Category Archives: Postmodern Literature

The Night Buffalo by Guillermo Arriaga

Synopsis from Amazon.co.uk:

The Night Buffalo by Guillermo ArriagaGregorio and Manuel were best friends. They both had a tattoo of a night buffalo, which Gregorio insisted was done with the same needle, so their blood would mingle. Since Manuel started sleeping with Gregorio’s girlfriend, the friendship had become increasingly difficult to live with. In the aftermath of Gregorio’s suicide Manuel struggles to get his life back on track. Everyone seems to suspect him of knowing more than he lets on and everyone seems to be keeping their own secrets, including his girlfriend. Most disturbingly Gregorio appears to still be watching him, letters from him appear through the post, containing enigmatic messages, ‘You won’t be able to run from the night buffalo’, they promise. Gregorio hadn’t finished dying yet. From the acclaimed writer of “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”, this is the story of a passionate and destructive menage a trois and the tricks your mind can play on you.

Guillermo Arriaga is better known as a screenwriter, having collaborated with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in the films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and, most recently, Babel. Those films are noted for their nonlinear narrative, resonant characters, and a lonely, desperate sensuality. Mr. arriaga brings this same distinctive touch to The Night Buffalo, his third novel.

Gregorio’s suicide is the catalyst of the story. Most shaken by this event are Manuel, Gregorio’s erstwhile best friend, and Tania, Gregorio’s ex- (and Manuel’s current) girlfriend. Manuel feels a sense of relief when Gregorio kills himself; the strain of Gregorio’s increasingly volatile behavior was beginning to wear on him and on his relationship with Tania, which was not exactly a stable one to begin with, as the two began their affair while Gregorio was going in and out of mental hospitals. However, Manuel’s expected respite does not occur as he planned; Gregorio has left him a box filled with notes and photos. These cryptic clues reveal more betrayals and more infidelity, and Manuel realizes that he still has not disentangled himself from Gregorio’s lies and manipulation. He seeks comfort from Tania, but Tania is wrestling with her own guilt and, naturally, questions her role in Gregorio’s illness and subsequent suicide. as Tania begins to pull away from him, Manuel begins his own exploration of betrayal and jealousy, culminating in a ghastly act of violence and the dissolution of their relationship.

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The Umbrella Country by Bino A. Realuyo

Synopsis from Amazon.com:

The Umbrella Country by Bino Realuyo“Certain things are better kept than said. . . .
But certain things you have to find out now. . . .”

On the tumultuous streets of Manila, where the earth is as brown as a tamarind leaf and the pungent smells of vinegar and mashed peppers fill the air, where seasons shift between scorching sun and torrential rain, eleven-year-old Gringo strives to make sense of his family and a world that is growing increasingly harsher before his young eyes.

There is Gringo’s older brother, Pipo, wise beyond his years, a flamboyant, defiant youth and the three-time winner of the sequined Miss Unibers contest; Daddy Groovie, whiling away his days with other hang-about men, out of work and wilting like a guava, clinging to the hope of someday joining his sister in Nuyork; Gringo’s mother, Estrella, moving through their ramshackle home, holding her emotions tight as a fist, which she often clenches in anger after curfew covers the neighborhood in a burst of dark; and Ninang Rola, wise godmother of words, who confides in Gringo a shocking secret from the past–and sets the stage for the profound events to come, in which no one will remain untouched by the jagged pieces of a shattered dream.

As Gringo learns; shame is passed down through generations, but so is the life-changing power of blood ties and enduring love.

In this lush, richly poetic novel of grinding hardship and resilient triumph, of selfless sacrifice and searing revelation, Bino A. Realuyo brings the teeming world of 1970s brilliantly to life. While mapping a young boy’s awakening to adulthood in dazzling often unexpected ways, The Umbrella Country subtly works sweet magic.

There is a tendency among expatriates to romanticize their homeland; I certainly understand such an impulse, being of the Filipino diaspora myself. Bino Realuyo does exactly this in and attempts to exorcise his past and his origins. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing; the expatriate experience is rich, ever-evolving, and certainly deserves to be chronicled. However, it may be that more time needs to pass before the author can deliver his ideas in a more cohesive way.

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Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Enduring Love by Ian McEwanScience writer Joe Rose is spending a day in the country with his long-time lover, Clarissa, when he witnesses a tragic accident–a balloon with a boy trapped in it is being tossed by the wind, and, in an attempt to save the child, a man is killed. As though that isn’t disturbing enough, a man named Jed Parry, who has joined Rose in helping to bring the balloon to safety, believes that something has passed between him and Rose–something that sparks in Parry a deranged, obsessive kind of love.

