The Wonder is truly a wonder of a book, filled with moral complexities and haunting in its premise.
Lib, an English nurse trained by the legendary Flor The Wonder is truly a wonder of a book, filled with moral complexities and haunting in its premise.
Lib, an English nurse trained by the legendary Florence Nightingale, is tapped for a most unusual assignment: to stand guard over an 11-year-old Irish girl named Anna, who appears to be existing without eating a morsel of food. A town committee has been formed to monitor the girl to make sure that she is the “real deal” and is not being fed surreptiously. Lib and a local nun trade eight-hour shifts and indeed, neither of them are able to detect if a hoax is being pulled off.
Lib has her own backstory, which makes her susceptible to the plight of the continually weakening Anna, who fervently spouts Scripture and seems to welcome her own martyring. The question becomes: is the religion filling Anna’s head with morbid nonsense or has she mistaken morbid nonsense for true religion? Is Anna being used by those who claim to love her most for the glory of religion? And is Anna, indeed, a wonder of faith…or, is every body its own marvel, a wonder of creation?
By pitting a worldly and educated skeptic against the superstitions of an ignorant town, Emma Donaghue creates a tension-filled narrative that just about breaks the reader’s heart. As Lib stands by, watching as the town’s protectors – from parents to doctors to priests – fail the little girl, the question arises: what sins do we commit for a twisted sense of religion? This will surely make my Best of 2016 list. ...more
Pornography is usually synonymous with smut, filth and vice; certainly, that definition has increasingly broadened to encompass war efforts. The imagePornography is usually synonymous with smut, filth and vice; certainly, that definition has increasingly broadened to encompass war efforts. The image of the heroic solider fighting purposefully for a noble cause has been superseded by traumatized young men who are forced to endure repeated tours of duty because of the hubris of our leaders. Anyone who disagrees with the above statement probably is not a good reader for War Porn, written by a war veteran, which does not sugar-coat the reality of modern-day wars.
Roy Scranton interweaves three separate narratives: a soldier, Private Wilson, who joined the National Guard and soon finds himself encased on the madness of Baghdad, and tries to survive admit the chaos, hidden dangers, stray bullets, and overall craziness. There's also Qasim, an ordinary mathematician who simply wants to live an everyday life, who is forced to modify his dreams because of senseless raids and rumors that keep the Iraqis off balance and afraid. And then, there's the homefront: typical middle-class liberal Americans who must face their own biases and delusions about the war when an angry veteran reveals the savagery of what really happens "over there."
This book isn't meant to assuage our consciences or buy into the "we're there to help them achieve their freedom" mentality. It's authentic and it's harsh and it's real. It's written to give us a new blueprint on how to think about war and to show us that everyone -- our citizens, our soldiers, and those we purport to save -- are all affected by the horror of war. I'm not big into reading "war books", since the mechanics of war are so often the same -- wars ordered by meglomaniac leaders resulting in the deaths of far too many innocent men and women soldiers. This book doesn't shy away from that reality....more
Wow! Allow me a minute to decompress after one of the most harrowing and visceral reading I’ve experienced in a long time. Think: Lord of the Flies. TWow! Allow me a minute to decompress after one of the most harrowing and visceral reading I’ve experienced in a long time. Think: Lord of the Flies. Think: A Handmaid’s Tale. And then ratchet up the horror by a few degrees.
At the start of the novel, we become aware that 10 young women have been drugged and abducted to a desolate Australian outback, contained within a 30-foot electric fence and supervised by two brutal male guards. What do they have in common? It doesn’t take them long to figure it out: each of them has been involved in a sex scandal with a powerful man. They are “the minister’s little travel-tramp and that-Skype slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship…and the bogan-gold-digger-gangbang slut.”
Yet two of the women stand out from the pack: the ravishing Yolanda who possesses stores of strength and the insightful Verla, the one-time lover of a married politico who can’t help but feel she is there by a gross mistake. The author differentiates them while tying them into the rest of the captives.
Charlotte Wood writes, “There was no self inside that thing they pawed and thrust and butted at, only fleecy punishable flesh.” Their “crimes” are only hinted at; the author trusts us to fill in the blanks. Here they are degraded, reduced to their animal selves, forced to become feral in order to survive. They are forced to adhere to the natural order of things: the belief that they “did it to themselves, they marshaled themselves into this prison, where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.”
This is a book about many things: contemporary misogyny, sisterly courage, the interweaving of humans and nature, the cruelty that is masked by our civilized veneers. It is brilliant, stark, gripping and brutal. It is also unforgettable and it will definitely make my “Best of 2016” list.
