If I were to identify a book that snuck up and bit me, this would be the one. I remember, when I read Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD, feeling immediately...moreIf I were to identify a book that snuck up and bit me, this would be the one. I remember, when I read Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD, feeling immediately that I was in the presence of a great author. With Hellenga’s novel, (and this is my first by him), I was instantly engaged, but it wasn’t until the halfway point that I realized how stunning this book was, and consequential.
Frances lives with ongoing doubt regarding her faith. She’s from a strait-laced Polish Catholic family in small-town Illinois, her mother especially traditional. But Frances sought to be a scholar, which creates a more expansive intellect—and with that comes dubiety. In the 60’s,when she has an affair with her college Shakespeare professor, Paul, she tries to shake him off before her two-month trip to Rome to study spoken Latin. Later, she marries him, but not until after their daughter, Stella, was born (Paul had to get a divorce first). That’s two transgressions right there!
The first-person narrative is intimate and palpable, as if Frances is talking directly to you. It is laid out like a confessional memoir, which she calls a spiritual autobiography.
“All narrators are first-person narrators. You can’t get ironic distance from yourself, can’t see around yourself, can’t know more than you know.”
As the confessions progress, the tension rises. The erudition isn’t distracting—rather, the allusions piqued my interest, while adding texture and depth to the story. Everything from Latin, the Classics, Shakespeare, opera, classical music, and piano tuning is folded in neatly and compellingly. The events that cause colossal self-doubt, guilt about her last months with Paul, guilt about not having guilt, and concern for Stella adds piercing poignancy. Her combative conversations with God—which, in my estimation, are to be taken figuratively—buttress the weight of the novel while giving it levity.
An added bonus for me is the inclusion of Santa Maria Trastevere, a baroque church in Rome that is probably my most treasured edifice anywhere. When I visited this astonishing basilica, it poetically/spiritually brought me to my knees (and I am a secular Jew)! Hellenga’s incorporation of the church in the story stole my heart.
Finally, the most provocative theme of this book, to me, was the idea that “answers” aren’t necessarily the element you are looking for. Rather, it is the questions. Asking the germane questions.
“I was being tested, too, though I wasn’t sure exactly what the questions were.”(less)
This dystopian story follows married couple Cal and Frida in the middle of the 21st century, who left LA following a slow and steady apocalypse, as th...moreThis dystopian story follows married couple Cal and Frida in the middle of the 21st century, who left LA following a slow and steady apocalypse, as the country was running out of food, supplies, and supportable habitation. The Internet dried up, and the scramble to peaceably and comfortably exist was running on empty. Although it doesn’t state definitively what occurred, it is evident that climactic conditions and carbon footprints were involved.
“…LA’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores or its sagging houses. All those dead lawns…people starving on the sidewalks…the city wasn’t just sick, it was dying.”
Cal and Frida live in a remote landscape in solitude, until they find one family a bit further away. But, when Frida determines that she is pregnant, they decide to venture out into a more established community that they learn about from their new friends. Having to rely on each other for all their emotional needs can be dicey; periodically, the differences in their outlooks caused problems psychologically and emotionally.
When they arrive at the new grounds and community, they discover that the charismatic leader's identity is a huge coincidence, one that, honestly, created an eye-rolling groan for me. It was a gimmick that cheapened the story, in my opinion. However, I was able to remain generally engaged in the day-to-day events of Cal and Frida's life. Often, it had a soap-opera-ish feel to it, and read more like a domestic drama for young adults, with the adolescent type of flirtations and triangulations inherent to that group. Also, the dystopian nomenclature tries a little too hard.
Periodically, I felt that Lupecki was shuffling too many ideas at once, muddying the locus of the story. Some of the inclusions, like the retrospect to the college that Cal went to, were weighed as more important than it came across, i.e., it was convenient as a meeting ground for various characters, but the details about life at the school seemed superfluous or telegraphed. Often, events and disclosures didn't feel organically compelling; rather, the author had a tendency toward amplifying scenarios that were aimed at convincing the reader of more substance than the moments actually conveyed.
The blurbs for this book—“Breathtakingly original, utterly gripping, inventive, arresting”—even comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and Lorrie Moore—created some high expectations in me that were not fulfilled. This was far from original—in fact, I found it pretty derivative, an imitative Margaret Atwood type story that didn’t measure up. Most of the characters felt secondhand, except for August, the enigmatic, wayfaring, mule-riding trader, whose agenda is mysterious.
The prose was serviceable, but the atmosphere, rather than “darkly arresting,” was more airy. The author appeared to be petitioning the reader to believe in the characters’ authenticity. In Lupecki’s defense, she does have some fair storytelling abilities that kept me reading until the last page. And, despite the largely hereditary plot, I was pleasantly surprised by the denouement, which kept some options open and provoked contemplation.
Thanks to Little Brown for providing me a copy for review.
This is my fourth novel by Carter that I’ve read, my favorite being his last book, THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. I enjoyed his revisionist histo...moreThis is my fourth novel by Carter that I’ve read, my favorite being his last book, THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. I enjoyed his revisionist history of Abe Lincoln and the thorny disputes and complexities of abolition and economics, as well as the passionate way he evoked the Executive decision-making. The premise, whereby Lincoln survived Booth’s assassination attempt, was of course, fiction, but otherwise, it was entirely plausible and filled with historical truths and events. Here, Carter is at it again, reimagining events, while keeping aspects of historical background credible.
Set amidst the Cold War and Kennedy’s crucial, pivotal days in negotiating with the Russians, the eponymous title refers to a covert conduit between Kennedy and Khruschev, a secret avenue of communication and negotiation that was initiated in order to avert full-scale war with the Russians. Carter, whose love for chess is used both literally and figuratively here, as in many of his novels, does a superb job of keeping the stand-off tense, one move at a time, even though we know how it turned out historically. (And, in his editor’s note, he reveals that there was a back channel, although not with a nineteen-year-old black, female college student).
