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Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
Wise Blood

OneMansView, July 26, 2011

“Are you redeemed” (4.25*s)

Set in the deepest parts of the rural South in the early 1950’s, this highly exaggerated story, though definitely mesmerizing, portrays a South replete with grotesque, ignorant, and disturbed characters who can scarcely be comprehended. Religion literally suffuses the entire culture ��" all are always aware to what degree their thoughts and actions are consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

The story is centrally concerned with the short, troubled life of twenty-something Hazel Motes, a veteran, who returns home to find it abandoned and uninhabitable and then sets forth on a journey of indeterminate destination and purpose. Hazel is in a constant battle with the influence of his deceased father and grandfather, who were preachers. His strategy of avoiding belief issues by simply not sinning gives way before a stronger desire to associate with sleazy women.

Hazel is a man of few words, but has an inclination to ask others if they are redeemed, a question that seems to not be out of the ordinary in this culture. He purchases a rat-colored, dilapidated car from which he preaches the message of his Church without Christ. There are any number of immensely quirky characters who cross Hazel’s path. For example, there is the blind preacher Asa Hawks and his aggressive 15-year-old daughter Lily Sabbath, both of whom Hazel is drawn to but cannot work out just what kind of relationship he wants to have. And there is the totally bizarre 18-year-old Enoch Emery, who is new in town, works at the zoo, has “wise blood,” and cannot be dissuaded from pestering Hazel. Ultimately, the conflicted Hazel sees all of these characters as hindrances to his unspoken mission.

There is a certain terseness and incompleteness that pervades the entire story. Eccentric characters appear almost out of the woodwork with a predilection for weird behavior that is hard to totally grasp. The overall landscape in one of deprivation, if not devastation. There is a shortage of money, clothes, food, living space, etc, yet the characters are hardly aware of such.

The writing both reflects and exposes this spare, strange environment. It is abrupt, descriptive, colloquial, and repetitive, reflective of these deficient characters. The story is, in a way, fascinating, despite the fact that it is difficult to fully digest. Part of the struggle has to do with the date and setting, which is so far removed from modern life as to be almost beyond understanding. Nonetheless, it is entirely obvious that the author has a tremendous facility with language to create and capture an extraordinarily rich scenario.
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A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano
A Good Hard Look

OneMansView, July 23, 2011

The remarkable Flannery O’Connor

This well-imagined, sharply-written emotionally powerful story is set in 1960’s Milledgeville, GA, the small, central-GA town where Flannery O’Connor, the thirty-something author with a small, but devoted following, lives with her mother Regina on their family farm with a large contingent of birds, primarily peacocks. While the story is fictional, it is the author’s intent to accurately capture the complete persona of Flannery. With her resilient, authentic presence, Flannery is a person who the cast of characters in this story are either drawn or react to.

The story begins with the return of Cookie Himmel to her home town with wealthy banker Melvin Whiteson in tow, after a distressing two years in NYC. Cookie, with her enhanced status, intends to trade in on her looks and popularity to become a community leader, complementing Melvin’s standing at the local bank. But cracks quickly appear in this ambitious scenario. It turns out that Cookie has been terrified of Flannery for years, fearing that Flannery can see straight through her superficiality. She is certain that she is unflatteringly portrayed in one of Flannery’s novels. When Melvin visits Andalusia, the O’Connor farm, to decline the offer of a peacock, he is so taken by the directness, perceptiveness, and cool personality of Flannery that he begins to doubt his formulaic life and is unable to stay away from her. Little could they all know the immensity of the events that await.

Self-discovery in its various guises and phases is central to the book: first, the feeling of something lacking or gone wrong; then, the difficulties, consequences, and pain of change along with the possibilities. Lona Waters, a seamstress, is married to the obsequious Bill, whose efforts at ingratiating himself with city elders to become the city police chief excludes spending time on his marriage. But the emotional starvation of Lona and her seizing of a chance to change her deadened life, involving a soft-spoken teenage boy who begins to assist in her business, have far-ranging consequences and costs. Nothing comes easily in the world depicted by the author.

The book grabs the reader virtually from the start with Flannery’s screeching peacocks sending chills up peoples’ spines on the night before Cookie’s wedding. Flannery exudes self-confidence, wit, charm, etc, which is all the more amazing considering that she knows that she has a fatal disease: lupus. Her’s is the sort of equanimity that the surrounding cast can only hope to achieve. There is drama and tragedy in spades in this story, but the author and Flannery would contend that there is hope, that life can take on new meaning. However, the journey is far more difficult than can possibly be imagined as Melvin, Cookie, Lona, and others can attest. Ultimately, it is the remarkable Flannery O’Connor who shines through from these pages.
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Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson
Before I Go to Sleep

OneMansView, July 17, 2011

One waking day to construct an entire world view (3.75*s)

Waking after a one-night stand with a strange married man is disturbing enough, but a look in a bathroom mirror that shows twenty-year overnight aging ��" the gray hair and wrinkles ��" is truly frightening. But none of that is true. Christine learns from that man, her husband Ben, that she has to start over every day in understanding even the most basic details in her life. According to Ben, a brain injury in a hit-and-run incident left her with a strange case of amnesia, whereby all she learns in a day is forgotten after a deep sleep, let alone any memories from the past twenty years. It was a twenty-year-old’s visage that she remembered and expected to see in the mirror.

