The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

It has been over a year since my last post, but not over a year since I’ve read a novel!!  Time and life have gotten away from me.  But the book I stayed up last night to finish has forced me to take some time out of my holiday in order to share the sheer beauty of an artfully crafted tale.

Tea Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia, but spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt.  She immigrated to the US in her teens.  The Tiger’s Wife, published in 2011, is her debut novel.  (As of yet, a sophomore attempt has not been published.)  For a young writer, Obreht has scores of accolades already and, based on The Tiger’s Wife alone, she is well-deserving of every bit of praise.

The Tiger’s Wife sparkles with a magic that an author cannot learn – it has to be in your soul, and Obreht’s soul was pulsating.  The relationship she crafts between Natalia and her grandfather creates an easy pathway between family lore, magic, and the present.

“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather’s breastpocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and yellow pages.  I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites passages to me.”

And so begins a story that is just as much Natalia’s as it is her grandfather’s.  Obreht cleverly weaves in and out of the present, juxtaposing stories passed down by Natalia’s grandfather with the present – stories that are full of magic and horror, love and loss.  The tiger’s wife, the deaf-mute who earned her rightful place as the namesake for the novel, has a story most beautiful and tragic.  Natalia’s grandfather’s memory of her, a memory of his youth, is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.  A talented man whose closeted homosexuality and family obligations create a monster of a husband when all his hopes and dreams are shattered by his father.  A lost tiger in the war who finds love and sanctuary with a deaf-mute who was never the intended.  Cowards of men who fear the tiger and so seek to destroy.  A man made bear by legend.  A man, the nephew of Death, who could not die and travels throughout the story without aging, taking souls to his uncle in the hopes that he will one day be free.  An elephant led through the city in the magic of the night.  The breaking of a coffee cup.  Cheating death.  The magic of The Jungle Book.  A war torn zoo.  Animals turning on themselves and each other under the wail of sirens during air raids.  Teenage rebellion during a war.  Stolen skulls and lungs.  Forty days.  A war torn country where neighbors, family members suddenly become “the other” and sides must be chosen.  A tiger who hasn’t been seen in years, but who is always there.

Natalia is defined by her grandfather’s life and stories, as such, the tiger’s wife is just as much a part of her.  Even after her grandfather goes to meet Death like the old friend he is, the tiger is still there.

The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon has been dubbed the “new J.K. Rowling” in literary circles worldwide since her first published novel hit the scene in August 2013.  In 2012, she signed a 6 figure deal with Bloomsbury Publishing, giving the company publishing rights to the first three books in a seven book series.  Let me repeat myself: this Londoner, born in 1991, signed a 6 figure deal with her first book.  (Well, this isn’t her first book, but no one jumped at her first attempt.  Maybe AURORA will be published someday, but more likely than not, writing that first book was the learning experience necessary to make this book the gem it is.)  The price tag plus the book’s subject matter, make the leap to Rowling relatively expected.

But Shannon is not the new Rowling.  Paige Mahoney is not the new Harry Potter.  The Sheol I is not Hogwarts.  And Rephs are not deatheaters.  If one wants to make a comparison, Suzanne Collins and THE HUNGER GAMES are more fitting.  Paige is what Katniss would be if I actually liked Katniss.  My thoughts on THE HUNGER GAMES are not a secret: I enjoyed the first book, tolerated the second, and hated the third.  Before I can 100% say that THE BONE SEASON > THE HUNGER GAMES, it would be fair to read the rest of the series, which isn’t out yet.  (Hurry up, Samantha!  Type!  Type! Type!)  But the fact that I am hungering for more from Shannon leads me to believe my initial assessment is correct:  Shannon is a better writer than Collins.  Her Oxford connection makes me want to anoint her leader of the New Inklings (and grab a pint with her at the Bird and the Babe).  But enough about the author – let’s talk the book.

