"Fallen Leaves" by Shirani Rajapakse

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In Shirani Rajapakse, the small and long-suffering island of Sri Lanka has its voice of reason, its staunch advocate for the local people shredded in the maw of bloody insurrection. Rajapakse, award-winning poet and writer, casts her tired eye and her energetic pen to the multiple civil wars - only concluding in 2009 - waged on her island. Fear and greed and loss and genocidal mania emerge as the main themes in these poems, and the reader is never relieved of them. This steady load of sorrow mirrors exactly Sri Lanka’s unending grief, and lends this collection its magisterial weight.

Ms Rajapakse sings of displaced peoples, of the haunted look in a grieving mother’s eye, of baked and ruined earth, of greed, hypocrisy, and the murderous folly of the powerful. The poet explores multifarious points of view to record the destruction: the bereaved mother, the wife for whom hope is fading, the child soldier dressed in belts of bullets, barely able to carry his weapon. Dogs and cattle too witness the destruction, and smell the arresting odor of blood soaking the dusty ground.

Striking also, is the thought-provoking measurement of distances: from the living to the remembered dead; from the place of death to where the bodies are discovered; from the midnight knock on the door to the first, exhausted glimmering of hope; how far refugees must walk to find safety; from reason to ghastly reality. These gulfs yawned for far too long for poor Sri Lanka; Ms Rajapakse attends to the work of bridging them.

The title “Fallen Leaves” refers chiefly to the dead: soldiers and civilians alike. In “Anuradhapura, the Sacred City,” after two elderly Buddhist monks are murdered by terrorists: “Bodhi leaves whispered / your last rites as the breeze / gently bore it down to you lying there / where once sat a man / a woman, a human on earth …” Falling leaves are introduced by this elegy, and the very next poem, “The Lonely Watch,” focuses on a lone soldier on guard, listening for footsteps in the leaf litter, and then: “Fallen leaves, fallen heroes / there was something poignant about it all / he mused as he cocked his gun at the sound of the wind / nudging the old leaf next to him …”

Such stark realities populate this series: baked by an angry sun, sorrowful, regretful at the folly of humanity. This moving collection will remain a scathing indictment of the Sri Lankan factions at the root of the chaos, and a bright highlight of Ms. Rajapakse’s career.

"A Vist from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

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Author Jennifer Egan puts into her characters’ consciousness a purported saying that time is a goon, and the rough treatment these denizens have at the hands of time makes up the plot of this novel. This story represents, in fact, one long, indiscriminate, and mostly rude visit from the goon which is time. We witness youngsters in the ‘80s punk world: they wear their partisanship like a safety pin piercing, swearing fealty to this band, that singer, the true-to-the-cause club they all go to. We encounter a varied cast, but at the center are Bennie and Sasha, the impresario/record producer and his assistant.

Egan presents her diverting cast as it careens from one crisis to the next - I try to part the thicket, and succeed only partially. Bennie and Sasha occupy central roles, as I said, and we get Bennie’s wife Stephanie and his unending series of mostly unidentified  paramours; Stephanie works for a PR executive who goes by the moniker La Doll, until an unmitigated disaster at a gala event forces her to change her name and join the soft underbelly of the publicist’s ilk. She even has her nine year-old daughter Lulu along when they witnesses a Latin American dictator fly into a rage and arrest an American film actress, who seems doomed to find an ignominious end.

The moral assumptions these characters make strike one with their callousness and calculation, although some characters swing well to the other end of the spectrum, a dizzying and unpredictable spectacle. Don’t look for a unified plot here. Look instead for sweep of time, for characters in the midst of crisis and resolution, and especially find dark humor and sharp observation of sketchy morals at work.

We bounce around in time, a little, but mostly time is the inexorable force mutating people’s appearance and approach to life, the insensate goon who pays everyone a visit everywhere. It’s hard to know whether to recommend this vivid but disjointed work. By all means pick it up if the ‘80s punk scene fascinates you; if outrageous and life-threatening scenes get your heart a-pumping; if watching the ravages and regrets from time’s irresistible march speaks deeply to you, this is the place to go. Otherwise, pass.

"A Box of Matches" by Nicholson Baker

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A Box of Matches stands as a brilliant example of the urge to write focused minutely on the quotidian. But author Nicholson Baker turns mundane activity into deep imaginative realms and far-fetched speculations: an inchoate blaze in a fireplace becomes a far-off corner of a violent universe; a burning Quaker Oats box becomes a coastal British fort. Such are the pathways of Baker’s mind and observations. And they prove once again that it’s not the subject matter that counts in fiction, it’s the way the subject matter is presented. For me, Baker has yet to disappoint. Far from it.

