Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

When I made a resolution to read more women this year, there was a fear lurking in the back of my mind that by the time summer rolled around I’d have 19th century English authoresses coming out of my ears. Now, I do have Emily Bronte on my bedside table as we speak, but I’ve also tried to ease myself into this goal by reading more contemporary fiction (See Munro, Alice here) and branching out into genres I wouldn’t normally read (See Christie, Agatha which is sitting in my queue.)

Dana Spiotta in another female author I’d never read before I picked up her book Stone Arabia. I checked it out on the recommendation of a commenter here on this site. (Thanks Fi.) And after letting the experience marinate for a few days. I’m glad I did.

It’s a novel that’s had praise heaped on it from all directions, and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. But I couldn’t help but wonder as I read it, whether this was really a book that will stand the test of time. I still can’t say I’m sure.

First of all, I genuinely liked the premise. The narrator’s brother is a failed musician who not only forges ahead with his obsession year after year- and does so despite being ignored by all but a handful of very close friends and family members. But he also compiles a comprehensive pseudo-history of his imagined rock-star past and all of his various bands- complete with fake reviews, album covers, news articles, obituaries and the like. When her brother goes missing, the main character tries to make sense of her own life by examining her eccentric brother’s “chronicles”, and by penning some competing chronicles of her own.

I will say that the book does a great job of evoking a place in time, whether it’s the narrator’s childhood memories of the late sixties, the LA club scene of the 70s and 80s, or the “present action” that takes place in 2004. In some ways it’s a time capsule of the modern era. And I’ll admit it’s somewhat refreshing to see lit-fic references to our 24-hour news cycle, and modern news events such as Abu Ghraib and the Beslan Hostage Crisis. Not to mention the repeated, gentle ribbing of Thomas Kinkaid Painter of Light . But I wonder if someone who picks the book up fifty years from now will care about these themes or identify with the book's characters. Not saying they won’t, just wondering if they will.

In the end, I wouldn’t classify it as an important book, but my guess is that it will exert a certain staying power. Spiotta writes compellingly about the sibling relationship, the plight of aging, the ways we choose to remember our past, and maybe most importantly about the pure creative impulse and where it comes from. It’s not the kind of book I’d hand to someone with an emphatic “You’ve got to read this” endorsement, but it is the kind of title I’d toss out there with an “I’d be interested to hear what you think about this one” curiosity. Anybody read it? If not, take a look:

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