The Echo

The EchoLots of people have been talking about Andy Weir’s space disaster novel The Martian and the upcoming movie version. I haven’t read that, partly because at around the same time I first heard about it, I also heard about James Smythe’s The Explorer and read that instead. It’s creepy and strange, as much about the human mind as it is about exploration. I really enjoyed it.

It turns out that The Explorer was the first in a planned quartet of novels, The Anomaly Quartet, so named because the stories involve astronauts’ encounters with an anomaly that seems to cause time and space to behave wrongly. The Echo, the second book in the quartet, picks up 22 years after the journey chronicled in The Explorer. Twin brothers Mira and Tomas have organized an expedition to find out what happened to the Ishiguro and to learn more about the anomaly. Mira will command their ship, the Lära, and Tomas will stay behind to run the mission from the ground. Mira, the novel’s narrator, is confident that things will go better this time:

Every part of this process has been designed to ensure that nothing can go wrong. I cannot stress that enough: the level of control that we have enacted on this entire operation. Entry to the Lära is as controlled as anything else. There is no room for error. Everything must be checked, processed, run through before we are allowed on. There are exacting checklists full of bullet points that take days to tick off. It’s these things that can mean the difference between life and death. This is how the systems can be guaranteed to work when we need them to, how we can streamline them and make them user friendly while retaining the safety: they are prepared and perfected, and instigated with absolute care and diligence.

Hahahaha! He should have known better than to say something like that. “Guaranteed to work.” Sure it is. It’s probably no surprise that this book concerns itself with the human capacity for self-deception. Mira and his crewmates deceive themselves and each other again and again. Facing the anomaly forces them also to face certain truths about themselves, but they cling hard to the lies.

I don’t want to share a lot about the nature of the anomaly, because it’s more interesting to watch it unfold. I don’t remember a lot of details about The Explorer, other than the fact that the anomaly messes with time and memory. Those details aren’t essential to understanding this book, and the way these explorers approach the anomaly causes them to experience it differently from the crew of the Ishiguro. It still messes with time and memory, but Mira is more aware more quickly of what’s going on than Easton, the narrator of The Explorer, was. His self-deception is not about the nature of the anomaly but about the nature of his relationship with his brother and what that means for the mission.

These books are science fiction adventures that appear to dip into the supernatural. I say appear because at this point it’s not clear whether the anomaly is a supernatural phenomenon or just something that cannot make sense according to known scientific principles (although one could argue that that’s exactly what the supernatural is). The series so far is less about the triumph of science than about the limits of science. What remains to be seen is whether science can grow to meet the challenge of the anomaly in the last two books of the series. It might take a while to find out—I can’t find a publication date for the next book. I hope it’s still coming. I’m curious to see what happens as the anomaly grows and moves closer to Earth.


Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 13 Comments

The Wolf Border

Wolf BorderI didn’t realize how much I cared about the characters in Sarah Hall’s latest novel until I got to a major plot point near the end of my lunch break a few days ago. That afternoon at work was long. And the last 100 pages of the book were so intense that when I finished it that evening, I had to get up and walk away from the book a few times because I was so worried about how things were going.

The Wolf Border focuses on zoologist Rachel Caine, originally from Cumbria and now living in Idaho observing wolves. Her relationship with her mother back in England is difficult, and visits home are unpleasant. So she’s not much tempted when a wealthy earl offers her the chance to help reintroduce grey wolves to Cumbria. It’s a controversial program, as people are worried about their children and livestock, and having a well-known expert who’s also a local could help. Rachel is uncomfortable with the idea of working for the gentry, and she has no desire to move back home. But an unexpected series of events cause Rachel to change her mind—and her life.

A lot of this book concerns itself with how people make decisions about their lives. What unconscious, instinctual forces are behind the things we do? As Rachel watches wolves raised in captivity learn to live on their own, she is learning to do things she never thought possible. She always saw herself as a sort of wild thing, following uncomfortably in her mother’s independent footsteps, but when her circumstances change, she changes with them. She’s able to do things and be things that she never imagined. And she’s perplexed by it, sometimes resistant, but something inside her keeps her following this different path.

