Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

What a long time it took me to read this unusual and often disturbing novel about Jamaica. It is structured as one brief first-person narrative after another from a large cast of characters, so large that a reference list is included at the beginning to help readers keep up with who is who. Almost all accounts are written in Jamaican patois, which often had to be read several times, sometimes aloud even, to make sense (and sometimes I never quite understood what was being said). It is certainly not brief -- almost 700 pages.

The story begins in the ghettos of Kingston in 1979, centered about the (real-life) failed assassination of the reggae singer Bob Marley, just before the Peace Concert by which he intended to foster peace between the violently warring political/criminal factions of his beloved Jamaica. From there, the action follows the fortunes, criminal activities, and fates of the assassins, extending finally to the United States in 1991. Along the way, the novel reveals a picture of a country beset by poverty and corruption, and of the innocent victims of the resulting lawlessness.

The most fascinating aspect of A Brief History of Seven Killings is the skillful way James manipulates narrative voice, making each of his many speakers sound distinctively individual. Also, he is very clever in the way he reveals character, while simultaneously telling a story and conveying background about Jamaican history. This guy is quite a writer.

On the other hand, the plot could have been tightened considerably by the omission of superfluous incidents and explicit sexual detail, neither of which served any purpose, that I could see. It was necessary to portray violence, of course, but it was often needlessly graphic.

So is A Brief History of Seven Killings worth the time and effort? For me, yes it was, but it might not be for people who have busier and more time constraining lives.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

Atticus Lish's New York City is surely the most depressing place on earth, filled with dirt and squalor and violence and the most mean-spirited people imaginable. This is a portrait of the American Nightmare.

On these mean streets two lost souls meet and fall in love -- an illegal immigrant from China and a drugged ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. Never for a moment, though, does the reader imagine that this will be a tale of redemption through love; from the very first an atmosphere of doom hangs over the two. I can't remember when I've read a more depressing love story.

I must admit that Atticus Lish did a very good job of achieving his desired effect. The ultra-violence he portrays is particularly chilling because of the matter-of-fact way it is treated. The many, many conversations are revealing and seem authentic. The many, many details of setting serve to highlight the hopelessness of the environment. I felt dirty as I read, as in actually needing a bath, because of all the descriptions of dirty clothes and bodies, trash-filled rooms and streets.

The writing style also adds to the total effect, being one jerky simple sentence or fragment after another. It actually made me jittery, which speaks to his talent, I guess (presuming he wrote this way purposefully), but also means that I found the book quite unpleasant to read. I also felt that Lish got carried away in creating atmosphere, with page after page after page of descriptions of city streets, naming every store and bit of trash and unsavory smell along the way. I wanted to tell him, "Enough already. I get the picture."

Preparation for the Next Life won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year and was named to several Best of 2014 lists, but that does not mean that most people would enjoy reading it. An author can choose a message and convey it remarkably well and still produce a very distorted and ugly view of life, and I believe that's what Atticus Lish has done.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

This 2014 novel has to have the most misleading title ever. It's mostly about men who have suffered violence and abuse as children who then have turned to violence themselves as adults. Yes, one of the men does fantasize about imaginary beings, but those imaginings are rather grim, not at all enchanting in the usual sense of the word.

The story, as narrated by a death row inmate in a fortress-like prison, centers around a woman, known only as The Lady, who as a death penalty investigator is assigned to find reasons why her clients should continue in prison rather than go to the death chamber. Through her, we learn the nightmarish background of one such prisoner and something of her own history as well, which is disturbingly similar. Through the narrator, we learn of the corruption and cruelty of life in the prison and of the methods the inmates use to keep from being mentally and physically destroyed. This is an altogether bleak read, for the most part. And yet some characters do find redemption, of one sort or another.

Denfeld provides us with many things to think about: the consequences of child abuse, the failures of the prison system, the burden of guilt, the paths to forgiveness, among others. I did not find The Enchanted to be enchanting, but I do believe it to be well worth reading.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

After I finished reading this novel, I would have sworn that it was written by a 72-year-old reclusive bookworm of a woman, so believable is the voice of the narrator. Instead, I found that the author is a man in his 50s. My second thought was that Alameddine must have known such a woman intimately, one who was much like me, except more well read and more intelligent and slightly more introverted. That's how I know what an amazing book this is. Whether Alameddine patterned his character Aaliya after an actual person or created her entirely from his own mind, she is authentic and real, and readers who are not aging women, as I am, should just take my word for it.