Soon Parry is stalking Rose, who turns to science to try to understand the situation. Parry apparently suffers from a condition known to psychiatrists as de Clerambault Syndrome, in which the afflicted individual obsessively pursues the object of his desire until the frustrated love turns to hate and rage–transforming one of life’s most valued experiences into pathological horror. As Rose grows more paranoid and terrified, as his treasured relationship with Clarissa breaks under the tension of his fear, Rose realizes that he needs to find something beyond the cold reasoning of science if this love is to be endured.

With the cool brilliance and deep compassion that defined his best novels (The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent), Ian McEwan has once again spun a tale of life intruded upon by shocks of violence – and discovered profound truths about the nature of love and the power of forgiveness.

After spending several weeks apart, Joe Rose is enthusiastically waiting to see his wife, Clarissa. (Enthusiasm is the most appropriate description, not excitement, as Joe Rose is nothing if not coolly logical.) Clarissa and Joe are a quiet, intellectual couple: Clarissa is a professor who specializes in Keats, while Joe is a disappointed science writer who, despite being reduced to writing what he sees as pseudo-scientific articles, has achieved some success, allowing him to float on and be content. Joe has planned a picnic in the English countryside for their reunion, but they’ve barely opened their bottle of wine when a helium balloon, clearly out of control, comes drifting where they are picnicking.

Joe and four other men grab onto the ropes hanging from the basket, but they are lifted clean off the ground, and their notions of heroism vanish as they are raised higher by the wind. All but one of them let go of the ropes; John ’s misguided valor causes his death, and Joe says of witnessing the fall:

We watched him drop. … No forgiveness, no special dispensation for flesh, or bravery, or kindness. Only ruthless gravity. … He fell as he had hung, a stiff little black stick. I‘ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man.

All the witnesses are left shaken by the incident. Joe repeatedly asks himself, was he the first one to let go? Joe, being logical to a fault, rationalizes his behavior as the natural instinct for self-preservation, but this doesn’t prevent him from feeling waves of guilt at John ’s death. What seems to be the central conflict is now established, but Enduring Love, surprisingly, delves into something else entirely. After John Logan’s fall, Joe exchanges a look with Jed Parry, one of the other failed heroes, and this launches the real catastrophe: Jed falls madly (and i do mean madly, as in the obsessive sense) in love with Joe. Jed is convinced that Joe returns his love (in fact, he believes that Joe was the one to initiate the nonexistent affair) and begins to hang around outside his apartment, leave scores of messages on his answering machine, and write letters extolling the virtue of God’s, and by extension his, love.

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An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

an-invisible-sign-of-my-own.jpgWith her stunning debut collection of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender showed herself to be “a writer who makes you glad for the very existence of language” San Francisco Chronicle. The book was a sensation; it spent seven weeks on The Los Angeles Times bestseller list, received ecstatic reviews nationwide, and established Aimee Bender as one of the freshest and most original voices in American fiction.

In An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender exceeds her early promise. She gives us the story of Mona Gray, a second-grade math teacher who has just turned twenty–a number which, like all numbers in her life, seems to have a profound significance. Mona lives her life under the shadow of her father’s long, weird, unnamed illness and her own bizarre compulsions. She excels at music, running, and sex, but ceases each activity just at the moment enjoyment becomes intense: Mona is “in love with quitting.” Only numbers provide the order and beauty she craves. “Mix up some numbers and you get an equation for the way the wind shifts or an axiom for the movement of water, or the height of someone, or for how skin feels. You can account for softness. You can explain everything.” With construction paper and Magic Markers, Mona arranges her classroom into “a beautiful museum of numbers,” but that could also describe her life: a collection of oddities, a static place, a hushed and insular world where disruption is unwelcome. Then the science teacher arrives, with burn marks on his fingers and a genius for teaching children the joys of coughing, and Mona’s strange and tidy universe is threatened by love, the supreme disorder. In her luminous, pitch-perfect prose, Bender conjures a dream world much like our own, a fairy tale grounded in a penetrating sense of what moves the human heart.

Like in her collection of short stories, The Girl In The Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender once again gives us a surreal tale of suburban malaise and magical realism. As expected, the protagonist, Mona Gray, is both endearing and eccentric, having had a nearly lifelong love affair with quitting. Mona always seems to be on the verge of mentally imploding (and physically as well, after buying an ax on her 20th birthday) but she keeps her demons at bay by soothing herself with math and numbers, which are solid and dependable and not subject to the random catastrophes that make up a life.

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Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Once Were Warriors by Alan DuffOnce Were Warriors is Alan Duff’s harrowing vision of his country’s indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.

Reading this book was such a colossal chore, which is why I didn’t finish it. Don’t quote me but I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s novels as an example of “typing, not writing.” I believe the same sentiment applies here.

