An excellent and haunting collection of connected stories. They stayed with me a long time and made me want to write some connected stories of my own.An excellent and haunting collection of connected stories. They stayed with me a long time and made me want to write some connected stories of my own. The main character, Olive, is such an interesting, complicated person. I love the way Strout reveals surprising facts, like peeling off layers. Her use of images and her sentence structure are both superb....more
I published this review for the San Francisco Chronicle:
There's something primeval and powerful in stories about brotherhood, that relationship fraugI published this review for the San Francisco Chronicle:
There's something primeval and powerful in stories about brotherhood, that relationship fraught with competition and accountability and a caring that begins before we know how to protect our hearts. That is why some of the earliest literary tragedies focus on brothers: In the Bible, Cain succumbs to his jealous rage toward Abel, knowing all the while in his heart that he is indeed his brother's keeper; in the Mahabharata, Arjuna kills Karna, his lifelong rival, only to learn that he has destroyed his eldest brother, abandoned at birth by their mother.
With a true writer's instinct, T. Geronimo Johnson knows this, and his superb first novel, "Hold It 'Til It Hurts," forms itself around a troubled brotherly bond the way a pearl forms around an irritant that is impossible to cast out.
The novel pulls us into itself with dizzying, disconcerting rapidity. Within a few pages we learn that the two main characters, Achilles (from whose point of view the story is told) and Troy (the mysterious one whose motives we can only guess at), are brothers who have just returned from a tour of duty in "Goddamnistan" to be met with their father's funeral. They are black; their adoptive parents are white.
After the funeral, their mother presents them with sealed envelopes containing information about their birth parents. Achilles leaves his unopened; Troy takes his and disappears without a word. To comfort his distressed mother - and because he has always felt responsible for his younger brother - Achilles sets off on a quest to find Troy and, he hopes, coax him back.
Johnson has a keen eye for the telling gesture. Here is Achilles, imagining the moment when he finally finds Troy: "[H]is embrace, as always, is suffocating and before tears can rise to Achilles's eyes, Troy ... takes advantage of his height by digging his chin into Achilles's shoulder. In retaliation, Achilles digs his fingers into Troy's biceps, and for a moment they grapple as they have since childhood. ... He feels the rush that comes from being shot at - and missed."
Achilles' quest, the journey of the antihero in present-day America, takes him to New Orleans, strikingly described by Johnson - who is a native of the city and now lives in Berkeley - just before Hurricane Katrina devastates it. But it is also a journey into Achilles' past, forcing him to face ghosts he had avoided until now. It is a journey into learning to trust again. It leads him into a relationship with Ines, the voluptuous daughter of a privileged New Orleans family, who is light-skinned enough to pass for white and adamant that everyone should know she is black.
This relationship becomes an occasion for discourses on the nature of interracial relationships, and whether it is possible to transcend the color divisions that society stamps on our psyches. Johnson is better at delineating men than analyzing women, and Ines' voice takes on, at times, a stridency.
When Achilles tries to explain how during the war he had successfully trusted his life to white men, she responds, "All white people aren't bad? Is that a proverb? ... Look around. ... On the job, in the streets, everywhere. We're followed by clerks while some white kid is the one shoplifting; we're pulled over by the police while some white kid whistles by with a trunk full of guns, planning to shoot up his school. Character assassinations against black athletes while corporate criminals bilk investors out of millions."
But the best moments of the relationship are filled with a complicated yearning, Achilles realizing that Ines "was a stranger to him, which made him feel a stranger to himself, like he was scattering, becoming smoke, like he needed her to touch him all over to reconnect the parts."
Of the many journeys the book invites us on, the most poignant is the veteran's journey back into civilian life, attempting to unlearn behaviors that ensured survival and were rewarded with medals but are now suddenly deplorable. It is a multilayered, limping journey - one step forward, two steps back, marked by unexpected bouts of rage and fear - and the fact that it is impossible to explain, to those who haven't experienced it, "that if you stare too long a dead friend looks more and more like a stranger, while a dead stranger looks increasingly like a long-lost friend."
"Hold It 'Til It Hurts" is a novel that defies categorization. It is at once a mystery, a meditation, a modern-day myth, an indictment of war and an ode to love. But this much is clear: This masterfully written book, filled with trenchant observations and unafraid of tenderness, marks Johnson as a writer to watch.
This is probably my current favorite book and certainly my favorite among Calvino's novels. A novel in poetry and a work of startling imagination, thiThis is probably my current favorite book and certainly my favorite among Calvino's novels. A novel in poetry and a work of startling imagination, this slim book is a compilation of imagined conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, where Marco Polo, who has traveled across the Khan's realms, describes the magical cities he has seen. Ultimately the book becomes a meditation of life and empire. Much of the pleasure consists of figuring out the structural pattern of the book. Calvino is a virtuoso!...more
Every once in a while I come across a book that I admire, conceding its greatness without being able to love it. American Pastoral is such a book. PerEvery once in a while I come across a book that I admire, conceding its greatness without being able to love it. American Pastoral is such a book. Perhaps this is because its movement and vision is ultimately so dark. Perhaps it's because the protagonist (no heroes here) Levov's family undergoes such a terrible & complete disintegration. Perhaps it's because the idea that a pastoral life is possible in America is exploded so thoroughly. Perhaps it's because my own philosophy of life is completely at odds with Roth's negative one. American Pastoral is an important book. Roth is a great writer who masterfully weaves individual lives into historical events. I recommend that you read it. It details the Vietnam years in America with insight. It counts the costs of dissension and assimilation both. But be prepared for harshness and disillusionment. For some graphic scenes. For a father's helplessness when faced by a loved daughter's rebellion (she explodes a bomb & kills a bystander)and her degeneration into madness. It left me feeling depressed (and not many books do that) at a world bereft of nobility. ...more
A beautiful book, filled with sensitive and unusual portraits of India that will force you to reevaluate the country and the culture. Raghubir Singh hA beautiful book, filled with sensitive and unusual portraits of India that will force you to reevaluate the country and the culture. Raghubir Singh has a unique way of seeing this complex land. He died soon after the book came out, so it contains his latest, most accomplished pieces. Worth buying for many reason: to display, to brag about, to share, to view, over and over, in silence and solitude, and to be transformed. Singh's evocative photographs inspired me to write a series of poems, published in my collection Leaving Yuba City. For the complete review that I did for the Los Angeles Times, go here: http://articles.latimes.com/1999/feb/......more