Hall is in dangerous territory here for me. It would be all too easy for a story like this turn into some sort of Hallmark movie in which the independent woman moves home and discovers true joy in domesticity. But Hall does not do that. Rachel is still in essence the same woman. In fact, her spirit of adventure and willingness to take risks is part of the reason I had my heart in my throat for so much of the final chapters of the book. The changes that happen to Rachel don’t turn her into something different, they just add new layers to the person she already is. It made me think of a recent post by Swistle about how we sometimes have options available to us that we simply can’t see. They might be terrible, ridiculous options we’d never take, but they exist. Personally, I found it especially pleasing to see these kinds of major life shifts happening in a story of a woman in her 40s. I think it’s easy in middle age to feel stuck in who we are and where we are. Watching Rachel grow in the way that she does, while remaining who she is, was heartening.

This is the second novel that I’ve read by Sarah Hall. I really liked her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference but was less impressed by How to Paint a Dead Man, which is technically a novel but read more like linked stories blended together. I really enjoyed this novel and hope to get around to her earlier novels, especially The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North one of these days.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 13 Comments

The (Wo)Man Shadow Booker Shortlist

We’ve spent the last few weeks reading furiously (in more ways than one at times), and we had some debates behind the scenes, but the Shadow Panel now has a shortlist!

A few of these books were obvious locks—everyone who read them liked them and felt they deserved a spot. Our separate shortlists brought eight of the original thirteen to the table, with five books getting no votes at all. So we confined our discussion to those eight books and began looking at rankings.

It was easy to see how these debates can lead to bland compromise choices if it comes down to a straight vote. The one book on every single list ranked low on all of them. (A couple of jurors hadn’t quite finished the full list.) And some friendly controversy arose when we noted that some people’s favorites were others’ least favorite. In the end, we have a list that’s close to most of our shortlists, but not a perfect match.

Here’s the full list, in alphabetical order, with links to panelists’ published comments about each:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Shelf Love, Bibliographing, Of Books and Bicycles
Did You Ever Have a Family
by Bill Clegg: Shelf Love, Dolce Bellezza, Nonsuch Book, Of Books and Bicycles
Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Shelf Love
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: Shelf Love, Bibliographing, Nonsuch Book
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy: Shelf Love, Dolce Belezza
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Shelf Love

This process was a lot of fun. I got to have some great conversations with other smart readers, and I read a few terrific books I probably wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. On the whole, the joy of the process outweighed the frustration of the books I’d rather not have spent time on. Would I do it again? No promises. But I wouldn’t rule it out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 20 Comments

My Booker Shortlist

Now that I’ve finished all 13 books for the Man Booker Shortlist, the discussions for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel have begun. The five of us on the panel have been busy weighing the options, and we’ll post our shortlist tomorrow, a day before the official shortlist on Tuesday.

For now, however, this is my personal shortlist:

Four of these (The Year of the Runaways, The Chimes, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Lila) are books I found truly accomplished. Although not all of them are perfect, they were ambitious and original and interesting. All four would make fine winners, with Lila and Brief History standing considerably higher than the other two.

I am slightly less enthusiastic about Did You Ever Have a Family and Sleeping on Jupiter. The first is a very good book but not a particularly ambitious one. And the second is rather more ambitious but ends up seeming a little unpolished. It nearly lost its spot on the shortlist to Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which is like Did You Ever Have a Family in that it’s competent but not particularly ambitious. (Clegg wins over Tyler because he set himself a more complex task with his large cast of characters and different voices.) In the end, I selected Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter because in the areas where the book succeeds, it is very strong. And a few extra points for ambition lifted Roy’s book over Tyler’s.

If I had my way, however, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins would have one of these last two spots. It’s not my favorite of Atkinson’s books, but she has yet to be honored with a Booker nomination, and her writing is certainly Booker-worthy, and A God in Ruins is more accomplished and ambitious than either Did You Ever Have a Family or Sleeping on Jupiter. I’ve not read enough books from 2015 to be able to name another book I’d include instead of these last two. But I’m enjoying Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border right now and have a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights. Then there’s Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire to consider. And Frances has mentioned The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I think the current longlist leans more toward realistic books with a small scope rather than stories of epic grandeur, which might be why some of these books lost out.

