‘All Involved’ by Ryan Gattis – Six Days of Lawlessness in Los Angeles

‘All Involved’ by Ryan Gattis   (2015)   –  359 pages

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Here is a novel that is brutal and gritty about Chicano gangs and gang war in Los Angeles.

‘All Involved’ is about the six days of Los Angeles rioting and lawlessness that occurred after a jury acquitted the police officers of using excessive force to subdue Rodney King on April 29, 1992.  In those six days 10,904 people were arrested, 2383 people had been injured, 11,113 fires had been set, over one billion dollars of property damage had been sustained, and 60 deaths had been directly tied to the rioting.

“Every single cop in the city is somewhere else, and that means it’s officially hunting season on every fucking fool who ever got away with anything and damn, does this neighborhood have a long memory.”

As the Los Angeles police were all involved with the rioting in specific areas of the city, gangs from other parts of the city saw this as an opportunity to engage in criminal activity, violently settle old scores, start fires, and loot and rob businesses.  The police were busy elsewhere, so there was a general air of lawlessness that pervaded the city.

‘All Involved’ takes place in a Latino South Central neighborhood far removed from the rioting.  Ernesto is walking home from the taco truck where he works.  He has avoided being in a gang, but his brother is a gang banger.  Suddenly three guys appear out of nowhere and jump him, beating him senseless with a bat.  Then they tie his ankles to the back of a car and drag him over the street before murdering him with a knife.  His body lays there unclaimed for two days.

The violence in ‘All Involved’ is extreme and graphic and not softened to spare the reader. The story is told from 17 different points of view, all living in this Latino neighborhood.  We get Ernesto’s sister who is the girlfriend of the gang leader who is called Fate.  Of course there is a major retaliation for Ernesto’s murder.  One member of the gang, Lil Creeper, just gets crazy and goes out and starts as many fires as he can just for the hell of it.

‘All Involved’ is filled with wicked mean stuff, and your typical Jane Austen drawing room reader is going to loathe this novel.

However the plays of the old master William Shakespeare are filled with wanton violence also.  Do you really believe that the Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses in Shakespeare’s plays are more sensible than Los Angeles gang bangers?  If so, you are a true Royalist.

I’ve also been watching Wolf Hall, and nothing that happens in ‘All Involved’ is more outrageous than Henry VIII having two of his wives beheaded.

Grade:   B+

‘Odysseus Abroad’ by Amit Chaudhuri – The Counter-Rushdie Novel

‘Odysseus Abroad’ by Amit Chaudhuri   (2015)  –   204 pages

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If I were to describe ‘Odysseus Abroad’ for what it is, a pleasantly uneventful novel, you would probably by now be well on your way to another place on the Internet, and I couldn’t blame you.

The plot here is beside the point.  Nearly half of the novel is taken up with a “pointless ramble” in London by Bengali graduate student Ananda and his uncle Radhesh during which they stop for tea and later visit a book shop.

As happens with close family members, the uncle and nephew often annoy each other. The two men are like a comedy team with pointed and wicked repartee about nearly everything including the rest of their family members, each other’s sex lives, Indian versus English literature, and restaurant etiquette.

Ananda has strong opinions on the relative merits of Indian and English literature.  He finds only a few English poets helpful to his own work: Edward Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin.  He considers the Mahabharata to be the “equal of all of Shakespeare and more”.  I particularly enjoyed his views on Thomas Hardy:

“and the later, almost comical tragedies of Thomas Hardy, in which things went relentlessly wrong, as in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.”

‘Odysseus Abroad’ fully embodies Chaudhuri’s  views.  For the last thirty-five years the novel ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie and its many successors and imitators have dominated the world’s view of Indian literature.  All Indian literature was now supposed to be big, loud, and bold.  There was no longer room for the small, the quiet, or the subtle.

Enter Amit Chaudhuri and his “refutation of the spectacular”.  He has set about to write novels that are deliberately low key.  In order for a novel to be entertaining, it does not have to be explosive or overly dramatic.  Perhaps it is more about noticing the little things that happen every day that make the day odd and amusing. Also Chaudhuri’s novels do not deal with a monolithic India but instead with an India consisting of hundreds of different groups of people, each with its own particular culture.   Some of these cultures have existed long before England appeared.

