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"Samsara"by Shirani Rajapakse

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In Samsara, her new volume of poetry, Shirani Rajapakse demonstrates intriguing new perspectives with a deft and heartfelt diction. The poet generally chooses to illustrate a finite set of themes, and this allows her to deal with them a number of times, in a stunning variety of ways. For instance, she brings us a much wider range of visual images than in prior work, and they’re a delight: rich, vivid, and sometimes quirky. Another tool this award-winning poet uses: she anthropomorphizes certain ordinary natural phenomena, like the waving branches of a tree, the dancing of its leaves, or the simple activities of animals.

But the salient feature in Rajapakse’s poetry remains her magisterial stance regarding her themes. She treats reincarnation, love, Buddhist and Hindu faith, human relationships and spirituality, and the nature of reality, with a sure hand, and delivers her usual unflinching judgments on all. This is a very accomplished work, mature in its perspectives and starkly clear in its verdicts.

Besides these attractions, this volume has what struck me as a thesis statement. This is quite unusual in her work. In “Musing,” she writes, “I lift my eyes to the goings on in  the garden; / the noisy chatter, yet / my eyes see through this all to what hides / behind, inside spaces no one can see.” This deep peering into the known but unseen, into the hidden sense of things, recurs throughout the poems, and always illuminates a facet of a larger idea.

These pieces are a delight for those who trust contemplation and deep thinking, and in the efficacies of the written word. I liked these offerings quite a bit, as you can tell.

The title of the collection is a Sanskrit word meaning the suffering-laden cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, wherein the Earthly plane is seen as illusory, appealing overmuch to the senses, and encouraging the empty pursuit of things. The poems explore these facets a number of times; in some pieces she decries the emptiness of life, but sometimes she arrives at an elegant moment where the deeper truths are hinted at, or yearned for. And there is quite a bit here about loneliness, about humans who have become separated and now must adjust to life by themselves. Samsara indeed.

I honor Shirani—for her gift with felicitous phrases and her clear insight into the spiritual realm, among all the other features of her growing oeuvre. Among her poetical work, this is clearly her finest to date. 

 


 

 

"Properties of Thirst" by Marianne Wiggins

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It’s impossible.

It’s impossible that prose could be so distinctive and unorthodox yet never lose its power or its focus.

It’s impossible that characters could be so larger than life, so diverting, so compelling.

It’s impossible that in Properties of Thirst, Marianne Wiggins could alloy into one narrative two frightful examples of American Might Makes Right: the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, and the bullying theft of Sierra runoff water by parched and undeserving Los Angeles. Tout ça c’est un soufflé étonnant [The whole is an astonishing soufflé]: unified, sturdy, audacious, and unforgettable. Brilliant.

Marianne Wiggins has such stalwart and brilliant artists as Ruth Ozeki and Colum McCann in awe and envy with this utterly surpassing novel.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, an idealistic Interior Department lawyer named Schiff is tasked with constructing and administering in California’s Owens Valley an “internment camp”—a prison—for Americans of Japanese descent. This assignment affronts every principle Schiff holds dear; he struggles with this duty, little better than a seeming bit of flotsam amid all that swirls about him. Characters orbit around him strutting and fretting:

Rocky, the patriarch settled in the mountainside mansion for nearly twenty years, who bitterly fought with LA Water and lost; his cultured, sardonic twin sister Cas; and his dazzling gourmet cook daughter, named Sunny; they all encounter Schiff at the most trying, challenging moment in his life. (And Sunny is the reason I wrote a sentence in French. To find out why, you must read the book.)

Add to these dramatis personae the hysterically funny and awe-inspiring GI supply officer who marshals the materials and manages the construction of the camp, and seemingly every Hollywood stock character of the era is represented. In fact, Hollywood companies descend on the town for location shoots, but skip out on their bills. Rocky mentions Tom Mix of early Westerns fame, and later Bogart’s and Katharine Hepburn’s names are dropped.

This cinematic connection intrigues me. The greed, hatred, and jingoism fueling this maelstrom remind strongly of movies back when they actually wrote plots and characters. There are also the vivid visual features, with the rocky Sierra Nevada mountains, the brilliant blue of the sky and its myriad strange effects, and the toxic lakebed, casualty of the LA Water Wars, utterly desiccated and spreading respiratory disease on the air to internee and soldier alike.

