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Posts Tagged ‘contemporary fiction’

After reading Laila Lalami‘s recent nonfiction book, Conditional Citizens, I wanted to read more of her writing, so I downloaded her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits from my public library. Lalami tells the story we see in the news as “illegal immigration” from the point of view of four very different people, Moroccans who try to reach Europe from Tangiers by paying a smuggler to take them in a small boat at night. The novel opens with the crossing — which ends badly. Then Lalami shifts the perspective back and forth. In part one of the novel, “Before,” she introduces us to Murad, who is unemployed and feels disrespected in his family; Faten, a young woman radicalized in her faith whose comments about the king put her in danger; Aziz, who wants the opportunities available in Spain so badly that he leaves his wife and mother behind, waiting for his return; and Halima, mother of three young children trying to escape her abusive ex-husband who risks everything so she and her kids can have a better life. In part two, “After” we find out what happens after the botched crossing, and learn more about the lives of Murad, Faten, Aziz, and Halima and their families and friends.

Each of them balances their hopes with the reality of having to live, to put food on the table, to navigate the challenges of their circumstances and find joy where they can. Lalami captures the tensions of relationships between spouses, grown children and their parents, and friends. Her characters are whole people, prone to the same kinds of small missteps and small right actions, small meanness and small kindness that all people make. It’s this ordinariness that gives their lives fullness and dignity. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is a book about the way all the moments of our lives make up the bigger themes of our stories, and how those themes are common to people whose lives on the surface seem very different. Men and women, educated or not, working or not, religious or not, these characters all hope for a life that will be free of oppression and want, for themselves and their families, and in each case, they give something up in pursuit of that hope. And when their hopes come to fruition, in each case it’s not what they thought it would be like. But they each feel a kind of gratitude for the imperfect flowering of their hope.

For example, Faten, the formerly ultra-religious teen whose new life is predicated on lying all the time (including to herself), decides to make a meal for Eid for her roommate, Betoul, a rather judgemental woman who doesn’t really approve of Faten. Lalami writes:

“Betoul looked as though she wanted to sleep rather than eat, but she said thanks, went to wash up, then sat at the table. Faten served her a generous portion of the lamb. Betoul had a taste. ‘A bit salty, dear,’ she said.

Faten smiled, grateful for the truth.”

It’s this kind of moment, this sanctifying of the ordinary, that makes Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a book that is not only a good story, but a penetrating one. These characters will stay with me, icons of the millions of people who are trying to live freely in this world.

This would be a good choice for book clubs, and I enjoyed it so much I am now reading her most recent novel, The Other Americans.

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I haven’t read many of Jodi Picoult’s books, but kept hearing about this latest one, The Book of Two Ways. After working my way through a long collection by Jonathan Raban, I was in the mood for a fast read. And something distracting. A love story, this novel had a twist: the main character, Dawn, is a death doula who was a highly promising Egyptologist before a family tragedy changed the trajectory of her life, and she is now facing a choice between continuing on her current path or returning to her prior one.

If it sounds a little too death and tragedy oriented, don’t worry. This book is more about living than dying. But in writing about Dawn’s two careers, Picoult definitely gets deep into the details of both ancient Egyptian burial rites (including coffin texts like the real Book of Two Ways) and contemporary end of life care. When it comes to Egyptian culture, Picoult doesn’t just talk about the myths and mummies you may have learned about in middle school world history, but also gender roles, love poetry, and different periods and rulers. And, after reading about Dawn’s second career, you’ll have a better understanding of what happens to the human body as it dies. Which you have to admit is an unusual topic for a novel that is mainly about a woman in love with two men and successful at two careers.

All of the dying is described from Dawn’s professional perspective, so none of it was sad, really. If I felt sad about anything it was that the characters are all so damn rich, smart, beautiful, and exceptional at their jobs. There is one guy who is a driver’s ed instructor. That was comforting, even if he’s married to a well off artist.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book, it was entertaining and I enjoyed all the details about Egypt (there are even hieroglyphs) and about death doula-ing. It was so entertaining that I actually ended up staying up too late reading. And it was, as hoped, a fast read. If you’re looking for an escape from the news, The Book of Two Ways is interesting and distracting.