The preponderance of the novel was centered on the chosen student, Margo Jensen, the comely 19-year-old sophomore at Cornell. Although it is difficult to swallow that a young, inexperienced college student was the conduit for these secret negotiations, Carter succeeded in making me root for her. Through progressively perilous experiences, Margo loses her innocence and cultivates a refinement in the game of espionage, a trait that appears to be in her blood. The backstory of her father, an unsung hero of the Great War, adds suspense and excitement.
The editor’s note or afterward is a pleasure, allowing the reader a bit of insight into the author’s technique and design for his story—the wending of fact and fiction. If you are already a Carter fan, you will likely enjoy this book. If you’ve never read him before, and are intrigued by “faction,” I would recommend reading THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN first, a more convincing alteration of historical events.(less)
As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of how it evolved like an indie movie with Greta Gerwig and Miranda July, or a Carey Mulligan type. It tak...moreAs I was reading this book, I kept thinking of how it evolved like an indie movie with Greta Gerwig and Miranda July, or a Carey Mulligan type. It takes some conventional tropes of fiction and edge-cuts it with less plot, and lots of inner dialogue, as well as tart conversations. The story could be a soap opera, if done in the prevailing decorous style. Instead, it focuses on the friendship of primarily two thirty-year-old women, Bev and Amy, who met at a job at a publishing firm. They both left there for different reasons, and remain close, until the relationship is challenged when one of them becomes pregnant after a one-night stand.
I hail the author for not having men come to the rescue (which is refreshing). The locus is on friendship, and a deeper exploration of what we want and need from each other, and from ourselves. It also examines how we mirror and reflect the people in life we choose as close friends. It also probes the external forces that bind us to convention while struggling to be authentic.
“…I’m talking about this weird vapidity that woman seem to aspire to…This kind of Us magazine editorial voice that infects people’s actual conversations and lives. Just fetishizing children and domesticity and making it seem like they are the…only legitimate goals women’s lives can have.”
Bev and Amy are struggling to create careers and find love. Amy, on her rise to the top in the blogging world, made some enemies, moved on to a different job, and remains unhappy in her work. She feels entitled to a more luminous career. Bev left graduate school in creative writing after a year, and is floundering in temp jobs, and ruminating about an old romance that went sour. A third party, Sally, complicates their solidarity, as does Sally’s husband, Jason. Sally and Jason represent that wealthy and “arrived” status that Emily and Bev have been striving for--or against.
It’s a swift, upmarket beach read, but not shallow. It removes the gloss and poof of shows like Sex and the City, which has caused a whole generation of young, single women to think that living in NYC is sexy and romantic. FRIENDSHIP demonstrates the often stressful, financially strapping, and lonely life of this glamorized city.
Contemporary and biting, Gould’s novel of women on the precipice is engaging and honest. Can a friendship at a crossroads toward maturity survive diametrically opposed points of view? Life choices, bonding, betrayals, and growing-up are challenges to Amy and Bev—“allies in a world full of idiots and enemies.” (less)
There’s a taint on the posh private Dublin high school, St Kilda’s, where Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly, attends. Last year, the most popular and goo...moreThere’s a taint on the posh private Dublin high school, St Kilda’s, where Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly, attends. Last year, the most popular and good-looking student, Chris Harper, was killed. His murderer has never been identified. Now, Harper’s file is in the Dublin Cold Case department, and Detective Stephen Moran, who is aiming for the Murder Squad, receives a clue from Holly, who ditched school to seek him out. The clue was a picture of Chris and some alarming words attached in cut up letters from a book, tacked up on the secret school corkboard, otherwise known as the Secret Place. That was the headmistress’s idea--that board for students, a place to vent about anything anonymously. But, the kids know, nothing is anonymous for long.
The headmistress, Eileen McKenna, sure doesn’t want the police lurking once again, potentially spoiling business. Last year, after the murder, several parents removed their kids. Holly and her three best friends insisted on staying. But as Moran finds his opportunity to team up with Detective Antoinette Conway, the partner-less Murder Squad leader, St. Kilda’s is once again invaded by a police investigation, which is never good for school business.
The story alternates back and forth between Moran/Conway and Holly and her classmates. The narrative often bleeds together when the detectives are interviewing the St Kilda’s population, and time shifts seamlessly between past and present. It is a contiguous and flowing style of voices/points of view, as well as a sinuous oscillation of time. And, although the teenagers are a substantial part of the story, this is not a YA novel. The characters are complex, and there is no simplification of text toward younger audiences. However, sophisticated YA readers may enjoy the relatable aspects of adolescent angst.
Tana French is a dexterous, talented craftswoman and imaginative storyteller, my personal front-runner mystery writer of the 21st century. Her exceptional gift with words and imagery establishes her work in the category of literature, not genre mystery. However, she is one of the most egalitarian writers I’ve read—she is here for the reader who desires a penetrating, psychological character study couched in a mystery/suspense story. She also possesses a flair for ambiguity, which will keep you thinking and wondering, even after the very end. Like life, not everything is tied in a bow; it’s more like a knot. However, readers will be amply satisfied with sufficient answers, unlike her first book, IN THE WOODS (although, personally, I liked the ambiguous ending of that book). French fans don’t need any early reviews to line up for her latest jewel. Most of us can’t stand the wait between books! For French newbies, you are in for a tantalizing treat.
Addendum: it isn’t necessary to read French’s books in order, but I would still recommend it. Several of her characters appear in more than one novel(such as Stephen Moran and Frank Mackey). Often, they play a small or cameo part in one book, and are subsequently fleshed out in another. This also serves to prevent static characterizations--which can sometimes happen with series books--because the author doesn’t install the same protagonist in every story.
