Sunday, September 26, 2010

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall got off to a rough start for this reader. I don’t mean to sound like a snarky nitpicker, but my first minutes of reading hit two irritants:

Page One, Problem One: Gimmicky Nickname. The first line of By Nightfall is: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” The second line is: “‘Are you mad about Mizzy?’ Rebecca says.”

The Mistake (Mizzy) has a real name – Ethan – and he’s Rebecca’s younger brother. Sure, he’s a problem adult-child – he’s been in rehab for drugs and has no career – who was born late in his parents’ lives. Maybe I’m the one with “issues.” And maybe I should transfer my dislike for the name on to Rebecca not Cunningham, but the nickname felt a little gimmicky and cheap to use in the book’s first lines.

Page Two, Problem Two: Use of Earwormy & Awful ‘70s Song Lyrics. I don’t like Styx and have never liked Styx, so the two lines from a Styx song that go through the head of Peter, Rebecca’s husband, on the second page of the book nearly gave me as queasy a stomach as Peter has when the lyrics churn. I’d feel sick, too, if I were remembering that in a NY cab! The Styx lyrics felt cheap and easy, too, like shorthand for a corner of Peter’s taste and generation (he’s about my age). Or maybe Styx is an indication that the reader is about to enter a banality-filled version of Hell? (To reveal the song, click here.)

Despite that traumatic start, I finished reading the book. Though I thought some passages were good, it’s probably obvious that By Nightfall isn’t a favorite. By Nightfall is, essentially, a book about midlife (a.k.a. existential) crisis. Peter, the ill-at-ease taxi passenger remembering Styx, is a New York City art dealer who questions his work, marriage, and life purpose, and remembers his brother Matthew, who died of AIDS. Peter’s wife, Rebecca, edits an art journal. Ethan is Rebecca’s wayward and good-looking brother; he comes to visit because he thinks he might want to work in art, too. I think it’s safe to say that aesthetics and brands are important to Peter and Rebecca. Oh, and their daughter Bea has “issues” with Peter, which makes Peter feel guilty.

By Nightfall is the kind of book that made me want to yell “Get over yourself!” at the characters. I have no problem with unappealing characters – this week’s book on Lizok’s Bookshelf is narrated by a manipulative woman who’s more unpleasant than the introspective Peter – but I don’t enjoy spending time with them if their creators don’t let them show me anything new. And that’s the problem with By Nightfall: there’s not much freshness or conflict until the final quarter or third of the book, when Ethan’s visit becomes a catalyst for Peter to (re)consider his life and relationships. (I won’t reveal particulars…)

What’s most unfortunate is that much of the material near the end of the book is quite decent, leading me to think that By Nightfall could have been a very good short story or novella if most of the worn-out background details had come out. It was Ethan’s visit and his interactions with Peter that caught my interest, not all the endless, tired details of Peter’s work, art deals, or apartment. I love the outsider-wreaks-havoc-on-everyday-life model and wanted it to kick in many pages earlier.

My favorite lines in the book come from Ethan, who doesn’t sound like a mistake when he tells Peter that he, Ethan, is ordinary, not brilliant, exceptional, or spiritual. Ethan can accept that but he isn’t sure the people around him – his family, who always follow him into crisis – can. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but it seems that Peter comes to appreciate the beauty of ordinariness and imperfection at the end of the novel… rather like how one of his artists transforms regular people into superheroes.

For More: Sam Sacks’s not-very-favorable (and quite apt) review in The Wall Street Journal has spoilers and specifics. has a mixed but more favorable view, here, also with more details. I’m happy to leave discussion of the literary allusions to them… the allusions were painfully obvious in the book, though a little mysterious since I’ve read so little Mann and Joyce. For my part, Peter’s stomach and existential problems reminded me of Sartre’s Nausea, which I think is due for a reread.

Up Next: Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador, a genial novel about an Icelandic poet. He’s just arrived in Lithuania for a poetry festival…

Disclosure: I received a review copy of By Nightfall at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux booth at Book Expo America. Thank you!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Keeps Things Fall Apart Together

Every now and then I feel almost indifferent to a book as long as I’m reading it… but don’t close the book when I finish the last page because I’m ready to go back to the beginning, to revisit and analyze. These books tend to stay with me. Such is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which combines vivid detail of Igbo (or Ibo) tradition with literary archetypes to describe religious and cultural transitions that came to Nigerian life through colonization.

There are plenty of online summaries of Things Fall Apart – such as this one on Wikipedia and this one on ImageNations, a blog about African literature – so I’ll focus primarily on a few motifs I found most interesting. I know some of you have read the book so would love to hear your thoughts about favorite passages and themes.

