Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rumors of Peace* Ella Leffland

RUMORS OF PEACE- Ella Leffland

Chronicling four years in the adolescence of a young girl in rural California, Rumors of Peace also spans the four years of US involvement in World War II.

With Rumors of Peace, Ella Leffland manages not only to tell a unique and compelling coming of age story, but also to put into perspective the utter ridiculousness of war. Her narrator, Suse Hanson, begins the book as a carefree tomboy at the age of ten, and leaves us four years later, a much more somber, almost jaded, young woman. What happens to her in between is just the simple stuff of adolescence: crises with boys, friends, hair and school. What makes this novel, and this character, so different, is that Suse brings the same watchful, steady gaze to the thorny question of sexual attraction, as she does to question of whether or not Mr. Nagai, the man who has operated the flower shop on Main street her whole life, ought to be sent to the internment camps with the rest of the “dirty Japs.” Watching Suse’s progress through adolescence and American progress through WWII, it often seems to the reader that both the country and the girl are experiencing growing pains.
Suse lives in the fictional town of Mendoza, California, a small oil refinery town inland on San Francisco bay. Her world is so insulated that, though her parents are Dutch immigrants, she is barely aware of the German invasion of Holland and the brewing war in Europe. This peaceful childhood is shattered by the bombing at Pearl Harbor and the air-raid drills and country-wide war fever that follow.
Suse is smart, but not in a book-learning sort of a way. In fact, she does very badly at school, where she spends most of her time drawing cartoons of “Japs” with their heads blown off. She is smart in the way that only kids can be who watch closely and see everything- when they are trying to grasp all the myriad and mysterious different pieces of this world and make sense of it all. Each new piece of information that Suse learns, changes her understanding of the world dramatically. At some point towards the middle of the book, Suse has a sudden understanding that the people who died in Europe were real people just like herself- that they had thoughts and feelings and emotions and must have hated to die. Suddenly the whole scope of the war looks different to her and her unquestioned hatred of the enemy suddenly dissipates. Can you even remember the days when a complete paradigm shift was possible? Not to mention several in the course of a month?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Last of Her Kind* Sigrid Nunez

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez purports to be the story of a friendship between two women who come of age in the 60’s. In fact, the two women in question are friends for barely more than their first year of college, and though the events of Ann Drayton’s life haunt the narrator’s thoughts and dreams, her actual daily existence is little present in the novel. Instead, this book serves as both an homage to, and an indictment of an era.
The story of the sixties told here is not one often heard in history books or from the reminiscences of those who lived through them. Here are the drugs and free love, of course, but it is not simply marijuana and LSD and groovy be-ins. Making their appearance on these pages are heroin, crystal meth, rape and racism. Woodstock, in this novel, is an event that people never quite get to.
Georgette George, the narrator, moves through the militant activism and the drugged out idealism of the 60’s in a haze of self-obsession so thick, one wonders if she has learned anything at all throughout the course of this memoir-ish novel. Told in a pastiche of styles and a jumpcut of past and present, we learn of George’s bewildered arrival in the hallowed halls of Barnard, escaping from her lower-middle class upstate childhood and abusive mother. Here, she meets Dooley Ann Drayton, a smart and privileged upper-class girl who wishes that she had been “assigned a black roommate.” Ann is compassionate, idealistic, and uncompromising in her beliefs, working tirelessly to create the just world that somehow seemed just within reach in the sixties. She is the “last of her kind” of the title, a person so true to her values that she is willing to go to jail for them, to starve herself, to endure a lifetime of abuse in order to shed her privileged white skin.
And yet Ann is no saint. Her character and motivations are given plenty of space to be complicated, as are George’s own and those of her psychotic sister Solange. These characters are so well situated within their era, that it is clear that they are just as much casualties of 60’s as they are products of it, and the brutal honesty of their stories is immensely refreshing.

