Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing: Visions of India

Mira Jacob's debut novel The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing is, naturally and almost too easily, drawing lots of comparisons to Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction. That's because it's a decades-long tale of a family that immigrates from India to the U.S. But whereas Lahiri's fiction is almost always unflinchingly straightforward and earnest, Jacob's contains many moments of levity that kind of sneak up on you if you're not reading carefully.

Here's one example: Kamala's son Akhil paints a mural on his bedroom ceiling, including such important figures to his new left-leaning world view as Gandhi, Che Guevara, and Rob Halford. Kamala explains to friends who don't knew who Halford is that he's a "singing priest." Kamala makes quite a few of these mistakes throughout the novel, and they're always amusing.

But on the whole, you wouldn't confuse Jacob's novel with slapstick by any stretch. There are some weighty issues to be dealt with here, and you get that sense from the opening scene: Kamala calls late 20s daughter Amina and tells her that her father Thomas is having long conversations with his mother; which would be fine, except his mother's been dead for 15 years.

So Amina rushes home to Albuquerque to find out what's wrong. We jump back to India in the 1970s to learn about Thomas's strained relationship with his mother and brother. We ease into 1980s Albuquerque where Amina and Akhil are high school students struggling to fit in as first-generation immigrants. And then we go back and forth between 1998 Seattle (where Amina makes a living as a photographer) and Albuquerque where she tries to right the ship and fend off her mother attempts to hook her up with eligible Indian bachelors.

The story hinges on what really is wrong with Thomas. Have a series of tragedies over the years finally caused him to lose touch with reality? Are his visions simply a coping mechanism? And as Amina tries to keep her own sanity, how does she deal with her own demons...and her constantly nagging mother?
It's a strangely fluid story for as much as it seems to jump around. And despite its 500-page length, it's a story that goes by quickly. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dark Places: Lukewarm Flynn Is Still Entertaining Flynn

You can almost seen the beginnings of Gillian Flynn's megahit Gone Girl in her second novel, 2009's Dark Places. Here, the narrative is told from multiple points of view (though the real-time narrative is first person) and we're not quite sure how reliable any of the characters' perspective really is. While Flynn's story here is as entertaining as ever, this is probably my least favorite of her three novels. But lukewarm Gillian Flynn is still better than at least 50 percent of what I've read this year — and probably 75 percent better, from a writing perspective, than other genre thrillers out there.

So the story for this one: Libby Day is a 31-year-old woman whose family was horrifically murdered when she was 7. Her older brother Ben — 15 at the time — was convicted of the murders based on Libby's testimony, and some weird rumors that he was involved in Satanic rituals. Libby has managed to squeak by for the next 24 years on the kindness of strangers' donations, but not now the money has run dry, and she has to figure out how to support herself.

When a nerdy dude name Lyle contacts her about an "appearance fee" at a club he's a member of, she jumps at the chance, and soon discovers a weird clique of people devoted to "solving" what they judge to be mistaken convictions or other unsolved murders.

Wavering between genuine need for money and genuine curiosity about what actually happened that fateful night in January 1985, Libby begins talking to the principals involved, including her brother who is wasting away in prison and who she's never talked to since her testimony put him away.

The story alternates between Libby's present-day attempts to find the people involved — including her drunk, degenerate father Runner, and Ben's former friend/bully Trey — and the perspectives of people on the fateful day in question, including Ben and Libby's mother Patty, a frazzled single-mother to four kids who is at her wits end about how to run their small farm in rural Kansas.

The setup here is great, but parts of the story should carry a bit of a disclaimer: "Suspend disbelief, all ye who enter here" — especially the ending when we finally do find out what happened to Libby's family. But that's okay — you don't read thrillers to compare them to the authenticity of your own real-world experiences, necessarily. You read them to escape your own real-world for a bit. At least I do. And I did enjoy this for Flynn's fantastic dialogue and intriguing characters. But if you're new to Flynn, definitely don't start with this one. Both Gone Girl and Sharp Objects are better.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Collection of Quotes from Elizabeth McCraken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories

I just learned what many book nerds already know well — Elizabeth McCracken is a magnetic writer. Her new short story collection Thunderstruck & Other Stories is the first thing I've read by her, and I was enthralled. These are stories you'll want to slow down and read carefully because you'll want to underline/highlight just about every other line.

The stories themselves are...strange? They're about characters and places and things you'd probably never have any occasion to consider outside these pages — a drunk who sort of unwittingly collects animals in the French countryside, a kid in a poor Boston neighborhood whose mother disappears, a guy whose wife dies and he rents a house and tangles with his landlord about sprucing it up. If there's a common theme to these stories, it's something along the lines of beauty, authenticity, or just meaning is in the eye of the beholder. And while I realize that's a bit nebulous, the trouble for me in connecting these stories is that it's hard to see the forest for the trees amidst such profound, insightful, ingenious writing.

Indeed, instead of telling you more about these stories themselves (which I mostly really enjoyed, despite constantly thinking, "Hmm, that's an odd vehicle for discussing the notion of mortality or art or love), here's a collection of my favorite passage from this fantastic collection.
“You couldn't believe the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.”
“Most common mistake in the world, believing that physical pleasure and virtue are in any way related, directly or indirectly.”
“It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Nothing better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible.”
“Nothing less tolerable than a godly bird.”
“Nothing sounds more insincere than a parrot speaking French.”
“You can’t just make everything stop so people will look at you.”
"The world goes on. The world will.”
“Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.”

