The Wednesday Wars was an unexpectedly moving delight when I read it. Part of the joy from reading it was that it wasn't like most other books out theThe Wednesday Wars was an unexpectedly moving delight when I read it. Part of the joy from reading it was that it wasn't like most other books out there. It felt new and exciting, and when it went for your tear ducts it really earned the tears.
Unfortunately, Orbiting Jupiter doesn't have any of the same novelty going for it. Schmidt, a two-time Newbery Honor winner (one of those for Wednesday Wars) is still a uniquely affecting writer, but even he can only do so much with a story you feel like you've read many, many times before. You know where things are headed from the moment you get the premise: Jack, an open-minded and good-hearted kid, gets a troubled foster brother named Joseph. Joseph almost killed a teacher, was held in a place called Stone Mountain, and has an infant daughter he has never met.
You pretty much know that Joseph is going to be a much better guy than the world is trying to make him out to be, and if it would only give him a chance he might be able to catch a break. Jack will learn to stand up for his foster brother and try to help him get that chance, but it will be hard because the world is going to continue to be cruel and uncaring. It will be heartwarming and heartbreaking... or it would if this story didn't feel so predictable and cliched. And if it wasn't so slender. At 183 pages, personal growth and tragedy has to happen at a rapid clip. Schmidt is a good enough writer to know not to rush things, and he earns the moments he does get, but nothing really lands quite as well or as hard as it should.
Given how much I adored The Wednesday Wars, this was a disappointment, but I'm not giving up. Wednesday was so bold and original that Schmidt can be forgiven for hewing to the tried-and-true here, but I think I like him best when he's daring to be different.
Euphoria is an elegant, heartfelt exploration of love, jealousy, and pride in a wholly unique setting."... the story you know is never the real one."
Euphoria is an elegant, heartfelt exploration of love, jealousy, and pride in a wholly unique setting. Love triangles are nothing new in literature, so the fact that one figures so prominently in Lily King's story could have easily caused it to devolve into a fairly standard affair (no pun intended). King is too intelligent a writer for that, and Euphoria is too carefully crafted.
It takes its inspiration from anthropologist Margaret Mead, but spins her life into an original tale. Here, we meet Nell Stone and her bad boy anthropologist husband Fen after two failures trying to study native tribes in New Guinea. Prior to that, Nell earned great fame after publishing a book about the sexual norms of natives, which shocked the world and made her name (even as it caused more hardcore academics to question the way she opened up her writing to be accessible to a broader audience). Most would feel enormous pressure to follow up that success, but Nell is so in love with the work that she's eager to get back in the field and learn more (the title refers to the sensation she gets when she thinks she has made a connection with the tribe she is studying). Fen, on the other hand, is making that difficult. Already restless and cavalier by nature, he is having a hard time living in his wife's shadow. Nell is trying to find a balance between doing her work and letting Fen have his share of the spotlight, but after their first two ventures back in the field end in failure they both find themselves on the verge of desperation.
Enter Bankson, an anthropologist who has been in the region for two years to study the Kiona tribe. Lonely and desperate himself (he was saved from a suicide attempt by the natives he is studying, who thought he was foolishly swimming with his clothes on to collect stones from the river bottom), Bankson seizes the opportunity to have colleagues nearby and sets up Nell and Fen with a tribe down the river from him.
Inevitably, their lives become entwined and, perhaps even more inevitably, disaster looms over everything that follows. Along the way, King makes strikingly poignant observations about anthropology, language, culture, success, academia, mainstream entertainment, and sexuality. If her segments about love are a touch rote, then, it is imminently forgivable.