Set in 2059, THE BONE SEASON was an unexpected, fast-paced, sci-fi, helluva ride.  I couldn’t put the book down and read it in two sittings.  (Partly why I am so enamored – it’s been a bit since a book hasn’t let me go.)  Paige, the Pale Dreamer, is fascinatingly constructed.  She’s caught in that spot of a child forced to grow up too quickly, but childishness comes out in the most natural of ways.  She’s not forced into being a character that does not read believable.  Quite the contrary, Paige’s realness is what makes this book work so well.  It doesn’t seem fantastical and forced – it’s like a dream that you wake from and can’t tell if the dream was real or not because it felt real.  At one point, the Warden requests that Paige literally put down her walls so that he can enter her dreamscape and see the memories she keeps locked away.  The one she opts to show him is an extremely heartbreaking memory that is just so damn relatable.

I know my book reviews tend to be spoilers, but I cannot spoil this book for anyone.   Read it.  Now.  I cannot justify ruining one of the better books I’ve read in a long time for the sake of a review.  It would appear Bloomsbury landed a great literary whale when they bagged Shannon.  I cannot wait for her next book.  But until such a time, I encourage you to make a purchase (and you know me – I like softbacks and used books because hardbacks tend to be SO expensive… this is worth the hardback price…) and read this before the movie.  This is a book a movie can ruin.

 

NW – Zadie Smith

I have long considered myself a fan of Zadie Smith, though she is not a writer I’d ever want to have a drink with.  I have this strong feeling that she’s a bit of an arrogant bitch.  It may very well be misplaced, but I’ve felt that way since before NW.  That feeling, I believe it started after reading a Salon interview with Smith, hasn’t stopped me from devouring her novels like the gut-wrenching candies they are.  White Teeth still stands strong on my list of all time favorites.  Autograph Man, some markedly different from her first novel, was a specialness I’d like to see her revisit.  On Beauty was essentially a retelling of White Teeth that shows how Smith had grown as a writer.  And NW is along the same vein, though it shows not only the growth of a writer, but Smith’s physical aging as a woman.

Once upon a time, I read an African novel Nervous Conditions.  The novel, and the title, explained that awkward existence of trying to maintain one’s culture while being “westernized.”  While reading NW, I couldn’t shake the idea of it being a “nervous condition.”  Smith’s novels are full of people suffering from this condition.  The character of Natalie Blake is an excellent example:  Nat is a black girl.  A lawyer.  A mother because that is what was expected of her.  (The descriptions of her interactions with her two children show how disconnected she is from the idea of “mother.”)  Nat has it all.  But Nat is really Keisha, the second of three children.  She changed her name when she decided to change her life.  “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” is how Michell, Nat’s best friend’s husband, describes the name-change.  Michell means it as a compliment; it’s something he admires in Nat and something he strives for in his life.  He also is struggling with the “nervous condition” as an African trying to make it in England.

Nat’s best friend, Leah, has her own nervous condition.  She’s white.  In her 30s.  Often times dead in the eyes.  She never lived up to her potential.  She smoked her way through school, constantly trying to reinvent herself, but never really succeeding.  Parts of the novel are told from her POV and remind me of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  Much like Nat, the pressure to have children is like an elephant on her tiny chest.  Michell wants kids.  Her coworkers constantly tell her “she’s next” and make her feel incomplete because she has not procreated.  So they are “trying.”  But trying for Leah means stealing Nat’s birth control and sneaking off for abortions when the pills are unsuccessful.  She’s had three.  Michell only knows of one.  Leah and Michell are only able to communicate with their bodies.  She is envious of Nat’s life, but even she doesn’t know that Nat frequents the Internet seeking threesomes.  (The encounters she has are both comical and heartbreaking.)

The novel contains a cast of colorful characters, all broken in some ways.  They either tried to get out of the life they’d been given (Nat and Leah) and they fall victim to it (Nathan.)  The sections on Felix are fantastic.  I’ve always thought Smith did well with men characters, and I wish there were more.  I won’t tell you about Felix other than to say it involves an old car, a Rasta father, a whore, cocaine, and a knife.

Smith is still Smith.  She has a way with words that can leave you gasping for breath.  But her ending is shit. It would appear she didn’t know how to bring her story to a close, so she neatly packages up a reconciliation between Leah and Nat that involves them turning on someone they grew up with, someone whose life could have very well been theirs.  The idea isn’t shit, the execution of it was.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

This was my first go with David Mitchell, perhaps best known for Cloud Atlas.  Mitchell has written 5 books; 2 ended up shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  (He hasn’t won yet.  In time.  He’s quite the wordsmith.)  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) was longlisted for the prestigious prize, but it received quite a few other accolades, including winning the Commonwealth Writers’ prize, listed as one of Time’s best books of the year, as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  It was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.  Mitchell clearly has the umph it takes to be an excellent author, so why do I feel unsatisfied?