If the story of Roderick (Roddy) Macrae, a teenage boy who committed a heinous triple homicide in a remote Scottish Highlands, town seems extraordinarIf the story of Roderick (Roddy) Macrae, a teenage boy who committed a heinous triple homicide in a remote Scottish Highlands, town seems extraordinarily realistic, there’s a good reason for it. The crime actually occurred in 1869, baffling the community and capturing the attention of some of the top solicitors and psychological experts of the time.
This is not a whodunit. We know “whodunit”; Roddy freely confesses. We also know the motivation. The key victim, Lachlan Mackenzie, is a local constable who abuses his power and conducts a personal vendetta against the Macrae family. No reader will shed tears for his untimely demise.
So why, then, was His Bloody Project longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize this year? The reason is the brilliant re-imagining of the author, Graeme Mccare Burnet, who claims to have discovered the incarcerated young man’s memoir while he was researching his own roots. What follows is the “actual” memoir, written in the tone of the 1860s, witness statements, medical reports, a psychological assessment of Roddy (by real-life prison doctor James Bruce Thomson), notes from the trial and so forth.
The result is that the reader is whisked away to the town of Culduie and set down among the crofters who stoically work their croft, eeking out a meager living, with nary a chance of upward mobility. Powerless and frustrated, unable to do much more than accept their yoke, Roddy and his family come alive under the deft pen of Mr. Burnet. While Roddy is unusually eloquent for an uneducated young man, his memoir seems quite straightforward…that is, until the doubts emerge. Is his version truly accurate? Or is he partially insane or at least, disingenuous? This novel is extraordinarily ambitious, psychologically complex, and filled with enough narrative tension to keep readers at the edge of their seats. In short, it’s a fine achievement.
First of all, I’m grateful to the Goodreads Firstreads program and to the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, for allowing me to be an early reader.First of all, I’m grateful to the Goodreads Firstreads program and to the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, for allowing me to be an early reader.
James Lasdun knows a thing or two about betrayal and revenge. In the last book I read by him – a memoir entitled Give Me Everything You Have – he tells the harrowing real-life story of being stalked by an unbalanced student.
So it’s no surprise that this work of fiction, The Fall Guy, is so darn good. It builds momentum slowly, beginning with the introduction of two of the three main characters – Matthew, a superb haute cuisine chef who is currently unemployed, and his far more successful cousin Charlie, a one-time investment broker for Morgan Stanley. Charlie, who is married to the ethereal Chloe, invites Matthew to spend the summer with them in their second home in the Catskills.
The only thing is that Matthew is obsessed with Chloe and Chloe may very well be obsessed with a fourth character, who is fleshed out later in the book. Each of these three characters is unreliable: nothing is precisely as it appears. Lingering in the background is the wide social class and money gap between the cousins and the resentment that traces back to their childhood.
As tensions mount and secrets become unveiled, there is an almost unbearable feeling of suspense in the final 100 pages of the book. Who, in fact, is the victim? Who will be the fall guy? Who is the guilty party and what is the nature of guilt? Can someone ever reinvent themselves or is the die cast early on? The relationship between the Matt, Charlie and Chloe is finely nuanced and wonderfully explored and exposed. As the fault lines in these relationships expand to become chasms, it is impossible to look away. Expect to feel unsettled and totally absorbed.
The first thing you notice about Heather Tucker’s The Clay Girl is the language. It is luminous. If this author is not a poet, she should be. There isThe first thing you notice about Heather Tucker’s The Clay Girl is the language. It is luminous. If this author is not a poet, she should be. There is sheer beauty in the choice of words and how they illuminate Ari Appleton’s story. Ari is eight years old – the youngest of six sisters – and her child-struggle with words that are beyond her ken adds to the whimsical feel of this novel.
Ari is a lioneagle who finds solace with her imaginary seahorse, Jasper, her trusted companion who never leaves her, and illustrations of Jasper adorn some of the pages. Her real name is Hariet (one r) but her aunts, Mary and Nia – a gay couple – rename her and in doing so, give her a sense of safety. She is also a clay girl: “…Clay absorbs water, same as you soaking up everything in your path. And with a little added grit, but not too much the clay becomes stronger.”
The beginning 50 pages can be confusing. There are a number of characters on the Appleton tree and there’s a jumble of names and relationships to keep straight. But once the story begins to settle in, it becomes truly haunting: a child who only wants shelter, safety and love who is torn between a well-meaning stepdad and teachers and her mother’s selfishness, homophobia and inherent meanness. As Ari moves between broken houses and broken people, she struggles to escape the fates of her damaged sisters through the redemptive power of love.