The one truly disappointing note, and this is a bit of a nit pick on my part, is that for all the remarkable development and depth King imbues Nell and Bankson with, Fen remains flat and impenetrable. A large part of this is due to the fact that the narrative itself alternates between perspectives that favor Bankson and Nell's points of view (Bankson in first person, Nell in scraps of letters and in third person chapters that emphasize her actions and thoughts). There's a conscious decision on King's part not to do the same for Fen, and it makes him inscrutable. If King's intention was to hinge the plot on his actions being a twist, that's a failure because you pretty much know exactly where the story is going--and that he will be the driving force in getting it there. It's just a shame; we know so much about Bankson and Nell. They have so much depth. Fen, in comparison, is like a cartoon character. The fact that so much of his storyline is left unresolved only deepens the disappointment.
Perhaps the lack of depth from Fen, a critical corner in King's triangle, contributes to the lack of, um euphoria the reader gets despite the striking observations. Still, Euphoria is a magnetic read with some sharp turns that is well worth your time.
"Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised."
Having a stamp of approval"Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised."
Having a stamp of approval from Junot Díaz is not a small deal to me. In my mind he is one of the most authentic--not to mention best--authors working today. He tells stories about people mainstream literature has traditionally forgotten about or marginalized. It's easy then, to see why NoViolet Bulawayo's work would appeal to him. In We Need New Names she similarly seeks to shine a spotlight on a life lived on the margins of Americana.
Each chapter is like a short story that comes together to tell us the story of Darling, who is a ten year-old girl living in a shantytown in Zimbabwe when we meet her. Darling's family lost everything in paramilitary raids during a government takeover, but she doesn't remember much about that time. Now she and her friends, including pregnant Chipo, navigate their neighborhood with the typical exuberance of childhood. Eventually Darling makes her way to suburban America, where she struggles to fit in and wrestles with the consequences of assimilating to a culture that may always look at her as an outsider anyway.
Bulawayo has a vibrant way of channeling Darling's worldview. Her affection for the character is palpable, even for her mistakes and her character flaws, which is something most authors struggle with. Darling is a fully realized, dimensional being. Again, it's easy to see why Díaz blurbed this novel so enthusiastically. But for me, as good as Bulawayo is technically, I just couldn't get swept away in We Need New Names the way I have in everything Díaz wrote.
What ends up making all the difference in the world is that Díaz's ragtag inner city troop of single mothers, bad boys, hopeless nerds, and more are truly original--which makes his work feel revelatory, dangerous, and urgent. In comparison, it feels like I've read the story Bulawayo is telling before. I've read books about growing up and being an adult in politically unstable, impoverished Africa. I've read immigration stories. And there are authors who have made entire careers out of writing books about cultural displacement and the difficulties of leaving one's home country behind (Jhumpa Lahiri comes immediately to mind). That doesn't discount this book at all, mind you. Not necessarily, at least. But it does make it harder for Bulawayo to build that sense of urgency or relevance, and to my mind she spends the entire novel only making it to the cusp of those qualities, which she really needed in order to succeed.
Maybe the almost-short story format is to blame. Because just as we're diving into something, we're onto the next topic before we've adequately resolved what just happened. Okay, in most circumstances there isn't proper resolution to be had, but in most cases the moment hasn't landed before we're onto the next thing. There are exceptions where the chapter's subject matter is horrific enough to make you shift uncomfortably in your seat as you turn the pages, but in most cases it feels like we're only skimming the surface. For example, in one chapter early on Darling's father turns up unexpectedly after being a gaping absence in her household for years following his departure to do a dangerous job abroad. Instead of being overjoyed at having her father home again, Darling is repulsed because he is dying of AIDS. When Darling's friends find out her father is sick and demand to see him, they talk to him and take care of him--showing him the courtesy, love, and humanity Darling herself had been denying him. Just when you think we're on the brink of an emotional breakthrough, the chapter ends and Darling's father is barely mentioned again for the rest of the book. Bulawayo took us right to the edge of a poignant moment, then for some reason ran from it and refused to revisit it. It seems like a curious omission. I spent the rest of the book wondering what happened to Darling's father and why it was never mentioned. If he died and it was of such little consequence to Darling that it never came up again during her adolescence, then why would his return home and that moment where Darling's friends showed him compassion have been worth showing us at all?