The answer isn’t all that simple.  I feel cheated.  That’s the best way to sum it up: cheated.  Mitchell created a world for me and characters that I felt vested in and then…  BOOM! War novel and my most beloved character only appearing in flashes of dreams, at graveside funerals, and years later as a flash of a face behind a scarf.  The title should have tipped me off.  This was the life of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch trader in Japan, not the beautifully scarred midwife Orito.  But Orito was the story and the story she should have been.

The novel opens with Orito delivering a baby.  It’s a descriptive scene, aided by a drawing of a fetus tucked in his mother’s womb, a cord wrapped around his neck, and only one arm reaching out from her womb.  Orito and the doctor discuss amputating the arm and pulling the baby they both assume dead from the concubine’s body, but end up using forceps to remove the lifeless body.  “A crib for a coffin, she thinks, and a swaddling sheet for a shroud.”  But all is not as it seems.  Orito drops the forceps, making a horrible clattering sound and an animal starts mewling.  ” Surely not, thinks the midwife, refusing to hope.  Surely not.  She snatches away the linen sheet just as the baby’s mouth opens.  He inhales once, twice, three times; his crinkled face crumples… and the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at life.” 

While this may seem out of place as the novel then launches into Jacob de Zoet and the adventures of Dutch trading in Dejima, it is quite a fitting place to start.  We see the object of de Zoet’s affection doing what she was gifted to do, a gift that brought her to Dejima to train under the Dutch doctor (the fact the baby survived when all hope was lost resulted in the privilege of study under the good Doctor), and a gift that ultimately resulted in her being essentially enslaved in a most horrible of places where women are bred like cattle and the children sacrificed unbeknowst to their mothers.  It is Orito’s life’s journey that propels de Zoet forward; most of his actions are with thoughts of her quick on his tongue.

I know next to nothing about the late 1700s – early 1800s era in Japan and cannot speak to the details.  Those that do know these things applaud Mitchell for his extensive research and attention to detail.  The setting for the novel, the backdrop of an English war, the tensions between East and West, man and woman, are all beautifully crafted and unfold without effort.

My dissatisfaction come from loving the character of Orito and the idea of monks impregnating women at a temple shrine with no one else in the world any the wiser.  I wanted more of that world, of her experiences there, her fear there, the drugs they fed her to break her mind and keep her numb, her near escape and return.  I’m disappointed because Mitchell is that good in crafting his characters.  It’s an unfair disappointment; Mitchell wrote an excellent novel and my criticism is undeserved, but is it not the mark of a good writer that the reader finds herself disheartened as the novel concludes?

My Name is Russell Fink – Michael Synder

I know it has been a horribly long time – my apologies.  I am full of excuses, but I will spare you and just get right into the review.  Michael Synder’s first novel, My Name is Russell Fink, is dubbed “Christian Fiction” in some circles but don’t let that dissuade you; it’s quirky, neurotic, intense, and cleverly executed almost entirely throughout. 

Let’s introduce some characters to give you a full sense of what Synder does in this fun little book.

Russell Fink:  Our hero and the teller of our tale.  This young man has more issues than publishing clearinghouse.  Seriously.  I think they make medication for people like this.  He is a hypochondriac who goes to the doctor almost as much as he actually shows up at his job – he’s an office supply salesman and he isn’t exactly happy about that either.  He’s an artist, of sorts, and like most artists, his muse is a woman.   He lives with his parents. He blames himself for his twin sister’s death (she died of cancer when they were young) and in addition to self-loathing, he has issues with his Bible-thumping TV evangelist father, alcoholic mother, gambler brother, and God.  He loves his dog, Sonny, hates his neighbor, and has been head over heels for his college chum Geri for years.

Sonny:  Old basset hound who prefers his dog biscuits soaked in vodka.  He may or may not be clairvoyant.  His murder sends Russell on a quest to find the culprit.

Alyssa: Russell’s (ex) fiancee.  Wannabe actress.  Prom queen mentality.  Every thing she does must be dramatic, including her on-again off-again relationship with Russell.

