Sunday, August 29, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For: Shipwrecks

Akira Yoshimura’s short, dark novel Shipwrecks, translated by Mark Ealey, tells the story of several years in the life of a young boy, Isaku, who lives in an isolated Japanese village. Yoshimura’s storytelling has an ethnographic feel as he describes the hardships of life centuries ago: the villagers depend on the ocean for fish and salt, which they trade for grain in other towns. Varying catches make subsistence living so difficult that many people, including Isaku’s father, sell themselves into indentured labor to feed their families.

The village has another, more occasional and troubling, source of goods, though – the back cover of my paperback rightfully calls Shipwrecks a “Gothic tale.” Every winter, after a ritual involving a pregnant woman on a boat, villagers boil ocean water down to salt at night under raging fires stoked to entice ships to run aground. Then they take its cargo. I don’t want to reveal too much so will just say that Shipwrecks shows what happens when ignorance and poverty drive people to do too much to profit from the misfortune of others. The village itself feels a little like a wrecked ship.

Shipwrecks is bleak and spare, with little plot beyond basic survival. We see Isaku improve his fishing skills, learn to care for his family, and develop yearnings for a village girl. Yoshimura’s mentions of the beauty and harshness of nature – changes of seasons and annual runs of certain types of fish – parallel births, maturity, and deaths in the village. I thoroughly enjoyed Yoshimura’s depictions of the simple and cruel truths of everyday village life, particularly when the tone darkened and emotion intensified after the horrifying consequences of a second shipwreck.

(Beware: this Times review contains a lot of story detail.) Richard Bernstein’s very positive review of Shipwrecks, from The New York Times, July 24, 1996.

Up next: Russian Winter from Daphne Kalotay, then Dalia Sofer’s The September of Shiraz. I also just borrowed Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, a 2009 Booker Prize finalist, from the library…

Most intriguing reviews of the week: The first paragraph of Francine Prose’s New York Times Book Review review of Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key ends by saying the books “are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.” That’s a little strong -- hyperbolic, perhaps? -- but the books sound very good. I also like the sound of Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment, as described here on International Noir Fiction.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why Everything Matters!

Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters! is the first old-fashioned “you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry” book I’ve read in a long time. What could be more laughable or more cryable than a novel about the absurdity of the human condition, tricked out to fit Junior Thibodeau? Junior is born hearing a God-like voice that lets him in on all sorts of secrets, like the ultimate demise of Earth as we know it, by comet, about 36 years after his birth. Oh, heavy burden.

The wonder of Everything Matters! is that Currie makes the story, which includes mini-apocalypses, both fun and believable by letting his characters – including the slightly officious nearly omnipotent voice that informs Junior of everyone’s destruction – narrate the novel. The book’s polyphony shows how well Currie hears voices, too. Junior speaks about coping (or not) with his knowledge. Junior’s girlfriend, Amy, talks about Junior. My favorite narrator is Junior’s older brother, a superlative baseball player whose childhood cocaine addiction causes brain damage; the transcripts of his answers to his badgering therapist’s questions demonstrate his loyalty to his brother. Junior’s father, a laconic Mainer, talks about Vietnam, his family, and working in a bakery.

Currie uses plot details to connect their narrations, giving the novel a sense of continuity. Even more impressive, Currie infuses the title message with surprising freshness and emotion by showing how much Junior and his family care about each other, despite (or because of?) their difficulties. Though the book’s message sounds simplistic, Currie piles up moments, memories, and actions to create Junior’s personal microcosm of the “everything” in the title, without letting the novel feel too magpie-ish or cute. He even gives cameo appearances to real people, notably Ted Willams and Maine senator Olympia Snowe.

I think Everything Matters! works because the book feels so sincere and even traditional. Currie shows fantastic patience and balance: there’s plenty of alienation but he accentuates the positive sides of relationships instead of estrangement, and a twist toward the end says loads about the choices we make and our perceptions of the lives we live. The novel also has an authenticity I appreciate. Currie, a native Mainer, works in details of Maine life that show grittiness and dignity without letting the Thibodeau family’s problems descend into depressing naturalism or annoying quirkiness. Despite the prophesy, alcoholism, cocaine, and lack of money.