That's just one example. Bulawayo has a way of almost parenthetically discussing a lot of the heavier moments in We Need New Names, and while I suppose one could admire her restraint from devolving into theatrics, it did have a tendency to make me feel removed from the novel at every turn. I never got captivated or swept away. Which is a shame, because her technical prowess as a writer is undeniable. As is her skill with tone. As I said earlier, Bulawayo makes Darling come to vibrant life. I would still recommend We Need New Names, and I confess I am curious to see where Bulawayo's talents take her next. She has the makings of a terrifically talented writer.
Disappointment, thy name is Jeff Lindsay. It was abundantly clear long ago that Lindsay had fallen into a rut with his Dexter seriesOut With a Whimper
Disappointment, thy name is Jeff Lindsay. It was abundantly clear long ago that Lindsay had fallen into a rut with his Dexter series, that the magic had gone away and he was just going through the motions. I mean honestly, it reached the point where virtually every book had the same ludicrous ending: Dexter's stepkids are kidnapped by the bad guy. To call it stultifying would be a colossal understatement.
Then along came Dexter's Final Cut, and it appeared Lindsay may have been attempting to invigorate his flagging franchise. You see, at the close of that installment, Dexter's not-so-beloved wife, Rita, was killed. The possibilities, they were endless. How would Dexter handle single fatherhood without dearly devoted Rita? How would he get by in the world without the woman who provided his primary cover as a normal family man? For the first time in a long while, I found myself actually looking forward to seeing where Lindsay was going with the story.
You can imagine, then, that news that the next installment was to be Dexter's grand finale came as as bit of a surprise. Why invigorate a franchise just to retire it? It didn't really make sense. Still, one couldn't deny that Lindsay hadn't seemed interested in the series in a long time, so maybe this was an opportunity for him to end the series on a high point. That possibility was juicy enough for me to get excited. What was even more exciting? That the premise of Dexter is Dead finds Dexter in jail for Rita's death and several of the other murders that happened at the end of Dexter's Final Cut. We were going to get to see Dexter literally wrestling with the difficulty of Rita's death and staring down the possibility of indirectly answering for the wealth of sins he's committed across the years.
That would have potentially been a great book. If only Jeff Lindsay had possessed even the slightest interest in writing it. Instead, the whole jail storyline becomes a subplot with alarming speed. Instead of focusing, Lindsay forces Dexter to juggle his murder investigation with an utterly ludicrous subplot involving a drug lord who is displeased with Dexter's brother, Brian. Brian agrees to bankroll Dexter's legal needs if Dexter will help him fight off the drug lord's goons, track down the drug lord, and kill him. Have I mentioned that none of this drug business makes the least amount of sense? And guess--just guess--which plotline Lindsay is more excited about? Just as you start wishing Lindsay would just choose one storyline and stick with it, he does. And he chooses the wrong one. He chooses the nonsensical supervillain storyline he's already written a hundred times.
You'll never guess what happens next. THE KIDS GET KIDNAPPED. I wanted to throw the book across the room in anger and frustration. The fact that I didn't just goes to show how little I had invested in this world anymore. And honestly, if this weren't the final Dexter book I might have just quietly put the book down and gone about my life, never looking back or thinking about picking up another one of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter books ever again anyway.
Was it worth staying for the last page? Not particularly. I get no joy in saying that I stuck it out to the end. There's no payoff or reward for loyalty to be found in this series. You know, I don't ask for a happy ending or a lot of theatrics. It's just sad when an author clearly doesn't care anymore, hasn't been putting in the effort for a long time, and then doesn't even give you the dignity of a half-assed finale. You'd think Lindsay could have at least faked some enthusiasm for one measly book to do a proper goodbye, instead of falling on all the tired cliches he'd already worn out several books earlier. Even Dexter's goodbye is a tedious paint-by-numbers.
