Author: Brigid Brophy
Title: In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel
Publication Info: New York, Putnam [1970, c1969]
This bizarre novel is a work of modern fiction set in an airport, and like the architecture of airports it is very modern but dated in the way that modern things from the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s seem to age rather quickly. The narrator is “in transit” – between flights – at the airport having decided to skip the ongoing flight and reflecting on the narrator’s past life and the undefined status of being in transit. Suddenly, the narrator cannot remember his/her sex and rather comically tries to figure that out. More odd events transpire eventually leading to a rebellion against the airport. The book is full of wordplay, especially puns, and satire of the modern world. It’s the best book with a gender-ambiguous narrator that I’ve read since Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson.
“Have you noticed how little of the twentieth-century life is in fact conducted in twentieth-century surroundings? There are precious few places where you can glance unhibitedly round you and be sure of never placing eyes on an artifact that’s an anachronism. Indeed our century hasn’t yet invented a style — only a repertory of cliche motifs which aren’t in fact functional, since they can be stuck on anywhere, but which imitate the machine-turned and stream-lined and thereby serve the emotional purpose of signaling that our century prefers function to style.” – p. 22
Recommended books: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson and In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan.
Author: Dennis Lehane
Title: The Given Day
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2008)
This sprawling historical novel is in many ways seemingly targeted towards the demographic of me. It is set in Boston circa 1918-1920 among the working class and immigrant communities with the labor movement central to the narrative. Events in the novel include the 1918 World Series, the great influenza, the Salutation Street Bombing, the Red Scare, the Great Molasses Flood, and the Boston Police Strike. Historical details like that appeal to me but the story and interesting characters also make it worthwhile. The novel focuses on two main characters: Danny Coughlin, a police officer who finds himself drawn into the labor movement and Luther Laurence, a black man on the run from a criminal gang in Tulsa. Dozens of characters both fictional and historical circulate around the parallel stories of these two men including recurring appearances by Babe Ruth. There are many flaws in this novel including a penchant for melodrama, two-dimensional characters (especially the women), and ahistorical progressive behavior in the friendship that arises between Danny and Luther. Still, it’s an enjoyable read and a treat for anyone interested in a fictional take on the social history of Boston.
Recommended books: Empire Rising: A Novel by Thomas Kelly and Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker.
Author: Steven Mintz
Title: Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood
Publication Info: Belknap Press (2004)
This book is an interesting history of the United States from the perspective of children that takes on the myth of the idealized childhood – one enjoyed by precious few children, mostly prosperous and fairly recent. The analogy of Huck’s Raft is adept centering on the idyllic childhood adventure yet the raft itself is adrift and unsheltered from the storms raging around it. Mintz’s history goes back to the earliest American children among the Puritan’s of New England and traces childhood life among the enslaved and working class, the inner city immigrants and the privileged elite. It’s amusing to note that commentators over the centuries are always stating that children of the day are more spoiled, more sexually promiscuous, more violent, and less educated (statistically kids these days have actually improved upon their predecessors as far as teen pregnancies, violence, and education despite outcries to the contrary). It’s an interesting take on what is really the creation and evolution of childhood as a concept in America and reassuring that there was never really a golden age. If I have any criticism of this book is that Mintz’s prose is dry & academic and at times repetitive. Still, an interesting book about the history of a large but generally voiceless part of the populace.
“But despite popular stereotypes of ghetto pathology, most inner-city residents resist the temptations of crime, drug abuse, or teenage pregnancy. Indeed, inner-city youth drink less, smoke less, and use drugs less than their suburban middle-class counterparts. One factor that has contributed to this pattern is the strength of black mothers, who serve as models and nurturers of strong and independent behavior. Socialization among African Americans historically has not emphasized sex-role dichotomies in the way found among white families, and as a result many young black women, even in the poorest neighborhoods, have higher aspirations for education and a career than many of their white counterparts.” – p. 353
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Title: The Corrections
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2001)
I’ve avoided reading Franzen and if it weren’t for my book club, I wouldn’t have read this book but I was pleasantly surprised. Pleasant may not be the best word for this novel as it is an unpleasant story about a dysfunctional family and I swiftly found myself hating every character in the book. It is a credit to Franzen’s writing that I was still interested in finding out what happens to them. I was particularly impressed by the opening of the book where the narrative would follow one character until he met up with someone else and then the story would rather cinematically tag along with another character. Franzen also did well at capturing the sense of dementia in the family patriarch and the spreading effect that had on the family. Still, this book is not an easy read as these are nasty, nasty people.
Recommended books: No specific books, but I find parallels with the writing of Richard Russo and Jonathan Lethem.