The Keep* Jennifer Egan

One never knows exactly who the main character is in Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, The Keep. In this onion of a novel, the reader keeps peeling back layer after layer to reveal and even more intriguing and engrossing plot without ever being sure which of the thee main characters is speaking, or which, even is real.
The book begins with Danny, an aimless thirty-something New Yorker, arriving late one night at an Eastern European Gothic castle where his cousin Howard has summoned him to help convert the castle into a hotel. It is soon revealed that Howard and Danny share a traumatic childhood event which may, or may not, factor into Howard’s reasons for inviting Danny to the castle. It is also soon revealed that this entire story is being told by Ray, an inmate at a maximum security New York State prison taking a writing class in order to get away from his oppressively insane cellmate.
Here are all the tropes of a modern thriller: an ancient castle, ghoulish legends of murdered twins, instruments of torture, an evil baroness locked up in a tower, a troubled childhood secret, and an imprisoned murderer. And yet, as the story progresses, none of these potential points of conflict is revealed to be the one on which the plot turns: none is the dark secret it seemed at first to be.
One has to respect Egan for presenting the reader with such potentially lucrative plot points and then choosing to let them lie. They serve the essential purpose of drawing the reader into the story and driving the plot at a relentless pace, and yet Egan somehow maintains a self- conscious awareness of her own manipulations without allowing the plot to falter. The story that is being told here is not about Danny, or Howard, or Ray, or the ancient castle and the murdered twins. The story is about imagination as a path towards healing and escape. It is about the power of fiction to both imprison and set free.
Egan has crafted a world in which all of the characters are imprisoned in one way or another (if not in a physical jail or labyrinth or keep, then in various mental squirrel cages, including addiction), but she has also given us the key: a world in which magical thinking actually works.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Heir to the Glimmering World*Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick’s “Heir to the Glimmering World is a coming of age novel cleverly disguised as a novel of ideas. This book will satisfy both readers who love a good plot and those finicky word and style geeks who seem to be annoyed at any novel which follows a straight line. The story follows the inclusion of Rose Meadows into the Mitwisser household- a family of scholars (and Jews) escaping from Germany in the early part of the Nazi era. Rose is a feisty, bookish, orphan from a nowhere town in upstate New York who takes the first job available to her because it promises to bring her to The City.
The Pater Familias, Rudolf, is a history scholar who is so obsessed with his field of study that he finds it easy to neglect his family. He hires Rose to help with his research on an obscure branch of Jewish mystics called the Karaites. Though Rose actually spends most of her time caring for the family’s mentally fragile mother, she soon becomes infected with Mitwisser’s scholarly mania.
Also obsessed by the Professor’s strange passion is James A’Bair, a wealthy gadabout who becomes the family’s patron. James is “the Bear Boy,” once a model for his father’s world-beloved series of children’s books. Like Rose, he is also searching for his place in the world, struggling to shake off the idealized image that exists of him as a child. At first an unseen benefactor to the Mitwisser family, James eventually arrives to live with them and sow increased disorder within the already tenuous family structure.
In the quest for purpose, though, it is Rose who is the ‘heir’ to the glimmering world, which refers, naturally, to the world of books. The refuge of literature is offered not only in the professor’s scholarly tomes, but also in the novels that distract Mrs. Mitwisser from her discontented ravings, and in the reading room of the New York Public Library. This is a book about books, but it is not too clever in its literary layerings to also tell a good story. Though wry, agile and wise enough to lift us out of our own lives, this book doesn't once dodge the brutal truths of the world we live in.

The Riders* Tim Winton

Fred Scully’s life is turned upside-down by secrets. In the opening chapters of Tim Winton’s, The Riders, Scully doggedly repairs a derelict old farmhouse in the Irish hinterlands while he waits for his wife and seven year old daughter to settle up the family’s accounts in Australia. The three of them had spent the prior two years traveling around Greece, Paris, and London- Scully picking up any profession he could to support his wife’s ever changing artistic endeavors. When Scully travels to the airport to pick the two of them up, however, only his daughter, Billie, is there. His wife has vanished.
The remainder of the book follows Scully and Billie’s frantic search to uncover Jennifer’s whearabouts, and the secrets that might have made her leave.
At this point the novel takes on the tone of a fast past thriller in which mysteries are lurking beneath the everyday surface of the characters’ lives. The solid, easygoing, trusting nature of Scully’s character is broken apart and everything that he once trusted (his wife, her love for him, their friends, even his love for her) becomes shadowy and insubstantial. As Scully and Billie fly frenetically about the continent, they begin to question not only the reasons for Jennifer’s defection, but also the reality of their own past- was their entire existence a lie? had they missed the truth all along?
The Riders is ultimately a meditation on love- when it is too much, when it is not enough, when it is real. Scully had dedicated the entire purpose of his existence to his love for Jennifer and when she abandoned him, he is left adrift, with only his daughter to anchor him.
The beauty of this book is that the readers, too, are adrift. Winton’s prose is lucid and mesmerizing, but the action and the explaination of the novel are all kept deliberately murky. It is never clear either to the readers or to Scully what might be truth and what is his own paranoid dillusion. Like the eponymous ‘riders’ of the title, Scully spends his entire life waiting (for Jennifer, for the answers, for love) and we wait right along with him until both he, and we, must discover our own truths in the end.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh * Michael Chabon

This, Chabon's first book, is a lovely tale about the first summer after college, an improbable time dizzying and dazzling in promised freedom, a time of bright hope for the future, when many of us decide who we will or will not be. It's also a cliche, a topic written about many times, and the kind of story that in lesser hands would make for a pretty dull book. But Chabon pulls all the tragic beauty and confusion from it. In the end, you're left with a book stunning in its insight, so full of empathy that in many ways I feel it is better than it's more polished brethren. It's the kind of book a writer can only write once and I'm glad he did.