Books in order:
IN THE WOODS THE LIKENESS FAITHFUL PLACE BROKEN HARBOR THE SECRET PLACE(less)
“I was a human non sequitur—senseless and misplaced, a bad joke, a joke with no place to land.”
This novel starts with a woman leaving home. You’ll lik...more“I was a human non sequitur—senseless and misplaced, a bad joke, a joke with no place to land.”
This novel starts with a woman leaving home. You’ll like it if you can engage with the only main character, twenty-eight-year-old Elyria (named after a town in Ohio that her mother never visited). She abruptly leaves her comfortable life in Manhattan, and her job as a CBS soap opera writer, and her husband, a math professor. They had both experienced a similar tragedy that stripped their souls, and for that they bonded—and, for that, Elyria couldn’t take it any more, after six years.
“I want to be that person, part of a respectable people, but I also want nothing to do with being people, because to be people is to be breakable…”
Elyria takes off for New Zealand, without even giving a heads up to her husband. She is seeking, searching, for her truest self, and attempting to unscramble the cognitive dissonance between her outer and inner selves. She senses what she calls the wildebeest in her, caught between two impulses of wanting to be here in love and wanting to walk away like it never happened. Her way of thinking is often circuitous and epigrammatic, such as “…and it seems the wildebeest was what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what was wrong with the wildebeest.” This strain of opposites and paradox filled out Elyria’s psyche and also made her feel shriveled.
There isn’t really a plot, but there is certainly a journey—a journey through many remote, farmland areas of New Zealand as Elyria tempts fate by hitchhiking, and the inner stream of consciousness that is her thoughts and feelings.
“I looked back at him like I didn’t have any trouble to tell because that’s my trouble, I thought, not knowing how to tell it…”
So Elyria tells us her story, her journey, the recursive thoughts, the pain from her former tragedy; the inability to deal with loss, the pain of being with her husband and the pain of being without him, the loneliness of being without people and the loneliness of being with them.
I felt that I was walking through a surreal landscape, dreamscape, pain-scape, like a cemetery of Elyria’s heart, buffered by her poetic and melancholy soul. Occasionally, it was bleakly witty, but always there was a tugging on my spirit, the knottiness and heaviness of this woman and her loss. Lacey’s debut novel was open, vulnerable, a dark glass. She captures the fragility of the human condition; I hope her next effort will carry it further, to more expansive connections. Don’t look for redemption here.
“…to love someone is to know that one day you’ll have to watch them break unless you do first…”(less)
First, I have to admire O'Neil for taking quite a risk after his successful and engaging novel, NETHERLAND, which not only put him on the map, but est...moreFirst, I have to admire O'Neil for taking quite a risk after his successful and engaging novel, NETHERLAND, which not only put him on the map, but established him as a fine author in the theme of dislocation and alienation. Here, too, his themes are largely about the displacement of foreigners. In this case, the protagonist and unnamed narrator, a New York attorney, was born in Switzerland and raised in the US. (A bit of cheeky irony--we don't know his name, but we do know his alter ego or alias). He was hired by an obscenely wealthy Lebanese family to move to Dubai and act in the role of fiduciary and legal overseer--Family Officer--of their funds. They also ask him to keep a close eye on and mentor one of their 17 year-old family members, an indolent boy that lacks ambition.
O'Neil's urbane postmodern writing is both sardonic and sad, yet there was no escape from the increasingly foul funk of it. At its best, he echoes a combination of Kafka, Thomas Pynchon, and even George Orwell (in his auguring humor). His depiction of the class system and byzantine legalese of Dubai is nothing short of brilliant. "...for the non-national the emirate is a vast booby trap of medieval judicial perils, and Johnny Foreigner must especially take great care in interactions with local citizens...because de facto there is one law for Abdul Emerati and another for Johnny Foreigner..." However, his turgidity, combined with the relentless repugnance of the narrative, was wearying. he is a polished writer, but of tasteless content.
O'Neil uses shock value at the mid-point of the novel, perhaps to resuscitate it from flat-lining. The narrator enjoys his afternoon Internet porn following his noontime bathroom constitutional. However, the lurid vileness that he added to the porn disengaged me from the character. On the other hand, I have to hand it to O'Neil--he bravely pushes the envelope of human depravity. But...why? It's deeply superficial; he is teasing the reader to be hip enough to accept his brand of purposeless vulgarity.
The narrator's break-up with his girlfriend, a lawyer he met in the Manhattan law firm he worked out, is detailed in the problems that drove them apart. O'Neil did a stellar job of making the reader uncomfortable, observing very private things behind closed doors. He adds on a little mystery with the case of the missing scuba diver, Ted Wilson, and then (purposely) turns us off with the narrator's interactions with Wilson's wife. And then there is a place he refers to as Project X, a building project that he desires to know more about. As far as the attempted levity related to his periodic pedicures, it was thoroughly lost on me.
If you are looking for a plot, you won't find it here. It is largely a Kafkaesque study of the labyrinth legal and social system of the UAE, as well as a soul-stripping story of our hero's loneliness. Too, it illuminates the crushing of the human psyche and dignity. And, not least of all, the depths of debasement and pathetic vacuity.(less)
Rod Stewart once sang, “The first cut is the deepest,” and although Makkai doesn’t channel Rod Stewart in her intrepid, ambitious, darkly witty and as...moreRod Stewart once sang, “The first cut is the deepest,” and although Makkai doesn’t channel Rod Stewart in her intrepid, ambitious, darkly witty and astringent second book, that line has been embedded in me since I closed the last page. The deep cut goes back almost 100 years, to 1900, but you have to get backwards via forward progression of pages. Makkai did a bold and brave thing in her narrative, inverting the timeline, which starts in 1999. Section two starts in 1955, section three in 1929, and the prologue, where the beginning of the tale ends, or the end begins, is set in 1900.
