Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Smattering of Book Reviews

I work for a writing firm called Libretto. On our website, we have a section called "Nightstand," in which each of us crafts a brief review of what we've been reading lately. Here are some that I've posted there.

The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora
By Michael Nesmith

Much as I like this book, it’s difficult to avoid – or resist – damning it with faint praise. So here goes: The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora is the best book written by an ex-Monkee (but not the only one: both Mickey and Davy wrote memoirs designed to make a fast buck, while this is a work of fiction guaranteed to make a few really slow ones). At first glance, the line between fiction and non appears thin: the hero is a musician named Nez (as the author is known to his fans, of whom this reviewer is one). However, the object of his quest, the elusive and enigmatic Neftoon Zamora, is various described as either male or female, actual or mythical, and, as early as page 2, “part Zuni, part Martian, and part Delta blues player [who] had come from the Great Spirit, Mars, or some place in Mississippi, thousands of years ago.” Nez learns of NZ from a friend who has a tape of him/her/it performing blues songs. Nesmith describes this sufficiently well to make me wish for a soundtrack. (In fact, Nesmith’s 1974 album The Prison is actually described as “a book with a soundtrack.” The idea is to read the story and listen to the album concurrently; when one becomes accustomed to paying attention to both sources at the same time, one hopes to experience a certain synergy. I can vouch that with the right attitude, the effort is not fruitless.) Anyway, back to this book. During his journey, Nez comes upon a woman named Neffie, who has long sandy hair. Is this Neftoon Zamora? We aren’t sure, and Neffie joins the quest. The story takes place in New Mexico, first in a canyon village, then at a desert enclave. Along the way, we meet colorful characters, go to a swinging dance, and get pulled deeper into the mystery. Unfortunately, three-quarters into the book, Nesmith takes us away from these organic and exciting environs and plunks us into the mechanized compound of a crazed billionaire. In a Monkees episode, this is when the zany montage would come on over the song. Unfortunately, as I’ve said, there is no soundtrack. And so the book, which begins with much promise, ends with little clarity or satisfaction. Still, I think it’s a worthwhile read – but then, I’m a Believer!

Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories
By Raymond Carver

For my birthday this past year, a certain someone who signs my paychecks gave me this book. Obviously, then, I had to read it. But I didn’t have to choose it to review on the Libretto website. I did so because I was so enthralled by the style and perspective of this late master of the short story genre. This collection, published just three months before his death from cancer at age 50 in 1988, brings together 30 works from previous books, as well as seven previously unpublished stories. Perhaps what is most striking in such a retrospective is Carver’s ability to maintain his unique lens while keeping his tales compelling, empathic, and surprising. He is able to write convincingly from both male and female perspectives, and his stories can plumb the depths of hopelessness and the heights of redemption. Like any short story writer, Carver presents a snapshot of people’s lives. In another writer’s hands, these snapshots would be moments of highest drama, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Carver, however, makes us aware that there are other stories, even bigger stories, going on in the blurred periphery of his viewfinder. Stories are introduced at some point beyond the start of a situation. At the end, we know that there are events and consequences that await the characters in scenes that will be played out beyond our view. The person who gave me this book (you know, the kind and generous one who signs my paychecks) particularly recommended "The Cathedral," in which a person who spends an evening with a blind man against his will begins to see many things more clearly, but the story immediately after that one burned most deeply in my mind. In "A Small, Good Thing," a rewrite of an earlier story, two parents must face their worst fear while dealing with a doctor’s vague assurances and a prank phone-caller. While a theme of the first two-thirds of the story is the impact of lack of knowledge, communication, and understanding, the final third is a dramatic stripping away of everything the characters had been keeping from each other. The title of the story is a good description of the book.

The Tin Drum
By Günter Grass

Stones From the River
By Ursula Hegi

I decided to combine two books in one review because they have so much in common. For one, they are both spectacularly well-written stories, rich in creative imagery and historical detail – both the characters’ histories and that of the actual period in which they take place. That, in fact, is another similarity: they both are set in Germany and span a multi-generation epoch that precedes and succeeds World War II. Yet perhaps the most striking similarity is that the heroes of both novels are short. Oskar Matzerath, in The Tin Drum, willed himself to stop growing at age three; while Trudi Montag, in Stones From the River, is a zwerg – a dwarf. Further, each has a similarly sized mentor who is a circus or carnival performer (Bebra for Oskar/Pia for Trudi). Through their eyes and experiences as outsiders, we see the struggles of post-World War I Germany, the encroaching tyranny of the Nazi regime, and the shame and uncertainty following defeat in World War II. If Oskar is somewhat less sympathetic than Trudi (and much less trustworthy as a narrator than the omniscient voice of Stones), he is the more powerful, confident, and entertaining hero. However, I have to say that I prefer Trudi, maintaining her decency and dignity against all odds, as a symbol of a lone light in the darkness.

House of Sand and Fog
By Andre Dubus III
House of Sand and Fog centers around the rapidly rising and falling circumstances of three people: Amir Behrani, a one-time colonel in the Iranian Air Force who, until purchasing a repossessed house at an auction, had been making a living in the US picking up trash along the highways near Berkeley; Kathy Nicolo, a one-time alcoholic whose husband has left her with little more than the house she inherited from her father – that house she has just lost for failure to pay taxes; and Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself in the middle of their dispute, yet soon falls in love with the desperate woman. There is, of course, a fourth character as well: the titular house itself, which stands mute yet somehow menacing in the background, the shared desire that ultimately, along with the mistrust and myopic fear the two parties in dispute have for each other, leads to everybody’s downfall. Along the way, we learn a good deal about Persian language, food, and customs; we see how systems so easily fail those who rely on them; and we watch helplessly as three characters who are neither heroes nor villains, yet possibly both, chase their selfish desires into a descending spiral of pain and despair.

Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison
Motivated by a recent PBS documentary on the writer and the only novel he ever completed – which made the Top 20 of The Modern Library’s 1998 list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century – I decided to dust off the paperback I originally read in college and see if it was still as powerful. Indeed it is. Ellison’s use of language is scintillating and each chapter has enough dramatic arc and emotional depth to stand as an independent work. The opening paragraph of Chapter 5, in particular, is as rich and lyrical a descriptive passage as I’ve ever read. Never named, Ellison’s hero is naïve, intelligent, and deeply concerned with playing by the rules, which, to his confusion and chagrin, keep changing depending on the company and part of the country he is in. Ultimately, he (and we) must confront this conundrum: if society wishes him (us) to be invisible, what is his (our) place in that society?

©Copyright 2008 Libretto, Inc.

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