Thursday, April 26, 2012

Death Is Not an Option, by Suzanne Rivecca

The blurb on the cover of Suzanne Rivecca's first collection of short stories is from Lorrie Moore, which is appropriate, as Rivecca's stories share some characteristics with those of Moore--troubled female characters who have troubling experiences recounted with wry humor. The title story in the collection is a funny yet sad portrayal of a parochial school's senior class retreat. Emma, who cannot wait to escape Muskegon for Brandeis (she has dreamed for years of being "surrounded by liberal and scholarly Zionists"), is alarmed at her own tearfulness, shocked to learn that one of her friends is having sex, and afraid of a life of futility.

In "It Sounds Like You're Feeling," Rivecca also brings humor to the sad story of a college student who can't quite follow the rules at the helpline where she volunteers as part of her social work major (one in a long string of failed majors). Indeed, things go so badly at the helpline that she is referred to a therapist, whose blindness fosters unhealthy curiosity on the young woman's part.

For me, the humor ends with those two stories, as the female protagonists of the remaining stories tend to be struggling as victims (or with victims, as in the case of a teacher who fears one of her children is being abused). One woman was molested by an uncle when she was a child; as an adult, she finds that telling men about the experience effectively ends their relationship. Yet not telling them has costs as well. Another woman, who has written a memoir about faking religious experiences as a child, is cyberstalked by the owner of a house she tried to rent--but she recognizes that she may be encouraging the stalking to provide material for another memoir. Yet another character struggles to explain her conflicted feelings toward her father, now an elderly low-key grandfather who once seethed with anger.

These stories are well-written and interesting but very sad, especially taken together. As I was reading the collection--not the first collection of short stories about struggling and victimized young women that I've read in the past 18 months or so--I had the thought that a book of dark short stories can make a reader more dispirited than an equally dark novel because of the rapid succession of characters whose pasts, presents, and futures seem gloomy. Perhaps the lack of explanatory detail necessitated by the form also heightens the impact; without greater insight, we struggle to understand why things go so wrong. Whatever the case, I think I will steer away from short stories for awhile.

Favorite passages:
You both pick your words like you're stripping dead buds off a houseplant, but with this strange exhilaration. This fastidious, fussy exhilaration.

Every person who lives a life eventually starts to make it all up: not just the past but the future, too. The only thing you can't create is the present, while it's happening--you going about your day.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun is the true story of Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun, parents of four and owners of a successful contracting business in New Orleans. Both are Muslim--Kathy, a native Louisianan converted as a young adult, while Abdulrahman immigrated from Syria in his 30s, when he tired of life at sea. With Hurricane Katrina rushing toward the city, Kathy loads up the children to evacuate to Baton Rouge, but she is unable to convince her husband to accompany them. He "never" leaves the city during a storm, and he wants to be able to keep an eye on their properties, as well as the projects they are working on for clients.

In the first few days after the storm, Zeitoun (as Abdulrahman is commonly called) is happier than Kathy, who is trying to put up with relatives who insist on serving pork, urge her to take off her hijab since her husband isn't there, and generally show no respect for her religion. Zeitoun, meanwhile, is paddling his canoe around the city, checking on their properties, helping as many people as he can, feeding abandoned dogs, and generally making himself useful. Indeed, he felt a divine purpose in his daily efforts to help, feeling Allah had wanted him to stay in the city to help others.

Kathy escapes her relatives, taking the children to Phoenix to stay with close friends who are also Muslims. Kathy and Zeitoun talk daily--a phone in one of their properties is still working, and Zeitoun calls from there each day. Then the calls stop, and Kathy has no idea what has happened. As days pass with no word from her husband, she becomes more and more convinced he is dead. He isn't--instead, he and three friends have been arrested, and the ensuing events are nightmarish.

Without revealing too much of the story, let me just say that it is both terribly sad and absolutely infuriating. That the government (it matters not whether you talk about city, state, or federal--all were worse than useless) could erect a temporary jail in the city within a couple of days of the storm but could not rescue people from a variety of terrible situations is beyond comprehension. That police officers who were looting stores and siphoning gas were arresting people for allegedly doing similar things--and putting those people in prison without phone calls or access to legal assistance--is despicable. And, as you read Zeitoun and Kathy's story, you know it is just one of thousands of tales of injustice and pain.