The downside of Agatha Christie's most famous mysteries is that their secrets have fallen victim to their own success. Particularly in the internet ag The downside of Agatha Christie's most famous mysteries is that their secrets have fallen victim to their own success. Particularly in the internet age, it's hard to avoid spoilers. Christie's play The Mousetrap famously kept its ending a secret in the mainstream press despite being the longest-running play in history until its Wikipedia page repeatedly updated with spoilers (and lawsuits to censor the reveal came to nothing). For Murder On the Orient Express, spoilers came earlier in the form of a wildly successful 1974 film adaptation. With an all-star cast, the movie version became a pop-cultural touchstone, and the secrets of this, Christie's most popular novel, leaked out into the pop culture consciousness for all time.
Which is a shame, because when Christie is at her best she is a truly devious mastermind of mystery. And I do mean devious: her best works (Murder On the Orient Express, The Mousetrap, And Then There Were None) toy with the conventional expectations of a mystery while completely confounding them.
If you don't know the secrets of the passengers of the Orient Express, you're in for a wild ride with a lot of unexpected twists. If you do know the secrets, which doesn't seem like an unreasonable expectation these days, Murder On the Orient Express will still be an enjoyable read because watching how it all unfolds is a genuine delight.
It's a little too convoluted and just how Hercule Poirot arrives at the conclusions that help him crack the case all-too frequently don't make sense here, which is a touch disappointing. He--and Christie--would like you to believe that he is using the evidence to arrive at a series of educated hypotheses during his suspect interviews. Instead, it appears our famous Belgian detective is wildly flinging darts in the dark, and by some miracle they're all managing to hit the bullseye. For someone who had such a unique understanding of the mystery genre, and for someone who frequently subverted that genre so effectively, Christie also had an unfortunate weakness for some of the genre's laziest tropes in some of her other writings. It's unfortunate to see them leaking through here, in what should have been one of her finest moments.
Well this was very disappointing. I purchased a mass market copy of American Gods when it first arrived in paperback in 2002 or 2003. I finally got arWell this was very disappointing. I purchased a mass market copy of American Gods when it first arrived in paperback in 2002 or 2003. I finally got around to reading it in July of 2015, which means it was one of those books that sits around on your to-read pile for an inexplicably long time before you finally pick it up and read it. I read two other books by Neil Gaiman in that time, Coraline and Good Omens (the latter co-authored with Terry Pratchett)--both of which I greatly enjoyed. I guess when a book sits around for that long waiting to be read you can't help but build up a sense of suspense.
What an incredible let-down.
The premise of American Gods is solid enough. Shadow is about to get out of prison and is ready to go back to his wife and focus on getting his life back on track. Instead, he gets released a couple of days early to attend his wife's funeral after a car accident. On the way home he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Wednesday, who seems to know a lot about Shadow and wants to give him a job.
In the opening Gaiman does a little leg work to box Shadow into a corner so we'll believe he takes the job with Wednesday because he really doesn't have any other option, but within thirty pages or so a sort of laziness sets in and Shadow becomes a curiously passive character. He basically accepts whatever gets thrown his way. It's not because he's depressed, it's not because he doesn't have a choice. It's because if he questioned anything at this stage in the game there wouldn't be a plot. So for 500 maddening pages Shadow just goes with the flow because plot reasons. He's not a character or a believable person so much as a totally artificial construct Gaiman needs for the plot to get from point A to point B.