Aaliya lives alone in an apartment in Beirut, Lebanon, retired from her job as a bookstore manager, spending her days reading books and translating especially beloved ones into Arabic, an activity which gives her some purpose and "makes time flow more gently," even though she never shows the translations to anyone. She is divorced from the husband of her youth, her only friend is long dead, and she is estranged from her mother and half-brothers. She is polite to her apartment house neighbors of years, yet holds herself distant from them. She knows all about their lives from overhearing their morning coffee klatsches, but they know next to nothing about hers. Through the events that Aaliya remembers, the author also tells the story of strife-torn Beirut and the resilience of its people.

Despite expectations, given that Aaliya's life would not appear to be very cheerful, this is often a very funny book, because its narrator's comments are wryly self-deprecating and cleverly ironic. For me, however, the novel's main attraction is the narrator's ever constant comments about books and authors, particularly as our tastes correspond. (See, I've slipped back into thinking this fictional person is real.) Aaliya has given me many books to add to my reading list. I trust her judgment.

This is a must-read for bookworms, old women, and anyone else who cherishes masterful writing. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Outstanding quote: "I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

This is one of those "Emperor's New Clothes" books for me. The cover and inside first pages are full of glowing reviews from reputable sources: "marvelous," "brilliant," "haunting," "riveting," and so forth and so on. And I'm over here saying, "But wait, are we talking about the same book? I don't see any of that at all." Obviously, somebody is mistaken.

On Such a Full Sea is yet another dystopian/literary fiction crossbreed, the story taking place in some future time when society has splintered into fragments. The elite live in villages called Charters, with mansions and servants and boutique shopping. The workers who produce the goods required by the elite live in labor colonies, where they maintain a middle-class lifestyle, although somewhat crowded together. The rest live in the counties, where they exist in a hard-scrabble and lawless environment. Fan, a teenaged fish tank diver in B-Mor, a colony which produces fish and vegetables for the Charters, leaves her home to search for her boyfriend who has mysteriously disappeared, apparently whisked away by the Charters because he is genetically immune to the fatal C disease. The stage is thus set for a journey across a potentially dangerous landscape where she encounters a series of perils. Nothing very original here: McCarthy covered this quest scenario in The Road, and the plot device was not original with him.

The story of Fan's quest is told in third person plural, presumably by the collective voice of her fellow residents of B-Mor (once Baltimore), giving it the flavor of oral mythology, particularly because the details of the journey could not, in reality, have been known to the tellers of the tale. Consequently, Fan never seems to be a real person; her feelings and thoughts are unknown. That also means that the reader has no emotional investment in her fate, no more than he would be concerned about the success of Jason (of Golden Fleece fame). This is one of the most emotionally detached modern novels I have ever read.

But perhaps the most bothersome aspect of the novel for me was that Lee's dystopian world just didn't make logical sense. With roadways in disrepair and no rail service and lawlessness in the land, how did the many luxury goods from the labor colonies even get to the Charters? Why would the mere fact of Fan's having left B-Mor make her a subject of folk legend? This is certainly a very "thin" description of a society and its structure.

The best dystopian novels are those which serve as warnings, taking current disturbing trends and following them to logical tragic conclusions. That's why 1984 is still referenced today when we observe our own government's surveillance of its citizens. As far as I can tell, the only warning here would concern the stratified class system and the almost insurmountable difficulty of rising from one class to a higher. Certainly we see that trend in America today. Yet, Fan merely observes events and in no permanent way solves or even attempts to solve the problem. This whole novel seems to be to be a pointless adventure tale, without much originality or merit.

I've said my piece. It's up to others to offer reasons why I am wrong.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

The "eternal triangle" is certainly familiar to us, both from real life and from fiction, and yet the love triangle Lily King portrays here is unique and uncommonly intense. The setting is exotic: the remote jungle villages of New Guinea in the 1930s. The three participants are unusual people: brilliant anthropologists who are studying native tribes. The passion is (perhaps) uncharacteristic: as much an affinity of the mind as a physical sexual attraction. The inevitable destructive jealousy is anomalous: more professional than sexual.

King's story was inspired by the real life anthropologist Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands. But beware of doing as I did and reading up on Mead's life before starting the novel, because the real and the fictional do not play out in the same way at all.

The fascinating and passionate account of intellectual discovery as the three anthropologists collaborate is more the heart of the narrative than the physical love affair, and that, more than anything else, is what makes this a very unusual version of a very stock situation. King conveys her absorbing story with complete believability and emotional depth. My only criticism would be that the ending is a bit contrived and melodramatic for my tastes.

