Paula Bomer, Inside Madeleine (2014)

August 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I don’t want to jump out any window.  I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living.  They pump the air in here out of machines.  It stinks like Play-Doh.  Open a window, please – I won’t jump – I’m not a suicide patient.  I just don’t eat.

My neighbors don’t eat either.  Eye socket girls.  Nurses drag them with their IVs to the scale.  Some girls get weighed once a day, others, two or three times.  Liquids pump into our bodies through plastic tubing, adding pounds to our emaciated frames.  We don’t like the pounds.  We look voraciously at one another.  We envy the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.

You may think that I don’t know I’m emaciated.  I know every curve and angle of my rib cage.  I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest.  I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face.  This girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself.  I know about these things.  I’m aware of the effects of my disease. (“Eye Socket Girls,” p. 10 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paula Bomer’s third book, the collection Inside Madeleine, is one of the more direct books on women’s issues, particularly body image, that I have read.  The eight stories are raw, sometimes visceral stories of women fighting, often failing, to maintain their sense of identity despite the plethora of pitfalls that await them.  These were not easy stories to read, but Bomer manages for the majority of them to make them compelling reads, leaving me feeling like I was rubbernecking, looking at the carnage of her characters’ lives.

The opening story, “Eye Socket Girls,” sets the tone for the tales that follow.  Set in a hospital ward for anorexic girls, the first-person narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing how she and others like her ended up in treatment.  The passage quoted above, taken from the introductory paragraphs, makes it quite clear that this will not be a pitiable character, but instead a more vindictive one who is convinced by that starving herself, she is defying a system that judges young women by impossible standards.  As she continues her narration, the topic switches to a rather uncomfortable topic:

That’s why people fight us.  No one likes to see a young girl win.  We’re supposed to be nice, well-behaved things.  Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods.  I don’t get my period anymore.  I haven’t bled since I was fourteen. (p. 12)

This is not the standard cautionary tale and in the next story, “Breasts,” the third-person protagonist, Lola, also confounds reader expectations by her uses of her “assets” ending not in trouble, but instead in something more ambiguous.  This is a motif that Bomer returns to several times in the stories that follow, that of a young woman defying social conventions and often, albeit sometimes with visible and metaphorical bruises, making her way through a society that seems bound and determined to see them fail.

Despite the mostly-excellent stories of the first seven tales, it is the novella-length eponymous concluding story that makes Inside Madeleine a memorable read.  It is a tale of a young woman some might call a slut, Madeleine, and how she utilizes her body to get what she wants.  A slightly chubby (this is emphasized at several points early in the story to set up the conclusion) middle school girl, she tries to befriend some high school boys at a local skating rink by going down on them.  As word of her “talents” spreads, her demeanor changes to an outwardly haughty yet vulnerable young woman.  It is her interactions with a socially nondescript boy her age, Mark, and their tumultuous relationship over the intervening years that makes this story a fascinating read.  Bomer pulls no punches, as both Madeleine and Mark have their own issues with manipulation until finally the story spirals down to a conclusion that connects Madeleine’s tale, albeit thematically, with others in the collection.  It is a powerful denouement, one that the reader will not forget anytime soon.

Bomer’s prose sparkles in most of these tales, as her characters feel alive and defiant thanks to her ability to string emotion and setting together with monologues that seethe with frustration and the desire to spite those who presume to keep them down.  The characterizations are top-notch and the plots surprise without feeling illogical or disjointed.  While the middle tales are not as memorable as the ones discussed above, the novella “Inside Madeleine” alone would make this collection one worth reading.  Inside Madeleine is destined to be one of those rare collections that I’ll revisit several times in the years to come.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

August 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I encouraged my patients to floss.  It was hard to do some days.  They should have flossed.  Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years.  It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass.  That’s not the dentist talking.  That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point?  In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide.  But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain – rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve – and what I called hope, what I called courage, about all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, “You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.”

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be.  That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.  The ailing bits he tries to turn healthy again.  The dead bits he just tries to make presentable.  He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch.  He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match.  Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and lone molars stand erect as tombstones. (pp. 3-4)

If you had told me before reading Joshua Ferris’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour that a story centered around a depressed dentist whose love for Red Sox baseball was only matched by his failure to maintain any relationship would be one of the funniest novels released this year, I would have looked askance at you.  But it is true, this novel tackles some potentially drab situations (in addition to the above, add the search of an atheist for some sort of meaning) and manages to find brightness within them.  It is an impressive accomplishment.

Paul O’Rourke on the surface has an ideal life.  He is a very successful New York dentist, having a large practice located in a posh Park Avenue office complex.  However, the rest of his life is a shambles, much of it due solely to his self-destructive behavior.  His obsession over religion and meaning, trying on religious customs as though they were thrift store clothing despite his constant declarations that he is an atheist, his repetitive and borderline creepy conversations with former and current employees, his rapid cycling through of hobbies, all of these show a person on the edge of a complete and total breakdown.  Yet as he keeps circling around his core problems, reluctant to tackle what truly is the cause of his insomnia and mild depression, his observations are genuinely funny.  Yet Ferris’s humor, like much great comedy, does not detract from the root pain and suffering.  Instead, Paul’s humorous observations (including an insane tying in of a dental patient to Ross and Rachel from Friends) about what he experiences happening around him serves to accentuate his inner ennui, his desire to fit in and to find some meaning, any meaning in his life.

