David Mitchell's novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is a surprising narrative that follows a young Dutchman as he progresses from naivete...moreDavid Mitchell's novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is a surprising narrative that follows a young Dutchman as he progresses from naivete to weary wisdom working on the Dutch East India Company's trading post, Dejima, near Nagasaki, Japan. The novel resonates with the first section of Cloud Atlas and transports readers to the late 18th century of the Edo Period.
Exclamation points, like so many symbols, have a specific function and many unintentional meanings. Technically, an exclamation point is a sudden cry...moreExclamation points, like so many symbols, have a specific function and many unintentional meanings. Technically, an exclamation point is a sudden cry or yell that can be full of emotions ranging from anger to excitement. However, exclamation points are the all-caps-email of punctuation. They often feel out of place and come across as unnecessary yelling, like that email from an aged relative that says, HOW IS LIFE IN THE BIG CITY? CAN'T WAIT FOR YOU TO VISIT. THE TURTLES MISS YOU. Of course, there is the ironic exclamation point in names like Yahoo! and Swamplandia!, but really, beyond an exclamation, what is the point?
All this is to say, readers, beware. Take one look at the exclamation point after Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and turn back, because nothing on this trip through the Floridian swamp can save you.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is an elegiac novella set in the American west. The novella takes place between the late 1800's and into the 1960's. It...moreTrain Dreams by Denis Johnson is an elegiac novella set in the American west. The novella takes place between the late 1800's and into the 1960's. It chronicles the life of Robert Grainier and his struggles to carve out a living through logging, building railroads, and working odd jobs. At a deeper level, Train Dreams meditates on the losses Grainier experiences and how he adapts. The writing is thoughtful and gorgeous., showing Johnson's skill as a writer and Grainier's fresh perspective. Furthermore, the narrative flows well and lends the novella a dream-like quality as time jumps around through Grainier's memories.
In Fatherland by Robert Harris, Germany won WWII and is now locked in a cold war with the United States. The novel follows a police detective, Xavier...moreIn Fatherland by Robert Harris, Germany won WWII and is now locked in a cold war with the United States. The novel follows a police detective, Xavier March, as he investigates a man's death in this alternate reality.
The novel is extremely fast-paced and reads like a thrilling movie. By discovering the man's identity, March uncovers hints of a deeper secret and conspiracy. German history, as written by the victors, makes no mention of what happened to the Jews. Officially, they were shipped east to work camps in Russia. In this alternate Germany during the 1960's officially does not always match up with reality. Germany is in a never-ending war with Russian partisans, the German settlers wish to come back, and rebellion bubbles beneath the surface.
What will the government do in order to keep the Holocaust covered up? As March is about to find out, they'll do whatever it takes.
The Women by T.C. Boyle is novel about Frank Lloyd Wright in the context of the women he loved. If you're unfamiliar with Wright, he was married three times, had a mistress in between wives one and two, and seemed to have a strong attachment to his mother. While the story is interesting, the structure of the novel is much more compelling.
The novel is told from the fantastical perspective of a Japanese architect, Tadashi Sato, who arrives at Taliesin in 1932 as an apprentice. The novel is then translated by Sato's granddaughter's husband, Seamus O'Flaherty, an American writer. Boyle has created a perspective from a low-ranking outsider's point-of-view and is able to work in research and style through O'Flaherty's background as a writer. It allows a lot of distance from a figure so well-known and polarizing. Also, it gives Boyle flexibility, mainly through footnotes, to write asides based on Sato's or O'Flaherty's perspective.
Going back to structure though, how would you tell the life story of a man? For most people, I imagine it to be rather linear. Either start at the beginning or a certain point in time and move forward. Instead, Boyle begins at the end with Frank Lloyd Wright's third marriage. We see from Sato's perspective, the third Mrs. Wright after years of marriage. In the first section though, the novel focuses on Wright falling in love with Olgivanna and starting the divorce process with his second wife, Miriam. I don't want to give anything away, but it's hard to like Miriam and equally hard to see what Wright liked about her.
As the first section closes though, the second section is about Miriam and how her relationship with Wright began. This section dragged mainly because I was so worn out by Miriam in the previous section. While she's not as terrible in this part, she's still not very likable.
Finally, the novel concludes with Mamah, Wright's mistress and the dissolution of his first marriage to Kitty. This section is tragic. The novel closes with Miriam reading about the tragedy in a newspaper and thinking, "that poor man. That poor, poor man," having not yet met him.