These are some of the ills falling out from war and murderous greed. The story carries these weights freely, effortlessly: we are treated to scenes of wide-eyed wonder at the natural world, of heart-melting attraction and love, of rage-inducing neglect and callousness, all to the tune of the never-ceasing delights of Wiggins’s prose. Her eye for detail and her ear for wit, her felicity with phrasemaking and her driving pace—these all shine forth in the reader’s massive payout of joy and wonder. We could cover more, much more, in this bravura offering, but I will cut my excitement and floridity short. Please do yourself the honor of taking up Properties of Thirst.





 


"Our Missing Hearts" by Celeste Ng

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Celeste Ng imagines a present-day—or near present-day—dystopia in Our Missing Hearts, where a wrenching economic depression in the U.S. has revved up government surveillance of its own citizens to a fever of paranoia. Ng’s portrayal of this America recalls Stalin’s Soviet Union where citizens are rewarded for informing on neighbors. And for good measure she overlays that chilling memory with the contemporaneous and sinister ethnic hatred which infected Nazi Germany. This is the ghastly backdrop for Ng’s powerful novel, in which courage, the power of words, and the importance of memory provide their countervailing force. This book is gritty, hauntingly effective, and beautiful.

As we meet Bird, he’s just entering junior high in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He lives in a high-rise dormitory on the campus of a famous university with his father, Ethan Gardner. Ethan shelves books at the library, but used to be a lecturer in linguistics. He has plummeted in the workplace and in society’s esteem, because an innocuous nature poem published by his wife Margaret Miu becomes the focus of resistance to the government’s institutionalized ethnic hatred.

With strong curiosity and a growing sense of his mother’s soul, Bird runs away to New York to find her, following clues as well as any detective. This quest shows courage and resourcefulness, and is told in fairy tale terms, complete with a beautiful, enchanted queen, and a counterbalancing shocking violence. The climax, with its pervasive and stunning act of resistance, ranks as one of the most powerful fictional episodes in my memory. It is a testament to the power of storytelling and memory, particularly when the story being told carries moral weight. Oh, take up this book for its ultra-worthy and reverberant climax.

Needless to say, you won’t pick up this book for a neat-and-tidy ending; there’s no pretty bow to untie and store away. For this is a book that hits modern society hard, and highlights in bright relief the need, the desperate requirement, for connection and understanding.

 


 

 

"Dinosaurs" by Lydia Millet

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Prior to the events of Lydia Millet’s novel Dinosaurs, Gil sells his Madison Avenue flat and walks…that’s correct, walks, to his new home in Phoenix. This epic journey on foot comes, in the fullness of skilled storytelling, to represent the realignment of a man with the unimaginably ancient streams of life. Without exaggerating, he finds his soul, which at story’s outset, he has abandoned. The stunning and highly enjoyable dénouement of this lovely novel portrays Gil’s rebirth and re-occupation of existence.

And it’s a good thing, too, because when we meet this protagonist, he pines for the woman who has figuratively sent him packing. He takes more than his share of abuse from her; she has spent years in a relationship with him because she’s aware that he has money—how much money she isn’t too clear on, and that’s probably a good thing, too. But Gil is an unusual case: his parents die in a car crash when he’s ten, so before he comes—completely unexpectedly—into his inheritance at 18, he was shunted from relative to uncaring relative. During this period he had nothing. Gil arrives in the desert friendless, without an agenda for his life, and nearly devoid of self-esteem. Without overtly articulating it, he needs to grow, he longs for it.

He sets out to do something after he leaves New York. He volunteers at a home for abused women, takes a benevolent interest in his next-door neighbor’s two children, and stalks the heinous man who illegally hunts raptor birds. Eventually he becomes entangled in a complicated romantic situation, fraught with secrets, during which his motivations and actions center around the interests of the others involved. He remains unselfish to the core.

In this sweet, subtle novel, Gil’s motivation and his growth hold center stage; these features hold, and eventually gratify, our rooting sympathies.

Yet again Millet holds our interest and attention. And especially our hearts. She proves her versatility, her wisdom, and her moral compass yet again to her appreciating audience. This one is definitely recommended.

 


 



 

"Lucy by the Sea" by Elizabeth Strout

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Very near the end of Lucy by the Sea, Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s unforgettable character, implores her older daughter not to have an extramarital affair. Her two cents is a sophisticated and highly effective analysis of her daughter’s—Crissy’s—psychological state. The fact that Lucy can be so insightful and so persuasive after all the self-doubt and mortification she feels, surprises us. Flabbergasts us. She has spent very nearly the whole story recounting her disappointment, her dread of the judgment of others, that we wonder at and cheer her powerful skills.