This 2014 novel was the Kirkus Prize winner and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. I recommend it highly.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a picaresque novel of sorts, with the hero Desiderio traveling from one bizarre adventure to the next. (Think Gulliver's Travels.) He is searching for the elusive Doctor Hoffman, who has somehow altered time and space and reality to turn Desiderio's home city into a hallucinogenic cauldron of illusions with no room for reason. He is also spurred on his quest by his desire for the seductive Albertine, Doctor Hoffman's daughter, who appears to him in many guises.

This is, however, Gulliver's Travels by way of Dali, surrealistic in the extreme, with myth and symbolism and philosophy and dreaming and psychology and who knows what else so mixed up together that it makes little rational sense. On another level, though, it makes perfect sense. At least I think it does.

All of the above is to say that I comprehended maybe only half of the book with my intellect, but I felt that I understood it even though I cannot articulate it.

This is a very strange and unique book, probably not one to be appreciated by everyone. It contains multiple incidents of what would be deemed perverted sex, and, though it is not erotic at all, the sexual happenings alone would be more than enough to condemn it for some. The plot is fragmented and not easily understood, so it cannot be enjoyed as one would a conventional novel.

But the language! Carter masterfully mixes lush, baroque prose with plain, straightforward narrative, perfectly reflecting the dichotomy between emotion and reason which is central to the meaning of the book. In psychological terms, they would reflect the conflict between the ego and the id. (At least I think that's what this is all about. I could be wrong.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

What parent, with the best of intentions, has not attempted to set his or her child on the path to happiness and success in life. What parent has not then consciously or unconsciously pushed that child in a direction that will lead to the fulfillment of the parent's lost dream, not the child's dream at all. Everything I Never Told You gives us a portrait of such a family, where this universal behavior is carried to the extreme, with tragic consequences.

Here both the mother and father focus their attentions on the oldest daughter, Lydia, inexplicably virtually ignoring two other children. The mother wants Lydia to become a doctor, because her own medical school plans were interrupted by unplanned pregnancy; the father just wants Lydia to be popular, because he has never fit in socially. Because she wants her parents to be happy, poor Lydia feigns an interest in science and math to please her mother and pretends that she has many friends to please her father, while slowly realizing that she will never be able to meet her parents' expectations. Then the fragile structure of the family is shattered by Lydia's death by drowning.

This novel is sometimes almost unbearably depressing as the reader sees how oblivious the parents are to reality. Unfortunately, the author's attempt to salvage a tentatively happy ending is entirely unconvincing, particularly the mother's sudden epiphany and change in behavior. In real life, people do not alter life-long patterns so quickly and easily.

I was never entirely sure how the author intended the subtext of the parents' differing racial heritage (a Caucasian-American mother and an Asian-American father) to figure into the narrative. I don't believe she was pointing a finger at society for rejecting the Asian-American father, but was, instead, indicating the sense of otherness and alienation felt by a member of a minority group, regardless of the reactions of those around them.

This is a page-turner novel, a one-day or two-day read. The characters themselves seem very real, even when their actions seem illogical. It is emotional and instructive in equal measure, warning as it does of the perils of lack of communication and understanding within a family.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

This #5 Barsetshire novel is more sly and subtle than the previous of the series. On the surface, it would seem to center on the heroine Lily Dale and her reaction to being jilted by her fiance', Crosbie. Historical evidence indicates that readers of that time admired her continued allegiance to her faithless lover and that she was a favorite Trollope character, even though Trollope himself commented later that she was a "prig." In reality, however, the real focus would appear to be on John Eames, who also loves Lily, as he matures from being a "hobbledehoy" (an awkward callow adolescent male) into a responsible and admirable adult.

I would not have known without reading the scholarly introduction that Trollope patterned John Eames on his own life, but that fact adds much to an understanding of the character, as he blunders about, often behaving foolishly but always with good intentions. He is a very sympathetic and interesting character indeed.

As always with Trollope, all of the characters are treated fairly and seem to be very real people, because we learn not only about their actions, but also about their motivations. Even the villain, Crosbie, becomes somewhat sympathetic as he realizes what a terrible mistake he has made. Still, the reader is given a feeling of satisfaction when he receives his just punishment for his perfidious betrayal.

This Barsetshire novel is not as satirical and humorous as some of the others, but it has its funny bits. I especially like the name of a self-important bureaucrat--Major Fiasco.

It is not all necessary to have read the other Barsetshire novels to enjoy this one.