Some authors are comfort authors; we return to them again and again for their piercing insights and penetrating looks at what it means to be human. An...moreSome authors are comfort authors; we return to them again and again for their piercing insights and penetrating looks at what it means to be human. And so it is with me and Anne Tyler. Through books such as Breathing Lessons and Ladder of Years, I have fallen in love with her quirky characters and their well-meaning efforts to muddle through their lives and reach some sort of transcendence.
The Beginner’s Goodbye is a wonderful addition to her works. It’s deceptively simple: a 30-something man named Aaron is mildly disabled and is clucked over by his well-meaning and overbearing older sister. He eventually meets and marries an outspoken and plain doctor named Dorothy. When she dies (and we know she dies from page one), he is thrust into the unfamiliar world of grieving and lives primarily for the glimpses he catches of Dorothy…glimpses that he believes are authentic. The title is derived from the series that his publishing house prints – the “Beginner’s Series.”
There is a poignancy to this story that from time to time, brought tears to my eyes. For instance, here is Aaron’s exploration of grief: “It’s like the grief has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It’s still there, but the sharpest edges are…muffled sort of. Then, every now and then, I lift a corner of the blanket , just to check, and – whoa! Like a knife!”
Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the tone is consistently gentle and compassionate. Has Dorothy really come back to complete their unfinished business together…or not? Take this passage: “Call to mind a person you’ve lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in pubic. You see your long-dead father sauntering ahead with his hands in his pocket. Or you hear your mother behind you calling, “Honey?”…You wouldn’t question your sanity, because you couldn’t bear to think this wasn’t real…You would hold your breath. You would keep as still as possible. You would will your loved one not to go away again.”
Anne Tyler fans can expect whimsical and likeable secondary characters, and there are many of them in this novel: his sister Nandina, the contractor, Gil, and a host of well-meaning friends and acquaintances that rarely get it right. This book is about our shared human experience of loss, grief and recovery and the dynamics of a not always perfect marriage. It touched me deeply. (less)
It is no accident that William Boyd names his key character “Lysander” – the name of the iconic lover of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and...moreIt is no accident that William Boyd names his key character “Lysander” – the name of the iconic lover of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the victim of misapplied magic.
Lysander Rief is a British actor of some renown on the world stage of life, as the rumblings of World War I become more and more pronounced. We meet him in Vienna where he is “taking the talking cure” with a disciple of Sigmund Freud’s as a result of a personal problem. While in his psychotherapist’s antechamber, he meets up with two others who will ultimately have a profound effect on his life. He falls under a magical love spell of sorts with the woman, Hettie (think: Hermia from the Shakespeare play). And, as Shakespeare’s own Lysander famously said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
As in the play, Lysander will be forced to literally and figuratively enter a forest, a place of confusion, passion, heartache. And he will ultimately realize that “We’re all acting, aren’t we? Almost all the time—each and every one of us.”
All of this is ensconced within a gripping espionage story as Rief, back in London during war time, is thrust into the world of underground intelligence, where his superiors are eager to use him to flesh out a traitor who is undermining the war efforts. Rief will be forced to rely on his improvisational acting skills to reveal that traitor’s identity. He will not know whom to trust and who will betray him. Gradually, he begins to inhabit a world “where it’s hard to make things out clearly, hard to tell exactly what is what and who is whom.”
If all this sounds intriguing – it is. I am not typically a fan of the espionage story, but this one had me compulsively turning pages. The characterizations are well fleshed-out, the sense of place is finely-drawn, and the depiction of what is real and what can be trusted is palpable. From the antechambers of Vienna to the battlegrounds of London to the elusive streets of Geneva, this book captured my attention and kept me reading on as more and more is revealed. It is the first book I’ve read by William Boyd and it will not be the last.
If Perla was a theatrical production, I’d jump to my feet, applaud and shout “brava!” This visceral reaction – that something very special has just be...moreIf Perla was a theatrical production, I’d jump to my feet, applaud and shout “brava!” This visceral reaction – that something very special has just been experienced – is precisely how I felt upon closing the last page of this spellbinding book.
Where do I even begin? Perhaps with the title: Perla is a college-aged young woman whose father, a Navy Officer, was on the wrong side of the heinous Argentina Dirty Wars. During those wars, many innocent people simply disappeared; they were drugged and thrown out of airplanes, never to be seen again. At the book’s beginning, Perla discovers that one of those disp – a ghost, quite literally – has somehow found his way into her home.
