"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

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Chinua Achebe weaves a tale of change in his native Nigeria in his classic Things Fall Apart (1958). He steeps the reader in the Ibo culture of seasons, society, and gods, as we follow the life of the important villager Okonkwo and his family. Change from this incumbent culture comes in the form of British missionaries who ride bicycles, and who bring a message that will disrupt and eventually destroy a way of life and belief. Aside from its ground-breaking setting, this novel’s brilliance lies in its unerring depiction of human nature, and the havoc wreaked on lives when cultures clash.

Achebe harkens us back to the Ibo of the late 19th century. We witness tribal politics, folklore, economics, and religion as we follow a couple of generations Okonkwo’s family. Okonkwo grows up resenting his shiftless father, and as he matures he shows the grit and determination to rise above. He becomes a fierce warrior, an aggressive and acquisitive businessman, and an autocratic paterfamilias. This stands him in good stead in the village, but also demonstrates Achebe’s mastery. Okonkwo is a nuanced, believable protagonist. He treats his family roughly, bemoans his sons, whom he feels lack promise, speaks roughly to his wives and daughters, and casts a jaundiced eye on any display by villagers that lacks manliness.

Okonkwo is not the only character benefiting from Achebe’s deft touch. Okonkwo’s circle of friends, strangers from neighboring villages, his wife’s family, even the British missionaries, all come to life and display real human action and motivation. On this solid base rests the inevitable conflict and disruption brought about with the arrival of exotic white foreigners, with a suspect foreign doctrine.

I found Things Fall Apart a rewarding read. It displays felicitous, energetic language to depict humans acting like humans, and in the larger context, the pain and anger and suspicion when one people would strangle an indigenous culture to “improve and purify” it. If you haven’t taken this novel up, do so by all means, and see why it is honored and its author lionized.

"The Atomic Weight of Love" by Elizabeth J. Church

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Still in her early 20s, Meridian Wallace, a Western Pennsylvania girl about to make a name for herself at the University of Chicago, becomes enthralled with Alden, a professor of physics, and twenty years her senior. She marries him just as he is dispatched to an unheard-of hamlet in New Mexico, to lend his expertise to the development of a revolutionary and terrifying new weapon. In spite of her acceptance to Cornell grad school, he moves her summarily to Los Alamos and crushes her scientific potential and hopes.

And such is Meridian’s treatment at her husband’s hands. This treatment, and Meridian’s sporadic rebellious impulses against it, power this narrative. It’s a treatment that is alive and flourishing to this day, unfortunately, but I hope it isn’t still the expected thing in American marriages that it was in the middle of the last century.  The assumptions made by American society in the 1940s were shared by young people getting married. In the novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, these assumptions are portrayed accurately.

In fact, accuracy is one great virtue of this book. Meridian, whom Alden calls Meri, allows her husband to make unilateral decisions for her, decisions regarding the taking of her virginity, and where she will and will not study, where they will live as he works, he even makes judgments about her friends. Throughout, he exercises his autocracy with a snob’s dismissive ease, assured in the superiority of his perspective. From time to time Meri chafes under his rule, and carves out a life for herself, following her passion for ornithology to make a talented amateur’s study of a population of crows.

Then along comes Viet Nam and upheaval in American society. Meri’s love for Clay, a beautiful young man, engenders her much-needed awakening; her rebirth reminds Meri of her own worth and capacity for love. This leads to her final triumph of self-respect, as it were, as we observe her good works over the years.

Author Elizabeth J. Church provides a vivid character and puts her to a number of good uses. First, she illustrates a culture in America which subjugated wives and women in general to the will of husbands and men. Second, she brings to life a turbulent time in the height of the Viet Nam war, refracted through the prism of her heroine’s life. She uses this highly apt backdrop to portray an intelligent, sympathetic protagonist’s growth and adaptation. All this is done so honestly and deeply: Alden’s moments of oafishness are balanced against his well-meaning moments; Clay’s impatience shows a youthfulness yet to be tempered by much experience; even the secondary characters are fully nuanced. This is a sensitive, affecting story, easy to believe and appreciate. I was very happy to make Meridian’s acquaintance. 

