White Tears

Seth was a quiet, standoffish, broke college kid when he first became friends with the wealthy and popular Carter Wallace. Obsessed with sound recording, Seth was testing out some new equipment he’d cobbled together when Carter approached him, asked about the set-up, and then invited him to his dorm to listen to music. Seth had previously avoided older music, believing that “there were certain echoes I couldn’t afford to hear.” But Carter was fascinated with the music of black musicians from the past, and as his obsession with collecting old, rare recordings grew, Seth came along.

After graduation, the two set up a studio, bankrolled by Carter, and their sound is in high demand. Seth spends his free time wandering New York, picking up ambient sounds of the city. Then, one day, he picks up a bit of blues music he’s never heard.

On the audio, I can hear the change in the position of my head, the mics over each ear picking up a slightly different range as I swing round to listen. I don’t know how to explain what happens next. My memory is clear. There was a skater, a girl. You can hear the rumble of a deck, but it’s in the background. I distinctly remember turning to watch her. I saw long black hair, tattooed sleeves, a nice ass in cutoffs, weaving between dog walkers. How would I know that if I hadn’t turned? But the audio shows I didn’t.

Seth doesn’t think much of it, but when Carter hears the recording—which includes a complete song, not just the single line that Seth remembered hearing—he becomes obsessed with it. And when he creates a fake 1920s singer named Charlie Shaw and uploads the file to the internet, things get complicated. Turns out, there really was a blues singer named Charlie Shaw. Or was there?

There’s a lot going on in this novel by Hari Kunzru. At first, it seems like a standard realistic novel with a little weirdness around the edges, but it takes a turn and becomes full-on strange. As Carter, and then Seth, try to understand what is happening, there are jumps back in time, starting as flashbacks but turning into (maybe?) something else. Whatever is going on, it’s dangerous.

In this novel,  is dealing with issues of cultural ownership and appropriation. Seth and Carter’s sound relies heavily on the art of others. Carter’s mania for collecting the work of black artists feels like a desire to possess something that isn’t his. Later in the book, there are also questions around whether Seth or Carter really own the work they’ve done together. These are all interesting questions, but I wonder if plot sometimes gets in the way of them.

Once the strange happenings begin, but story flips and reverses and turns in on itself in so many ways that it becomes impossible to work out what’s really happening. Maybe Kunzru is attempting to get at the impossibility around finding the real roots of a piece of art, because influences can be all over the place. There’s a conversation toward  the end about how Charlie himself is a product of other people’s ideas of who he’s supposed to be. (Or is he? Was that conversation real? The deeper questions get lost in the questions about the plot.)

For me, the twists and turns ended up being too much, especially as the book’s pacing picked up. There are also new ideas, such as about the prison industrial complex, thrown in at the end. An important subject, but coming as late in the story as it does, it seems like a late addition to create character motivation.

Also, the first part of the book didn’t provide enough menace and unease to lay the groundwork for the messy, more horror-laden second half. I felt about this the way I often do when so-called literary writers play with genre fiction. It’s straight literary fiction that becomes horror instead of being chilling all way through. (Compare with Universal Harvester, a literary horror novel that’s all horror set-up and turns literary with little horror payoff.) I’d rather read a book that’s committed to what it is from the start.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

Dolores Claiborne

I’ve read a lot of Stephen King’s novels and have a good sense of his style, but Dolores Claiborne surprised me. I knew the general outline of the plot before I picked it up, but I had no idea that the book is simply a 300-page monologue with no chapter breaks. Dolores is a woman in her 60s being questioned by the police about the death of her employer, Vera Donovan. Dolores is open about the fact that she didn’t much like Vera:

I swear before heaven I always knew that Vera Donovan’d just about be the death of me—I knew it from the first time I saw her. And look what she’s done to me. This time she’s really stuck her gum in my gears. But that’s rich people for you; if they can’t kick you to death, they’re apt to kiss you to death with kindness.

Dolores has lived her whole life on Little Tall Island, just off the coast of Maine. Back in the 60s, Vera had a summer home on the island, and she hired Dolores to keep it clean. As decades passed, Vera’s husband died, and she stopped seeing her children, and she began spending most of her time on the island. As she got older, Dolores became a companion and caretaker. Vera was prickly and difficult to work for, but Dolores insists that she didn’t kill her.

She is, however, ready to confess to something else—the murder of her husband, Joe. And that’s what most of the book is about: Dolores’s troubled marriage, its effect on her children, and the murder itself. The story is, alas, nothing new. Joe drank too much and hit Dolores. When she put a stop to that, his abuse turned to their three children, each of whom suffered in a different way. Dolores knew they’d have no kind of a future, and so she did what she felt she had to do.