There are plot twists to this coupling, surely, but it is not those twists that make this novel stand out. Ms. De Robertis explores something far more vital: what happens when a person we love has been the instrument of pain and suffering? How do we reconcile his heinous acts with the person who loves and nurtures us? What responsibilities do we have to him, to society in general, and most of all, to ourselves? Or, in Perla’s own words, how can one move forward when “the crimes of my father-the crimes of the nation, also, crimes to which I had not given words –settled on me, rode my back drooped my shoulders, stuck to me and refused to wipe away.”
Perla is forced into a delicate dance of trying to understand her father, extricate herself, potentially be his salvation as her father demands “absolution or amnesia or, at the very least, for continued love.” Her inner journey to claim her place in the world – her very identity – leads to birth and a rebirth and connects her with who she is meant to be and who she will become.
In confident prose that reads like elegiac poetry, Ms. De Robertis creates word images that are downright exquisite. I often went back and read lines twice or three times, marveling at their beauty. And when I reached the end, I broke down in sobs, not because of a manufactured sad ending but because the story was so very powerful. I haven’t had that reaction since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This masterpiece tackles all the big parts of life: love, suffering, redemption, identity, the need of belonging, and how we connect to each other. If I could give it 10 stars, I gladly would. (less)
Clear the decks and call in sick; once you begin reading this riveting this debut book, it's going to be hard to come up for air.
The narrator, aptly n...moreClear the decks and call in sick; once you begin reading this riveting this debut book, it's going to be hard to come up for air.
The narrator, aptly named Grace, appears on the first pages and right away, we know a few important plot points. We know that Grace survived on a lifeboat after her ship - like the Titanic two years prior - goes down. We also know that she is now on trial for a murder that took place during the ensuing ordeal. But here's what we don't know: how reliable is Grace as the tale-teller? Is she coldly capable of taking whatever actions are necessary to survive? Or is she simply a shell-shocked bystander, susceptible to the slightest suggestion?
In flashbacks, we learn about the harsh reality of lifeboat passenger survival, under the direction of one of the sea fellows named Hardie. The name is likely no accident: like Thomas Hardy's characters, Hardie and the rest of the survivors are overwhelmingly and overpoweringly in the grip of fate and chance. "None of us are worth a spit," Grace ruminates. "We were stripped of all decency. I couldn't see that there was anything good or noble left once food and shelter were taken away."
Indeed, as the characters are forced to endure worse and worse conditions - decreasing rations of food and water, the unexpected squall, the weakening of body and spirit, the emotional horrors of wondering about loved ones - they also form alliances that are crucial in determining who will live and who will die. It quickly becomes evident that some must be sacrificed for the majority to live since the lifeboat bears more people than it can safely carry.
There is an elegiac overlay in this tale: Hardie is at first regarded as all-knowing and godlike. In a Bible parable, he is able to come up with a feast of raw fish and water to feed the hungry. But as hope fades and order falls apart, the one-time prayers become "decidedly pagan, a prayer of appeasement to the sea..." And the sea becomes "as murky and cold as Satan's heart." Not unlike Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, the journey is not just into the deepest waters but into the deepest recesses of one's own mind; knowledge of the human condition is hard-earned and sobering.
Once I began this page-turner, it was virtually impossible to put it down. The theme weaves around that crucial question: during the worst of ordeals, is it possible for a person to be both alive and innocent? Are those who are left standing survivors...or murderers? Or put another way, what would each of us do to stay alive? Thanks to NetGalley and Little Brown for a galley for my Kindle; the opinions are entirely my own. (less)
If the thought of impending motherhood gets you dewy-eyed and you melt inside even when the baby is wailing loudly, you may want to stay far away from...moreIf the thought of impending motherhood gets you dewy-eyed and you melt inside even when the baby is wailing loudly, you may want to stay far away from this book. We Need To Talk About Kevin is about motherhood gone wrong, a worthy successor to The Bad Seed, focusing on trials of maternity when a child is “born bad.”
Eva Khatchadourian is a highly successful CEO of A Wing and A Prayer, a travel guide series that competes with the likes of Fodor’s or Frommer’s. She marries her polar opposite, a good-looking, layback man named Franklin who has bought into the American Dream hook, line and sinker. Somewhat reluctantly, she agrees to bear a child, the eponymous Kevin.
Sullen and unlikeable almost from the start, Kevin is the true “kid from hell.” At four, he destroys his mother’s painstakingly assembled refuge, a study in which she displays maps of her travels. At six, he is still in “poopy diapers”, refusing to be toilet-trained. He taunt his mother constantly by mimicking her with “nyeh nyeh NYEH nyeh” language, he spurns any of her love offerings, and he emotionally terrorizes the kids in his kindergarten. Yet when daddy comes home, he’s the good little boy, creating a wedge in Eva and Franklin’s marriage.
