You've heard of the novel of interconnected short stories? This was a novel of two interconnect novellas. Despite a palette of rich images and plentyYou've heard of the novel of interconnected short stories? This was a novel of two interconnect novellas. Despite a palette of rich images and plenty of meditations on memory and loneliness, neither part really works to augment the whole. A worthy effort - just wasn't for me. ...more
If you haven't heard of Dutch novelist Peter Buwalda's debut novel, Bonita Avenue, don't feel bad — but you're going to want to take note. The novel was published in the Netherlands in 2010, and after a successful run in Europe, including several awards, it's only just made it into translated publication here in the US this January.
Thank goodness it did — what a crazy, massively entertaining novel! It's part Franzen in that it includes a deeply dysfunctional family that prides itself in keeping secrets from each other. It's part Philip Roth in that the protagonist is a crusty old dude with some, er, sexual quirks. And it's part Coen brothers (especially Fargo) in that it's about everyday people that seem to go off the rails due to bad decision, which in turn cause them to do really bad, sometimes violent, things.
The story is about a family and its patriarch, Siem Sigerius, a world famous mathematician (not an oxymoron), former world-class judoku (a person who does judo), and head of prestigious Dutch university (self explanatory). His mid-20s daughter (though she's actually a step-daughter) Joni is dating a guy named Aaron — these two get up to some schemes, to say the least. And finally, it's about Siem's estranged son Wilbert, an ex-con pervert who has just gotten out of jail after serving ten years for killing a guy with a sledgehammer. (Evidently the Dutch legal system is a tad more forgiving than ours.)
The plot of the novel is centered around a real event — on May 13, 2000, a fireworks factory exploded in the Dutch city of Enschede, taking out an entire neighborhood. This event has a ripple effect for all these characters, setting forth a series events that ensures things won't end well for many for them. (That's not a spoiler - you have that sense from the opening pages.)
One of the themes of the novel is how fate or coincidence or pure randomness (Siem had taught the math of coincidence and chance theory when he was a professor at MIT and then at Berkeley before returning to Holland) can have just as a big an influence on our lives as our choices (of course). But coincidence can compound already bad decisions. Indeed, when we make bad choices, and then lie, and then make more bad choices, and then a dash of fate is thrown in, the consequences are multiplied exponentially — like, say, an explosion, like say, at a fireworks factory.
By the way, if you're wondering, Bonita Avenue is a street in Berkeley — it's where the family lived when Siem taught there. For Joni, it's a symbol of her happy childhood, before the world and all its destructive powers, both self-inflicted and random, intervened.
This is a brick of a novel — more than 530 pages. At some points, it does feel a bit over-written, but at other times some weird stuff happens that isn't full explained, so overall, I had no quarrels with the length. The only caveat is that if you need likeable characters to like a book, this isn't a novel for you. Personally, I would've been willing to spend several hundred more pages with these delightfully despicable characters. Though definitely not perfect (what novel is?), this is a highly entertaining family saga, and highly recommended. ...more
I have to be honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's new novel, God Help the Child, which is out today. As has been her trend over her last several books, this one clocks in at just under 200 pages. And as with all her novels, she creates a work that feels whole in just a short number of pages. The departure for Morrison with this novel is that it takes place in present day — the first of her novels do so.
The novel is a dark modern-day fairy tale about child abuse. It's not a difficult novel style-wise — indeed, some reviewers have called this Morrison's most accessible novel — but it's a novel that is an uncomfortable reading experience for at least two reasons.
First, it includes some unflinching depictions of sexual abuse of children — our main narrator, a beautiful woman named Bride witnessed a sexual assault as a little girl, which has scarred her for life. Her boyfriend Booker's older brother was sexually abused and killed as a child, and Booker has never recovered. Both of these factors, we eventually learn, contribute to why Booker and Bride's relationship ends right at the beginning of the novel, but we don't quite understand why until we read a bit further. (The plot itself is very straightforward. Bride's mother Sweetness has never liked her. Bride and Booker break up. Bride attempts to help a jailed woman. Bride goes searching for Booker. Some weird stuff happens. That's the gist.)