Paul’s world, jumbled and rudderless as it is, is turned upside-down when it turns out that someone has created Facebook, Twitter, and a webpage using his dental practice name.  Furthermore, these pages contain religious tracts of an obscure group known as the Ulms, who claim ancestry from the few survivors of the first biblical genocide, that of the Amalekites.  As this “other Paul” makes status updates and tweets despite Paul’s protests, Paul finds himself more and more drawn into what is unfolding.  People relatively close to him, from family to former lovers, find this “new” Paul fascinating in ways that the maladroit Paul just cannot be.  Paul himself begins to find, if not answers, then at least possibilities, to some of the issues, particularly faith-related ones, that have troubled him for years.

For most of the narrative, the story balances precariously between being intense and tedious.  It is a testimony to Ferris’s ability to turn a phrase that moments devoted to the minutiae of matters such as the 2011 Red Sox September collapse end up being wry, attention-grabbing moments that sustain the story through a middle part that is less well-developed than the introduction and conclusion.  There is nothing actively bad about this middle section, but in Ferris’s showing the reader precisely how Paul’s depression and self-defeating actions have constrained his life, the narrative at times too closely resembles this repetitive downward spiral.  However, even in these less interesting moments, there are still moments of profound silliness that break up the monotony of these scenes, making them more bearable for readers.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour succeeds primarily because Ferris’s prose is outstanding.  It isn’t just his clever wit and juxtaposing Paul’s foibles with his monologues, but it is seen in how he mixes in controversial elements like non-faith and religious sentiment to create sparks that kindle a reader’s interest rather than burning away any further desire to read.  The revelations toward the end about who is behind the “other Paul” online identity is handled well and the implications of that revelation tie in nicely with the novel’s thematic explorations of non-faith and the desire to create meaning out of life.  This is not to say that the ending is predictable.  If anything, it is a conclusion that, while fitting for Paul’s character and situation, does not follow standard conventions and yet, somehow, it all works.  To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is sharp, smart, and yet has a compassionate take that makes the humorous elements feel more humane and less biting than they could be, considering the serious topics that are the targets here.  It certainly is a fitting nominee for the Booker Prize and is one of the better humorous novels that I have read in years.

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You (2014)

August 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

She had been naked for less than ten seconds when the snow began to feel hot.  Her body, pale and lean and strong, biceps and things banded with black tattoos, lay basking against the glacial ice; a snow angel overcome by shadows and lights, calm and awed in whatever seconds remained.

The tower scaffolding from the rig flickered, and she could barely make out where the dark stacks cut into the white sky.  Just shapes and brightness.  And she thought of a silent shower of frozen sparks.  And the shhh and hush of sand and desert blindness; how it was here too in the snow where everything shone.  Where everything refracted and blazed and brought the world back to the simple material of itself, of its beauty.  This was all she had ever wanted. (p. 3)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is such a catch-all term.  Originally called “shell shock” and devised to describe a range of psychological and neurological disorders related to World War I, it now refers to a whole host of physiological as well as psycho-neurological changes the body and mind undergo in reaction to repetitive or traumatic stress.  Just saying someone has PTSD is not enough; people vary as much in their reactions as they do in virtually everything else in their lives.  But it does suffice to explain that someone has endured something and is trying to reconcile themselves to the effects.  Due in part to cultural expectations, men and women often manifest PTSD in different fashions.

In her latest novel, Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman tackles the issue of combat-induced PTSD and how it affects a young, recently discharged female soldier, Lauren Clay.  Decades of post-war stories have perhaps conditioned readers to expect violent outbursts punctuated by withdrawal and depression, but very few stories have explored the effects of PTSD on women veterans.  Lauren’s narrative is bracing, not just because of the subject matter, but in the ways that Hoffman explores certain burdens that are more unique in women vets compared to their male counterparts.  The result is a gripping story that unfolds at a steady rate, causing readers to want to pause at times to contemplate what is occurring and at others to want to speed on, to see what the results of Lauren’s actions will be.

The main action unfolds over a two week period following a surprise Christmas 2000′s reunion of Lauren with her family.  Hoffman chooses to open Be Safe I Love You with a prologue set at the very end of the chain of events.  The reader is thrown full force into a powerful scene whose import is not revealed until the same scene, with a few tweaks, is repeated in the penultimate chapter.  This first, poetic image sets the stage for the search to come, that of discovering beauty within a wasteland of emotion and destruction.  This is a very effective scene in that it establishes the internal battle before we are introduced to its causes.

Much of Be Safe I Love You is told in flashbacks.  We see Lauren, who was an aspiring classical singer, join the Army in order to provide the necessary money for her divorced father to afford the mortgage and for her younger brother, Danny, to continue to live there.  In these flashback sequences, we see the conflicts that Lauren feels as she desires to keep her family together while sacrificing much of what she loved in order to achieve this.  Hoffman does not linger overlong on these scenes, but instead she reveals just enough of Lauren’s character to establish a strong, identifiable “before” character before contrasting it with the post-combat, discharged Lauren, who is struggling to reintegrate herself into civilian life.

The key turning point in the novel is when Lauren takes her younger brother, who used to dream of being an Arctic scientist before he began to undergo his own deleterious changes in her absence, to the Jeanne d’Arc Basin in northern Canada.  There she thinks to instill a sense of survival traits in her brother, but it quickly becomes apparent that she is fighting for her own survival.  For her, the snow becomes the desert, the solitude of glacial plains reflecting that of their Iraqi counterparts.  Lauren’s spiraling state is revealed via a close third-person PoV, as those formerly close around her note the subtle changes in her demeanor shortly after her arrival, with these changes manifesting themselves in increasingly worrisome fashion over the course of these fateful two weeks.