“Kevin was a shell game,” Eva reflects,”in which all three cups were empty.” Written in an epistolary form – letters from Eva to her absent husband, Franklin – she bears her soul and does not shy from her own failings as a mother, after Kevin commits a particularly horrendous act. “I didn’t want to “talk to somebody,” she confesses in her letters. “But I’d give given my eye teeth to be able to talk to you.”
Brilliant and original with racheting horror, the book is a reflection on the life and consequences of Kevin, and it invites much reflection: “Who is to blame when a child goes bad? Is it conceivable that a child can be innately evil? Is motherhood as glorious as it is billed to be…for all women? What if we are unable to love our offspring? Has our country gone off track with our child worshipping, materialistic focus?”
It’s a dark book, a book of psychological scrutiny, a provocative tale of insights and destruction. Ms. Shriver writes, “What drew Kevin’s contempt was not, as I had seemed to imply, our patent incapacity to protect him from the Big Bad World. No, to Kevin, it was the substance and not the ineffectuality of our taboos that was a joke.” By drawing the reader in with flashbacks – by presenting Eva’s failings as well as Kevin’s strange behaviors – Lionel Shriver has created a suspenseful accomplishment.
For those of us who read for character – and I am one of them – the complexities of a strongly drawn narrator is typically what reigns.
How odd, then,...moreFor those of us who read for character – and I am one of them – the complexities of a strongly drawn narrator is typically what reigns.
How odd, then, that I was so captivated by Garden of the Evening Mist, which is in many ways about the impermanence of individuals – the subjugation of self to become in closer alignment with nature and the flow of life – and the dominance of memory.
Our narrator is retired Supreme Court Judge Teoh Yun Ling, the physically maimed sole survivor of a brutal wartime camp where she served, euphemistically, as a “guest of the emperor” during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. When we meet her, she has developed a particular type of aphasia that will soon affect her ability to communicate. “Once I lose all ability to communicate with the world outside myself, nothing will be left but what I remember. My memories will be like a sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.”
It is that past, that future, and that identity that she is working to reclaim before the curtain lowers. And so we travel back with her to her past.
We learn that in the camp, she and her sister were able to withstand the mind-numbing horrors by remembering an exquisite Japanese garden in Kyoto. After the war, in tribute to her sister, Yun Ling seeks out Yugiri (the Garden of Forgetfulness), created by Nakamura Aritomo, the exiled gardener of the Emperor of Japan. He denies her request to design a tribute garden for her but does agree to take her on as an apprentice. The kinship is almost immediate: “It was odd how Aritomo’s life seemed to glance off mine; we were like two leaves falling from a tree, touching each other now and again as they spiraled on the forest floor.”
The slowly evolving plot is as contemplative as the garden itself. The discovery of how Yun Ling was able to survive and what she is hiding is for readers to discover for themselves, and that truth is hidden between the words that are spoken and the words that are kept inside of us. Or, as Yun Lang reflects, “Are all of us the same…navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?”
In exquisitely crafted prose, TanTwan Eng renders the garden as a place of memory and forgetfulness and ultimately, of self-healing. It is a metaphor for life itself: “The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life.”
This book – like the garden that is its subject – succeeds at capturing those elusive and impermanent truths. (less)
Indian Horse is, at its core, a book about survival – about beginnings and endings, about horrors and triumphs and tapping into one’s best part to mov...moreIndian Horse is, at its core, a book about survival – about beginnings and endings, about horrors and triumphs and tapping into one’s best part to move forward. It is also one of the most harrowing books I’ve read lately on institutional racism and it deserves a wide readership.
Ojibway author Richard Wagamese creates an entirely believable and sympathetic character in Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway child who has undergone far more in his young life than any child ever had a right to. His mother “turned so far inward she sometimes ceased to exist in the outside world” as a result of abusive practices in a sadistic church-run school system. After fleeing to the bush country, Saul’s parents disappear, leaving him with his grandmother who eventually freezes to death.
The eight-year-old Saul is captured and sent to the St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, where depraved nuns and priests work to break the students’ spirit and severe their ties with their Ojibway life. Resistance leads to fast reprisal: beatings, isolation, torture, incessant labor, nighttime invasions A fast web search affirms that these types of schools did exist and constituted arguably the most racist act in Canadian history.