To fully appreciate ‘Odysseus Abroad’ requires a change in mindset.  It is more like a jaunt around the neighborhood or a bike ride rather than a world changer.   Sharp conversation, some humor, subtle insights.  Listening to the audio of this book twice in order to fully appreciate it, I spent a lot of time with this novel in which not much happens.  That time was pleasant enough

 

Grade: B+

‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf – Sleeping Together

‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf   (2015) – 179 pages    Grade:  B+

B821981376Z.1_20150602172515_000_G821G7OUM.2_Gallery‘Our Souls at Night’ begins with a seemingly outrageous proposal.

The lady Addie asks the man Louis, “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.”

“No, not sex.  I’m not looking at it that way.  I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago.  I’m talking about getting through the night.  And lying warm in bed companionably.  Lying down in bed together and you staying the night.  The nights are the worst.  Don’t you think?”

Addie and Louis live in the same neighborhood. They’ve known each other, not very well, for a long time.  They have both lost their mates to death as sometimes happens with older people.

Why not sleep together?

“I wondered why you picked me.  We don’t really know each other very well.”

“Because I think you are a good man.  A kind man.”

“I hope I am.”

“I think you are.  And I’ve always sort of thought of you as someone I might be able to like and to talk to.”    

Despite all the glamorous clubs and casinos, all the Internet chat rooms, and all the huge sports stadiums, men and women of all ages are still just looking for and not finding a little non-threatening meeting place where they can get together and talk to each other.

In plain simple unadorned prose, Colorado writer Kent Haruf tells the story of these two near seventy-year-olds Addie and Louis

“It’s some kind of decision to be free.  Even at our ages.” 

Of course neighbors see Louis arriving at Addie’s house in the evening and leaving in the morning.  These neighbors react in two distinct ways.  Some decide it is none of their business, take it in stride, and wish them the best.  However there are moments of sharpness when a few other neighbors start gossiping about them and questioning their relationship.  Their own grown-up children have difficulty dealing with it.

Despite their children’s discord and a few neighbors’ interference, the actual bond between Addie and Louis is presented as near idyllic.  Addie’s son is having problems in his own marriage and soon her six-year-old grandson Jamie is living with Addie.  Louis decides that Jamie should have a dog, and they take the boy and dog on outings around Colorado.

This is the last novel by Kent Haruf.  He died last November.  ‘Our Souls at Night’, like all of his novels, takes place in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt.  I suppose Kent Haruf could best be described as a western minimalist.  ‘Our Souls at Night’ is a short novel, and its stately prose frames this simple story well.

‘Look Who’s Back’ by Timur Vermes

‘Look Who’s Back’ by Timur Vermes    (2012)  –  305 pages    Translated by Janie Bulloch     Grade:  B-

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We had hoped that Adolf Hitler was gone forever, but according to German writer Timur Vermes now he is back.  It’s the real Hitler who shows up, but everyone mistakes him for a Hitler imitator, and soon he is starring as a loony YouTube Hitler.

“Once upon a time he murdered millions – now millions have made him a YouTube sensation.  With his tasteless routine and bizarre catchphrases, a “comedian” dressed up as “Adolf Hitler” is venting hatred against foreigners, women, and democracy in Ali Gagmez’s show.”

A lot of the humor in ‘Look Who’s Back’ is based on the Hitler of 1945 confronting the modern world of smart phones, Starbucks, and ubiquitous computers.  He still spews the same old hate, but people just figure it is part of his act.

In some ways Vermes has softened Hitler up having him “love to watch the children romp around and squeal with excitement”.  This Hitler is also attractive to a variety of women.

Frankly I found another portrayal of Hitler much more amusing than anything in ‘Look Who’s Back’. That would be the angry rant of Adolf Hitler against his generals by Bruno Ganz in the movie ‘Downfall’ after he is given the news that the Russian army has swarmed Berlin and that the total defeat of Germany is imminent.   This rant occurred just hours before Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide.  ‘Downfall’ is one of the great movies of the past dozen years.