Hoffman does an excellent job balancing the reader’s desire to know more about Lauren’s mental state with developing her surroundings.  Lauren’s father and brother, along with former friends and relatives, are fleshed out with short, succinct scenes that never feel extraneous.  Hoffman’s prose manages to convey a sense of the ethereal, where the sublimity of the natural serves as a counterpoint to Lauren’s frustrated desire to reconnect with her old self and her former loves and hobbies.  Hoffman easily could have overplayed this, turned Lauren’s tale into a maudlin affair, but her restraint in giving into these treacly touches makes Be Safe I Love You one of the most poignant postwar-related fictions that I have read.  As the story closes with the initial struggle over, Hoffman leaves the reader with the sense that Lauren’s life is still unfolding, that there will still be peaks and valleys to navigate.  It is a fitting conclusion to one of the better novels released this year.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Richard Powers, Orfeo

August 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The officers swung back toward the front door.  Off the dining room, a study stood open.  The room’s shelves swelled with beakers, tubing, and jars with printed labels.  A half-sized refrigerator stood next to a long counter, where a compound microscope sat hooked up to a computer.  The white metal body, black eyepieces, and silver objective looked like an infant Imperial Stormtrooper.  More equipment covered a workbench on the far wall, glowing with colored LCDs.

Whoa, Officer Powell said.

My lab, Els explained.

I thought you wrote songs.

It’s a hobby.  It relaxes me. 

The woman, Officer Estes, frowned.  What are all the petri dishes for? 

Peter Els wiggled his fingers.  To house bacteria.  Same as us. 

Would you mind if we…? 

Els drew back and studied his interrogator’s badge.  It’s getting a little late. 

The police officers traded glances.  Officer Powell opened his mouth to clarify, then stopped.

All right, Officer Estes said.  We’re sorry about your dog. 

Peter Els shook his head.  That dog would sit and listen for hours.  She loved every kind of music there is.  She even sang along. (p. 7)

Richard Powers’ eleventh novel, Orfeo, can be read on two levels:  a fugitive thriller and as a treatise of sorts on music and biology.  There certainly are grounds for both, as the frame story of a seventy-year-old former music teacher and amateur biologist, Peter Els, getting in trouble with the police for having what appears to be a homebrew bioterrorist kit certainly contains enough twists and turns to satisfy thriller fans.  But it is the flashback sequences, to Peter’s former life and his love for music and his desire to encode music within bacterial DNA, that comprise the heart of the novel.

Powers divides his frame and flashback stories through the use of cordoned-off epigraphs that end up comprising a related story whose impact on the main narrative is not seen until the end.  It is an effective device, as it allows for short, quick transitions without being too abrupt.  As Peter narrates his experiments with his dog Fidelio and her ability to discern tonality, the narrative tenor shifts subtly toward a slower, more rhythmic pace than the sharper, more staccato bursts of dialogue that comprise much of the frame story.  There is a discernible pattern to the prose, almost as if Powers were exploring tonality of a spoken sort within some of these passages.

There are times where the discussion of music and bacterial encoding become almost too complex, too full of jargon.  At these moments, thankfully few in number, the narrative devolves to a series of lists, barely connected to the lives enfolding around Peter’s discoveries.  For the majority of the sections, however, Powers manages to achieve a layering effect by these lists of music and muses, such as this passage:

Reading wasn’t possible.  All Els was good for was music.  Shelves in the front room held three dozen jewel boxes – road trip listening, left here in the vacation home alongside battered Parcheesi sets and moldy quiz books.  Ripped copies of Ella Fitzgerald’s Verve Songbooks, They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a smattering of emo, albums by Wilco, Jay-Z, the Dirt Bombs, the Strokes, and Rage Against the Machine.  There was a time when the proliferation of so many musical genres left Els cowering in a corner, holding up the Missa Solemnis as a shield.  Now he wanted alarm and angry dream, style and distraction, as much ruthless novelty as the aging youth industry could still deliver.

He found a disc by a group called Anthrax, as if some real bioterrorist had planted it there to frame him.  He looked around the cottage for something to play it on.  In the kitchen he found a nineties-style boom box.  He slipped the disc into the slot and with a single rim shot was surrounded by an air raid announcing the end of the world.  A driving motor rhythm in the drums propelled virtuosic parallel passages in the guitars and bass.  The song came on like a felon released from multiple life sentences.  The melodic machete went straight through Els’s skin.  It took no imagination to see a stadium of sixty thousand people waving lighters and basking in a frenzy of shared power.  The music said you had one chance to blow through life, and the only crime was wasting it on fear. (p. 171)

Being familiar with each of the bands listed here, Powers’s description of their sounds struck a chord.  There is an eloquence about his comments about Anthrax’s sound that makes their music come alive for me twenty years after I stopped listening to them regularly.  There are numerous passages in Orfeo that speak to this love of music and how music is so interconnected with language and human desire.  As the story unfolds and we learn more about Peter’s life, Powers manages to weave together the fugitive and flashback sequences in a complex double helix similar to the bacterial DNA he was studying.

