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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Do you recall my saying I need to read something more uplifting? This isn’t it, especially. I love Edwidge Danticat‘s work. If you’ve been with me here at bookconscious for a long time you know I’ve reviewed Claire of the Sea Light (beautiful, a “delicate” book about human frailty) and The Dew Breaker (which is about a torturer — and yet Danticat portrays him with “psychological depth”). So when I saw Danticat had a new collection, Everything Inside, I ordered it for our library.

Her writing is still all the things I’ve said before — masterful, delicate, musical, rich — and her characters are multidimensional. The stories in this collection are not brutal, per se, but they peel back the curtain on the brutality of the world at large. This book explores the immigrant experience from several angles. Many of the stories are about love, and what we’ll do in the name of love, but they are also about other ordinary experiences — coming to terms with a parent’s dementia, dealing with post-partum depression, learning a family secret, trying to understand a friend or loved on who acts in a way we don’t expect, trying to be an adult, dealing with loss.

You definitely shouldn’t miss it. And maybe, reading it now is a reminder that for many people around the world and right here in the U.S., the experience of insecurity, illness, family strife, isolation, and fear is actually normal life.

 

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I wanted to love On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Maybe in a less fraught time I would have. I recognize it as beautiful, imaginative, and important for representing immigrant experience and gay coming- of-age experience. Maybe I’m just weary of pain and suffering — in literature, in the news, in the world.

This is the story of Little Dog, a young Vietnamese American boy who falls in love with a white boy, Trevor, a little bit older and just as scarred. Both have single parents. Little Dog lives with his mother and intermittently, also his aunt and Grandmother, all of whom have trauma from wartime and postwar experiences and also live with mental illness. They are poor; the book also touches on some of what the a series in the New York Times exposed about immigrant nail salon workers.  Trevor lives in a trailer with his Dad. They are also poor, and traumatized by loss and violence and pain. As in so many families with trauma, they all hurt each other.

The story ranges from the 90s (with a few older flashbacks reflecting Little Dog’s family’s experiences in Vietnam) into the 2000s and touches on a few of the more recent cultural traumas, like 9/11 (very briefly) and the opioid crisis (which plays a major part in the story). So. Tough to read.

It’s meant to be a letter from Little Dog to his mother, but not one she’ll read (she can’t read). But it isn’t a letter that follows a narrative arc or tells a straightforward story. There are many asides, including, woven throughout, some digressions about Monarch butterflies.

Lovely? Even a little bit warmly humorous? Yes. Try this:

“My reflection warped over the storefront glass as we rode. The stoplights blinked yellow and the only sound was the clicking spokes beneath us. We rode back and forth like that, and for a stupid moment it felt like that strip of concrete called Main Street was all we ever possessed, all that held us. Mist came down, difracted the streetlights into huge, van Gogh orbs. Trevor, ahead of me, stood up on his bike, arms out on both sides, and shouted, ‘I’m flying! Hey, I’m flying!”

Yes, like the scene from Titanic, which Vuong references in the next sentence for those who might not make the connection. Perhaps he is a prize-winning poet, his editors wanted to ensure that readers of the future will get the reference, when Titanic may not be as familiar.

As I said, I get the literary merit. And beneath the sorrow, it’s a love story, about young love, and about Little Dog’s family. I didn’t enjoy it. I think that’s ok. It would hard to be human and enjoy this much pain.

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A few years ago I wrote here about Kerry Hudson’s debut, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My MaI described it as “squirm inducing”  and said “The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it.”

The same could be said for Douglas Stuart’s debut, Shuggie Bain. It’s the devastating story of Hugh, nicknamed Shuggie, who is growing up wit an alcoholic mother in public housing in Glasgow in the 1980s. There are a few glimmers of hope. But, having just read Peggy Orenstein’s Atlantic article, “The Miseducation of the American Boy: Why boys crack up at rape jokes, think having a girlfriend is “gay,” and still can’t cry—and why we need to give them new and better models of masculinity,” I found the toxic masculinity in Shuggie Bain hard to face. It was a reminder that as bad as we think things are now, they’ve been worse.

Even the teachers and coaches are mean to Shuggie. None of the other mothers look after him. No one does. I cringed through the depictions of sexual abuse, misogyny, homophobia, dysfunction, violence, and neglect. In fact at one point I thought “Why am I reading this?”