Even with that, Gaiman is in absolutely no rush to get there. American Gods is 588 pages and you could easily trim at least 200 off of that. Easily. Particularly in the staggeringly slow middle, where Shadow and Wednesday travel separately and Shadow has absolutely nothing to do. First Shadow spends time in a funeral parlor, where he's at least peripherally connected to the action, but then he ends up in a town called Lakeside where he's so disconnected from what Wednesday's up to that Gaiman has to start slowly setting up a new plotline to bide time--as if he's starting the novel over on page 250. Except that new plotline takes so long to get going that it never does. Shadow leaves just as he's getting a hint that something strange is going on in Lakeside. He arrives in Lakeside on page 243 and he leaves on page 412. That's 170 pages of filler that goes nowhere. Did I mention that Shadow is oblivious because the plot demands that he be? Anyway, Gaiman has to have Shadow go back there at the end of the book to make all this effort pay off but you really just wish he'd leave it alone. Or that an editor would have told him to leave it out in the first place.
The pace is actually infuriating, but the characters somehow manage to be worse. Bad enough that Gaiman expects you to root for Shadow, the most artificial, cardboard rendering of a 'hero' I've come across in a long time. Worse that the supporting characters somehow manage to out-cardboard Shadow. There's no one truly interesting, or if there is they only really have a cameo appearance. No one has any depth or nuance. And Wednesday? Predictable as all hell. We can tell there's going to be a deeper connection between Wednesday and Shadow long before Shadow bumbles his way into the knowledge, which does two things: it makes Wednesday boring because you see his tricks coming a mile away, and it makes Shadow even more infuriating because he's the only person around who can't.
If I hadn't already read two other books by Gaiman, American Gods probably would have soured me on him as an author completely. As it is, I'm flummoxed that the mind behind Coraline also gave the world this convoluted, poorly conceived mess.
"You never know what's in a person's heart until they're tested, do you?"
I've been a fan of the movie adaptation Fried Green Tomatoes for a great many"You never know what's in a person's heart until they're tested, do you?"
I've been a fan of the movie adaptation Fried Green Tomatoes for a great many years. I also enjoyed Fannie Flagg on countless episodes of The Match Game thanks to reruns on The Game Show Network, so it was with great joy and even greater anticipation that I picked up the original novel.
I needn't have been nervous. Picking up Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is like getting lost in a fascinating conversation with an old friend who excels at telling stories. The pages fly by effortlessly until you realize with a pang of disappointment that you're nearing the end and the story is going to have to stop soon. I can think of no greater compliment than that.
There are two primary stories being told here. First we have Evelyn Couch, a woman stunned to find herself middle-aged and deeply unhappy with the life she has lived--or rather, the way she has avoided living life up to this point. Visiting her mother-in-law at a nursing home, Evelyn comes across Ninny Threadgoode, whose verve and life force make Evelyn come alive as Ninny tells her stories of her home town of Whistle Stop--and mostly about the other primary characters, Ruth and Idgie. Ruth and Idgie owned the Whistle Stop Cafe, which was the heart of the town and a frequent source of controversy. Not to mention possibly a murder. There are, of course, many other character and stories balancing things out, but theirs are told within the framework of these four women: Idgie and Ruth, Evelyn and Ninny.
Flagg's affection for her characters is palpable, and the way both they and the town of Whistle Stop come to vibrant life is breathtaking. As the story progresses and time ravages on, Flagg gets in poignant truths about life, friendship, and family, but also about how the present all too quickly becomes the past. That she manages to make these truths both on the personal level and the larger levels of society shows a surprising amount of depth and gravitas one might not have expected--and that one could almost be forgiven for not noticing given how effortlessly Flagg manages to weave everything together.
"Knowledge was more powerful than fear. Love was stronger than hate."
You know when a book is reasonably enjoyable, but the last ten pages are so terri"Knowledge was more powerful than fear. Love was stronger than hate."
You know when a book is reasonably enjoyable, but the last ten pages are so terrible that it ruins the whole experience? Not just ruins the whole book even, but makes you so mad you want to chuck the book across the room and let it sit there to think about what it's done? That's Shine for me.
I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but it's going to be hard. For now you're safe. If you want to know what made me so mad, skip to the end of this review. I'll give you a fair warning before we get to anything that could even remotely be considered a spoiler, but I promise even then I won't give away any specifics.