As I've thought about the novel, I've also thought about Wright's architecture. He's said to have always modifying things, making slight changes to plans or buildings as they work is going on. His design is described as organic and I wonder about the cyclical form of nature and how it applies to storytelling. Boyle takes us back to the beginning. It's almost like watching the universe rewind to the big bang. Here. Here is the moment that will mark Frank Lloyd Wright for the rest of his life.
Moving past the structure, I enjoyed the novel for the window into Wright's life. The scandals and media attention which engulfed him though was claustrophobic. Wright was a complicated man, made more complicated by the media frenzy which followed him. Imagine a flamboyant Steve Jobs with multiple public affairs.
If you listen to NPR, then interviews with Jonathan Franzen may have wormed their way into your consciousness as he hit every talkshow, selling his book, Freedom. If you don't listen to NPR, Freedom was a book written by Jonathan Franzen, published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux under the Picador imprint. The novel revolves around a Midwestern family, the Berglund's, and chronicles the ways in which they break apart and come together. Imagine the ways lakes thaw and refreeze in the north, that's a good metaphor for the Berglund's. In subject manner, the American Midwestern family under pressure, it's similar to The Corrections.
Obviously, due to the title, it's clear that freedom is explored in the novel. Also, competitiveness is another concept developed in the pages. What does freedom mean? How is freedom given? How does freedom develop? We are a nation that holds freedom as sacred even though we look the other way as freedom is restricted. Freedom taken to the extreme is lawlessness or anarchy. When children are given the freedom to be who they want to be, that doesn't mean they will be the people their parents wish them to be. That is the case for Walter and Patty's son Joey.
Joey grabs for his freedom and challenges his parent's authority from the outset in Freedom. His parents try to stop it, but aren't supportive of one another. On the one hand, they love seeing their child so independent and grown up. On the other hand, they hate being challenged and not needed. To make things worse is the competition, which develops between Patty and Walter.
How do you win in a marriage? Or for that matter, how do you win as a parent? When someone is ultra-competitive and then moves out of that environment, how do they cope? Patty was a star basketball player who sustains a career-ending injury. In order to compete with her sisters and parents back east, she decides to settle into the role of homemaker and mother. It goes against the feminist, high-achieving ideals of her family and one way to win is to compete for a different prize. While Patty is not engaged in the arts, like her sisters, she has a husband, a beautiful home, and two children: things which signify success in many parts of the country. Still, this need for competition evolves as Patty wants to be the parent who is most loved by her children. She doesn't back up Walter. She indulges Joey's misbehavior. Patty gets the kids to laugh at Walter. In that way, she seems similar to Gary's wife in The Corrections.
This competition is what drives the family apart. Joey, realizing his relationship with his mother is not normal, moves out and on with his life. Facing that defeat, the family soon moves to D.C. The signs of Patty's success have all been torn down. Throw in a love triangle with a rockstar friend and things become even more complicated.
Richard Katz, the rockstar, is the other main component in the book. While the novel is about Walter, Patty, and to an extent their children (Jessica is more like an afterthought compared to Joey), it's also about Walter and Patty's relationship with Richard. Walter and Richard love each other and compete with one another. For Richard, women and music come easy. He's handsome, a jerk, and seems to have no problem talking women into bed and then leaving. It drives Walter crazy, but he loves his friend. He also wants to do better than his friend and sees a chance by becoming involved with a billionaire who wants to establish a non-profit, under Walter's leadership, to provide habitat in West Virginia for the Cerulean Warbler. The only catch is that before the nature preserve is established, the coal will be mined. In addition to the close friendship between the two men, Patty also loves Richard and is lusted after by Richard. As things disintegrate, it's unclear if anyone will make it out of the relationship unscathed. This is especially true as Walter becomes obsessed with removing "feral cats" from the environment around his cabin.
Freedom is a wonderfully rich novel. The characters are complex, interesting, and the writing is superb. This book is definitely one to read.(less)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami warps time. Words fill the pages and the reader's mind as characters wait for things to happen. To fill in this void, the characters cut vegetables, use the bathroom, sentimentalize about rubber plants, consider breasts, and eat various meals. Otherwise, nothing moves the plot forward for hundreds of pages.
