Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Leavers: A Morally Complex Immigrant Tale

Lisa Ko's absolutely heart-wrenching debut novel, The Leavers, is a terrific exploration of both the cruelty of our immigration system and also how difficult it is for those coming to the U.S. to find opportunity to actually find that opportunity. Ko's novel won the Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction last year — novelist Barbara Kingsolver's annual award for a previously unpublished manuscript that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. It's amazingly worthy recipient — this is a book that needs to be in the world!

The story is about Polly Guo, a Chinese immigrant, who, in the first few pages of the novel, disappears, leaving behind her 11-year-old son Deming. No one has any idea what happened to her, not her boyfriend Leon, or anyone else who knew her. So, because Leon (a Chinese immigrant as well, who then returns to China, ostensibly to search for Polly) and then his sister Vivivan can't afford to care for him, Deming is put up for adoption and brought in by a well-meaning middle-aged white couple, who moves Deming away from his NYC home. Again, with only the best intentions, they change his name to Daniel, so he'll fit in better in their small, predominately white college town in upstate New York.

Even in the opening pages of the novel, we get a good glimpse of Polly's character: She's a strong-willed, outspoken woman who constantly strives for a better life for herself and her son, despite the obstacles thrown up in front of her. At the time she disappears, she is contemplating taking a job at a restaurant in Florida, and she's been trying to convince Leon to go with her. But both he and Deming are resistant, not wanting to leave their lives in NYC. So there's a huge question: Did she abandon her son and her relationship for a better life for herself? Or did something else happen?

The rest of the novel alternates between two threads of story. We learn more about the circumstances under which Polly came to America: As a young woman, after moving from her tiny village to the huge city of Fuzhou, and getting a taste of big city life and opportunity, Polly took out a massive loan from a Chinese loan shark to come to the U.S, leaving her father behind. Ensconced in a tiny, all-Chinese-immigrant apartment in New York City, she goes to work at a factory, doing a similar job she did in Fuzhou, but for much better pay. Oh yeah, and there's a big caveat: she's pregnant. Needless to say, life isn't easy, and when Deming arrives, she loves him, though she wasn't totally sure she wanted him (planting the seed of doubt in our minds — might she really have abandoned him?), and life gets even harder.

For Daniel, as a 21-year-old struggling musician and failed college student living with his friend Roland in New York City, life isn't easy either, but in a different way. Despite an ugly online poker addiction which has ruined his life and alienated some of his friends, he still has the safety net of his adopted family, who keep urging him to go to back to school, and pull strings for him so that he can. But as he gets more disillusioned with his adopted parents trying to control his life, he begins to wonder about his mother — and begins to takes steps to try to find her.

The revelations come fast and furious as the novel nears its end, and even once you and know and understand what happened, you're still not quite sure what to think about these characters, their motivations, and why they did what they did. It's the best kind of novel: One that really makes you hunker down for a good think once you're done.

One of my favorite novels of last year was Imbolo Mbue's Behold The Dreamers, a story about Cameroonian immigrants struggling to make ends meet in America. One of the strengths of that novel is its moral complexity — how there are no real winners, mostly losers because of our broken immigration system. And The Leavers explores similar themes, though I think I actually liked this one more: It's one of my favorites of the year so far: A timely, thought-provoking, immensely entertaining novel!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Men Without Women: Murakami's Stories About Lonely Fellas

May is unquestionably the best month for new collections of short stories in recent memory. Last week, Richard Russo published Trajectory, which is awesome, and this week, Haruki Murakami, published a new collection titled Men Without Women.

(As well, Joshua Ferris — he of Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour fame — also published a collection titled The Dinner Party, which I haven't read yet, but will very soon.)

Murakami's new collection includes seven stories tied together by the common theme of lonely dudes with unusual relationships with women. Several of these stories are delightfully mundane by Murakami standards, but that doesn't mean they're in the least disappointing. There's a theater actor who hires a woman to be his driver, and unloads the story about his wife's death and possible infidelities. There a fellow who gets a call in the middle of the night informing him a former girlfriend has committed suicide. And there's even a shut-in whose care-taker comes over, has sex with him, proclaims to have been a lamprey eel in a past laugh, and tells him various stories (yeah, this last one is probably approaching the Murakami you know and love).

