"City of the Sun" by Juliana Maio

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Author Juliana Maio presents us in City of the Sun with a gratifying bit of what Alan Furst calls “near history.” With vivid, urgent scenes of World War II Cairo, Ms. Maio portrays the struggle of the Jews in that city in the early days of the war. She lays over this a reasonably effective romance, which serves as the centerpiece to this novel, and the whole works rather well.

Maya Blumenthal, her father, and her brother Erik have fled Paris in 1941, having first flown from Nazi Germany before that. Cairo is an unusual refuge for displaced Jews at the time, many of whom at this point wind up in Britain. But the Blumenthals have relations in Cairo, and it is at least a good temporary shelter. But Erik isn’t just another Jewish refugee. He’s an advanced physicist whose latest paper has drawn the attention of the Americans and the Germans. Both want his expertise for their weapons programs. Enter Mickey Connolly, a brash American journalist who in the course of things is recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan into espionage, specifically the “acquisition” of young Erik Blumenthal.

Ms. Maio’s makes it her mission here to educate her readers about wartime Cairo and its pivotal role in the changed and changing Middle East. This she does through conversations of people in the know and official pronouncements and events, and she does it superbly. It was a great education for me – I had never been exposed to the history before, in spite of my own father’s service in the Army Air Corps at the time. She spices up the telling with two sure bets, an espionage thriller and a romance. And, surprisingly, she handles both with assurance, delivering believability and a couple of really magic scenes.

This is a highly diverting and educating piece, and I recommend it. It’s solid history delivered with  multi-faceted appeal.

"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Try to inhabit the no-man’s-land of North Korea in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son without feeling an eerie gray mood take you over. Use it as an aid to perspective, when you consider the modern ills in your own home country. For Mr. Johnson has distilled the pain and degradation inflicted on North Koreans into his protagonist, an orphan who is not an orphan.

And any consideration of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book must start and end with the main character – a man who cannot even claim his own name. Mr. Johnson shows that orphans must take their names from one of the “heroes of the revolution.” As a young boy our protagonist receives the name of a state hero who committed suicide rather than let any wartime suspicion fall on him. Even though he really does have a father, he is treated as an orphan – despised and mistreated, and given all the worst, most dangerous jobs. He thus captures the whole of North Korean society.

The events of this novel illuminate the perverse and paranoid customs, particularly the caprices of the so-called criminal justice system, of this isolated country. The first two thirds feel episodic, until fate draws our hero into the life of a celebrity actress, a favorite of the dictator’s, and the story gains some clarity and momentum. The man comes to love her, and works assiduously for her safety and security. Doing that comes at tremendous cost, as the hero knows full well. Anyone wanting to escape North Korea must leave no family or
friends or associates or acquaintances behind for the state to punish, and this complicates things for everyone.

The author further complicates things by telling the last part of his story in a fluid chronology – we bounce back and forth between two periods, one after the hero is arrested the final time and one before. This strategy creates a tension in the reader – it makes her anxious to learn the fates of the main characters, and Mr. Johnson conditions us not to expect the best.

While this book has much to recommend it, it was a tough slog for me, because of the subject matter and setting. It’s a deserving Pulitzer winner, for two features: Mr. Johnson’s daring and unorthodox handling of his plot, and for his creation of a splendid, memorable hero, in whom he instills a suffering country’s best characteristics and best hopes.

"Snow in May" by Kseniya Melnik

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Snow in May captures in its title the exotic nature of this engaging short story collection by new writer Kseniya Melnik. Ms. Melnik, having lived some of her life in Alaska, and now residing in El Paso, sets her stories in her native Magadan, a Russian city on the Sea of Okhotsk, the section of the Pacific Ocean that borders northeastern Russia. Many of these stories have the flavor of memoir, since they give insight into the deep chasm between Russian folk culture and modern American interest in money, fads, and oneself.

As often happens with recent story collections, one can categorize them by subject matter. Many of the stories here deal with Soviet era economics and politics, with its long queues for everything from shows to fruit to bus rides, and the omnipresent secret police with its network of informants. Other stories deal very frankly with the baffling and intimidating encounters when leaving Russia’s far east for America. These stories give the reader new understanding of these transitions and new reminders of Russian character – in these functions, these tales excel.