This story in no way resembles the narrative style of her first charming book, THE BORROWER, a tender but easily accessible caper-cum-coming of age tale. As these pages move forward/backward, the story gets denser, with gothic filigree, and I had to concentrate (in fact, a second reading would help me tie the looser ends). The thread that heads back one hundred years looks not so much like a straight line as it does an elaborate cat’s cradle. Or Chinese boxes. And don't look for a haunted house/horror tale in the conventional sense. It isn't nail-biting, gasp-inducing horror. But it is mercurial.
The centerpiece that embraces the story is the house, on an estate named Laurelfield, near Chicago, now 100 years old and once an art colony for writers, artists, dancers, and musicians. However, by 1955, it was closed down. One thing that survived is a haunting oil painting of ancestor Violet Devohr, a portrait that doesn't follow you with her eyes; rather, you can’t even stand at an angle that directs her vision towards you. It’s a different kind of creepy. Violet supposedly killed herself in the attic.
Zee (Ziller), Violet’s great-granddaughter, a scholar on Marxism, is reluctantly living in the next-door coach house in 1999 with her husband, Doug, who is keen to get in the attic of the main house and search through papers to find information on the homosexual poet, Edwin Parffit, a former member of the art colony. Doug is writing a book on him, but is suffering from writer’s block, so he’s doing hobbyist work for a series of YA books, and hiding this embarrassing information from his wife. Zee is slowly unraveling, almost like a nineteenth century or early 20th century heroine. The matriarch, Zee’s mother, is mum and guarded about the attic and most things about the house’s history. The section ends with lots of unanswered questions and a few trails on the interconnected road to yesteryear.
Section two, the shortest (other than the prologue) and most acutely intense, focuses on Zee's ancestors. The threads from section I tie around, and lead to even more baffling and cryptic questions, which are revealed in various ways as we visit the art colony in the final section, in 1929. The characters from the past 100 years mirror and appear in different guises, connections, and descendants, supplying the fuel for this metafictional comedy of manners. The prologue, although only a few pages, is a hot coal of lore and lowdown.
The response to this book is going to be divided, I am certain. Those seeking a more lightweight read may be disappointed in its dense complexity of story, which combines farce, satire, gravity, even violence. It takes patience and dedication to read this circuitously constructed tale. But, I love that Makkai is, like her first book, impassioned about the importance of the arts, which comes to light in the poignant telling of the art colony. However, I want to give a heads up--not to convince you to read this book, but to hopefully help in your decision-making on whether this is a book for you.
I was struck by the quote about Daphne that begins the book, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis—“Nothing of her was left, except her shining loveliness.” Although I have yet to read Ovid, I was entranced by Bernini’s sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. This quote, magnified for me by Bernini’s artistic devotion to Daphne’s enigma, is an uncanny key to the novel’s themes. Rebecca Makkai is a commanding writer--whimsical yet dense--a romp, but one with gravitas. What an impressive feast of literature is this book!(less)
My fandom for Tom Robbins stretches for over 30 years, and even the moniker I chose for Amazon (and now Goodreads) over a decade ago is a riff on his...moreMy fandom for Tom Robbins stretches for over 30 years, and even the moniker I chose for Amazon (and now Goodreads) over a decade ago is a riff on his work--Switterbug from Switters, the protagonist in Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, and Jitterbug Perfume, my favorite TR novel. There's a handful of authors whose entire oeuvre I have read, and Robbins is one of them. He got me through college, some low times, and some high times. He authored my favorite quote, which I continue to utter: "It's never too late to have a happy childhood."--Still Life with Woodpecker.
Austin, Texas, as he writes in his "un-memoir," is where he first truly recognized his influence on the hipper generation of those of us who at least shared the same spiritual zip code. I wasn't there for that five-hour book signing where young college girls bared their breasts for the inking of his name--but, my future ex-boyfriend was, and he was who turned me on to the wooly, quixotic imagination of TR. (I will always thank him for that). Tom Robbins celebrates the magic of the paradox, the fault line between the absurd and the tender, the laugh out loud and the Sirius, the cosmic pumpkin, the anthropomorphic hyperbole, the beet, the bean, the jelly doughnut and, alas, the tomato sandwich.
Was this book a little bit varnished? Revisionist? Hmmmm...I think so. In his eighties now, I think Tom wants to mitigate rather than underscore some of the wilder times he had with, say, the McKenna brothers. He even got close to the edge of cloying at intervals, especially when he became his own apologist, or minimized the important role that hallucinogens played in his life (at times in this book he was playing both ends against the middle on that score). And he over-explained himself when he didn't need to.
Yet, if you are a unabashed TR fan, this book will offer a lot of playful pauses, if not the outright pandemonium of the heart, mind and spirit that I experienced with his novels. However, I devoured every last page. It is tricky to journey from iconoclast to icon--I prefer the rabble-rouser Tom, but, after decades of magical thinking, this provocative raconteur has earned another roadside attraction.(less)
In homage to his father, who was an Australian POW during WW II under the Japanese, Flanagan wrote this novel about people on both sides of the war. W...moreIn homage to his father, who was an Australian POW during WW II under the Japanese, Flanagan wrote this novel about people on both sides of the war. What is provocative is that the eponymous title is taken from the enduring 17th century Japanese poet, Bashō; the title is a haibun (combining haiku and prose), which commemorates the Japanese spirit. The Australian POWs were forced into slave labor to build the Burma Railway Line, or the "Death Railway." In other words, the Japanese "spirit" here was to crown the Emperor with this rail line, no matter if they had to beat, starve, and impose the most horrifying living conditions on the POWs. However, Flanagan nuanced his historical novel, a true masterpiece, with a number of contradictions within the book, often philosophical contradictions, and the title seems to be in the timbre of Flanagan's purposeful incongruities. The sum of its parts equal an astonishing, extraordinary whole.
"...all life is only allegory and the real story is not here...it was like the long autumn of a dying world."