So what will our Shadow Panel decide? I can tell you that the list won’t be an exact match with mine. We all have favorites that others didn’t like. In some cases, what’s at the top of one person’s list is at the bottom of another’s. Tune in tomorrow to see what we choose!

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The Chimes

The ChimesAnd now, with Anna Smaill’s debut novel, The Chimes, I have finished my reading of the Booker longlist. And this was a good ending, because I enjoyed this book very much. It’s a strange book and will probably annoy a lot of readers, but I appreciated Smaill’s commitment to her concept and was fully drawn into the world she created, even when that world didn’t entirely make sense.

The Chimes is set in London and Oxford at some indeterminate time in the future. Modern-day technology is no more, and written language exists only as “code”—letters on walls and buildings that no one understands but that time hasn’t washed away. Spoken language, too, is mostly lost (the nature of spoken language in this world is one thing that I couldn’t quite figure out). People instead communicate primarily through music, the notes and chords and rhythms, along with solfège signs, becoming a complete language. And every night, all the people of London gather along the Thames to listen to the Chimes that sound from pipes in the river. At first, the Chimes seem like a ritual to center the day around, but their more sinister nature gradually becomes clear.

Besides not having language as we know it, this world also lacks memory as we know it. People who want to remember something have to consciously impress the memory in an action (bodymemory) or an object (objectmemory). The ability to retain and understand memories varies from person to person, and the retention of memory seems to depend on circumstance. Everyone seems to have a different way of coping, but the lack of memory makes relationships difficult because a close friendship today could be forgotten tomorrow.

The book’s narrator, Simon, has left his previous life to come to London. He quickly joins a “pact,” a group of thieves who wander the tunnels looking for bits of something called “the Lady” that they can trade. The Lady is a substance that is important in the spreading of music and is both highly valuable and forbidden.

As Simon starts to learn more about the Lady and the Carillon that sounds the Chimes each night, he comes to understand that he has a forgotten duty. Along with his friend Lucien, he tries to uncover and fulfill his duty.

Because this world is so complex, much of this book is concerned entirely with world-building. Smaill cannot entirely get across the linguistic differences between this world and ours, but she does use language to convey a sense of difference. Most of the time, this means incorporating musical terms—“I wait and breathe and lento it comes back” or “And then subito I am running.” There are also a lot of fragments in Simon’s language, which I think conveys something of the feeling of lacking memory. I enjoyed the writing, but I imagine some readers will find it obnoxious.

The focus on world-building means that it does take a while for the characters to develop. (Their lack of memory probably doesn’t help.) In fact, I was prepared to write that off as a serious weakness when at about the halfway point, the book focuses more intensely on Simon’s growing love for Lucien and the romance that develops between them. I was pleased at how the fact that the characters were gay and falling in love was treated as a perfectly ordinary and reasonable thing, difficult because their memories are slippery, not because they’re both boys. It is, after all, the future.

This was one of the more original pieces of speculative fiction I’ve read in quite a while. I can’t think of anything to compare it to. It was especially refreshing in a Booker list that was heavy on realism. I recommend it with caveats, because I really do think readers’ reactions to its oddness will vary. I, for one, found it a pleasure and hope that you do too.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

All the Light We Cannot See

all-the-lightSo, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but almost every single person I know recommended this book to me. It’s about France! It’s about books! It’s a prize-winner! No-brainer that Jenny is going to love it! Colleagues, friends, family members, people at church — I swear, I had a lisping six-year-old ask me if I’d read All the Light We Cannot Thee. I kept saying, “Not yet! It’s on my list!” I even gave a couple of copies to other people before I’d read it myself, on the strength of all these recommendations. I asked for a copy for Christmas, knowing I could settle in to read it in the New Year.

Well, now I’ve read it.

