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Other Book Reviews:
The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

Godspeed
- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

Pasadena
by David Ebershoff
Random House (2002)

While many contemporary novels read like thinly veiled autobiographies, David Ebershoff'’s "Pasadena" presents a world created from impressive amounts of historical research and imagination. It is an old-fashioned epic that follows three generations during a time of rapid development in Southern California, from the turn of the century through the end of World War II. It's twisting, heavily layered plot skips between non sequential moments in time; in a structure similar to "Wuthering Heights," we follow a secondary character -- the self-made real estate developer Andrew Jackson Blackwood -- as he considers buying one of Pasadena's few remaining mansions, the Rancho Pasadena, and in doing so learns the story of two people who once lived there: Linda Stamp and a man named Bruder.

Linda and Bruder's tale begins with Dieter Stumpf, a German immigrant who claims a piece of land on the cliffs above the Pacific in a village called Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea, where he farms onions. Dieter meets his wife Valencia, a Mexican orphan, when she swims to his shore one night after escaping a cruel employer on a ship traveling to Los Angeles. The Stumpfs have two children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, whose names they later change to Edmund and Linda Stamp (and there is much Shakespearean toying with the names -- frequent mentions of Pasadena’s Linda Vista hills, and generous usage of the word stamp).

Dieter goes to France to fight in the First World War, and returns with Bruder, a dark, Heathcliff-like orphan from Pasadena who comes to live and work on the farm. Bruder and Linda are drawn to each other with a star-crossed magnetism, and while each struggles to take control of his or her life and of their relationship, our fatalistic narrator continually warns us that this was never to be a tale with a happy ending. In fact the point that we are all at fate's mercy is brought up so often that it seems harped upon.

Linda and Bruder are not the only ones who fail to shape their own destinies; Ebershoff's Southern California paints an unforgiving picture of man’s innate foolishness, greed, and capability for injustice. Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea and Pasadena are full of characters who have arrived in the new land desperate to re-invent themselves, who seek fortune and love but who almost always end up making wrong turn compromises. In the case of women, against whom the odds are truly stacked, the compromises are usually sexual, and often non-consensual; syphilis and out-of-wedlock pregnancies are rampant. Meanwhile blue bloods and men who have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps grow filthy rich off of oranges and oil and real estate, and migrants struggle just to get by.

In many ways, California itself is the novel's main character. We get to see what the land must have been like when it was a wild, teeming frontier, just on its way to being transformed by fishermen, farmers, land developers and tourists. We watch as haze begins to fill the sky, condominiums and gas stations are thrown up on farmland, and concrete parkways fill arroyos. Ebershoff devotes as much attention to landscape, seascape, season, flora and fauna as he does to the human characters. Arroyos, foothills, cliffs, beaches, inlets and coves are described painstakingly, while plants and animals are listed with an encyclopedic thoroughness that just falls short of bogging the story down. Ebershoff's natural world is rife with both beauty and tragedy; he emphasizes nature's cruelty as much as humankind's. Drought parched plants, disease riddled orchards, angry tides and merciless floods abound. There are queasy descriptions of the slaughter of wild turkeys, pregnant sharks, and blood spraying barracudas. In both the natural world and in human society, there is constant struggle between progress and preservation.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





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[email protected] | August 2002 | Issue 29
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