Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Everything I Never Told You: Subtle Cruelty Is Still Cruel

From the first line of Celeste Ng's deftly crafted debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, we know something has gone horribly wrong for the Lee family. Lydia is dead, and we spend the next 300 pages finding out what led to this promising teenager's untimely and tragic demise. What we learn is just how subtle, even at times unintentional, cruelty can be and still be devastating.

The Lee family lives in a small college town in Ohio where father James is a college professor and mother Marilyn is a homemaker. Their three kids are all well-behaved and academically successful — indeed, oldest son James is about to head off to Harvard. Life should be good.

But appearances, in just about every sense of the word, can be deceiving. One of themes of the novel is how being viewed as different (and the subtle cruelty implicit in such narrow-mindedness) can have devastating consequences. For instance, James is the son of Chinese immigrants and Marilyn is white. From the moment of their marriage in the early 1960s, they've been an oddity to some — most notably Marilyn's mother. And what's more, Marilyn has harbored ambitions of being a doctor, something women rarely did in the 1960s — so she's dealt with the prejudices of being a woman in a male-dominated culture, and for being different in that she isn't satisfied with being a housewife or secretary. Part of the tension in the novel comes from the fact that neither James nor Marilyn ever seem to fully understand how each other feels about their "different-ness." And it creates a rift in their marriage and with their children.

Marilyn has determined that since she hasn't been able to follow through on her dream in the sciences, her daughter Lydia will in her stead. You've heard of crazy sports parents? Marilyn because a crazy science parent. And she pushes Lydia hard, probably way too hard. James also pushes his children — he wants them to be popular, to make friends, to have active social lives — something he never had growing up because he was considered "other." Again, this parental push isn't intended to be cruel, but it has that effect for their children, who feel pressured and uncomfortable in their own skins — and wind up being cruel to each other.

This novel is another great entry in the category of the dysfunctional family story, a "genre" for which I'm a total sucker. But the strength of this novel is that this family isn't dysfunctional on the level as, say, a Franzen family. The dysfunction here, like the cruelty, is much more subtle — and it slowly builds on itself until something has to break.

I loved this book — it's a novel that's as carefully constructed (in terms of structure, moving back and forth in time, and how secrets are revealed) as it is beautifully written. Very highly recommended.



Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Get In Trouble: Ghost Stories, Nudists, Superheroes

The blurb game on Kelly Link's new short story collection Get In Trouble is extraordinarily strong — breathless praise from Meg Wolitzer, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and others, as well as parallels to Raymond Carver in the NY Times, were more than enough motivation for me to give this collection a shot.

Man, I loved it. These are goofy, often darkly funny, but tremendously thought-provoking stories. At their root, however, they're also really fun to read. There are ghosts, runaway teenagers, nudists, sex tapes, hurricanes, burial pyramids, space ships, and superheroes. It's about as packed-with-inventiveness as any collection this side of Karen Russell or George Saunders.

My favorite story in the collection is titled "I Can See Right Through You" — it's about an aging actor who played a vampire in a hit movie in the early '90s (he's referred to as "the demon lover" throughout the story, which just slayed me, for some reason). Twenty-plus years later, he realizes he's still in love with his co-star from that movie (this is in the immediate aftermath of an unfortunate and very public sex tape incident with his current girlfriend), so he travels to Florida to find her. As it happens, she's filming a documentary about a nudist colony that mysteriously disappeared. And to get into the true spirit of the place, they've decided to film the documentary in the nude as well. But our aging actor is distraught to find that his love is unrequited — the actress/documentarian is dating a young stud named Ray. Ray reminds the demon love a lot of himself at that age — which will mean a lot more when you get to the end of the story. It's a fantastically fun read, and a really great conclusion.