He greets us each morning with the time and sometimes adds an observation about the weather. It’s winter in the Northeast of the U.S., so cold and snow occupy the land and lives. And because cold is a factor, our narrator builds a fire in the fireplace each morning, and he uses a box of strike-anywhere matches during the course of the book. The business of this novel is the minutiae of daily life. But far from boring, Baker leavens his prose with not only thought-provoking observations, but takes journeys out over the town, the landscape, and the history of his area, to destinations philosophic and speculative.

I love Nicholson Baker’s work. He makes startling and original revelations about everyday objects and activities, and in his hands these ordinary things and events take on a mysticism, an inherently more meaningful and illuminative existence. A Box of Matches is no exception, and I urge you to take it up and be charmed with very little investment in time.

"Girl, Woman, Other" by Bernardine Evaristo

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I began to wonder, while reading “Girl, Woman, Other,” what would the concluding device or strategy be, that would lead to this novel winning the 2019 Booker Prize. I began to anticipate something memorable because the book follows the lives of its various characters in a casual way, expounding the history of each in telling detail and sympathy, and occasionally, almost as an afterthought, ties them to each other. So I began to wonder. At the conclusion of the novel, I found out.

These characters are in the main women of color who have immigrated to England from Africa either directly or with ancestry in the Caribbean. Author Bernardine Evaristo makes her salient point in each of the histories: she focuses her very sharp eye on the variety and degree of hardship and discrimination each has been made to feel. These hardships range from very unsubtle discrimination in ‘50s and ‘60s Britain all the way to gang rape. The character who has endured this rape goes on to amass a  fortune, taking her place among the City’s elite investment bankers.

Evaristo has an unerring eye for human nature and foibles, like all writers of good fiction. She presents her characters here with the full range of emotion and behavior, warts and all. She and we repeatedly shake our heads over their attitudes and actions. The narrative expands as we go, accreting more and more characters over time; Evaristo defers follow-up or conclusion until well after we become impatient for it. Notwithstanding the haphazard “guest appearance” of a few dramatis personae in someone else’s story, narrative streams run parallel, without substantive cross-pollenating, until the premier of an edgy theater production at the book’s conclusion.

So it is a rich book; it is full of characters and full of humanity and full of the plaintive, injured recriminations of the oppressed.

These strains and these characters all gather at book’s conclusion for the performance of a play written and produced by Amma, a principal character. The premier of the play, called “The Last Amazon of Dahomey,” is the loose reason for these disparate characters gather and interact, some of them for the first time in perhaps decades. But even beyond this, there is an even further meeting which you will have to read the book to experience.

“Girl, Woman, Other” proceeds in an unexpected, deceiving pace, and introduces us to a variety of glib, sassy women. These women love and aspire and fight and suffer and wax wise through four hundred breezy pages - until an offhand suggestion leads one woman in a completely unexpected direction with stunning, memorable results. It is a book-long buildup and denouement well worth your while.

"Dolly" by Anita Brookner

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A first-person narrator named Jane tells the story of her aunt Dolly in this novel of family uneven fortune and emotional manipulation. It features uniformly strong characterizations throughout, and proves once again Anita Brookner a pass master in the family arena. It proves Brookner’s mastery of all types of family dramas. 

Dolly, who comes of age during World War II, lives her life in a constant state of lack - she lacks love, she lacks the material means to live comfortably, and she certainly lacks any scruples about pointing out the difference between her circumstances and those of her late husband’s family. Her expectation that  family or loved ones will contribute to her economic well-being is the salient and constant feature of her personality. I consider the characterization of Dolly to be challenging, but brilliantly executed by Brookner. 

This pecuniary dependence colors everything in Dolly’s life, from the time she’s a little girl in Vienna. She marries Hugo, a fairly well-off Londoner, and extricates him from his mother’s clutches by having him take a job in Brussels. Brookner devotes quite a lot of narrative to the questionable, slightly creepy relationship between Hugo and his mother Etty, and the point, I think, is to develop Hugo’s wishy-washy character and his susceptibility to Dolly. Dolly and Hugo mow through Hugo’s money, and then Hugo dies unexpectedly. So Dolly returns to London, hoping Hugo’s family will take care of her, but she runs into a roadblock in Hugo’s mom.