There are, of course, other symbolic references within Orfeo, beginning with the titular reference to the mythological musician who sought to bring his bride Eurydice back from the dead.  Powers explores this in subtle ways, with an ending that is fitting without being too contrived or obvious.  Yet ultimately the plot, although for the most part executed well, matters less than how the reader comes to appreciate the musical topic.  For those who are not enamored with music or at least experience some wordless joy when listening to it, Orfeo may be a sonic wall that keeps them from understanding the novel’s full import.  But for others, Powers’ dexterity in mixing musical tonality with a deep, personal story leads to a deeply satisfying tale.  It may not be the easiest or most plot-centric of the Booker Prize nominees, but it certainly contains a beauty in its prose and thematic execution that make it a joy to read.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

August 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

the night was clere though i slept i seen it.  though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still.  when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.  a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.  none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness

none will loc but the wind will cum.  the wind cares not for the hopes of men

the times after will be for them who seen the cuman

the times after will be for the waecend (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel, The Wake, perhaps has the least-traditional history of any of the 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted works.  Originally a crowdfunded novel, The Wake is set in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.  This period, until recent decades, had long been dismissed as being a mostly seamless transition from English to Norman rule, from Old English to Old French being the language of court and literature.  Yet evidence, ranging from folk tales to archaeological records, has revealed that there was at least a decade’s long simmering rebellion against William the Bastard/William the Conqueror’s takeover.  These rebellions, many of which were based in the fens of East Anglia, inspired tales of doomed heroes like Hereward, later given the appellation of “the Wake” in the 14th century.  Certainly in the early 21st century, as we bear witnesses daily via social media and television to struggles of downtrodden peoples to retain at least a shred of dignity in the face of oppressors that seek to wipe out their very languages and cultures, there is something of an echo of these 11th century “last stands” against the rising tide of Norman occupation and dispossession of English landowners.

The Wake is a historical novel that seeks to recreate the mood and feel of these struggles following 1066.  Set mostly in the fen country where the Isle of Ely rebels fought, it is a first-person narrative presented by an ahistorical character named Buccmaster of Holland.  The setting itself has a lot of potential for social commentary about disproportionate land ownership (a regrettable legacy of the Norman Conquest) and freedom fighters, but Kingsnorth makes the bold decision to create a “shadow language,” an English that is stripped of French and Latin-derived cognates and which often uses a slightly-modernized form of Old English orthography, to narrate Buccmaster’s tale.  This is a tricky endeavor, as much of the narrative depends upon the reader being ready to put in the necessary syntax parsing in order to make this enterprise work.  Use too many archaisms or utilize them incorrectly and the entire affair risks collapsing under the weight of its artifice.

However, Kingsnorth adroitly uses this synthetic language to great affect.  In particular, there are instances of clever double entendres, such as the use of “waecend” in the prologue quoted above.  There is the meaning of “the awakened,” but it also bears the sense of “watchful,” of someone who is aware of his or her surroundings.  Buccmaster is certainly “aware” of what has transpired in England; he is caught between several social tidal waves.  He observes the “old religion,” seeing the old English gods in the trees and fens of his native land.  Many of his discourses are related to this connection he perceives between nature and religion, between home and hearth.  The language he uses brings out these connections more readily than any modern idiom would.  As he and others gather in the margins to ready for a final fight against the Norman trespassers, his reflections on his passing world add a sense of gravitas to the situation.

Buccmaster is more than just a passive observer whose reminiscences about the old ways illustrate a fading society.  He is a fighter, possibly touched with madness, and it is the complexities of his character, interlaced with his tales of what the “frenc” have done and how so many are falling in their fight to preserve their lives, that make The Wake such a fascinating read.  The following passage, from near the end of the story, demonstrates well Kingsnorth’s ability to imbue the coming calamity with a sense of urgency without ever abandoning the Anglo-Saxon origins of his synthetic “shadow tongue”:

well there is naht else to do then but tac my sweord and use it as great weland had telt me to cwell them what has torn down all that we is in angland.  this time grimcell is not fast enough he is not locan not thincan i wolde tac him on and no other cums betweon him and welands sweord.  it gan cwic into him with a sound lic the cuttan of mete undor his sculdor and he calls out and locs at the blaed what has gan right through and cum out his baec and he wolde sae sum thing but his muth is all blud.  i locs in his eages what is not agan me now not agan me no mor and i pulls out the blaed hard and he calls then lic a cilde and falls hard on to the fyr and for a sceorte moment he writhes lic an ael on the glaif and then he mofs no mor

well then there is all callan and runnan and roaran and annis mofs lic she wolde go to him but i tacs welands great sweord what is all ofer with his blud and i sae thu (p. 383)

There is a powerful economy of description here.  Whereas a “modern” writer might try to convey this warrior having a sword run through him with a metaphor, Kingsnorth’s Buccmaster recounts this with poetic redundancies.  The sword goes quick into Weland with a sound akin to the cutting of meat, yes, but it is the “not agan” and “not agan” that reinforces the deadliness of this encounter.  This is followed with “all callan and runnan and roaran,” which gives the sense of a burst of immediate, helter-skelter action.  In using this, Kingsnorth hearkens back not so much to Romantic accounts of medieval battle but to descriptions older than Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, to a time when such repetition comprised essential parts of heroic ballads.  Kingsnorth recreates these motifs faithfully without ever making his narrative feel like a dull xerox of medieval legends.

The Wake certainly is one of the more original of the longlisted Booker Prize nominees.  Its prose is challenging, yet once the reader becomes accustomed to its quaint rhythms, it becomes a very lyrical story, one which utilizes several narrative tricks not usually explored in novel form.  Its protagonist, Buccmaster, is a surprisingly complex character, one whose thoughts and actions resonate with readers well after his final words are spoken.  The themes, especially that of resistance in the face of an inevitable defeat, are presented well and are universal enough to address issues beyond those of late 11th century English society.  Taken as a whole, The Wake is an impressive effort and certainly justifies further consideration from the Booker jury.


Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls (2013 UK edition; 2014 US)

August 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The tanks blow their way down the street cloaked in a white pall of smoke.  Kawsar props herself up on her elbows and looks through the side window.  Her neighbours try to flee, hidden in a haze of cement dust, but bright sandals and dresses give them away and the soldiers drop to their knees and shoot at the ghostly figures.  Overhead there is the groan of a plane’s engines and then sweeping down from the direction of the airport she sees a MIG with the Somali flag on each of its wings.  Kawsar feels the air swarm about her and steal the breath from her lungs as missiles peel off the clanging tin roofs of the neighbourhood.