Peter Fink: Russell’s older brother.  Gambler (deeply in debt), coffee-shop owner, a bit shady, obsessed with winning a Pulitzer for his family memoirs.  Hates Sonny.  Subject of threatening letters.

Gary Fink:  Russell’s father.  Pastor.  Rose to fame when praying for a group of cancer-ridden patients, his daughter included.  A large number of them were “healed” – his daughter was not one of the survivors.  Desirous to be on TV.

Geri: Russell’s best friend.  Able to tell when the time zone changes whilst traveling.  Makes her own clothes out of things like Canadian flags and Russell’s old sweatshirts.  Has a few secrets of her own.

Other characters include Russell’s alcoholic mother, the neighbor who puts dog poop in the mailbox, Geri’s cousin Dan – owner of the pet funeral home who tends to heat everything before eating it – including oranges, coworkers, a PI, and Russell’s grandfather, a man who found Jesus while in prison for killing his wife.

The book runs quite smoothly until the end, where everything rushes into a neat and tidy conclusion, which does the book a disservice.  But I would recommend it.  Not a bad first novel.  And certainly worthy of a beach read.

White Eagles Over Serbia – Lawrence Durrell

I decided to follow my candy up with a novel by Lawrence Durrell.  I consider Durrell a brilliant writer – the word choice, the plot, the flow, the dialogue, the descriptions…  His books are everything I love in a novel.  What’s more is that Durrell wrote about what he knew.  His life was like living a novel.

His real life involvement in politics and travel couldn’t help but work their way into his fiction.  He with the Foreign Office.  He lived in Egypt, Greece, Yugoslavia, England, India, etc.   He disliked English culture but has a knack for detailing it quite well.

Durrell is best known for the Alexandria Quartet.  The first three of the four tell the same story but from different perspectives.  You get a love story, a political thriller, an action story.  The final of the series, Clea, advances the story and brings it to a close.  I remember reading the quartet in undergrad and falling madly in love with Durrell. 

I picked up White Eagles Over Serbia (1957) at the library sale.  It was published just before the Alexandria Quartet and is pretty much defined as a spy thriller.  The story revolves around Methuen, a spy for the British Secret Service and his mission in Serbia.  It is reportedly based on Durrell’s own experiences with the Foreign Office.

The novel opens with Methuen, having just returned from the jungles of Malaya and craving the sound of English, hanging out in a private lounge.  He simply wanted human company.  The reader learns of Methuen’s involvement in the Awkward Shop (the British Secret Service) and how it was his ability to speak many language, “a gift of tongues,” that made him a most popular spy.  Methuen essentially gets tricked into deciding to do the mission in Yugoslavia.  The trickery is that Dombey convinces Methuen that he really wants to go – and maybe deep down he does long for more adventure.

A fellow spy had recently been murdered in the hillsides.  It is suspected that the underground Royalists group, the White Eagles, was behind it.  Dombey wants Methuen to get in there and figure out what the White Eagles are doing that is worth killing over.

Methuen sets up camp in a cave with a snake.  (A snake that basically saves his hide later.)  He waits for someone to find him while fishing.  (What he had HOPED to be doing in Scotland.)  The man alone in a cave quickly finds himself sought after by the Communists and the Royalists.  A lucky chain of events helps Methuen join the White Eagles as one of them.  It is then that Methuen learns their secret:  they are trying to get the gold that was stolen from the banks years ago out of the mountains and out of Yugoslavia.  This gold can give them the army they need to overthrow the Communists.  Methuen finds himself weighed down in gold as he joins the White Eagles in their walk to get the gold out of Yugoslavia undetected.

He nearly dies doing it.  The White Eagles are not successful.  When he returns to England, he finds a few of the coins in his pockets that support his story.  There’s a woman involved, Walden as a codebook, and poetry that sends the White Eagles into action.

It is an artfully written spy novel.

