Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

When it debuted on the New York Times best seller list at #3, it was remarked back in January of 2013 that this will be the best book that you will read all year. I am not sure that I can echo that praise, but Tenth of December  is a unique book and a thought-provoking read. The stories are diverse and will leave the reader at times scratching his or her head.

I am typically not a short story reader, but since Saunders was lecturing for the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Literary Evening program, I was compelled to revisit the genre. I had forgotten how satisfying it can be. The stories have a dark element to them -  "Victory Lap" is about a teenage abduction - but Saunders manages to avoid the depressing aftertaste by bringing a keen sense of humor to them. Each of the ten stories addresses a distinct aspect of the human condition and comes to a fulfilling ending. 

Short stories are hard to write. The author must compress his or her thoughts into a limited discourse. Each word has to have meaning beyond the word itself. It must convey a feeling, a thought, and an action. George Saunders has accomplished all of this in his collection. I will look forward to future works. He says that he works on multiple stories at one time. It may be a while before the next book is released. And so, until that time, when I want a short and challenging read, I will return to Tenth of December.

George Saunders autographing Tenth of December

Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress

December for the The Gables Book Club always means a light read, usually humorous. Crazy in Alabama certainly was no exception to this rule. Yet as funny as this novel was, it was at the same time serious and disturbing. Set in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights struggle in the American south, Childress fills his book with acts and deeds that leave the reader in disbelief.

Crazy in Alabama is really two stories, not intertwined, but loosely connected. It opens with Lucille showing up at her mother's home with her six children and depositing them there so that she can head to Hollywood to audition and make an appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies. Her mother already has charge of two other grandchildren who were orphaned - Peejoe and Wiley. As Lucille gets ready to depart she lets Peejoe in on a secret. She produces a green Tupperware lettuce keeper (every bride in the 70s got one of these) in which is the head of her husband, Chester. Chester was an abusive man who kept Lucille "barefoot and pregnant" by punching holes in her diaphragm.  Not able to take care of all of the children, Meemaw sends Peejoe and Wiley to live with their Uncle Dove and Aunt Earlene. Dove is an undertaker in Industry, Alabama, a town beset by racial conflict. Dove and Earlene have serious marital issues compounded by his drinking. However, he is a man of reason and compassion and does his best to be an example to the boys. 

Lucille travels to Hollywood leaving in her path a plethora of murders and sexual conquests. She has picked up a haute couture hatbox in which she keeps the lettuce keeper and Chester. She hits the jackpot in Las Vegas and journeys on with her personal chauffeur and the hatbox that never leaves her side with Chester carrying on a conversation with her. Meanwhile, back in Alabama, racial tensions are palpable and when a young boy dies, the two sides are drawn into conflict and riots. This part of the novel is reminiscent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird where justice is compromised. It would seem difficult to reconcile the two divergent story lines, but Childress makes it works. Childress says:
"Life would be impossibly tragic if we weren't able to laugh at it. And a life of nothing but laughter would come to seem silly and empty if there wasn't always something darker lurking ahead down the road, something to laugh in the face of."

Mark Childress infuses Crazy in Alabama with iconic personalities of the '60s. There are the Civil Rights notables of Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Wallace, the Hollywood luminaries like Cary Grant, Bob and Dolores Hope, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Gregory Peck and Soupy Sales. The novel creates its its own playlist of songs from the era with classics like Cannibal and the Head Hunters' Land of 1000 Dances, Brenda Lee's - Emotions, Petula Clark's - Downtown, and Herman and the Hermits' Missus Brown you've got a Lovely Daughter. He drops TV show names liberally: Have Gun Will Travel,
Gunsmoke, Ben Casey, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock, Patty Duke Show, and The Danny Kaye Show. 

The book was great fun, although sobering at the same time. The movie starring Melanie Griffith and directed by Antonio Banderas was entertaining enough, but not nearly as deep and satisfying as the book. It was a good December read. 

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

In her newest novel, The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan returns to the theme of mother-daughter relationships, the pain of abandonment, and the exaltation of the independent woman. After listening to her speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture's Literary evening, it is apparent that she is consumed by her past and the desire to fit all the pieces of her ancestral story together. The Valley of Amazement is a worthy piece in that puzzle, tho not without some fault.

Narrated by the seven-year old Violet Minturn, daughter of an American courtesan in early 20th century Shanghai, The Valley of Amazement  takes the reader on a journey through the brothels and the life as a courtesan. It begins in media res, when the reader is introduced to  Violet's mother, Lulu/Lucia (one of many names by which she is called). She runs a fairly lucrative business that enables her to connect with the wealthy men of the city. They bring her gifts of money in exchange for the services of the women of Hidden Jade Path.  Throughout the lengthy book, there are insights into to this life in the small enclave of Shanghai. Tan even includes a very descriptive manual for the courtesan as Violet's mentor and protector, Magic Gourd, shares the expectations for Violet's future life. 

One soon becomes acquainted with the visitors of the brothel and the shadiness of some of them who are users and unscrupulous. Their actions leave one outraged and sympathetic for the women, some mere children, whose lives are so dependent upon them. The preparations that a young woman must endure for her defloration ceremony and the ensuing act are abhorrent to the western world. To understand such a culture leaves one incredulous. Through twists and turns Violet and Magic Gourd come to rely upon each other for survival, both physical and spiritual. At this point Tan turns back the pages to the youth of Lucia and offers the explanation of the circumstances that took her to China. It maybe that she addresses that part of the story too late for the reader to have much sympathy for her plight.  To say much more about Violet, Magic Gourd, Edward Ivory, Flora, and Lucia, would give too much insight into the story and yield too many spoilers.

The Valley of Amazement was a bit tedious at the start. However, as one became more familiar with the characters, it the pace at which one read increased. One expected the plot to come full circle and it did not disappoint. Amy Tan is a great storyteller, a trait that displayed so magically in her lecture. She is haunted by her past and as a reader one is drawn into that same realm. There is hurt and love in everyone's lives and she, her characters, and the readers by extension all experience it. It is a mark of
Amy Tan autographing The Valley of Amazement
the human condition and her audience is grateful for her providing a catharsis.