I read this sprawling story for my in-person book discussion group. A Fraction of the Whole is long, engrossing, scary-funny, sad, horrifying, profane...moreI read this sprawling story for my in-person book discussion group. A Fraction of the Whole is long, engrossing, scary-funny, sad, horrifying, profane, profound, provocative in all the best ways. A convoluted plot with vividly strange characters whose lives I actually cared about even when I could barely stand to visualize their actions.
I can see why reviewers are reminded of John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and Tom Robbins; further comparisons I've seen to Twain, Dickens, Garcia Marquez, Borges and Voltaire might seem a bit of a stretch, but the acid prose, wicked insights and wacky narrative twists bring those authors to mind as well. Called a "hilariously misanthropic" "wildly looping rollercoaster" that "reads like the trajectory of a gleefully crazed Roman candle," I'm left breathless and a bit exhausted by the end of the book. Many times the very same sentence would make me laugh out loud, then flinch, then feel very very sad.
It's probably not irrelevant that I gave the book four stars until I read my own review and then figured I had to up that to five. Certainly makes a big, big impression.(less)
A powerful, haunting story of Rosanne McNulty, a 100-year old woman long assigned to an insane asylum in County Sligo, Ireland, and the middle-aged ps...moreA powerful, haunting story of Rosanne McNulty, a 100-year old woman long assigned to an insane asylum in County Sligo, Ireland, and the middle-aged psychiatrist who slowly comes to see and know her as more than a silent strange crone. Told in the form of journal entries by Rosanne and Dr. Grene, moving in their own directions but finally inching together to meet by the end of the book. I noted many passages written with a simple but potent beauty, such as this one, from p. 101 of my paperback edition:
Then he sat there in his own version of silence for a long while. ... He sat in the chill light. The river, drowned in its own water, and drowned a second time in the rains of February, was not in a position to throw its light. The window-glass was severely itself. ... He was looking into that strange place, the middle distance, the most mysterious, human, and rich of all distances. And from his eyes came slowly tears, immaculate human tears, before the world touches them. River, window and eyes.(less)
Though surely not to everyone's taste, I found this book to be a gripping and compulsive read - raucous, profane and oddly persuasive in its portrait...moreThough surely not to everyone's taste, I found this book to be a gripping and compulsive read - raucous, profane and oddly persuasive in its portrait of a man from a traditional village who by his guile, sweat, and targeted violence shoves his way into the entrepreneurial class of modern India.
Balram unfolds his story via a week-long virtual conversation with the premier of China, said to be soon on his way to visit Bangalore to observe the miracle of out-sourcing that was in the process of exploding there not too long ago. The opening pages reveal a man with lots of drive, a deeply cynical heart, and measure of regretful acceptance of the choices he's made to achieve his material success at the cost of conventional virtue.
The book can be understood on several levels -- if nothing else, it's a rousing story with astonishing pulse but also some repugnant details, alive to the jostle, clamor and stench of urban India. But to my way of thinking it is also a powerful parable of the cost of finding success in a country rushing headlong and willy-nilly into 'democratic capitalism.'
To dodge his all-but-determined future back in the village, suffocated by his Granny and her designs, Balram sacrifices not just his virtue but perhaps his family too, once he has seen the deeper truth of the slogan spit out contemptuously by his ex-employer's ex-wife: "What a f*cking joke." What a joke are the pronouncements of government, the claims of business, the lure of modernity, perhaps life itself. Society tells us we have to laugh and grab for our share - all others be damned - or be lost.
Adiga uses particular symbols with greater or lesser dexterity, including the lumbering water buffalo, the rare beast (the white tiger), and, especially potent the rooster coop from which nearly no prisoner even cares to attempt escape. My favorite image I think is the white T-shirt that Balram wears to signal his middle-class identity -- not the brightly patterned shirt preferred by his class, but a spare design, with nothing but a single English word as ornament. Of course we are never shown what that word might be.(less)
A companion book to the luminous Gilead, telling much the same story from the point of view of a different character. In both books we see people stru...moreA companion book to the luminous Gilead, telling much the same story from the point of view of a different character. In both books we see people struggle with coming to terms with long-standing family tensions, especially between fathers and sons, but here also between adult sister and brother. I read Home for my in-person book group (Directed Reading), where I can always count on spirited and informed discussion.
I mostly prefer the first-person, ruminative approach of Gilead, written as a letter by an elderly Midwestern minister to the future, grownup version of his young son, to Home's more conventional third-person narration, which to me anyway was less lyrical and sometimes more opaque. The two books make a powerful combination, and I am now eager to return to Gilead, which I read more than a year ago for Constant Reader here on Goodreads.(less)
Will read this this fall with my local book discussion group. The review by James Wood in a recent New Yorker was an insane over-the-top gush, so let'...moreWill read this this fall with my local book discussion group. The review by James Wood in a recent New Yorker was an insane over-the-top gush, so let's hope it lives up to his enthusiasm!(less)
The stories in this slim book center mostly around the intricacies of the family life and personal conflicts of Chinese-American immigrants, though a...moreThe stories in this slim book center mostly around the intricacies of the family life and personal conflicts of Chinese-American immigrants, though a few of the characters featured have no clear markers of ethnicity. Many of the stories focus on fraught areas of gender relations and the relative value of "boys" and "girls" within family structures.
