This installment: a skewed, hipster novel with illustrations; a fascinating young adult book with shifting identities; Joyce Carol Oates on her widowhood; and a fine West Coast historical novel.
Office Girl by Joe Meno
This writer is quite odd and I enjoy entering his somewhat skewed, surrealistic world. Young people in Chicago, adrift, in dead end jobs, art school dropouts, dreamers on bicycles. Odile and Jack meet telemarketing for Muzak. She has crazy schemes for guerilla art events. Jack has been taping random sounds of the city and has shoe boxes full of cassettes. It's a loopy, disconnected courtship of sorts that doesn't end well, but lot of adventures and anguish along the way. Line drawings and photos, too.
Every Day by David Levithan
Every day “A” wakes up in a new body, a form of possession. What a concept! A is a teenager and always lands in his age group but gender and circumstance change constantly. He has partial access to his host body's memories which helps him think on his feet and fit in. But then he falls in love--oh no!--and this presents a conundrum of immense complexity. A is very bright and principled as he tries to gain the trust of Rhiannon and remain in her geographic sphere. He also tries to give those he inhabits as positive experiences during their "day off" (which is his day on) as he can, though it sometimes goes awry; however in one case he creates an intervention that might save a girl's life. The denouement is amazing. Levithan has written other compelling books for young adults, often dealing with gender issues, and this is a grand platform for varieties of attraction and seeing below the surface.
A Widow's Tale by Joyce Carol Oates
Her husband, Ray, 8 years older at 77, went into ER with pneumonia and a week later he was dead. A secondary infection, probably iatrogenic, carried him off and left her utterly undone, furious, and flattened. Short chapters, almost telegraphic, and an amazing anatomization of the nature of her grief. Very little sleep, eating felt like betrayal, most attempts at "comfort," especially the endless baskets of fruit from Henry and David, became grotesque burdens. Oates pushes herself to work--there's some solace in that, endlessly chews over the losses, missteps and the fear that somehow she never really knew many aspects of Ray. No children, and a few good friends she kind of let in, but basically life on an ice floe. An amazing document and I was willing to suffer along with her on the page for the experience of such emotional intimacy and clarity amid desperate misery. A tour de force. (I read this in May, 2011 but listened to it in Sept. 2012 during my period of mourning for my husband, dead 19 years but still with me in many ways.) The actor's voice is perfect: a little husky, exhausted, tender and bitter in turn.
San Miguel by T.C. Boyle
Life is tough on this island off the coast of Southern California in the late 1800’s but Will is determined to make a go of sheep ranching there. His wife Marantha, who has TB, is shocked by the isolation, the mess, and the unceasing work. Her teenage daughter, Elise, is rebellious. Their serving girl, Ida, bears the brunt of toil but is eventually sent away in disgrace. Marantha dies, Elise flees (an incredible, suspenseful story in itself), and we fast forward to the 1930’s where another family from the East Coast tries to make a go of it. For a stretch it almost seems ideal as they home school their two daughters. Newspaper articles extol the purity of their ways. But the harshness of the island takes its toll, along with the husband’s increased paranoia during WWII, and again the island is left stark and untenanted. Boyle is a great storyteller and this is a big, atmospheric tale, full of gritty details amidst harsh beauty.
Back next Monday.