What I liked about Shine for the first half was that it wasn't afraid to be complicated. It wasn't afraid to be dark. Sometimes bad things happen, it seemed to be saying, and it isn't fair, but there are always consequences that you have to deal with anyway. The main bad thing that has happened when the novel begins is that Patrick Truman, a gay teen living in an unforgiving small town, has been found savagely beaten and left for dead. Now he's in a coma in the hospital and there are no guarantees that he will ever wake up, or that if he does wake up that he won't have significant brain damage. Cat had been Patrick's best friend until she secluded herself from the rest of the world after she suffered her own trauma two years earlier. Now she's determined to come out of seclusion to honor her friend by doing what the local police either can't or won't do: find out who did this to him.
It's an investigation fraught with difficulty for Cat, not only because it means getting close to the person responsible for her own trauma (and the people who did nothing to help her), but because she knows the most likely possibility is that Patrick's attacker was someone he knows. Which means one of his friends--and her former friends--turned on him.
Getting reacquainted with her old friends forces Cat to come to grips with some unpleasant truths about growing up poor in small town America as well. As they approach adulthood each of these teens has had a wake up call as to the limited options they face in life and grown increasingly desperate as their options have become more and more closed off to them. Meth and alcohol become omnipresent, adding a sense of queasy desperation to the story.
It's an uncomfortably bleak honesty that seems to be sending Shine in a startling, poignant, heartbreaking direction. But somewhere along the way Lauren Myracle starts hitting false notes, and those moments keep building in momentum and taking away from Shine's emotional credibility.
To me, it begins when Cat goes to the library in the first half of the book and runs into a college student who inexplicably calls her a terrible slur. It's such a head-scratcher of a moment that you just know this won't be the last we see of this random college student. Sure enough, he returns in no time at all, and in a twist Myracle handles with all the grace of a sledgehammer he turns out to be a nice guy who helps Cat with her investigation and becomes a potential love interest. Myracle seems very interested in showing that people aren't always what they seem at first glance, but the college student character and his storyline is handled so clumsily that his transition from racist creep to heroic nice guy never quite stopped making my head spin.
And that takes us to the ending, so stop here if you want to avoid spoilers (although I won't say exactly what happens). (view spoiler)[The ending, oh guys, the ending. It's terrible. After spending an entire book indicating that bad things happen and they aren't fair and you have to deal with the consequences anyway, Myracle tacks on a truly ludicrous happy ending. And I do mean ludicrous. Literally nothing about it makes sense. Myracle tries to make everything as happy as she can possibly make it without any regard for common sense, let alone honoring the 340 pages that preceded this drivel. It also throws any notion of consequences out the window, going for treacly notions of friendship and honor instead. Even though that doesn't make any sense either. People committed assault, rape, and attempted murder but it all gets swept under the rug at a moment's notice with no real explanation other than some seriously misplaced notion of loyalty for their friends. I almost convinced myself that it was some bizarre acid-trip dream sequence except I think we're supposed to take it as it's presented to us, which is actually insulting. (hide spoiler)]
In the end the only redeeming thing about this book is that a portion of the proceeds benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation. But if you're so inclined, you could just make a donation of your own.
You can find more book reviews, and more LGBT book reviews, on my blog Supposedly Fun.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
“The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)”
Dept. of Speculation first caught my eye when The New York Times Book Review calle“The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)”
Dept. of Speculation first caught my eye when The New York Times Book Review called it one of the top 10 books of 2014, but it wasn't until I read more about it in The Morning News' Tournament of Books that I really felt compelled to read it. It was eliminated in the first round (unfortunately by a book I didn't like), but I was thoroughly intrigued.
