Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
overdue book reports still under construction
Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
overdue book reports still under construction
It’s a big collection of her stories, old and new. When I first wrote this book report, I’d checked out the book from the library. This time, after reading a recent New Yorker that featured a new Joy Williams story, I bought the book.
As I wrote previously: How did I miss out on her all this time? Who do I read that does short stories any better?
Williams can place characters inside a crucible in a story without us even noticing. Often the situations are odd and disturbing. Morals are stripped bare for examination. Sometimes there’s a whiff of Flannery O’Connor in the air. The stories also include many animals, who are equally random and resident on earth.
As I go down the Contents list, adding checkmarks by the ones I read, I find that each story reveals her mastery of the form. Each has its own set of themes, mysteries, and nuance. Unlike many of today’s hailed and awarded stories that are too often cleverly phrased throwaways, Joy Williams’ collected stories are solid and invite being re-visited.
Her writing is a reflection of our privilege to be cogent, alive visitors on Earth. Her book allows us the privilege to share in her observations, many of which are poetic and visionary. Her work should reside permanently in the study books for classes of American Literature: Modern Short Story.
It is sort of a puzzle and also a lyrical piece. In the sense of world statement, it’s a dark, futuristic view of an immigration apocalypse.
Unlike a lot of fiction here in the American Age of Super Realism, it does not make things so abundantly clear and in your face. Instead the story coaxes the reader and invites involvement, as a poem does.
The main character is a brave woman named Makina, who is sent to carry an underworld package in exchange for finding her brother. She is brave and lusty and intuitive and at the same time green and naive for never having traveled.
“When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning.”
The tightly written novella describes her journey into the land of Anglos and how alien the world appears to her. She has trepidatious episodes, and in the end we are left to figure what has exactly happened to her. No place names are used, which makes the reading minimal and fresh.
PS- You have to work with the English translation a bit on this one. The fact that the translator ends the book with an eight-page explanation of how hard her job was, reinforces how awkward the translation can be in places. Perhaps the Spanish original is highly colloquial with street talk. I have yet to come to terms with “verse” as a frequently employed verb for walking or leaving (is it a chopped street version of “transverse”? But no, that’s not Spanish.) And then the mystical and dire end place where Makina goes is marked at the door with “Verse,” so we are further perplexed.
Now available on Amazon Kindle for $4.99.
“The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez
A simple, well-written, and passionate story about Central and South American immigrants adjusting to a new life in the USA. The family characters are vivid and likeable, and the conditions and human dramas in their new less-than-desirable home in Wilmington, Delaware make it a page-turner. There is fiery romance and pending tragedy between Maribel and Mayor, which is the heart of the book. There is a lot to be learned here by gringo readers.
“Waveland” by Frederick Barthelme
Down and out, a book of three or four people still hanging in there in coastal Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Being mean, being sweet, being survivors. It’s Vaughn the architect’s story, simple yet complex (owing to his constant soulful introspection). Once again, like in his classic novel “Tracer,” we see a man who is separated and dashing proceed in his everyday life with a new girlfriend, who somehow/someway is tolerant of Vaughn’s getting back together with his ex-wife. All three end up in one house at one time, in a Tennessee Williams sort of crucible, making for a survival of a different kind. I didn’t like the three characters that much to fall in love with the book, and the dynamics came across like something I’d already read before. Still, I remain a big Rick Barthelme fan. Not many out there are writing from their heart and soul about everyday American men. He does it with truth, fairness, and guts.
“The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
I’ve been trying to read this book for years and in March made it farther than I have before, which is still less than 25% in. Ellison’s writing is true to the times, in the sense that it’s wordy, strident with complaint, indulgent in artsy be-bop, and filled with tangents, a style largely unagreeable to today’s more impatient “give it to me stoic and straight” readers. I wondered early about the influence of marijuana in the author’s self-edits. Who can contest decades of critics and readers who have proclaimed this a great novel? It assuredly is, but it’s one I cant seem to settle into and press relentlessly ahead in the pages. I wish I could appreciate it for all its worth, and eventually will try again.
Pensive, outside the Elbo Room in Lauderdale, decades after College Spring-Breaks of Yore.