Anthony Doerr’s novel brings together two people whose impossibly different experiences of the second World War don’t, in the end, serve to keep them apart. The heroine is Marie-Laure, a girl whose eyes failed her at the age of six. Since then, her father, a curator at the Paris Museum of Natural History, has been teaching her to open herself to her other senses, and creating a tiny wooden model of their neighborhood so she can navigate:

For a long time though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one represents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance; in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.

When the occupation comes, Marie-Laure’s father is sent away with a treasure from the museum, to the seaside town of St Malo, and their peaceful lives are torn apart; for a blessing or for a curse is at first difficult to say.

On the other side of the border, Werner Pfennig is in an orphanage. It has been decreed that the boys in his German village will go to the mines when they turn 15, serving the Reich by digging coal, but Werner is a prodigy. He has electricity in his fingertips, radio in his bones, he can draw a diagram of tubes and trigonometry before you even have to ask, and he knows that all light is invisible, a product of our dark-shrouded brains. After his gift is discovered by a local officer, Werner finds himself at an elite Nazi school whose relentless brutality slowly crushes any spark of decency he had when he entered. Unlike Marie-Laure, whose blindness opened her to beauty and relationship, Werner is hammered into a deeper blindness. Slowly — this is a slow-paced book — and, I’m afraid, inevitably, Doerr brings the two threads together, and the finale offers thoughts about molluscs, the miracle of invisible light, and the kind of hope that can come out of such a desolate storm.

I wanted to love this book, and in fact it is very, very pretty. Doerr writes in short sentences and very brief chapters — often only a page or two, with blank pages between them. His acutely sensory prose brings the very image of the beach of St Malo before you, or the cabinets of the museum of Natural History, or the secret attic of a man who collects ancient radios. It’s vivid and detailed. Yet with all the details, the brine and camphor and rose petals and azure sky, I found it somehow unreal and detached from the events that took place. One of the main images in the book is the creation of a tiny, functional world: Marie-Laure’s father carves their neighborhood in intricate detail so his daughter knows where she’s going; Werner is deeply involved in the world of electronics; Marie-Laure falls into the world of the Braille books she reads; the isolated world of Werner’s school functions (or dysfunctions) as if there were nothing else. This book felt that way to me, as if it floated like a soap bubble. Terrible events take place in it — murder, torture, the rape of young girls — and I felt detached from it. This means that the moral epiphany of one of the characters, the one that unleashed the ending, was also not rooted in the reality I would have preferred; it felt insincere to me, or perhaps just carried lightly. With the exception of one character, I felt no real moral weight to the story (and what a contrast to the other WWII novel I read this year, Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada.)

Anthony Doerr said in an interview with the Powell’s Books blog, referring to his short chapters, “This was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.’ ” Hmmm. Maybe I would have preferred less white space to recover in, and more to recover from.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 25 Comments

Let Me Tell You

let me tell youThere have now been three collections of Shirley Jackson’s short work published since her death in 1965: Come Along With Me — short stories, lectures, and part of an unfinished novel edited by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman; Just an Ordinary Day — short stories edited by her children Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt; and now Let Me Tell You, which includes short stories, essays, lectures, and some of Jackson’s humorous writing, again edited by Laurence Hyman and Sarah DeWitt. These come alongside the one collection published during Jackson’s lifetime: The Lottery and Other Stories. (Not to mention, of course, her six novels and two memoirs, along with some other works.)

On the one hand, you may be thinking (as I am) that by this time, there aren’t many more gems to be uncovered in the Jackson archive; that we are probably, not to put too fine a point on it, scraping the bottom of an excellent, well-crafted, and bounteous barrel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that there’s a significant difference between the stories you’ll read in The Lottery (or even Just an Ordinary Day) and the ones you’ll read in Let Me Tell You. These stories are less polished, less sneaky, less powerful. There are ups and downs to the collection, but overall it feels a little unfinished, as if a rewrite or two would have made the stories into some of the Shirley Jackson material we know best: the kind that leaves us feeling a little paranoid, a little unsettled — and unsure exactly why.