Dept. of Speculation takes place in the uneasy mind of an unnamed woman--known most descriptively as the Wife. She's had a difficult relationship with her own mind her whole life. First, she pursues a career as an 'Art Monster,' one of those creative types who devotes their entire life to creating art, with no room at all for love or relationships. And yet she eventually finds herself not only getting married but becoming a mother. In some ways it seems to be a natural turn of events, but it's also something of a last ditch attempt to fix herself. She believed that falling in love and becoming a mother would put her at peace with her own mind, and for a time it does.
In short bursts, Offill takes the narrative through the Wife's mind and through a series of quotes pertaining to life, literature, philosophy, and space. By all rights that should make this exceptionally brief novel a muddle, yet somehow Offill uses these bursts to deepen the mystery. The fractured structure puts you directly inside the Wife's mind, which is an unsettling place to be at times. It's a structure unlike any other novel I can recall, and Offill makes it work so well you begin to wonder why it isn't more common (the answer, of course, is that Offill is making it look easy when in actuality such a structure is incredibly difficult to pull off).
As the story progresses, you begin to get unsettled, gulping in the pages like an addict. And then before you know it, it's over. I usually stop to take notes while reading, but in this case I left my pen unattended so I could tear through the pages. Offill's writing is so full of neat turns of phrase and odd beauty that I fully intend to go back through with my pen this time to copy some of them down. I cannot think of any higher praise for a novel than that.
"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
At the risk of overstating things, All the Light We Cannot See is far and aw"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
At the risk of overstating things, All the Light We Cannot See is far and away the most sumptuous, beautiful, and heartfelt book I've read in a great while. This is a book to get swept away in.
Werner Pfennig is a boy growing up in a foster home in a German mining village leading up to World War II with no options. Brilliant and full of yearning, he seems bound for a life in the mines where his father was killed. Until, that is, his unique skills with radios capture the attention of Nazi recruiters, who bring him into the Hitler Youth program to begin putting his skills to use.
Marie-Laure is a French girl who goes blind as a child. Her father works as a locksmith in a Parisian history museum and teaches her to be independent--using elaborate models of the city to teach her how to get around, and teaching her braille so she can get lost in worlds of fantasy like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure's father is sent on a mission to protect a precious gem in the museum's collection--a gem that has a powerful curse on it, according to legend.
Naturally, the book is sending Werner and Marie-Laure on a collision course. Most authors would try to pretend that this is a secret, but Anthony Doerr plays with the structure of his novel by opening with scenes of Marie-Laure and Werner trapped in a city on the coast of France as bombs are dropped, flashing back and forth between past and present to show both how they ended up in this situation and what happens when they arrive there. It really pays off, especially since he makes you care for his characters so deeply that you can't help but feel suspense regarding where they'll end up by the time you get to the last page. There's suspense--and not because Doerr is employing narrative tricks, but because you genuinely care about what happens.
With Werner, Doerr gets at a subtle, unique frame of mind about war. Nazis are usually used as stock villains in books and movies, and while they are villains here, we feel for Werner because he is trapped. As a poor boy, he doesn't have any options. He has no control over his own position in life. War wasn't something he chose, it was something thrust upon him. He had dreams bigger than the mines, and war was his only option to even attempt to go after them.
Marie-Laure's subplot adds a dash of magic, but without laying it on thick. The Sea of Flames, the cursed gem that falls into her possession, is the most literal example of this. But even here, Doerr is really just playing with the possibility of magic more than implying that it exists--and that is where All the Light We Cannot See really catches fire. There is an allure to magic and fantasy. You might even throw hope in the same category as magic and fantasy during times as dire as the one in which Werner and Marie-Laure live. In those situations, hope is an audacious but essential thing.
I read this book very slowly because in a weird way I wanted to spend more time with Doerr's characters. That is probably the greatest compliment I can offer.
Books about war--and particularly short story collections about war--always suffer in my mind because t"We are part of a long tradition of suffering."
