Julia Glass’s latest book strikes right to the core of personal identity. How do solidify our sense of who we are if we don’t know where we came from?...moreJulia Glass’s latest book strikes right to the core of personal identity. How do solidify our sense of who we are if we don’t know where we came from? In what ways can we take our place in the universe if our knowledge of our past is incomplete?
Kit Noonan has reached a fork in the road. Underemployed with no clear sense of purpose, he is floundering, until his wife urges him to take some time away to work out the secret of his father’s identity. That search leads him back to his stepfather Jasper in Vermont – a self-sufficient outdoorsman who effectively raised him along with two stepbrothers. Eventually, the journey brings him to Lucinda, the elderly wife of a stroke-ravaged state senator and onward to Fenno (from Julia Glass’s first book) and his husband Walter.
Through all this, Kit discovers the enigma of connections and which connections prevail. As one character states, “..the past is like the night: dark yet sacred. It’s the time of day when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are. We feel the same way about the present…. But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past.”
The biggest strength of this novel – by far – is the beautifully rendered portrayal of characters. Kit, Jasper, Lucinda and her family, Feeno and Walter – even Kit’s twins – are so perfectly portrayed that they could walk off the pages. As a reader, I cared about every one of them and – as the book sequentially goes from one character to another – I felt a sense of loss from temporarily leaving him or her behind.
The only weakness was an overabundance of detail (scenes, back story, etc.), which robbed me of using my imagination to “fill in the blanks.” While vaguely discomforting, this story is so darn good and the writing is so darn strong that I was glad to be immersed in its world for the several days I was reading. Kit’s journey and his recognition of what “family” really means -- and our imperfect connected world -- has poignancy and authenticity. (less)
It almost seems like a contradiction in terms to call a book that focuses on the human brain “too cerebral.”
Yet somehow, for this reader, the term fi...moreIt almost seems like a contradiction in terms to call a book that focuses on the human brain “too cerebral.”
Yet somehow, for this reader, the term fits. The premise is quite enticing: a Danish headmaster, Frederik Halling, is on vacation in Maorca with his wife Mia and their teenage son, Niklas, when it’s discovered that he has a non-malignant brain tumor… and likely has had it for many years. The tumor, situated on his orbitofrontal cortex, coordinates emotions, modulates those all-or-nothing signals, and provides a more nuanced human expression.
Yet even after surgery (all this is at the very beginning), Frederik remains overly impulsive and indifferent. Worse, it quickly comes to light that he has embezzled from his local private school, quite probably when the tumor was in its development stage. Is he responsible for the crime? Was he aware of what he was doing? But even more importantly, who is the real Frederik? Or, as Mia muses: “Among all the thousands of chaotic little conflicts and oddities that make up everyday life in a family, what’s the first episode, however minor, that I can point to and say Frederik wasn’t himself?”
These are important questions and the author makes the wise choice in muddying the waters with the character of Mia. Not brain-damaged, Mia is hindered with a distinct lack of empathy. In fact, she’s selfish and an unreliable narrator (and observer). She, too, is a changed person so other questions arise: “What about those who change as a result of being with someone who has been transformed by a brain tumor? Physiologically and emotionally, what lies at the core of our personhood?”
This fascinating plot, coupled with the obvious intelligence and research of Mr. Jungersen, should make You Disappear a runaway winner. Yet there are two things that kept me from totally connecting. The first, I suspect, is an overly literal translation. There’s a certain distance in the narration that robbed me of a more emotional involvement.
The second is that Chrisitan Jungersen seems to straddle back and forth between enlightening and educating. The research he put in is too publicly on display, keeping me from immersing into that alternate world of a fictional work. For instance: “Since then I’ve learned that a tumor can make it harder or someone to multitask, that it can lead to monomania. Medically, it’s certainly possible that it took root at the beginning of our marriage, transforming my marvelous charming husband into an unfaithful workaholic. That it then stopped growing until he earned to compensate and, for three good years, became more like himself again.” Granted, Mia has steeped herself into research, but from time to time, I got the feeling I was being educated by the author; in the best of books, that educational element is seamless.
I’ve no doubt that this style will work for many other literary readers. The questions raised are so compelling that I recommend it, despite my own subjective reservations. (3.75 stars) (less)
“Perhaps there is a line in everyone’s life that, once crossed, imparts a certain truth that one has not been able to see before, transforming solitud...more“Perhaps there is a line in everyone’s life that, once crossed, imparts a certain truth that one has not been able to see before, transforming solitude from a choice into the only possible line of existence.”