Once Were Warriors focuses on the Hekes, a Maori family living (if it can be called that) in the slum of Pine Block; the Hekes’ home is directly adjacent to the palatial mansion of the pakeha (meaning white, and therefore much loathed, apparently) Tramberts. Way to kick a brother when he’s down, right? Beth and Jake are both too drunk and disillusioned to care much for their kids: Nig, who has joined the local gang; Boogie, who was sentenced to a juvenile correctional facility (his parents were unable to attend the sentencing as they were both too hungover and Jake had beaten beth to a pulp the night before); and Grace, who is the fragile, sensitive girl and, in keeping with Alan Duff’s cliched characterizations, is doomed by her situation.

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A Changed Man by Francine Prose

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

On an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, a young neo-Nazi named Vincent Nolan walks into the office of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights foundation headed by a charismatic Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow. Vincent announces that he wants to make a radical change in his life. But what is Maslow to make of this rough-looking stranger who claims to have read Maslow’s books, who has Waffen-SS tattoos under his shirtsleeves, and who says that his mission is to save guys like him from becoming guys like him?

As he gradually turns into the sort of person who might actually be able to do that, Vincent also transforms those around him: Maslow, who fears that heroism has become a desk job; Bonnie Kalen, the foundation’s fund-raiser, a divorced single mother and a devoted believer in Maslow’s crusade against intolerance and injustice; and Bonnie’s teenage son, Danny, whose take on the world around him is at once openhearted, sharp-eyed, and as fundamentally decent as his mother’s.

Masterfully plotted, darkly comic, A Changed Man illuminates the everyday transactions in our lives, exposing what remains invisible in plain sight in our drug-addled and media-driven culture. Remarkable for the author’s tender sympathy for her characters, A Changed Man poses the essential questions: What constitutes a life worth living? Is it possible to change? What does it mean to be a moral human being? The fearless intelligence, wit, and humanity that inform this novel make it Francine Prose’s most accomplished yet.

Francine Prose’s characterization skills are superb, although her style took a bit of getting used to. Her style is almost too conversational and informal, which isn’t so much a criticism as much as an observation. I suspect the previous statement is more reflective of my personal preference anyway, rather than an actual detriment to the novel as a whole, because, despite what I say, the book was compulsively readable.

The fact that Vincent Nolan, the Neo-Nazi, was the most sympathetic, likeable character says a lot about Francine Prose’s ability. To be honest, though, Vincent wasn’t much of a Nazi to begin with, having (mostly) manufactured his bigotry after a bout of bad luck and bad decisions (girlfriend left him, he dunked an old Jewish lady in a swimming pool) left him homeless. Because the only person who could help him out was his cousin Raymond (a bona fide redneck with a swastika tattoo on his hand), Vincent figured that the best thing to do would be to join (or at least pretend to join) the Aryan Resistance Movement. A particularly good batch of ecstasy was instrumental in leading Vincent to renounce his bigoted ways and seek out the World Brotherhood Watch, headed by the charismatic (and sometimes opportunistic) Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow.

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The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

The Robber Bride

Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is inspired by “The Robber Bridegroom,” a wonderfully grisly tale from the Brothers Grimm in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair and devours them, one by one. But in her version, Atwood brilliantly recasts the monster as Zenia, a villainess of demonic proportions, and sets her loose in the lives of three friends, Tony, Charis, and Roz. All three “have lost men, spirit, money, and time to their old college acquaintance, Zenia. At various times, and in various emotional disguises, Zenia has insinuated her way into their lives and practically demolished them.

To Tony, who almost lost her husband and jeopardized her academic career, Zenia is ‘a lurking enemy commando.’ To Roz, who did lose her husband and almost her magazine, Zenia is ‘a cold and treacherous bitch.’ To Charis, who lost a boyfriend, quarts of vegetable juice and some pet chickens, Zenia is a kind of zombie, maybe ‘soulless'” (Lorrie Moore, New York Times Book Review). In love and war, illusion and deceit, Zenia’s subterranean malevolence takes us deep into her enemies’ pasts.

The Robber Bride tells the story of three accidental friends – Tony, Charis, and Roz – brought together by the destructive machinations of the beautiful and elusive Zenia. after Zenia dies, these three women continue to maintain a friendship fostered by their shared humiliation. So it was quite surprising for them when, five years after her supposed death, Zenia turned up while they were having lunch. Zenia, who is clearly very much not dead, and her sudden reappearance force Tony, Charis, and Roz to reexamine the role Zenia played in their lives.

Margaret Atwood is always readable, always smart, sometimes caustic but always witty. So why is it that I don’t have more to say about this book?

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