And the second reason this is an uncomfortable read is that I don't know what it all means, and that's what's most unsettling about this story for me. Yes, child abuse is horrific. Yes, love can make us whole and be redemptive (or when withheld, devastate us). And maybe that's enough to understand — especially in such a relatively short book. But there are some fantastical, fairy tale-esque elements in this novel too — and likely, you'll have to expend some mental energy figuring out what it means, how it's all connected, and what you ultimately take away from this story. It'll likely be a different interpretation for each reader. And that's okay. Fiction doesn't always have to serve up all the answers easily and neatly.
But even if you don't fully understand the story, or even much like it, you read Morrison because she's Toni Morrison. There are passages of such profundity and beauty that you realize how lucky we are that, at age 84, she's still writing. Here's one example that I particularly liked:
The piece of sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of gleaming knives pointed at her and aching to be released.
In the end, I'm glad I read this — it won't be my favorite Morrison novel ever. But what're you gonna do, not read the new Toni Morrison? No, you're not going to not read the new Toni Morrison. ...more
From the first line of Celeste Ng's deftly crafted debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, we know something has gone horribly wrong for the Lee family. Lydia is dead, and we spend the next 300 pages finding out what led to this promising teenager's untimely and tragic demise. What we learn is just how subtle, even at times unintentional, cruelty can be and still be devastating.
The Lee family lives in a small college town in Ohio where father James is a college professor and mother Marilyn is a homemaker. Their three kids are all well-behaved and academically successful — indeed, oldest son James is about to head off to Harvard. Life should be good.
But appearances, in just about every sense of the word, can be deceiving. One of themes of the novel is how being viewed as different (and the subtle cruelty implicit in such narrow-mindedness) can have devastating consequences. For instance, James is the son of Chinese immigrants and Marilyn is white. From the moment of their marriage in the early 1960s, they've been an oddity to some — most notably Marilyn's mother. And what's more, Marilyn has harbored ambitions of being a doctor, something women rarely did in the 1960s — so she's dealt with the prejudices of being a woman in a male-dominated culture, and for being different in that she isn't satisfied with being a housewife or secretary. Part of the tension in the novel comes from the fact that neither James nor Marilyn ever seem to fully understand how each other feels about their "different-ness." And it creates a rift in their marriage and with their children.
Marilyn has determined that since she hasn't been able to follow through on her dream in the sciences, her daughter Lydia will in her stead. You've heard of crazy sports parents? Marilyn because a crazy science parent. And she pushes Lydia hard, probably way too hard. James also pushes his children — he wants them to be popular, to make friends, to have active social lives — something he never had growing up because he was considered "other." Again, this parental push isn't intended to be cruel, but it has that effect for their children, who feel pressured and uncomfortable in their own skins — and wind up being cruel to each other.
This novel is another great entry in the category of the dysfunctional family story, a "genre" for which I'm a total sucker. But the strength of this novel is that this family isn't dysfunctional on the level as, say, a Franzen family. The dysfunction here, like the cruelty, is much more subtle — and it slowly builds on itself until something has to break.
I loved this book — it's a novel that's as carefully constructed (in terms of structure, moving back and forth in time, and how secrets are revealed) as it is beautifully written. Very highly recommended. ...more
A bunch of nerdy, neurotic mathematicians convene to sit shiva and try to find their hero's last proof. Moments of levity, but ultimately just a "Hmm.A bunch of nerdy, neurotic mathematicians convene to sit shiva and try to find their hero's last proof. Moments of levity, but ultimately just a "Hmm...why am I reading this story again?"-type read. ...more
Pure fluff...An okay romantic comedy that was just barely on the right side of annoying. The premise is good, but it wound up just being another takePure fluff...An okay romantic comedy that was just barely on the right side of annoying. The premise is good, but it wound up just being another take on the girl-convinces-weird-dude-to-break-out-of-his-shell narrative. ...more
Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, is about a series of child murders in 1953 Soviet Union. Our protagonist is the conflicted Leo Demidov. At the start of the novel, Demidov is a lackey of the State — he tracks down denounced "criminals" and interrogates them. That is, until a particular case gives him an attack of conscience — and circumstances beyond his control (a lecherous doctor, an ambitious subordinate) combine to cause him and his wife to lose their positions of prominence.