My Life as a Fake * Peter Carey

Using a notorious Australian literary hoax of the 1940's and Mary Shelley's gothic novel "Frankenstein" as a springboard, Peter Carey turns on the power of his creative imagination to produce an extraordinary modern literary horror story. Stylishly written, with a wildly inventive, fantastical plot and wide-ranging settings across continents from London to Australia to Malaysia, My Life As A Fake is a distinctive addition to the fictional world of Peter Carey (if you've never read The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, you have indeed a great treasure awaiting you).
This book works both on the level of the story it tells, and on the level of the issues it raises about the relation of art to its creator. Not only that, but the novel is also a genuine page-tuner. My heart thumped in my chest as I raced to uncover the truth as I neared the end of the book.

Brick Lane * Monica Ali

Monica Ali's gorgeous first novel is the deeply moving story of one woman, Nazneen, born in a Bangladeshi village and transported to London at age eighteen to enter into an arranged marriage. Already hailed by the London Observer as "one of the most significant British novelists of her generation," Ali has written a stunningly accomplished debut about one outsider's quest to find her voice.
The immigrant world Ali chronicles in this penetrating, unsentimental debut has much in common with Zadie Smith's scrappy, multicultural London, though its sheltered protagonist rarely leaves her rundown East End apartment block where she is surrounded by fellow Bangladeshis. The great delight to be had in Brick Lane lies with Ali's characters, from Chanu the kindly fool to Mrs. Islam the elderly loan shark to Karim the political rabblerouser, all living in a hothouse of Bengali immigrants. Brick Lane combines the wide scope of a social novel about the struggles of Islamic immigrants in pre- and post-9/11 England with the intimate story of Nazneen, one of the more memorable heroines to come along in a long time.

Housekeeping * Marilynne Robinson

As someone who usually consumes books at the rate of 2 a week, this book turned the tables: it consumed me and I've been haunted by it ever since.
The language - exquisite and clear as crystal - is perfectly married to chronicling the interior worlds of loss and longing, rendered with such precision and depth that you recognize them as your own. I'm not a sentimental person in the least, but I was unexpectedly moved to tears by the poignancy of passages which express, better than anywhere else in prose, the human search to be known and understood. I found myself reading slower and slower - not merely to postpone the inevitable, but because the writing is so densely beautiful that each sentence is worthy of marvel, so effortlessly poetic and precise as to be almost supernatural.
Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, the eccentric and remote sister of their dead mother. The family house is in the small town of Fingerbone on a glacial lake in the Far West, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transcience.

Slowness * Milan Kundera

In honor of the annual Slow Food conference in Turin this month, I have chosen this lovely small novel from the Czech wunderkind. This is the first novel written in French by Kundera, an expatriate since the Velvet Revolution, and both the length, and some of his witticisms suffer as a result. Nonetheless, this short novel is a gem: tender, witty, intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny in places.
Two tales of seduction, separated by more than two hundred years, interweave and oscillate between the sublime and the comic in this, Kundera's lightest novel. In the 18th century, the marvelous Madame de T. summons a young nobleman to her chamber and gives him an unforgettable lesson in the art of seduction and the pleasures of love. In the same chat at the end of the 20th century, a hapless intellectual experiences a rather less successful night. Distracted by his desire to be the center of attention at a convention of entomologists, Vincent misses the opportunity to be with a beautiful stranger and suffers the ridicule of his peers.
Ruminating on how the pleasures of slowness have disappeared in today's fast-paced, future-shocked world, Kundera explores the secret bond between slowness and memory and the connection between our era's desire to forget and the way we have given ourselves over to the demon of speed. As provocative as it is entertaining, Slowness is Kundera in top form.

Cloud Atlas * David Mitchell

At once audacious, dazzling, pretentious and infuriating, Mitchell's third novel weaves history, science, suspense, humor and pathos through six separate but loosely related narratives. Like Mitchell's previous works, Ghostwritten and number9dream (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize), this latest foray relies on a kaleidoscopic plot structure that showcases the author's stylistic virtuosity. Each of the narratives is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book. I thought David Mitchell was immensely precocious and talented when I read Ghostwritten, though not many of my friends were as taken with it as I was. Having just finished Cloud Atlas, I am thrilled to report that --in my opinion-- his promise has been realized . The book is more than an endlessly fascinating puzzle. Each of the six characters and stories interwoven here are riveting from literary, aesthetic and philosophical standpoints as well as being great narrative page-turners. You might think that Mitchell was six different writers - all equally brilliant. This is not quite like anything you have ever read before - a new form and vision for a new century.