On the other hand, some of the material is very good indeed. Most of these stories stay in the realm of the natural, like “Still Life with Teapot and Students,” in which a professor’s wife confronts the students who have been flirting with her husband; the setting (living room, tea, cookies, gracious living) provide the boundaries that keep the vicious conversation from becoming, perhaps, fatal. This, like the stories that take place in wartime (“Homecoming,” “4-F Party,”) are sharp depictions of their time; they are satirical, biting. A few of the stories are more typical Jackson material, as they stray just barely over the boundary between the real and the unreal, leaving the reader to decide what has happened. In “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” for instance (my favorite story in this collection), a housewife obsessed with neatness and good breeding is tormented by the popularity of a new family that’s moved to town. Their messiness, their spontaneity, and their ability to win hearts is an affront to Mrs. Spencer, whose refrain — “I spend my whole life keeping things nice for them, and this is the thanks I get” — becomes more urgent and plaintive as the story’s pace quickens.

It’s like everyone back home, she was thinking, picnics and last-minute invitations, and everything confused and grimy and noisy, taking people away from their homes and their dinners without ever stopping to think how inconvenient it might be for the orderly routine of their houses. Mrs. Spencer remembered, with a little shiver of fury, the troops of laughing friends her sister was always apt to bring home, always, somehow, when the house was freshly cleaned and things put in order.

The title gives the story’s essential clue: the Oberons are not ordinary; they are enchanters. Or are they? The reader is left to pore over the details, and to wonder. The story “The Man in the Woods,” in which mythology steps into an ordinary person’s life, is also very interesting. It reminded me strongly of one of Robert Aickman’s strange stories, though perhaps a little less ambiguous than those are — all of which is to say that there are some excellent things here.

The essays are also mostly pretty good. Shirley Jackson was a humorist, in the days when the New Yorker and Good Housekeeping often considered the same authors for publication. Her essays on family life, her lightly-haunted house, and the craft of writing are sharply written in a distinctive voice — one that’s completely different from her voice in fiction writing. To tell you the truth, I’d give up all her nonfiction for another story as good as “The Daemon Lover” or “The Witch” (both stories about James Harris, now that I think about it; that’s an essay for another day.) But I’ll take what I can get, and these are a real pleasure to read.

This may be the last collection of Shirley Jackson’s work that we get; after this, it’s probably all grocery lists and train tickets. But to come along with Jackson one more time, with work that’s never been published before, is a joy. If you’ve never read Shirley Jackson before, I would suggest starting with a different collection, or with one of her novels (We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House are both excellent.) But if you’re already a fan and have read most of what she’s written, this is a good way to get even more of that taste in your mouth: dark, bitter, perilous.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 10 Comments

Satin Island

Satin IslandOccasionally, very occasionally, some work of post-modern satire will hit me just right and I’ll love it (see, for example, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), but I’m a hard sell with this kind of book. Most of them land with a clunk, striking me as being far too interested in their own cleverness than in saying anything truly profound. At best, they make obvious points in creative ways, perhaps, but I’d rather be given a story to care about than have someone who thinks he’s (it’s always a he) a superior intellect preach at me in a way that makes me feel dumb about something I actually already know.

I tend to think such experimental fiction works best in a short form, as in the short stories of George Saunders or Jon McGregor. Get in, make your point, and get out. That’s the way to do it. With this in mind, I approached Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with cautious optimism. It’s just under 200 pages, so perhaps not long enough to weary me. Alas, it landed with a thunk and now sits near the bottom of my Booker list. (Above A Little Life maybe, but that’s only because it didn’t make me mad. It just bored me, which A Little Life never did.)

So the story, such as it is, is that of U., an anthropologist who works for a place called the Company. The book is a running chronicle of his thoughts as he works on the Great Report—“The Document … the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.” Basically, an anthropological study of everything today. It’s an impossible task, for reasons that U. addresses here and there throughout the book, and his final revelation as to why it won’t work is pretty funny.