Another great story is "Secret Identity" about a 15-year-old girl who meets a man online in a weird role playing video game, and travels to New York to meet him for what we assume is a sexy rendezvous. She arrives at the hotel at which she's supposed to meet him, which happens to be hosting a superhero convention, and waits for him in his room. When he doesn't arrive at the appointed time, she decides to get spectacularly drunk, and then later finds herself involved with a narcissistic, rich man-slut named Conrad Linthor who lives at the hotel. This story veers off into strange places that includes butter sculptures and superhero sidekicks. Again, it's just massively entertaining.

Many of the stories in the collection have real vs imagined, or perception vs reality themes — like the story "The New Boyfriend," in which a young girl finds herself falling in love with her rich friend's Boyfriend Ghost Doll. Imagine Lars and the Real Girl here. Another story is about a group astronauts hurdling through space, and they decide to tell ghost stories. And the first story "The Summer People" is about a mysterious family of perhaps somewhat supernatural beings who live in a huge house on a hill, and a teenage girl who has to take care of them.

There were only one or two of these nine stories that didn't totally click for me, so this is a highly recommended collection. I'd never read Kelly Link before, but as I learned from reading this, her loyal, outspoken fans are certainly justified.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thriller Time! On Child 44 and The Fifth Gospel

Plane trips are great for reading thrillers — and I rolled through two great ones in the last few weeks.

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, is about a series of child murders in 1953 Soviet Union. Our protagonist is the conflicted Leo Demidov. At the start of the novel, Demidov is a lackey of the State — he tracks down denounced "criminals" and interrogates them. That is, until a particular case gives him an attack of conscience — and circumstances beyond his control (a lecherous doctor, an ambitious subordinate) combine to cause him and his wife to lose their positions of prominence. 

Demidov is shipped off to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he soon discovers a pattern of killings that match a murder in Moscow right before he was shipped out (and which he denied was a murder, as he had to). In the Worker's Paradise, there can't be crime — or if there is, it's immediately swept under the rug. So Demidov and his wife join forces to try to solve the serial murders of more than 50 children — but must do so on the down-low because, again, the official State position is that any crime is committed by drunks or simpletons. There's simply no motivation to do crime when life is supposed to be so peachy.

But one of the strengths of this novel is showing just how non-peachy life is in Stalinist Soviet Union. It's cold and dreary and people are always hungry and oppressed and live in fear. It's a terrifying peak behind the Iron Curtain. And it's a riveting thriller (and thankfully, the first in a trilogy). Highly recommended!

A movie adaptation of Child 44, starring Tom Hardy (as Leo) and Gary Oldman is out in late April. The trailer makes it look just as gritty and tension-filled as the book. I'm excited!

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The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell, is a murder mystery, a course in Catholic history, and a treatise on biblical scholarship — the latter two of which, you'll have to trust me, are much more interesting than they might sound. The story is about two brothers — one, Alex, an Eastern Catholic priest (a small denomination of Catholicism that's sort of halfway between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) and the other, Thomas, a Roman Catholic priest. Their father had been a scholar studying the Shroud of Turin — the supposed cloth that Jesus was buried in, but which scientists had determined was a forgery.

This had destroyed their father, and ruined his dream, and he died soon after. So the boys were raised by their powerful uncle Leo. But their father also shared a dream with Pope John Paul II (the novel takes place in 2004, near the end of John Paul's papacy) to reunify the two factions of the Catholic Church. So we get a fair amount of religious history, too — including the reasons for the schism in 1054.

But so the meat the story is centered around a researcher named Ugo who says he's discovered that the scientific testing on the Shroud of Turin was wrong — and the Shroud is authentic. And he can prove it with a book called the Diatessaron that he's found in the Vatican Archives, which is basically is unified Gospel; a combination of the sometimes disparate and/or contradictory stories told in the four main gospels. But the fellow is promptly murdered before he's able to put on his exhibit in a Vatican museum, threatening the possibility for reunification of the Churches. Pope John Paul II had planned to use the exhibit as an opportunity to return the Shroud to the Eastern Orthodox church as a sign of good faith.

