"A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Tale for the Time Being will rivet you to the page. You will share in the lives - trials and triumphs, and cares and grievances, of two Japanese women. One - a teenage girl - has written a diary full of frightful bullying and soul searching; the other is a novelist afraid she is losing her memory, or worse, going mad. As these two heroines’ stories unfold in alternating streams, our clever author mixes in meditations on Zen Buddhism, Japanese imperial wartime excesses, the idea that ordinary people have superpowers, and the possibility we live in multiple universes at once. It’s a rich, heady mix, told in honest, understandable human emotion; Ms. Ozeki’s ineffable results match her lofty ambitions in this beautiful, multifarious novel. It was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

Naoko, or Nao, a young Japanese girl about to turn 16, starts keeping a diary. Somehow, about ten years later, a backpack containing it and some letters washes up on the shore of an island in British Columbia. Its discoverer, a novelist named Ruth, picks it up, starts to read it, and quickly feels a bond with this girl and her father, both of whom are beaten down by life. We read Nao’s heartbreaking story alongside Ruth, and drama unfolds in each strand. Nao struggles with cruel beatings and ostracization, her imminent failure in her classes, and beloved dad’s attempted suicides. Ruth relates very closely with Nao, and becomes concerned about her and her dad’s welfare, even though the diary was written ten years before.

These narratives sparkle with philosophical learning and outré possibility. Nao’s voice is pitch-perfect in her portion of the proceedings. But to her also belong the deepest thoughts on philosophical conundrums. She goes on a retreat to visit her great aunt Jiko, 104 year-old Buddhist nun, and finally begins to learn about life, the universe, selflessness, and mysticism. She considers these lessons in a child’s honest voice -  and this is one of Ms. Ozeki’s foremost achievements here: she places into this yearning, confused girl’s unsophisticated language the most challenging and most timeless human questions. What is life and death? How is a life to be lived? How can we most effectively serve others? Why is there so much cruelty in the world?

These considerations take us into the realms also of modern quantum physics; the author provides an appendix (one of several on various subjects) with a detailed explanation of Schrödinger’s cat, for example. And these speculations serve her plot - there’s nothing gratuitous about them. (There is also, as though anything more were needed, a reference to a brief flowering of literature and a liberalization of women’s rights in pre-imperial Japan; this book might also serve as an example of the I-book genre published at that time.)

All the layers, all the twists, all the philosophy, all the superpowers,the fascinating structure - these mix together into a work of genius. Prepare to open yourself to a new experience and take this piece up.

"Gold Fame Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Visionary and terrifying, all the moreso for being vivid and startlingly real, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus forces us to consider a world too ghastly to consider. And in that world the tendencies of humans become all too predictable, repeating the same behaviors that have plagued the race forever. This novel will focus your attention like very few others will. Its sweep and energy and horror all executed with sharp, assured artistry, it clearly fulfills the promise of Ms. Watkins’s earlier short story collection, Battleborn.

Far enough into a profligate, misguided future, no water exists in the western half of North America, and the United States has basically evacuated the land west of the Mississippi, and then written it off.  Our story begins in the lawless, desiccated waste of Los Angeles, where Ray and Luz try to make their way. They prop up each other’s inadequacies and forgive each other’s crippling histories, but then they do something they should never do - they take on another mouth to feed, a third thirst. A toddling, runty, tow-headed girl, perhaps a little developmentally challenged, very apparently needs rescuing, and so they snatch her away.

“Away” turns out to be the leading edge of a dune sea, a hellish, inexorable, mobile environmental disaster, thousands of feet high, feeding on and exacerbating the desert Southwest. The little one becomes a pawn eventually in a con game, run by the charismatic chief of a group of fugitive vagabonds, who are even further beyond the arm of the law or society. She is the one negotiable chip, this little waif, in a bold, perhaps maniacal power play between grownups who serve her very ill.

And here we arrive at the tenor of Gold Fame Citrus: people are ready to use you for their own ends, particularly if those ends center on self-preservation. Characters launch ill-conceived gambits, or engage in cynical bluffs, or manipulate their way to murky ends - all this against a dystopian backdrop that promises no more than certain, agonizing death. But to the great credit of our esteemed author, these designs continue to show venal, suspicious, or rapacious human nature in high relief. Ms. Watkins has constructed a wasted framework for this all-too-human theater, a combination powerful and effective. It’s superb, impressive work.