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I saw a review of The Imperfects, Amy Meyerson‘s second novel sometime since I’ve been working at home and put it on my library eBook holds list. It came up in my account over the weekend, and proved a good summer read (or Coronavirus and bad news all around read). It’s absorbing in the way I hear coworkers talk about certain streaming or TV series about dysfunctional families, because Meyerson’s characters, the Millers, can’t seem to be in the same room without getting into an argument.

But that, in and of itself, would not for me be very entertaining. Fortunately, there is a page-turning mystery at the center of this feuding family. Helen, the matriarch, has died and in her will, she surprises everyone by leaving her house to her daughter, Deborah, a somewhat flaky new-agey grandma who has failed at three dozen business ideas, can’t keep to her vegan diet, and seems to have had a string of equally flaky boyfriends. Helen also surprises them by leaving a brooch to Deborah’s daughter Beck.

The rest of the book is the breathless story of Beck’s realization that the brooch is not only a valuable heirloom, but also includes a diamond that was probably part of the Habsburg crown jewels, lost since the earlier 1900s. Having no idea why on earth her grandma had such a thing in her possession, she gets to work trying to determine its provenance and how it came to be Helen’s. And to determine how to stave off the many legal claims to the diamond once news breaks.

Because the siblings can’t keep their mouths shut. Beck’s brother Jake, a screenwriter whose one hit capitalized on his family’s dysfunction and caused a major rift, spills the story to his stoner friend as soon as he gets back to California. Worse, her sister Ashley, a Greenwhich housewife and former marketing executive, takes a valuation report to an auction house. And some of the people Beck trusts to help the family are less than helpful.

Helen’s story, and the story of the jewels she came to own drive the book. There is some interesting backstory about the end of the Habsburg empire, and then later, an effort to get fifty Jewish children out of Austria before the Nazis ship most of the adults off to concentration camps. Which Meyerson says in her author’s note is based on a real story of a Philadelphia couple who really rescued fifty children. That was all interesting.

Less interesting, to me, were some romantic (or at least lustful) side plots for each of the Miller family, which I think are included to round them out as characters, so they don’t just look like bickering siblings. I could imagine my grandmother suggesting these interludes were not needed, which is why I gave it some thought and tried to imagine why Meyerson included them. There are also some other non-romantic partner minor characters who play small but key roles, like Karen, the kind and honest HR person at Beck’s firm, Rico, the solid stoner friend, and Clara, a librarian who takes an interest in helping Ashley.

If you’re looking for a distraction, this book has mystery, history, and family histrionics. I read it in an afternoon and evening (and admittedly, late into the night to finish, because I wanted to know how it would end.

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I was perusing end of the year “best books” lists to see what I might have missed over the past year, and noticed From the Shadows, written by Juan José Millás and translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn. I am still somewhat skeptical of these lists but have learned to read several of them, to get a better idea of the breadth of well reviewed books over the year, and this book came up a couple of times and caught my eye because a) like many Americans, I’ve never read Juan José Millás, whose work hasn’t been widely available here even though he has won many awards in Spain and b) I really admire Bellevue Literary Press, which published this book.

This was one of the library books I downloaded to read on our trip to Utah, but I didn’t read it until we got back. It’s a wild story, but it’s also a novel about existence, really. Damián, the main character, has been laid off from his maintenance job and is passing time imagining himself being interviewed on a popular TV show about his strange and inappropriate relationship with his adopted Chinese sister. He wanders into a market and ends up shoplifting a tie bar with his imaginary television interviewer’s initials on it.  To escape the security guard coming after him, he hides in an old wardrobe. Next thing he knows he’s being transported, inside the wardrobe, to a house in the suburbs of Madrid.

Damián has no choice but to remain hidden — movers place the wardrobe against a built- in closet, and he escapes into that space. From there, he can hear what goes on in the house. Eventually, once he’s comfortable with the routines of the family, he ventures out of the wardrobe when they are out, and begins cleaning up the house, cooking, doing laundry, etc. He becomes a real life media celebrity, albeit an invisible, anonymous one, when he posts on a paranormal enthusiasts’ website as the Ghost Butler and radio shows pick up the story.

