Like the post-9/11 milieu that permeated Saturday, and Black Dogs's Cold War spell well before it, The Comfort of Strangers feels like a political nov...moreLike the post-9/11 milieu that permeated Saturday, and Black Dogs's Cold War spell well before it, The Comfort of Strangers feels like a political novel disguised as a social one. But whose politics? Is this McEwan exploding post-WW2 Europe? Is the lust here a parable, and if so, for what? What does the lovemaking between Colin and Mary say differently than that between Robert and Caroline if these were not characters but states? This is the rewarding frustration of Ian McEwan's work -- that it can seem more than it is because the lines of it are so clearly drawn. Never needlessly expositive or over-adorned with description, the world is so stark that it feels like parable even when its objective could be, as McEwan has explored many times before, examining love, or marriage, or sex, to lengths where this need for unity fails its human actors. So it seems not to matter if this novel of sex and power is also a novel of war, because in love, war is inherent: its demands are inhuman, devouring, inevitable. That is not so much history as it is human life. McEwan's genius is in painting one so well as to take on the shape of the other.(less)
Because its issues mix the deeply (at times awkwardly) personal into a broader generational view, All the Little Live Things is a novel that has revea...moreBecause its issues mix the deeply (at times awkwardly) personal into a broader generational view, All the Little Live Things is a novel that has revealed to this reader widely different messages at different times. In my twenties I enjoyed the anger toward the rootless hippy culture of the 1960's: Alston's rage against Peck, who stood as a symbol to his failed relationship with his own son, the dangerously untethered Curtis. In my thirties, I was drawn to Marian Catlin's thirst for feeling -- and the irony in her imbalance between life and death, a recurring theme for Wallace Stegner. Reading this now for the first time in my forties, it's Joe Alston's regret I find most compelling. His quickness to anger, and awareness of its origin as much as its futility. My seventh time with this novel, I found Alston pitiable, deeply flawed, and brilliant but often, to his own mind, emotionally afloat. For whatever reason, this book offers this reader unique rewards with every telling. The reasons are no doubt personal, but finding such a book -- one whose life within my readings is as definite and personal as another person would be -- seems the rare gift of literature, and a unique joy of the mind -- whose transience and impermanence its author knew all too well.(less)
In drawing circles to connect narrator Alex Cleave (see: Eclipse: A Novel), to his boyhood self, to his boyhood love, to his daughter, to a film starl...moreIn drawing circles to connect narrator Alex Cleave (see: Eclipse: A Novel), to his boyhood self, to his boyhood love, to his daughter, to a film starlet, and to scholar Axel Vandel (See:Shroud), John Banville has created another beautiful novel on memory, identity, reflection, power, youth, and love (or sex), as a response to grief. Banville's powerful lines are delivered gently, as if to bloom inside the reader once they've passed his eyes, and I often thought this novel to be a lighter parallel to the brilliant novel, An Adultery. Ancient Light is a an amazing book filled with the truth of experience as expressed through an expert hand.(less)
Tigana is easily on this list, but it's more than that. It lives in a separate sphere. This beautiful, aching novel that mixes magic with grief, and love with desolation, is so much above the genre that to class it as anything seems shallow and reductive and entirely off the point. It's poignancy is gentle, it's scenes are breathtaking, and still, there is room for its author to give you heartbreak and laughter and regret and fear, and to give you to feel that, as a reader, you are becoming a part of that fantasy of novels in which you lose yourself for something completely invented -- where, from the experience, you gain new eyes, new hands, new breath, new heart. You are assembled in new, soft pieces from the literature that cracks you wide.
