and will be interested to see what I think of it more than 40 years after I read it the first time.

* * *

I heard about Seven Keys to Baldpate during a news story about its namesake, Baldpate Inn in Colorado. Written in 1913, the novel was made into a successful stage play and three movies. It is not exactly a mystery as we think of it, since no detection occurs. Simply, the main character is trying to understand what is going on.

Billy Magee is a successful writer of pot boilers, but he feels he is capable of writing something more serious. To get away from interruptions, he travels to upstate New York to stay in his friend’s summer hotel, Baldpate Inn, which is closed during that season, winter.

In the train station at Upper Asquewan Falls, he falls in love on sight with a young woman. He attempts to help her find a place to stay, but after he puts her in a cab, he never expects to see her again.

He has no sooner gotten settled in his room at the abandoned hotel when people begin to arrive. Finding him there, they each tell him a story that is patently untrue to explain their presences at the hotel. Among them is the girl from the railway station. It is especially disturbing because Billy has been told he has the only key to the inn, but each successive arrival lets himself or herself in with a key.

Soon the hotel has almost a dozen people staying there, all of whom seem to understand what is going on except Magee. The mystery seems to involve an envelope of money in the hotel safe, however.

This novel is ridiculous but entertaining, written in a breezy style that is occasionally overly florid. It is meant to be ridiculous, however, sort of a satire against the potboilers that Billy writes, which is probably why it was so popular in its time. Although it is sometimes a little long-winded, it is a quick, fun read.

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