But my favorite in the collection is actually the most Murakami-ish. It's titled "Kino," about a guy named Kino who catches his wife cheating on him with one of his co-workers and quits his job to open a bar. Weird things happen, including a cat that shows up periodically (I told you it's Murakami-ish). There's a mysterious guy named Kamita who comes in periodically and sits at the end of the bar reading big books. Kamita eventually warns him that he needs to close the bar and escape. Which he does, though he's not sure why. And it rains a lot, and he finally feels sadness about his divorce. It's so awesome, such a strange, mysterious little story.

Another story, titled "Samsa In Love," is also just amusingly weird — Murakami imagines if Kafka's cockroach woke up as Gregor Samsa, a reverse Metamorphosis! And the Samsa character is surprised when he discovers sexual desire for a handy-woman who comes over to fix a lock.

The most serious story is "Yesterdays," which weaves Murakami's love of the Beatles with a story about how love is often about timing, and how about reminiscing about love often gives it more weight than it had in the moment. It's a really terrific, insightful story — about the most "normal" thing from Murakami I've read. I loved this one too.

There are a few misses here, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Murakami is just so droll, here, so strangely goofy, that you can't help but smirk along with him.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Trajectory: Russo's New Volume of Terrific Short Stories

We're living in charmed literary times, friends! Last May, Richard Russo published Everybody's Fool, a sequel to his novel Nobody's Fool, and there was much rejoicing because it was excellent. Today, he publishes Trajectory, a new volume of short stories — only his second (after 2002's The Whore's Child & Other Stories).

Trajectory is fantastic! There are only four stories here, but three of them are longer than average short stories. This includes the near-novella length "Voices," about an aging and perhaps disgraced English professor named Nate who is visiting Venice with his older brother, a shady dude who seems to have involved Nate in one of his schemes. Nate and his brother Julian have serious reckoning to do, both with their shared past, but as well as their individual pasts as well.

All four of these stories, in fact, are about aging people — college professors, a writer, and a real estate agent. In "Horseman," an English professor named Janet catches one of her students cheating, and then begins to question whether her own academic career is a fraud. In "Intervention," an aging real estate agent, who may or may not have cancer, tries to sell a house owned by a stubborn woman who won't get rid of her stuff to an obnoxious Texas couple in the dead of Maine winter at the height of the Great Recession. Challenging, to say the least.

My favorite story in the collection is the last one, "Milton and Marcus," about an aging novelist named Ryan who has dabbled in screenplays to help pay the bills. Now, he's hoping to return to the realm of the silver screen to secure health insurance from the Screenwriter's Guild for his ailing wife. He flies to Jackson Hole to take a meeting with a famous actor-turned-producer who wants to make a movie from the start of a screenplay Ryan wrote 10 years ago for another actor who has since died. While he's there, we're treated to an account of the sneaky, cynical, backstabbing nature of the movie business, and it's utterly fascinating, if not a bit sad. This story is Russo at his best — his understanding of human nature and feelings and motivations is just unapproachable. As well, this story felt the most autobiographical of any in the collection. Really terrific.

If you're a Russo fan, this is a must-read. He's absolutely at his the height of his game here — his little jokes and folksy aphorisms ("all hat and no cattle," eg) are all here, as is his typical whip-sharp insight. He's just a fun writer to read, whether short story or novel. This is highly recommended!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The One-Eyed Man: A Perfect Novel For These Troubled Times

In these troubled times, you never know what will be someone's last straw of relative sanity. In the case of K, the protagonist in Ron Currie's funny, ripped-from-modern-culture new novel, The One Eyed Man, it's hand soap. Why hand soap? Because this hand soap insists on calling itself "liquid hand wash." And that just seems absurdly stupid to him. 