An amazing story, told beautifully, that should be read by anyone who has loved the genre, or by anyone who has hated the genre. And then, when you finish, you should find someone with whom you can begin again, and you should read it to them aloud.(less)
Rich and resonant language, a slowly unfolding story, and with an awareness in narrative reminiscent of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent...moreRich and resonant language, a slowly unfolding story, and with an awareness in narrative reminiscent of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, The Pox Party is mature enough to give pause to readers of any age as it presents the flawed morality of America's past in a way probably none of us would have imagined. Alternating between worlds of rank privilege and forced sacrifice, skewed knowledge and unblinking simplicity, Anderson's world is painful, uncompromising, and so poetically drawn that its architecture chimes with the bones of histories known and imagined, showing the founding of the country--however nobly reasoned or ornately dressed--to have never dealt with its questions of race. A brilliant book that I hope never relinquishes its roots--Young Adults should eat our history (and us) alive for how much we've boiled stories for them into something soft enough for adults to digest.(less)
Continuing Divergent's storyline of faction rivalry and confused romance, Insurgent adds conflicted family allegiance to the massive plot, giving Tris...moreContinuing Divergent's storyline of faction rivalry and confused romance, Insurgent adds conflicted family allegiance to the massive plot, giving Tris and Four more reasons to distrust, fear, or forsake almost everyone they encounter in author Roth's dystopian Chicago. What's striking is how violent this series remains, with conflicts played out in large scale gun battles and the psychological effects of murder remaining a central conflict in the book. The series is still about identifying boundaries, familial and personal, to the end of creating individuals who better understand their role in a fractured society, but the tones remain dark throughout. The Divergent series is vivid, original, and frighteningly realistic (see also: acceptably cinematic) in its violence -- which either makes this story a stunning parable of modern times, or a set that points too sharp a finger when singling out the ills of our own failures of character.(less)
Starting off as what seems like a parable on the perils of cliques, Divergent takes, by novel's end, surprising and violent turns to successfully esta...moreStarting off as what seems like a parable on the perils of cliques, Divergent takes, by novel's end, surprising and violent turns to successfully establish not only a believably fragile romance, but a shocking take on Chicago (and therefore America) at the edge of extinction. Without seeming derivative, Divergent captures some of the strong characterization and accessible family portraits of The Hunger Games, while finding enough distance from that influence to say something new about the creation (and elimination) of boundaries within the search for individual identity. Readers may see the ending coming, but they probably won't guess much of what happens along the way.(less)
With seductive lulls and the artificial logic of manipulated consent, Lamb creates trust where none should exist, illuminating the almost unconscious...moreWith seductive lulls and the artificial logic of manipulated consent, Lamb creates trust where none should exist, illuminating the almost unconscious -- and not insincere -- mechanisms that David Lamb, in his mid-life years, uses to convince 11-year-old Tommie to accompany him on a road trip from Chicago to Colorado. Most unsettling is how the reader himself begins to believe David's stories, and we, like young Tommie, are never quite sure where to stand. The constant tension, in ourselves and between the characters, is propelled by beautiful imagery, and with an approach that makes David believable as both a compelling, charming man and someone deeply out of touch with his surroundings. For his part, Lamb insists by force of personality that -- to Tommie, to his lover, to his coworkers, and to himself -- his actions have a kind of truth borne simply from their expression. The most wonderful trick of this novel is in its narrator's voice, never identified nor coyly implied, which reveals this story as if in flashback or remembrance or personal analysis. This is the best distance we could be given to view this tale, and while other books have more impact though violence or encouraged disgust, Lamb haunts with whispered promises and a genuine plea that some shape of compassion be communicated, despite whatever else is lost.(less)