For four friends, that line was crossed during their late teenage years, when one of them was poisoned, perhaps deliberately, perhaps accidentally, lingering in a physical limbo state until she finally dies years later The young man, Boyang, remains in China; the two young women, Ruyu and Moran, move to the United States. Each ends up living in what the author describes as a “life-long quarantine against love and life.”
Kinder than Solitude is not primarily a mystery of a poisoned woman nor is it an “immigrant experience” book, although it is being hailed as both. Rather, it’s a deep and insightful exploration about the human condition – how one’s past can affect one’s future, how innocence can be easily lost, and how challenging it is to get in touch with – let alone salvage – one’s better self.
“To have an identity – to be known – required one to possess an ego, yet so much more, too: a collection of people, a traceable track lining one place to another – all these had to be added to that ego or one to have any kind of identity,” Yiyun Li writes.
In the case of Moran, who married and divorced an older man she still cares for,what she called her life “…was only a way of not living, and by doing that, she had taken, here and there, parts o other people’s lives and turned them into nothing along with her own.” Riyu, the most enigmatic and detached of the characters, is an empty vessel, unable to connect or to experience much pleasure or pain, who strives to receive an “exemption from participating in life.” And Boyang, a successful entrepreneur with a cynical sense of the world, has discovered that “love measured by effort was the only love within his capacity.”
This is a deeply philosophical book, one that delves into its characters, with an ambling narrative that shifts from the shared Chinese past to the present –China, San Francisco, the Midwest. It is not for everyone – certainly not for readers who are anticipating an action-packed, page-turning suspense novel. But for those who seek insights into the human condition and love strong character-based novels, Kinder Than Solitude offers rich rewards.
What’s in a name? For many people, a name is a link to a proud lineage, a tethering to the past, a solid reinforcement of identity. The key character,...moreWhat’s in a name? For many people, a name is a link to a proud lineage, a tethering to the past, a solid reinforcement of identity. The key character, Isaac, reminisces, “I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with Father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.”
All Our Names – surely Dinaw Mengestu’s most assured book to date – explores what happens when names become interchangeable, when lives become alienated, when love becomes synonymous with danger. It is a devastating book and it is a must-read.
The story is told with two parallel narratives. The chapters entitled Isaac are actually narrated by a friend of Isaac, a would-be writer who befriends the charismatic student. Times and dates are blurred: we suspect that the timeline is the late 1960s, we know the action takes place in Africa (but which country?). The more privileged students are all scornfully called “Alex” by Isaac, and we’re never quite sure if “Isaac” is the protagonist’s real name.
The second narrative is also told in first person by Helen, a white social worker, also living through tumultuous times (by U.S. standards) during the Civil Rights movement. Isaac – who arrives with only the sketchiest information – is her client, her lover, and most importantly, her love. She is struggling with smaller scale identity issues, trying to define herself against small time prejudices and an overly cautious mother.
How do you love a chimera? How do you love yourself? How do you even define yourself? In one plaintive scene, Isaac tells Helen, “I was no one when I arrived in Kampala: it was exactly what I wanted.”
Dinaw Mengestu masterfully describes a world where “seeing was power, nostalgia meant nothing” and where people – and the battles they fight – ultimately become interchangeable. At times, this book took my breath away. (less)
Peter Matthiessen – who is 86 years old – has said this about his latest novel: “At age 86, it may be my last word.” If so, that would be a pity. Mr....morePeter Matthiessen – who is 86 years old – has said this about his latest novel: “At age 86, it may be my last word.” If so, that would be a pity. Mr. Matthiessen has a strong voice and an inimitable style. For many readers, this may very well be a 5-star book and the fact that it wasn’t for me has far more to do with my reading tastes than it does with the quality of the writing.
That being said, this is a book more for the head than for the heart. It’s a somber book, Clements Olin – an American academic of Polish descent – joins others on painful missions incompletely understood at the infamous death camp of Auschwitz. The ragtag group – stricken descendants of the “perpetrators”, relatives of the victims, morbid curiosity seekers – all gather to pay witness.
But victims to what, exactly? “The emptiness? The silence? What can they hope to offer besides prayer in belated atonement?” Together and in pairs, they address anti-Semitism, man’s capacity for evil, and “confronting the Nazi within.” As the days pass, tensions bubble to the surface, bickering becomes commonplace, and core secrets begin to get unveiled. And gradually, Clements Olin gravitates towards Sister Catherine, a young nun who is also questioning the foundation of her life.
There is a great deal of philosophizing (Can those who were penetrated by the horror truly be transported by passion? Does the line dividing good and evil cut through the heart of every human being? Is any nation or any man truly unstained?) Yet I could not shake the feeling that this gathering was a type of incubator that fertilized these musings. In tone and in style, a certain formality – call it a type of contemplation—distanced me from what should have been a far more intense reading experience.