So far, funny, if a little sick and sad. Damián, however, is transformed by his secret and invisible life. He begins to wonder if he is really there. And as he becomes less physically present in the world, his mind changes too:

“While he was now struggling to evoke certain mental images, his senses had become preposterously sharp. He could hear a phone ringing in a neighboring home, and pick out airborne smells, and thereby travel the length and breadth of the house with his eyes closed. For his whole being to have been honed to such a degree brought about a sensation of quiet euphoria, and of safety, which, in turn cleared a space for him in the universe, one he’d never had before.”

The story has some twists and turns I don’t want to reveal, which make for some page turning moments, especially towards the end. And yet, From the Shadows examines, as I said, some of the fundamental issues of being human in this world today, and takes a hard look at the societal scourges of selfishness and loneliness. Millás also touches on outsourcing, family dynamics, privacy, media fragmentation, and social status. And the lasting effects of childhood experiences.

I’d even say From the Shadows explores the ethics of love — in part by providing models of self-serving that are the opposite of what love should entail. The choices Damián makes as a ghost are not cut and dried good or bad, however, and his sacrifices aren’t always pure, which would make this a good book club selection; there is much to mull over and discuss. The ending was both surprising and exactly what it should be.

A short, interesting, entertaining read.

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I often find books to read when I am in the book stacks at work for some other reason — weeding, shelf-reading, or putting a display together. Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is, by Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, is one example; I was looking for books for an Advent display and saw it calling out to me.

The introduction explains, “One of the oldest anthems of the church, alleluia means simply, ‘All hail to the One who is.'” Each chapter examines something to say alleluia for. Some, such as faith, or life, or peace, seem obviously alleluia-worthy. Others are not things that seem at first like they would elicit the word that is “the acme of human joy,” such as doubt, conflict, suffering, or death. But these two erudite and pastoral people manage to make clear and relatable the ways we could, and possibly even should, say alleluia in nearly every situation.

My favorite chapter is on Exodus, in which Rowan Williams describes the Ten Commandments as a guide for creating a “mature human society.” Williams has a way of taking things you may have heard about since you were a child and shedding new light on them that never fails to open my eyes and heart to something new. Even if you’re not particularly religious, you’ve probably heard about the ten commandments. Williams says of them:

“Understandably, they begin by making us think about our relation with God. Don’t let anything get between you and the living God; don’t try to substitute for the living God the object and images you think you can comfortably cope with or control; don’t try to use God for your own purposes, as if he had given you magic words to manipulate the world. Be sure that the each week you spend time with God that is free from the pressures of business, problem- solving, or acquisition. And then we are told to turn to our fellow humans. What is due to those who gave us life? Be grateful and let it show. What is due to others who seek the same liberty as ourselves? Never imagine that anyone is indispensable. Keep the promises you have made and honor the promises of others in the world of human relations. Remember that the security you seek is what all want, and don’t set out to invade. Don’t imagine that what makes someone else secure and happy is exactly what you need to make you secure and happy if only you could get it from them.”

He goes on to say that “This is what responsibility amounts to. It is a deep concern not to lose sight of the radical otherness of God and an equally deep concern that we should both recognise what everyone desires and see the need for respect towards each other as each discovers this in diverse ways.”

I don’t know about you, but for me that is a fresh way of considering things. We lived in the deep South for a few years, and at the time there was a lot of discussion about the public display of the ten commandments and never did I hear anyone arguing that we needed them to be reminded of our “deep concern” and “respect” for one another, or our responsibility to “never imagine that anyone is indispensable.” This all seems brilliantly, bracingly clear to me. The whole book is full of this kind of illuminating, but very accessible, thinking.

In a chapter on faith, Chittister writes, “Faith is belief that God is leading us to become in tune with the universe, however different we see ourselves to be.”  And, if that isn’t enough to ponder, “Faith is trust in the unknown goodness of life without demand for certainty in the science of it.”  Clear and you knew it, but new, right? More challenging, but for me, very beautiful and true, is this: “Faith is confidence in the darkness, for the willingness to trust the deep-down humanity of others as well as in our own may be the deepest act of faith we can possibly devise.” If that seems impossible, I think what Chittister is saying is that we’re created in the image of God, who is love, and if we accept that as our humanity, we can see that in others too, even when we’re in some kind of darkness. This is not only Christian theology, either. Namaste means recognizing god in ourselves, seeing the god in others.