"...all his life had been a journeying to this point when he had for a moment flown into the sun and would now be journeying away from it forever after. Nothing would ever be as real to him. Life never had such meaning again."
These quotes come in the first few pages, when the protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is an old man (the first quote) and a young lad. The first lines of the book harken to the bible--"Why at the beginnings of things is there always light?" and Dorrigo cradling a football in the light of the sun, which, several times throughout the novel is referred to as a moment that he had when he stole from the sun.
A bulk of the novel takes place in the POW camp, where Dorrigo is a surgeon working in an operating theatre with very few tools, and coarse, crude instruments made of kitchen ware or things found in scraps or nature. Dorrigo and the soldiers he was traveled seven miles/day under the most profound physical atrocities in order to build this railway line. The men had names like Rabbit Hendricks, Chum Fahey, Tiny Middleton, Darky Gardiner--Pynchonian names that stuck with me as I read. The novel itself begins in an almost disjointed manner, more so for me because I was unfamiliar with this Australian history. I paused a few times in the first 50 or so pages to bone up on Wikipedia and other sources. But, by page 60, it began to collate.
Time moves in a surreal fashion, back and forth but yet seamlessly, as if the different times didn't really matter, because it moved in the realm of a philosophy of life, part existential, part mystical, an intersection or a paradox of nihilism and open-hearted beauty. The life led by Dorrigo and his mates was very physical, graphic and harrowing. And it was juxtaposed beautifully with a love affair that Dorrigo had with a woman named Amy Mulvaney, who was married to his uncle. Dorrigo himself had a wife, Ella, but his thoughts always turned to Amy.
"His army life...When he looked at patients they were just windows through which he saw her and only her."
And Amy: "...love was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the exploder of worlds."
In the camp, the narrative refers to the Line as more than a railroad. Not just the horrifying conditions, but the fact that men walked in columns, a linear line, so to speak. Yet, the novel itself pays tribute to Japanese poetry, such as Shisui's death poem, a circle, something eternal. On his death bed, the 18th century haiku poet painted a circle (the drawing reproduced in the novel).
"Shisui's poem rolled through Dorrigo Evans' subconscious, a contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, eternal return: the circle--antithesis of the line."
And that is what underscored everything for me as I read this novel. The forward progression under duress, with death as the finite point, and the philosophizing of the circular, endless, eternal. Dorrigo, his mates, his women--all searching for meaning, and often arriving at contradictions, narrated with astounding prose by Flanagan. It's the search for the meaning of existence, and periodically the rejection of it. Woven in the story are sections wherein the Japanese officers and guards are focused on, both during the war and afterwards. One of the cameo characters, a Japanese doctor named Sato, who did vicious acts during the war, says to a former Japanese Colonel, who is listed as a war criminal,
"There is a pattern and structure to all things. Only we can't see it. Our job is to discover that pattern and structure and work within it, as part of it."
I see that as an underlying theme, an aspect of man's search for meaning. There's the beautiful, elegant, mystical essence, a feeling that beauty is within and without. On the other hand, a starving, broken and hollowed out POW will see things from a different vantage point:
"...Australia meant little against lice and hunger and beri-beri, against thieving and beatings and yet ever more slave labour. Australia was shrinking and shriveling, a grain of rice was so much bigger now than a continent."
The essence of one's outlook can be fluid and optimistic, but when one's eyes are empty, or dead, they are just "black-shadowed sockets waiting for worms." I have so many yellow stickies in this book--passages that touched my core emotions. If you are a literature lover, like Dorrigo Evans is, this book will unnerve you, amaze you. It all may boil down to a line that is a running motif in Flanagan's story, "The world is. It just is."
Is it? What is? There is so much to ponder here, from knowing that the world will continue on and on and on, even after we are dead; to profound solitude when we are alive; to memory, dreams, reality, existence, war, love, betrayal, poetry, godlessness, freedom, and the perceptions through this kaleidoscope of a novel. As Dorrigo, after the war, becomes a venerated surgeon, a war hero, he takes the world less seriously, as if this were all comic and contemptible. "There was a growing industry of memory all around him, yet he recalled less and less."
Dorrigo had stolen light from the sun and fallen to earth. For the few days it took me to read Flanagan's novel, I felt that. I was captivated in that experience in this monumental, stupendous novel of what it is to be human. (less)
The author’s note, at the end of the book, echoes the overarching themes:
…”what it means, as an immigrant, to make a life in a stolen country.”
This lu...moreThe author’s note, at the end of the book, echoes the overarching themes:
…”what it means, as an immigrant, to make a life in a stolen country.”
This luminous, addictive, page-turning, character-driven, and first-rate storytelling held me in its thrall from beginning to end. Yes, it had echoes of Jhumpa Lahiri (by virtue of evoking the Indian-American experience), and it also at times echoes Richard Ford’s CANADA, as well as Richard Russo, John Irving, and any number of master storytellers that tell an epic story about family. I applaud Mira Jacob’s decade-long investment in writing this book, as it gave me a few days of unadulterated bliss. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the Eapen family when I turned the last page; at times, I felt them brushing against my arm, cupping my elbow, and feeding me samosas and chutney.
The nuclear family here is Thomas Eapen, a neurosurgeon, Kamala, his wife, their intellectually gifted son, Akhil, and their photographer daughter, Amina. Only Amina was born in America. Through most of the novel, they live in Albuquerque, although Amina, as an adult, now lives in Seattle and works as an events photographer, after leaving the serious business of photojournalism. The novel alternates back and forth between the early 80’s and 1998, but the offstage history is woven in seamlessly. I don’t want to reveal more of the story than is told in the book jacket. There’s a lot of discovery that is meant for the reader to unearth. And, even though a tragedy is revealed early on (in a handful of words), the narrative keeps you on tenterhooks until you actually get there, hundreds of pages later.
