This is not your typical immigration saga. Stories of families relocating to another country, dealing with cultural d...moreNot your Typical Immigration Saga
This is not your typical immigration saga. Stories of families relocating to another country, dealing with cultural displacement, and (hopefully) making a go of it have become increasingly commonplace. Yelena Akhtiorskaya would like to turn those conventions on their head.
To be fair, she succeeds at that goal quite well--and with a great degree of humor. Panic in a Suitcase is about the Nasmertovs, who left Odessa to come to America--only to settle in a Brighton Beach, Brooklyn neighborhood that offers many of the comforts of home and they are surrounded by people who know their customs and speak their language. The cultural displacement they face is staggeringly different from the kind typically featured in novels. The Nasmertovs are now stuck between two worlds: the old and the new. How do you adapt to new surroundings when you have even the most obscure comforts of the old? How do you let go and move on when you could almost be in your old country if you squinted your eyes?
Fans of Gary Shteyngart will particularly take to Yelena's quirky sense of humor and style of writing. For me, I tend to tire of his style about halfway through his novels, and that trend continues with Yelena--except at a slightly accelerated rate. She gets bonus points for wild originality (and for making a great point about how globalization has drastically changed the immigration story), and she's definitely a talent to watch. But it's hard to get lost in Panic in a Suitcase.
As I said in my most recent review (of Fourth of July Creek), I've developed a serious impatience for novels that essentially come do...more#WhiteBoyProblems
As I said in my most recent review (of Fourth of July Creek), I've developed a serious impatience for novels that essentially come down to white boys who can't get their act together. As such, Arts & Entertainments was another big struggle for me. You see, it centers on "Handsome" Eddie Hartley, a high school drama teacher who used to be an aspiring actor. He never made it big and ended up teaching while a former girlfriend is now a major television star, living her life splashed across the tabloids. Eddie's marriage is strained because his wife wants babies and Eddie isn't sure he does, too. Now his wife needs expensive fertility treatments they can't afford. What do you do?
If you're Eddie, you release a sex tape of you and your famous ex-girlfriend. He tells himself that he only does it for the money, but the reality is that Eddie desperately wants to grab some of that fame for himself. The problem is that he ends up with notoriety instead--but is there really any difference in this day and age?
Arts & Entertainment wants to be a clever satire of the modern celebrity machine, but the satire only really revs up in the last hundred pages or so. Prior to that, the satire is mostly at Eddie's expense and his unique inability to get famous. Even when it gets going, A&E doesn't have the sharp teeth it wants you to think it does. You see, it also wants you to like the characters--and you just can't have it both ways. Perhaps I was bound not to like Eddie Hartley because his life can be summed up as #WhiteBoyProblems, but I don't think I'm being too unfair here.
"The world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out."
I was really excited to read this book for a couple of reasons. First, it has...more"The world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out."
I was really excited to read this book for a couple of reasons. First, it has a fantastic jacket description. Second, I've lived in Missoula, Montana for a year now, so I loved the idea of reading a novel set in my new hometown. Third, I love the jacket design--which sounds shallow, but there it is. Fourth, I've heard good things about the novel from a couple of people now. And yet ... it hasn't gone well.
Fourth of July Creek is billed as a shattering exploration of America's disquieting and violent contradictions. It is supposed to deal with the complexities of freedom and anarchy--and I can't think of a better setting for this than Montana, where independence is not only valued but fiercely defended. These themes are meant to be reflected in the story of a social worker, Pete Snow, who gets tangled up with Jeremiah Pearl, a mysterious anarchist preparing for war in the backwoods of Montana. Pearl is a survivalist who believes the End Times are not just upon us, but already in motion.
That would make a fantastic novel, and Henderson has the talent to pull it off. Fourth of July Creek crackles with dangerous energy whenever Pearl makes an appearance. The problem is, for more than two hundred pages his presence is merely hinted at. Instead, we're treated to Pete's sad-sack life. You see, Pete is in his early thirties and can't seem to get his stuff together. His wife cheated on him, so he ran out on her and his daughter. Now he can't decide if he wants his ex-wife back or hates her forever. And in a twist that could be interesting but only really grates, the social worker is an inept and apathetic father. He has a history of a drinking problem that is becoming more and more essential to his makeup. The guy is a mess.