I am much more comfortable with Adolf Hitler as an evil monster rather than as any sort of likeable fellow.   But Vermes’ reasoning seems to be that in order for Hitler to do what he did, he must have had some attractive qualities which appealed to the German folk.  Instead of a lone monster, we have a whole people who followed and were severely misled.  I can buy that.  Hitler certainly did not act alone, but Hitler still bears responsibility for leading Germany down into the cesspool of history.

At certain points in the novel, the six million Jews that Hitler was directly responsible for murdering are mentioned.   When the producers of his TV show say “The Jews are no laughing matter”, Hitler agrees with them.  That is supposed to be some kind of joke.

In a way, the humor here reminded me of ‘The Producers’ where two guys write a Broadway musical called ‘Springtime for Hitler’ expecting it to be a flop, but it turns out to be a hit because it is so ridiculous.  The humor is quite cynical and distasteful in ‘Look Who’s Back’, yet the novel has set sales records in Germany.   Quite a bit of the humor is local and depends on inside references to Germany that I did not get.  The time-traveler humor of an old-time person confronting the modern world was somewhat old hat.

At one point in the novel Hitler says of England, “How many more bombs would we have to drop on their cities before they realized that we were their friends?”  Same old Hitler.

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright – Grotesque But Energetic

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright   (2015)   –  310 pages    Grade: B+

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The world was beginning to seem just too bright and cheerful for me again.  It was time to read Anne Enright.

‘The Green Road’ is what I call a “cutting the heads off chickens” novel.  ‘The Green Road’ begins in rural western Ireland where even the little children know all too well that before the chicken is roasted and served for dinner, the live chicken must first be caught, its head chopped off, and its feathers plucked.  I was born on a farm in western Wisconsin and so I witnessed the beheading of chickens at an early age.  My father was too diffident and imprecise; he would not have been very good at this task.  However my mother was highly skilled at holding the live chicken’s head flat on the tree stump, lifting the axe and bringing it down exactly on the chicken’s neck, sort of like Wolf Hall.  After that the headless bloody chicken would go sort of wings flapping half flying off around the area in its last gasp of life.

Each of the early chapters of ‘The Green Road’ has a disturbing sickening scene which also just happens to be a part of life. In the first chapter it is that chicken beheading. In the second chapter we are in the East Village and Fire Island of  New York City during the early days of the AIDS crisis when many young men were coming down with the horrible disfiguring of Kaposi’s syndrome and were dying soon afterwards.  In the third chapter, we are with a large group of women being checked for breast cancer and awaiting the results.   The next chapter takes place in Africa.

“And the street was a medical textbook, suddenly.  People with bits missing.  The bulge of a tumor about to split the skin.  The village idiot was a paranoid schizophrenic.  A man with glaucous eyes was sweating out a fever in a beautiful carved chair, his head tipped back against the wall.” 

Other scenes that are more grotesque occur later in the novel.

‘The Green Road’ is a family reunion novel.  I think it is to Anne Enright’s credit that every one of the members of this family amounts to less than average because that is true of most families.  All the members of this Irish family gather at the old family home after many years apart.  Still Anne Enright can come up with ugly descriptions for even the most innocuous of scenes.

“It was awful.  The pain was awful.  Her mother juddering and sputtering, with the carrots falling from her mouth in little lumps and piles.”

A couple of weeks ago I berated ‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson along with all Norwegian realistic novels for being cheerless and grim.  Despite all of the unpleasantness in ‘The Green Road’, I did not find it to be bleak or dismal at all.   Instead time and time again, she has a way of choosing the exact words to describe her characters for example in “Emmet would drive you mad for being good.”  Anne Enright seems to take great delight in these grotesque situations and brings a great amount of energy and enthusiasm to her art.

‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy – Not Oprah Literature

‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy    (2015) – 192 Pages    Grade: B

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Tom McCarthy writes avant-garde fiction.  He has also written dismissively of “Oprah literature” which he characterizes as “candid confession and exposure of personal peccadilloes”.  He goes on to say  “the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over” were hopelessly “simple-minded”.  I have read a fair share of the better Oprah-recommended books, so I was quite curious about exactly how Tom McCarthy would do things differently.  Thus I read ‘Satin Island’.

