Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Emperor of Ocean Park

I'm abandoning this book at p. 149. It's going very slowly. I find it way too wordy, and in general a bit self-indulgent and ultimately sloppy as a work of fiction. There are digressions, almost riffs, that seem to have little to do with anything -- just too much detail. In the guise of character development, the author imposes on us his candidate for the best DVD ever made and preaches to us about the importance of community service.

Most of all, though, the characters are simply not sympathetic. The narrator, in many ways an alter ego of the author, tells us so often that he is not really a nice man that you begin to believe it. One of his least endearing qualities is his devotion to a calculating, selfish and blatantly unfaithful wife. Other characters are cardboard.

The book is hyped as a window on the world of upper middle class African Americans, which, not too surprisingly, is remarkably similar to the world of upper middle class white Americans, except for occasional flashes of what the author/narrator must think is attitude. Ho-hum.

Stephen Carter has a lawyer's facility with words, but the prose in the end is pedestrian. There are occasional witty remarks and some nice turns of phrase. If I was spending a lazy week at the beach, I might have the patience for this, but I need something more substantive to sustain me in the workaday world.

I rarely decide to abandon a book. It usually just happens that I put it down one day and don't pick it up again, and then find myself starting something else. Occasionally, I'll come back to a book I abandoned and for some reason find it more appealing. Might happen here, but I doubt it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

In memoriam: Kirkus Reviews

The news last week that Kirkus Reviews would fold after 75-some years was greeted largely with a ho-hum or, in some quarters, outright glee. Kirkus was famous for being negative and one agent was quoted as saying "Good riddance."

The point of the pre-publication reviews -- Library Journal and Booklist are two other standard reviewers -- is to help librarians decide what to order. When newspapers did book reviews, they also helped editors decide which books to review, so they were influential beyond the tiny circle of actual readers. And of course they provide jacket blurbs if your book doesn't get a lot of reviews in other media.

My first book, Debt Shock, happily displayed a blurb from Kirkus Reviews on the paperback edition: "Unequaled in its astringency and vigor...With one terse, wry, inarguable statement after another, Delamaide...lays bare the crisis that made headlines." Because Kirkus had such a reputation for negative reviews you felt doubly good if you got a good one, and didn't take it personally if you got a bad one.

The review for Gold was somewht more tepid, though not out-and-out negative. "A modestly effective end-of-the-financial-world thriller involving skulduggery on and off the commodities exchange....Tidy plotting, solid background, and brisk pace make an appealing debut until the story, along with the gold market, collapses near the end." Oh well.

Finally, Kirkus had some kind words for Superregions: "An engaging look at Europe's economic prospects, forcefully demonstrating that the continent's future will depend on furthering regional alliances that transcend outmoded and restrictive national boundaries. ...Superregions is full of good ideas, and a fine guide for researchers, businesspeople and others interested in Europe's -- and everyone's -- future."

Sadly, my hiatus in publishing has outlived Kirkus Reviews. They were by and large kind to me, so I don't mind standing up at the memorial service and murmuring some praise. I always had the feeling that those librarians and editors, if not the blurb writers, appreciated having a more skeptical point of view in looking at new books. After all, you can't buy or review all of them.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Hungry Tide

It doesn't get more exotic than Amitav Ghosh's novel of the tide country in the Bay of Bengal. Tigers, crocodiles and river dolphins teem in this parallel narrative of a present-day marine mammal researcher and the story of a little-known massacre a generation earlier.

Along with Ghosh's beautiful, literate prose, there are stories with human emotions -- in all their resplendent ambivalence -- that are at once so firmly embedded in their Indian and Indian-American characters and yet so universal that the reader is carried along in a tide of the author's making.

Piya, the Indian-American researcher; Kanai, the New Delhi yuppie; and Fokir, the unlettered fisherman form an unusual love triangle -- in fact with Moyna, Fokir's wife, two intersecting triangles -- and this drama is quite moving when it reaches its climax.

The parallel story of Nirma and Kumus, with Kanai, Nilima and Horen bridging the time gap adds a whole dimension to the main narrative and the two stories build slowly to their crescendos in virtual lockstep. Nirma, the wannabe revolutionary who becomes a rural headmaster and failed writer, is the dreamer out of step with reality. His wife, Nilima, is more practical, realistic, focused on the moment. And yet in the end, it is Nilima who is left with a some bitterness, conceding that one practical idea Nirmal had amidst his dreaming was responsible for saving numerous lives. Horen, who ferries people around in both narratives, turns out to be not such a minor character.

Ghosh's prose is at time lyrical and the reader is willing to hear the most beautiful speeches from the most unlikely characters. Horen, taciturn through the book, erupts near the end with a soliloquy that Shakespeare would have been proud of, and Moyna is able to articulate the hidden undercurrents of emotion. When she asks Kanai to remind Fokir, her husband, that Piya is only here for a short time, Kanai wants to know why he should be the one to talk to him and not her.

"Only a stranger can put such things into words," Moyna says. "Because words are just air...When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard. You can't blow on the water's surface from below...Only someone who's outside can do that, someone like you."

One small bonus from reading this book is an appreciation for Rilke's Duino Elegies, which Nirmal quotes often, referring only to the Poet. But there are many rich bonuses -- an excursion into cetology, a branch of the study of marine mammals; a tour of the Sundarbans archipelago extending from Calcutta into the Bay of Bengal and sheltering the city from cyclones; a view of the mixed Hindu-Islamic culture along the border between India and Bangladesh; a history lesson about the massacre at Morichjhapi. Ghosh is not afraid to stand things on their heads -- by showing, for instance, the potential damage the West's obsession with saving tigers can have on the poor in those regions.

But The Hungry Tide is above all a novel, with romance, adventure and stories that enrich our understanding of how people think and feel.