"Everything Under" by Daisy Johnson

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The murky forces in Everything Under confuse and intimidate us, the wide-eyed readers, just as they confuse and intimidate the characters. A boy who decides to grow up a woman has prescient gifts, which she uses until she forgets to. Another character wills a new gender for himself after a trauma, and a monster lives below the surface of the river, but can walk upright on dry land, and may want to kill. Many believe it is also intent on stealing. 

Be prepared for a novel that will make you alert by jumping between thread and thread; it will also keep you waiting … and doubting … and craving answers right up to the end and beyond. This is an arresting novel, in the best sense of the word. You will stop, and sit up, and wonder how its debut author, Daisy Johnson, produced such a stunning and unconventional work right out of the box. It’s a dark delight.

Gretel grew up with her mother Sarah on a boat moored in a river. She is not educated in public schools until her mother abandons her when she’s a schoolgirl of 16. Gretel spends years trying to hunt her mother down, but when she finally finds her, after perhaps a further 16 years, her mother’s mind has deteriorated. Fiona, born a boy, witnesses several bulls being castrated, and chooses the female gender for herself. Eventually Fiona finds Margot (born Marcus) living with her adoptive parents. Loss, and quests to repair losses, dominate the plot here, but the plot holds a secondary place to the images and the fraught emotions. Instead, author Daisy Johnson looses tidal forces of terror, psychic ability, crypto-language, and accidental death to power her narrative along.

Adult Gretel recalls episodes from her early teens, in which she imagines she’s keeping her younger self company, observing her mother through a roof portal on the boat. At these times, she imagines the bogeyman, the (physical?) distillation of all of her and her mother’s fears. This creature, legend has it, can breathe underwater and walk on land; is pale white and nearly hairless, is longer than a man is tall, has short, stubby legs, and steals things. Including children.

As the book proceeds, we catch apparent glimpses of this monster from time to time, coming and going in its not-quite-visible way, in the time it takes to gasp. Characters, particularly Sarah, refer to it and warn other characters to beware. At last, however, the monster of the rivers apparently shows itself clearly enough for Sarah and Gretel to give honest, physical chase.

The novel exhibits a strong sensual undertone. Genders are bent and malleated rather often as we go. Sarah discovers the truth about Marcus/Margot’s body in a flash of image and sexual activity that finishes abruptly in a gloss, like the wake of a moving boat. In fact, much of the narrative has an ethereal, out-of-focus quality, exactly appropriate to the subject. 

The narrative fits into a present-day framework in which mother Sarah and daughter Gretel (whom Sarah sometimes refers playfully calls Hansel) are reunited in a tense, unloving standoff. And once the monster is tracked and dealt with, Sarah’s reason for living expires.

Gloomy and atmospheric, with its hauntingly raw emotional palette, Everything Under is a stunning debut which takes the reader outside herself, and deposits her squarely in the middle of its minefield. A challenging, haunting read, a raker-up of our darker moods, and yet a rewarding read nonetheless. Definitely a piece of provoke one’s mind and heart, and compliments to fiction rarely come higher than that. 

"Cocktails With A Dead Man," poems by Joseph Albanese

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At the back of Cocktails with a Dead Man Joe Albanese lists a series of journals which have published his poems. I’m glad he’s found a number of fora for exhibiting his work; the works here collected take on an unremitting palette, tingeing most entries in the color of lament and loss. The 75 works share brevity and plain elucidation but stay for the most part in the realm of the abstract, rather than play to the reader’s imagination.

I wished for more concrete images in this group. They are few and far between in these poems, and so all the more striking when we find them. One example showing solid imagery, a piece called “Neon Crowds and Mirror Fights” describes the destructive potential of a neon “Open” sign diffused in an evening fog: “It could split the universe in two / as it has done to you many times …” The injury and irreparable hurt rule this poem as it does so many in this collection. 