Saul though, has a talent: he is a naturally outstanding hockey player. Richard Wagamese’s language soars into the lyrical as he describes the salvation of hockey: the exuberance, freedom, speed, and camaraderie. Saul plays not to win, but to live. For instance, the author writes: “Hockey’s grace and poetry make men beautiful. The thrill of it lifts people out of their seats. Dreams unfold right before your eyes, conured by a stick and a puck on a hundred and eighty feet of ice. The players? The good ones? The great ones? They’re the ones who can harness that lighting. They’re the conjurers. They become one with the game and it lifts them up and out of their lives too.”
Certainly it lifts Saul out of his life. It’s his ticket from the sadistic school and it transforms him. At least, until he begins to realize that “white ice white players” is the true reality and that there are those who wish to break his spirit all over again.
Written in the first person by an author who is clearly in command of his craft, Saul is a totally engaging character but also a symbol. As he eventually twins with his deceased ancestors and the Ojibway people in general, he represents a transformative journey or metamorphosis from alienation and trauma to inclusiveness and self-acceptance.
This is a stunning book, combining a dose of education about the horrors of Canada’s church-run schools with a compelling story the centers on Canada’s national game in language that even a non-sports fan can embrace. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Oh, what an enchanting and elegant book this is! In just 180 slim pages, Yoko Ogawa covers a lot of ground and she does it seamlessly: the nature of m...moreOh, what an enchanting and elegant book this is! In just 180 slim pages, Yoko Ogawa covers a lot of ground and she does it seamlessly: the nature of memory, the poetry of mathematics, the meaning of family and connections, the core of our profoundest relationships. Or, in a phrase: what it means to be human.
There are only three main characters within these pages and none of them are named, suggesting the universal aspect of each. There is the Professor, a one-time prominent math teacher who cannot hold memories long due to an accident (his brain is like a tape, erasing itself every 80 minutes). There is the Housekeeper, a single mother who is his new cook and cleaner after many failed attempts with other housekeepers. And there is her 10-year-old son, called Root by the professor, because his flat head reminds him of the mathematical sign for a square root.
Each morning, the Housekeeper must introduce herself – and later, her son – to the Professor all over again. He is likely to ask her shoe size or telephone number, as a means of connecting to her mathematically. For example, her birthday, February 20 (or 220) turns out to be “amicable” with the number 284, engraved on his prize watch…a way for him to assert a connection between them. Although he can’t remember from one 80-minute sequence to the next, he remains as paternal, protective, and caring as before.
In a fascinating dynamic, the Professor remains constant through most of the book; after all, he is only capable of living in the present. But the Housekeeper and her son also have a future, and through the Professor they learn and grow. The caring connections transcend the Professor’s disability or his forced immersion in the present, making it a story about love in its deepest sense.
A dominant subplot is the baseball game and the Professor (and Root’s) love of the Tigers. The Professor, of course, is a fan of the OLD Tigers when Yutaka Enatsu ruled (he can retain nothing since his accident). And Root is looking toward the future of the Tigers, whom he hopes will win a pennant. Baseball – like mathematics – is rife with statistics and the laws of probability.
For this math-challenged reader, Ms. Ogawa succeeds in making numbers exotic, alluring, and symbolic of ultimate truths. Just as prime numbers are distinctive, so is each individual. In the end, this is a book about discovery: the mother and son discover what matters in life and each other while the professor discovers them again and again, each time with delight. And through it all, the constant of mathematics and the crux of human nature remain. (less)
Junot Diaz is the man. He tackles gritty, heart-breaking, raw and painful themes with sheer lyricism. In short, his writing never fails to astound me....moreJunot Diaz is the man. He tackles gritty, heart-breaking, raw and painful themes with sheer lyricism. In short, his writing never fails to astound me.
This – DROWN – is his debut collection and Ysrael, the first of the 10 stories in this collection, makes no bones about declaring that Junot Diaz will be a writer to watch. Yunior (the narrator) and his brother Rafa become obsessed about viewing the terribly mutilated face of a boy who keeps it hidden behind a mask. The grotesque face can be interpreted as a symbol of life in the Dominican Republic; Diaz, like Yunior, is determined to reveal that life.
Yunior and Rafa along with their mother and absent father (who lives in America) reappear in other stories: Fiesta 1980, Aguantando, Negocios – the final story, which displays the father’s perspective as his life in America fails. Other stories utilize unnamed characters who could be any young man who is searching for identity and meaning in a world that’s stacked against them with poverty, drugs, violence, unfulfilled longing, and discrimination.