The narrator of ‘Satin Island’ is a young anthropologist who has been hired by The Company to work as an “in-house ethnographer”.   His boss challenges him to  “write the Great Report … the Book. The first and last word on our age … What I want you to do, he said, is name what’s taking place right now.”   The Great Report would be part of the all-pervasive Koob-Sassen Project which like all modern projects is boring and inscrutable.

An up-to-date satire with an anthropologist studying the modern corporation could have been quite humorous, but nothing is finally done with the idea.  Our anthropologist realizes that such a Great Report is impossible to write.  Thus the writing of the Great Report is just dropped.  I would have much preferred it if our guy had made specific attempts to write the Great Report before he gave up.  That could have been funny.

Instead we get riffs on a variety of subjects ranging from a major oil spill to the sudden death of a parachutist whose strings were cut. Our narrator sees on an airport TV a man wearing a Snoopy T-shirt surveying the carnage and death in a marketplace that has been bombed. Some of the riffs worked for me; many of them did not.  I suppose all these side stories relate to the modern world in some way, but this constant changing of subject lacked coherence for me.  Sometimes it seemed that pointlessness was the point of ‘Satin Island’.

I do feel at a disadvantage not having read what apparently is McCarthy’s masterpiece, ‘Remainder’.

Avant-garde fiction is a good thing.  ‘Ulysses’ is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I could name many other experimental novels that I have loved including ‘White Noise’ by Don Delillo, ‘Nazi Writers of the Americas’ by Roberto Bolano, and the novels by Stephen Wright. At the same time, it seems to me that throwing out characterization and a coherent plot is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.  Even the most daring novels need these elements.

‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky – World War I, then a Respite, then World War II

‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky   (1957)   229 pages – Translated by Sandra Smith     Grade: A-

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In ‘The Fires of Autumn’, Irene Nemirovsky again vividly demonstrates her ability to deal with both the large scale events of nations as well as their impact on individual families.  She captures what life was like for her fictional families in Paris from 1912 to 1941.

One aspect of Irene Nemirovsky that isn’t pointed out often enough is that she was highly educated.  She started writing fiction when she was eighteen years old while she attended the Sorbonne University in Paris from 1920 to 1925.  First she studied Russian literature and language at the university and later studied comparative literature.  She published her first novel, ‘David Golder’, in 1929, and it was an immediate success.  Both it and her second novel ‘Le Bal’ were so popular that they were immediately turned into movies.

Nemirovsky completed ‘The Fires of Autumn’ in the spring of 1942 just before she was arrested for the crime of being “a stateless person of Jewish descent” by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered soon afterward.  She apparently wrote ‘The Fires of Autumn’ and ‘Suite Francaise’ at the same time.

‘The Fires of Autumn’ starts out with three neighborhood families taking a stroll on the Champs-Elysees in 1912, and we get a sense of the stately peace of the stroll at that time.  But then World War I breaks out, and everyone is soon caught up in the horrors of war.

“Oh how he had hated death, how he had feared it, just as he had doubted God and blasphemed as he looked at the little blackish heaps lying between two trenches, dead bodies as numerous and insignificant as dead flies in the first cold snap of winter…And yet even that moment held a rather tragic beauty.”

 After the war, there is a shortage of men, an abundance of women.  The men who are left have been devastated by the war and just want to enjoy life.  There is a loosening of morals not only in relations between the sexes but also in the business world.  Fortunes can be made overnight by travelling to the United States to impress financiers.  The novel implies that these underhanded business dealings led to the French army being shoddily and inadequately equipped so that when the next war, World War II, breaks out the French military is easily defeated.

Blog pic_1We see all these developments take place within the lives of one family.  Irene Nemirovsky never sweetens or softens what is happening but deals with it in a straightforward manner.

Lately I’ve tried to pinpoint the qualities of the writers I most admire.  One thing that has not sufficiently been noted about Irene Nemirovsky is her intelligence.  Certainly we get a family drama in ‘The Fires of Autumn’ but we see this family in the panoramic context of national and world events over thirty years.  I cannot name another writer besides Irene Nemirovsky who captured this era between the wars in fiction so well.

 

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