Currie’s work in progress, from which he read a few weeks ago at Longfellow Books in Portland, also seems to demonstrate an ability to balance interesting form with an emotional, very human story. I can’t wait to read it. (But please! Take your time, Ron!) I probably have a couple years to check out Currie’s debut book, God Is Dead, a collection of stories that won the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library. Everything Matters! won a 2010 Alex Award from the American Library Association and is being translated into many languages.

I’ve limited details in this post not because of a grand quest for blandness but because I was glad I didn’t know too much about Everything Matters! before I read it. If you want to read a very positive review and don’t mind knowing more, here’s Janet Maslin’s review from The New York Times. I think it qualifies as a rave.

Up next: Akira Yoshimura’s spare Shipwrecks and Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter.

Most intriguing review of the week: Murray Bail’s The Pages, here, in The New York Times Book Review. I enjoyed Bail’s Eucalyptus years ago and am interested in this take on Australia and philosophy.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Debuts: A Walk in Broken Glass Park, a Scratchy Gramophone, and Needy People in Suvanto

I seem to be on quite a debut novel streak this summer: this post discusses three, I just finished a fourth, and I’m now reading a fifth. I’ve always had an affection for debut novels because I think (or imagine?) there’s a unique energy in first novels, as if the writer is finally having a say about something important. I love seeing how new novelists handle all that papery space.

Though I don’t think any of the three novels in this post quite achieved what they might have, all three held my interest more than enough to want to finish them. (I am quick to dump anything I don’t like!) Even better, I would happily consider reading each author’s next novel.

Characterization, setting, and an energetic voice are Alina Bronsky’s tremendous strengths in Broken Glass Park, translated from the German by Tim Mohr. Seventeen-year-old Sascha tells why she wants to kill her former stepfather, who killed her mother. Sascha, her family and neighbors, and her run-down German apartment building felt so believable I thought I was with them, but the book’s strong positives had the unfortunate effect of emphasizing the novel’s slight weakness – a lack of forward narrative momentum.

I didn’t think Sascha’s anger and ideas about revenge were quite enough to sustain a novel. Plenty of things happen – a cousin comes to care for Sascha and her siblings, Sascha has sex, Sascha exacts a small revenge, and Sascha learns fear (or admits she learns fear) and has an epiphany about a neighbor – but the many episodes and the anticlimactic ending added up to a book that felt more like a portrait than a story with a narrative arc. Of course this isn’t inherently a bad thing, particularly in Broken Glass Park, which presents a compelling and vivid portrait of not just a person but of cultural and class differences, loyalties, and violence.

Bronsky said in an interview with Marie of Boston Bibliophile that she did no “special research” for Broken Glass Park: “The novel is based on my own experiences and observations.” This felt absolutely obvious to me because Bronsky didn’t cram the book with gratuitous or incongruous details that made me feel she wanted to get in all her research.

Then there is Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Many of Stanišić’s descriptions of childhood in Bosnia – such as a party to celebrate the opening of an indoor bathroom – combine humor, cultural specifics, and a sense of impending doom. Reminiscences of grandfathers are very strong, and scenes from the war are terrifying. Form and content are absolutely inseparable here: the narrative itself is as fractured as young Aleksandar’s life. I admire Stanišić’s eye for detail and the absurd, and recommend the book for that and its portrayal of the consequences of war, which Stanišić experienced. Though I liked the book, I thought its shattered structure often detracted from the story more than it reflected or supported it.

Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto feels like a lite mashup: an early 20th-century Nurse Ratched at the Hotel Overlook with the scent of cardamom rolls. I don’t mean to sound flippant: Suvanto is a novel about Sunny, an American nurse and control freak working at a remote Finnish hospital for women. Sunny works on a floor housing emotionally needy “up-patients,” essentially expat wives escaping their lives. Some, like Julia, a former ballroom dance instructor suffering from various female problems, have real physical “issues,” too.

Beyond that, Suvanto is, well, atmospheric; I usually think of “atmospheric” as shorthand for books with lots of weather, seasons, and (maybe) food but little plot. Such is Suvanto: there are mentions of Finnish character (quiet), Finnish cold and ice (Finns know when it’s safe), and Chapman includes some Finnish vocabulary, but I didn’t think the book felt inextricably tethered to Finland. I’m simplifying but, absent a few details, the setting might have been another northern place with ice and quiet people, say, northern Norway or Alaska. (Even my own Maine, where ice, Finnish heritage, the term “people from away,” and the desire for privacy are common, might fit.)

