Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

A man washes ashore in modern Spain with no papers, no money, and barely any clothing, claiming to be Columbus. He is sent to a nearby mental hospital where doctors and nurses (one nurse in particular, the lovely and sad Consuela) try to tease out his story. Who is he and why does he think he is the 500 year old explorer? How does he explain the anachronisms and contradictions in his story?

I was surprised how much I liked this novel. The narration flashes back and forth between the modern present-day world of the hospital and the story he tells Consuela. Columbus tells of his attempts to convince the Spanish authorities of the 15th century of his need for ships to find what there is across the western sea, of the many women and families in his life, and of Queen Isabella's lust for him. I found myself searching for answers and hidden meanings in his descriptions and in the "word-pictures" he creates. These "word-pictures" are lengthy descriptions of mental images stuck in his head, clues to who he is or was. The tale is meandering and beautiful, almost like reading Cervantes (something whic may have been intentional) with Columbus's many adventures, his repeating themes, and his many questioning companions. Like Don Quixote, Columbus's plan to sail across the ocean to who knows what is viewed as a ridiculous lark, even heresy; he is made fun of and faces insurmountable obstacles, yet he pushes on, as crazy as he is. That is the story he tells Consuela as he swims laps in a pool. Much to her surprise and embarrassment, she finds herself falling in love with her patient.

I found myself wondering about disorders like this and how people claim they are Jesus or (as in the novel) the Pope. What happens to a person that leads them or their minds to settle on one figure or another? Why Columbus or Elvis or Princess Diana? As a mental health professional, how do you break down that constructed self and find the person and their true story within? Is that how treatment of this kind of disorder works?

The only glaring weakness for me was the character of an Interpol missing persons investigator,  hot on the trail of Columbus. Emile's story was neither plausible or engaging. Perhaps the author should have trusted the character of Columbus himself—he was enough to engage us; we didn't need Emile to help us in our search.

But overall, this was a really enjoyable read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton

I just finished Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton, a book selected for my other book group. Interestingly, it takes plan in a town modeled on Cooperstown and features a character modeled on James Fenimore Cooper, as well as characters from Cooper's novels. In some ways, this broad narrative of one family's history is very much linked with this American Experience the Swat Book Group has decided to take on.

Let me explain.

Archaeologist Wilhemina "Wille" Upton returns to her hometown of Templeton, NY, birthplace of the game of baseball and the hall of fame, pregnant, disgraced, and an emotional wreck. Her mother Vi, formerly a 60's hippie who reveled in Willie's birth as a "love child", is now a devout Christian, much to Willie's surprise. Vi still lives in the family homestead, Temple Manor, which is perched above Lake Glimmerglass. One the day of her arrival, Willie learns that the lake's supposedly-mythical monster—Glimmey, to the locals—has surfaced and died. Amid all the media hoopla and national attention, Willie desperately is trying to find her bearings. Vi sets her the goal of discovering the identity of her real father, plunging Willie into the town's strange and storied history. Multiple narrators fill the book, from the town's founder, Marmaduke Temple, to the Runnings Buds (Willie's self-proclaimed cheerleading squad and protectors, who spend every morning running around town), to assorted family crazies like Cinnamon Averell, Remarkable Prettybones, Noname, and Sagamore—even Glimmey her/himself at the end.

A vast, sprawling novel, The Monsters of Templeton is not without charm and intrigue. Mysteries abound—murder, arson, incest, rape, betrayal, ghosts, and more. But it's easy to find oneself lost in all the name and all the history of the town, like thrashing around in the depths of Lake Glimmerglass itself. I'm not sure what all the ghosts and even the monster signify; are they protectors, accompanying Willie and the town's inhabitants through the murky waters of their lives, or are they haunting images, responsive to people's baser instincts like lust, greed, and betrayal? It's hard to say. Ghosts pop up throughout the novel, leading characters to strange realizations and actions, guiding their hands and their eyes to see what is hidden in plain sight.

There are times when the novel is incredibly evocative—the chapters in the dark woods of the early days in Templeton remind me of the backwoods scenes in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom which we read this past spring. But the narration here is uneven and, at times, stretches credulity. Some of Groff's narrators sound alike, despite differences in age, gender, class, and race. And the story meanders along between generations and time so much that it's sometimes hard to get a foothold on where everything is heading. Of course, this ambivalence is also reflected in Willie's ambivalence toward everyone she meets in town, from old crushes, to the fallen cheerleaders and risen former fat boys of high school. She's not sure why she is there and if she likes the place, having tried so hard to leave it all behind for her glamorous life in academia.

But these are small quibbles to have with such a fun novel. I enjoyed the play between the real and the fictional, and between the really fictional (in Cooper's books) and the really real (Cooperstown the town). Groff is a talented writer and I'll be sure to look for her next book.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Fierce Radiance, Lauren Belfer

I wanted to like this book, I really did. The topic is fascinating. I spoke to her about it briefly when we were both on the alumni council at Swarthmore. But it just isn't very good. At one point, she has one of her characters, a former Stanford Economics professor turned spy, say, "It's nothing like you see in the movies." Someone should have told the author that, since every character, every bad cliche about science, war, espionage, capitalism, and on and on...every detail feels copped from old movies. And not just old movies, but bad old movies.

The time: just days after Pearl Harbor. The plot involves a talented, love-abandoned photographer for Life magazine, beautiful Claire Shipley, and her relationship with the swashbuckling, handsome Jamie Stanton, a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute. Stanton and his beautiful, talented (see a theme here?) sister Tia are working 24/7 on the promising and frustrating search for a reliable way to generate penicillin. The US entry into the war spurs production and the race is on, with the US government and the Big Bad capitalists (the drug companies and Claire's venture capitalist father, Edward Rutherford, all of 'em dead ringers for Lionel Barrymore or some other old Hollywood type) fighting for turf, literally (some molds, the cousins of penicillin, are found in soil samples).

It really is a good idea for a novel. And I actually don't want to spend too much time tearing it down. I'll just say that I wish there'd been more history, much more science, more believable characters, less romance, and fewer authorial flourishes, the danger of any historical novel, where the author flashes bits of their voluminous research at us, asking us to nod along in awe. Another danger: weaving too many actual people into the novel: Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, John D Rockefeller and on and on.

But I'm done. Enough said. On to the next book, hopefully one that is better written.