Even when he uses a concrete image, as in the case of a kindergartener’s Crayola eight-pack, with its strict limit on opportunity, the poet puts it to use in his overall theme of loss and foreshortened choice: “ … or / if I only choose them because I knew I have to complete life’s assignment, / and that’s what I’ll be stuck with for the rest of my life.”

There are no poems here that could be called long, and sometimes the brevity serves well, as when Mr. Albanese plays with the language to achieve an effect. Here is “From You I Crumble” in its entirety: “here I sway, I know my weeds / form mutes each scene through broken fray / she’s cost of dream, I lied to myself / but you valley to protect my stream / from that I’d jump but crash straight through / these fragile knees / you’ve always been the gentle breeze and / handed shield - me, brittle leaf.” Besides the use of “valley” as a verb (meaning to shelter?), and the uncertainty I feel with the words “form” and “handed,” we note also the liberties taken with the rhyme scheme, unorthodox subtle echoes occurring mid-line. And again the theme of relationship across a gulf, perhaps impossible to span, gives you the flavor of the collection.

The emotions wash over us, and this poet opens his heart to us with all its difficulties and setbacks. I would hope, though, that he begin to focus these honest emotions into concrete form, that he find the worldly material to give them physical shape and heft, rather than remain so insistently in the conceptual. These poems need the clarity of everyday images; Mr. Albanese has talent - the heart and the urge are palpable. 

"The Vanished" by RC Binstock

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In “The Vanished,” author RC Binstock melds two narratives into one memorable story. In it he recounts the slow, halting recovery of a family still trying to find its footing a year after suffering a horrifying, life-altering tragedy. This matching of two disparate arcs delivers a striking tale of hope and regeneration.

Malcolm and Aaron, brothers in the Bernard family of Boston, each struggle in their own way to cope with the wrenching loss of their sister Barbara and her two small children, who died when their airliner exploded over the North Atlantic. The health of their parents, Dan and Naomi, begins to fail under the strain. And Barbara’s widowed husband James goes to ground in England, frightening two families, and adding to the strain.

In another narrative vein, Binstock aims his considerable talents at the trials of the 19th Century French master, the artist Jean-François Millet. An artist who gained renown in his lifetime for scenes of peasant life, but whose reputation was fodder for critics and political theorists, produced a handful of works mentioned in the novel, and which bear strongly on the author’s design and intent. 

Throughout the modern-day events of this novel, the lost loved ones haunt the survivors the way only such victims can. Malcolm, the oldest sibling, faces paralyzing fears about future events outside his control. So much so that he cannot proceed in his work as a sculptor and art professor. The scene where his prodigal black-sheep brother Aaron shows up at his house and the two a night-enshrouded rapprochement is one of the most memorable in the book. It contains a frankness, an energy, and a tenderness in which the brothers display every palette in the spectrum of family relations.

Through Malcolm, the artist and aesthete, we see the works of Millet, stunning and evocative, at this remove in time. Millet has no political agenda, paints no symbols, other than forgettable early-career devotional work, but only wished to portray the world and the people in his native Normandy. Events and themes echo across the decades: Malcolm is enthralled by Millet’s vision of the open horizon of the limitless sea (see The End of the Hamlet of Gruchy by Millet), but in Millet’s own life, a painting of a devout couple taking a prayer break while sowing a field (see The Angelus) takes on the most weight.

The work of this painter, winnowed down by the author to two emblematic works, lend depth, interest, and cogent comment on the latter-day events of loss and redemption. This scheme reveals to us a clever and persuasive storyteller at full power. This is a lovely and redemptive read.