Chapman uses a mannered first-person plural narration and focuses on building up the arrival of Something Evil. The book culminates with several deaths, some mysterious, but little is resolved, and the identity of “we” isn’t revealed. My vote is that a patient is speaking for the group: reviewer Mary Whipple reminded me that Chapman mentions Euripides’s “The Bacchae.” I’ll leave that topic to Whipple’s post, particularly since she includes photos of the sanatorium Chapman visited and used as a model for the place in her book.

Other (re)views:

  • Boston Bibliophile wrote about Broken Glass Park here.
  • Complete Review on Broken Glass Park here.
  • Europa Editions has a PDF sample chapter of Broken Glass Park here.
  • The Black Sheep Dances posted a favorable review of Suvanto here.
  • The New York Times Book Review on Suvanto here.
  • An excerpt of Suvanto is here.

All three books came to me from their publishers: Europa Editions gave me a signed copy of Broken Glass Park at Book Expo America. Grove Press sent me a copy of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Graywolf Press gave me a copy of Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto at Book Expo America. Thank you to all! (Disclosure: I’ve met all these publishers at BEA and asked them about their interest in translated fiction.)

Up next: Yes, it’s more debut novels: Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter then Ron Currie, Jr.’s Everything Matters!.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Grip of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

I’ll be absolutely transparent: I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. With its existentialist themes, clear characters, convincing narrative voice, and moral questions, this is my kind of fiction. The additions of an eerie parallel world – you could consider it dystopian, I guess – and a human view of biomedical ethics put it way over the top.

Never Let Me Go is a novel on a very long, very slow fuse. Yes, Ishiguro mentions something cryptic about carers and donors at the start, but the first 75-100 pages of this first-person narrative feel most remarkable for feeling fairly unremarkable. A woman, Kathy, reminisces about life and friends from boarding school, often focusing on small incidents that affected their relationships. The students sound sheltered, and some of the rules at the school seem a little odd.

When I look back, what felt most remarkable to me at the start is that so much chat about not so much held my interest. I already knew the book’s secret, which I will mention below, after a warning, but Ishiguro gave me just enough to hang on to that I didn’t consider skipping or skimming to get to the good part. Beyond creating a credible, colloquial female voice that I never doubted, he adeptly works in objects and themes – a cassette related to the title, child art – that become more and more important toward the end of the book but don’t seem contrived.

Warning: I will now discuss specifics of the book. Part of what I admire so much about Never Let Me Go is that it made me feel very uncomfortable. Ishiguro presents an England in which cloned children are created and raised to serve as donors who provide body parts to “normals” until they, the donors, “complete.”

The premise behind the cloning is, of course, repugnant, and the guardians at Kathy’s school hide much of the truth from the children. They fear the children but also collect the children’s art to prove they have souls. During their years between school and their forced careers – first as carers for donors, then as donors – some of the students look for “possibles,” their originals, to try to learn about their identities.

They also wonder about ways out. Though they seem passive and have been raised to believe they are special and doing something good, they perpetuate rumors that deferrals from donorship are possible if they are in love. Kathy and Tommy, a student who has been intuitively angry all his life about his future and has already made multiple donations, take their request for a deferral to Madame, the former head of their school, Hailsham. The rumors aren’t true.

Kathy and Tommy’s discussion with Madame and one of their former teachers is beyond sad. Madame calls them “poor creatures,” adding “I wish I could help you. But now you’re by yourselves.” Another former guardian says she dreaded the children every day. The behavior of Kathy and Tommy is far more human, more soulful, than that of the “normal” guardians, who avoided the truth and were part of a system that perpetuates using their former students for body parts, to put off the completions of normals.

Ishiguro returns again and again to loss in Never Let Me Go, mentioning lost physical objects and lost lives. Perhaps the biggest losses for Kathy, Tommy, and their friend Ruth, though, are the underpinnings of what make us human: free will, the mystery of death, and the illusion of mortality that comes with youth and love. Denying the deferrals – a reprieve to simply live – felt especially cruel. That cruelty is one reason why Never Let Me Go still won’t let me go, even though I finished it several weeks ago. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth aren’t so different from us normals – we also want love, deferrals, and illusions of immortality to enliven us before we complete.