Dolly’s dependence becomes a family heirloom; first she asks Hugo’s mother, then after her passing, she transfers her dependence to Henrietta, Hugo’s sister. Our narrator, Jane, is Henrietta’s daughter, and as Henrietta dies in her turn, Jane rebels against the apparent obligation to throw money at Dolly. But the rebellion doesn’t last.

Jane has a hard-to-credit epiphany about Dolly, and winds up setting Dolly up happily in a small London flat, surrounded by new and accepting friends.

Brookner concludes her novel with a discussion of feminist issues, which she brings up as Jane, a celebrated children’s author, gives lectures on Sleeping Beauty at a couple of American universities. There she is quizzed by women in academia on her position on various issues; the whole thing gives Jane pause … she can’t help but think about feminism against the backdrop of her experience with Dolly. Jane thinks of her as a “working woman,” highly adaptable, who made a career out of getting by.

In the end Jane acknowledges and agrees with her American friends’ views on feminine personhood, but can’t help hearing a voice, an offstage echo as it were, that asserts the old ineluctable questions, Will I be loved, will I be saved? She knows Dolly comes from a different epoch, another world in which support for women could not be relied upon. This last-minute consideration of modern feminist issues moves Jane to an even deeper understanding: she learns that love is unpredictable, that one may love someone for whom she has felt distaste, even detestation. Jane learns that love only unreliably attaches one to someone worthy.

I admire the inclusion of these discussions in modern gender politics at the end of Dolly. They bring Dolly’s struggles into deeper focus, and add a level of enjoyment and appreciation to the novel’s characters.

"Olive, Again" by Elizabeth Strout

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There is something uncanny about the way Elizabeth Strout portrays her famous and familiar protagonist, Olive Kitteridge. In its blunt exposition Strout’s treatment achieves both a subtle exposition of change and a blunt assessment of Olive’s warts and attractions. In fact, the only thing blunter than a pronouncement by plain-spoken Olive is Strout’s description of her through the months and years of her dotage. Through a magisterial tour of Olive’s latter years, we learn the need for honesty, particularly honesty with oneself; the interconnectedness of life in a small town; and the absolute need to stop anticipating what’s coming up and what’s already been, but to enjoy the moment at hand. The late days of Olive Kitteridge prove in Olive, Again just as readable,
just as revelatory, just as captivating as her earlier days in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

In this sequel we ultimately see Olive in a very telling, very surprising moment of self-knowledge, and the way Strout renders this moment in all its stunning inevitability, colored by Olive’s irascible personality, proves the author’s utter mastery. The cunning author lays out invisible groundwork for change in Olive and I just didn’t see it coming. Is it ever worth the wait!

As in the prequel, Strout illuminates the fraught, often desperately lonely lives of Crosby, Maine, in short independent stories. The characters have aged, naturally enough, as has Olive. With the exception of one eighth-grade girl who cleans houses, Crosby’s denizens come to light in the autumn of their lives. We are given by various means to understand these are difficult people, not very enlightened, nor exposed to much of what the world offers. Children who have grown have moved away and remained estranged. People who visit are mostly struck by the oddness and lack of polish of small-town Mainers.

No one is odder or less polished than Olive. Known throughout her life as one who would speak her mind openly and often rudely, Olive is still opinionated. As she has aged, what decorum she may have had has worn off, burnished by her clear sight and curmudgeonly nature. But something else happens here, something happens to Olive as she ages, something unexpected. If good fiction deals with changes and growth in characters, then this constitutes excellent fiction indeed. Somehow Strout has made growth and change in Olive - which readers would give about one chance in a million - appear inevitable. 

Fit this one into your schedule. Read both for the full treatment. They’re unforgettable. 

"The Rotters' Club" by Jonathan Coe

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In Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club we learn up close and personal about the perils and pitfalls of coming of age in 1970s Birmingham. We experience this through the lives of a small group of sixteen and seventeen year-olds Brummies: the loves (or crushes, really), the budding interests and careers, the divide between Tory and Labor - it’s all here. Adolescent drama, and some very adult issues too, leavened with a series of hysterical interludes involving these sympathetic characters - these are the constituent parts of Coe’s enjoyable fiction.