"I Exist. Therefore I Am" by Shirani Rajapakse

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While reading I Exist. Therefore I Am, I had the sensation of being submerged. I felt trapped deep an endless sea, with no hope of seeing the surface. Author Shirani Rajapakse’s stories of women in modern India has the effect of burying all hope for these females, these second-class citizens. While it is an oppressing collection, it was clearly designed to be so; while its function is to expose and obliquely denounce, its variety does nothing but strengthen and reinforce its message.

Ms. Rajapakse leads off the collection with “Drink Your Milk and Go to Sleep,” and establishes right away the grisly and hopeless tenor of the series. A unfortunate woman has married into a family suffering from the superstitions typical of certain classes of Indian society. So her new family inevitably finds her culpable when she gives birth to female children. This young mother resorts to her only recourse after so many births of the wrong sex again and again. It’s shocking and horrifying.

“Shweta’s Journey” recounts a modern young woman’s descent into household servitude and enslavement at the hands of a purported religious leader. Her naïveté plunges her into this self-obliterating hell; her fear for her life keeps her there.

Even women who have passed a long, satisfying life with family and spouse have an expiration date, apparently. In “Death Row,” Ms Rajapakse recounts the slow, tortuous journey to death of many older widows whose families no longer want them. It matches the bleakness of these women’s spirits with the bleak conditions in which they are forced to live out their days.

The title story features the plaints and exhortations of developing female fetus, and are thus simply inaudible. It echos the heartache of the first story and reflects the devastated lives of so many of India’s women.

Current cultural and religious conflicts have their airing here: young carefree women who have been kidnapped and subjugated into wives by Muslim men hold no hope of ever being rescued, and scant idea of even being missed. This sad state distills the sad theme of the collection into one brief story.

There are ghastly crimes in these pages; there are hopeless laments; each tells a different aspect of the complete pulverization of the female character in India. The author has followed up her award-winning poetry collection, “Chant of a Million Women” with an alarming and sensational collection of short fiction calling attention to the plight of women in India. Pick it up; prepare to be educated and appalled.

"Where My Heart Used to Beat" by Sebastian Faulks

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Sebastian Faulks presents a book-length confessional of a man alienated from his own feelings in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Robert Hendricks grows up in England, having lost his father in the Great War. His mother refuses to talk about his father, saying it would be “too painful.” Hendricks’s life becomes painful in its turn, too, and through a physician’s knowledge of symptoms, and the self’s absorption with its own history, he tries to get some sort of closure on the pain.

Born during the cataclysm of World War I, Robert grows up with his mother, reads incessantly, has a very active imagination and desire to read, and eventually goes to university. His degree in medicine assures his installation as an officer in a celebrated British Army regiment for World War II. He serves with distinction in Dunkirk, North Africa, and Anzio. It is the fraught and frustrating Italian that seems to do in his mental state. While recuperating from wounds, he falls in love with a comely Italian woman, who proves to be the love of his life.

Hendricks tells these episodes late in his life to an elderly doctor on an island off the south coast of France. These conversations amount to an extended therapy session where Hendricks is encouraged to unburden himself. Talk ranges far and wide. The older doctor admires the book that Hendricks wrote in the 1960s, about mad people, and how they could best be supported, because curing them seems beyond the reach of the medical community. 

I read of this Hendricks, of his problems and doubts, but nowhere along the way did he engage my sympathies. He is a fine fellow, stalwart with his comrades at war and caring   with his patients as a doctor. But the purported alienation he feels, his inability to find comfort or a happy ending … I missed the part that would have made me feel these in my viscera. That may not have been Mr. Faulks’s point, but in a novel of this kind - a highly personal journey in search of comfort or love or support - it certainly seems like it has to have been.

This novel is quite vivid in its descriptions of the British experience in World War II. Its philosophical asides - spoken by our first-person Dr. Hendricks - about the violent worldwide paroxysms of the 20th Century, and how they become embedded on an individual’s soul, are undoubtedly strong. These supports deserve a clearer and more forceful main plot, I felt.