She collapses back onto the bed and pulls a blanket over her face, fearing that a bomb will explode through her roof in a matter of seconds.  Both she and Guryo Samo have reached the end of their time; the soldiers will return the street to the desert, unplug the stars, shoot the dogs and extinguish the sun in a well. (pp. 204-205)

Before the civil war era of 1990s Black Hawk Down or the pirates of the Red and Arabian Seas of the 2000s, Somalia was ruled for most of the 1970s and 1980s by General Mohamed Siad Barre.  Already there were tensions between the military and the populace, between various groups, especially after Somalia lost its Soviet patronage to neighboring Ethiopia.  In her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, Somalian-British writer Nadifa Mohamed traces the lives of three women during the tumultuous 1987-1988 period that preceded Somalia’s descent into civil war.  It is a snapshot of imperiled lives at the cusp of a cataclysm, but also a testimony to the endurance of hope when all seems to be turning to dust.

Mohamad’s three characters represent different facets of 1980s Somalian society.  Kawsar, a widow in her mid-50s who has lost not just her husband but also several stillborn children buried in her fruit orchard, endures much in her life.  Her husband, a policeman, was abandoned by the dictatorship after he proved to be too honest and unwilling to take bribes.  Her assault by pro-government forces on the eve of a rally in the northwestern town of Hargeisa sets the stage for much of what follows.  Filsan is a corporal, the daughter of a prominent military official who has in turn berated her and protected her from practices such as female circumcision, who has been sent to Hargeisa to help quell the incipient rebel uprising occurring there.  Her story symbolizes the conflict between the Marxist-influenced government and traditional Somali customs.  Deqo is perhaps the most heartbreaking figure of the three.  Orphaned at a young man, never knowing who her father was, Deqo finds her way to the dictator’s rally at a local stadium in Hargeisa, hoping that her dancing will earn her a pair of shoes.  She ends up being taken in as a maid at a local brothel, where the prostitutes are given names such as “China” and “Karl Marx” in reference to their clientele.

Mohamed alternates between the three, devoting long chapters to establishing their backstories and the reasons why each has come to be in Hargeisa on the eve of this momentous rally.  These stories are gripping due to Mohamed’s mixture of keen observant reflections from each of the three women with short, staccato dialogue bursts that break over the narrative like the distant gunfire of the latter chapters.  In each character, Mohamed explores gender and social divisions within Somali society, illustrating issues that became even more important after full-blown civil war broke out.  Moments such as this observation by Kawsar punctuate this sense of coming calamity:

It is not so painful to die when all that she knows is dying around her.  It seems as if the world has been built just for her and is being dismantled as she departs. (p. 277)

Yet despite the setting and the events that occur within, not all hope is lost.  In her final section, Mohamed revisits these three characters after their first encounter in Hargeisha and through the wartime devastation, with body counts mounting and buildings, like the government, collapsing, there is still a desire to live, a need to create some stability in the midst of chaos.  It is fitting at Deqo, who has known nothing of family, has the final lines:

She is back in her familiar world; the war and all that time in Hargeisa just a complicated trial to achieve what she has always wanted:  a family, however makeshift. (p. 334)

The Orchard of Lost Souls is not perfect, as there are times where each of the three narrators seems to become too passive of observers in the conflict that envelops them, but it does serve as a vividly-told story of hope in the midst in destructive violence.  Mohamad’s characters possess their own voices and views on the unfolding national tragedy and while at times they might slip too much into the backdrop, on the whole they serve as witnesses for what was happening to Somali women during this time.  There is a sense that their stories carry on after the concluding scene and with it, hope is carried with them out of the conflict, where it might bear fruit in a new orchard away from the fighting.

Lorrie Moore, Bark (2014)

August 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off.  His finger had swelled doughily around it – a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends.  “I’m going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed.”  The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a fucking happy vine.  “Maybe I should cut off the whole hand.  And send it to her,” he said on the phone to his friend Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society.  “She’ll understand the reference.”  Ira had already ceremoniously set fire to his wedding tux – hanging it on a tall stick in his backyard, scarecrow-style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter.  “That sucker went up really fast,” he gasped apologetically to the fire marshal, after the hedge caught too, and before he was brought overnight to the local lockdown facility.  “So fast.  Maybe it was, I don’t know, like the residual dry-cleaning fluid.” (“Debarking,” p. 3)

I had mixed reactions after reading the eight stories in Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection in sixteen years, Bark.  It is a relatively slight collection, eight stories (two of which are perhaps more properly novellas than short stories, comprising roughly half of the book) spanning 192 hardcover pages.  In these stories, Moore covers some rather sober, perhaps dark, themes on mortality and human foibles, but there was just something missing from most of these stories to make them truly memorable.

The first story, “Debarking,” is perhaps emblematic of this.  When I first read it several weeks ago, I recall quickly catching on to the narrative rhythm of this nearly fifty page story.  The protagonist, Ira, is that sort of familiar loser most of us know in passing in our personal and professional lives:  divorced, vaguely despondent, tries to use occasionally outlandish humor to make himself barely relevant in the lives of others around him.  “Debarking” describes his character being stripped down, being exposed for the flawed human being that he is, with a host of characters, particularly a divorcée he is introduced to at a party and with whom he becomes briefly involved in an affair, helping lay bare just what sort of a person Ira truly is.  It is a well-executed character takedown, one of the better-told in the collection, but there was also this sense of hollowness, a central emptiness that defeats purpose, that ultimately weakens this story.  Ira is so commonplace that perhaps his fate just really fails to spark any sort of sympathy.