Pirate Latitudes – Michael Crichton

*I’m slightly ashamed that it has taken me this long to get another review up.  I apologize.  2L year has been a touch brutal, but here you go!*

I consider Michael Crichton novels to be excellent candy.  The books aren’t earth-shattering and the language isn’t awe inspiring, but they are damn fun reads.  When I found myself bogged down in law school land and in need of candy, I picked up Pirate Latitudes.  As most of you are aware, Crichton passed away in late 2008.  After his death, his assistant found the complete manuscript of Pirate Latitudes on Crichton’s computer.  Harper Collins published it in 2009.  While it is by far not my favorite Crichton novel, it is classic Crichton.  Enriched in history and packed with adventure, the book does not fail by an stretch of the imagination.  There are some glitches, some hurried subplots, some shoddy character development, but the core of the story is strong.  I’d like to think that what I read was a draft.  A very good draft.  But a draft all the same in need of some edits and revisions.  (Mainly because I feel that Crichton would have done a little with certain aspects of the novel.)  All that said, I am in no way bashing this novel.  It is perfect candy and would make a perfect beach read.

The novel is set in Jamaica in 1665.  A English colony, Jamaica stood alone against the Spanish empire that was attempting to control the area.  The port city, Port Royal, is full of hardened characters who will live and die by the sword.  But whatever you do, don’t call them pirates.

“And further,” Hacklett continued, ” we were everywhere treated to the spectacle of bawdy women half-naked in the streets and shouting from windows, men drunk and vomiting in the streets, robbers and pirates brawling and disorderly at every turn, and -“
“Pirates?” Almont said sharply.
“Indeed, pirates is what I should naturally call these cutthroat seamen.”
“There are no pirates in Port Royal…  There are no pirates in this Colony… And should you find evidence that any man here is a pirate, he will be duly tried and hanged.  That is the law of the Crown and it is strictly enforced…  I am charged with protecting this Colony.  How am I to do that?  Clearly, I must acquire fighting men.  The adventurers and privateers are the only source available to me, and I am careful to provide them a welcome home here.  You may find these elements distasteful but Jamaica would be naked and vulnerable without them.”

And so the scene is set with pirates carrying the name privateers.  Captain Hunter is perhaps the best privateer in the Colony and when Almont gets wind of of a Spanish treasure galleon making its way to Matanceros, it is Hunter he wants to take the treasure.  Hacklett makes a grave mistake when he calls Hunter a “murderer, scoundrel, whoremonger, and pirate.”  Being called a pirate is what sets Hunter off.  He shoves Hacklett’s head into his dinner.  “Dear me,” Almont said.  ” I warned him about that earlier.  You see, Mr. Hacklett, privateering is an honorable occupation.  Pirates, on the other hand, are outlaws.  Do you seriously suggest that Captain Hunter is an outlaw?”

Thus a deep hatred develops in Mr. Hacklett for both Almont and Hunter.  (Especially when Hunter decides to get busy with Mrs. Hacklett – a relationship that isn’t fully explored but does return near the end of the novel when Hacklett has taken over and Hunter is charged with piracy.)

The brunt of the story is the journey to Mantaceros and the attempt to seize the treasure ship.  Hunter puts together a small crew, full of interesting characters that I would have loved to have had more information about.

Whisper:  the sole survivor of a raid on Matanceros.  He had his throat slit and was left to die.  He lost his voice and his courage.  Hunter uses Whisper to get information about the layout of the island and the weapons.  Whisper provides him with a map and useful information, but his advice is simply that the attack will never succeed.

Black Eye (the Jew) runs a jewelry store but had formally worked in explosives (until an explosion resulted in a blackened constantly runny eye and a hand with only two fingers.  Hunter convinces Black Eye to help.

Mr. Enders is a barber-surgeon is needed for his skill at the helm.  He quickly agreed to join the raid.

Lazure is a woman who lives as a man.  She was known for her remarkable vision and her marksmanship.  She was also know for baring her breasts in combat to confuse the opponent.

The Moor, an escaped slave who could not speak because his former master had cut his tongue out.  He is need for his extreme strength.

Sanson can’t be trusted as far as one can spit but needed on the expedition because he had not problems killing and seizing the Spanish treasure ship would surely require some killing.

Once the crew was assembled, it was required that the true mission be kept under wraps.  The story then truly sets sail. It is an action adventure that is made for the screen, which is perfect since Steven Spielberg plans on making a movie.  He has hired a screenwriter and it is currently in production.

All in all, this is not a bad book.  Even if I found some parts lacking, it does not fail to deliver as a whole.