"Sweet Lamb of Heaven" by Lydia Millet

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Lydia Millet has captured something in Sweet Lamb of Heaven, and I feel at the very end of my abilities to say what it is. This Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel captures in frightening detail the horrifying political world we live in today - this example deals with the American version. This novel will haunt you, and stretch your imagination, and scare you, in an Alfred Hitchcock mode. It’s challenging, head-turning stuff. Supremely rewarding.

Anna, a sometime college lecturer in languages and literature, takes her six year-old daughter Lena and flees her emotionally-remote husband. (The husband is so remote, in fact, that midway through the story Anna checks off a long list of characteristics, and decides he is sociopathic. It doesn’t take the reader that long to figure it out.) We learn from the outset that after her daughter was born Anna had hallucinations - I don’t say “suffered” because the term doesn’t fit. She hears voices speaking to her. The voice seems versed in a wide range of subjects: “single-cell organisms, hockey scores, feathers on dinosaurs, celebrity suicides, the pattern of Pleistocene extinctions, the fate of the tribe called the Nez Perce; relativity, particle accelerators,” and so on. It speaks to Anna in English, Spanish, and French. Anna also thinks she hears English that sounds like Shakespeare, and Middle English, which she encountered while reading Chaucer.

And it is this breadth of the voice, in subject matter, language, and temporal origin, that is the key for me. It supports Anna’s fellow “listeners,” a group of people who have also had the auditory hallucinations, which we meet at a motel on the rocky coast of Maine - the end of the earth. The one salient opinion to emerge from the motley crew is that the voices have something in common with a common subconscious, a language which is the foundation of all life on earth. 

Lay on top of these metaphysical considerations the thread of Anna’s cold, repellant husband. He uses his over-the-top charisma and ingratiating acting ability to start a career in politics. He corners Anna in Maine, coerces her back to Alaska to appear as part of his campaign for state senate, all the while having coopted the “family” agenda of a reactionary political party. After getting her back “on board” for photo ops and meet-and-greets, he sends her emails with each day’s appointments, bullet points of opinions to express if pressed; Anna and her daughter have daily sessions for makeup and clothes.

And thus is the shallowness and venality of modern-day politics exposed to us. Estranged husband Ned despises Anna, but hauls her up before cameras and microphones during his campaign. He threatens her and treats his daughter as though she doesn’t exist - and then the real fun starts. In a few jarring pages, Anna hallucinates something very strange indeed. She watches herself age before her eyes: terrified at the pace of her growing hair and nails, she emerges from her bath to see Lena and a trusted friend still seated on a hotel bed, reading, where she just left them. The sequence abruptly turns to a midsummer festival in Anna’s home town, and she has apparently lost three months, just like that. She has been in an altered state the whole time and cannot remember any of it.

Thus through strong drugs and an outwardly orthodox relationship, does Ned control and attempt to ruin Anna’s life. This Hitchcockian episode illustrates the very real and ruthless impulse of those who would control speech and discourse to their own ends and agendas. Ms. Millet takes it further: the totalitarians would control or even exterminate not only the public policy discussion, but would ruin language of any and all kinds. There is grist here for a much more in-depth treatment, which I promised to try to grind to fine flour at some point in the near future.

Suffice it at current to say that any modern reader interested in communication, politics, sensory perception, or theories of language would be challenged and delighted with this book. It’s also a damn fine read: something sinister’s always lurking near the surface; a group of friends and supporters are a particularly motley crew and we can’t be sure they’re reliable. Anna lives a desperate existence on the margin, and sometimes has reason to doubt her own stability. It seems unlikely that you’ll be as confounded as I was by Sweet Lamb of Heaven. I recommend you go ahead and try to find out.

"Miss Jane" by Brad Watson

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Brad Watson presents the story of Jane Chisolm, born in Mississippi in the early part of the 20th Century, in Miss Jane. Delivered at home by a country doctor, Jane comes into the world with a birth defect that complicates her bodily functions, and which the doctor believes would put her at perilous risk during a pregnancy, if such is even possible for her. If Jane is unique, this narrative treats her with reality, candor, and honor.