Balancing superior characters with a just-short of sci-fi plot, Predicteds is highly recommended for YA readers seeking strong and sympathetic female...moreBalancing superior characters with a just-short of sci-fi plot, Predicteds is highly recommended for YA readers seeking strong and sympathetic female characters, realistically complicated and quirky adults, and for an honest portrayal of the complications, truces, and stop-and-start relationships that teenagers suffer through the years in which they come to learn themselves better. Most admirable is Seifert's characterization of central character Daphne as self-reliant and strong willed, yet wholly believable as a young woman who can fall for a boy without either sacrificing her integrity or belittling the equally as complicated emotions of her would-be partner. Similarly, Daphne's friends throughout the story move realistically across the spectrum of young adult friendships: sometimes Daphne and Dizzy are inseparable and others completely at ends. Yet natural interactions like these across the book never take a turn toward the unbelievable or overly dramatic. Seifert seems on the verge of finding in future novels the opportunity to explore even more complicated themes with equally as thoughtful characters. I very much enjoyed this book.(less)
A wonderful, more serious (and more sincere) take on the film Groundhog Day's premise that celebrates the complicated friendships of high-school girls...moreA wonderful, more serious (and more sincere) take on the film Groundhog Day's premise that celebrates the complicated friendships of high-school girls while pushing its narrator, Sammy, toward a clearer understanding of her own motivations, choices, and how to make her time left matter most. Watching Sammy make -- most of the time -- progressively better decisions is rewarding not because they provide a moral high-ground, but because we understand how difficult some of those decisions can be. An honest portrayal of teen life swamped by sex, booze, and fashionistas that never tries too hard to be cool, or overplays to break your heart. Yet somehow, by the end, "Before I Fall" manages both.(less)
Like most people in their early twenties, Helga Crane is filled with the desire to be more than she is, to be more entranced by the world than she is,...moreLike most people in their early twenties, Helga Crane is filled with the desire to be more than she is, to be more entranced by the world than she is, and to see something more of life than her teaching position in the rural South offers. The cure, then, is to dismiss, one after another, the stops on the fickle road to her contentment: her native Chicago, New York's Harlem, Copenhagen's exotic promises. Passed over too are opportunities for extended family, for marriage, and for genuine love. What is never made explicit is how much the background of 1920's American racial segregation contributes to Helga's discontent, and how much is of her own manufacture; a dilemma at the crux of the novel's experience, and the heart of many conversations about race: does the scene define the characters, or are actions here independent of context? The stark result of Helga's travels, however, are revealed by the title: the more you move around a country simultaneously obsessed with and ignorant of its problems with race relations, the deeper you sink into the worst of what it offers.
On a personal note, I'm disappointed I didn't hear about this book until age forty, when it is the perfect novel for late high school and early college students to explore the incongruous, complex relationships between whites and blacks in early 20th Century America, while simultaneously examining the idealistic wanderlust of any person's early twenties. This is -- or it should be -- a classic novel, familiar to any student of American literature. As it is, I only heard about it because NPR put it on a one-off book list published last week.(less)
An engaging if straightforward spy thriller focused more on domestic anti-terrorism agencies (including the here newly created Department of Homeland...moreAn engaging if straightforward spy thriller focused more on domestic anti-terrorism agencies (including the here newly created Department of Homeland Security) than on any far reaching international plot. Tourist Milo Weaver's family serves as the novel's moral core, again making this a more introspective view of post-9/11 America than perhaps is obvious at first. Psychologically, the novel presents an American world view that is introspective to the point of isolationist, reflective while not looking too deeply for serious flaws, and so focused on ideals of family that they quickly overtake all other logistical concerns. The book is revealing in this way, but not necessarily aware of its own portrayal. Instead, the book provides easy thrills, the familiar tropes of spycraft, and a character that was literally created around George Clooney. There is no question that The Tourist entertains, but it doesn't reach high or far for its topical fruit.(less)
A short, but significant summary of the roles and attitudes of African American's within or centered upon United States military service from the Amer...moreA short, but significant summary of the roles and attitudes of African American's within or centered upon United States military service from the American Revolutionary War through Vietnam. In addition to providing a succinct overview of the topic, Mullen positions a thesis that civil rights for African Americans -- despite a longstanding history of Blacks supporting military service as a pathway to full rights and citizenship -- were mostly ignored until arguments in the 1960's drew parallels of the struggle to human rights issues globally. A fast read, but highly engaging. (less)