And this book-length clear-as-crystal look at Lucy’s mental processes, her internal dialogue, leads us to expect yet another moment of doubt and indecision. And the fact that Strout gives Lucy a wand to wave for her loved ones, given the hopelessness and shame of her early life, flattens us. The ringing reverberation pealing from this novel certifies again the author’s dexterity. She’s a magician; I’ve felt this way since Olive Kitteridge. Lucy by the Sea is, I’m thrilled to say, more of the same miraculous magic.

When last we visited with Lucy and her ex-husband William, they took a trip from New York to Maine. The principal framework for the novel Oh William! was that William found out, rather late in life, that he has a half-sister in a little town there. In this new entry, William insists Lucy accompany him back to Maine, to escape the Covid virus as it rampages through New York. People stand off from one another, distance and masks hold sway over all interactions, and the effect on human behavior can be hard to predict. We observe all this through Lucy’s eyes, through the lens of her background, which inclines her late in life to compassion and understanding.

And this compassion and understanding mark Strout’s treatment too of the soul searching in which all chief characters engage. Her touch never errs, her wisdom never flags. Lucy’s absence from New York forces her to feel her grief over her husband David’s death. William reflects on a life that he regrets, but he settles on a solution and reaffirms his decision to pursue it. Lucy’s two grown daughters make life-altering decisions too.

We can only be thankful that Lucy and the rest of these characters keep up their residence in the author’s vivid imagination. Take and enjoy.

 


 

 

"Nights of Plague" by Orhan Pamuk

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Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap

Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk constructs 79 chapters—plus preface and 50-page epilogue—recounting an outbreak of plague in a fictional Mediterranean island in 1901. Along the way he portrays authoritarian government tactics in suppressing its population; backward religious scruples proscribing life-saving modern medicine; and the jingoistic tendency of inferior historians to hew their stories to align with beloved legends, and thereby to get things hilariously wrong. It’s an impressive rendering of an ingenious and captivating tale.

In the fictional eastern Mediterranean island of Mingheria, which at the beginning of 1901 is a province of the Ottoman Empire, bubonic plague breaks out, and the imperial  government in Istanbul sends a medical official, a doctor celebrated in political as well as medical circles, to impose a quarantine. News of his arrival spreads quickly on the island, but he is very soon summarily despatched, murdered by a faction that wants no measures taken against the epidemic nor anything else to do with modern medicine.

We soon learn that this violence stems from some combination of Islamic teaching and a desire to intimidate the Orthodox Greeks—half the island’s population— into leaving and returning to Greece. The authorities then send another doctor, a Muslim, one famous for his administration of quarantines in other Ottoman provinces, and this one is newly married to an out-of-favor Ottoman princess. He labors mightily with the provincial governor to bring both the fundamentalist fanatics and the disease under control.

Through a series of unlikely events which nonetheless lead to inevitable human responses, the Mingherians cut themselves off from all communications from the Ottoman empire, declare their independence, and set up a new government. Before very long, the work of controlling the epidemic is shot to hell when a leading sheikh stages a coup and becomes briefly the head of state. All quarantine measures are abolished and the plague increases in virulence and begins a new terrible rampage through the population.

In describing these events, Pamuk demonstrates his mastery of human motivation and emotion; he holds up for our edification the idiocy, the venality, and the lust for power which drive politics. To get a flavor for his tone and stance toward these proceedings, understand that the governor leans heavily on a secret police service called the “Scrutinia,” and its director is called the “Chief Scrutineer.” His take on government ethics is an oppressive classic: in Mingheria, political enemies are routinely arrested and held without charge or due process. The sectarian regime which briefly holds power looks very much the same.

I felt for a time while reading that the story was a miniature treatment of the Ottoman Empire itself, a microcosm. The author mentions more than once that the empire was referred to as “The Sick Man of Europe,” and I took the pestilence as a stand-in for the decay that infected it. But the issues of authoritarianism, and the utter failure of regimes which take their legitimacy from religion, are much bigger than one outdated empire. They are for all time, in all places.