Most people might not have so much of a problem with this, but a curious thing has happened to me in the past year. I've become increasingly impatient with novels that essentially come down to "screw-up white guy can't get his life together."Because seriously, it's incredible how many of those books exist in the world--and how they continue to multiply. There are so many more interesting stories that could be told (Jeremiah Pearl's comes to mind). Add in the fact that Pete finds himself a love interest who comes down to the exact cliche you would expect for a guy like him. She starts out appearing strong and wise to his screw-up ways, then upon their second meeting inexplicably sleeps with him. Her actions make no sense because when it comes down to it the author doesn't understand her and doesn't want to understand her. So she's left fluctuating between strength, weakness, and potentially violent emotional instability. Add to this the fact that the only other female characters (including Pete's ex-wife are harpies, nags, and emotionally immature. His daughter is an exception, I suppose--aside from the emotionally mature part.
By the time I reached the novel's halfway point I was exhausted. And it had become increasingly difficult to care. If Jeremiah Pearl's story is going to be filtered through a character I find increasingly irritating, then why bother? So I put it down. Which is a shame, because I really think this had the makings of a great book.
In addition, the narrative is curiously fractured. Pete's narration is the focus, presented in the standard format. Then we have the tonally jarring narrative of his daughter, which takes the form of an interview. And gradually, the narrative of Cecil (one of Pete's cases, who was sexually abused by his mother [did I mention that all women are horrible in this book?]) becomes a thing. Maybe it all comes together in the end, but two hundred and fifty pages is a long time to ask a reader to be patient.
"You can't erase history, or change it. It would be like destroying yourself."
At 36, Tsukuru Tazaki has settled into a determined rut. He has no close...more"You can't erase history, or change it. It would be like destroying yourself."
At 36, Tsukuru Tazaki has settled into a determined rut. He has no close friends, no long-term relationships, and no pets. There is nothing tying him to anyone or anything else. His job is ostensibly what he has always been most passionate about, but the realities of the position are a lot more tedious detail than the stuff of fantasy. He isn't satisfied, but he isn't about to take action to fix the situation either. Until he meets Sarah, a charismatic lady who is repeatedly described as an older woman even though she is only two years his senior.
Tsukuru feels drawn to Sarah in a way he has never felt drawn to anyone (or perhaps it has just been a long time. Tsukuru can't quite make up his mind on that fact). Tsukuru has been deeply hurt for sixteen years--a hurt that has kept him from getting close to anyone. When he opens up about this fact to Sarah and tells her his story, she is shocked that he has never sought closure and demands that he tie up all of his emotional loose ends before they consider a full-fledged relationship. So Tsukuru begins an odyssey into the past to find out the truth behind what happened and reconcile it with the man he became because of it.
Except that the deep hurt Tsukuru is describing is hard to relate to. You see, as a teenager he was part of a group of five friends. We are meant to believe that these five were inseparable, that their bond was so deep that they were more like five parts of the same person, but it's hard to see just what made their friendship so special. On the outside, as a reader must be, I certainly couldn't get a sense of anything life-altering except for the fact that Murakami, the writer, insists it must have been so. Anyway, one day the other four friends cast Tsukuru out with no explanation (this is not a spoiler, by the way. It is revealed in the opening chapters as the set-up to the novel). For a year, Tsukuru wanted to die. Then he picked himself up and carried on feeling like a shell of a man.
Here's where the novel breaks down for me. For one thing, Tsukuru is somewhat confounding. He's passive to an extreme, so the events of the plot have nothing to do with his own goals or needs. He doesn't want truth--Sarah told him to find it, so he went on a quest. His friends told him not to contact them anymore, so until someone else (Sarah) told him otherwise, he obediently listened without questioning their decision. The entire plot hinges on his quest for answers so he can finally move on, but his own wants and needs are almost incidental. That makes it very hard to root for him.
For another thing, there are a lot of subplots or tangents that go absolutely nowhere. Tsukuru spends a great deal of time telling us about a college friend who also abandoned him with no explanation, but there is exactly zero follow-through on that storyline. At no point does Tsukuru consider finding out what happened there (if only Sarah had asked him to get closure there, too). There's also a mystical ghost story tangent in the first hundred pages that owes a great debt to The Ring, but feel free to skip those pages if you like because they won't tie back to anything else in the rest of the book. I'll avoid spoiler, but suffice to say that there isn't much closure in the main storyline as well. I suspect that the journey is supposed to be the focus in the main storyline, but combine that with the essentially meaningless subplots and it does make the whole experience feel pointless.
It's sad to say, but I would recommend skipping this Murakami novel in favor of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. That book is a masterpiece, and Tsukuru is unfortunately, well, colorless.
"A body can't prosper if a person don't know who they are."
The Good Lord Bird is devilish entertainment. It's a heady ride through a tumultuous time i...more"A body can't prosper if a person don't know who they are."