But is there any hope, a way out of this incapacitating condition? Fortunately, Dr. Ed Nash, a neurologist with an interest in her case, intrudes into Chrissy’s passive days by persuading her to keep a journal and visit places from her past, all of which is concealed from Ben who rejects such intervention. He must call every morning on a private phone to tell her anew where her journal is hidden. Miraculously, snatches from her past float through her consciousness, which she surreptitiously records. She seems to have had a close friend; she had apparently written a book; and there is a scenario that has all the feel of an affair.

The tension in the story is kept high as Chrissy accumulates more and more tentative knowledge that she must relearn each day, but cannot inadvertently speak of with her husband ��" never being sure what they had they discussed that day. Ben grudgingly admits that he has not been entirely forthcoming about Chrissy’s past, supposedly to keep from exciting her. And Chrissy never knows whether she can trust what she has discovered: has she truly remembered or has she merely constructed images. She struggles with her relationship with Ben. For example, does she love him; there are no memories on which to base any such feelings. He disturbs her enough that at some point she wrote in her journal: DON’T TRUST BEN.

Despite a certain repetitiveness, the story is compelling. In the author’s telling, it is a bit too easy to take advantage of an amnesiac ��" other than the unofficial interest of Dr. Nash, the lack of institutional support is noticeable. It finally comes down to whether Chrissy will be able to somehow tap into her past sufficiently to pull herself out of her perpetual night ��" a darkness with some puzzling disconnects.
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The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
The Borrower

OneMansView, July 13, 2011

Imagine him happy (3.75*s)

This is an engaging, whimsical story of an unlikely connection between a twenty-something, disaffected children’s librarian in Hannibal, MO, Lucy Hull, and the bookish, precocious ten-year-old, Ian Drake. Lucy has grown fond of the quirky Ian during his regular visits to the library, but is appalled when his anorexic, obsessive mother Janet insists that Ian needs to read books “with the breath of God in them.” His mother finds Ian’s “sensitivity” so discomforting that she enrolls him in a program in Pastor Bob’s Glad Heart Ministries that is “dedicated to the rehabilitation of sexually confused brothers and sisters.”

Despite the mother’s heavy handedness, Lucy is quite surprised when she comes in early one morning and discovers that Ian has spent the night in the library. However, given that Lucy is, in a sense, a runaway from her Mount Holyoke education and a life of privilege, it is not too surprising that the story takes a fantastical turn as Ian diverts Lucy, with her hardly unwilling acquiescence, from taking him home to the beginnings of a multi-state, troubling journey.

Reality sets in rather quickly. Is there a destination, not to mention, a goal? Basic practicalities quickly arise, such as funding an apparently aimless journey. But that consideration pales in comparison to the possibilities of Lucy facing kidnapping charges. Mostly because there is no plan, she and Ian, under a pretense, visit her Russian, immigrant father in Chicago, who helps her with money and, more importantly, starts her thinking about what it means to escape a situation. At one point Lucy wonders, “Are prolonged stress and the life of the fugitive perhaps more damaging to the child psyche than being raised by an overbearing anorexic evangelical?”.

The book is primarily one long meditation on the possibilities of fundamentally changing lives and life versus the pull of one’s roots. But Lucy admits, “I no longer believe I can save people. I’ve tried, and I’ve failed …. But books, on the other hand: I do still believe that books can save you,” spoken as a librarian. Both Lucy and Ian are appealing characters; their attempts at escape are trying, but are not without amusing, odd aspects.
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A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay
A Student of Weather

OneMansView, July 11, 2011

Life can be stormy

This well-crafted, compelling story is about contrasts, differences, changes, etc involving sisters, locations, terrain, and weather. The story must essentially resolve the fallout from the arrival of 23-year old Maurice Dove, a nature researcher, on the forbidding, desolate plains of Saskatchewan in the mid 1930s and his emotional impact on two sisters: the beautiful, though hesitant 17-year-old Lucinda Hardy, a girl obsessed with domestic perfectionism, and 8-year-old Norma Joyce Hardy, an audacious, resilient, and devious girl, who more than makes up for her somewhat homely appearance with a perceptiveness beyond her years.

Maurice, with his good looks and sensitive personality, is not forgotten by either girl when he leaves for Ottawa, never to return. But the situation unexpectedly resumes nearly ten years later when the Hardy family comes into an inheritance that places them near the Dove household in Ottawa, but the balance has shifted. Now not too young, the insistent, intriguing, and sensual Norma Joyce captures the decided attention of Maurice, but their relationship proves to be troubled and iffy as it is played out over the ensuing years in both Ottawa and NYC with several significant developments.

Most important to the book is the author's understandings concerning the dynamics of the emotions of this situation, including hopes and expectations and feelings of rejection and even betrayal. Reflecting Maurice's studies and Norma Joyce's interests, the author seamlessly interleaves insights about plants and weather that are invariably metaphors for adaptability, suitability, and ebb and flow as related to these characters and life in general.

There could be some dismay regarding the author's treatment of the resourceful Norma Joyce. It is at least possible that a girl with her aggressiveness, imaginativeness, and talent would have had more control over the course of events in her life. On the other hand, life, like the weather, happens; sometimes survival or acceptance is about the best one can do. Norma Joyce is an undeniably compelling character, who keeps the reader interested in her quest to find equanimity in her life. It is a pretty amazing debut novel.
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