The collection’s opening piece, Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas, a married Russian woman visiting Moscow on business must decide between a tempting proposition from a handsome Italian footballer and the rare opportunity get in line and buy bananas. This story is funny, endearing, balanced, and wise to the world. It’s set in 1975 which adds Soviet bloc weight to the bifurcating choice, but could really be set anywhere in any era. The gem of these stories is The Uncatchable Avengers, whose grade-school protagonist flubs several takes for TV, when trying to play a short Tchaikovsky piece for piano he knows well. He’s considered gifted, but can’t keep his focus, because he keeps thinking of the two-man gang he and his best friend had formed just the day before, the Uncatchable Avengers, based on a TV show. He dreams of finding clues to murders, and fighting gangs of thugs, and so he can’t play his simple piece. The drastic tactic his piano teacher finally employs to get him focused
leads to his flawless playing; a jubilant 9-year-old running outside afterward in the miraculous event of a May snowfall; and a highly gratified, smiling reader, smarting with the sweet sting delivered by effective, reverberant fiction.

Other stories record the divide between the East and West, between husband and wife, and between generations. Our author highlights characters faced with very human issues, and treats them with respect and compassion. This writer has gifts, and a unique background, and I anticipate liking whatever she produces in the future.

"Ruby" by Cynthia Bond

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Stuck between various versions of hell on earth, the eponymous Ruby of Cynthia Bond’s novel is victimized shockingly early in life by the adult men and women of her world, and driven mad. Ruby the novel overflows with evil voodoo spirits, and by Christian women who compete with each other in self-righteousness.

In a backwater colored township (the author’s description) in East Texas, a beleaguering series of vicious men and women subject Ruby to every depredation: she’s sold into prostitution incredibly young, taught to expect that rape and abuse are her just due. This perverts her into something with no sense of self, other than an automaton who divorces her emotions from her life. Small wonder. It’s also no surprise that Ruby develops a schizophrenic belief in ghost children – dozens, maybe hundreds of them, which apparently correspond to injuries and disappointments in her hellish life.

The author makes the ongoing point about ordinary men being potential rapists when caught under certain influences, and in one pivotal scene puts a crowd of them under a kind of possessive black-magic trance, but most of the men
who take advantage of and abuse Ruby are clear-eyed enough. Ms. Bond introduces Ephram, the only man in the world who wishes Ruby well, and the Christians and evil haints do battle for his and Ruby’s souls.

As an emblem and reminder of what horrid lives victimized women and boys lead, this book succeeds with a somewhat unartful repetition, with some scenes quite effective. As a study in human emotion and a traumatized person’s attempt to cope with a nightmare existence, this story feels arbitrary and forced together, with responses not fully warranted by events, even supernatural events.

Not recommended.

"On Such a Full Sea" by Chang-Rae Lee

Friday, February 28, 2014

Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea poses a unique set of challenges: the lead character embodies a spark of hope in the middle of a post-nuclear apocalypse, but the author gives us only the very vaguest idea of her outcome. And throughout this magisterial and beautiful novel, we must adjust to our own place in it, as in very few other books. Full Sea haunts just as it instructs; makes us dwell on love and family just as it cautions us about approaching terrors.

In a postwar future where contaminated ground and water and air teem with carcinogens, and nearly everyone is saddled with the “C-curse,” a slight young girl (16, but passing for 12) leaves the relative safety of a coastal stronghold and goes on a quest. She seeks her 19 year-old charismatic sweetheart who was taken from her, presumably by the authorities (an amorphous body called “the directorate”). We never learn the reason for this detention, although he may have been made into a lab specimen, because he’s purportedly tumor-free. 

And throughout, the author employs a unique narrating tone. It’s as though a whole town has agreed to relate its story, and herein submits the definitive version of its vitally important, identity-defining tale. And the story it tells! The town, a village, really, is fully aware of this girl and her beau, and rises up in its subdued way, to commemorate and defend the couple, and finally starts to examine itself, and the citizens suddenly comprehend a completely different universe of possibilities for themselves. Simply because a quiet girl ventures out into a lethal world, looking for answers, looking for love.

Mr. Lee shows us what a post-nuclear war future would look and feel like, and we are unavoidably reminded of our stratified Western world of today. And what of our careful, unassuming, driven young heroine? What lessons can she tell us? That’s the
multilayered beauty: the author presents this fresh paragon of hope, who always behaves graciously no matter the circumstances, an apparently immature and unremarkable girl who could in fact carry the future on the race with her as she travels.

I don’t usually enjoy stories set in future dystopias. But Mr. Lee’s fable turns a mirror to our own time so effectively, and with such gracious language and consideration for the reader, that On Such a Full Sea perches perfectly on a high branch, giving us a vessel and an example for our hope, its cautionary message delivered obliquely, but unmistakably. Chang-Rae Lee has come out with a masterpiece.

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