The title story focuses on a matriarch who needs a new kidney but refuses to allow her adult son (who has the best match for transplant) to donate, claiming that one of her four daughters should step in instead. Only sons are too precious to out in danger? There is a lot of fascinating and troubling detail about the "echo chamber" of comment and criticism that the mother carries around in her head - comments from other women that make her question her own value.
Some of my other favorite stories in the book have somewhat different themes. The best I think is the devastating "Second Child," featuring a Chinese woman going by the name of Daisy who serves as host and tour guide for (Caucasian) American families visiting China on "cultural heritage" trips with their adopted Chinese daughters. We learn about the circumstances of Daisy's birth and upbringing through her interactions with the only boy and only "white" child on the trip, the unexpected brother of one of the adopted girls. (less)
A very interesting look into the psyche and life of a man suspected of involvement in Unabomber-like crimes. The protagonist, Lee, professor of mathem...moreA very interesting look into the psyche and life of a man suspected of involvement in Unabomber-like crimes. The protagonist, Lee, professor of mathematics at a "second-tier Midwestern university," is more or less reconciled to his mediocre existence when all Hell blows loose in the campus office next to his. The aftermath sets in motion a period of intense turmoil during which Lee digs deeply into his past as a young immigrant to America and his tentative friendships and first loves while in graduate school.
The theme of post-traumatic stress on an immigrant due to horrific experiences in the (Korean) War, though not as dominant here, was one of several points of contact with the themes of Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered while being a very different sort of book. This novel is structured something like a true-crime mystery, whole also delving deeply into questions of relationships among family, lovers, colleagues, neighbors, ultimately among us as members of a fearful and oftentimes suspicious society.(less)
Fascinating, witty, and absorbing. This provocative memoir, ostensibly about Julian Barnes' fear of death and dying, and the nonexistence he thinks he...moreFascinating, witty, and absorbing. This provocative memoir, ostensibly about Julian Barnes' fear of death and dying, and the nonexistence he thinks he faces afterwards, has lots of interesting things to say about belief and disbelief in God, about family, memory, and being a writer.
The tone throughout is personal, and somehow both serious and lighthearted, at times comical. (Aside to those who've read the opening pages -- I'll never be able to tell friends again with a straight face about how I was warned as a child that my dead Grandpa was watching from heaven to make sure that I was a good boy!)
Barnes says that he's been bothered most of his life by fears of death, still waking frightened from nightmares even now in his sixties. He treats us to funny and poignant stories of his childhood, his parents, maternal grandparents, and brother, with a special interest in their own views of their mortality and religion.
Throughout we see Barnes grappling with how others seemingly have a better grip on being mortal. His grandparents come off rather well, and his brother remains a touchstone of comparison and competition, especially in matters cerebral. The portrayal of Barnes' mother is especially strong, but to my mind becomes cruel in places in its tone and detail.
Along the way Barnes has interspersed topical discussions or stories of authors, artists, and philosophers, especially if they were French, nineteenth-century, and similarly death-obsessed men. The author's manner is conversational and anything but pedantic, even when Barnes is indulging his interest in words and grammar and writerly habit.
To end with a tiny bit of a spoiler -- the title is itself punny and misleading. I had thought the book was going to offer a rousing exhortation not to fear death. But actually, according to Barnes, it's not really so that with death we have nothing to fear; it's instead being nothing that we ought to be frightened of.(less)
I enjoyed this collection of ten short stories by an author I usually encounter in smaller compass in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. But this t...moreI enjoyed this collection of ten short stories by an author I usually encounter in smaller compass in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. But this time I read her in book form for my in-person discussion group Directed Reading.
Almost every story has a sudden and often disconcerting turn -- something that I take it is characteristic of Munro's approach -- so that I was never sure that the people and setting I was reading about at the start of a story would still appear important or even relevant by its end.
Munro has a marvelous way of making the reader understand and care about her characters from the inside. Most of her lead characters are female, and not a few of them are morally suspect or caught up in situations of moral ambiguity. My favorite chapters included the first, called "Dimensions," about a young mother who visits her estranged husband in prison for an inexcusable crime. Dorrie takes long bus rides to reach Lloyd, but never quite seems to understand why she bothers. A surprise encounter at the end of the story gives her a new direction.
Another favorite was the rather odd "Wenlock Edge," narrated by a young woman attending college away from home. The only inhabitant of the town she knows at first is her mother's cousin, Ernie Botts; later she makes a friend in her odd new roommate, Nina, who has a local "patron," Mr. Purvis. At one point the narrator visits Mr. Purvis in Nina's stead and reads aloud to him from the poetry of Housman and other English country poets, in a scene that is both gripping and at first rather incredible. Nina escapes Purvis and moves in with Cousin Ernie for a while. ...
Also memorable was the chilling "Child's Play," centered on a defining act of malice shown us in a slow retrospective. We hear of a summer camp, of a "special-needs" girl who had briefly shared a duplex with the main character, and how memory and regret shade and reveal each other.