In Paradise will make you think. If it makes you feel is another matter. Like Clements Olin – an observer who needs to gradually remove his cloak and bear witness – the reader often has the feeling of being on the sidelines of history. But maybe that is the point.
Reimaging the well-known and much loved classic Rebecca is a dicey proposition, especially when the author sets up expectations from the very first li...moreReimaging the well-known and much loved classic Rebecca is a dicey proposition, especially when the author sets up expectations from the very first line: “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.” The question is: does she succeed?
The answer is yes. And no. Rachel Pastan’s debut book, Alena, is actually less of a reimaging and more of a recasting of the du Maurier’s masterpiece. Think of Shakespeare production updates: Henry V with flak jackets and video screens, for example. In this case, the unnamed narrator – a naïve and insecure young curator – finds herself competing with the larger-than-life presence of the enigmatic Alena, who disappeared mysteriously.
The framework of Rebecca is all here with one far-reaching change: passion and longing are replaced by admiration and worship. On her first trip to Venice, our narrator meets Bernard – the gay, charismatic and exotic owner of a private avant garde Cape Cod Museum while in Venice, and accepts his invitation to become its curator. Quickly, she discovers that she is in way over her head and that the museum’s bookkeeper and her niece (the equivalents of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) remain fiercely loyal to Alena’s memory.
But herein lies the problem. The gothic twists and yearning romance that made Rebecca so engrossing are missing in Alena. As a 21st century heroine, the narrator is not as constrained as the Rebecca narrator: she can simply walk away from her position, for which she seems woefully unqualified. The romantic bonds that tied the Rebecca narrator to Max de Winter are not as powerful in what is – in essence – an employer/employee situation.
The obvious question becomes: why not judge Alena on its own merits without the comparisons? Perhaps because the comparisons are so omnipresent for anyone who has read both books and very hard to shake. This book has its own merits and I wish that Ms. Pastan had untethered herself from Rebecca. The story shines as it explores the inner workings of the world of contemporary art exhibitions. Those who are steeped in this world (I am not one of them) will likely delight in the insights into real-world artists.
What elevates this book, though, is the lyrical and confident prose. Rachel Pastan is the daughter of one of my favorite contemporary poets, Linda Pastan, and she’s obviously inherited “the gift”. Filled with lush descriptions and more than a hint of the Gothic, Ms. Pastan writes beautifully and elegantly. I will definitely be in line for her next book. (3.75) (less)
Early on in Francine Prose’s richly imagined and intricately constructed tour de force, Yvonne – the proprietress of the Parisian Chameleon Club –tell...moreEarly on in Francine Prose’s richly imagined and intricately constructed tour de force, Yvonne – the proprietress of the Parisian Chameleon Club –tells a story about her pet lizard, Darius. “One night I was working out front. My friend, a German admiral whose name you would know, let himself into my office and put my darling Darius on my paisley shawl. He died, exhausted by the strain of turning all those colors.”
History – and the people who compose it – is itself a chameleon, subject to multiple interpretations. Ms. Prose seems less interested in exploring “what is the truth” and more intrigued with the question, “Is there truth?”
The title derives from a photograph that defined the career of the fictional photographer, Gabor Tsenyl: two female lovers lean towards each other at the Chameleon Club table. His is one of five narratives that punctuate the novel. The showcase narrative – written as a biography by the grand-niece of one of the participants – focuses on Lou Villars, a one-time Olympic hopeful and scandalous cross-dresser who crosses over to the dark side and becomes a Nazi collaborator. The other four narratives are composed of devoted letters from Gabor to his parents; the unpublished memoirs of Suzanne, his wife; excerpts from a book by the libertine expatriate writer Lionel Maine; and finally, the memoirs of a benefactor of the arts, Baroness Lily de Rossignol. Each narrative plays off the others and provides subtle suggestions that the other narratives may not be entirely accurate.
What is the truth of this intoxicating time, when artists of all kinds gravitated to the Paris scene and when war with Germany was an increasingly sober possibility? Francine Prose suggests that the truth is fluid. Reportedly, Lou Villars was inspired by a real person named Violette Morris. There are more than a few hints of Peggy Guggenheim in Lily de Rossignol and Lionel Maine bears a resemblance to Henry Miller. How much is fact and how much is fiction?
And once the reader gets over that hurdle, how much of what is revealed by the fictional characters is distorted through their own lens? How much of that is truth and how much is perception? Can we ever know the real person who lurks behind the mask? As Francine Prose writes, “The self who touches and is touched in the dark ,between the sheets, is not the same self who gets up in the morning and goes out to buy coffee and croissants.