In the first book, we are introduced to Tengo Kawana, a former child prodigy and aspiring novelist. His editor friend, Komatsu, convinces him to ghostwrite a novel by a seventeen year old girl, Fuki-Eri, and submit it for a literary prize. This section is the strongest. Murakami pokes fun at the literary establishment and lowers the fourth wall. In alternating chapters we are introduced to the other main character, Aomame, who is an unassuming female assassin specializing in stabbing a sharp needle in men's necks with no trace. Tengo and Aomame shared one special moment when they were ten years old (they held hands) and it created a loving bond that lasted across twenty years and multiple worlds. The novel is a play toward getting the two together and in the course of 952 pages it finally happens.
Both Tengo and Aomame are caught up in the drama of a cult called Sakigake. The cult started out as radicalized students and faculty members on a commune. When Fuki-Eri was ten the commune's special goat, which Fuki-Eri was tasked with caring for, died. As a punishment Fuki-Eri was locked in a shed with the dead goat. Out of the dead goat's mouth sprang the Little People. They sit with Fuki-Eri and teach her how to weave an air chrysalis. The most we are told about the Little People is that they're powerful and something like gods, but not quite. After this happens is when the commune transforms into the cult, and Fuki-Eri's father becomes Leader and is imbued with powers.
Tengo is caught up in the drama by ghostwriting Fuki-Eri's novel, which is about the goat and the Little People. It receives great reviews and is a bestseller, but seen as a strange little fantasy. Aomame's role is that she must kill Leader because he has been raping young girls. There's more to the novel, or at least, a wider cast of characters, but it's not worth going exploring at this point.
1Q84 is full of opaqueness. What's worse is that it is mistaken as a sign that there is something hidden or wonderful in the books, which only smart people can discern. Instead, it's sloppy writing with no clear end in sight. After the end of the second book, Murakami steps back in the third book as if he can undo the final actions. This may not seem huge, but when one of the main characters commits suicide and is suddenly alive in the next book, it's completely jarring. Did Murakami change his mind? Was he interested in more sales or exploring how things would have turned out if the character stayed alive? The reasons are not clear and ultimately do not matter. 1Q84 is a bloated tome that is best avoided.
In The Warsaw Anagrams, byRichard Zimler,the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children. He's a psychi...moreIn The Warsaw Anagrams, by Richard Zimler, the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children. He's a psychiatrist, who was once respected, but now must deal with the hardships of the ghetto and the change in his station. While still respected, he's no longer one of the elite as the ghetto has destroyed the social order from the "Before Times." The voice of Cohen is rich and unique. Zimler stays with him throughout the novel and creates a solid character. Cohen fluctuates between compassion and anger, humor and grave melancholy. It's refreshing to read a character who is complex and whose actions cause him remorse.
While, technically a mystery, the novel is more about life in the ghetto than a compelling puzzle to solve. Part of the confusion stems from the title. It seems as though there will be coded puzzles throughout the novel and the anagrams do refer to the garbled names of people in order to hide their true identities; however, the anagrams fade below the surface as the novel progresses. The final anagram/puzzle is so hidden that "only a Jew would know both Polish and German well enough to understand that linka was string and Flor was gauze." For the reader it is next to impossible and the narrator doesn't care to share this information until he's been told by an accomplice to the crime.
Zimler's description of the early days of the Warsaw ghetto show a place full of heartache and desperation. The black market thrives as Jews cross over to the Christian side through hidden tunnels. People try to sustain the normalcy of life through music and cafes. But how soon before that goes away? The novel concludes before things become more terrible in the ghetto. We know what will happen eventually, but the novel sticks to the time frame of Cohen's perspective.
One issue with the narrator is that as he tells the story to a man, his current state is that of an ibbur, kind of like a ghost. This didn't trouble me; I assumed it was part of Jewish culture, but it is kind of cheesy. It does add another layer to the story, but for readers who do not enjoy the fantastic, it may be a problem.
The Warsaw Anagrams provides a glimpse of life in the ghetto and the suffering involved. Full of interesting characters who must make decisions, in which they question their morals, the novel leads the reader through the twisting streets, cramped apartments, and secret lives constrained by the ghetto walls. The novel is published by Overlook Press and available on Amazon.(less)
With Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam, created a novel full of small wonders and quiet terror in the American West. There is a mythic tone that calls to the reader and I found myself falling for David Lamb's charm much like Tommie does as she conspires to drive west with him.