In telling of Ebla, an 18-year-old runaway who seeks solace in the home of her Mogadishu cousin, Nuruddin Farah draws multiple comparisons to the live...moreIn telling of Ebla, an 18-year-old runaway who seeks solace in the home of her Mogadishu cousin, Nuruddin Farah draws multiple comparisons to the lives of animals. In one segment, the reader hears of monkeys who cake their female’s vagina with dirt in order to stave off – or reveal signs of – adultery. In another, Ebla reflects on the camels milked, calved, and sold for their value to humans – a relationship that parallels the bartering and sale of wives to men. Ebla sees herself, her friends, and particularly the men she meets, as no better than animals – acting as animals do for affection, sex, and prestige. The young woman’s confusion about her destiny makes this a difficult novel to mine as Ebla’s journey is incomplete and articulated realistically as that of an unexposed farm girl. But it may be that simplicity is the whole point; Ebla discovers her own path from girlishness to womanhood with no ambitions greater than gaining respect as a woman, making peace in her relations with men, and finding pleasure and comfort as she can. It is a base but pure reality that finds itself corrupted and overly complicated only when put into the ironically 'elevated' hands of men.(less)
A strong continuation of the premise set forth in Hunger, introducing the incarnations of War and Pestilence. Death disguised as Kurt Cobain continues...moreA strong continuation of the premise set forth in Hunger, introducing the incarnations of War and Pestilence. Death disguised as Kurt Cobain continues here, as well, with some interesting romantic possibilities raised between certain characters. It's easy to imagine where the series goes from here -- two books for each of the two remaining Horsemen. But since we've had two books now to explore the world created by author Kessler, my hope is that a larger story might appear -- one that goes beyond embodying contemporary teen issues as Horsemen, and that explores how these young women and men work while facing larger internal and external threats, or deal with particulars of their assignments. It's to Kessler's credit that she has invented such an original cast. Hopefully she'll unearth a more expansive storyline to match.(less)
The premise of Hunger says it all: a 17-year-old-anorexic girl is cast as Famine, Horseman of the Apocalypse. If that weren't enough, Death bears a mo...moreThe premise of Hunger says it all: a 17-year-old-anorexic girl is cast as Famine, Horseman of the Apocalypse. If that weren't enough, Death bears a more than passing resemblance to dead rocker Kurt Cobain. From there, the only fear is whether Jackie Kessler can sustain the promise of her set-up. Fortunately for us, the book not only lives up to its potential, but clears the way for a fresh and fantastical Young Adult series that deftly connects its own mystique to very serious teen realities.
Hunger is like the perfect Young Adult mix of Stephen King's fantastic novel Thinner and Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse, but while similar to these stories (and to the Marvel comic book series "X-Factor" that inspired the author), Kessler creates her own superbly unique mythology. The perfectly named Lisabeth Lewis becomes -- in a very short span within a very thin novel -- a wholly believable voice that the reader craves more of by the story's end.
This novel took two hours to read, from purchase to finish. Highly recommended.(less)
A fable that is both tragic and filled with fantasy – a spirit tree towering outside the entrance to a tent; a entire village turned blind; spider pac...moreA fable that is both tragic and filled with fantasy – a spirit tree towering outside the entrance to a tent; a entire village turned blind; spider packs moving in glyphs to protect only the women -- Who Fears Death is thick with imagery in its otherworldly pilgrimage through an ever-present racism and sexism that plagues its near-barren East African setting. A bildungsroman submerged in damask-patterned sands, with complicated goals and characters full of purpose, the book is hard to describe, and pointless to pin, but brilliantly moves between our world and worlds less familiar to tell, or retell, a story of women from their flight as literally voiceless victims to embodying the channels of the oldest power. More fairy tale than futuristic, Who Fears Death is paced exceptionally well, and moves to its climax, its one version of a truth, with strength and the commitment bred of resignation and ideas of hope, future, change. (less)
Working well below a crime novel's usual lows, "Dark Places" attempts the long climb upward for Libby Day, one of two surviving members of her family'...moreWorking well below a crime novel's usual lows, "Dark Places" attempts the long climb upward for Libby Day, one of two surviving members of her family's brutal and inexplicable murder. Novels this bleak are an acquired taste, but Flynn's superior characters and her ability to make even the inhuman understandable (if never exactly sympathetic) simultaneously elevate the class of her book while painting its corners ever darker. One of the few books I've read that might require a little Day break, if you know what I mean, but overall a true-ringing, exceedingly well populated novel.(less)