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Over the years, I’ve had a lot of traffic coming to read my article called “A Look Back at Gilley’s 1980.”
Here are some of the other bars I remember from the early 80s in Houston. Those were great days. If you were there, you’ll recall some of them. I’ll add to the list as they come to mind. (though some I cant remember their names).
Any places you recall and want to share, send to -> wpmfla at gmail.
Todd’s – Richmond Avenue area. Had the feel of a neighborhood bar, usually a good crowd, polite, well-to-do, and above all looking for love. Todds was one of the best meet markets on the Southwest Side. The dancing was full throttle by 5 pm. For the less energetic, there was backgammon.
Shanghai Red’s – Red-hot happy hour with dancing and a free buffet, all with a great view right on the Ship Channel. Disadvantaged locals ate for free and left, like a community service.
San Antone Rose – Cold longnecks, mixed crowd with C/W and Top 40, a little for everyone. On San Felipe, West Side. The Rose had a free happy hour buffet too. Their tamales were delicious, but smelly.
Cowboys – A crowded sort of upscale C/W bar. I think it was on Westheimer or Richmond, out west. I was there when a fight broke out. A friend of mine got clobbered.
Spats – A high-end bar and dance place in an office plaza near the Galleria. You had to know where it was. Beautiful people, heavy druggy amorous glamorous and booze-soaked. A paragon of disco’s.
Munchies – an artsy ice-house on Bissonett near Rice with string quartet music and mimes. There was another great ice-house closer to Bellaire but I can’t recall its name.
Yesterday Once More – best I remember it was located in South Houston. Lots of line dancing in an atmosphere of mostly Carpenter tunes ranging from the romantic to the morose. The place had a separate “Mood Room” with glass windows and couches.
Chaucer’s – an Arts Museum area bar on Bissonett and Montrose in the basement of the old Plaza Hotel. My favorite after-work hangout. I had a crush on Vivienne, the bartender. One night I slept alone in the hotel’s “crash room.”
Marfreless – in River Oaks, an unmarked and eclectic bar for couples. Superb ambience, great mixologists behind the bar. Marf’s had sofas and curtained nooks. I went there with dates several times, one more masher in the crowd.
Sillouhette Lounge – a cozy neighborhood nudie club on the unfashionable side of Bellaire Blvd. Friendly, non-threatening. They don’t make em like that anymore.
Rockefellers – in the Heights, an old bank turned into a mini concert hall with big name shows and retro nightclub tables. I went on invitation from friends who were gay. Those guys were always tuned in to the trendier places in town.
Cooters – I think that was the name, anyway. A large dance club and saloon on the opposite end of the shopping plaza from Todd’s, on Richmond Avenue. Had the reputation of over-served customers. Some of the baseball Astros drank there. Some of the visiting Mets were arrested there.
Shamrock Hilton – The hottest place in town on March 17th. Great ballroom drunken mix. Lots of random kissing. One eventually learned to book a room far in advance.
In 2016, after stalling out in Chapter 1 of novel 3 (of In Search of Lost Times), I came back to re-visit and am getting into it again. I’ll need to go back and re-read that first chapter. Sometime.
But for now, I started where my bookmark was, and that’s Chapter 2. Young man Marcel is now out on his own in Paris, mostly in pursuit of young women. He has enough status and station to arrange to see women by formal letter and then sends for a carriage to bring them to his room. Or in Albertine’s case, he’s around when she pops in unexpectedly. The liaisons are described in slow, tedious actions. We are to assume that Marcel is still green and tentative. His romantic interactions with Albertine (the boisterous girl from Balbec in beachy novel 2), despite the eloquence of his accounts, seem childish. While she is frank and forthcoming, he lacks the confidence and candor to be an effective lover.