But, as with Hudson’s book, I read it to understand. To walk in someone else’s shoes, as I said when I read Tony Hogan. And to feel, in the end, happy that each of the three Bain kids gets out. In their way, the siblings love each other. And Shuggie is not entirely alone; Leanne, his lone friend, is a character I would love to see more of.

While Shuggie Bain is, as several reviewers note, a book about love, resilience, and strength, you only get to that after reading through a great deal of pain and suffering. Not for the faint hearted. But Shuggie is a character well worth knowing.

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My grandmother used to find mysteries soothing. If the news was bad, or she was worried about something, she felt there was nothing like a good mystery. Arguably the news is perpetually bad, but I’m also worried and/or preoccupied by a good many things at work and home. A good friend of mine used to tell me that after work, all she wanted was a book with a body in it. With that advice, and my grandmother’s, in mind, I picked up Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, which I bought at a small used bookstore in Prescott, Arizona, last fall when I visited family after a conference.

I first found William Boyd’s work at the Five Colleges Book Sale. I picked up Armadillo in part because it was a Penguin Street Art edition and the cover caught my eye (to the Computer Scientist’s continuing amazement, I sometimes buy wine that way, because the label caught my eye). I’ve kept an eye out ever since for his novels when I’m at sales or used bookstores, because I loved Armadillo, which opens with a man coming across a dead body and unspools the impact this has.

Ordinary Thunderstorms starts in a similar fashion. A young man, Adam Kindred,  through sheer chance, chats with a stranger in a restaurant, realizes he left a file behind, tries to return it to him, and ends up interrupting the man’s murder. He tries to help the man, who dies, and even in his shock, realizes that he, Adam, will be taken for the murderer because his prints are now in the man’s apartment and even on the murder weapon.

Boyd imagines what it would take in a modern city, in this case London, to disappear. Those who don’t use services the rest us take for granted like credit cards, ATMs, phones, etc. become “invisible or at least transparent, your anonymity so secure you could move through the city — uncomfortably, yes, enviously, prudently, yes — like an urban ghost.” As Adam becomes a ghost and tries to understand the circumstances that led to his new life, we meet Rita, a police officer called to the murder scene; Mhouse, a prostitute who tries to both fleece and help Adam; Jonjo, former soldier turned assassin whose life is permanently changed by the interrupted murder; and Ingram, CEO of the small pharmaceutical firm that was developing a new asthma drug based on the murdered man’s research.

Boyd brings these disparate lives together as Adam works to return to a fully human life, if not nearly the life he once had. Most of Boyd’s characters are neither fully good nor fully bad. He manages to elicit occasional sympathy for Ingram, the privileged CEO, who is desperate to restore at least one relationship in his mostly shallow life; and occasional contempt for Adam, who can be ruthless even though he knows what it’s like to be utterly lost because of others’ ruthlessness. In my view the ending left room for a sequel, although I couldn’t find any evidence that Boyd plans to write one. Readers are left with Jonjo vowing to exact revenge and Adam unsure of whether to tell Rita his full story. among other loose ends.

Despite this untidy ending — which is probably truer to life than a neat ending would be — Ordinary Thunderstorms is a satisfying “book with a body in it.” It was a page turner but also made me think about lives quite different than my own (in different ways). It was an interesting book, with a lot of insight into contemporary London, the pharmaceutical industry, and human social structures. And, it took my mind off the many things preoccupying me. A good read.

 

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Remember when I said (in my last post) that I don’t usually like novels with multiple viewpoints? Frankisstein not only tells the story from different characters’ views (primarily Ry, a trans doctor in contemporary England and Mary Shelley) but also fictionalizes real people (besides Shelley and her friends and family, Ada Lovelace, I.J. Good) and even a fictional character (Victor Frankenstein, imagined as an inmate of Bedlam, and later a guest at a party where he approaches Mary Shelley).  Jeanette Winterson even plays with Shelley’s characters’ names, naming her modern characters Dr. Mary Shelley (Ry) and Victor Stein, an AI researcher.

The book weaves (veers?) between the 1800s, starting around the time Mary Shelley is writing Frankenstein while staying in Switzerland with her husband Percy Blythe Shelley, Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire and a doctor, Polidori, and the present, when Victor Stein is predicting (and working towards) a future when brains can be scanned, and “Once you are pure data you can download yourself in a variety of forms.” Ron Lord, a Welsh man who sees his Sexbot business as a public service, and Claire, an evangelical American who convinces him that a line of Christian companions is just what his business needs, join Ry in helping Victor bring his plans to fruition, even as they have no real understanding of what those plans will entail, while a dogged reporter, Polly D, tries to uncover whatever he’s up to.