The book opens with Jane’s birth, the doctor’s concerns, and her superstitious parents’ doubts. During her childhood Jane only spends a few months going to the one-room school, but learns how to read in that short time. She learns her numbers watching her dad sell items and make change in his roadside store. But she learns to trust and love the avuncular doctor who takes an interest in her growth and development, in her life.

At length it is the doctor, Ed Thompson, who becomes her most important mentor and confidant. He researches possible cures for her physical abnormalities, but given the time period, the first half of the 20th Century, these will not pan out for Jane. The doctor visits frequently during her infancy and babyhood, and as she grows up, his visits become more those of a devoted and caring neighbor. When Jane travels socially to the doctor’s home, she encounters the peacocks with which the doctor has populated his property. These unique creatures give piercing calls, and keep insect numbers under control, but most importantly allow Jane and the doctor to consider some of life’s essential questions. 

Dr. Thompson introduced peafowl to the area early in his practice, and they become part of the story as his and Jane’s years pass. She becomes familiar with them during her visits, and at length the doctor shares his thoughts about them. He sees them as magnificent and proud creatures, who make extravagant display at no slight cost to themselves. The very illogic of it is a wonderment to the doctor, and generates thoughts on creation, life, and the apparent lack of reason to it all. He explains to Jane that, like her, the birds do not have apparent outward genitalia, but must procreate through a small puckered opening called a cloaca. Thus does her communicate his opinion of Jane’s grace, beauty and uniqueness in the world. It is a beautiful moment in a book rife with them.

Mr. Watson has placed in Jane’s life the wonder and unsolvable riddle of life. Jane is no scholar, but her wisdom and ability shine through. In Jane’s dotage, the peafowl have colonized Jane’s property, and the reader is moved to admire Jane’s resilience, and the author’s wondrous though very plainspoken skill in showing it to the world.

"Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami

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When his debut novel Norwegian Wood put Haruki Murakami “on the map” when released, it launched a career for a writer of some very speculative fiction, featuring other-worldly plots and settings. Norwegian Wood however, takes place in very down-to-earth terms with very realistic people, events, and settings. Protagonist Toru Watanabe pursues his college career in the late 1960s and with its inevitable romantic attachments, with typically mixed results. This book took me on a voyage and surprised me with its constant allusions to popular songs of the times, including the Beatles’ song of the title.

Watanabe has few friends while living at a dormitory in Tokyo. He simply doesn’t find the young wastrels who are his fellow students very interesting. His one friend from high school killed himself when he was 17. In this bereft and unforgiving world Watanabe turns to his friend’s girlfriend Naoko, and she looks to him. This vulnerable and enigmatic girl doesn’t necessarily return Toru’s affection, but needs him nonetheless. He remains steadfast in his friendship, visiting her at the sanatorium where she tries to recover some emotional strength.

Toru, working and studying, cannot see her often at her remote hospital in the mountains, and captures the eye of Midori, a pretty and vivacious young girl who wears her skirts too short. Midori leavens this story with her wit, audacious flirtation, and her worldly-wise take on all situations. She deflates egos, spots a sham a mile away, and is out for herself, in pretty teen-age girl style. Toru catches her eye, and the interactions between these two characters is a definite highlight. Toru’s dense and slow reaction to her overt affection and effort at seduction is hilarious. Typical nineteen year-old guy.

This has the very strong flavor of memoir. The tribulations of becoming an adult affect us all, and this book is a bittersweet journey for anyone who has gone through it. If you happen to be of Toru’s age, a time when the Beatles absolutely ruled pop culture, this book captures that moment superbly. But even more noteworthy, Murakami captures a timeless, sympathetic, and beguiling path for his hero. This was a wonderful diversion for me, and I treasure it. While is doesn’t represent an attempt by the author to capture any of the alien and fantastical worlds of some of his other work, this is wonderful in its own right.