Until the near end of the novel, disliking most of the major characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge is easy for a reader to do, if only because these...moreUntil the near end of the novel, disliking most of the major characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge is easy for a reader to do, if only because these characters’ failures are borne from such sailing ambition (and the uneven pitch of their hearts), that readers have been rolling their eyes at this cast for centuries. These same flaws – made palatable by their truth – pull the novel from a dusty cannon shelf to modern times, where a popular culture in love with the mostly propitious world of Jane Austen can, I suspect, better relate to the baser and earthier motives driving Hardy’s plot, even if it’s only a third as romantic. Vanity, paranoid rage, ignorance, anger, lust, misplaced trust, blind infatuation, and simple caste loathing – all parade the streets of Casterbridge in the daylight of believability, giving these wonderful, hopeless characters a humanity so ripe it makes their failures as wincing as they are compelling. Hearts are changed in Casterbridge more often than clothes, apparently, and if the town is mostly lost to modern times, as the narrator suggests, surely it isn’t for having been built on the same ephemeral foundation. More likely, too much of humanity has walked this ground before, as so many more have done it since. An excellent book.(less)
Season of Migration to the North is a complicated, twisting novel about -- at the most basic level -- sex, sexism, power, manipulation, vanity, and lo...moreSeason of Migration to the North is a complicated, twisting novel about -- at the most basic level -- sex, sexism, power, manipulation, vanity, and love. It’s also about admiration, perhaps undeserved but unquestioningly given, and is too a novel of political vengeance against individuals who are never aware of the reason they’re made to stand for their nations. There is a great deal to enjoy in Salih's novel, not the least of which is the language. I think those that enjoyed the more sexually blatant novel The Piano Teacher will find Season of Migration cerebral and mysterious and, much like its driving character, Mustafa Sa'eed, worthy of multiple readings and interpretations. A rare find and an excellent novel. (less)
As they move in and out of narrator Nick Framingham’s life, the other characters in Now You See Him possess the page with surges of the ugliest emotio...moreAs they move in and out of narrator Nick Framingham’s life, the other characters in Now You See Him possess the page with surges of the ugliest emotions: envy and contempt, open hatred, lusts both bold and rotten. Now You See Him is about puzzling out identities: Who would expect, among this small New York state crowd, a killer? Who is the best at swallowing their horrible truth? And who finds themselves soured by what their introspections peel away? All said and done, this novel, in places beautifully written, creates something like a shredded collage of identity - an image wholly manufactured, and destroyed in an explosion of faces and memories and beliefs at the deaths of writer Rob Castor and his wife.
I am surprised to find such strong things to say about these characters because while reading them they seemed as familiar, understandable, even as noble as you could hope for families never forced to confront themselves. And that may be the best thing about this literary thriller: that you come away unsettled, with a strange urge to dig out the seed of your own identity, examine it, and decide if it has grown as healthy as you thought. (less)
I'jaam's lucid flashbacks and hallucinatory passages written during narrator Furat's Iraqi imprisonment reminds me of similar political or existential...moreI'jaam's lucid flashbacks and hallucinatory passages written during narrator Furat's Iraqi imprisonment reminds me of similar political or existential novels The Stranger and The Plague. There is even something about I'jaam to recall the less mature Stephen King novella, The Long Walk, and the more artificially constructed, e-less novel from Georges Perec, A Void. But while those books had much looser ties - if any - to a kind of truth, it is not difficult to find the reality that motives the surreality of I'jaam: the Orwellian-like regime of Saddam Hussein. As a novel, I'jaam is beautifully done: believable in its premise; effective as a written artifice; reluctant to use heavy-handedness and anger when its portrayal of soft tragedies, and a lost romance, bring Furat's imprisonment a readier display of human endurance, justification, and regret. This novel, like the era it captures, needs to be elevated into broader view. (less)
The Soul Thief begins the way all good books set in college do: with a party. And if you liked The Feast of Love, you are probably prepared (read: gr...moreThe Soul Thief begins the way all good books set in college do: with a party. And if you liked The Feast of Love, you are probably prepared (read: greedily ready), to follow Nathaniel Mason for 209 pages of nothing more than early 1970s college life: drinking too much; spontaneous, aimless road trips; and the kind of sex-by-arrangement or even sex-by-proximity arrangement that can happen when you are exploring the world of newfound adulthood and your sexual boundaries simultaneously. As common as the experiences are, Charles Baxter could make the college antics of any one of us worth that much paper, but The Soul Thief aspires higher.