Express Summary (without revealing plot twists): Things Fall Apart describes the life of Okonkwo, a prosperous, hard-working, and angry yam farmer with three wives. Okonkwo is determined not to resemble his father, Unoka, who was “lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.” The first half of the novel depicts Okonkwo’s life at home and in his community, then Achebe broadens his settings and draws in missionaries and colonization.

Here’s a sampling of what struck me most:

Wrestling: Achebe mentions Okonkwo’s wrestling skill in the first paragraph of the book: “As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat… Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water.” Wrestling matches resurface later in the book, but I liked the use of wrestling as a metaphor for many types of struggles: between Okonkwo and his surroundings, between Igbo spirituality and Christianity, between masculine and feminine...

Masculine-Feminine: Okonkwo dislikes weakness and has such a preference for masculine over feminine that he often wishes his beloved daughter Ezinma were male. He looks back on his warrior days with nostalgia, saying “Those were days when men were men.” I thought one of the most interesting passages in the book was a mini-lecture from his maternal uncle, who tries to impress on Okonkwo the importance of a mother’s protection, mentioning that the commonest name is Nneka, which means “Mother is Supreme.” Okonkwo doesn’t seem too impressed.

Tragic Flaws & Archetypes: Though Okonkwo’s tragic flaws are obvious – all that pride, anger, and violence! – he has a positive side, too, in his loyalty, work ethic, and ability to support his large family. The ambiguities in Okonkwo, as a character, often parallel ambiguities in his culture.

Oral Traditions & Spirituality: Achebe begins invoking oral tradition and folk themes on the novel’s first page, where he mentions that the founder of Okonkwo’s town “engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.” He later includes an untranslated song plus folk tales told at night in the family’s huts and among friends. There is also talk about slavery that shows interesting attitudes toward storytelling. Initially, nobody thought the stories were true, and Okonkwo’s uncle comments, “There is no story that is not true. The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.” Also: Near the end of the book, after Christianity has begun to take hold, I was interested to see an example of dual belief: a woman is suspended from church for allowing “her heathen husband to mutilate her dead child” in a traditional ritual.

Things Falling Apart: When Okonkwo discusses the disintegration of his culture with a friend, the friend tells him:

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act as one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Up next: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which incorporates lyrics from Styx on page two. *cringe!*

Image credit: Scartol, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Carlotto’s Bandit Love & Sofer’s Septembers

Massimo Carlotto’s noirish Bandit LoveL’amore del bandito in the original Italian – is a fast-moving detective novel with sociopolitical themes. Marco Buratti (a.k.a. The Alligator), an ex-con and unlicensed investigator, narrates; Antony Shugaar’s translation gives him a dry sense of humor. The book opens with the kidnapping of a belly dancer, the girlfriend of Buratti’s smuggler friend Beniamino Rossini. Rossini is heartbroken. To oversimplify: Burrati, Rossini, and Max La Memoria, who co-owns a bar with Burrati, look for her. They also look into the theft of 44 kilos of narcotics that had been stored at a lab, apparently for analysis.

Carlotto’s spare prose enables him to work plenty of characters – such as a cocaine-dependent call girl who proves helpful to Burrati in multiple ways – and plot twists into 180 pages. I found Carlotto’s approach to characterization refreshing: his combination of bits of back story and a few habits creates people who seem real but doesn’t stall the story with TMI. Max, for example, loves to cook, and the Alligator loves the blues and Calvados. The book made me thirsty for Calvados and hungry for gnocchi, and I will take Max’s advice and never roll oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes in prosciutto.

These guys may be violent but they’re also softies, and they observe special moral codes in a book containing ample doses of seediness, corruption, and New European organized crime. Carlotto intentionally places his characters in situations that reflect 21st-century news and reality. He discusses the strategy for his Alligator series (of which Bandit Love is not the first) in an article on the Europa Editions site; it initially appeared in a Greek magazine, then in Mystery Readers Journal. Carlotto concludes:

“People today feel betrayed; they no longer believe the truths handed to them by a State that has proved itself dishonest. And in this literary genre they find a source of truth and information. Naturally, the literary quality of each individual novel is immensely important. It is not enough to plot an important story; one must also know how to write it.”

I’m sure Carlotto’s own experiences contribute to his desire and ability to write crime novels that address social issues: I also read The Fugitive, his memoir of life on the run after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Carlotto describes, with surprising humor, his elaborate disguises, life in Mexico, loneliness, and the horrible effects of fugitive life on his health. The Alligator hides out, too, and his loneliness – and description of friendships – felt especially genuine because I knew Carlotto had survived far, far worse. Bandit Love reads quickly, but it left me with a surprisingly strong melancholy feeling… just what I like from noir. I’m looking forward to reading more of Carlotto’s novels.