The second story, “The Juniper Tree,” is a ghost story, yet it is a curiously-plotted one.  The narrator’s female friend, Robin, is dying in a hospital and the narrator is waiting for her boyfriend – who was an old flame of Robin’s – to pick her up to take her to the hospital.  She fails to go in time and Robin dies.  What follows next is as much a dream sequence as anything truly supernatural, and a host of recriminations and those petty little jealousies that exist most strongly around close friends emerges over the course of an odd celebration in which Robin and other friends of the narrator flit about, often with some rather strange conversations and actions taking place.  It took three readings for it all to snap into place and while the story’s structure is very well-done, just like in “Debarking,” the conclusion to “The Juniper Tree” fizzled out, leaving me feeling as though I had drunk soda that had been opened a week before.

“Paper Losses” was the most vicious of the stories in Bark and perhaps the best in the collection.  Two soon-to-be-divorced parents take their children on a long-planned vacation.  Each has plotted and schemed what he or she is going to do to the other.  Moore sets the stage beautifully with this:

It was both the shame and the demise of them that hate like love could not live on air.  And so in this, their newly successful project together, they were complicitous and synergistic.  They were nurturing, homeopathic, and enabling.  They spawned and raised their hate together, cardiovascularly, spiritually, organically.  In tandem, as a system, as a dance team of bad feeling, they had shoved their hate center stage and shown a spotlight down for it to seize.  Do your stuff, baby!  Who’s the best?  Who’s the man? (p. 65)

The story builds upon this mutually-nurtured hate, as it manifests itself in several ways during this excruciating vacation in which each other and their own children get in the way of the various revenge/sex plans that each has developed.  This is not a rage story, however, but one of how contempt affects each spouse’s views, not just of the present, but also of the past and present.  It is short, sharp, and very effective.  Yet its well-drawn, emotionally thwarted characters serves to point out just what was lacking in the majority of these tales:  a rage, a desire to howl at the moon in frustration, a burning desire to strip away the raiments of one’s life and to start anew.  The near-deadness of other stories’ protagonists is perhaps Bark‘s most noticeable flaw.

Bark ultimately is a collection that I can appreciate more than I can say that I enjoyed reading.  Moore’s prose is full of clever, biting wit and yet too often her characters seem too exhausted, too beat down by life for their stories to sustain any sort of interest generated by these funny asides.  No story is actively bad, but rather they feel almost too well-constructed, too polished, to justify having such failed characters inhabit them.  Bark‘s stories are “just there” and that is a shame.

William T. Vollmann, Last Stories and Other Stories (2014)

August 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

If you have never loved with such luminous fidelity as to await a dead lady at a crossroads at midnight, then the question of why it is that Romania produces fewer vampires now than in old times must seem insoluble to you.  Timidity becomes its own excuse; and perhaps you have not dared even to see your own spouse naked, much less encoffined.  Many there are nowadays who refrain from kissing a dead forehead.  A wife dies alone in a hospital bed, in the small hours when the nurse sits down to sleep, while the janitor rests his chin on the handle of his mop.  At mid-morning the husband peeks in to identify her; next comes the undertaker to nail her up, or, as may be, the coroner to slit her open.  Ashes to ashes, promises the minister, but should she refrain from decaying in that fashion, who will be apprised of that wondrous miracle except for the true heart who comes to the crossroads at midnight to share a kiss?  Satan, they say, can speak even from a rotting skull – a mere assertion seized upon by you who have never loved bravely.  Insisting over the sad sighs of your conscience that you would not be able to distinguish her from Satan, you decline to visit your own wife, forgetting that loneliness is the Devil’s work – and what could be more lonely than a beautiful dead lady returning to the cemetery without a kind embrace from anyone? (“The Faithful Wife,” p. 199)

William T. Vollmann’s latest story collection, Last Stories and Other Stories, is not for the faint of heart.  The thirty-two short stories in this collection are set in locales such as Bosnia, Trieste, “Bohemia,” Mexico, Norway, Japan, Paris, Toronto, and Buenos Aires, yet each possesses certain commonalities with the other stories.  In these tales of death and hauntings, of love beyond the grave and putrescent lust, Vollmann explores certain aspects of human desire in a fashion that can leave some readers squeamish.  For those who are not warned off by this, Last Stories and Other Stories may be one of the more memorable ghost story collections in recent years.

In several of his stories, especially the early ones set in 1990s Bosnia, Vollmann carefully mixes together fact and fiction (the notes at the back of the book testify to the thoroughness of his research).  It is no spoiler to say that death frequently greets lovers in Last Stories and Other Stories.  It’s how Vollmann presents death as another aspect of desire and lust that makes for some interesting turns of phrase.  In the opening story, “Escape,” a Bosniak and a Serb are cut down crossing a bridge in Sarajevo during the 1990s siege of that city.  There is a Romeo and Juliet sort of quality about this tale, of two lovers defying the nationalists who sought to divide the region into countries divided by a common language.  The final paragraph captures well some of the themes that Vollmann explores in later stories:

At least they agreed that Zlata had been shot first.  It must have been an abdominal wound, for she kept screaming (for hours, they said, but I hope they exaggerated) in that puddle of light which the enemy had trained on No Man’s Land.  Zoran, trying hopelessly to drag her back into the besieged city, was shot in the spine with a single rifle bullet, then shot again in the skull, which, considering the distance, might be called fine marksmanship, although on the other hand the snipers had had months to learn the range.  Some embellishers claim that Zlata had not yet escaped her agony even at sunrise.  Whether or not this is so, everyone agrees that the corpses of the two lovers lay rotting for days, because nobody dared to approach them.  Eventually, when the international press made a story out of it, it became an embarrassment, and another truce was arranged.  And it turned out just as Zoran had promised his bride, for they were buried in one grave. (p. 10)