These stories are rife with alienation and dislocation –painstakingly so. In the eponymous title story, another of the parade of unnamed young men – a drug-dealer – must cope with ambiguous sexual feelings towards his best friend along with his own all-pervasive sense of failure. As his mother sits beside him, dreaming of the man who betrayed her, this young man also deals with his feelings of betrayal and entrapment by his dead-end life.
An overall bleakness is transfigured with jolts of incredible poetic insights. This collection is a precursor of sorts of an even more contemporary book, We The Animals by Justin Torres, but make no mistake: Junot Diaz is the master.
The Drifting House – the debut collection of Krys Lee – contains many good stories and some truly exceptional ones. And like all short story compilati...moreThe Drifting House – the debut collection of Krys Lee – contains many good stories and some truly exceptional ones. And like all short story compilations, readers are bound to gravitate to their own favorites.
For me, a few of them really sang. In the first, A Temporary Marriage, Mrs. Shin has been forced to endure an abusive relationship and enters a sham marriage with another Korean named Mr. Rhee. As a result of her divorce, she loses custody of her daughter, whom she is determined to see again. But has she courted her own abuse? Phrases such as “her wounded body continued its ancient song” sum up, in a few sparse words, what the theme of the story is really about.
Then there’s The Goose Father – the traditional name for a father who faithfully sends money to his family overseas. The father – a one-time poet – takes in a young boarder who carries an actual goose with a wounded wing. In powerful prose, the father – Gilho – must come to terms with his true inclinations and his lifetime loneliness and alienation.
The Salaryman is stunning in its understated, naturalistic prose. In this story – told in second person – we watch a solid Korean businessman lose his job, his family, his confidence, and ultimately, his very humanity. It’s like watching a train wreck; it’s hard to look away.
There are many other good ones as well – the eponymous Drifting House, the most surreal of the lot, where two brothers and their very young sister try to escape North Korea’s countryside famine by fleeing to China. Yet they cannot escape their ghosts. And in The Believer, a mentally deranged Korean American woman commits a heinous crime; her daughter tries to comfort her father by performing an unspeakable act.
Ms. Lee is a young writer who is willing to take risks as she focuses her talent on those who are damaged, lonely, yearning. It’s not uplifting – marriages fail, men lose their sense of masculinity, women lose their sense of value, and most everyone feels displaced. Yet it offers amazing insights into the hopelessness and frustration that define a Korea that’s been through war, financial draught, and instabilities. (less)
We’re all familiar with the symbols of Mumbai poverty – emaciated toddlers with flies in their eyes and their demeanor dulled and bordering on hopeles...moreWe’re all familiar with the symbols of Mumbai poverty – emaciated toddlers with flies in their eyes and their demeanor dulled and bordering on hopeless. The majesty of Katherine Boo’s novel is that she does not deal with symbols. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she brings the Annawadian slum to life in such a powerful way that fictional writers will want to sit up and learn from her craft.
Her self-professed mission, is “How do ordinary low-income people – particularly women and children – negotiate the age of global markets?” The slum-dwellers she introduces us to are neither mythic nor pathetic and they certainly are not passive. They are not particularly “likeable” and they would probably spurn your pity. Certainly, they believe their lives – no matter how meager they are – are valuable.
Brilliantly written, the book focuses on the lives of those who reside in a small settlement within the shadows of deluxe five-star hotels. As the narrative unfolds, we meet Abdul – an enterprising garbage picker who lives with his tubercular father, sharp-tongued mother and siblings in Annawadi. Unlike most of his neighbors, they are barely making it, and things get a whole lot worse when an off-balance one-legged neighbor immolates herself, blaming the family for her suicidal actions. We meet spirited Asha who will do whatever it takes to survive and give her “most-everything” daughter a chance to thrive…and we meet Sunil and Kalu, imaginative young friends who use finely-honed ingenuity to keep on…keeping on.
All of them exist in a society where life is cheap and justice is cheaper. With little to spare, just the basics of life are subject to extortion as the poor turn against the poor. This is a place where a bleeding waste-picker’s life bleeds out of him as people step over him to go about their workday; where a once-lively teenager drinks rat poison to liberate herself from her daily misery while her mother just shrugs; where a one-legged woman sets herself on fire and the craven justice system tries to finger Abdul and destroy his family.
Yet, incredibly, some degree of hope still remains. Abdul thinks, “He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals.” And later: “or some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting…But now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else.”
His – and the others – live in ways that most of us find unimaginable. But as Abdul says, “Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life.” It’s a world where the poor take one another down and the world’s great, unequal cities soldier on in relative peace. Katherine Boo goes a long way in tearing away the curtain to place us face to face with these invisible lives. A must-read. (less)