We see a repeating syndrome. Marcel has a thing for an older female aristocrat, as he did as a boy with Swann’s wife the courtesan Odette (and later her daughter Gilberte too). This time his object of desire is the Duchess Guermantes, who as depicted, is a powerful and beautiful woman who could drink a man’s blood like wine. She is separating from her husband and at long last returns some attention to the once-adoring Marcel. He now, and this may change in later pages, apparently has other conquests on his mind. His numb reactions to her invitations are pitiful and cringe-worthy. He doesn’t seem to have his values in order. Hovering around him as a reminder of his impetuous behavior is the omnipresent moral enforcer the housekeeper Francoise. As yet, I am not understanding his friendships with pals Bloch, Robert, and Charlus.
Stay tuned for more of this report. Novel 4, Cities of the Plain, is under the same book cover. That should be fun, Only a few hundred more pages to go.
At the turning point in his journey of misery and discovery, protagonist Barry Cohen daydreams of Lake Success, NY. It’s like looking for a rope when drowning. A Manhattan mega-capitalist who has spun out of the fast lane, he imagines it’s a safe landing spot, a more peaceful suburban life, replete with healthy sons and matching sinks and domestic bliss. Lake Success is a place of zero madness, he seems to believe, a nostalgic town of anonymity and normalcy. It is perhaps no ironic accident on the author’s part that this real town was once the location of the United Nations HQ (the book is an international POC extravaganza, most of whom get along) and Sperry-Rand’s gyroscope engineering center (stability, anyone?)
“Lake Success” is an intelligent, piercing, and often humorous look at the Manhattan rich and the American not-so-rich and all the woes befallen to both. It’s set in 2016, the advent of the surprising and, to many, nauseating era of Donald Trump.
We get the added benefit of Shteyngart’s’s ability to write travelog, as he takes his main character by bus from NYC to Richmond to Atlanta to El Paso-Juarez (the author nails the fear of the place perfectly), and at last to San Diego to see his father’s grave.
For all the trouble Barry Cohen creates for himself, he comes out at the end, escaping ignominy and insolvency (he has 35 million left). He re-gathers accomplices in the land of ruthless hedge-fund players and goes on with his life, now single. It couldn’t be any other way. He is an unlikeable character from the start, and often his failures are well deserved. Only his magnetic charm and deep pockets save the day.
He does have a certain Holden Caulfield innocence once away from the trappings of Wall Street, and for this we can say he’s a likable jerk. He loves kids and passionately tries to change the lives of two of them. He dislikes phoniness, begins to realize the danger of designing women. He seeks the heart of the world, stripped down and pitiful, having run away from The Top – and at considerable risk to family and self. Sometimes we worry more about his black Mastercard or his prized watch collection.
It can get ugly. Barry huffs crack and gets pathetically physical with a man behind a bus station. On another occasion he hooks up with a beautiful black girl seated next to him on the bus. After they have sex in a hotel room, Barry thinks she has stolen his things (she actually put them in the room safe). Both events are gratuitous and kind of creepy. Characters eat each other in this book like cannibals, capitalist ones.
In the Big Ending, we are preconditioned to feel warm and take out our hankies over his autistic son’s dramatic bar mitzvah. It’s difficult to feel much empathy or joy, considering the place of wealth and privilege Barry rented out so the kid can become a man. Yet one concludes this too is consistent with the story. Money is what he ultimately knows. Barry Cohen is, after all, still a very rich asshole who can buy and settle for another kind of “Success.”
Legacy Systems…………Old Material that’s Hard to Convert and Harder to Delete
Take Offline……….Cooling period
It is What It Is……….Crap
Drill Down……….Add detail
Scalable……….Not much ripple effect
Get Buy-In……….Land an Agent
Kudos……….Your piece has been accepted
Hats Off……….Honorable Mention
Stay the Course……….Keep writing where you left off
Core Values……….(too preposterous a phrase even for writers)
Lots of Moving Parts……….Too many stories in one
Bleeding Edge……….Experimental fiction
Move the Needle……….Surprise Twist
Define Target Audience…………Know your Reader
Roles & Responsibilities…………Character traits & motives
Value-Add…………Meaningful or Resonant Content
Levels 1, 2 and 3…………Dramatic Arcs, Action Scenes, Detailed Imagery
Reset…………Stop and Fix
Roughly Right…………Second Draft
NOTE: …………Author Intrusion
A 1960s novel, today it reads fresh and powerful. Parts of it describe material that was likely shocking fifty years ago, but now is folded well into our huge complicated mix of what is socially and/or morally acceptable – or more cynically, what isn’t?
