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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

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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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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The Computer Scientist and I just went on a vacation to Zion National Park and on planes and buses and in the evenings when we were not hiking I read five books. This is my idea of a quality vacation — lots of reading time and lots of time outdoors in the sunshine with my favorite hiking (and life) partner.

What did I read. Well, I did something that for me is not ideal, but made sense given our desire to travel light and carry our bags: I downloaded seven library books. I read:

Spring by Ali Smith — possibly my favorite of the seasons quartet so far. What a book! It manages to be completely about right now, and completely about every time we’ve ever failed each other as human beings. And the language! Listen to this: “The air lifts. It’s the scent of commencement, initiation, threshold. The air lets you know quite ceremonially that something has changed.” Is that spring in two sentences, or what? The story is both heart wrenchingly realistic, in describing the beautiful and wrenching story of a longtime friendship and creative partnership that ends when one of the partners dies and the way working in an internment center changes people, and eerily mythical, in describing the improbable, hopeful story of a little girl who manages to very nearly pull off a miracle through sheer force of will, magnetism, and perhaps, a touch of the supernatural. And the ending just breaks, breaks, breaks your heart. An incredible read.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman — I’d heard so much about this, and was happy to finally read it. Eleanor, too, will both make you smile (maybe even laugh) and break your heart. I was prepared to think the story a bit hokey — a kind coworker turns around the life of an eccentric loner? But it turns out Eleanor is not just some eccentric, but a person much like people you may actually know and work with. And the kind coworker is also a whole person, with faults and quirks even if he has a heart and isn’t afraid to show it. Same for the supporting characters, who are marvelously three dimensional, even the ones with bit parts. A lovely book which will make you remember that every person has a story you may not know, and all of us need a genuine person or two in our lives. And that we all have the capacity to be that genuine person to someone. Although perhaps my favorite part of Eleanor’s transformation is when her friend brings her an abandoned and mistreated cat who immediately makes known her strong views, and Eleanor thinks, “A woman who knew her own mind and scorned the conventions of polite society. We were going to get along just fine.”

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo — I don’t seek out heartbreak in my reading, I swear. But again, what a story. Set in Nigeria, this is the story of a couple who are living with infertility in a culture that values having many children, and that expects a man whose wife does not bear him a son, or at least a daughter, to take a second wife. Yejide is college educated and tells her husband, Akin, before they are even married that she will not be part of a polygamous family. He agrees. But the pressure from family mounts as time passes and she does not get pregnant. Adebayo explores what might happen when a man is faced with trying to please his family and the woman he loves. But when they finally do become parents, it is Yejide’s turn to find herself challenged by the fierce desire to protect both her children and her own heart. I did not see the ending coming, although in retrospect, I should have.  A passage that has stayed with me: “The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone.”

Mitz by Sigrid Nunez — This is a novelization of a true slice of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s life in the late 1930s. Friends of theirs had an ailing marmoset, who had been in a junk shop window when the man saw her and bought her to remove her from the indignity of that existence. When the Woolfs met the poor marmoset, Mitz, she took to Leonard immediately. Shortly after, the Woolfs took Mitz in while her family traveled and Leonard nursed her back to health (he apparently visited the London zoo for advice on marmoset care). Nunez used letters, diaries, and biographies to sketch the few years of Mitz’s life in the Woolf home, and manages to also give us a peek at one of the most famous and fruitful of literary marriages. I knew little about Leonard Woolf and only the main details of Virginia Woolf’s life and death. I didn’t realize how much the Woolfs relied on each other and how many tragedies they had survived (like so many people of their times). I don’t usually go for fictional accounts of real people but I couldn’t resist the idea of a marmoset’s witness to literary history. It was entertaining, and left me interested in reading more of Nunez’s acclaimed work.

No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts — Author Powell Watts says of this novel, “Imagine The Great Gatsby set in rural North Carolina, nine decades later, with desperate black people.” She doesn’t follow Gatsby exactly, but instead imagines her Jay (JJ) returning home a well off and successful man, to build a beautiful home high above the town he came to as a traumatized teen, and where he hopes to reconnect with Ava, who he has thought of all the years he traveled and worked elsewhere. Ava is not married to a rich man but to Henry, a factory worker. While Ava and Henry are making it in the precarious middle class, they are dealing with infertility, and they are barely separated from the poverty that their parents and grandparents struggled against. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, is a strong figure central to all of the storylines — of her and her daughter’s marriages, of the extended family, of the town in North Carolina where they live, of our times. She is a practical woman, and dispenses what she believes is sensible advice. But Powell Watts notes, “You get old, but the dreams remain spry and vigorous. Swat them and they come back like gnats, like plague. You can’t kill them, they can’t die.” Sylvia, it turns out, dreams as much as any of the young people about what could be, even as she declares they should live in reality.  A book that exposes the fragility of being human, but also shines a light on a number of hard truths about race, poverty, privilege in America.

All five are good reads, well written, thought provoking, the kind of books that work their way into your thoughts days later.

 

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A couple of years ago I spied The Comforters at a coffee and book shop in Maine and remembered how much I liked A Far Cry from KensingtonWhen I was looking for a quick read for the holiday season, I saw it on my shelf and decided to give this book, Muriel Spark‘s debut novel, a read. It was just the thing for this busy time, short and satisfying.

It was interesting to read so recently after The Life You Save May Be Your Own because Spark was a Catholic convert and Catholicism features heavily in The Comforters. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer working on book about the novel form. She’s a recent convert and has decided to put her relationship with Laurence, a BBC football commentator and heir to a canned fig company, on hold until he returns to the faith, although they remain friends.

When the novel opens, Laurence writes to Caroline from his grandmother Louisa’s home to tell her he thinks Louisa is in a gang. Caroline is on a retreat and is driven away by the odious Mrs. Hogg, a former servant for Laurence’s family and a very nosy and unpleasant woman. Mrs. Hogg decides to read the letter, rather than just forwarding it on to Caroline. In the mean time, Laurence and Caroline try to get to the bottom of what Louisa is up to, and Caroline is visited by a ghostly narrator whose typewriter only she can hear.

Caroline, crazily enough, feels sure this means they are all in a novel. She comes to view herself as superfluous to the plot — the mystery surrounding Louisa, Mrs. Hogg, Mrs. Hogg’s estranged husband Mr. Hogarth, and their crippled son, Andrew, as well as a friend of Caroline’s and Laurences, known as the Baron, Laurence’s mother Helena, and his Uncle Ernest, who, in good English novel fashion, happens to be in business with Caroline’s college friend Eleanor, who has been involved romantically with both the Baron and Mr. Hogarth. But in the end it turns out, Caroline is really key to the whole story.

Confused? I was from time to time, but it all became clearer as I took more time to read — it’s not a book you can pick up for a few pages a night before bed, unless you want to spend time backtracking to figure out who is doing what and how they know each other again. However, once I gave it proper attention, The Comforters was hilarious in a dry, and pretty dark way — there is a crime at the center of the story, plus some injuries, a death, and at least one of the characters may or may not be involved in diabolism (I had to look it up, too — devil worship). The supernatural aspect worked for me because it seems like a nod to the creative process — why wouldn’t writers possibly be visited by voices, and aren’t they, even if most of the time they don’t literally hear them out loud?

A delightful read, a little wacky and fun but also a novel that talks addresses women’s roles in society, creativity, religious practices, morality, and relationships. A book club could have fun with this one.

 

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