Ben Trotter, a Birmingham sixth-former, anchors these stories. A gentle, highly  intelligent soul, he reads widely of the classics, and has ambitions both literary and musical. His yearning for the far-off and inaccessible Cicely generates considerable energy in this narrative; it is a story that runs the length of the book, and has its own twists and turns. British socialist labor strife plays a large role, not only as backdrop, but as a prime mover and shaper of these young people’s lives. There is a divide here, too, perhaps more deeply marked in the pre-Thatcher Britain. Factory workers routinely go out on strike, reciting the principles of international socialism. And the teenagers fall to one side or the other, essentially as their families go.

I enjoyed the experience of reading The Rotters’ Club. Its characters tug at our feelings with a kind of partisan energy: kind vs. grasping, ambitious vs. rambunctious, idealistic vs. cynical. All through it, these young people and adults act and react with true human impulses, and Coe keeps us tethered with enough twists and turns to satisfy. At length, this does not measure up to The House of Sleep, my other exposure to Coe. Fun, gratifying, diverting, reflective of the zeitgeist of the moment, this book is passable reading, but it doesn’t strive for the stratosphere, which frankly, I expected from a novel by Coe.

"Hamartia" by Raquel Rich

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Hamartia (ham-ar-TEE-uh), n., tragic flaw, or spirit which moves a character to err, resulting in fear and pity in the part of an audience. In reference to this book, I do prefer, however, Joseph Brody’s assertion that it is a morally neutral term, meaning simply to fall short of an objective, or simply to miss the mark. In Raquel Rich’s novel, the second sense fits much more closely.

Rich’s novel deals with a future in which souls can be traced from individual to individual, and are allotted a finite number of reincarnations. When a soul ages to the point it can no longer reincarnate, the person which the soul occupies, no matter how physically old, dies. Grace, the lead character in Hamartia, wants desperately to save her son’s life, so she volunteers to leave her time in a future plagued by an iatrogenic Holocaust, travel back to the early 2000s to find her “soul mate,” and murder him in such a way that his soul can be harvested.

Within this framework, it’s hard to pin down all the moving parts. Grace time-travels with her onetime best friend, with whom she is forcibly re-allied. She carries a syringe with a fuzzily defined potion and homing chip. She keeps secrets from her fellow traveler, who in turn keeps secrets from her. They engage in old-fashioned skulduggery: are followed, threatened, nearly killed. Until they become enemies again.

This activity, energetic and sometimes frenetic, needs a solid foundation, so we know if we’re approaching the ends we want, or slipping away from them. Unfortunately, the author keeps us in the dark about what really is the best outcome at each step. The plot repeatedly twists and turns, certainly, but Grace and her friend Kay never quite gain enough of the reader’s sympathy to make it matter.

The plot is quick-paced, that’s for sure. The events occurring in the characters’ pasts - the early 2000s - form the bulk of the book, and the author takes shots at society’s wastefulness, among other obvious shortcomings. But otherwise, the faults weigh this novel down. We get a hurried, unclear grounding in the issues which necessitate the quest; the quest itself lacks focus; I found many of the characters confusing and poorly drawn. I’m sure the author designed fair amount of uncertainty. But where a point needs to be clear - like real objectives and real consequences - we encounter too often a lack of clarity.

I compliment the author’s wide-ranging vision; clearly this construct has potentialities galore. But the author adds too many facets to the story, which only diffuses and confuses the outcomes. There’s not enough energy behind any single one of them to truly drive the narrative to a rewarding conclusion.

"Happy Like This" by Ashley Wurzbacher

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They say asking questions is a lot more important and telling than providing answers. In her John Simmons Short Fiction Award-winning collection, Happy Like This, Ashley Wurzbacher absolutely shines at asking questions. These magnificent short pieces focus on young women getting started in their professions. Scientists, therapists, sociologists, frequently there are engaged in working on their dissertations - the final stamp of their qualification to proceed with their careers.

Much of the drama derives from the uncertainty these young people experience. It can have a paralyzing effect. How’s this for a question:

What’s the name for this part of our lives, this circling? A holding pattern, the pilot might say, but what for? When and where will we land, on whose orders, and will we still be holding on to each other when we touch down?” (from the title story, “Happy Like This.”)

OK, I admit that’s more like four questions, but it does reflect the constant uncertainty, the fugue of questioning these characters find themselves engaged it. Sometimes the uncertainty sneaks up on a character, shocking her into a new consciousness, a new life. In my very favorite story, “Happy Like That,” a woman learns a shocking new reality about her recently deceased best friend. Elaine and Lilian had become so very close, sharing major events in their lives - marriage, motherhood, a shared professional training - even to the extent of establishing a speech clinic where they both worked as therapists.

