Sunday, October 14, 2007

September Book Reviews - Now Complete - Melman, Burns, Pratchett, McEwan, Chabon

I read five books in September, all fiction--three period novels, one sci fi satire, and a young adult discovery story. All were at least four star books. Look for these and other of my reviews along with other information about the books at my Amazon Profile Page:

My Reviews

Landsman by Peter Charles Melman - The author went to grad school with my stepson at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Both now live in Brooklyn, NY. Melman's first novel tells the story of young Confederate soldier Elias Abrams who joins the fight to escape the consequences of his life as a street tough in pre-War New Orleans. The title refers to the protagonist's desire to have a settled life as a landowner, a dream that his upbringing and the war are doing little to advance.

Melman does a great job with the horrors of war and with the strange nature of epistolary love, which Abrams experiences when at the depth of his war experience, he receives a charitably motivated "Dear Soldier" letter from a young woman of New Orleans. After his first battle he befriends a fellow New Orleanian from a different walk of life, professor and self-described man of culture John Lee Carlson, who by turns both befuddles and inspires the semi-literate Abrams. A villain from Abrams' shady past in New Orleans lurks in the background. Melman handles it all deftly, especially for a first-time novelist, and his skill with language will often delight the reader.

Coincidentally, this is the second book I've read in two months that prominently uses the word "Landsman" in reference to the Jewish culture. The protagonist of Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" was named Mayer Landsman. The concept of owning land is critical to someone from these largely nomadic people.

My main complaint with the book is in what it is billed to do, but never really accomplishes--telling the story of the Jews who fought for the Confederacy. We hear the story of one not very pious Jew, and a bit about his dilemma of coming from an enslaved culture and then fighting to preserve slavery. Melman tells a great soldier's story, but falls short in an attempt to describe the experience of a culture in one of the great events of American history. To me, Abrams story could have been that of a young man from any religious tradition. Maybe Abrams' dream of becoming a landsman tells the larger story well enough.

Four stars for an excellently written war story--one star missing for the promised, but mostly missing, larger scope about Jews in the Civil War. Recommended or all readers. Teenage readers will need to be fairly well read to stay with the period story and literary style.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns - this book was on my daughter's summer reading list for ninth grade. It's the story of life in small Cold Sassy, Georgia in the early 20th century, told through the eyes of a young boy whose grandfather marries the milliner from his general store just days after his wife of many years dies. Burns wrote this book, based on the memories of her grandfather, when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease in middle age. She finished it and the followup Leaving Cold Sassy before she died.

Looking back, the story had a lot in common with one of my favorite musicals, "Fiddler on the Roof", except that it's the older generation that tries to break with tradition. Grandson Will Tweedy, whom his grandfather always addresses by both names, represents the future of Cold Sassy and other small towns--torn between the comfort and support of tradition and the promises of happiness based on new ways of thought. Personally, I'm happy to live in a world where everyone's just a little more detached from their neighbor's business than were the people of Cold Sassy. John Prine and Dolores Kearns sang a duet about the situation, "In a Town This Size"--"In a town this size/There is no place to hide. . ." Ironically, the Internet is taking us back in time, but on a larger scale, where everyone can know everything about everyone, at least to the extent that someone is willing to share it on line.

But that's getting away from Ms. Burns' book, which shimmers with authenticity of time, place and language. You'll almost choke in the dust roiled up by grandpa's first trips in his new Buick. And, boy howdy, you'll try out some of the Southerisms out loud just to test whether people could really talk that way. (My daughter and I got a big kick out of this.)

With Cold Sassy Tree, Ms. Burns accomplishes everything she set out to do--preserve the memory of a place and time in her past; honor the life of her grandfather; and entertain generations of readers. Five enthusiastic stars for all readers from 12 to 112.

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett - my friends in reviewing community love this English author, so I decided to give him a try. Pratchett has written dozens of books about Discworld, an Earth-like place populated by bureaucrats, benevolent despots, and wizards, among many wondrous creatures (including golems in this story). Going Postal is the exciting story of the rejuvenation of a moribund postal service (really), led by a young swindler who's been given the choice of taking the job as Postmaster, or being executed for his previous crimes.