Why this bottle of liquid hand wash, of all the nonsense I’d encountered in nearly forty years on the planet, was the thing that suddenly sent me over the edge, I cannot say. I will simply report what I know: that there in Tony’s bathroom I was visited by the hammer-stroke certainty that the culture I counted myself a part of, the culture that had weaned and reared me, had become proudly, willfully, and completely divorced from fact.

If you like this paragraph, and I intensely do, you'll probably really like this novel. These lines form the cornerstone of K's life strategy going forward. He decides, partly because of this moment of clarity and partly because something has snapped in him after his wife's death from cancer, he'll make every decision in his life based only on pure facts, not on emotion, not on manipulation, and not on what others think.

And furthermore, he decides to confront stupidity in all its forms. As one example, he takes on a redneck with a racist "WHOSE NEXT" bumper sticker. This earns him a punch in the face — the first of many beatings he takes as a result of his new policy about resisting bullshit in all its forms. One of the things I love about this novel is that it's partly about the sheer amount of stupidity we have to either deal with or ignore simply to get through an average day. Most people can relate to that.

K's new outlook, combined with the small measure of fame he achieves by breaking up a robbery at a coffee shop at the beginning of the novel, lands him a reality TV show called "America You Stoopid." Here, he takes on all our worst unexamined assumptions and stupidities, and those who hold them to be gospel — no one is safe, not liberal, conservative, religious person, or atheist. Currie (and K) reserve particular contempt for gun nuts, which leads to a spectacular, almost Stephen King-esque ending.

I've loved both of Currie's other books I've read, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and Everything Matters!, and I loved this too. In this world of "alternate facts" and constant purposeful manipulation of the truth, even at the highest levels, this novel really lands solidly. But beyond that, as always with Currie's writing, it's just madly entertaining. It's definitely dude-lit, but without the often annoying self-deprecation that hallmarks most dude lit. There are no punches pulled here. And it's terrific. Highly recommended. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dark At The Crossing: On The Syrian Civil War

If you don't know much the about horrific tragedy of what's happened in Syria in the last several years, Elliot Ackerman's terrific, taut, engrossing new novel Dark At The Crossing is a good first step to learning. But as good as this novel is, it's not a war novel. Instead, it's a story about the terrible, no-win choices — the trade-offs one has to make, the pangs of conscience one has to ignore — war creates for those whose lives have been devastated by war. 

Ackerman's bona fides to write about the Syrian Civil War are beyond reproach — he served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and won a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Bronze Star for Valor. He currently is based in Istanbul, covering the Syrian Civil War war for various news outlets.

The novel is about a guy named Haris Abadi, an Iraqi-born, American-naturalized would-be warrior who was an interpreter for US troops in Iraq, and now is attempting to cross into Syria from Turkey to fight for the Syrian Free Army. It's 2014 and ISIS is beginning its rise, creating a three-way conflict between themselves, the rebels (Free Syrian Army), and Assad's regime. Abadi, who has some demons to exorcise from his service in Iraq, hopes to earn redemption by fighting for what he sees as a just cause.

But he makes it no farther than the Syrian/Turkish border before he is promptly robbed and left to fend for himself. He's rescued by a man named Amir, a Syrian living in Turkey who works for a "research firm," preparing reports about the war for foreign governments. Amir, and his wife, Daphne's, young daughter was killed in an explosion in Aleppo, and Daphne has never quite recovered.

So as the novel unfolds, Daphne and Haris form a bond, and endeavor to help each other get across the border, each for his/her own reasons. But how will they accomplish this? What part of their souls will they have to sell?

I took a chance on this novel after writer Nicholas Mainieri recommended it, and it's one I'll highly recommend as well. It's as engrossing, authentic-feeling, and well-written as anything I've read this year. If you've read and enjoyed novels/story collections like Phil Klay's Reployment, David Abrams' Fobbit, Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, or Ross Ritchell's The Knife, all novels written by soldiers, you'll love this too.