A Spot of Bother – Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is truly a jack of all trades, having spent his life doing an assortment of jobs, but he always retained a rather creative outlet.  He started his literary career with children’s books, many of which he illustrated himself.  He has also published a poetry collection and works on screenplays.  While he does have this quite impressive writing background, I never would have heard of him had it not been for the 2003 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The book received much praise and numerous awards, all which it well deserved.  A mystery, the book is from the point of view of a 15 year old boy with something akin to autism.  Haddon never says what the boy has, but the description points to autism/aspergers.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a mystery, but it’s certainly not genre-fiction.  Christopher, our hero/detective, discovers the body of his neighbor’s dog and decides to investigate the murder of the pooch.  During this investigation, Christopher also goes on a search for his supposedly dead mother.  I found different and beautifully done, so when I saw Haddon had published another novel, I snagged.  A Spot of Bother (2006) continues with a story told through someone with mental issues and focuses strongly on the family unit.  It’s horribly depressing, yet laughingly so.  I suppose that’s life though, you don’t know if you should laugh or cry, or kill yourself.

The small chapters of the book are snapshots into various family members’ lives.  The story revolves around and starts with George, the father.  George is an older man.  He lives with his wife, Jean.  His two children, Jamie & Katie are grown.  He has a grandson, Jacob.  And I should mention he’s crazy as a loon.  Old age and retirement have made in a first-class crazy person.  A hypochondriac who will convince the reader that maybe s/he should get that skin lesion checked out.  That’s how it starts; George see this skin spot/lesion and becomes convinced it’s cancer.  This slowly makes him insane.  At one point, he rocks on the floor on all fours moo-ing like a cow to keep calm.  He manages to swallow his panic and go to a doctor where is told it’s just eczema and is given a steroid cream.  This helps briefly.  Later, George begins to medicate and calm himself with codeine, Valium, and wine.

Jean is a little bit oblivious to her husband’s insanity.  She is not home often as she is having an affair with George’s former colleague, David.  (An affair the George learns about by watching it happen.  The description of two older people engaged in sex is not exactly romantic.)  Jean is a busybody who needs someone to take care of, and as she realizes her husband isn’t well, she begins to feel better about herself.  She is also a guilt-tripping controlling mom.  She is less than pleased about her daughter’s upcoming wedding.  And she’s completely concerned with what people with think if her son shows up to the wedding with his boyfriend.  She was not a likeable character for me, but she was a very believable one.

Katie, a single-mother, has some serious anger issues.  She’s also a bit like her mother and much concerned with appearances.  That said, she thinks she is too good for Ray, a commoner (and a belief held by her parents), but he takes care of her and Jacob and marrying him will truly piss her mom off.  Katie has had a string of men who are “perfect” as far as appearances go.  They are well-read, well-educated, respectably employed at a respectable job, muscled, tan, beautiful to look at.  And generally sorry lots.  That pretty much describes her first husband and Jacob’s father.  Her and Ray are a bizarre fit.  The wedding gets called off.  She panics because she is afraid he’ll toss her out.  An all around good guy, Ray assures her he won’t, that they’ll figure it out, but he cares about her and Jacob too much to just toss them on the street.

Jamie has created a new life away from his family.  But when he hears about the wedding, his life falls apart.  His boyfriend, Tony, wants to come.  Tony has never been introduced to Jamie’s family and Jamie has never really come out to his family (they know, but they pretend otherwise).  Tony leaves Jamie because he doesn’t think Jamie loves him, at least he doesn’t love him enough to take him home.  (And we all know that’s the test of any relationship.)  Jamie falls apart.  The problems in his life make it difficult for him to give his attention to his father’s crazy or his sister’s looney or his mother’s wtf moments.

So what happens?  Does George go completely nuts?  Does he ever tell Jean he knows about the affair?  Does the affair stop?  Does the wedding happen?  Does George attack David at the wedding?  (Okay, that might give a bit away.)  Are there suicide attempts?  Does Tony come back?  Does Jamie get a new man?  Is the person at the bed/breakfast that Jamie’s mother puts him in after doing research to see what “his kind” would like a man to woman tranny?  Does Katie get involved with her ex?  Is there a horrible sex scene between two men that starts off hot and heavy and ends with food poisoning?  (Yes.  I will answer that one. Yes.)  Does George become better or worse?  Does his marriage to Jean survive or does she leave him?