Monday, July 14, 2014

O, Democracy!: O, Silly, Silly Politics

A "Rapacious British Oil Company" has just received permits to dump pollutants into Lake Michigan. It's crazy, but it's perfectly legal. So the Senator for whom our protagonist Colleen works in Kathleen Rooney's fantastic under-the-radar, indie-published novel O, Democracy! holds a press conference to denounce this burgeoning environmental disaster. But the Senator's opponent in the upcoming election holds another press conference and claims that dumping toxins in the lake helps create jobs, and also, there's "some evidence" that plants and animals that live in the lake use these pollutants as food.

It's preposterous! But this anecdote perfectly captures one of the main themes of this novel: That politics are ridiculous. As the staffers for the Senator discuss later, they're sure that at least 50 percent of voters will believe that plant and animal life will actually benefit from swimming in toxic industrial waste — not because it possibly could be true, but because they want to believe anything their candidate says and disbelieve whatever the other guy says. It's not about being factually accurate, it's about muddying the waters just enough to plant seeds of doubt — especially among "low-information voters."

Yes, politics are ridiculous. As Rooney says, they're also funny in a "have-to-laugh-or-you'll-probably-cry kind of way." And that certainly shines through in this novel about Colleen's experiences as a staffer for the Senior Senator from Illiniois. It's the summer/fall of 2008, and election fever — both for the Senator's re-election and for the Presidential election, which includes the Junior Senator from Illinois — is in full pitch.

This novel is based on Rooney's own experiences on Senator Dick Durbin's staff between 2007-2010. Rooney's fictional stand-in for herself, Colleen, dodges blatant sexual harassment by the smarmy yet somehow likeable chief of staff, deals with ridiculous requests from the public (can the Senator get me an extension on my mortgage so I'm not foreclosed on? Help!) and extremist protest groups, and trains new interns, including a former dancer for the Chicago Bulls (a Lovabull) who has dubbed herself J-Lock, and who annoys Colleen to no end.

The big hook for the novel is when Colleen comes into possession of a video that would absolutely destroy the Senator's opponent. She has to decide whether to make the video public — to play dirty politics, as the Senator's opponent, a despicable politician who is using every dirty trick in the book, is.

If you're interested in politics, especially those of the left-leaning variety, you'll love this novel. Rooney doesn't use any real names of people, and the Senator's opponent is totally invented, but if you know politics and Chicago, you'll be able to easily tell who she's talking about. I actually really liked this part of the novel — because when you can decipher her clues, you feel like you're in on the joke. And, each reference – to the 39th governor of Illinois who is currently in jail for corruption (George Ryan) or the current (in 2008) governor of Illinois who has ridiculous hair and will soon go to jail for trying to sell the Junior Senator's seat (Rod Blagojevic) — feels like a trivia contest. So it's just fun! (Oh, and the Rapacious British Oil Company? BP, obviously.)

Anyway, this is a small press book that really deserves a wider readership. It's a novel that's as infuriating as it is entertaining. I loved it!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: "History is the issue"

The title of Tom Rachman's second novel, after his awesome 2011 debut The Imperfectionists, is only slightly grandiose.  The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is actually much less epic than it sounds — it's about a bookish woman named Tooly who is trying to uncover her past. But this novel is still a great read. The title is a nod to the central idea of the novel*: Humans, like great and powerful empires, are built, shakily or firmly, upon their histories. But still, humans, like great and powerful empires, rise and fall, based on making the most of the present.

We first meet Tooly as a 31-year-old tucked away in a tiny Welsh village, the owner of a failing bookstore called the World's End. It's 2011, and all we know about Tooly is that the two years she's spent as the proprietor of the store is the longest she's spent in a single location in her whole life. Then, we jump back to 12 years previous, 1999, and see Tooly as a 21-year-old living in New York City. Then, we leap further back to Tooly as a 9-year-old, arriving with a guy named Paul to live in Bangkok.

Rachman alternates these three threads in each chapter to tell us Tooly's story — we learn as she learns about how her past fits together. Along the way, we meet some oddball characters. Indeed, these characters, as was the case with Rachman's debut, are the strength of his writing. Tooly, in each of her three age-iterations — as a precocious kid, as a young woman not sure about her place in the world, and then as a more mature adult, finally trying to decode her past — is cool, but it's the secondary characters that makes this novel fun. Most notably among these is the Russian fellow Humphrey, who Tooly meets when she's nine, lives with when she's 21, and then goes to visit as he's dying when she's 31. Humphrey is a chess-playing, John Stuart Mills-reading intellectual who is fond of calling people "trivial beings," and messing up hilariously English idioms. There's also the mysterious con man Venn, and the woman who loves him, Sarah, who may or may not be Tooly's mother.

What is Tooly's relationship to all these people? How did Tooly become the person she is now? We read to find out, as she is trying to find out also. Is her entire life — the person she thinks she's become — based on faulty assumptions about her past, and why she trusted those people? Is her own rise and fall (and rise again?) built on a shaky cornerstone, or a solid one that will eventually allow her to settle down and be happy?

Another awesome thing about this novel is that it's a total pander to book lovers, but in a good way. Humphrey is a huge advocate for the reading life, and Tooly often tries to interpret events in her own life through the lens of books she's loved. Near the end, as Tooly organizes some books, she thinks about what the books mean, and comes up with this gem, which is 100 percent exactly how I (and I'm guessing many book lovers) feel about books, too:
"People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained the past — the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one's intellect, whether the work itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty."
I mean, right?! RIGHT?!

Anyway, if you're a fan of character-driven novels told with a bit of pizzazz structure-wise, you'll probably dig this. Rachman is a funny, profound writer who is a pleasure to read on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Highly recommended!

*The title is also a nod, presumably, to a stuffy, similarly titled work of history by a British dude named Paul Kennedy. Here's more about that book, if you're interested.