Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bonita Avenue: Dutch Disaster, Dysfunction

If you haven't heard of Dutch novelist Peter Buwalda's debut novel, Bonita Avenue, don't feel bad — but you're going to want to take note. The novel was published in the Netherlands in 2010, and after a successful run in Europe, including several awards, it's only just made it into translated publication here in the US this January.

Thank goodness it did — what a crazy, massively entertaining novel! It's part Franzen in that it includes a deeply dysfunctional family that prides itself in keeping secrets from each other. It's part Philip Roth in that the protagonist is a crusty old dude with some, er, sexual quirks. And it's part Coen brothers (especially Fargo) in that it's about everyday people that seem to go off the rails due to bad decision, which in turn cause them to do really bad, sometimes violent, things.

The story is about a family and its patriarch, Siem Sigerius, a world famous mathematician (not an oxymoron), former world-class judoku (a person who does judo), and head of prestigious Dutch university (self explanatory). His mid-20s daughter (though she's actually a step-daughter) Joni is dating a guy named Aaron — these two get up to some schemes, to say the least. And finally, it's about Siem's estranged son Wilbert, an ex-con pervert who has just gotten out of jail after serving ten years for killing a guy with a sledgehammer. (Evidently the Dutch legal system is a tad more forgiving than ours.)

The plot of the novel is centered around a real event — on May 13, 2000, a fireworks factory exploded in the Dutch city of Enschede, taking out an entire neighborhood. This event has a ripple effect for all these characters, setting forth a series events that ensures things won't end well for many for them. (That's not a spoiler - you have that sense from the opening pages.)

One of the themes of the novel is how fate or coincidence or pure randomness (Siem had taught the math of coincidence and chance theory when he was a professor at MIT and then at Berkeley before returning to Holland) can have just as a big an influence on our lives as our choices (of course). But coincidence can compound already bad decisions. Indeed, when we make bad choices, and then lie, and then make more bad choices, and then a dash of fate is thrown in, the consequences are multiplied exponentially — like, say, an explosion, like say, at a fireworks factory.

By the way, if you're wondering, Bonita Avenue is a street in Berkeley — it's where the family lived when Siem taught there. For Joni, it's a symbol of her happy childhood, before the world and all its destructive powers, both self-inflicted and random, intervened.

This is a brick of a novel — more than 530 pages. At some points, it does feel a bit over-written, but at other times some weird stuff happens that isn't full explained, so overall, I had no quarrels with the length. The only caveat is that if you need likeable characters to like a book, this isn't a novel for you. Personally, I would've been willing to spend several hundred more pages with these delightfully despicable characters. Though definitely not perfect (what novel is?), this is a highly entertaining family saga, and highly recommended.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Kind Worth Killing: Devious, Deceptive, Incredibly Entertaining

Peter Swanson's devious, deceptive, incredibly entertaining thriller The Kind Worth Killing is your next choice in the "If you liked Gone Girl, you'll like..." progression. This novel includes all the requirements: Dueling narratives, despicable characters (that at times you can't help but root for), several twists, and a fantastic ending.

It's the story of a man named Ted, who has made millions in technology, and who strikes up conversation randomly (or is it?) with a woman named Lily at a bar at London Heathrow airport. They talk the whole flight home to Boston, and Ted reveals he's recently caught his wife Miranda cheating on him with a contractor building their McMansion on the coast of Maine. Ted decides, after several drinks, the best solution is to kill her. She doesn't deserve to live for what she's done to him. She is, indeed, the kind worth killing — a sentiment his new friend Lily wholeheartedly endorses, and therefore decides to help him plot to murder her.

Intermingled with Ted's tale is Lily's story as a teenage girl living in rural Connecticut with her hard-partying artsy parents — her dad is actually a famous novelist. When a pervert visiting artist named Chet does something gross to teenage Lily, she decides to get her revenge.

From there, much like Gone Girl, the less you know going in, the more fun your reading experience will be. Needless to say, the plot to kill Ted's wife doesn't exactly go as planned, and things get pretty crazy from there.

Often, Swanson reveals a plot point or engineers a twist, sometimes out of the blue, and at the time, it seems a bit off, or unearned, or just too random. (Through the first 100 pages, I kept thinking, "Why would Lily, a stranger, be so willing to help Ted kill his wife?") But one of the strengths of the novel is that then Swanson fills in the back story, and it makes sense...and is usually ingenious. You have to trust the writer here, and he'll reveal the reasons eventually. That's not always the case in thrillers — where sometimes, stuff just happens, and there is no good reason why. Here, there's always a reason — and it's why this is such a tightly spun, well-built thriller.

Another strength is the character Lily — she is such a sweet sociopath. Unlike Amy from Gone Girl, who we soon learn is pure evil, Lily maintains a semblance of rationality throughout. And that's why you find yourself continuing to root for her, even as she does awful things.

As we know, The Girl On The Train has been anointed  the undisputed Next Gone Girl champion, and I liked that novel well enough. But I actually liked this one better. It's a helluva a ride, and highly recommended. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

God Help The Child: Morrison's Dark Fairy Tale About Child Abuse

I have to be honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's new novel, God Help the Child, which is out today. As has been her trend over her last several books, this one clocks in at just under 200 pages. And as with all her novels, she creates a work that feels whole in just a short number of pages. The departure for Morrison with this novel is that it takes place in present day — the first of her novels do so.

The novel is a dark modern-day fairy tale about child abuse. It's not a difficult novel style-wise — indeed, some reviewers have called this Morrison's most accessible novel — but it's a novel that is an uncomfortable reading experience for at least two reasons.

First, it includes some unflinching depictions of sexual abuse of children — our main narrator, a beautiful woman named Bride witnessed a sexual assault as a little girl, which has scarred her for life. Her boyfriend Booker's older brother was sexually abused and killed as a child, and Booker has never recovered. Both of these factors, we eventually learn, contribute to why Booker and Bride's relationship ends right at the beginning of the novel, but we don't quite understand why until we read a bit further. (The plot itself is very straightforward. Bride's mother Sweetness has never liked her. Bride and Booker break up. Bride attempts to help a jailed woman. Bride goes searching for Booker. Some weird stuff happens. That's the gist.)

And the second reason this is an uncomfortable read is that I don't know what it all means, and that's what's most unsettling about this story for me. Yes, child abuse is horrific. Yes, love can make us whole and be redemptive (or when withheld, devastate us). And maybe that's enough to understand — especially in such a relatively short book. But there are some fantastical, fairy tale-esque elements in this novel too — and likely, you'll have to expend some mental energy figuring out what it means, how it's all connected, and what you ultimately take away from this story. It'll likely be a different interpretation for each reader. And that's okay. Fiction doesn't always have to serve up all the answers easily and neatly.

But even if you don't fully understand the story, or even much like it, you read Morrison because she's Toni Morrison. There are passages of such profundity and beauty that you realize how lucky we are that, at age 84, she's still writing. Here's one example that I particularly liked:
The piece of sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of gleaming knives pointed at her and aching to be released.
In the end, I'm glad I read this — it won't be my favorite Morrison novel ever. But what're you gonna do, not read the new Toni Morrison? No, you're not going to not read the new Toni Morrison.

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.