It’s a good book and a rather quick read.  The fragmented sections of snippets makes it a very speedy read that is easy to follow.  Haddon doesn’t get all flowery and descriptive, he keeps his story nicely on track.  This whole family is spiraling out of control independent of each other.  The story, the spot of bother, is what happens when their spiraling into each other.  Can they survive it?  Independently and as a family.

(The book was made into a French film for those interested.  Une Petite Zone de Turbulences

Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel

Some of you may recall my frantic childlike behavior when I loaned Life of Pi to a pretty eyed boy who promptly left it in Ohio.  I demanded the book be returned.  My copy.  I didn’t want a new one, I wanted my copy.  The one that still smells like train rides in England and Scottish rain.  The boy shook his head but made arrangements to have my copy returned.   (I should be thankful the book wasn’t left on the plane but rather with family, making it returnable.) I was happy again.  Deemed crazy, but happy all the same.  Lesson: don’t mess with a bookslut and her books.

Well, this pretty eyed boy recalled my insane obsession with my copy of Life of Pi and gifted me with Martel’s latest novel on my birthday.  (This thoughtful gift earned some serious brownie points.)  I didn’t throw myself into Beatrice and Virgil as soon as receiving it because I’d just finished The Elephant Keeper (a book about animals that I didn’t enjoy…  I didn’t want to taint my Martel experience by having that in my head…)

I finished this extremely small novel the other day but have been relatively torn as to how to review it.  I should start by mentioning that Life of Pi is one of my favorite novels of all times.  The idea that people embrace fiction better than fact reminds me of “May’s Lion,” a wonderful short story about the death of a bobcat.  I found Life of Pi to be magic, tragic, and all around quite lovely.  A lot of the elements that resounded so strongly with me in that novel show up in Beatrice and Virgil.  Published in 2010, Beatrice and Virgil has received some mixed reviews.  In fact, should you google certain keywords, you may find a blog entry titled: “Why Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is the worst book of the decade.”  Harsh, n’est-ce pas?  (Actually, the blogger doesn’t much seem to understand the novel and thus has unfounded criticisms.)  I can assure you that Martel’s work isn’t the worst of the decade, but I must also tell you that not all of you would enjoy it.  It takes a special type of reader to appreciate and enjoy what Martel does with this novel.  Stylistically, if you liked Dewitt’s The Last Samurai, you’ll probably be able to appreciate the artistic-ness of this novel.  Martel crafts his words like a painting and the novel is visually effective.  I think it’s important to view writing as art, both in writing it and in reading it.

“Henry had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting – that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art – and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to.  Then complete strangers told him that this book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives.”  (And color this book will bring to your lives, fellow booksluts, trust me.)

The novel is about Henry, a novelist not so far removed from Martel himself.  (The parallels between Martel and his protagonist were almost a little too gimmicky for me, but I quickly suspended my issues with that and fell into the book.)  Author of a couple of books, he’d found some fame with his second novel (about animals) and was trying to get someone to pick up his third work,  novel/essay flipbook about the Holocaust.  Martel Henry does a splendid job of explaining how the literary world views the Holocaust and how poetic license isn’t really allowed on that issue.

“Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good.  To take just three well-known instances of artful witness: Orwell with Animal Farm, Camus with The Plague, Picasso with Guernica.  In each case the artist had taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart, and had represented it in a nonliteral and compact way.  The unwieldy encumbrance of history was reduced and packed into a suitcase.  Art as a suitcase, light, portable, essential – was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of the European Jews?”

Martel is using Henry to explain/justify what he does with the Holocaust in this novel.  It’s an interesting tactic that I didn’t like at first, but I ultimately came to understand the necessity for the work as a whole.  Henry’s essay/novel flipbook is ripped apart at a luncheon with an editor.  The description of the luncheon being a wedding party that’s actually a firing squad will ring true with anybody who has ever had an editor reject their work.  But short story made long, Henry’s book is rejected, Henry is broken and ultimately quits writing.  He travels with his wife to an unnamed city where he dabbles in other forms of art (music, acting, etc).  Information about Henry’s life outside of the novel/essay he’d written and his work with the taxidermist is scant.  We know he and his wife adopt a dog and a cat.  (We know what ultimately happens to this pair.)  We know he has a son.  We know his wife has a work visa while he just pretty much farts around.  But that part of his life isn’t essential to what Martel is doing; the taxidermist and Beatrice and Virgil are.