Books about war--and particularly short story collections about war--always suffer in my mind because they inevitably get compared to what I believe is the greatest war collection of all time: The Things They Carried. It is to Phil Klay's enormous credit that much of Redeployment stands ground with that classic.
In fact, at times the first half of Redeployment was like a hybrid of The Things They Carried and the other greatest war novel of all time, Catch 22. This is particularly true in the story "Money as a Weapons System," which fuses the visceral punch of TTTC with Joseph Heller's absurdist take-down of military bureaucracy. Klay, who won the National Book Award for this (his debut publication), proves remarkably adept at balancing gallows humor and sucker-punch dramatic moments.
What I really liked about Redeployment was the way Klay explores many different avenues of the Iraq war to give a full view of its implications. Not all of his characters are on the front lines. We also have vets returning home and struggling to adapt to civilian life, men on the front lines, men who made decisions, and men who worked behind the scenes. The only perspective missing--and this is not insignificant--is a female one. Far too often story collections essentially tell the same story over and over again; Klay's broader scope is far more effective in engaging with his subject matter.
If the collection loses some of its visceral momentum in the second half, ultimately it feels like a modest complaint. The stories are still towering and powerful. My one real complaint (again, a modest one) is that two stories, "Psychological Operations" and "War Stories," feel a touch more forced than the rest. In "Psychological Operations" Klay has an Egyptian-American veteran engaging in a conversation with a recently converted Muslim girl, in which he desperately wants to share his story with her. The problem is that in order to make this happen, Klay has to work harder than he does in the other, more natural stories. It takes some contrivance to get them together, and I'm not sure the story's ending feels natural, either. "War Stories" has the same problem: the set-up feels forced in order to put its main character in a specific situation that will make him feel a certain way and reflect on the war.
Still, even with these minor complaints, Redeployment is a staggering achievement, reflecting all the complexities of war and the soldiers who engage in it without once pandering or becoming preachy. It is also remarkably unbiased in terms of politics.
Hanya Yanagihara is truly a literary talent to watch for. The People in the Trees, her debut novel, is a disquieting, affecting, gorgeously written taHanya Yanagihara is truly a literary talent to watch for. The People in the Trees, her debut novel, is a disquieting, affecting, gorgeously written tale sprawling in both scope and ambition. In it, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist by the name of Norton Perina is accused of pedophilia and sexual abuse among the forty children he adopted (he would say rescued) from their island home. Prompted by a friend and colleague, Perina begins to tell his story (with helpful footnotes from the colleague for clarification).
Perina first visited the island of Ivu'ivu in 1950 as a medical student on the brink of an average, unremarkable life. All that changed when Perina discovered that certain people on Ivu'ivu have achieved remarkable lifespans through consumption of an incredibly rare, sacred turtle living on the island. Unfortunately, these tribal people with such advanced ages are not all well--their brains still age at the normal rate and are subject to decay as time goes by.
Perina recklessly steals some of the turtle meat to return to the United States and prove his findings to the world, making him wealthy, famous, and respected albeit controversial. You see, in publishing his findings Perina doomed the island of Ivu'ivu by thrusting it into the spotlight. In no time at all the island was modernized, its resources depleted, and its people left in poverty--unable to profit from the achievements others made from their property. By 1970, Perina began to adopt some of the children who had been ruined and left behind after everything that had happened, and it is here that the narrative takes a spellbindingly squirm-inducing turn, for we know where this situation is ultimately headed. To Yanagihara's immense credit, even though we know the revelation ahead, it is every bit as impacting (and discomfiting) as it needed to be.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The People in the Trees is that while most everything in it sprang from Yanagihara's imagination, it all feels incredibly realistic. You truly believe that this island nation exists, that this sublime prose is describing an actual place and things that happened there. That says a great deal about Yanagihara's promise as a writer.
It has been reported that it took Yanagihara ten years to complete The People in the Trees. While the love and dedication shows, I hope that I don't have to wait that long to find out where she goes next.