Beyond that, I used to write about biotechnology, including techniques involving cloning. About nine summers ago, I heard Michael West, then president of Advanced Cell Technology, speak about human cloning, including reproductive cloning. The setting was a dinner at a biotech conference, and the tables were decorated with candles and shells. Most of the electric lights were off, and the room flickered and glowed. West spoke about Osiris, letters he’d received from distraught people whose loved ones had died, and extending life. It probably doesn’t sound like much here, but everything about that talk felt so otherworldly – somewhere between séance and science – that I still shiver when I think about it, even now, on another warm night. Never Let Me Go is at least as eerie, but it is literature that is beautifully conceived, and it is achingly timeless and timely.

Never Let Me Go contains simple language that would make it a great choice for nonnative readers of English.

For more:

Sarah Kerr’s review for The New York Times Book Review

Michiko Kakutani’s review for The New York Times

Up next: Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, and Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

Photo credit: "Old tape" from tulp, via

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Having Your Cake: Julia Holmes’s Meeks

“Men and women ordered cookies and slices of cake, and wheresoever they pointed, their wishes were fulfilled, and they fell into reverent silence as they ate, their minds bitten by the soft, sugary nips of memory – Things are just as they’ve always been, let us be thankful – each sweet bite is like a sacrament, a little portal easily pried open with a fork, a hole through which one can squeeze one’s senses and return to the days of hope and innocence and excitement and fear.”

I don’t know about you but I think “weird” is very good when it comes to dystopias. Which means I’m happy to report that Julia Holmes’s Meeks is a weird dystopian novel that’s largely (or at least often) about happiness and marriage. In Holmes’s unnamed place, bachelors need light-colored suits to woo wives. Bachelors live in cramped bachelor houses and scout out women in the park and at listening parties. I came away with the impression that marriage promises a spacious house and a lifelong picnic with lots of sweets.

So woe is the bachelor lacking the resources for a light suit. A bachelor like Ben, who’s a bachelor in a black mourning suit. Ben’s also a veteran of a strange war, and he can’t convince the tailor to sew him a suit. He sometimes sits at the tailor’s shop, staring out the window and watching the butcher across the street. Without that bachelor suit, Ben is pretty much in mourning for his life, not just his mother: if he doesn’t marry, he’ll be pressed into a life of government service.

Meeks contains other dark tones and plotlines. As Ben tries to acquire a suit, a character who spends a lot of time in the park and is apparently a policeman, tries to acquire a gun. And the book opens with two “brothers,” civil servants, going to the annual independence day celebration and execution; one brings a homemade explosive device that includes gunpowder he’s stored in a tea tin. The book concludes with an independence day celebration, too, with the policeman-like character taking a key role in the theatrical proceedings. As he watches something unexpected, he thinks “What a heartbreaking and beautiful sight!” That sums up the ending for me, too. I’ve read it over and over.

Meeks is a fairly cryptic book (another thing I seem to like in dystopian novels) but it’s not so cryptic – or bleak or lacking in humor – that it’s unenjoyable. Maybe I’m too obsessed with Russian fiction, but Meeks reminded me as much of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” as classic dystopias like 1984. (I have an entry about “The Overcoat” on my Russian blog here.) Common elements with Gogol include a poor man’s difficulties buying a new piece of clothing that he hopes will improve his life, theft of clothing, drudge work, and the use of “brother” for someone who is not a blood relative. “Brother” also flashed me back to A Clockwork Orange, which has been on my mind since I reread it earlier this year (previous post).

Holmes’s writing has a concentrated and almost retro feel, and that, along with repetition and occasional neologisms, gives the book an air of Someplace Familiar But Not Quite Here. Here’s a sentence-paragraph to illustrate:

“Ben could see sailors on the ships that bobbed in the fresh white surf, the needlelike masts bristling, the shapes of people at ease in the park or bustling along the grand avenues, and along the edges of every scene, the murky figures, shadowantine, ashamed, the gray laborers armed with their pronged garbage stabbers, stabbing at scraps of shadow along the periphery.”

Though Holmes’s language is generally simple and routine, she includes just enough rogue elements – like that “shadowantine,” which is clear but odd – to gently toss the reader into that other place. A place with a whole lot of cake. I love cake, but I would not want to live there. Like cake, though, Meeks seems to keep growing on me.

Thank you to Small Beer Press for giving me a copy of Meeks at Book Expo America. I’m glad the book caught my eye when I walked past the booth: I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Julia Holmes, the kind person from Small Beer Press whose name I wish I remembered, and then reading Meeks.

The Small Beer Press page for Meeks (this one) includes links to excerpts from the book.

Photo credit: iprole via