The Emperor of Scent * Chandler Burr

It's unusual to find a book on science that is so highly, compellingly readable. The Emperor of Scent weaves together stories of science in theory and in practice (amazing discoveries, long years of research, stubborn hidebound resistance) and both the allure and industry of perfume, through the figure of Luca Turin, a PhD in biology and a self described "Bio-physicist" who has been practically obsessed with smell all his life . Turin is a scientist out of the mold of Richard Feynman: fun loving, entertaining, intense and monomaniacal. His personality is so compelling and his obsessions are so intense that together they drive the narrative of the book at an unrelenting pace.
Burr is a reporter: his work is well researched and well written. I would never have guessed I could be so curious about smells and perfumes, especially knowing nothing about either from the start. By the time I put down this book I was ready to go out and buy some expensive perfumes. I didn't, but I was ready to....

The Time of Our Singing * Richard Powers

You know that lovely, tantalizing sensation which trickles down the back of your tongue as you fall in love with a book by an author you’ve just discovered, and you suddenly realize that you may have an entire new oeuvre to work your way? That blissful sensation of knowing you rest in the hands of a master, and there’s a heck of a lot more where that came from? That was exactly my feeling upon picking up the latest novel by Richard Powers: In the Time of Our Singing .
While In the Time of Our Singing could most easily be summed up as a novel about race and music, it is somehow about neither music, nor race. It is, most simply, the story of an American family. Richard Powers has populated his book with an engaging cast of characters, thrown them into a period of US history full of upheaval and foment, and written about them with as much elegance and lyricism as any of the best American novelists.
The story unfolds in two time periods at once: In the mid 1940’s when Delia Daley, a young black woman with a talent for singing meets and falls in love with David Strom, a German Jewish Refugee and theoretical physicist. Delia faces the problems of communicating with someone who not only speaks a different language, comes from another culture and nationality, but is also so ensconced in his theoretical physics that he can barely see the world in front of him. Sometimes it seems that racial differences are the least of their problems.
The second story follows their children: the luminous Jonah, whose voice “could make heads of state repent”; little Ruth, who, out of frustration with the nearsightedness of her family, becomes a Black Panther; and dedicated Joseph, who tries desperately to bring his life into focus by following the path laid out by first one and then the other of his siblings.
Though the book is an elegiac meditation on the nature of time, the pleasures of music, and the social construction of blackness and whiteness and everything in between, the real strength of this novel is the richness of the characters. They're all deeply flawed individuals whose wounds are so familiar that through the course of the novel, they begin to feel like that part of yourself you always wish was better, kinder, happier.
In The Time of Our Singing is a long, slow, sumptuous read. It offers a compelling and unique portrait of a moment of American history we all think we know by heart. If anything the book is too slow. Powers is entranced by the genius of his own central motif about the nature of time and returns to it one too many times for my own taste. By the time he comes to his stunning revelation about how the past and the present collaborate each other into existence, I was so steeped in temporal theory that the final moment lost some of the power I’m sure he was intending. Still, it is hard to complain about having too much of a good thing. Indeed, these next months will surely find me luxuriating my way through everything else Powers has to offer and I feel confidant that most folks would be happy doing the same.

A Heart So White * Javier Marias

"My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white"—Lady Macbeth
A Heart So White is a breathtaking novel about family secrets which chronicles with unnerving insistence the relentless power of the past. Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; but when Juan marries, he begins to consider the past anew, and begins to ponder what he doesn't really want to know. Secrecy—its possible convenience, its price, and even its civility—hovers throughout the novel. A Heart So White becomes a sort of anti-detective story of human nature. Intrigue; the sins of the father; the fraudulent and the genuine; marriage and strange repetitions of violence: MarĂ­as elegantly sends shafts of inquisitory light into shadows— and on to the costs of ambivalence.
Javier Marias writes with a style wholly his own, a liquid use of words that create not only rich images, but experiences in time travel, in plumbing the soul of relationships, of the importance of our individual pasts, of the myriad ways a single instant of time can be metamorphosed by a variety of observors. He is able to write a theme and variations, a prelude and fugue, a sentence so musical that its incredible length serves only to endear us to his luminous mind.