"I Curse the River of Time" by Per Petterson

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

 Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund with the author

In a shortish narrative that jumps around in time, Per Petterson relays the story of Arvid, a man in his mid-thirties who cannot get along with his mother. Emotions stay buried deeply in this story, and only surface when Arvid behaves badly.

We witness as Arvid, still in his teens, announces to his mother that he’s leaving college to join the worldwide proletariat as a member of the Communist Party. She slaps him. He travels to a lake with his girlfriend, and while they have fun, we don’t see her any more after this episode. And he hears the news that his mother is terminally ill, but can’t find the love inside required to be anything but a pest, forcing himself into her company as she travels from Oslo to Denmark to visit a home from long ago.

There isn’t much to recommend Arvid, and very likely this is the point. We get this first-person portrait of a very unsympathetic character; his desires and approach to life are rather childish; his wife is divorcing him, and there are mysterious

occurrences in the past concerning a couple of his brothers. This strikes as an example of viewing the world from the eyes of a problem child, a troublesome employee, an adult man who in some ways has failed to launch. It’s effective in that way, but the string that should pull this narrative taut and lift it off the surface in my view stays slack and accomplishes nothing.

Per Petterson is admired for his other work, and I have probably latched on to something lesser here.

"Dodgers" by Bill Beverly

Sunday, December 27, 2015

From ancient epics to acknowledged Great American Novels, narrative artists have used physical travel as a metaphor for the inward journey of protagonists; one could cite a thousand examples and just scratch the surface. During these treks the character comes to know herself or himself, and these insights, combined with the reader’s own, show the narrative off, burnishing it with its highest artistic achievements.  In Dodgers Bill Beverly manages a stunningly effective and inevitable transformation for his hero Easton, a teenage gang banger nicknamed “East.” It is fraught with danger, full of emotional intrigue, and compulsively readable: superb.

Fin, at the top of the drug-dealing hierarchy in which East is a foot soldier, sends him and three other gang members on a car trip from L.A. to Wisconsin on gang business of a treacherous and dangerous kind.  As the boys, the oldest of whom is 21, and the youngest13, make their way, there is first a falling-out that makes East, at 15, a co-leader. After they carry out their mission, and rather overdo it in the process, the group finally splinters and East finds himself out on the lam alone.

Mr. Beverly tells these events in gritty and realistic detail. The language he places into his troop’s mouths is pitch-perfect, as are their motivations from beginning to end. In East, he renders a masterful portrait, a young man not as rabid nor filled with blood lust as his homeys. His native intelligence and industry stand him eventually in good stead, after he finds anonymous work (along with acceptance and respect) in America’s hinterlands. We root like crazy for East, watch as his talent and hard work raise him up a little; we worry along with him about whether his past will finally betray him.

I promise: perfect pacing; outstanding, memorable dialog; vivid characterization; sympathetic portraiture; very effective descriptions of place; and a lovely, reverberant treatment where plot serves theme, and author leaves the reader in wonder. Unreservedly, I recommend this. It melds the loftiest of purposes with the grittiest and meanest of situations. Take it up!

"We've Already Gone this Far" by Patrick Dacey

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

There is a story in Patrick Dacey’s collection We’ve Already Gone this Far called “Acts of Love.” A down-and-outer encounters another in the cheap motel where he’s gone to live, having been thrown out by his wife. I’ll quote:

"He looked like a large child who, after threatening his parents for so many weeks that he was going to run away, had finally done so but now had gone too far and was looking for way back home.”

If you want a thesis statement for this collection, that will do nicely.

Dacey’s characters find themselves in new and precarious positions: a husband who has lost his wife’s affection has traveled far from home to make love to a yoga instructor he knew in high school. A young man snaps out of his extended adolescence long enough to help a neighbor, who happens to be his former football coach from high school. A woman gives in to her mania for plastic surgery and goes on TV to do “before and after” for a daytime talk show.

These people all share a painful separation from their lives as they once knew them, or thought they knew them. These are fictions of hurt or hurtful people, looking on at their lives as though from the outside. They don’t deal well with others, especially if they’re intimately close to them. And the writing features brilliant strokes, like when the woman doing her radical makeover recognizes that her doctor is actually quite handsome, even with his pockmarked face. Sometimes we encounter a spark of humanity: a fearful, manipulative woman knows what a burden she’s taking on when she returns to her aged old flame to comfort his last years, or the aforementioned onetime football player buries his old resentments toward his coach and acts kindly toward him.