The name play alone would ordinarily be enough to make me give up, but this book was pure fun, clever without being cute, and full of interesting ideas about how humans have viewed each other’s natural gifts, physical and intellectual, over the last two centuries, and how we use our own gifts to get what we need. The book also explores perceptions of gender, class, beauty, intelligence, sanity, and sex appeal. Its really hard to explain, but as Mary Shelley creates her story, and her countercultural life, and Ry, Victor, and Ron create their stories and countercultural lives, the ideas converge: that who we are is our hearts and minds, our spirits, not our frail physical shells. Or as Victor tells Ry, Ron, Claire and Polly: “And from here follows the story that we all recognise in some form or another. The story told by every religion in some form or another; the earth is fallen, reality is an illusion, our souls will live forever. Our bodies are a front — or perhaps more accurately, an affront — to the beauty of our nature as beings of light.”  Or as he said earlier, “pure data.”

Frankissstein defies easy description. Literary and yet full of shtick, cerebral but sexy, brimming with poetry and yet rooted in the notion that everything is 0s and 1s. It’s a story, on the one hand, of two Mary’s two centuries apart, both defying their roles as women, both loving men who respect their brains but also long for their bodies, both sure that in the end these men will leave them. On the other hand it’s the story of human hubris, of our certainty that we can manage whatever we create, and that we are capable of thinking our way out of anything.

In short, it’s a hoot.

 

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This is the last of the seven books I downloaded so that I wouldn’t have to take any physical books with me on vacation. Unless you don’t follow book news at all you probably know that Bernardine Evaristo was co-winner, with Margaret Atwood, of the Booker prize this year. As with “best of the year” lists I have a love-hate relationship with literary prizes. Sometimes I just don’t get the winner at all. Sometimes I think the whole system is rigged and under-appreciated books are further under-appreciated when prizes pass them over, all because of the limited number of giant, wealthy media companies who dominate publishing.

Sometimes I just think the whole idea of picking “winners” is silly. That said, some readers I respect liked Girl, Woman, Other and the reviews I read made it sound appealing. Plus, one of my reading goals is to read work by diverse authors, so, conflicted feelings about literary prizes aside, I wanted to read this.

I’m not always a fan of the multiple viewpoint narrative. Girl Woman, Other features twelve different main characters, and spans several decades. So, I had some difficulty because in eBook format, there is no easy way to flip back to previous chapters about a character, which for me is helpful when a book changes viewpoint several times.  And that is one of the reasons I prefer print books — they are not a technology that needed to be improved upon (paraphrasing Robert Darnton in The Case for Books) and for this reader, work better! Anyway, I think I would have been able to manage the changing perspectives more easily — key when you read in snatches of time during breaks at work, before bed, etc. rather than sitting down to read for a long time — if I’d had the book in print.

Still, Girl, Woman, Other is excellent, and any issue with the multiple viewpoints was my own. The narrative brings these women’s very different stories and lives together, showing how, when, and why they intersect, and where they diverge. The connections grow as you read, so that eventually you get how they all relate to each other. Evaristo writes with warmth and humor and where she examines social issues she is both smart and compassionate. Even though this is fiction, I feel like I learned a good bit about modern British social history, or dusted off what I may have learned in college in some cases, and I appreciated that Evaristo wasn’t afraid to examine feminism’s evolution and divisions.

My favorite characters had slightly less air time than the others (or so it seemed to me): Dominique, because by the end of the book she is feeling a little irrelevant but still wants to keep learning (I can identify), Morgan, because she genuinely cares about her gran and because she is almost an accidental influencer but is trying to use that power well, and Hattie, because she just kicks ass and anyone who sees contemporary Christmas as “Greedymas” and embraces her nonbinary trans grandchild even though she admits she cannot fully wrap her 93 year old mind around “they” is my kind of lady.

The writing is lovely, and there are so many beautiful musings on parenthood — and how painful it is to love children — that killed me. Also so many gorgeous conversations.  And thoughts, like this one: “Bibi replied that dreaming wasn’t naive but essential for survival, dreaming was the equivalent of hoping on a large scale . . . .” Which is helpful, just now in this world. Also, the ending of this book, which brings a few of the characters together in a way I didn’t really anticipate but when it happened made complete sense, absolutely slayed me. I love a book that makes me laugh AND cry, teaches me to be a better human, and enlarges my world.

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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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