Reviewing a book about the child of an incestuous pedophile and an addicted, cruel mother can set any reader on an emotional rollercoaster. Yet the rewards abound. It is testimony to how a little girl can survive – even thrive – through the creative power of imagination and an inner compass that continually points her towards those who are kind and good. It is about the triumph of hope, discovery and self-creation over the murkiness of legacy, loss and despair. And in today’s dark times, messages like these shine through.
Alexander Maksik is no stranger to ethical dilemmas and that tenuous bridge that hangs between desire and action. In his debut book, You Deserve NothiAlexander Maksik is no stranger to ethical dilemmas and that tenuous bridge that hangs between desire and action. In his debut book, You Deserve Nothing, he crafts the book as a cautionary reminder of what happens when idealism fails. In his next book, A Marker to Measure Drift, he examines that theme from another angle: how does a person keep fighting to live after witnessing the most inhumane acts of barbarism? Where is the line between recollection and madness drawn?
In Shelter In Place, this talented author returns – in part – to these unsettling themes of the failure of idealism and the line between recollection and madness. Our first-person narrator is Joseph (Joe, Joey) March, a young man from the Seattle area, who is beginning to descend into bipolar disorder. At the same time, his mother, Anne-Marie, beats an abusive father/husband to death with seven hammer strokes and is sentenced to 5-to-25 years.
Joe finds shelter in the arms of Tess Wolff, a free spirit whom he meets while working part-time as a bartender…or does he? The two embark on a tumultuous and adrenaline-fueled relationship that burns brightly but sometimes feels out of control. Anne-Marie’s imprisonment metaphorically imprisons all the characters: Joe’s father, who becomes stuck, Joe and Tess, who react to it in their own ways, and Claire, his older sister, who breaks all ties.
Yet while Alexander Maksik’s first two novels grabbed me at the throat and never let go – until I was almost gasping for air – his latest keeps me at arm’s length. I am primarily a character-based reader, and I struggled to understand their complicated inner lives.
Yes, the novel explores important themes: the delicate dance of damaged family interactions, the legacy of mental illness, the unwillingness of authorities to deal with domestic violence, the consequences of unexamined actions, and the volatility of a self-consuming love. And without giving anything away, the ending is beautifully written and organic in its conclusions. Yet the willful meandering and repetition of a bipolar mind and the arms-length portrayal of Tess and Anne-Marie left me not caring quite enough. I yearned for the emotional adrenaline I received from Mr. Maksik’s first two novels. Still, I would recommend it for the beautiful writing and the powerful themes. 3.5 stars. ...more
There is a famous adage for novelists: “write what you know.” Ward Just has always done so and fortunately for his readers, he knows a lot. He launcheThere is a famous adage for novelists: “write what you know.” Ward Just has always done so and fortunately for his readers, he knows a lot. He launched his career as a print journalist for the Waukegan (Illinois) News-Sun, worked as a correspondent for Newsweek and The Washington Post, and fully understands the inner workings of journalism and its influence on Americans’ personal lives.
The Eastern Shore – his latest book – focuses on Ned Ayres, who hails from a humdrum Indiana town of Herman and defies his father, a judge, to become his hometown’s city editor. “Some people don’t live in the light of day,” Ned says at one point. “They prefer shadows, a natural habitat. Shadows become them.”
Ned lives in the shadows. There is almost an element of Henry James’ Beast in the Jungle in him; his is, in many aspects, a life unfulfilled. There are romances, yes, and there are high points, but mostly, his life is lived as a “procession of newspaper stories, ‘shorts,’ they were called.” One could say, in newspaper parlance, that Ned lives “below the fold.”
Accordingly, The Eastern Shore is a quiet book. It’s a book about stories – the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we invent, the stories that we create about others, and eventually, the stories that sustain us and give an organization and meaning to our lives.
Ward Just signals his intent by starting the book with Uncle Ralph, the brother of Ned’s father. Uncle Ralph is a veteran of the Great War, whose “memory was phenomenal, story after story rumbling from it in a husky baritone.” Problem is, the stories only have a kernel of truth in them. His father tells Ned to believe them if he wants to, but to remember that the stories are not factual.
As Ned embraces his life as an editor, he becomes – quite literally – the person who gives shape to the stories. It is he who identifies the high and low points of a person’s life and determines what will be revealed. Paradoxically, he reveals little of himself. “Editing was as invisible as the work of a careful tailor,” Ward Just writes. No trace of the editor is left behind. Yet as he ages, he is painfully aware that the newspaper business is dying, as fickle readers clamor for social media innovation. In essential ways, he is twinned with the business he gave his life to; soon, it is implied, neither will exist and only the stories will remain.