Mr. Dacey varies his subject, but the perfection of his treatment of human doubt and frailty, and confusion and fear, never flags for a moment. The great strength of this collection lies in this consistency.  These characters’ lives flash before us in perfect illumination: their hopes and despairs and desperate gambits ring perfectly true each time.

These stories are uniformly excellent.

"Enigma" by C. F. Bentley

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Enigma is the second in a series of outer space adventures from C.F. Bentley. Called the “Confederated Star Systems” series, this second entry continues the story of General Jake and a high priestess named Sissy as they struggle to maintain peace talks going on between would-be allies as war rages elsewhere.

The story cannot be faulted for not achieving its ambition, because its aim is very  simple: serve up some mild action in an innocuous setting. Not much more need be said.

 We encounter space-borne intrigue (in the form of sparring diplomats), a small bouquet of non-human races, a murder mystery, and ghosts who haunt you during the jump to hyper space. General Jake does his all to save his station, the First Contact Café. Sissy helps him whenever and however she can, because they’re on the same side, and falling into a forbidden love. You can’t really say mayhem ensues because whenever it seems like an actual battle might occur, the narrative sidesteps it and focuses on a different matter.

This book consistently serves up the bewildering sensation of unresolved conflicts that end up not being conflicts at all. It lacks any attempt to get to the kind of philosophical issues that we read modern novels to get a taste of. This is a reasonably entertaining Young Adult book, which may depend on being part of a series to accrete any weight. It is not a series I will be taking up.

"The Little Paris Bookshop" by Nina George

Friday, October 30, 2015

Translated from the German by Simon Pare

One thinks of Hawthorne’s dictum about a book that takes the name of “Romance.” The definition of his day (please don’t think of modern-day bodice-busters) held that a Romance could play faster and looser with facts and with fictional effects than could the more demanding Novel, in which characters and events would have to conform to a more exacting standard. At the outset of The Little Paris Bookshop author Nina George introduces us to Jean Perdu (yes, John Lost). He has grieved for the last twenty years that the love of his life has left him.

He has abjured all female companionship, stayed out of the social and cultural whirl from the age of 30 to the age of 50, content the entire time to operate his floating bookshop at its mooring in the Seine. Ms. George goes to considerable lengths to establish that this was a love for the ages, and that M. Perdu’s protracted pain is a rational reaction, given his temperament. We don’t really have to get too used to these ideas because early on, Jean’s entire world comes crashing in on him, and he takes off, like Huck Finn, and starts to ride the river -  his life and his heart are undergoing wrenching change.

This is an intriguing and elegant stroke for the author: the charms, the happy diversions, and the good turns we yearn for for Jean commence when Jean’s odyssey commences. This very artful device carries us onward; the vivid descriptions of sunsets, emotional breakthroughs, charming company, and riveting French countryside form a rare and lovely reward for the reader.

And … as the narrative curves toward its anticipated resolution, it begins to sink into some overwrought emotional scenes.
These are not out of place; they don’t force the reader into any new or unwarranted territory. It’s only that the spigot is open too fully, particularly in the scenes between Jean and Luc, his former lover’s husband. Other descriptions, however, remain at an understated level.

Between the 20% mark and maybe the 90% mark, this book boasts lovely scenes, richly described and beautifully paced, of a man’s re-blossoming into the world of the living. His physical and symbolic journey along a series of French rivers and canals rewards the reader again and again. I would only wish for the tiniest bit of restraint as Jean faces - and tearfully handles - his ultimate emotional roadblocks. If you’re hankering for a moderately paced emotional reawakening for a sensitive, sympathetic man, this entry definitely will fill the bill.

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

It appears this soul-sucking story had more legs and arms and disposable bodies than David Mitchell could get rid of in The Bone Clocks. This piece comes to us as the mantissa to Mitchell’s acclaimed novel published earlier this year. It’s come out just in time for Halloween, and it’s yet another highly professional set of pyrotechnics.

The author revisits Dr Marinus from Bone Clocks, and this time she carries out her vigilante justice against the Grayer twins, who have lived for 120 years or so … These are spooky tales with spooky effects, always carried off with assurance to spare, but I begin to wonder if Mr. Mitchell is approaching something a little deeper, about our fear of death and longing for immortality. But these companion-pieces seem too dependent on fun special effects and thrilling plot twists to try to pin anything more on them. He has always sailed very close to a current of fairness and moral behavior - see Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - and this pint-and-half pint of stories has the same slant.