Demidov is shipped off to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he soon discovers a pattern of killings that match a murder in Moscow right before he was shipped out (and which he denied was a murder, as he had to). In the Worker's Paradise, there can't be crime — or if there is, it's immediately swept under the rug. So Demidov and his wife join forces to try to solve the serial murders of more than 50 children — but must do so on the down-low because, again, the official State position is that any crime is committed by drunks or simpletons. There's simply no motivation to do crime when life is supposed to be so peachy.
But one of the strengths of this novel is showing just how non-peachy life is in Stalinist Soviet Union. It's cold and dreary and people are always hungry and oppressed and live in fear. It's a terrifying peak behind the Iron Curtain. And it's a riveting thriller (and thankfully, the first in a trilogy). Highly recommended!
A movie adaptation of Child 44, starring Tom Hardy (as Leo) and Gary Oldman is out in late April. The trailer makes it look just as gritty and tension-filled as the book. I'm excited! ...more
In Gabrielle Zevin's popular novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, our eponymous protagonist is a cantankerous indie bookstore owner on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. In the first scene of the novel, we see him at his lowest: Being a total jerk to a sales rep from a small publishing house. She's new to the job, and has had the gall to pitch him a touchy-feely memoir, which is not at all to his taste. A.J.'s the kind of dude who isn't happy unless he's miserable — but it's not all his fault. His wife was killed in a car wreck, and now, his valuable Edgar Allen Poe manuscript has been stolen.
That's a pretty heavy start to what actually turns into a terrific, light, feel-good novel that reads like an ode to books, bookstores, and book people. There's plenty of bookish Easter eggs sprinkled throughout — an argument about Infinite Jest, a woman who wants a refund for The Book Thief because she doesn't like a novel narrated by Death, and several descriptions of A.J.'s favorite short stories.
Indeed, near the end of the novel, A.J. describes a Roald Dahl story titled "The Bookseller" as a "bonbon" — and that's exactly what this novel is. A short, sweet serving of a story about books and the people who love them. There also is a mystery, some infidelity, car crashes, and a child named Maya whose parentage is of some dispute. But those parts are really just the decorations.
It's a novel that falls just barely on the right side of precious. In fact, if you're in a bad mood when you read, you might be tempted to be cynical and call it too fluffy. But read it in a good mood, and you'll be delighted, I think. ...more
The blurb game on Kelly Link's new short story collection Get In Trouble is extraordinarily strong — breathless praise from Meg Wolitzer, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and others, as well as parallels to Raymond Carver in the NY Times, were more than enough motivation for me to give this collection a shot.
Man, I loved it. These are goofy, often darkly funny, but tremendously thought-provoking stories. At their root, however, they're also really fun to read. There are ghosts, runaway teenagers, nudists, sex tapes, hurricanes, burial pyramids, space ships, and superheroes. It's about as packed-with-inventiveness as any collection this side of Karen Russell or George Saunders.
My favorite story in the collection is titled "I Can See Right Through You" — it's about an aging actor who played a vampire in a hit movie in the early '90s (he's referred to as "the demon lover" throughout the story, which just slayed me, for some reason). Twenty-plus years later, he realizes he's still in love with his co-star from that movie (this is in the immediate aftermath of an unfortunate and very public sex tape incident with his current girlfriend), so he travels to Florida to find her. As it happens, she's filming a documentary about a nudist colony that mysteriously disappeared. And to get into the true spirit of the place, they've decided to film the documentary in the nude as well. But our aging actor is distraught to find that his love is unrequited — the actress/documentarian is dating a young stud named Ray. Ray reminds the demon love a lot of himself at that age — which will mean a lot more when you get to the end of the story. It's a fantastically fun read, and a really great conclusion.