This isn’t a book with political polemics or sermons about social justice—but there is a lot of delicious Indian food that made me hungry. It’s a domestic drama about a family dealing with love, loss, adjustment, flux, sleepwalking, and candid photos—a very human drama that is also witty and sharply observed. It moves swiftly, a charismatic, unputdownable tale told with levity and moving intensity. Jacob’s prose is astute and intrepid, the kind of sentences that get into your blood, and is laced with smooth and cinematic dialogue.
German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann is already known for his surreal, tragicomic, and subtly macabre style of writing. He wrote a book called FAME,...moreGerman-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann is already known for his surreal, tragicomic, and subtly macabre style of writing. He wrote a book called FAME, which also begins with an F. F in this book does refer to fame, as well as family, fate, forgery, faith, fear, and Friedland. And I’m sure I will think of some other F words later on. It’s a dense story presented in a deft, lyrical manner, folding some of the ideas of historic philosophers (such as Nietzsche and Hegel) into a thinking man’s existential, metaphysical mystery. Moreover, the meaning and interpretations of art, beauty, and the very act of existence give the reader a lot of lofty ideas and contradictions to ponder.
Aurthur Friedland is a morose and unsuccessful writer with three sons. Martin, the eldest, was born from the first woman Arthur left. As the novel opens, Arthur is living with his second wife, the mother of their identical twins, Ivan an Eric. After taking Martin and the twins to a hypnotist, he abandons his second wife, all three of his kids, and becomes a successful author. Once they mature into adults, Arthur’s offspring receive surprise visits from him at irregular intervals.
Martin finds solace in food, and as an adult is quite obese. He becomes a Catholic priest, despite his atheism. He keeps hoping that his “faith” will stir his belief. He is also adept at the Rubik’s cube, and regularly enters tournaments. Eric grows into a wealthy investor, but is on the verge of becoming a fugitive in 2008, as his fraudulent (Ponzi) investments are about to blow up in his face. Ivan, the scholar, has a passion for art, but is tortured by the belief that he can only be a mediocre artist. So, he commits to art forgery.
Arthur’s lucrative book, which has also instigated a rash of suicides, is titled My Name is No One. It is steeped in meta-fiction, and is an essential construct of Kehlmann’s book.
“The sentences are well-constructed, the narrative has a powerful flow, the reader would be enjoying the text were it not for the persistent feeling of somehow being mocked.”
I admit that this was an aspect of my experience reading F. However, I don’t mind being mocked, as long as the author is also mocking his own experiences, which I suspect may be so. And that he feels a bond with the reader, which is evident:
“But there is a sense that no sentence means merely what it says, that the story is observing its own progress, and that in truth the protagonist is not the central figure: the central figure is the reader, who is all too complicit in the unfolding of events.”
F is the sixth letter of the alphabet, and there are six members of this immediate family (Arthur, his three sons, and the two mothers), and there are also six sides to a Rubik’s Cube. Too, there are six chapters to this book. Whether this is purposeful symbolism by the author or just a flash of my own ideas, I can’t know for sure. However, what is recurrent is this idea of whether or not we exist. This is a central motif, which is observable through the jungle of elliptical themes that Kehlmann purveys. Kehlmann is an agent of Consciousness, and all the 3D rabbit holes in the brain's abyss. The end may leave you alarmed, or wanting, or a little bit of both.
Kudos to Carol Brown Janeway, who melodically translated the book from the German.(less)
The reviews are divisive on this latest novel by Sadie Jones, and I can understand that. It is a very British book with a Hollywood ending, although,...moreThe reviews are divisive on this latest novel by Sadie Jones, and I can understand that. It is a very British book with a Hollywood ending, although, in her defense, the author created a plot that had a natural and organic conclusion. The ending was inevitable, so it wasn’t hamstrung. But, I agree that it could have been arranged in a less predictable outcome. The plot itself wasn’t the aim, though; it was the authentic and gimlet eye that Jones possesses when it comes to all things theater, and the romantic complications and stickiness that ensue—the theater as an incestuous and cloistered space.
I was very involved in theater in my twenties, particularly one playhouse that performed cutting-edge productions, and what they called New Theater. I performed in plays that were written by local, regional, or other innovative playwrights that were just getting started. It was exciting, full of discoveries. And, it all came back to me when I read FALLOUT.
The novel is an ensemble piece, focusing as it does on several different characters involved in theater, primarily in 1970s London. Luke Kanowski is from the poorer provinces, with a sad past. His mother is contained in a hospital for the mentally ill, and his father tries to overlook it, mostly with his head in the sand. Luke has talent, is writing plays, and is eager to test his ambitions in London. He meets Paul Driscoll, who is a talented producer, and Leigh Radley, a student. Eventually they bond together and start a theater company on a shoestring.
The company they form is a passionate start-up, and a prelude to later buying space for a theater. The members are jacks-of-all-trades, doing everything they can to get it off the ground. Financial matters, building renovation, set design, and play production is done democratically, while Luke continues to write plays on the side (that he isn’t ready to share). As the three become closer, love and romance walk a tightrope. These triangulations were so common, in my experience, especially as theater becomes your life 24/7. However, in this case, Paul and Leigh clearly become a solid couple.
Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Nina Jacobs, an aspiring actress with a domineering, meddling mother, who eventually introduces her to a theater producer, Tony Moore, who has lots of posh connections. Tony is a chilling, enigmatic figure, and Jones’s development of him was unnerving and formidable. Although feminism stakes a claim in the 70’s, Nina is subsumed in in a passive role, a second to the man who controls her. She is beautiful, damaged, and starving for the spotlight. She has a fragile but alluring presence on stage, which captures Luke’s hungry heart.
Jones has a gift for dialogue, which is good, as this book has a considerable amount of it, and she keeps the pace and intimacy sharp and vibrating. Her characters are supple, fully dimensional, so if you are a lover of character-driven books, you'll be delighted. Moreover, the author conveys the contradictory ambiance of the theater métier, the alternating lather and lassitude. I wouldn't recommend this book for a mass audience--it is going to appeal more to readers with some insider experience of theater. I am not speaking of commercial theater, either, but rather the more incipient art houses that are both fertile and hopeful, but also vulnerable to fallout.
