AFTER CLAUDE by Iris Owens

This is one of those arch, darkly humorous works of what I call urban sardonic writings which were so popular in the second half of the last century. Kind of like Iris Murdoch with a lot more bile and bite.

Barbed and bitchy, it is almost scary. Here’s the plot: Harriet is leaving her boyfriend Claude, “the French rat.” That at least is how Harriet sees things, even if it’s Claude who has just asked Harriet to leave his Greenwich Village apartment. He found her in the stairwell crying one night, having been kicked out of a friend’s apartment, and he offered her to stay in his place for a couple of days until she found a new apartment. Ok, that was months ago, and she is still there.

Well, one way or another she has no intention of leaving. To the contrary, she will stay and exact revenge—or would have if Claude had not had her unceremoniously evicted. Still, though moved out, Harriet is not about to move on. Not in any way. Girlfriends circle around to patronize and advise, but Harriet only takes offense, and it’s easy to understand why. Because mad and maddening as she may be, Harriet sees past the polite platitudes that everyone else is content to spout and live by. She is unblinkered, unbuttoned, unrelenting.  With no place to go she moves to the Chelsea Hotel where a flakey guru offers her a place in his harem.

Harriet is one of those horrifying leech people who will not let go, and make everything seem the fault of those trying to help her. I found it unfunny, maybe because our current times are so unfunny. But it does have some funny lines.

Iris Owens spent her early career writing pornography for the Olympia Press in Paris. She wrote only two literary novels, After Claude being the first. The novelist Emily Prager writes an introduction to the book, and you begin to get the idea of what you are getting into when she says, “I am honored to write this introduction for Iris’s book but I think you should know she and I were not speaking.” For me, that was the funniest line in the entire book.

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THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA by Teresa Medieros

When did this come out?  2003?  Yep, that’s me, on the cutting edge, right up there at the release party.  Actually, we watched the movie not too long ago, also a smidge behind times, and since I never read the book, I thought I would read it to see how much the movie differed from the book.  I saw an interview with Meryl Streep in which she said the movie was based on the book, but not exactly like it.

I found it an easy and fun read,  and that the movie was very much like it and in the spirit of it.  The difference was in the realization of the soul-selling aspects for the Andrea character.  In the movie, it was more believable, and darker, and realistic.  In the book,  Emily comes down with mono and is forbidden by her doctor to leave her apartment for a number of weeks, because she is very sick and very contagious.  She is the one who tells Andy that she (Andy) must go to the Paris show in her place.  It is not the traitorous act that it is in the movie.  Andy  has a BFF who has become an alcoholic, and while she is in Paris, the friend gets into a car accident and is in a coma and her parents and boyfriend call her in Paris expecting her to rush back to New York, while Andy is sure doing so will cost her her job and career.   So the big thing is does she stay or go?

That whole situation felt very contrived.  I mean, three more days and she would be coming back anyway.  The girl is in a coma.  Family and friends are already there for her.   The movie situation  felt more like the true moral dilemma that it was.   So for me, the movie was an improvement over the book.

And Meryl Streep.  And Stanley Tucci.  The others, eh.  They were fine.  But Meryl Streep. And Stanley Tucci.  Yeah, baby.

THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS by Arundhati Roy

This is the latest from Arundhati Roy, she of The God of Small Things fame.  It is a big, sprawling stewpot of a novel, that weaves together the lives of two main characters.   One strand of this giant braid follows Anjum, a hijra, or transwoman, struggling to make a life for herself in Delhi. The other follows Tilo, a thorny and irresistible architect turned activist (who seems to be modeled on Roy herself), and the three men who fall in love with her.

The book begins and ends in a graveyard.   Anjum lives in a multigenerational joint family of other hijras; together they raise a child. Later, she and a few other characters move into a graveyard. They sleep between the headstones, plant vegetables, create a new kind of human family that can obliterate the divisions between the living and the dead. This graveyard is the inverse of the Garden of Eden—a paradise whose defining feature, rather than innocence, is experience and endurance.

 

 

 

Conversely, we follow Tilo the activitist into Kashmir, and is a lot about the war in and for Kashmir, the struggle between at the time of this story, India and the Kashmir resistance.  It is a story of horror and violence and unimaginable cruelty, while the story of Anjum is one of a resistance movement of a different kind.   In the end, we see the two stories converge, somewhat unconvincingly, but by this time, we readers are so exhausted by the journey we are just relieved and happy to see an ending in sight.

The whole book is about resistance — the gays, addicts, Muslims, orphans, and other casualties of the national project of making India great again.   The book is filled with characters, but most of them, if not all of them, are  stand-ins for causes, which while not subtle, is still effective for this Western reader.  It is colorful, demanding of the reader’s attention,  and has something to say about oppression, resistance and hope.  Something we Americans can use right about now.

 

THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB by Louise Erdrich

Official Plot Description:  Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher’s precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis’s life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine’s life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.

Why Argus, North Dakota, you may  ask.  Because, that is where he ran out of money to travel any further west.  He sells his sausages along the way to obtain money for food and further train fare. And Argus is where he ended up.

Delphine, the only child of her single parent father — the town drunk and ne’er-do-well,  leaves home to make a career maybe on the stage, meets Cyprian, the absurdly handsome feller.  They create a balancing act, take it on the road, and eventually end up back in Argus, where she meets Eva, Fidelis’ wife,  who treats her like a mother would, and the two become fast friends.

The evolving events suck us into a mystery involving dead people in the locked cellar of Delphine’s house, a sheriff obsessed with the town mortician — a young woman who inherited her family business and can’t get a boyfriend due to her profession, a strange woman, Step-and-a-half, so named for her long strides, who wanders the town in the night looking for scraps and throw-aways.   And of course, the butchers singing club, composed of the town’s two butchers and a number of other men who like to sing.  Think Barbershop Quartets.