Also… Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz, a novel about Iran after the overthrow of the Shah, left me less satisfied, though I’d looked forward to it thanks to positive reviews and an interest in Iran. Sofer shifts her book’s action between members of a family: Isaac, a jeweler who has built a considerable business and is arrested at the start of the book; his wife Farnaz, who waits for him to come home; their young daughter Shirin, who begins to understand political danger and does something very brave; and their son Parviz, who lives in Brooklyn and begins working for his Hasidic landlord after rent money from Iran stops coming.

Much of the book felt familiar – I’ve read a lot about political repression in the Soviet Union – but the novel never quite jelled for me. I’m not quite sure why, though it’s easy to say that poor Parviz felt literally and literarily marooned in Brooklyn… but a convenient device for Sofer to convey the family’s relationship (and future?) with its Jewish heritage. Farnaz felt real but she seemed more linked to comforts and possessions than ideas, so her chapters felt a little empty. I thought Shirin, who keeps big secrets and has difficulty adjusting to the new Iranian reality, overshadowed everyone else. I wish Sofer had given her more ink.

For more:

Disclosure: Thank you to Europa Editions for giving me copies of Mossimo Carlotto’s books at Book Expo America, where I enjoyed speaking with Europa about their translations. Bandit Love will be released on September 28, and The Fugitive was published in 2007.

Up next: I don’t know…

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Neither Hot Nor Cold: Russian Winter

Daphne Kalotay rolls lots of recognizably Russian motifs into her debut novel, Russian Winter: ballet (the Bolshoi, no less), amber jewelry, poetry and poets, secrets, and wariness among friends. Russian Winter’s main character, Nina Revskaya, connects them all.

In the novel’s historical track, set in Stalin-era Moscow, Nina is a Bolshoi Ballet ballerina whose poet husband gives her jewelry. Wariness comes in through arrests and informants. In the novel’s contemporary track, Nina has retired in Boston and donated her jewels for an auction to raise money for the Boston Ballet. Through the auction, Nina meets Drew, a divorced auction house employee, and re-encounters Grigori, a widower and Russian émigré who was adopted at birth and never knew the identity of his birth parents. Grigori, a professor, also translated Nina’s husband’s poetry.

I didn’t love Russian Winter – much of the characterization and plot felt as predictably worn and creaky to me as Nina’s aged joints – but I did find the book fairly absorbing. It lived up to the “page-turner” description on the front flap of the book that HarperCollins sent to me, though I was disappointed that Russian Winter felt more plotted than organic, as if Kalotay carefully meted out details to keep the reader interested in learning her characters’ secrets.

Thanks to my interest in Russia, I found the chapters in Moscow more compelling than the chapters in Boston, though some material felt more like it came from Kalotay’s research than her characters. (Notes at the end of the book confirmed my suspicions.) I thought some of the lowest-key Russian scenes – like night swimming at the dacha – were the best in the book. In Boston, I had no interest in jewelry auction details and I tired of Nina’s crankiness. That’s not to say it felt unnatural: Nina is essentially housebound, and her curmudgeonliness almost made her seem like a native New Englander.

Russian Winter is filled with romantic, professional, familial, adversarial, and Platonic relationships, and I think Kalotay is at her best focusing on characters’ loyalties and trust during the Stalin era, demonstrating how doubt poisoned friendships and lives. She also shows plenty of beauty and kindnesses, as with certain telegrams that Nina’s mother sends. Perhaps best of all, Kalotay presents a sincere and sensitive portrayal of episodes, both light and heavy, in the lives of Nina and the people around her.

For more:

  • An excerpt from Russian Winter.
  • An interview with Daphne Kalotay here.
  • Library Journal loved Russian Winter: Review
  • Publisher Harper Collins organized a blog tour for Russian Winter. The previous post, a review, is on She Is Too Fond of Books here. Tomorrow’s post will an interview with the author on Bookin’ with Bingo. BTW, I noticed Bookin’ with Bingo has a review of Babushka’s Beauty Secrets: reading the review brought back memories of similar advice I heard when I lived in Russia.
  • My Russian literature blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf, has posts about books on related topics: Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers (very readable nonfiction about the Stalin era), my top 10 greatest hits of post-1917 Russian fiction, and Irina Grekova’s Ship of Widows (difficulties of communal apartment living). I wrote about Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, a much different kind of book about mistrust, on this blog, here.

Disclosure: Thank you very much to Harper Collins for providing me with an advance review copy of Russian Winter at my request. (I’d hoped to get an ARC signed at Book Expo America but arrived too late after getting stuck in traffic somewhere in sweltering Massachusetts!)

Up next: Dalia Sofer’s Septembers in Shiraz, which I found disappointing.

Photo of the interior of the Bolshoi Theater from AndreasPraefcke, via Wikipedia.