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Category Archive for 'United States'

Erle Stanley Gardner, a man who found his metier early in life, bridged the gap between pulp and literary fiction during the 1940s and 1950s, and THE CASE OF THE CARELESS KITTEN is one of his best. A lawyer for fifteen years, he has said that while he enjoyed litigation and the development of trial strategy, that he was bored by the day-to-day work in the office. He soon began writing stories for pulp magazines, setting as his writing goal over a million words per year, and using some of his cases as inspiration. Beginning in 1933 with his first novel, he eventually developed the Perry Mason series, which, alone, consists of eighty novels. Gardner quickly developed a style which fit his legal experience and interests, and modern readers discovering him for the first time, and older readers who have not read him in years, will be intrigued by the obvious formula which governs his work. In every case, the characters are introduced briefly, and their upcoming roles in the book are quickly established. Gardner is interested in the facts and has no interest in developing personal psychologies or complex motives. He keeps the character list simple and the action moving quickly. Ultimately he creates a puzzle, rather than a plot: Something terrible happens, and the reader is supplied with every piece of information s/he needs, along with a few red herrings, leading to a grand climax in which the evil-doer is revealed as a surprise. The reader’s objective is to figure out the guilty party ahead of the author’s revelation.

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In this collection of eleven short stories, author Joseph O’Neill focuses on imperfect and often uncommitted men as they live their usually unexciting and unrewarded lives. Their stories are, from a “story” point of view, as unexciting as their lives, yet they are also fun and often even funny. O’Neill, the son of an Irish father and Turkish mother who traveled and lived with their family all over the world, writes without the clever and quirky characteristics one usually associates with stereotyped “Irish writers,” presenting his stories instead with a “straight face” as he recreates his characters’ lives and leaves it up to the reader to form judgments and draw conclusions. Throughout the collection, O’Neill varies his literary style to fit the subject, and in “The Mustache in 2010,” his overtly academic tone for a subject like mustaches, as he traces the history of facial hair, serves as an amusing introduction to “the drama of Alexandre Dubuisson’s mustache.” Ultimately, the collection feels somewhat anti-climactic, lacking real, direct conflicts resulting in final resolutions. The male characters are weak and are often afraid or too easily distracted from the real issues to make independent moves.

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Jamel Brinkley, author of this extraordinary debut collection of stories, is much more than “a lucky man” in having this collection published by Graywolf, one of the most respected literary publishing houses in the country.  Brinkley’s literary talents and his insights into people – all kinds of people of various backgrounds and ages – kept me spellbound for the entire time I spent reading and rereading these stories.  I am not young, black, male, or the resident of a city, as these characters are.  I have not experienced (or do not remember) most of the kinds of events which Brinkley’s characters experience as normal – growing up in a broken home, having few resources for dealing with the turmoil of the teen years, struggling with responsibilities which would be challenging even for an adult, and living a life in which “betrayal on the cellular level” is complicated by surprising naivete regarding love and sex, expectations and reality, and issues of identity and reputation.  Still, as the young male characters of the nine stories here live their lives as well as they can, given their ages and limitations, they achieve a kind of universality which cannot help but touch the heart of the reader as s/he connects with these characters on a deeply personal level.

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In Some Trick, a collection of thirteen thoughtful and challenging stories, author Helen DeWitt calls to mind a mood similar to that of her first published novel, The Last Samurai, published in 2000. Short-listed for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Award, The Last Samurai tells the story of a single mother, Sybilla, as she brings up her genius son Ludo. DeWitt had written fifty novels before she felt comfortable enough with The Last Samurai to submit it for publication, and it was a ground-breaking literary success when it was published in 2000. Lightning Rods, her second novel, eleven years later, was a similar critical success, though less popular. Some Trick examines difficult issues about writing, publishing, an artist’s relationships with the public, the involvement of agents and representatives who sometimes distort an artist’s goals in the name of sales, the dependence of creative scholars on outsiders for professional survival, and the lonely life of a creative artist who will never be fully understood. The stories, darkly satiric and sometimes eerie or bizarre, are also heady, intense, concentrated, and often difficult, and the overall intellectualism of the collection is so weighty that readers unfamiliar with DeWitt would do well to read the more charming and character-driven The Last Samurai first. Some Trick, read leisurely, is a fascinating encore for those, who crave more.

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Tommy Orange, a Native American author, describes the contemporary culture of the Urban Indian, one who does not live on a reservation or in the countryside, but in the middle of cities, in this case, Oakland, California. Orange is especially interested showing the need for a unifying Indian culture and the fact that urban areas are totally different from any previous centers of Native American culture. Using twelve characters moving back and forth across three generations, he tells the interconnected stories of these people, the tragedies, the horrors of their lives, their frequent reliance on drugs and alcohol, and their difficulties continuing a culture which may not adapt well to twenty-first century urban life. All these characters come together in the final section, “Powwow,” which emphasizes their various relationships, some of them quite innocent, others not, as a dramatic and powerful ending unfolds.

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