A lovely story, a love story, a friend story,  fun characters, a nod as usual for Erdrich to the Native Americans of the area,  and a description of life in the Dakotas in the period between the two great wars.  It is a story of pairs:  friends, lovers, non-lovers, enemies-no-longer-enemies, children-parents, life-death.

Just a fine book.  Gotta get me some more of her work.  Yessiressbob.

Oh, by the way, she tells us that the picture of the young butcher on the cover is her grandfather Ludwig Erdrich.  He fought in the trenches on the German side in WWI, and his sons served on the American side in WWII.

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE by Orhan Pamuk

In my determination to read translated authors, because then you get a feel for other countries and other cultures, I have come to The Museum of Innocence by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.   I was published in 2008, and set in the seventies in Istanbul, Turkey.  It won a Nobel Prize in Literature. I gotta admit, I am not sure why.   Oops.  Wait.  No.  The author won his prize for other work, not for this novel.  Now I feel better.  I thought I was losing my ever lovin’.

I found it tedious and boring.  Maybe I am too old for this type of storyline.  Which is as the official plot descriptions tells us:

It is 1975, a perfect spring in Istanbul. Kemal, scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families, is about to become engaged to Sibel, daughter of another prominent family, when he encounters Füsun, a beautiful shopgirl and a distant relation. Once the long-lost cousins violate the code of virginity, a rift begins to open between Kemal and the world of the Westernized Istanbul bourgeoisie—a world, as he lovingly describes it, with opulent parties and clubs, society gossip, restaurant rituals, picnics, and mansions on the Bosphorus, infused with the melancholy of decay—until finally he breaks off his engagement to Sibel. But his resolve comes too late.

For eight years Kemal will find excuses to visit another Istanbul, that of the impoverished backstreets where Füsun, her heart now hardened, lives with her parents, and where Kemal discovers the consolations of middle-class life at a dinner table in front of the television. His obsessive love will also take him to the demimonde of Istanbul film circles (where he promises to make Füsun a star), a scene of seedy bars, run-down cheap hotels, and small men with big dreams doomed to bitter failure. In his feckless pursuit, Kemal becomes a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his lovelorn progress and his afflicted heart’s reactions: anger and impatience, remorse and humiliation, deluded hopes of recovery, and daydreams that transform Istanbul into a cityscape of signs and specters of his beloved, from whom now he can extract only meaningful glances and stolen kisses in cars, movie houses, and shadowy corners of parks. A last change to realize his dream will come to an awful end before Kemal discovers that all he finally can possess, certainly and eternally, is the museum he has created of his collection, this map of a society’s manners and mores, and of one man’s broken heart.

A stirring exploration of the nature of romantic attachment and of the mysterious allure of collecting, The Museum of Innocencealso plumbs the depths of an Istanbul half Western and half traditional—its emergent modernity, its vast cultural history.

It is exceedingly long, going into laborious detail of various scenes and his thought processes.  I didn’t find the exploration of  romantic attachment and of the mysterious allure all that stirring.  After reading the storyline, you can understand my ennui in the face of yet another self-absorbed, obsessed young man who basically has too much so has to find distraction in something less than worthy.

The details of life in Turkey at that time I found really interesting.  The author’s descriptions of the city life, the neighborhoods, etc. were so well-served by his eye for minutiae.  The endless ruminating and obsessing thrilled me so much less.  I have little patience for obsession.  Probably because at my age I can clearly see the pointless waste of one’s life and energies on it.

The author has also written Snow and My Name Is Red.   Perhaps I will give those a shot.

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by William Maxwell

In a small, rural 1920s farming community, two families become friends.  The bored spouses of each family begin an affair that tears the two families apart,culminating in one of the husbands shooting and killing the other.

It is something of a coming of age book, told in the first person by the friend of the son of one of the men in question.  It is not a mystery.  It is not even a mystery why it happened.  It is just a slow, sad recollection of events of the narrator’s youth,  which slowly and quietly fleshes out the characters in spare descriptions, leaving us thinking of them as unremarkable parts of the unremarkable landscape.  The murder affects everyone, even our narrator, because nothing can be the same after such an act, and his fragile friendship crumbles instantly away.

It is about grief, and loss,  and about how we tell our stories,  and about memory, and how and what we remember.

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.

In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.

Lovely book, a joy to read.

 

TOMAS by Robert Bedick

When Paul Weber is approached by an intriguing widow to write a book about her “highly influential, but criminally obscure” husband, Paul thinks this is the first step towards achieving literary glory. But the more Weber learns about Tomas, the more he begins to question the quiet family life he leads with his wife Sylvia and their young son Josh.

This quirky book starts off simply enough … a meh writer is approached by the widow of a painter to write the deceased’s biography.  Our writer is quite flattered, and soon receives cartons of papers pertaining to the man, clippings, and a number of notebooks of his personal diary.

The writer goes through a lot of paranoid introspection, first intrigued, then agog, then beguiled, all of which we the readers hear about in detail.  As the story plods on, we find we can’t stop reading because there is something just a little …. off …. about it all.   Why him?  Why not him?  Why him?  And the more he reads the diary, the more he becomes convinced that a woman with whom Tomas had an affair was his (the writer’s) wife, and that his son upon whom he dotes, is not his biological son.

An on it goes.  Yes? No?  Maybe so?  Deftly told, stringing us along, we patiently trudge after the bread crumbs being tossed to us.

Seems like a debut effort of Mr. Bedick.  Not bad, not bad at all.