The taxidermist is also named Henry.  A bit confusing but Martel is trying to connect the two Henry’s in the reader’s mind.  He doesn’t want a disconnect because they are, in many ways, the same person.  The taxidermist is writing a play about the Holocaust.  He never says that’s what it is about, but it very much indeed is.  One criticism I have is that Martel is a bit too heavy-handed in making sure his reader knows that the play is about the Holocaust.  I do love the idea that the play takes place in a land called “Shirt” and a shirt that is striped.  I love Beatrice and Virgil.  I love the descriptions of them. 

The taxidermist, Henry, has a slew of dead animals in his taxidermy shop that have been mounted (he explains that it’s not called stuffed anymore) and Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and a howler monkey.

A bit about the shop.  Okapi Taxidermy is the only business on the street it is on, which sets the stage for privacy and secrecy.  Henry, the writer, ‘s dog doesn’t like the place, which is a bit foreshadowing of things to come.  It should be noted, it’s not the dead animals that bother the dog.  But dead animals there are a plenty.  “Crammed upon these shelves, each and every one, without any gaps, were animals of all sizes and species, furred and feathered, spotted and scaled, predator and prey.”  The description of the shop continues, listing animals and colors that the reader can vividly see.  Later, the writer Henry has the taxidermist write something about taxidermy.  It starts:  “The animal is lost from us, has been taken out of us.” and launches into details concerning the profession.  “I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been down.  That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness.”

Beautiful.  “To bear witness.”  Sound familiar?  “artful witness.”  “bear witness.”

The novel itself is a mixture of Henry’s life and interactions with the taxidermist, and the taxidermist’s play about Beatrice and Virgil.  (Yes, Dante’s Inferno explains the name choice.)  The play itself (in the segments provided) is very Waiting for Godot.  Beatrice and Virgil do nothing but talk, usually about how they’re going to talk about what they’ve witnessed and been through, something they ultimately decide to call The Horrors.  The reader is never given the whole play and what the reader is given is what Henry is given, which is disjointed and incomplete.  It works.  It works quite well.

The book will leave you hollow, and you’ll never look at a pear the same way.  I don’t want to spoil this book because it is so artfully crafted that those who do pick it up should be rewarded by Martel’s unfolding of events, not mine.

The Sweet-Shop Owner – Graham Swift

I love Graham Swift.  He is quite possibly my favorite (living) English author.  Waterland ranks in my top ten all-time favorites and for a bookslut, that says a lot.  I picked up a copy of his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, when I was at a used bookstore.  It’s my favorite kind of used book – meaning that it doesn’t look like it was ever read.  While it is unfortunate that it wasn’t read because of its brilliance and fantastic writing, I loved paying used prices for new condition books.  Anyway, I digress.

As previously mentioned, The Sweet-Shop Owner is Graham’s first novel.  Published in 1980, it was highly praised and started the long amazing career for the English novelist who won the Booker Prize in ’96.  Swift’s first novel shows how he mastered the tools of genius writing early in his career, and the novel is everything I look for in a good book; each word carefully chosen, each character artfully depicted, and each heartbreak/victory/failure of resonating quality.  After the disappointing The Elephant Keeper, it was nice to pick up another English novel and be swept away.

The novel centers around Willy Chapman, the sweet-shop owner, and blends the past with the present to create the ordinary life of an ordinary man.  But things aren’t all as they seem.  The reader is introduced to his dead wife – a beautiful strange creature who, though dead, is a very living character.  Willy’s daughter also is a very present character even though she doesn’t appear physically all that much.

It is a story of family, money, and the things we do for love.  It is also a story of letting go and accepting the hand you’ve been dealt.  I’m not going to lie; the story is heartbreaking and I learned to hate the women that Willy loved with all his being, but if you’re looking for a great story, a story that is tightly woven by a true literary master, then pick up any Swift novel.  Better yet, pick up this one.