“Paul, Luke, Leigh…text-cut and set-built in a frenzy of broken deadlines, late nights, and long mornings…Its successes inspired him, its failures provided counterpoints. In any gap, with any opportunity, he wrote, controlling his own work as he could not control his collaboration.”(less)
Grief takes on epic and violent proportions in this story of a reclusive artist, one who is notable in Santa Fe. Jim Stegner cuts a searing, Hemingway...moreGrief takes on epic and violent proportions in this story of a reclusive artist, one who is notable in Santa Fe. Jim Stegner cuts a searing, Hemingway-esque figure, the beard and the bigness, the love of fishing and the outdoors, and the laconic mask. However, Stegner doesn't possess much in the way of academic roots. He was essentially a punk, belligerent kid who dropped out of school, had an epiphany at age seventeen after viewing some art that blew him away, got accepted into the San Francisco Art Institute (and dropped out), and somehow became a sensation in a few circles--certainly he makes a good sum of money. He also lost a fifteen-year-old daughter, Alce, to murder a few years ago.
The novel captures the span of a few weeks when Jim is losing control. He does have a history of violence even from before Alce was murdered, and he served time in the pen for it. Now, his rage is coloring his world, and in the space of less than a week, he kills two brothers--one, Dell, for his abusive treatment of horses, which he witnessed one day on the road, and the other, Grant, in self-defense. In the meantime, the authorities are watching him, and interviewing his friends and neighbors, like his model and sometimes lover, Sofia.
Alce was a good kid, but as teenagers are wont to do, she got caught up with a reckless and dangerous crowd. It would have been a temporary rebellion, but she was viciously murdered. Since then, Jim has been finding solace in fishing and painting--but, even after cleaning up his heavy drinking, he is stuck in despair, and contemptuous of the world around him. Yet, his paintings are also an aching, nuanced outpouring of his burdens, the daughter he lost, the brothers he killed. Stegner has a mountain of guilt that he can't unload, and he feels responsible for Alce's death.
"She died because she was just like me." And, in his descriptions braided through the novel, he conveys it well. He never married Alce's mother, and after this tragedy, they permanently separated. Whereas Cristine moved on with her life, Stegner was consumed in torpor. And yet, his paintings are dynamic.
Stegner lives in the flank of mountains that lead to Crested Butte, Colorado, which is a beautiful place I have stayed at, so I get a buzz when he describes the setting; he captures the landscape superbly. He spends most of the days fishing and, of course, painting. His style is sort of a Zen approach--to get inside the movement of the creation, and allow the spirit to move him forward. His large-canvas paintings are often executed in a matter of a few hours, and are more about momentum and color than studied technique. "...I wonder if painting isn't a way just to be like an animal for a few hours. To be in the stream of eternity... ...To feel like that. Same as fishing."
At a certain point, the plot becomes a cat-and-mouse suspense, which has a manic sort of pulse. Stegner has a manic pulse, too, one that is both a gift and an albatross. It could redeem him, which he desires, or finish him off. "Things pile up... ...What they mean by the weight of evidence. It just piles and piles up and you carry it with you until you're walking around like a hunchback."
Heller gets to the heart of Stegner's grief, and evokes a compelling perception of how art and life, and the life of the artist, are intertwined. At times, I was annoyed at how often Stegner scoffed at Southwestern art, especially because Heller came right at the edge of Stegner being a parody of himself. Stegner criticized his peers in a way that occasionally made me think less of him as a painter. After all, his breadth of knowledge should also clue him in that there are more than a few ways to skin a cat...or render a chicken! But, as the novel progressed, this was at least partially defended, i.e., Stegner's perceptions were thwarted by his rage, and he was often pessimistic about the agendas of others.
Also, the spacing of this novel almost dumbed it down. It was inorganic and distracting. Too many uncalled for spaces between dialogue, passages, and paragraphs. (This is also in the published version, so it is not just an ARC quirk). However, this tale was so superb, and Stegner such a riveting protagonist, and the prose itself unbearably beautiful, that I didn't let the flaws undermine my five-star assessment. His landscape/settings were stunning and the inner dialogue of the grief-stricken artist was breathtaking and poetic. In the end, I see this as a memorable and captivating novel about loss, redemption, and reinvention, and how art moves through it all, with love.
"The reason people are so moved by art and why artists tend to take it all so seriously is that if they are real and true they come to the painting with everything they know and feel and love, and all the things they don't know, and some of the things they hope, and they are honest about them all and put them on the canvas."(less)
I was in the mood for a page-turning sorbet type of novel--a book that was literary, but with mainstream appeal, a story that combines thrilling, susp...moreI was in the mood for a page-turning sorbet type of novel--a book that was literary, but with mainstream appeal, a story that combines thrilling, suspenseful, and propulsive tension. Pavone's book hits the spot, in ways I wasn't expecting. From the opening pages, there is a filmic cat-and-mouse suspense; a manuscript of a text called The Accident is floating around in New York's publishing world. Ambitious, successful, and quasi-successful editors and publishers, and others who are in a slump, would sell themselves to Beelzebub to snag it, and there are people who would kill to destroy it.
What does the manuscript contain, and why is it such a hot and volatile property? It is an exposé on media mogul, Charlie Wolfe, who reminds me a bit of Rupert Murdoch. There are some deep and toxic secrets from his past that he shares with the enigmatic, anonymous author. And it is all on paper.
"Digital is too easily duplicated. Too easily stolen. Any digital storage device, no matter how secure, is in the end essentially insecure. What's not insecure is a stack of paper that no one knows about. That no one will go looking for. So we typed, and printed, and destroyed the word-processing files. The manuscript exists only in word-processing form. Somewhere."