The Good Lord Bird is devilish entertainment. It's a heady ride through a tumultuous time in American history that somehow manages the mean trick of making you laugh even as it deals with heavyweight subject matter. Its unique perspective is largely thanks to its focus on John Brown, the real life abolitionist who helped spark the Civil War with an ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry. But McBride's meanest feat is the voice he gives us to tell his story: a young black boy forced to disguise himself as a girl for several years when John Brown takes him in and makes him an unwitting participant in the fight against slavery.
One problem I frequently have with historical fiction novels is that the author applies a modern perspective to the subject matter. In order to clearly get the reader on the protagonist's side, heroes and villains neatly take opposing sides according to how we currently understand the issue. McBride, thankfully, instead embraces the complications inherent to the topic of slavery as his characters would know it. The question of right and wrong isn't made black and white, it's portrayed in myriad shades of grey (just like in real life). Even Onion, our narrator, struggles with his own feelings about the institution of slavery. In many ways, it is all he has known--and his short life experience has taught him to simply look out for himself before worrying about the greater good.
That Onion is forced to disguise himself as a girl provides McBride the basis of a sharply observed theme: that slavery, and indeed any institution or policy that dehumanizes a people, forces them to live a lie. No one sees them for who they are, so their life becomes a series of misdirections in order to get by. "Being a Negro's a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside." The impact of this forced lifestyle is far-reaching. If you can't be yourself, how can you know yourself? How can you love someone, or be loved in turn?
Even with all this potentially weighty subject matter, McBride manages to energetically propel his narrative along with a surprising degree of humor. At heart, The Good Lord Bird is a farce, which only serves to make it all the more subversive.
My big complaint here is that, to me, McBride didn't quite stick the landing. I don't want to stray into spoiler territory, so suffice to say that I just didn't believe what he posits caused the downfall of Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. OK, slight spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. McBride lays the blame at Onion's feet for forgetting to relay a key piece of information to Brown and his army. And I have a hard time believing that Onion would remember to provide all the other information except for the one detail that was most important of all. It just doesn't make sense to me, and that 'took me out of the novel,' if you will.
Despite that caveat, The Good Lord Bird is a yarn you won't soon forget.
Teju Cole has a novelistic style unlike many other fiction writers out there today. I guess whether or not you enjoy his work comes down to how you re...moreTeju Cole has a novelistic style unlike many other fiction writers out there today. I guess whether or not you enjoy his work comes down to how you respond to that style. Because here's the thing: nothing happens in terms of plot. That is true of both of Cole's novels so far: Open City and Every Day is For the Thief. In Open City, I couldn't abide the meandering style and the sense that none of what was happening was going to lead to anything. EDIFTT works better, but ultimately falls victim to the same trap. There's an actual pretense to this book that was lacking in Open City. This one has a narrator returning to his native Nigeria following a long, self-imposed absence, which automatically provides the reader with a framework for everything to follow (Open City was simply about a Nigerian ex-pat taking long walks and pondering numerous things that don't tie together). The thing is, Cole steadfastly refuses to develop this premise any further. We get some details about the narrator as the pages progress, but he never becomes more than a cypher. The story, such as it is, instead takes the form of little vignettes as the narrator travels his former homeland and observes. The problem is that each vignette is essentially illustrating the same exact point: that Nigeria is riddled with corruption.
The basic progression is this: Nigeria is corrupt; let me illustrate that for you. Nigerians don't make enough money to survive without enforcing corruption; let me illustrate that for you. Children are also bred for corruption at a young age; let me illustrate that for you. Have I mentioned that corruption has infiltrated all levels of Nigerian society? Let me illustrate that for you (again). A small percentage of Nigerians try to live honestly, but their efforts get drowned out by the system. Let me illustrate that for you. And then let me illustrate that again.
For a book that's only 164 pages, it actually starts to feel repetitive alarmingly quickly. Cole is a gifted writer, but his style of storytelling just doesn't do it for me.
“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”
Hmmm....more“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”
Hmmm. I'm of two minds on this one. On the one hand: WOW. James Salter is an incredible writer. His descriptive style is flawless: clear, concise, creative, and imparted with gorgeous prose that has a poet's precision. On one character's drunk mother: "Her voice slurred a little but she rode over it as if it were a fleck of tobacco on her tongue, as if she could pause and wipe it away with a finger." Surveying a party, an "older woman with a nose as long as an index finger was eating greedily, and the man with her blew his nose in the linen napkin, a gentleman, then.”