This story, based on the real-life tragedy of Bosko Brkić and Admira Ismić, introduces a couple of elements that recur later.  First is the tragedy of their love.  Several stories in this collection, including “The Faithful Wife” quoted at the beginning of this review, tie love and death, lust and rot together in unholy unions.  Vollmann tends to linger over these moments of transformation, when the soul departs the body, creating narrative dissonance.  Readers, accustomed perhaps to seeing love with life, may be startled to read detailed, matter of fact descriptions of lovers’ bodies rotting together for days, or a narrator pining for the good old days of faithful husbands and vampiric wives.  Yet somehow Vollmann manages to make these stories work despite the often questionable content.

There are also direct connections between the stories and sections.  Characters whose fates the reader learns in one tale appear as legends or secondary characters in another.  Ghosts are peripatetic creatures, gloaming entities whose haunts frighten yet entice us.  Vollmann utilizes this seeming contradictory quality to great effect in many of his tales.  “The Judge’s Promise” in particular illustrates this odd appeal that the ghastly has for many of us:

But often he returned to that black garden where the skulls basked like crocodiles, and the lovely blue undead women loitered in the grove of hand-trees, and there he tried calling on the demon Brulefer, who granted his prayer, so that all those women loved him happily.  The deeper down he went, the more he began to believe, if only to console himself, that he must be digging for something, perhaps the water of life or death, although the glowing, coagulating atmosphere he swam into down there addled him so much that he sometimes hardly gathered what he was about; nonetheless, you will be relieved to know that he remained capable of mapping and memorizing everything.  Just as Bohemia’s crown jewels lie hidden underground near Saint Wenceslas’s tomb, so the precious matter of the vampires and their kin entombed themselves right beneath the cemetery of H______, which after all is the center of the world. (p. 265)

As he makes thematic and character connections between his stories, Vollmann explores certain concepts, particularly traditional gender roles, that verges perilously close to misogyny.  This is not a casual sexism where women are viewed as lesser than men, but rather a sometimes active exploration of stories where women are the sacrificial victims, the despoiled virgins whose “virtue” has been seized from them by their rapists, the lustful vampires who yet return meekly to their living husbands.  This content at times made me uneasy, although I suspect part of that was by intent, as if Vollmann perhaps were exploring the seedy underbelly of traditional ghost stories that revealing in its full rancidness the depravities and sexual inequalities so frequently associated with horror tales.  It is not a topic easy to consider dispassionately, but it is one that will certainly affect the reader’s enjoyment of this collection.  For myself, realizing that discomfiting descriptions and analyses of these elements lie near, if not at, the center of these tales made it easier to read.  Vollmann certainly does not shy from exploring the creepy elements inherent in ghost and horror fictions and for the most part he succeeds in crafting intricately woven tales that explore these issues through many angles, with only occasional moments of dull, monotonous prose.

Last Stories and Other Stories is not one of those collections that I would lightly recommend to others.  Yet I do not regret reading it, despite the occasional moments where I would read a particularly graphic passage and wonder if I should continue.  It is an intense collection, one that explores its themes with a precision that is remarkable considering the content material.  It certainly is a memorable one, as some of Vollmann’s expounding on his topic material have impressed themselves upon me, with some vivid dreams resulting.  It is a gloriously troubling collection, one that has sparked more narrative lightning about me than most other collections combined have managed to do in recent years.  Perhaps “haunting” is the best epitaph that I can give it.  The question remains, however:  do you want to be haunted by it?

Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing (2014)

August 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

There might be people in this world who can read minds against their will and if that kind of person exists I am pretty sure my husband is one of them.  I think this because of what happened the week I knew I’d be leaving soon, but he didn’t know; I knew I needed to tell him this but I couldn’t imagine any possible way to get my mouth to make those words, and since my husband can unintentionally read minds, he drank a good deal more than usual that week, jars of gin mostly, but tall beers from the deli, too.  He’d walk in sipping a can hidden in a paper bag, smile like it was a joke.

I would laugh.

He would laugh.

Inside our laughing we weren’t really laughing. (p. 8, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Borrowing its title from John Berryman’s “Dream No. 29,” Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody is Ever Missing, is a very powerfully constructed tale of a life that caroms off the path expected by others.  Initially, it can be read in two ways:  a look at a life out of control, or alternately, as a journey taken by someone who feels overly constrained by what others desire from her.  Ultimately, twenty-eight-year-old Elyria’s voyage confounds easy expectations of either direction, as what she encounters and what washes over her are emotions and experiences that defy easy categorization.

Nobody is Ever Missing begins with Elyria’s planned decision to flee not just her marriage to a math professor, but from her career and previous life.  At first, the reader does not understand why Elyria has booked a flight from New York City to New Zealand, but gradually over the course of 256 pages some of her backstory is revealed:  she was a CBS soap opera scriptwriter; she had an adopted sister die by suicide; and there are troubles in her marriage deeper than what is initially revealed in the beginning chapters.  Lacey does not divulge this information at once.  Rather, she parcels it out in flashback reminisces and in brief conversations with passing strangers.  For the most part, this is very effective, as it permits her to keep the narrative focus strictly on Elyria’s immediate predicaments, although there are times where it would have been helpful to have had her past fleshed out a bit more in order to understand just where she was emotionally and why she kept fleeing.