Pamuk wraps his story up in a framework of a serious historian working with primary sources, and thus adds a clever layer of play for the reader: the light, almost tongue-in-cheek tone of the preface contrasts with the serious theme of the strife between the old and hackneyed against the new and proven. He also wants to poke fun at the writing of history, by presenting an apparently rigorous treatment of what happened and how these events represent a confluence of historical forces, while also poking jabs at how often history is simply a colorful embellishing of outright falsehoods.

I’m impressed that this author can clothe such a sustained narrative in garments of fancy, while still weighing in so bluntly on superstition, murderous greed, and official criminality. Clearly it holds manifold attractions for today’s discerning reader. Its depth and breadth lead to length, but the sustained energy and interest are also quite worth it.

 


 

"On the Savage Side" by Tiffany McDaniel

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In On the Savage Side Tiffany McDaniel sets herself the challenging task of building a novel out of the gruesome and notorious Chillicothe Six murders of 2013-2014. The Chillicothe Six were women marginalized by the town and the town’s authorities, whose approach to the growing body count is a yawn and a shrug: they were either tricked or coerced or forced into drug addiction and prostitution, or their families simply bequeathed these conditions to them. This is a stunning, challenging work, a full flowering of a fine novelist’s powers and compassion.

The first-person narrator, a woman in her early twenties named Arcade Doggs, tells the story of herself and her twin sister Farren; they had the bad luck to be born to heroin addicts in a small town in Ohio. Farren frequently spoke in rhymes, and would declaim her verses while standing among the blossoming daffodils, so she came to be called Daffodil Poet, or Daffy for short. Arc and Daffy associate with other women of the street and after they befriend them, these women start to disappear and wash up dead on the shore of the river.

With unblinking honesty this book portrays the abuse and the ruined lives some women must endure. The fact that these crimes against women occur, and by whom they’re perpetrated, is met by vast indifference, as I have said. We have a clear object lesson here about the forgotten and ignored sex workers, many of whom are under the thumb of amoral men who simply enjoy being cruel.  

Part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, and part parable, this plaintive novel pulls us into the squalid and essentially hopeless world these women occupy. After an early, rather desolate stretch, the book begins to soar as Arc and Daffy try to track down who’s doing the killing. Predictably enough, the police make an assumption early on that the murders of the young women are committed by one of their own.

Rather than treat these real-life crimes in magazine pieces or podcasts, McDaniel boldly sets her compass in a more rewarding direction. More than simply producing a fictionalized account of a ghastly episode, she has injected elements of wonder, and mystery, and psychological depth. The surprising hyperbolic course the story follows  before it finishes, proves the author’s technical mastery, as if further proof were needed after Betty and The Summer that Melted Everything. If you savor technical mastery bolstered by an out-of-the-blue surprise at novel’s end, take up On the Savage Side.

 

"Natural History," Stories by Andrea Barrett

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Andrea Barrett demonstrates yet again how life tells its stories through aspiration, work, dreams, and disillusion of everyday people. She expertly listens and illuminates for us the inner journeys of a wide variety of sympathetic characters in her collection of stories, Natural History. It is a bravura performance from a well-loved and multi-awarded author.

The stories feature a principal group of characters; Henrietta Atkins, born before the Civil War in what might be the Finger Lakes district of New York, provides the focus for 150 years of storytelling. You wouldn’t, however, call this a multigenerational saga, because the short pieces here bring dramatic moments in people’s lives into clear focus, leaving other broad dramas and events out of the scheme.

Barrett introduces her characters and we come to know them very, very well. Henrietta is an accomplished amateur natural historian, a type with a long, illustrious history. She teaches high school science, and guides extra-curricular science activities. She eschews one potential proposal through an odd, self-conscious reaction, but does not go loveless through life.

Strong relationships between strong women abound in this collection, and provide some of the most gratifying reading. We witness the great and the tragic events of the times—the Civil War and the First World War both occur during Henrietta’s life, along with the 1918 influenza epidemic, the sensational early days of flying by celebrated pilots, and the Volstead Act, inaugurating Prohibition. Throughout, women reinforce each other during strife-torn times, write ground-breaking scientific papers, defy death in flying machines, and pass learning on the the next generation through wisdom and compassion.

Andrea Barrett’s power of observation, her kindness toward her readers, and her uncanny felicity with the language lead us to hours of delight and wonder. I recommend this very, very highly.
 