My copy of this book is a sea of highlights: fascinating descriptions, intriguing observations, and, frequently, just a neat turn of phrase that I liked the sound of. I think the last time I left a book so smeared with highlights was the last time I read a book by E.M. Forster. Salter's skill with a pen definitely makes him deserve the company, although I would say that Salter's style has a slightly more mid-to-late-20th century feel to it. There are passages in All That Is that could come straight out of a Salinger novel or a Raymond Carver story, and I can think of no higher praise than that. It makes me ashamed that until this book was released, I had never heard of James Salter.
I suppose that isn't so far-fetched, given that it had been thirty-five years since Salter's last novel. I wasn't even born yet. But in that time he did release two volumes of short stories, one volume of poetry, a collection of travel essays, and a book about food (the last one written with his wife). So the book nerd in me does feel a wee bit chastened. Mostly, though, I feel relieved that I did find him. There's a joy in discovering someone who can write so well that their talent alone thrills you as you read.
The problem is that the thrill of Salter's writing is the only thrill to be found here. For long stretches of time it feels like the narrative is going nowhere. Yes, the writer is skilled enough to keep you going, but there were countless times during the process that I found myself wondering where, exactly, the destination was, and when we might finally get there. It dangerously toes the line of plodding, and in some cases I would argue that it goes over. Even if only by a hair's breadth. Part of me feels bad criticizing this, since it seems to be a goal of Salter's to revel in the quotidian details of Philip Bowman's life. After all, the quotidian is what we spend a great deal of time on in our own lives. Which may just make it the essence of life. Whether or not you want to read about it or escape from it in your reading time is a decision only you can make.
Characters come and go, sometimes all too briefly. Some get a short glance while others step into the spotlight. Again, this is meant to mirror everyday life. In his 1997 memoir Salter notes: “If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go. At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen.” So it is with the narrative of All That Is.
I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't occasionally find it frustrating. Not just because of the sensation of plodding. Salter is a strong enough writer to deserve a little patience. But because it frequently doesn't feel like there's a point to it all. Maybe that's another statement about life. It would often be true. But to me it leaves a cold distance between me and the narrative. As much as I found Salter's writing to be thrilling, I never much felt like embracing it, if that makes any sense. What I will remember about All That Is is not a feeling that was provoked, not a theme that I will remember and call back to, but, simply, the prose. To me, that makes it an incomplete experience.
There's one last issue that I have with this novel. There's a huge problem with representation of women. For the first half of the book I was willing to shrug it away, arguing to myself that since the writing feels like an artifact from the 1950s, perhaps it was an intentional goal to mimic the intense focus on men: their ideals, feelings, and role in society. But when a man is discovered in flagrante delicto with a female cashier and Salter writes that "The cashier claimed rape but then regained her poise," it is extremely disquieting. To say the least.
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Back in 2009 Colum McCann set the literary world on fire with the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin,...more"The creation of a new moment"
Back in 2009 Colum McCann set the literary world on fire with the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, a collection of stories centered around the day a man walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center. Using that true event, McCann elevated the ordinary lives of his characters to extraordinary heights. There's a lot more of that in TransAtlantic.
"You can't know what's in another person's heart."
This is Perrotta's first venture back into the world of short stories since his debut, the superlati...more"You can't know what's in another person's heart."
This is Perrotta's first venture back into the world of short stories since his debut, the superlative Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies. It's amazing how easily he slips back into the form after a long absence, not to mention how well he utilizes every page--whether it's a short story or a full novel. Characters go through an entire arc in several pages. They're standard-issue screw-ups, which is Perrotta's specialty, but it's impossible not to feel for them and root for them, even as they make some awful mistakes. In a truly remarkable feat, these characters frequently come to a realization, accept what they have done, begin to rationalize their behavior, and retreat back into denial all on the same page, and it feels completely organic.
"It's funny how it's the memories of shame that hang on longest."
After finishing Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, I'm now two for two with books pr...more"It's funny how it's the memories of shame that hang on longest."
After finishing Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, I'm now two for two with books propelled by rage. Unfortunately for The Antagonist, it pales in comparison to the sublime, burning anger of Woman. To be fair to Lynn Coady, that's where the similarities end, and I wouldn't dream of comparing her novel to a different one that just happened to share a similar pub date. It was just one of those coincidences.
Gordon Rankin, Jr (aka Rank) is furious. The object of his rage is Adam, a former college friend he hasn't seen in twenty years or so. Adam just published a novel receiving some modest acclaim--a novel that Rank believes is about him. A novel that he feels distorted the truth about his life. Now he wants Adam to know just what he thinks about what he did--not to mention a chance to set the record straight about his life. So he tracks down Adam's email address and begins sending him email after email.