Anyway, thinking about this stuff deserves time and space, so this is a book probably better suited to slow digestion — maybe a chapter every Sunday afternoon, for example — but I read it  over the last week. I highly recommend it.

The Computer Scientist and I are celebrating 28 years of marriage next week, so got away for a couple of days to a lovely spot in Maine. It was cold, windy, and snowy, the perfect weather for reading a book straight through. I read Ali Smith’s Autumn this way. I chose it because my elder son encouraged me to give year-end “best book” lists a try after I scoffed that I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should read. I decided he was right, I was being judgmental. Autumn is on many such lists.

I don’t think I’ve read Smith before. I thoroughly enjoyed Autumn and I think I will seek out her other books. Autumn is about a young woman, Elisabeth, who was profoundly influenced by her next door neighbor, Daniel, as a child. He was older than other adults she knew then, although she insists not old, and is now 101, and “asleep” in a care home. Elisabeth hasn’t seen Daniel for 10 years and is moved to visit him regularly as she remembers the time they spent together. She believes he is not comatose and can hear her, and she reads books to him. Literature is something they shared — he always greeted her by asking, “What you reading?”

The novel switches points of view between Daniel’s dreams, memories, and impressions in his unconscious mind (very much like in Tinkers), and Elisabeth’s thoughts and experiences. She is feeling unmoored after the Brexit vote and goes to stay with her mother. It’s while she’s there she realizes Daniel is in the home, and as she processes what it means to be herself in the new world Britain is facing, she revisits her memories of Daniel and how he opened her eyes to what became a new world for her then, especially by introducing her to art.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that readers learn of how very much Daniel impacted the trajectory of Elisabeth’s life, and how she comes to reconcile what wasn’t a great relationship with her mother. It’s a very funny and also not-so-funny social commentary as well. The sections about Elisabeth trying to get her passport renewed and trying to make an appointment at a health clinic will make you nod and  maybe chuckle. There’s a hilarious and also chilling thread about a fenced off place — possibly an immigrant detainee center — going up near her mother’s village and how she and her mother each in their own way come to interact with the people behind the fences that go up. And a very touching outcome to her mother appearing on a reality TV show about people spotting treasures in junk shops.

All in all Autumn is a lovely, moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Is it one of the best I read this year? There are enough of those lists in the world. But I will tell you it’s a good read.

 

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I’d heard good things about this debut novel about a young couple from Cameroon living in New York, trying to become Americans, around the time the Great Recession starts. I like books that offer a perspective different from my everyday life, so I gave it a try.

It was an entertaining read. The main characters, Jende and Neni, are working hard, trying to reach their American dream. Jende came first, working and living in a cheap apartment with several other people in order to save enough money to bring Neni and their son, Liomi, to New York. Neni gets a student visa and enters community college, hoping to become a pharmacist. She works, too, as a health aide. Jende gets a job through his cousin, working as chauffeur to a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark, and his family.

But Jende’s visa has run out and his application for asylum doesn’t seem to be going well. The novel deals with how this family decides what to do — stay in New York illegally, continuing to struggle and try to avoid any potential legal issues, or return to Cameroon. Meanwhile Clark’s family, wealthy beyond Jende’s and Neni’s imaginations, suffers a number of “first world problems” which only get worse as the financial crisis begins.

This juxtaposition between Jende and Clark and their fates and families is interesting reading. Mbue allows her characters to be flawed and conflicted — no one in this book has a smooth path or impeccable morals. The story got bogged down a few times, maybe to reflect the slow, imperfect progress of the immigration system? The ending was a little bit of a letdown, but again, this may be more art than accident, because there is no clear end of the story for the characters, only more change.

Mbue writes very well, and Behold the Dreamers kept me reading. Worth an evening or two of your time, if only to imagine what life is like for someone whose life is very different than your own.

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