The truth is, there are lots of bits of this book that I liked. McCarthy has a lot of good stuff to say about how we observe each other and ourselves and how that affects our behavior. He also draws in how digital media and companies cataloging and predicting our every move end up controlling our every move. The insights aren’t new, but they’re sometimes cleverly presented. Here’s one image I particularly liked:

We require experience to stay ahead, if only by a nose, of our consciousness of experience—if for no other reason than that the latter needs to make sense of the former, to … narrate it both to others and ourselves and, for this purpose, has to be fed with a constant, unsorted supply of fresh sensations and events. But when the narrating cursor catches right up with the rendering one, when occurrences and situations don’t replenish themselves quickly enough for the awareness they sustain, when, no matter how fast they regenerate, they’re instantly devoured by a mouth too voracious to let anything gather or accrue unconsumed before it, then we find ourselves jammed, stuck in limbo: we can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of it. Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything.

And yet, as I type that out, it seems sillier than when I first encountered it. Oh, well. The idea of a life that’s just buffering still pleases me. And I liked the parachute stories and Madison’s protest story toward the end.

The trouble is, however, that despite a few pleasing images and insights, the book as a whole just didn’t do much for me. If it weren’t short, and I weren’t reading it for the Shadow Booker Panel, I would have put it down at page 40 and not given it another thought. I just didn’t care about it.

Other Shadow Booker Panelists Reviews: Dolce Bellezza, Nonsuch Book

I received a copy of this book from this publisher for evaluation as part of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel

Posted in Fiction | 10 Comments

Single, Carefree, Mellow

single carefree mellowI first read about Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow, on Swistle’s blog. Swistle made me curious: so many people don’t enjoy short stories, and (or) don’t like reading about affairs, but here is a book of short stories, almost all of which are about women and infidelity of one sort or another. What could break down those barriers?

For one thing, the book is light; we are not talking about Anna Karenina here. I read it in an afternoon, chuckling and nodding. I didn’t want it to end — I’d have liked more stories — and they were such a pleasure. Heiny’s writing is witty and sharp without looking like she’s showing off. She doesn’t write one-liners, so it’s hard to quote her: it’s more like whole situations that are quietly funny. In the story “Blue Heron Bridge,” a pastor has semi-accidentally been asked to stay indefinitely with the heroine’s family, and his sheltered attitudes provide comic relief from the heartache of Nina’s affair:

The whole family called it Friendbook now. Just the way they called the bread knife the “special knife” and their iPhones “portaphones.” It was like having a two-year-old in the house again, except one that wasn’t cute or related to them.

So the tone of the stories is light. But the women in these stories are swimming in emotionally deep waters: love, loss, heartache. They are cheating on husbands or boyfriends, sometimes with married men, sometimes for high stakes, sometimes with children involved in the picture, or other deeply invested family members: in-laws, sisters, best friends. These women are mostly confident and professional. They’re the calm ones, the women people count on to put things right. But who knows how to navigate this kind of thing? “Blue Heron Bridge” again:

On the lawn, the girls squealed and laughed and raced through the sprinkler again. Jane wore a pale blue swimsuit, Chloe a lime-green one , and their arms and legs were as smooth and tanned and unblemished as a bolt of brown velvet.

It was a perfect evening, really, except that Nina felt as if she might start sobbing and never stop.

The thematic echoes of the stories give them some coherence, but don’t make them feel repetitive; these are all different situations and perspectives, because that’s the way real life is.  Heiny moves from a teenager having an affair with her (revolting) American History teacher (“The Rhett Butlers”) to a middle-aged woman sitting with her ex and remembering why the affair ended (“Cranberry Relish.”) Heiny’s obvious interest in her characters makes these stories human. My own favorite stories were the ones in which adultery took a back seat to female friendship. “The Dive Bar” and “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid” are about the fierce, sometimes complicated love between longtime friends, and the ways that can swirl and eddy when those friends’ romances go pear-shaped.

If there’s one really great thing I can say about this book, it’s that it reminded me of Laurie Colwin, one of my very favorite authors. Colwin dealt with adultery too, sometimes (Family Happiness is probably my favorite of her novels), and with something of the same achingly light, poignant touch. Colwin is better. But Heiny is good.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

Sleeping on Jupiter

Sleeping on JupiterParticipating in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel requires me to stack books up against one another, something I’m not always inclined to do but which can be a revealing exercise. In some respects, comparisons are impossible because all books are different and have different goals and interests. How could one compare a cantaloupe, an eggplant, and a salmon steak? Each can be excellent in its own way. And how might an excellent eggplant dish stack up against a mediocre salmon dish if you love salmon and don’t care for eggplant?