 

"What You Can't Give Me" by RC Binstock

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I feel like the china shop in the aftermath of a visit from a reckless bull. RC Binstock’s collection of short stories What You Can’t Give Me contains a series of punches to the gut, delivered to its characters and readers alike. Its current-day setting requires that it at least takes into account the unprecedented, polarizing convulsion of the COVID pandemic, which tends to plow people’s lives under, whether or not they fall ill.

There is a sharp edge in the language in these pieces; they display the author’s  enviable handle on 21st Century patter; this skill colors dialogue and exposition alike. Surprising, arresting reactions erupt to the surface in Binstock’s characters here, driving the action in this stunning collection to its memorable, sometimes heart-wrenching conclusion. This collection is a direct broadside hit, among the author’s finest work.

You will find yourself in fascinating settings here, whether it’s a funeral home trying to cope with the deluge of unexpected deaths during the pandemic’s first weeks; a grocery store where tension and aggression show a young employee’s surprising insight into the world around him; or a restaurant whose owner has had to fire almost all his employees after the dropoff of business. But it’s the vivid cast of characters which really carries this collection.

A young worldly-wise waitress feigns amusement at her boss’s lewd innuendo because she feels sure he’d never assault her; the wife whose husband suddenly and cruelly estranges himself from her and the children, but who won’t leave because of the lockdown; the grocery store bagger with Down syndrome, whose thought process shows the author’s bravura skill; and, a personal favorite, the South Asian immigrant pharmacist who administers vaccines at an assisted living home, only to have her life changed when she meets a sympathetic resident in her 90s.

What You Can’t Give Me treats interracial marriage, the #Me Too movement, and the cultural divide in a variety of settings. But in its essence, this collection explores the human need for intimate partnership. In a wide variety of settings, felt by widely divergent characters at various points in their relationships, this very human need is met, thwarted, pursued, or frustrated in the stories, but always, in Binstock’s hands, perceptively, brilliantly.

Intimate and immediate, topical and unpredictable, I can’t recommend What You Can’t Give Me enough.

 


 

"Reading in the Brain" by Stanislas Dehaene

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Subtitle: The New Science of How We Read

 In 2009, French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene proposed in his book Reading in the Brain a hypothesis to describe brain activity in humans when they read. He calls it neuronal recycling, and it’s based on a few elementary facts.

Writing systems and reading have been around for only about 5,000 years, much too short a timeframe for humans to evolve brain structures tailored specifically to reading. So, obviously, humans did not evolve reading as a skill. Dehaene’s thesis is based on MRIs of peoples’ brains while they read, and research into the anatomy of primate brains. In chimpanzee and macaque brain structures, neurologists have learned that synapses within the occipital and inferior temporal areas fire when the subject is shown certain shapes.

Dehaene has also found the analagous areas in human brains in use while a person is reading. In simple terms, the author’s hypothesis states that reading “hijacks” these brain structures evolved to recognize certain critical shapes and directed their use to recognizing letters and words. From there, writing systems have adapted to take advantage of some apparently pre-programmed, or evolved, primate brain functions. The result is a literate population who can communicate in great detail with the dead, and can leave communications for future generations after they themselves are dead. It’s obviously a superpower.

A survey of writing systems through the last few thousand years revealed some intriguing parallels. For instance, most characters are composed of roughly three strokes that can be traced without ever lifting or stopping the pen or stylus. Dehaene proposes that this formula corresponds to the way the neurons’ react to increasing complexity of the symbols. In all writing systems across the world, characters appear to have evolved to an almost optimal combination that can easily be grasped the multi-tiered way the brain works as we read. At lower levels of our visual comprehending system, the strokes themselves consist of two, three or four line segments. At one level up, in our alphabetical systems, multiletter units such as word roots, prefixes, suffixes, and grammatical endings are almost invariably two, three, or four letters long. In Chinese, most characters consist in a combination of two, three, or four semantic and phonetic subunits. Visually speaking, all writing systems seem to rely on a pyramid of shapes whose golden section is the number 3 plus or minus 1.

I confess there are chapters in this book I did not read. They were very technical, written for other neuroscientists, covering dyslexia and the implications for the teaching of reading. The level of detail here is deep and comprehensive. The style is straightforward and clear, comprehensible to any adult reader. I did get the diverting feeling as I read, as I’m sure Dehaene did while writing, that readers of his book had to engage in this marvelous, unique skill, while learning about the marvelous, unique skill they were using. Quite enjoyable.