I liked Slade House. Its closeups of characters before they’re dispatched have great verisimilitude to lives lived and emotions suffered, and the spooky effects are pulled off well. This book does feature a badass hero giving the normal comeuppance to a couple of dirtbags; the whole amounts to an exercise in waiting for this payoff. I expect Mr. Mitchell’s next effort will be on new topics, with new characters (well, maybe not all new), and different metaphysics.

"Daughter of Fortune" by Isabel Allende

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

In Daughter of Fortune Isabel Allende has crafted an epic novel of change. Many, if not most, novels feature change in their characters, but in Daughter everything changes: the main characters, the principal mode of oceangoing transportation, the United States, San Francisco, science, the press - you name it. This full, diverting novel is a paroxysm of change.

And where better to set such fiction than in Gold Rush California, a setting and metaphor for wrenching alteration if there ever was one? The prime and preeminent change occurs in fifteen year-old Eliza Summers in Valparaiso, a small, stultifying port on the Chilean coast. The year is 1847, and Eliza has just been stunned into rapture by the existence of Joaquin, her uncle’s employee, when he supervises delivery of goods to her home. This captivated glance evolves into a clandestine affair and Eliza ends up stowed away on a sailing ship - to the Gold Rush in California - as she chases after her errant lover. It nearly costs her her life.

Ms. Allende has skillfully put together a highly enjoyable epic of historical California. It’s a pastiche in which many of the epoch’s stock characters make an appearance: the heavyset madam with the heart of gold; the upstanding Quaker blacksmith who falls for a “soiled dove”; the yellow press journalist who deals more in fiction than fact. But the pastiche forms a mere backdrop for the drama unfolding in the lives of the two highly sympathetic main characters, Eliza and her friend, Tao Chi’en. That, and the human face she effectively places on the
legendary Gold Rush. In Daughter of Fortune the racism, genocide, greed run amok, frontier “justice,” excessive and grasping paranoia, all get a full treatment. Then, the inexorable change to more reliable wealth -  mercantilism, the professions, construction, and the sometimes deceiving trappings of civilization find their way into this nuanced and encyclopedic work.

Extra praise belongs to Ms. Allende’s conclusion. She sets every necessary trend and direction into place, and simply lets us imagine it. This is lovely, sweeping, and balanced - a unique and highly recommended combination.

"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Given its theme and aims, The Souls of Black Folk has the potential to polarize its readership. There are those who would pooh pooh its weight and relevancy, but for me Du Bois propounds his theses with honesty and just the right level of plaintiveness to convey his message quite effectively. It is just these virtues that have made this important book part of the academic and social canon of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

And this is no dry academic tome. Du Bois mixes personal anecdote with his social scientist’s discerning eye to produce a very informative history of Negroes in America, slave and free, and a heartfelt polemic for equality. Du Bois’s language has a formal stateliness to it which never flags. He remains uniformly honest about the sometimes self-inflicted problems of blacks in America, but is convincing about the source of the problems, and the ways in which blunders and maliciousness in the wake of Emancipation have exacerbated them.

This book surprised me with its highly personal combination of careful research and homespun look at social trends. The personal also encompasses Du Bois’s own life: we encounter him as a young teacher and parent, as a highly respected educator, and as an early appreciator of that singular contribution of African Americans - their music. As literary output, this piece deserves its eminent status in American social letters. It deals directly and honestly with racial prejudice, serves as a central and important source on the history of race relations in America, and exhorts its audience to consider the state of relations and how it can be cured. It’s necessary reading for any person interested in the subject in America.

"Thirteen Ways of Looking" by Colum McCann

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The highly talented and National Book Award-winning author Colum McCann offers four shorter pieces in Thirteen Ways of Looking; they are varied and vivid, captivating and thought-provoking. Its memorable characters include a retired judge trying to fathom the self-absorbed boor who is his son; a lonely Marine stuck on a mountainside in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve; a single mother of an adopted son who neither hears nor speaks; and an aged nun jolted into reliving days of torture from decades before.

These stories bear the McCann stamp: their characters’ inner voyages convince and compel. We encounter events - either violent, pathetic, or simply recognizably human - which push lives into new directions. Characters frequently don’t welcome these directions, as occurs to many of us in life, but in McCann’s hands we feel their inevitability and sympathize with the anguish they produce.