Part of the problem with The Antagonist is that it can't sustain the rage. Ultimately, that's kind of the point here, so it seems unfair to fault the novel for it. Still, since the entire pretense is that Rank is compelled to write all this to Adam because of how angry he feels, it's a big disappointment that the fire flames out so darned quickly.
First, I should tell you that Claire Messud and I have a complicated history. To be blunt: I hated her last book...more"I want to make my nothingness count."
First, I should tell you that Claire Messud and I have a complicated history. To be blunt: I hated her last book, The Emperor's Children. It made me so angry. Looking back at my review, I see that perhaps a lot of this wasn't exactly fair--she hit some kind of a nerve as relates to 9/11 in this New Yorker's heart. I wrote the review in anger, but it was an honest reaction to the book, and I stand by some of the more pointed criticisms of characterization and comma use. So you can understand, I'm sure, that I was hesitant to read her new novel. Well, I was in for a huge surprise.
The novel opens: "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that." It proceeds to use the 'f' word twice on the first page alone (once in all caps), and the narrative propels forward as if driven by rage itself ...
Jim and Bob Burgess couldn't be more different. Bob is sensitive, not very confident, casually self destructive, and danger...more"Nobody ever knows anyone."
Jim and Bob Burgess couldn't be more different. Bob is sensitive, not very confident, casually self destructive, and dangerously toying with alcoholism. Jim is a brash high-powered attorney with a fancy townhouse in a trendy part of Brooklyn. He's also a huge jerk, but people are very forgiving of this quality because ... well, it isn't really clear why people put up with him. Maybe it's the money? Or genetic/marital ties? It's implied that he used to be a man of principle but the more you get to know him the more you wonder if people are just confusing confidence with morals. Anyway, if Jim and Bob weren't brothers they'd likely hate each other. They may hate each other anyway. Oh, there's also a sister named Susan, but she's never counted for anything her entire life, so she doesn't rate a mention anytime anyone discusses the family (even forgotten in the book's title! BURN!). Susan never really has a role as anything other than a plot catalyst, so forget her (everyone else apparently has, anyway).
"In reality I was playing a part, doing what I imagined I was supposed to do.”
Finbar Dolan is having a breakdown. He's had a mildly successful career...more"In reality I was playing a part, doing what I imagined I was supposed to do.”
Finbar Dolan is having a breakdown. He's had a mildly successful career at an advertising agency in New York (read: he's successfully been rewarded for doing the minimal amount of work). His engagement went bust, leaving him with two tickets to anywhere in the world that are about to expire if he doesn't use them. His estranged, abusive, father is dying. And a diaper client is forcing him to come up with (and execute) an exceptionally expensive Super Bowl commercial to launch a product that may or may not be bad for the environment, even though it's supposed to be a revolutionary development in "green diaper technology."
Bookstores might as well have a section devoted to novels about white males approaching middle aged who perpetually screw up their lives until they learn an important life lesson*, and to be honest with you Truth in Advertising isn't really any different. If that genre gets on your nerves, this is not the book for you. Plain and simple. If you're willing to go that route, however, you could do much worse than this novel. John Kenney has a caustic sense of humor that I really enjoyed (this book was presented to me as 'perfect for fans of Then We Came to the End,' and the humor, at least, hits this mark).
Kenney also has a great deal of insight into the world of advertising, where presenting an image is, literally, the point. Dolan's disillusionment with the process goes beyond the realm of Madison Avenue, however; the problems he has with his job (superficiality, dishonesty, lack of connection) could all be applied to the modern world at large, making Truth in Advertising a relatable story (if you happen to be in tune with the problems of a white middle-aged upper-middle-class man with a messed up family and a tendency to screw things up, that is).
But where Truth in Advertising really shined for me was its depiction of the complex relationships that come out of a messed up family. How you can push away people you love because they remind you of deep hurts from long ago. How anger, resentment, and sadness never really leave you unless you meet them head-on. Most importantly, how hard it is to say goodbye to the parent who inflicted all of these things on you. What is the appropriate response when someone you don't want to be around but is inextricably part of your life, gets ready to leave you forever? It's deep stuff, and Kenney navigates the minefield admirably.
In the end, this novel stands out as a winner in its genre. How much you like it depends on your acceptance of that genre, but it's a darkly funny, moving novel that's worth a look in this reader's opinion. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Jonathan Tropper and the aforementioned Then We Came to the End.
* Witness A Spot of Bother, White Noise, The Lonely Polygamist, anything by Jonathan Franzen, etc. ...(less)