Who is Lamb? He's in his fifties, wealthy, divorced, full of himself, isolated, and has no children. The novel begins with the death of Lamb's father, which seems to precipitate his string of bad decisions. There's a terrible edge to Lamb when he meets Tommie and "fake" kidnaps her, in order to teach her friends a lesson. At first, Lamb comes across as a father figure, telling Tommie how to act and seemingly concerned about her home life. This role morphs though as Lamb dotes on Tommie, and he begins to tell her how beautiful she is and buys her expensive gifts. Throughout the novel it's obvious something bad is going to happen. What's not clear is what that event will be.
What sets this novel apart from others is the clarity and beauty with which Nadzam writes. It's a pleasure to read sentences like:
He drove into the night, along a cursive pass etched in granite, above the stands of green-fingered oaks and red-beaded hawthorns and all the aspen, above the trees that listed to the southeast, needled black along one side, twisted and deformed by forbidding glacial wind, and between great planed walls of rock dressed in little aprons of snow and shattered stone sliding down onto the road.
Another wonderful passage follows:
Let's say there were none of those truss towers of galvanized steel lining the highway this next day. No telephone poles. No wires. Say that Lamb's truck and the highway were the only relics of the actual world. The road was overcome with native grasses and aromatic flowers, with wild onion and pussytoes. Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purple heads of virgin's bower. Say it was like this that they crossed the Midwestern line beyond which the sky spreads itself open—suddenly boundless, suddenly an awful blue.
Nadzam further draws the reader in by making us complicit. She picks moments to speak to the reader, saying, "Our guy picked up her hand. 'We're just going to sit here a minute.' He waited until she stopped crying, then pulled away from the gas pump and parked beside a derelict pay phone." What makes Lamb "our guy"? Nadzam doesn't give us a choice, she says Lamb is our guy and so he becomes, bellying in next to us, leaning against the counter. It's an effective technique to bring the reader along and fill them with uneasiness toward the end.
So much of the novel is driven by Lamb's voice. His running narrative to Tommie comes straight through to the reader. Is he full of wisdom or just trying to impress? Again, it goes back to that question, who is David Lamb? It's a question that will probably haunt Tommie for the rest of her life.
Set amidst the desolation of the Midwest and West, the novel amplifies the landscape. Through it we are shown the beauty of the natural world as it closes in on the edges of failed strip malls and gas stations where tallboys go for a buck. Where are the people in this landscape? They're somewhere in between, patiently following the arcs of their lives. They either can't move on or will not. Except for Lamb, who seems bent on creating a story all his own.(less)
Middlesexby Jeffrey Eugenidesreminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history, c...moreMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides reminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history, coming of age, and gender identity. The mirror metaphor works, because the narrator, Callie/Cal Stephanides, spends so much time exploring who s/he is. That's a difficult enough question for most teenagers and adults, but how does that question change when a person's body seems to mislead them? While the narrator is focused on their identity, the novel suffers at times by diverging into the past and getting lost in details. It's obvious Eugenides loves language, but it comes at a cost in terms of rhythm and pace.
Some details I loved about the novel were the descriptions and metamorphosis of Detroit. I'm from Michigan and Detroit is a place that inspires both pride and sadness. Pride because of its greatness, because of the auto industry, because of all that Detroit used to mean. Sadness, because of the past tense, because words like used to linger on. To see Detroit described in its height is wonderful. To see how the city languished in the last 40 years is important.
Middlesex spans three generations and is full of rich characters. It navigates around sadness, but perhaps that is part of the immigrant experience. Lefty and Desdemona upon arriving to the United States are completely out of place. They can't speak the language, their clothes stand out, and they're unsure how to earn money. What must they give up to assimilate? More importantly, what must Cal/Callie give up later on?
Black and white is easy. A light is either on or it's off. A thought either occurs or it doesn't. Black and white seems easy, because it's so limiting. A child is either a boy or a girl. Except when they are not. Same goes with the light, it's not always just on or off. It could have no power, it could be broken, it could be anything less or more than on and off. Immigration takes this idea a step further. Is a person Greek, Greek-American, or American? Why is a choice even necessary? Depending on the context any label may fit.
So what is Middlesex? It it a novel about gender identity? Is it a mix of fiction and memoir? Is the novel about what it means to be American or an immigrant? Middlesex broadens the lens through which life is viewed. Depending on the reader, the novel may illustrate how life is more nuanced than they previously thought.