After Lilian’s sudden accidental death, Elaine clings to Lilian’s vestiges by agreeing to meet the lover Lilian had taken. When she learned about this other presence in Lilian’s life, Elaine judged her a bit harshly. When she finds out the whole truth about this lover, and the arrangement that included the lover and the lover’s wife both, Elaine is forced to review her judgment, and her place in her dear friend’s life. The fictive effect of making both characters speech therapists is one of those strokes that marks Ms. Wurzbacher as a master.

The issue of sexual attraction, and whether we will be drawn to one gender exclusively, comes up several times here. In “Fake Mermaid,” another favorite, a young woman poses as a mermaid, complete with an expensive custom-fitted ornate monofin and clamshell bra. She does birthday parties at swimming pools, but the interest and drama in this story flow from its background narrative. Main character Luna is delivered to her birthday party gig by Noah, her fiancé, where she suddenly finds that Shay, a woman with whom she had a tempestuous love affair in college, is one of the lesbian parents of the birthday girl.
In the salient memory from this affair, Luna jumps in a fit of pique into the ocean from a yacht. The story, dealt with in some detail, establishes depth and color to the mermaid conceit, and seeing Shay again at the party brings all the old desires back in a rush. Luna longs to simply swim away, to launch herself into the iron-gray Long Island Sound, but would need someone, Noah or Shay, to carry her to it. She couldn’t complete the trip on her own - she has no feet. This desire to remain in the fluid state of not making a decision captures the essence of this marvelous collection.

Other conundrums befuddle other characters. Some germinate at a very early age. In “American Moon” and “What It’s Like to Be Us,” girls of junior high age begin to battle with uncertainty and life’s emotional challenges. These uncertainties sometimes lead Ms. Wurzbacher’s characters to begin to assume someone else’s identity, or at least compare oneself to another, seemingly more attractive or accomplished person. This occurs very rewardingly in “Ripped” and “Make Yourself at Home.”
I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a series of short stories this much. Each entry has its own charm and individuality. That’s one of the most impressive aspects here - how such a broad emotional pallet could unite under this rubric of the need of directions, of answers in a universe that is a cruel combination of callous and mysterious.

A choice, rewarding collection. Take it up!

"The Bridge of Little Jeremy" by Indrajit Garai

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A physically weakened 12 year-old boy, an artist, a hero, and a very conscientious son, narrates his adventures from Paris, where he lives with his mom and his German Shepherd Leon. Little Jeremy might not be the biggest boy for his age, but his courage, determination, and thoughtfulness prove him worthy of love and admiration. This novel contains the straightforward telling, though Jeremy’s own words, of the tortuous journey of his conscience. It’s a remarkable, dreamy telling, without tricks of plot or temporality, showing us the perils and rewards of growing up with artistic talent and an abiding love for one’s mother.
Indrajit Garai has written the tale, and displays a close familiarity with the Île de la cité and the Île St Louis in Paris. It appears also that he wrote the story in English, since no translator is given credit. That likely led to the basic and unadorned, but sweet and heartfelt style of this narrative. I congratulate Mr. Garai on writing from the point of view of a twelve year-old artist: it works wonderfully throughout.
Little Jeremy has had several operations on his heart because of a faulty valve. This misfortune means that he does not attend school and can roam about his home neighborhood with Leon. Like any neighborhood, it has its perils, human and otherwise. A fair amount happens to Jeremy during the few months of this story; some of it makes him a celebrated hero for a time.
He attacks a tormentor of his mother, firing a damaging missile with a slingshot. He rescues a baby locked in a car; discovers a work of art secreted away in a basement; as he researches the artist he unearths a hidden past impinging on his own mother and her economic wellbeing. Bravely he juggles these vicissitudes, all the while keeping his mother’s, his friends’, and his dog’s best interests at heart.
I have mentioned this is a dream-like tale. Its language gently carries the reader along, while it shows Jeremy’s nature: he is giving, contemplative, and artistic. His thoughts range a wide variety of issues, always in a methodical and balanced way. Good things happen to Jeremy during this story, and these things affect his loved ones for the better.

If you are interested in the trials of a sensitive, artistic Parisian boy about to step into his teen years, The Bridge of Little Jeremy is definitely a rewarding journey.