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Posts Tagged ‘satire’

fallout“The summer days were long and exquisitely balanced, as if happiness were so strong it could not leave them, but perhaps sharpened by the unexamined sense of something hidden; the more permanent wounds of their longer lives waiting, undiscovered.”

That’s my favorite sentence from one of my new favorite novels, Sadie Jones’ Fallout (HarperCollins, digital galley), a romantic drama played out against the setting of theatrical London in the heady 1970s. Protagonist Luke, an intense young playwright, shows an early flair for the dramatic when as a schoolboy he helps his mother escape from a mental hospital for a day-long excursion. Later, a chance encounter with young producer Paul and his girlfriend Leigh leads to the trio starting a fringe theatre company above a pub and sharing rooms, giving their all for art. Leigh hides her feelings for Luke, a serial womanizer until he meets actress Nina. The willowy beauty, bullied by her failed actress mother and married to a bisexual West End producer, becomes a star as a torture victim in a successful play. Luke can’t resist the role of white knight, but betrayal lurks in the wings as he struggles to remain true to his best self. Jones is a pro at evoking youthful love, friendship and ambition, as well as the inevitable fallout of choices made in the heat of passion. Her backstage tale deserves the limelight.

words If Edward St. Aubyn ever decides he wants to be anything but a celebrated writer, perhaps he should consider becoming an acupuncturist. In his breezy satire Lost for Words (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley), he expertly needles the posturings and pretensions of the literary prize balloon. Pop! Pop! Pop! Of course, he skewered class and culture in his celebrated Melrose family novels (At Last. Mother’s Milk), but he was much more subtle and a lot less cheerful.  This is farce, and he’s having fun.

First, readers meet the assorted, and mostly unqualified, judges of the Elysian Prize for Literature (St. Aubyn’s stand-in for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker), headed by a publicity-seeking MP. Most have read only a handful of the 200 of books submitted for the prize, but that doesn’t stop them from coming up with favorites, forming alliances and trading votes. As the long list is winnowed down to the shortlist, the writers vie for attention. They include a Serious Novelist for whom writing is torture, in love with a lovely and promiscuous writer sleeping with both her married editor and a French semiotics specialist. She misses out on the Elysian when a publishing mix-up results in her publisher inadvertently submitting the manuscript of a cookbook, which then becomes a metafictional darling. Meanwhile, the cookbook author’s nephew, a spoiled Indian prince, is plotting revenge because his self-published opus, The Mulberry Elephant, is overlooked. The judges remain divided over the merits of an historical novel about a folksy young Shakespeare and a profanity-laced screed, wot u starin at, from Scotland. St. Aubyn include spot-on parodies of excerpts from these books; I’ll never be able to read Hilary Mantel or Irvine Welsh again without grinning.

The judges are all asked what they’re looking for in a winner. A media personality is all about “relevance,” while an academic professes an interest in “good writing.” When pressed to be more specific, she stubbornly replies, “especially good writing.” I nominate Lost for Words.

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fishCandy and Karl.  Karl and Candy. The names are familiar. Are they that couple down the street? Or are those their dogs?

No, wait. I remember. Candy and Karl are the professional hit men who insist on getting to know their targets before taking them out. First met them in Martha Grimes’ goofy send-up of the book industry, 1983’s Foul Matter, where they gave new meaning to the term “publishing contract.”

Now, Candy and Karl return in a  satirical sequel, The Way of All Fish (Scribner, purchased e-book), this time going after unscrupulous literary agent L. Bass Hess. They find much to dislike about oily L. Bass, who sues former clients for commissions on books he did not sell. Fortunately for L. Bass, Manhattan publishing pooh-bah Bobby Mackenzie and best-selling author Paul Giverney (also from Foul Matter) don’t want the agent dead. No, they decide to drive him crazy, which is where Candy and Karl come in, as well as literary novelist Cindy Sella, a sleek Malaysian grifter, several kind-hearted Brooklyn slackers, a pig farmer/button man, L. Bass’s wealthy aunt (formerly uncle) who lives in South Florida, and numerous tropical fish. Choice set pieces involve an alligator, a junkyard ghost, a seance in a Pittsburgh museum, and, at book’s beginning, a shoot-out at the Clownfish Cafe that shatters an aquarium.