I’ve said little about plot and that’s deliberate: the unfolding of the plot is for each reader to discover himself or herself. I will say this: the writing is exquisite and in my opinion, elevates an already talented contemporary writer to entirely new levels. The ending is breathtaking in its audacity. The setting – Paris in the late 1920s – is mesmerizing. The themes touch on universal matters: getting in touch with our authentic selves, crossing society-imposed gender barriers, understanding the fluidness of morality, searching for love and approval in dangerous places, making sacrifices for art, and discovering that history is not immutable, but changes depending on who tells it.
I read Lovers in the Chameleon Club directly after another very disparate book: Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird. Interestingly, both tackle the meaning of truth from very different yet unique angles. This is a stunning book and I enthusiastically recommend it. (less)
“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.” So begins the dazzingly imaginative a...more“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.” So begins the dazzingly imaginative and enigmatically-named new novel from Helen Oyeyemi.
But what happens when mirrors are not trustworthy? When Boy is really a girl? When a beautiful pale-skinned youngster actually shares the bloodline of the blackest of black individuals? When beauty is not truth and when truth is not beauty? When a mother or a grandmother is not a safe haven but something else entirely?
Helen Oyeyemi explores questions like these in her own imitable way, mixing a dose of fantasy with a dollop of reality. Her writing gifts, carefully honed in her startlingly good prior novel, Mr. Fox, are on display again here as she merges the real with the fantastical to create a canvas all her own.
The book’s curious title is a compilation of the names of three unique women: Boy, who escapes from her abusive rat-catcher father to settle in a New England town called Flax Hill; her strikingly attractive and widely treasured stepdaughter Snow; and the daughter she conceives with Snow’s father Arturo, named Bird. As the publicist’s blurb on this book reveals, Bird is “colored” since Arturo and his family have long passed for white.
The observant reader can pick up the threads of the Snow White fairy tale: the “evil” stepmother (who is perhaps more protective than evil), the removal of Snow White from the scene and particularly the “Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who’s The Fairest of Them All” query.
Who, indeed, is the fairest? Helen Oyeyemi writes, “”It’s not whiteness that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness. Same goes if you swap whiteness out for other things—fancy possessions for sure, pedigree, maybe youth too…” Or, to put another way, nothing – not race, gender, or beauty – is valuable onto itself; it is we who place the value on these attributes.
Ms. Oyeyemi sometimes overplays her hand. The narrative (told by Boy in the first and third sections and by her daughter Bird in the second section) loses a bit of steam when Bird takes over. The metaphors on race become too concrete as the author tackles the unfortunate devaluing of persons based on shade of pigment; the writing is far more effective when the reader draws his/her necessary conclusions on the tyranny of the mirror rather than being lead there.
Still, Boy, Snow, Bird is so freshly-conceived – with writing that often leverages our mythic beliefs in fairy tales and soars into our subconscious – that it still manages to beguile. Ms. Oyeyemi is comfortable shattering many of our perceptions about race, gender, appearance, and family and does a masterful job of forcing us to confront our own mirror and ask, “Is the person reflected in the mirror a true representation about who I really am?” 4.5 stars. (less)
If it’s true that every one of us is a book just waiting to be written, then it’s particularly so for Gary Shteyngart. His memoir, Little Failure, sho...moreIf it’s true that every one of us is a book just waiting to be written, then it’s particularly so for Gary Shteyngart. His memoir, Little Failure, should be taught as an example of how memoirs should be written. It’s courageous, poignant, often bitingly funny, entertaining and achingly real. There’s nary a false note in it.
At a surface level, the memoir delves into the challenges of bridging two disparate cultures: the monochromatic country of Soviet Russia and the almost too colorful, let-it-all-hang-out United States of America. Brought to this country as a young boy of seven – right at the height of the Evil Empire fears – Gary (formerly Igor) is advised to “…get rid of the great furry overcoat. Trim my unkempt, bushy hair a little. Stop talking to myself in Russian. Be more, you know NORMAL.”
Caught between his parents’ frugal and cautious life outlook and his own desire to fit in and be loved by his new classmates, little asthmatic Gary Shteyngart’s caustic wit (dubbed “Snotty” and “Little Failure” by his parents) is alive and well. The thrill of receiving a Publishers Clearing House direct mail piece stating “You Have Just Won Five Million Dollars! (would the U.S. ever lie?) or, at ten years old, given the present every boy wants – a circumcision – is hilariously funny.