My least favorite story was the title novella, "Too Much Happiness," a fictionalized re-presentation of the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, a real-life Russian author and mathematician, focusing on her frustrations with her public career as well as her private life. I never cared much for Sophia's travails, preferring Munro's take on Canadian women's lives to this peripatetic scholar as she moved unhappily about in France, Russia, and Sweden. Maybe a second or third reading would improve my impression, since much of the story moves backwards and forwards in time, with little concession to this reader's ignorance.
Overall, highly recommended, and a special treat for those who like short stories.(less)
This is a very long book, chock-full of historical detail from a vibrant period of English life - from late Victorian times down to the First World Wa...moreThis is a very long book, chock-full of historical detail from a vibrant period of English life - from late Victorian times down to the First World War and its immediate aftermath. We follow the personal stories of a large cast of characters, whose interrelationships are slowly shown to be both more or less complicated than they might at first seem. Some of the characters are drawn more fully and successfully than others, but the full panoply of people and events is by the end quite stunning -- both impressive and overwhelming.
The author gives a lot of attention to the temperament and workings of artists, especially writers and potters. There are frequent "interruptions" of the main narrative with excerpts from books of fantasy that Olive Wellwood (a successful children's author) is writing for each of her children privately, stories that connect well to literary, dramatic, and artistic currents of the day. We learn a lot about various political groups and societies interested in social change, especially socialists and suffragists. We also see the heedlessness of people rushing about everywhere and nowhere, eventually right over the cliff.(less)
This was my first Muriel Spark book, and I found it enjoyable to read for its wit and glimpses of life in mid-century London. The story centers on hal...moreThis was my first Muriel Spark book, and I found it enjoyable to read for its wit and glimpses of life in mid-century London. The story centers on half a dozen young women in the waning months of World War II, housed in the fictional May of Teck Club in a fashionable part of London. The perspective alternates between real-time narration and brief phone conversations nearly twenty years later amongst the former residents, the "girls of slender means" (young ladies of 'good family' but limited prospects). The book is a quick read and reaches its twisty end with a bang before you know it.
One feature of the story that I particularly enjoyed was the frequent allusion to English poets and verse, including apparently the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in its unrevised form, often quoted in fragments as part of the elocution lessons given by one of the young ladies as part of her professional training. The most significant and explanatory thread is woven together with bits of the long poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, composed by Gerard Manley Hopkins on the occasion of the terrible loss of a passenger ship in 1875 but left unpublished until 1918. Once I tracked down the full text of Hopkins' poem, the plot of Spark's book became much clearer to me. (less)
A fascinating and moving novel that re-imagines the story of the "mad woman in the attic" who haunted Jane Eyre and her Mr. Rochester.
Thick with Cari...moreA fascinating and moving novel that re-imagines the story of the "mad woman in the attic" who haunted Jane Eyre and her Mr. Rochester.
Thick with Caribbean atmosphere and interpersonal drama, this brief book offers an engrossing, poignant, occasionally horrifying, but ultimately satisfying read. Here we have an important political statement about gender, class, and race, beautifully framed as the picture of a troubled marriage of two people from rather different worlds but revealing oddly similar character. Alternating between the perspectives of the new wife and husband, we watch a couple with remarkable sexual chemistry fail to overcome their mutual suspicion and preconceptions about his English masculinity and her Creole temperament. A combustible mix of oppression, resentment, and poverty threatens both the newly freed slaves and the European planter families.
The book offers an explanation for the madness of Antoinette Cosway (called Bertha in Brontë's novel) that is compelling yet also heartbreaking. A troubled girlhood, marked by parental rejection and sudden violence, may possibly be forgotten in her marriage to the unnamed Rochester, lured to Jamaica by her reputed beauty and especially the substantial dowry offered by her stepfather. For a brief while we enjoy the couple's honeymoon trip to the lush upland of nearby Dominica, surrounded by mountains, the sea, the strong fragrance of tropical plants and the soon-threatening press of the jungle. Black servants, especially Antoinette's old nurse from French Martinique -- apparently an adept of the local version of Voodoo -- are grudgingly respectful but increasingly sure of their new power in a time of shifting fortunes. Rumors and accusations about his bride, possibly false but probably at least partly true, lead Rochester to withdraw his affections and help send Antoinette further into despair and desperation. Her nightmare of confinement in Thornton Hall and its denouement offer a devastating but fitting conclusion.
A book that begins and ends with mysterious clarity of voice and vision. Though written by a young American in the 1920s, it reads like a work balanci...moreA book that begins and ends with mysterious clarity of voice and vision. Though written by a young American in the 1920s, it reads like a work balancing gracefully between the old-fashioned and the magically realistic.
How do we find any meaning in the seemingly random appearance of death among our daily comings and goings? What moral distance separates the character of those felled by accident from those left behind as witnesses and survivors? This engaging and lyrical story compels us to consider how and if our lives might retain some meaning -- whether clarified or distorted by emotion -- in the memories of those we leave behind us.
The last lines of the book, quoted by Russell Banks in his forward to the 2003 reprint, speak directly to this theme: "But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."(less)