Those who are seeking a propulsive narrative that will raise their adrenalin would be better looking elsewhere. The Eastern Shore is a contemplative book, interweaving the themes of privacy and morality but concentrating most on one’s own inner stories. It is a fine addition to Ward Just’s many fine books (I recommend American Romantic, Rodin’s Debutante and An Unfinished Season for those who want to explore more.)
Most of us in our youth have been treated to some sort of Mister Monkey production – obvious and preachy, “full of improving lessons about race and clMost of us in our youth have been treated to some sort of Mister Monkey production – obvious and preachy, “full of improving lessons about race and class, honesty, justice, and some kind of…spirituality, for lack of a better word.”
THIS Mister Monkey children’s play is no exception. It’s a lot of drivel about a “smart, friendly, playful, super-cute baby chimpanzee” who was orphaned and later adopted by a nice upper-class family living in New York. One day, the father’s evil girlfriend accuses Mister Monkey of stealing her wallet and it’s almost curtains for the monkey until a committed lawyer fights for truth, justice and the American way.
But just as humans have evolved from monkeys, a cast of loosely connected characters evolve because of this monkey. Each successive chapter introduces a damaged character: the middle-aged Margot whose dream of acting on Broadway has been transformed into acting in this childish production…the pubescent Mister Monkey actor who is hostage to his raging hormones…the grieving widower and his young grandson, Edward, who interrupts the production by loudly asking, “Grandpa, are you interested?”…Ray Ortiz, the writer and veteran, who intended the play to be set in Vietnam…the pretentious director Roger…and so on.
Francine Prose uses her trademark razor-sharp satire to nail today’s society: upper middle class parents who want their kids to get into the most prestigious pre-school, the furor over mentioning Darwin to the sweet babes, the brave and underpaid actors who must soldier on with each performance, the horror of mismatched first Internet dates, the existential fear that young people share in an uncertain world. Sounds like a lot, but Francine Prose weaves it in seamlessly. Maybe a little too seamlessly; at times this most enjoyable narrative ran the risk of being overplotted.
As a result, I was going to give it 4 stars. But then, Francine Prose redeems her novel with an infusion of hope and grace that nearly brought tears to my eyes…because eventually, most of us come face-to-face with our own superpowers. 4.5, rounded up. ...more
The unnamed narrator of Peacekeeping – perhaps a stand-in for Mischa Berlinski himself – at one point muses, “…I learned in Haiti that stories, if notThe unnamed narrator of Peacekeeping – perhaps a stand-in for Mischa Berlinski himself – at one point muses, “…I learned in Haiti that stories, if not a necessity, are not a luxury either. Only the rich and the lucky can afford to live without stories, for without stories, as every Haitian peasant knows, life is all just things that happen to you, and you are just something that happens in the lives of others.”
I quote that passage because above all else, Peacekeeping is a story and the story focuses on the poorest country in the Western hemisphere – Haiti. There are, of course, fleshed-out characters. But each of them contributes to the Haitian tapestry, particularly focusing on the remote coastal town of Jeremie – a town that does not have a road and therefore, does not have a lifeline.
There is Terry White, a U.N. policeman who has lost at the game of life back in Florida and now has grasped a second chance to reboot himself. Eventually, he is drawn to a charismatic district judge named Johel Celestin, who spent years in the U.S. after escaping the Duvalier regime and who has come back finely sensitized to the injustice and poverty that face his countrymen. He is married to a beautiful green-eyed and ebony-skinned seductress. When an opportunity arises to topple the entrenched and morally corrupt senator, Maxim Bayard, Johel grabs it – along with Terry to help lead him forward.
The author, I’ve read, actually lived in Haiti and it shows. His knowledge of a country that lives and survives on stories – one’s own story and the story of a land – comes across loud and clear. The themes that run through this book are as old as mankind itself: the insatiable quest for love and power, the varying nuances of morality, the ways we support and betray each other.
In this election year – I’m reading this just two months before the 2016 election – the shenanigans and drama of the electoral contest are particularly timely and fascinating. If there is a flaw in this novel, it’s that Berlinski eventually chooses to focus more on the machinations of electoral events as opposed to the characters; one senses that he is using his knowledge a little too intensely and for pages, the book almost reads like non-fiction (although it is, fiction or perhaps gussied-up stories.)