But look a little deeper and this memoir is not about the immigrant experience as much as it is about one boy’s experience. Gary becomes “a kind of tuning fork for my parents’ fears, disappointments, and alienation”, the envoy between not just warring countries but warring parents, striving to reconcile parents who love him deeply yet can only display that love through corporal punishment (father) or deep silent treatment (mother).
“The greatest lies of our childhood are about who will keep us safe,” Mr. Shteyngart writes. As he lurches from childhood to the elite Stuyvesant High School and eventually, Oberlin College, he seems bent on fulfilling his parents’ prophecy of becoming a failure while at the same time setting the groundwork for his eventual success.
The making of a writer is also front-and-center here: “I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary.” We see the seeds of Gary Shteyngart’s future profession early on in some of his imaginative sci-fi effort titled “The Chalenge” and that talent takes wing despite his best efforts to sabotage it.
By removing that veil that stands between a well-known author and his readers, Gary Shteyngart seems to be asking his readers to do what he frequently urges his parents, lovers, and mentors to do: accept and love him. There is something brave, endearing, and just a bit heartbreaking about that quest. Yet for this reader, it succeeds. I closed these pages really liking Mr. Shteyngart and admiring his ability to strive for not so much forgiveness as understanding. This Little Failure is a big success.
“Relationships are about stories, not truth.” Apple Tree Yard – one of the most compelling psychological mysteries I’ve read in years – is the story a...more“Relationships are about stories, not truth.” Apple Tree Yard – one of the most compelling psychological mysteries I’ve read in years – is the story about a relationship and the truths that gradually become detached from any objective reality. It is a thinking person’s book and a page-turner at the same time – a challenging feat to play off.
Yvonne Carmichael is a highly respected geneticist, married for many years to her husband Guy. Yet in an impulsive moment, she falls into n erotic affair with a man she calls “X”. In the months to follow, they meet clandestinely, each not willing to jeopardize his or her marriage and Yvonne only learns the barest details about “X’s” life. And then something horrendous happens that shifts everything into high gear and inexorably links their fates.
To say more would be to get into spoiler territory. But I can at least say this: Apple Tree Yard is a book of amazing psychological acuity. It explores essential questions such as, “When you are a rational being, with free will and agency, is there any such thing as a point of no return?” It examines how far we go to extract revenge, to develop and mine our own fictions, to become a survivor at all costs. And ultimately, it displays how far we can go when we fall out of love with ourselves.
I believed in all these characters and the dilemmas they found themselves in. Once you start reading, clear the decks…because if you’re like me, it will be awhile before you’ll want to come up for air.” (less)
Since the publicist’s blurb is misleading, let me first define what Every Day Is for the Thief REALLY is. It’s an older work by Teju Cole, published i...moreSince the publicist’s blurb is misleading, let me first define what Every Day Is for the Thief REALLY is. It’s an older work by Teju Cole, published in 2007 in Africa. It’s fiction only in the loosest sense; in reality, it’s a short book (the size of a novella) that reads partially like a travelogue or an analysis of the Nigerian psyche
What the publicist gets right is that it’s very, very good. As Teju Cole displayed in Open City, he definitely has writing chops. His seamless insights, well-crafted prose and sense of storytelling are just spectacular. My review is based on what this book really IS, rather than what it is presented to be.
Teju Cole – or his narrator (I suspect there’s a lot of blending) – cast an unsparing look at life in Nigeria. He writes this: “Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world. Nigerians were found to be the world’s happiest people, and in Transparency International’s 2005 assessment, Nigeria was ranked sixth from the bottom out of the 158 countries assessed in the corruption perceptions index. Religion, corruption, happiness.”
All three of these ingredients are on high display in this slight book,a travelogue, really, providing an insider’s view about life in Nigeria. When the narrator arrives back in Lagos after an extended stay in New York, he gets to experience his country’s creative, malevolent, ambiguous energies again with new eyes.
Corruption is rampant and bribes are omnipresent. The tragic past – from slavery to dictatorship – is buried. (The narrator muses, “What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?”) A constant sense of foreboding about the fragility of life is constantly present. Supernatural explanations are favored for the most ordinary events. Yet through all this, there’s a sense of hope: the narrator glimpses a young woman on a bus reading Michael Ondaatje, for example.
Since this book was written seven years ago, it’s hard to tell what has changed; I wish an update had been added. The author (or narrator) deplore the lack of Nigerian and African writers but in the past year or two, there has been a renaissance of extraordinary debut writing: A. Igoni Barrett, Aminatta Forna, Okey Ndibe, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chinelo Okparanta and others that I’ve read and loved. There may be other changes as well. Still, there’s no taking away from the fact that Teju Cole writes magnificently. I look forward to his next book of TRUE fiction.