Cheever’s narrative about domestic America is like Updike on weed. It’s wild and often sad and then entertaining and always visionary. The glowing introduction by Dave Eggers describes Cheever’s fictional skills and mentions how much humor can be found in his scenes. Any randomly picked Cheever sentence can be a trove of insight, clever turn of phrase, or vivid imagery.
The book calls for a second reading in the future, a writer’s examination of technique. First time around, the read was for story, which seemed like a chain of episodes filled with human error, sexual misdirection, alcoholism, and misery. The events involve characters from the Boston-like suburb of “St. Botolphs.”
The centerline of the narrative is often without clear direction, and what begins as a focused report about this small community later breaks apart and rambles into tangential sub-stories occurring in distant cities and countries. In Chapter 31, the loop comes back to start when a train again arrives. It’s Christmas time and people begin to return home. A central figure is dying. Circles are closing. The sentences are sublime; someone is showing us how to end a novel. Angels come to the gates.
As an aside, I haven’t read (nor plan to) the prequel “Wapshot Chronicle,” which covers the St. Botolphs folks in their earlier years.
This is a collection of short stories I was led to by a comment from Thomas McGuane on NewYorker.com, who names her as his favorite short story writer. I’d never heard of her (she is gone now, 1936- 2004). I wonder again, as with Joy Williams, how I ever missed her stories.
She was writing back in the Sixties and is a child of the Sixties and the Seventies and Eighties as well. She was a visionary, writing into the early 21st century, who never compromised her simple and realistic phrasing and eye for character detail.
Her picaresque life took her all over the world, though most of her sensibilities are primarily Southwest USA with a tablespoon of Mexico and Chile. She flew under the radar until finally getting published in national magazines. She was a sensation and a confirmation of what could be called honest art. In her lifetime, her reputation soared only among those in the know. So it’s good to see her books re-released so all readers can enjoy, as I have, the amazement of discovering terrific, unsung writers of our time.
In the state of Florida, it’s the official end date of hurricane season.
In the Republic of South Florida, it’s an occasion to celebrate.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
Published in 2015, the novel is a prescient look at how things can be here in South FL when the Big One comes to town.
Oceanaire is about a small community of neighbors and friends in Miami over the course of a summer. The story’s hurricane sections portray the major phases the characters undergo when experiencing a storm: Apprehension, Survival, and Coping. (South Florida style with a tilt toward comedy and pathos rather than tragedy).
Copyright ©2015 by William P. Moore
I’m Bill Moore and I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and went to Granby High School. I attended University of Richmond for two years then transferred to University of South Carolina where I graduated with a BA in English Literature. I’ve taken fiction & writing courses at Rice, UNC, and by extension U. Iowa.
For over 35 years I worked as a salaried technical writer and instructional media designer for various corporations in NC, TX, and FL.
Under the name William P. Moore, I’ve written ten books (Amazon author page). Three are novels. My writing has appeared in print and online in various literary journals. I’m on LinkedIn and an occasional blog.
wpmfla at gmail
I recall going to Houston’s Alley Theatre in the early 1980s to see their production of “True West,” a Sam Shepard play. There was free champagne served before the show in the foyer. The slinky girl who I took to the show liked that part.
The low rectangular stage was surrounded by ascending rows of seats. Between acts, the room went pitch dark while the crew changed the set. The slinky girl let loose a small coyote howl, and I firmly elbowed her in the ribs.
The story was about sibling rivalry in suburbia. The bad boy son was perpetrating some neighborhood robberies. He stole everyone’s toaster, it seems.
During one set change in the dark, a dozen or more toasters were fired up. In the audience we could smell toast cooking before the lights came up and action resumed.
The brothers fought and things came to a climax. That’s about all I remember. I liked the uniqueness of the play and admire its author for his many talents and the free-spirited way he lived.
Earned by “Colorful Whateverisms,” the lead piece of short fiction in “Parts Department.”
(As they used to say, “This and a dime will get you a cup of coffee.”)