Having read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and not enjoyed the overly self-conscious irony Dave Eggers practiced in this book, I was surprised to find this an entirely different work. Eggers as the author is virtually invisible; the writing is so spare it is nearly terse. He lets the story carry itself--and it does so exceedingly well.

Favorite passages:
The country he had left thirty years ago had been a realistic place. There were political realities there, then and now, that precluded blind faith, that discouraged one from thinking that everything, always, would work out fairly and equitably. But he had come to believe such things in the United States. Things had worked out. Difficulties had been overcome. He had worked hard and achieved success. The machinery of government functioned. Even if in New Orleans this machines was sometimes slow, or poorly engineered, generally it functioned. But now nothing worked. Or rather, every piece of machinery--the policy, the military, the prisons--that was meant to protect people like him was devouring anyone who got close.

She finds herself wondering, early in the morning and late at night and sometimes just while sitting with little Ahmad sleeping on her lap: Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us? It could have been avoided, she thinks. So many little things could have been done. So many people let it happen. So many looked away. And it only takes one person, one small act of stepping from the dark to the light.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

American Son, by Brian Ascalon Roley

The immigrant experience provides rich material for the novelist, including tales of struggle and triumph. American Son features no triumph, however. It is the profoundly sad story of two Filipino-American teenage brothers; their mother is Filipino, their absent father Anglo-American. Tomas, the older of the two, has been kicked out of their Catholic high school in Los Angeles, dresses like a Latino gang member, and breeds and trains attack dogs to sell to nervous celebrities. Gabe, the younger son and narrator, is "the son who is quiet and no trouble"; but Gabe is struggling--he feels out of place with at school and in the neighborhood, he's afraid of his own brother, and he loves but is ashamed of his mother.

The book has three sections, each beginning with a letter from the boys' Uncle Betino, who chastises their mother for the way she is raising the boys and urging her to send them to live with him in the Philippines. The first section focuses on Tomas, his dogs, and the multiple ways in which he embarrasses and abuses Gabe and their mother. In the second section, Gabe has sold one of Tomas's dogs, stolen his car, and taken off driving north; when the car breaks down, he ends up riding for hours with a tow truck driver whose bigoted commentary plays into Gabe's myriad insecurities. In the final section, Gabe is back home, forced into various criminal activities by Tomas to compensate for stealing his dog and car. When Tomas decides they need to take revenge on a woman who is hounding their mother about paying for minor damages to her Land Rover, Gabe's descent into Tomas's world seems complete.

What is remarkable about the situation that Brian Roley depicts is how little adults do to help Gabe, even though the signals are so loud as to be deafening (stealing from your gangster brother and driving to Oregon is a pretty big hint that something is wrong). His mother, while caring, has no clue how to handle her sons. Other relatives do little but preach at Gabe or his mother, and school officials totally drop the ball. The tragedy is not that Gabe's downfall was inevitable, but that it was so avoidable.

Favorite passage:
The way she [Gabe's mother] looked at that moment--it haunts me--and I go over it in my head, trying to figure out what she was feeling. At times she looks mad but at others she seems hurt, and I cannot tell which look is my memory and which is my imagination.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos

I'm on a string of not-so-good books (in addition to the books I've posted negative comments about, I have read a few not-so-great mysteries I didn't bother to include here!), and Falling Together is another in that sad series. Marisa de los Santos has opted to use a tired convention that many (including some much better writers) have used before her--old friends meet at a reunion and must work out their differences. While she gives the convention a very modest twist, that twist fails to bring the story of college friends Pen, Will, and Cat any freshness. Not recommended!

Now You See Her, by Joy Fielding

Joy Fielding has written some interesting psychological thrillers--ones with premises that actually make you think. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. Marcy Taggart is a fiftyish Canadian, on a trip to Ireland that had been planned as a second honeymoon until her husband left her. In a pub in Cork, she sees a girl who looks like her daughter Devon, a presumed suicide whose body was never found. Marcy spends the next few days sleuthing through Cork, trying to find the girl. The events become less and less believable and, at the same time, utterly predictable.

I listened to this book from Audible. The reader is Justine Eyre, and I found her voice generally unpleasant; when she whined as the voice of Marcy, it became almost unbearable. I'm not sure why I even finished the book. The only thing I liked about Now You See Her was when Marcy heard the voice of her former husband, an orthodonist, commenting on the teeth of the people she met. For some reason, this amused me--but not enough to redeem the book.