There is no concrete, external plot other than witnessing how a chain of events, some of them unfortunate, can affect a person and lead to them choosing to act in certain ways.  Elyria is a sharp, observant character, filled with a black wit, as seen in her comments at the beginning of Ch. 2:

They looked and made quick calculations:  a 7 percent chance of con artistry, 4 percent chance of prostitution, 50 percent chance of mental instability, 20 percent chance of obnoxiousness, a 4 percent chance of violent behavior.  I was probably none of these things, at least not at first, but to all the passing drivers and everyone else in this country I could be anything, so they just slowed, had a look, made a guess, kept driving. (p. 10)

Nobody is Ever Missing is full of these observations.  As Elyria hitchhikes across New Zealand, traveling toward the home of a one-time acquaintance who had once breezily offered her a place to stay if she ever visited, she encounters a host of characters.  Some of these are described and dismissed over the course of a single paragraph, others, like Jaye and Werner, receive more attention.  In these character interactions, Elyria’s own character is presented as a ghostly double.  Her own self-evaluations are countered by others’ remarks, with short quips often serving as a unveiling of some of the mysteries behind Elyria’s actions.

These scenes, intriguing and powerful as they are, would not contain much force if it weren’t for Lacey’s skills as a stylist.  Her sentences shift from languorous, meandering thoughts on the people and natural beauties around her to sudden, almost staccato dialogue bursts.  This creates an interesting narrative rhythm in which pages of observational detail are punctuated with these sharp comments that break up lulls in the action.  The result is a narrative that rarely loses its focus and manages to balance adroitly between self-reflection and narrative development.  Nobody is Ever Missing is one of the better debuts I’ve read this year precisely because Lacey has managed to construct a nearly-perfect narrative style to suit the complex, conflicted character she’s exploring.  The conclusion is at once surprising and fitting.  The journey Elyria and the reader have undergone has left both in a different emotional place from whence they had set out.

Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year (2014)

August 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

For a moment, I paused in front of the wall of Salinger books and looked at the titles, the familiar spines.  My parents owned most of these:  paperbacks of The Catcher in the Rye and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – an Introduction; a pristine hardback of Franny and Zooey.  But I had read around them.  Why?  Why had I skipped Salinger?  Partly due to happenstance.  My high school English teacher never assigned Catcher.  No older sibling put a copy in my fourteen-year-old hands and said, ” You have to read this.”  And then my Salinger moment – the window between twelve and twenty, when everyone in the literate universe seems to go crazy over The Catcher in the Rye – had passed.  Now I was interested in difficult, gritty fictions, in large, expansive novels, in social realism.  I was interested in Pynchon, Amis, Dos Passos.  I was interested in Faulkner and Didion and Bowles, writers whose bleak, relentless styles stood in stark opposition to what I imagined Salinger to be:  insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious.  I had no interest in Salinger’s fairy tales of Old New York, in precocious children expounding on Zen koans or fainting on sofas, exhausted by the tyranny of the material world.  I was not interested in characters with names like Boo Boo and Zooey.  I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita.  Even the names of the stories seemed juvenile and too clever-clever:  “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”  “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”

I didn’t want to be entertained.  I wanted to be provoked. (pp. 51-52 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Memoirs are tricky beasts to tame enough in order to review them.  Trying to lasso a writer’s experiences and perspectives in, to place them within the context of your own assessments is more difficult than merely assessing plot, prose, characterization, and theme.  A memoir can be filled with beautifully-flowing sentences and gorgeous images and be as full of life as a vomit-covered toilet after a night of vapid partying.  Some stories just need more than technical brilliance in order to justify their raison d’être.  Perhaps it is as little as a fleeting encounter with another human being, a little yet profound twist in one’s life narrative direction, but something is needed to help the reader to latch onto something, anything while reading about the minutiae of another’s life.

Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her 1996 experience working at a New York literary agency (which she refers to throughout as simply, “the Agency”), however, has several things about it that make it an interesting and entertaining memoir.  Her descriptions of life working for one of the oldest literary agencies and their rather antiquated office procedures provides a fascinating look into New York publishing just as it was changing higgledy-piggledy into the digital age.  It is also an examination of the casual sexism that many young professional class women experienced in the era in which the debate raged over what type of suit/dress to wear.  Yet these are only part and parcel of her overall experiences during this defining, transformational year.  It was the year that she became acquainted with J.D. (“Jerry”) Salinger.

Salinger only directly appears in a few scenes of My Salinger Year, mostly in the context of the numerous fan mails that Joanna, as literary assistant/secretary, has to answer with a form letter informing them that Salinger does not read nor reply to his fan mail.  Yet it is in these letters, from adolescents in North Carolina to World War II veterans in Nebraska, that reveal Salinger the writer’s influence much more than anything the man himself says in the course of his periodic and brief phone conversations with the Agency’s workers.  Reading these scenes reminded me of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran in its discussion of how literature can impact readers’ social perspectives and be an agent for change.

And yes, Salinger (or the combination of his endearingly awkward phone conversations, the fan mail, and Rakoff’s eventual reading of his œvre) acts as a catalyst on Rakoff.  Her relationships with two men, her former fiancée and the failed novelist live-in boyfriend she had that year, changes as she reads Salinger’s stories and sees elements of his characters in them, particularly Franny in relation to Lane.  These revelations are organic, never appearing to be forced or stretched.  By memoir’s end, Rakoff has changed from the nervous and determined to be proper young professional described in the opening Winter section to the resolute, independent-minded young woman who resigns her position in order to continue her personal and professional development elsewhere.  My Salinger Year is the story of Rakoff’s development, due in part to her belatedly encounter with Salinger’s writing, and it is a fascinating one for how adroitly she mixes the literary and the personal to create a breezy yet at times profound read.  Highly recommended.