More Saul and Patsy than The Feast of Love, The Soul Thief ruminates on darker themes. Identity and obsession become intertwined with the exploration and college-aged intellectualization of emotional motives — in effect, this is the academic experience of deconstruction applied, unwittingly and unwillingly, on the self, and in places the effect is chilling. What I won’t say is that I loved the ending, and this is a book where the ending makes or breaks your ultimate experience. But all of Charles Baxter's trademarks are here, especially in the introduction of his achingly unforgettable characters, and that is a trademark worth experiencing again.
There are a slew of related novels that might help triangulate this one. The Secret History and Intuition to one side, and the ridiculous Arts and Sciences on the other. Ultimately, however, nothing is going to prevent a Charles Baxter fan from reading another Charles Baxter book. Even if you don't quite think he's the best writer of thrillers in the world, or if you feel there is something you may have missed, The Soul Thief has enough substance to leave you wondering not just how thoroughly the novel's ruse was constructed, but about all the pieces of these characters' lives that you are made, so suddenly, to miss. (less)
If you read fiction to escape, then you read literature to fall in love, and with this love collect for your heart the fallible gestures of human judg...moreIf you read fiction to escape, then you read literature to fall in love, and with this love collect for your heart the fallible gestures of human judgment that mark a life as you would know it. The Cry of the Dove creates a woman easy to fall in love with because her life encompasses the most human effort: to stake and bound an identity amid conditions that are powerfully imbalanced, but quietly, lovingly, individual.
The novel is constructed with evocative language and a speech broken only out the narrator’s mouth, for Salma Ibrahim El-Musa, sometimes Sally Asher, is nothing if not honest in the cruelty of her self-image, her Bedouin roots never not on display for judgment by her adopted England. Like her speech, scenes of the narrative are spilled like a bag of stones, skipping from present to past, but orchestrated in a way to muse here on religion, here on birth, here on desire, here on loss.
I don't know what to say that would express why I think this novel is so beautiful, just as I don't know how to encapsulate a life to make it tell as well as it feels. But I am in love with this complicated Salma, as much as with what she would hope to lightly carry as with how steadily she would march toward grace. (less)
In the Wake reads like a dream diary in which emotions, ideas, and relationships emerge and submerge, never fully formed, but living, in their way, di...moreIn the Wake reads like a dream diary in which emotions, ideas, and relationships emerge and submerge, never fully formed, but living, in their way, distinct and ever-present, haunting those who keep them close. This is a novel in which Arvid Jansen comes to narrative consciousness with his face pressed against the window of a book store, as if waking from a coma. It is, in fact, his brother who we find in a coma, while learning the rest of Jansen's family, appearing through flashbacks or via the artifacts that prove their existence, has died horribly by fire-at-sea — an event that mirrors the author's own life.
This is a tragic novel, but not a morbid one. The central issue seems to be not loss alone but the loneliness that travels with it, and Arvid surprises the reader in those relationships to which, like debris, he is able to pick up and create a connection. Those are the relationships that that stay in the reader’s mind at the novel's close - their awkwardness, unspoken intentions, and stunted growth create for the narrator not a surrogate but perhaps a new family that can carry loss toward a more landed identity in which hope can, if not exactly thrive, breathe, and flail, and mourn.(less)