“The tragedy of peacekeeping,” Berlinski writes. “…was that you are inevitably on the wrong side of someone who is in the right. Perhaps, he thought that was the tragedy of life.” By interpreting what peacekeeping means – in all its nuances – Berlinki has written a fine novel indeed. ...more
If someone were to have told me that The Golden Age was written in 1954 – the time of its setting – I would have believed them. The book has the toneIf someone were to have told me that The Golden Age was written in 1954 – the time of its setting – I would have believed them. The book has the tone of a classic, with the potential of rediscovery upon future readings.
There are no bells and whistles here. The writing is spare but powerful, carefully calibrated to reveal but not lead the reader. I often separate books into warm (those that touch the heart) and cool (those that touch the brain). On that continuum, I’d place this book at “cool-ish”, not at all manipulative despite its theme.
And what IS the theme? In a word, it’s displacement. The Golden Age refers to an actual polio children’s convalescent home in Australia that existed between 1949-1959. Frank Gold (no coincidence, I think, that his name is similar to the home) is sent there just as he stands on the brink of maturity (he is 13 years old). There he meets Elsa, also on the cusp of adulthood, and according to the book jacket, they fall in love.
Still, the love story is not truly the focal point of the book. Frank considers this: “Every country had its rules. He had to learn them. How long would he be allowed to stay here? Was this the country where he could finally feel at home?” Frank and his family have already been displaced; they are Hungarian Jews who were forced to leave their homeland during the war and in Australia, view themselves as strangers in a strange land. Polio is a metaphor for this displacement and forces Frank, once again, to learn to adjust in a home with its own history and rules.
Frank’s illness and recovery are aligned, in ways, with that of his parents, Meyer and Ida. Ida was an esteemed pianist in Hungary and has not performed for a while; one might say she is dealing with her own form of paralysis. Meyer, who is more optimistic, must come to the realization that his new city “is its own place. It is not like anywhere else.” The entire family moves towards acceptance of a new reality.
There are many secondary characters here as well, and none of them receive short shrift. This is a gentle book and it requires careful reading to fully glean all its nuances. Consider it a parlor study of the progression from paralysis to movement.
“Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me…”
Mark Lawson alludes to many literary texts in The Allegations – from Kafka’s The Trial “Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me…”
Mark Lawson alludes to many literary texts in The Allegations – from Kafka’s The Trial to Mamet’s Oleanna…from Miller’s The Crucible to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. He does not, however, mention George Orwell’s 1984, where the chestnut tree symbolizes betrayal in the name of justice and honesty.
And indeed, The Allegations is about betrayal in the age of political correctness. Ned Marriott, one of Britain’s best-known history professors and TV documentary personalities, is accused by someone in his distant past of sexual assault. At the same time, his funny and sarcastic best friend, Tom Pimm, a much-beloved professor, is accused as well; his charge is bullying and insubordination by petty colleagues. He is told, “The point I’m making, Dr. Pimm, is that if someone felt you were being insensitive, then, to all intents an purposes, you are.”
In Ned and Tom’s milieu, students are called “customers” and their fragile sensibilities must be guarded at all costs. And of course, everyone must be oh so politically correct. As Tom says, “Ours is a culture in which allegation is assumed to be fact and the bleating of the self-righteous equals justice. I am haunted by the fact that – in an era where most teachers and writers of History concur that it is unwise to aver with any certainty exactly what happened in the past – the CPS, the police, newspaper columnists, victim support groups and HR departments seem suddenly possessed by twenty-twenty hindsight…”
If this seems a mite bit preachy, there’s good reason for it. The author himself was the victim of false accusation and surreally sub-legal process and he was ousted from BBC Radio 4’s Front Row amid claims of bullying. It’s obvious that the experience still stings. As a result, the novel – at times – can be bloated (do we really need all the examples of the damage of allegation in literature) and occasionally, Mark Lawson’s voice seems to slip through.
Still, the book is so impressively written – it could be a satire except stuff like this really happens – that it becomes a must-read. The exploration of the guilty-until-proven-guilty, the social media trials, the salacious news reporting, the catalogue of “petulant defamations, slyly redesigned anecdotes and evangelical self-righteousness”, the pampering of spoiled “customers”, the inanity of having each smirk or whisper analyzed, the “historical sexual abuse” (which at the time was dual consent), the PC silliness that has become a hallmark of today’s universities – all of this is brilliantly captured, along with destructions of one’s name and family. With shades of the McCarthy era, the Workplace Harmony commissions are our new witch hunts. This book really hits its target. 4.5 stars. ...more