Pratchett's tone reminds me of Mark Helprin in Freddy and Fredericka, or Philip Roth in The Great American Novel - farcical and mischievous with language, but with a more than a smidgen of truth behind the farce. He's also done a great job of imagining all the pieces of Discworld and how they fit together into a whole. I'm sure that this impression would be reinforced by reading other Discworld books. Here, we met only one city and a few of its denizens.

In Going Postal, science fiction (or more accurately, alternate universe fiction) meets British cultural satire, a la Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Recommended to all readers with social awareness, a love of language and enjoyment of a good laugh, though younger readers may not get all the references to the foibles of adult society. On the other hand, British readers might enjoy the satire even more.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - again, my friends at Amazon recommended a British author, this time Ian McEwen. On Chesil Beach is more a novella than a novel. It's also nothing like the similarly-titled On the Beach or Beach Music. McEwan tells the short, but intense story of a young British couple on their honeymoon in 1962. Both are virgins, but with very different attitudes about sex, and, in keeping with the times, utterly incapable of discussing the subject.

With such a narrow scope, essentially the events of one evening of the couple's honeymoon, On Chesil Beach is necessarily intensely personal, sometimes uncomfortably so--even though we know that we're reading about fictional characters and the events of the story "happen" almost 50 years ago. Still in the retelling of those events, and of their consequences in the later lives of the characters, McEwan makes a very important point about dangers of miscommunication or worse, no communication, in relationships. Five stars for this short but powerful work, but for adult and near-adult readers only.

The climactic scene isn't lascivious, but it is fairly graphic. Younger readers may also get bored by the British understatement and calm of the first half of the book. I look forward to reading more of McEwan's novels.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon - this was the first novel by one of my favorite current authors (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policemen's Union). It's not really a traditional plot-driven "mystery" novel, but rather a story of young man's search for his identity in the summer following his graduation from college. Chabon's potential as a novelist is apparent in the characters he creates and language he uses.

Protagonist Art Bechstein, whom you suspect of sharing more than a couple life details with the author, exists in the shadow of his gangster father, from which he's trying to escape. Aiding the escape, though not in a very organized manner, are best friend Arthur Lecompte, loose cannon Cleveland, and girlfriend Phlox (how could I forget that name?). You could easily see Art growing up to be the dissolute professor of Chabon's Wonder Boys. The book also reminded me quite a bit of Zach Braff's film Garden State.

If you like young adult stories along those lines, Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a good choice. If you haven't read any Chabon you might want to start with this one, so you'll appreciate his growth as a writer when you read Kavalier and Klay and his other, more mature novels. If you've already read more recent books, you may be disappointed with Mysteries, though it's still fun to read the portrait of the artist as a young man. Three and a half stars. I'll round up to four for Chabon fulfilling the promise he shows here in later works.


franQ said...

My advice to anyone who hasn't read MOP is: read the book, do NOT wait for the movie!

In case you haven't heard, its been adapted to the screen by the writer/director of DODGEBALL. And he's done a massacre on the story, completely CUTTING the gay character of Arthur Lecomte in favor of making Cleveland a bisexual.

He's also reduced Phlox to ex-girlfriend and made Jane (who's barely in the book!) into leading lady.

I've read the screenplay, and it's not bad. Just not MOP by Michael Chabon.

Why Chabon ever signed-off on it, I can only guess it's the Almighty $$!

dadlak said...

Yikes...MOP without Arthur Lecompte--a much different story. The producers decided that the manic Cleveland would work better on the screen than the more subtle Arthur. At least they didn't ditch the entire sexual ambiguity part of the story--then it would really not have been MOP.

There was another book-to-movie of recent vintage that received similar treatment. "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis deBerneires--the movie completely wrote out a very important gay character.

Hopefully the director of Dodgeball is trying to upgrade his resume with MOP. I hated Dodgeball--relentlessly dumb.