“Now the brightly colored fish, clown fish, tangs, angelfish of neon blue and sun-bright yellow, were drawing last breaths until the blonde who had been eating spaghetti tossed the remnants of red wine from her glass and scooped up some water and added one of the fish to the wineglass.” Other diners follow her example until the cafe’s tables are filled with pitchers and glasses, “and in every glass swam a fish, its color brightened from underneath by a stubby candle that seemed at last to have found a purpose in life.”

Anyone who has read Grimes’ other novels, including the long-running Richard Jury detective series, knows that she has a way with words and quirky details. Such a lovely wit. And no one does mist and melancholy better.

The Way of All Fish is as funny as Foul Matter, although not quite as fresh because readers already have been introduced to aptly named publishing houses like Mackenzie-Haack and Swinedale and the depths to which writers, editors, publishers, agents, etc. will descend. As Candy and Karl discovered, “Books were to die for. Literally. . .How would they have ever guessed the publishing world was so shot through with acrimony that they’d just as soon kill you as publish you?” Now, the two are wise to the industry, hanging out in Barnes & Noble and flipping the pages of PW.  However, they have yet to write their own book. Then again, Grimes is doing a whale of a job for them.

confessionsIf you like this kind of inside-pages tale, check out Jane O’Connor’s Almost True Confessions (HarperCollins, digital galley), which I galloped through last fall. Free-lance copyeditor Rannie Bookman’s thrilled to get a chance to edit the latest top-secret tell-all by an infamous celebrity biographer. But then Rannie finds the author’s dead body and puts on her sleuthing cap against the advice of her cop boyfriend. She suspects the murder may be tied to the manuscript’s enigmatic dedication. What or who is “Audeo”? I’ll never tell…

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Jeffrey Eugenides had me at the first sentence of The Marriage Plot: “To start with, look at all the books.”

Ah, what a come-on, and the long paragraph that follows is equally seductive as it describes Madeleine Hanna’s books on the day of her 1982 graduation from Brown University, from the expected texts of an English major — “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters” — to the New Directions paperbacks, the Colette novels, and the first edition of Couples. A seemingly random collection that nevertheless is a kind of personality test “with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: ‘Incurably Romantic.’ ”

Yes, I said, yes yes yes.

But that was in  the beginning. I initially fell hard for Eugenides’ surprisingly conventional third novel concerning the romantic and spiritual yearnings of a triangle of Brown students — the aforementioned Madeleine, and her two suitors, longtime friend and possible soul-mate Mitchell Grammaticus, and charismatic manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead. Seniors in love. Where will their passions take them?

Madeleine, who met brilliant Leonard in a semiotics seminar, can’t abandon him, even and especially because of his mental illness. Which leaves mystical Mitchell to travel to Calcutta and work with Mother Theresa for a few weeks.  He seems destined for divinity school upon his return, but there’s something about Madeleine he can’t, won’t forget.

As much as I loved the first third of The Marriage Plot and its deft portrait of academia, I soon began to lose patience with the characters and their youthful yearnings. Eugenides writing still sparkled, and I enjoyed his company, but the bloom was off the rose. I started out in love with the book and ended up in like. I expect we’ll stay friends.

Open Book: I bought a digital copy of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) the day it was published (Oct. 11) and read it straight through. I would have written about it sooner but real life interrupted.

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Cecil Valance is a Rupert Brooke-alike. The handsome young poet breezes into the home of fellow Cambridge University student George Sawle in the late summer of 1913, capturing the hearts of both George and his younger sister, Daphne. Before he leaves, he pens a poem about his weekend visit, “Two Acres,” in Daphne’s autograph book. With its paen to the English countryside and lines about lovers’ secret kisses in the shadows, the poem is destined to go down in history, much in the manner of  Brooke’s “The Soldier” (If I should die, think only this of me . . .), quoted by Winston Churchill and memorized by generations of schoolchildren.