Another great story is "Secret Identity" about a 15-year-old girl who meets a man online in a weird role playing video game, and travels to New York to meet him for what we assume is a sexy rendezvous. She arrives at the hotel at which she's supposed to meet him, which happens to be hosting a superhero convention, and waits for him in his room. When he doesn't arrive at the appointed time, she decides to get spectacularly drunk, and then later finds herself involved with a narcissistic, rich man-slut named Conrad Linthor who lives at the hotel. This story veers off into strange places that includes butter sculptures and superhero sidekicks. Again, it's just massively entertaining.
Many of the stories in the collection have real vs imagined, or perception vs reality themes — like the story "The New Boyfriend," in which a young girl finds herself falling in love with her rich friend's Boyfriend Ghost Doll. Imagine Lars and the Real Girl here. Another story is about a group astronauts hurdling through space, and they decide to tell ghost stories. And the first story "The Summer People" is about a mysterious family of perhaps somewhat supernatural beings who live in a huge house on a hill, and a teenage girl who has to take care of them.
There were only one or two of these nine stories that didn't totally click for me, so this is a highly recommended collection. I'd never read Kelly Link before, but as I learned from reading this, her loyal, outspoken fans are certainly justified. ...more
Not a fan. Read like a experiment in pacing gone wrong - long, flowery passages followed by short chapters from different characters' perspectives. InNot a fan. Read like a experiment in pacing gone wrong - long, flowery passages followed by short chapters from different characters' perspectives. Interesting premise - kid returns to his family after being kidnapped for four years - but then nothing happens. So much false drama and fake build-up. ...more
Very good - a good read if you enjoyed Phil Klay's Redeployment. This one has a decidedly Zero Dark Thirty feel, as it's about special forces agents gVery good - a good read if you enjoyed Phil Klay's Redeployment. This one has a decidedly Zero Dark Thirty feel, as it's about special forces agents going on raids in Iraq. A riveting, sad book about the horrors of war. ...more
I don't know what's more surprising, that publishers and reviewers are still, 2.5 years after its publication, using the "next Gone Girl" tag to describe books, or that in the case of British writer Paula Hawkins's The Girl On The Train, it's actually a pretty decent description. Hawkins won't be confused with Gillian Flynn in terms of her writerly chops (I think Flynn is in a class by herself in this regard), but Hawkins's twisty, turny thriller is certainly the best "next Gone Girl" yet.
The girl on the train is Rachel — an early 30s divorced woman who is rather a train wreck (terrible, but you can't look away, etc.). She drinks. She lies. She lies about her drinking. And she's been fired from her public relations job but takes the train into London everyday anyway to hide the fact of her unemployment from her increasingly worried flatmate. Much of the story is told from Rachel's perspective, as she tries to come to terms with her divorce — she is still obsessed with her ex-husband who has remarried a woman with whom he was having an affair while he and Rachel were married. Rachel often drunk-dials him. And then, after a particularly drunken evening, she becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened the night our other narrator, beautiful, troubled Meg, disappears.
There's infidelity, a murder investigation, unreliable narrators, a mysterious red-haired man, and an accused, distraught husband. And what's more, there is cruelty between characters not often seen outside the pages of a novel. These people are utterly horrible to each other! It's certainly not the kind of novel you'll want to read if you must like your characters in order to like the novel.
The place where this novel diverges most from Gone Girl is its ending — both hurdle to a conclusion, but the way they wind up is very different. I'll just say I liked Gone Girl's much more.
Still, while it takes a little bit to gain momentum, this is an up-real-late-to-finish-type thriller that really makes you glad your own life is relatively stable — definitely worthy of its praise. ...more