So our two priests — the older brother, Father Thomas, is actually accused of Ugo's murder and held secretly somewhere in Vatican City, and our narrator is the younger brother, Father Alex — is trying to solve the crime, as well as determine what exactly Ugo was up to, who is trying stop him, and why.

If you've spent any time in Catholic school, or just have an interest in religious history, this is a novel for you. It reads like a Dan Brown book, only much better written, and not nearly as "thriller cliche" as Brown's books are.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Little Life: Astonishing, Unflinching

This novel is truly astonishing — easily one of the more harrowing, unflinching books I've read in a long time. Sexual violence and unimaginable cruelty are mixed into a story about loyalty, friendship, and the question of whether these truly can overcome all. The effect is that even when there are good times, you're never really comfortable — and so you turn pages frantically. You're truly invested in these characters — and not the least because you follows them for 30 years and 720 pages.

A Little Life is about four friends living in New York City, having just graduated from an elite college and now trying to make their ways in the world. One is an artist, another an architect. One a lawyer, the other an actor. These latter two Jude and Willem are the center of the story — they have a closer relationship with each other than with the other two. We see them in the opening scene renting a crappy Manhattan apartment together, an apartment that becomes a symbol of their friendship and their modest beginnings over the course of the next 30 years.

When we first meet these characters, we know something isn't quite right with Jude. He's damaged, physically and emotionally, but we don't know why. Slowly, strategically, his story is told, and you'll want to prepare yourself.

But to focus on the tough-to-read parts of this novel doesn't give a complete picture. There's hope and good times, there is love and redemption, there is art and morality, and so, so much more. And it kept surprising me — formulaic fiction, this is not. I kept thinking throughout this novel that it reminded what a novel might be like if John Irving was writing on a day his dog died (removing all his signature "preciousness") with Donna Tartt picking up story strands here and there.

I highlighted dozens of passages in this novel, a lot of them about friendship (the overarching theme of the novel), including the following, which is my favorite:
“The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are — not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving — and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad — or good — it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”
My advice to you if you're planning to read this, and you should, because it's great: Brace yourself. Brace yourself not just to be devastated, but also to be dazzled. It's an amazing novel.

Friday, February 20, 2015

In The Light Of What We Know: Dense, Dazzling, Exasperating

Last May, James Wood, the New Yorker's venerable, but often grumpy, literary critic gushed and raved about Zia Haider Rahman's 2014 debut novel, In The Light of What We Know. He called it "dazzling" and "full of knowledge," and I thought, "Hmm...definitely worth a try."

I should've known any novel Wood raves about would be like this: in a word, dense. Plane/beach reading, this is not. The story is essentially a conversation between two really smart fellows — one, Zafar, is telling the other, our unnamed narrator, his story. It's 2008, and we're just on the onset of the financial crisis — our unnamed narrator is a banker, and when his good friend Zafar, who he hasn't seen in many years suddenly shows up on his doorstep in London wanting to tell him his story, it's a welcome distraction from his failing professional life.

Zafar's story involves a beautiful, mercurial woman named Emily, his experiences in Afghanistan in 2002 at the outset of the war, and several snippets of other stories that explore culture, class, and race (he's Bangladeshi, but people are constantly mistaking him as Pakastani or Indian, infuriating him, and negating the sacrifices of his countrymen during the horrific war for Bangladeshi independence in 1971).

The central question of the novel is this: How can we really know anything? Zafar had studied mathematics at Oxford, and is a huge fan of Kurt Godel, and his Incompleteness Theorem. But this question of how we know what we know (if we can know what we know) is also explored through language, religion and faith, and love.

Zafar's story is fascinating — and along the way, he provides us all sorts of tidbits of trivia, interspersed throughout his philosophical meanderings. He's an unusual fellow, to be sure — but insanely smart (as, no question, is Rahman himself).

So it's an often exasperating, sometimes truly though-provoking, periodically entertaining, and ultimately pretty satisfying novel. It took me about three weeks to get through these 500 pages, and I was glad when I finished — I felt like I'd truly accomplished something just by reading this.