The three days Cecil spends with the Sawles and his composition of the poem, including  ripping up one version and discarding it,  is beautifully detailed in the first section of Alan Hollinghurst’s involving  novel, The Stranger’s Child. In these first hundred pages, Hollinghurst constructs such an impeccable foundation for his sprawling family saga, social comedy/history that after I finished the book — another 350 pages — I went back and read this section again with admiration and appreciation.

Not that the next four episodes, which unexpectedly gallop across a century, leaping decades in the process, aren’t praiseworthy. But they miss the vitality of Cecil, or “Sizzle”, as he is known to his aristocratic family and friends. Of course, that’s one of the points Hollinghurst is making in writing of the vagaries of love and fame and mythmaking.

By the time the book’s second section begins at Corley Court, the Valances’ ancestral home, a hideous Victorian monstrosity, a dozen years have passed. Cecil is long dead, killed by a German sniper during World War II. His marble effigy lies in Corley’s chapel — the hands are all wrong, thinks George Sawles — and Daphne has become Lady Valance. She has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and has two children, Corinna and Wilfred. Also on hand for a “Cecil” weekend are several newcomers to the story, including a young gay artist, Revel Ralph, with whom Daphne is carrying on an intense flirtation, and Sebby, Cecil’s literary executor, who may have been another of his lovers.

Practically every male character in the book is either gay or bi-, and society’s changing attitudes toward homosexuality is a recurring theme throughout the novel. “The love that dare not speak its name” is still muffled in the book’s third section, circa 1970, when the focus shifts to two new characters — Paul Bryant, a bank clerk with literary aspirations, and Peter Rowe, a schoolmaster at Corley, now a prep school. But the closet door is swinging open in the 1980s as Paul pursues Cecil’s aging relatives and friends for a biography that will perhaps out the poet and reveal other Valance family secrets. Is Corinna really Cecil’s daughter? The final section is set in 2008, when domestic partnerships are widely accepted, but questions still remain about Cecil’s life and legacy, which is as it should be in a novel where memory is text and subtext.

Hollinghurst’s writing is lush, lyrical, elegant and witty, occasionally arch and very knowing as he winks at the country house novels of E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh in a series of exquisite set pieces, with a nod to such contemporaries as Ian McEwan’s Atonement and A.S.Byatt’s Possession. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you love Brideshead Revisited and are anxiously awaiting the second installment of Downton Abbey on PBS, find yourself a chintz chair and a copy of The Stranger’s Child.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Knopf) via NetGalley. It expires on my Nook this week, which means I’ll soon be buying my own copy.

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Sebastian Faulks’ canvas is so vast in his new novel A Week in December that I found myself on page 39, on the London Underground, one of  the “tourists with their wheeled luggage and their rucksacks. They chattered as they pored over guidebooks, glanced up at the Tube map overhead, trying to reconcile the two. What false picture of a city did these people have? Veals wondered. Their London was a virtual one, unknown to residents — Tower and Dungeon, veteran West End musicals and group photographs beneath the slowly turning Eye.”

Veals, the man watching his fellow passengers, is a villainous hedge-fund manager and one of a handful of fully-fleshed protagonists in this Tom Wolfesque satire that takes place over seven days in 2007 in Britain’s crowded capital city. Others include Hassan, a Scottish Muslim student and terrorist-in-training; Gabriel, an introspective lawyer with a mentally ill brother; R. Trant, , a book critic who despises successful writers; and Jenni Fortune, the subway driver on the Circle Line who plays video games and “reads with indiscriminate glee.” 

Faulks has both a gleeful and disquieting time connecting these characters and their relatives, friends and neighbors with intertwining storylines as Veals plots the fall of a bank and Hassan buys the ingredients for a bomb.  It’s as if Faulks himself is riding the Eye, sharply observing the city’s sprawling, diverse populace with a telescope, but one that also pierces the surface of skin and ground to discern motive, opportunity and desire. Money makes this world go round — or does it?

Open Book: I received a bound galley of A Week in December (Doubleday) as part of a web promotion. I also once spent a chilly week in December in London, although not in 2007. But I rode the Circle Line and saw some West End shows.

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