Numerous characters connive and collide, elude and ambush, maraud and murder, all for this explosive manuscript (which, with the aid of copy machines, succumbs to spontaneous generation). In my quest to find out what was just around the corner--and Pavone's settings cannot be beat--I finished this jumbo novel in just two days. And, oddly enough, despite my disappointment in the contents of the inflammatory manuscript, which is incrementally revealed within the story in an old-fashioned typeset font, and despite the rather trite denouement, I enjoyed this story, for reasons other than the author's intentions.
The inciting manuscript-within-the narrative was not well written, was in fact prosaic, and other than revealing hidden crimes and tawdry behavior, came off rather flat. The finale wasn't much cause for celebration, either. And yet...and yet...it was the incidentals of the story that charmed me. Pavone can write turf, he can make the streets of New York City thrum with an almost animal magnetism. If you liked the city and street scenes in Pessel's Night Film and Wolitzer's The Interestings, (two books wholly unlike this one or each other in content), you will groove on Pavone's talent for capturing the surroundings with immediacy and scale. In fact, anywhere this story roves--Zurich, Paris, and other places dotted along Europe, Pavone's talent and brio is evident in scenic muscle. It is that, and his tuneful cadence, that gives the energy and momentum to the narrative. Moreover, the insider's look at the publishing industry is scintillating.
Pavone is also skilled at characters, and he would be even better if he trimmed down the excess jumble of them. For purposes of story, the number of characters proliferated, and some of them were stock-in-trade. On the other hand, Pavone lit up Isabel Reed, the moral center, and the author of the eponymous manuscript, who possessed a sputtering moral compass. Hayden, the black ops leader, was more intriguing when he wasn't prefigured. If it weren't for Pavone's particular choice of story, he'd intrigue me more.
My conclusion is that Pavone is an excellent writer who is writing partly in the wrong genre for his talents. His eye for detail, and observations of human behavior and motivation, as well as his scenic depictions and apt metaphors, would be more fitting in a character composition, where he could flesh out his cast, perhaps in a domestic drama, adventure tale, or bildungsroman. Or a roman à clef. He writes in the espionage genre, but that is not his forte, in my opinion. The aspirations of this story were derivative. But, Chris Pavone, I see you peeking out from hiding undercover. Write a different kind of novel and you'll hit your stride; I will be right alongside, gobbling every word.(less)
The title of Bloom’s latest novel, which takes place between the years of 1939-1949, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, on the one hand. But, perhaps a b...moreThe title of Bloom’s latest novel, which takes place between the years of 1939-1949, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, on the one hand. But, perhaps a backwards glance would reveal some truth behind those words. Lucky to be alive—and what I mean by alive is more than just breathing. These characters fight for their footing--they courageously and sometimes unwittingly climb out of many sad and tragic moments, and use their wits to move forward and carve out a niche for themselves, even if that niche is largely precarious.
If I described the plot, my review might end up as long as the book (which isn’t long, but so very full). It is about two half-sisters, Eva and Iris (Iris being the elder), who finally meet in their teens when Iris’s mother dies and Eva’s mother dumps Eva on Iris and Eva’s mutual father’s doorstep. Edgar (their father) steals Iris’s hard-earned money that she won for speeches—she was very talented. So the sisters begin hiding Iris’s earnings, and they take off for Hollywood together after Iris graduates high school. Eva was the scholar but since she was fourteen, she didn’t get to finish (although she had skipped grades). However, she was a compulsive autodidact.
Eva and Iris undertake the hard knocks school of survival, especially Eva, because after a horrifying accident, Iris ends up in London, doing plays and setting up a clinic, leaving Eva and their life in America. We learn about Iris through her letters.
“I don’t have much confidence in what people remember…I remember some things at a gallop, some moments…bearing down upon me in huge detail, and other things are no more than small leaves floating on a stream. Memory seems as faulty, as misunderstood and misguided, as every other thought or spasm that passes through us. …I still thought I was made to triumph. That I was, in fact, owed a triumph.”
The story is a combination of Eva’s narrative, intermixed with various characters' epistolary accounts. Braided within the novel are many wonderful songs of the times, lyrics that lend a buoyant context of the era. Even some of the short chapters are titles of songs, or lines from popular tunes.
After being kicked on her ass by Hedda Hopper and blackballed from Hollywood, they take off for more rogue adventures. Fortunately, Iris’s hairdresser, Francisco, becomes a close family friend. Their dad, Edgar, back in the picture, secured a job as a butler with a fairly wealthy Italian family in a NY suburb, and moved the sisters in. Then there is Gus, who was married to Reenie, the cook where they lived. Iris, looking for love in all the wrong places, falls in love with Reenie, and subsequently has Gus captured as a spy. This was, after all, the years of WW II. Many of the letters are from Gus, and his adventures in Germany.
Although Iris had essentially kidnapped a young boy from a Jewish orphanage (because she wanted to mother him with Reenie), Eva was left to raise him, with her dad and Edgar’s black-almost-pass-as-white girlfriend, Clara, a successful jazz singer.
It is okay to know all this, because the plot grows not linearly, but in a varying, circular, and alternate pattern (if there is a pattern to speak of). The novel is often like a romp, where characters pile on to characters, and the definition of family takes on new proportions.
LUCKY US is about luck—good and bad, and about what makes a family, and how to renew and resuscitate the non-working parts. With Bloom at the helm, you know there will also be the perils of being Jewish during WW II, and the horrors of that period. But Bloom is a master of style and unflinching portrayals. She doesn’t depict all ethnic minorities as flawless, heroic, and victimized by the ethnic majority. Her characters are fully dimensional-- flawed, striving, and unorthodox. She is a gifted, gregarious, piquant writer, who is both light and weighty, a wizard with her words, a booming heart through all her passages. Lucky me for reading this book!(less)