In the title piece, we join in an elderly retired judge’s consciousness as he wakes one winter morning in his Manhattan apartment. His mind rambles in and out of different compartments: pop culture, with its song lyrics and puns; the various indignities of dotage, particularly the horror of being put in a diaper while asleep; the charms of his Caribbean live-in nurse; the ache of missing his dearly departed wife. His luncheon at a local restaurant with his son, a funds trader at a large downtown firm, taints him unfortunately with a stain from his son’s sordid life, with catastrophic results. Besides the utterly convincing stream of the old judge’s thoughts, this story also features excellent shifts in point of view, as we meet homicide detectives while they review video footage.

A dark solitude and linearity distinguishes “What Time is it Now, Where You Are?” A woman in the Marine Corps holds a lonely New Year's Eve vigil on a freezing mountain in Afghanistan, after encouraging the rest of her platoon celebrate at the base without her. She counts down to the moment when she will put her satellite call to her partner back in South Carolina. This piece is almost a metafiction. McCann asks us to imagine a writer who, working against a deadline, tries to piece together a holiday story. He writes about writing the story, and gradually, this vivid and chilling scene forms. The voice in which he composes, the way in which he places himself inside the narrative, is unlike anything I have seen. That, and the tenuous stretched-out distances of the piece - calls to far-off continents, the possibility of a sniper’s laser light and bullet finding her in the utter darkness - make this story an awe-inspiring, multilayered treat.

In “Sh’Khol” a single mother spends a panicked few days while the authorities search in their plodding, inexorable way for her missing adopted son. The story serves to bring out her feelings of inadequacy, about which her ex-husband helps her not at all. The young man is ultimately the focus, as his experiences become clear to Mom after his return. Youthful dismay at the maturing process becomes especially pronounced in one who can neither hear nor speak.

“Treaty” is a work of understated brilliance. An aged nun is shocked into a downward spiral when she unexpectedly sees her onetime tormentor in the news on TV - he is the South American man who imprisoned and tortured her decades before. For an old woman on the downward slope to her life’s end, she finds an extraordinary strength and resourcefulness and confronts this slime from her past, traveling from Long Island to London, and hunting her quarry like an accomplished detective. The scene of their confrontation, a few remarkable and quiet minutes in a coffee shop on a London street corner, is stunning - we cheer for our tired but triumphant nun, and even further for her understanding with the shop owner as she gets ready to leave.

These stories reinforce my opinion of Mr. McCann. Since 2009’s Let the Great World Spin, I’ve thought him one of the very best plying his trade today. By all means, pick up and savor these stories.

"The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell

Saturday, September 19, 2015

We meet lovely Holly Sykes in 1984 as a rebellious 15 year-old in Gravesend, a town in Kent fronting on the Thames. By novel’s end, she’s in her 70s, living in Ireland, with every reason in the world to be frantic and worried. The Bone Clocks centers on Holly and her adventure among some exceedingly unusual humans - humans who travel in time, have psychic and psycho-kinetic powers, and who cheat death for centuries.

Holly provides the focus, but author David Mitchell provides the pyrotechnics. He populates his novel with two opposing camps of warriors. One side “decants” human souls to renew their own life forces, while the other side tries to save people from this ugly fate. Holly is a marginal soldier in this war, because she was psychic as a child, and because one of the villains once loved her. She plays a critical role in the climactic battle, using a comically old-fashioned weapon in a psycho-battle royal among super-beings. You have to read it.

This author plays so stylishly, and fills our consciousness with such outlandish issues, that he continues to be a favorite. He does a very thorough job of setting up the conflict that we know is coming, and Holly’s everywoman role provides the reader a portal through which to witness this startling and vivid fight. Because of all this, I’m disappointed with the post-battle sequence, where Holly’s and her family’s history is wrapped up and we learn what happened to her ancient ally (but not her onetime lover). It’s set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in the 2040s and Holly’s struggles see their final battle. Mitchell uses this framework not only to necessitate the book’s final conflict, but also, it seems to me, to wag his finger at the naughty modern world for its profligate and polluting ways.

This detracts from the book’s other delights. It feels tacked-on, a disjointed attempt to wrap up the story’s loose ends. As much as I agree with his sentiments, this seems a heavy-handed and unworthy try. The book is overlong as well - it could have done without the section on the lonely writer’s life altogether.

I do recommend this book, however, but with something less than my usual ardency where David Mitchell is concerned. I recommend it for its flight of fancy, which Mitchell handles at least as well anybody out there. His fantasy concepts and executions are second to none I have encountered. This book, however, could have big chunks excised and be much better.

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