As I near the end of my Booker reading, having read 11 of the 13 books, I’m finding these strange and arbitrary comparisons to be my primary lens for contemplating these books. And so I’m finding it difficult to discuss Sleeping in Jupiter by Anuradha Roy simply for what it is.

It is an excellent book, with pleasing prose and an intriguing story that puts it a cut above the string of merely good books that I read early on. The story is set is Jarmuli, India, and consists of several overlapping storylines. The center of gravity is a young filmmaker named Nomi, the only first-person narrator in the novel, which is mostly written in third person. Nomi was born in India and lost her parents suddenly and violently before being sent to an ashram run where the guru abused the young girls in his care. Over the course of the novel, we learn more about her story and why she came back to this place that is the source of so much trauma. As she journeys to Jarmuli, she meets three older women who are taking a vacation together, and their adventures and (mis)adventures also feature heavily in the novel. We also meet Nomi’s assistant, a local tour guide, a tea seller, and various others who are linked in ways they are unaware of.

An obvious comparison to make is with A Little Life, which also includes childhood sexual abuse and its long-term effects, and Roy’s handling of the subject is an example of exactly the route I wish Yanigihara had taken. Nomi’s experiences, which shared some strong parallels to Jude’s, were more believable for being less extreme. (And her experiences are pretty extreme.) This is a much shorter book than A Little Life, however, so the abuse and, especially, the long-term after-effects are explored in less detail, which, for some, might make this an unsatisfying read. For me, it was enough.

As I finished the book, I was also reminded of the ending of Did You Ever Have a Family, which also featured a wide range of interconnected characters. By the end of Clegg’s novel, the stories are tied up neatly, people’s connections are revealed and few threads are left hanging. It is some tidy plotting, perhaps even too tidy. Some readers might find that it feels engineered, but I so wanted to see these resolutions happen that I was happy when they did. But the author’s job is not necessarily to satisfy a reader’s desire for order. Perhaps it’s a bolder choice to leave some things hanging, to let mysteries remain. In general, I appreciate when authors do that.

Which brings me to Sleeping on Jupiter. Nomi is searching for clues to her past, and she gets so close to those clues without ever seeing them. She’s just never quite in the right place at the right time to hear a familiar melody or notice a familiar dimple. Roy leaves those signposts in place for the reader without outright explaining what they mean. I respect that very much; it makes this book feel more intelligent than Clegg’s. And yet…

I wanted very badly for Nomi to have those moments of recognition that I experienced—to find at least some of what she was looking for. It’s not honest, and it’s not real, but I don’t always want reality in books (yet I complain about A Little Life‘s unreality).

More bothersome, however, in Roy’s case are the connections that aren’t quite made for the reader. There are some details that seem so deliberately planted and some characters’ actions that seem so meaningful but that don’t quite lead anywhere—if the answers are there, I missed them. Roy avoids Clegg’s engineered unreality, but is the result a little too messy, a little too disconnected?

Probably which ending is better will depend on reader preference for tidiness versus messiness. I’m inclined at the moment to tip slightly toward Roy’s method, but I’m still frustrated at what I didn’t find and the threads that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. (The storyline of the three vacationing friends was where most of these threads appeared, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that there are clues I missed.)

I fear that sharing these flaws makes it sound like the book isn’t very good, which is inaccurate. My ruminating on these flaws is a side effect of the exercise in comparison that is the shadow panel. Under ordinary circumstances, I could say of Roy that it leaves a few more threads hanging than I’d have liked and of Clegg that the ending is a shade too neat without having to decide which approach I like better.

It may be that such exercises in comparison aren’t so great for the books under consideration because they can’t be evaluated solely on their own merits, but as a reader, I find the questions raised through the comparisons to be well worth pursuing. Having to choose between the eggplant and the cantaloupe makes me think through my own tastes, and there’s pleasure to be had in that.

Other Shadow Panel reviews: Dolce Bellezza

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 9 Comments