Stephen King doesn’t always write great women characters. Often, his women are sidelined and not given much of interest to do. But I’ve found that when a woman is the focus, he writes them well. I’m thinking especially of Carrie White, Rose Madder, Lisey Landon of Lisey’s Song, Trisha of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and of course Susannah Dean of The Dark Tower. Mostly, I think, he writes his women like people, which obviously the thing to do, as we are, in fact, people. What I mean is, he doesn’t seem to be trying to make his women excessively different from his men. But he’s willing to put them in situations specific to women, as is the case with Dolores.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s not just about this one woman, it’s also about Vera and the bond she and Dolores share. These two do not have much in common, and they seem to love nothing more than getting the better of each other. But they have a bond, a sisterhood. They have both learned that, as Vera tells Dolores, that “sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to.” They are bitches together and toward each other, and they both seem to enjoy it. I liked them together.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything creepy or supernatural. The drama in the book is entirely about the real world, with only the slightest hints of the supernatural occurring around the edges. Those hints felt almost thrown in, and I think the book might have been better without them. They certainly weren’t needed.

This is not a Stephen King book I see talked about much these days. It doesn’t end up high on people’s King recommendation lists. I think that’s a shame. It’s a good choice for someone who just likes suspense and doesn’t want much horror. If you’re wanting to try King or expand your reading of his backlist, give this a try.

Posted in Fiction | 13 Comments

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Sherman Alexie’s new memoir is a combination of prose and poetry reflecting on his relationship with his parents, especially his mother; his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation; and his adult life away from the reservation. The emotions he expresses are complex and probably couldn’t be easily contained in a clear linear narrative, so he goes for a more thematic structure. There will be an essay about some incident from Alexie’s life, followed by poems reflecting on that incident, then a few more essays, a few more poems, and so on. It’s a journey through memory, rather than a story of a life.

I’ve not read much of Alexie’s work, just the novel Flight, so I might be an atypical reader for this memoir. I wanted to read it because I like memoirs, and because Alexie is reputed to be a good writer. I don’t know how much of the story here is presented in his semi-autobiographical fiction and therefore familiar to his long-time readers. What was familiar to me from reading Flight was the mix of sadness and smart-assery. He’s serious, but there’s an overlay of snark.

Alexie’s story, as presented here, is painful. He was born with hydrocephalus and had seizures as a child. He was diagnosed as bipolar as an adult and has frequent nightmares. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother was distant and sometimes cruel. He was surrounded by violence and was bullied at the reservation school. His family was poor. He was sexually abused by a neighbor. He felt out of place among Indians and only started to find himself by leaving.

As Alexie shares these truths, he acknowledges that they are his truths, not necessarily anyone else’s. Early on, he demonstrates how he’s an unreliable narrator of his own life by making up a conversation with another Indian storyteller about truth. He remembers everything, he says, but he’s also unreliable. I get the sense that he’s going for emotional truth more than literal truth.

This book feels a lot like Alexie’s attempt to figure out the emotional truth for himself, rather than to explain himself to other people. Out of all of Alexie’s family, Lilian, his mother, gets the most attention. The book was written around the time of her death, and it feels like he’s trying to understand her and his feelings about her. Along with that, he considers his relationship to the rest of his family, to the reservation, and to the Indian people as a whole. None of it is easy to pin down.

I enjoyed reading this. I like Alexie’s voice, and I appreciated the unconventional structure of the book. Life is too complex to fit in a linear narrative, and I think that by not attempting to come up with one truth, Alexie might be close to getting his story right.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 6 Comments


I don’t expect romantic comedies to be stressful, but the first third of Connie Willis’s latest novel was almost unendurable. It was entertaining, and I wanted to know where it was going, but I found almost every single person impossible to like, including the main character. Luckily, it does improve, but wow, it really does walk the line between annoying and enjoyable.

So what’s it about? Briddey Flannigan works at a technology company. The pace is frantic; everyone is connected all the time, and personal and business freely mix. So the whole company is abuzz with excitement, when Briddey’s coworker and boyfriend, Trent, asks her to undergo an EED, a medical procedure that will allow them to become emotionally linked. Briddey’s family, on the other hand, thinks the procedure is a terrible idea and pleads with Briddey not to do it. Of course, Briddey goes through with it, and complications ensue.

The first several chapters of this book focus on Briddey’s always-connected life (all pre-EED). As someone who values quiet and privacy, I found the constant communication impossible to even read about. I think I even felt my blood pressure rising as Briddey juggled texts, phone calls, and impromptu visits from family and colleagues, all demanding instant and complete attention. It’s too much for anyone, and I found myself getting irritated with Briddey herself for not putting a stop to it and giving me, her reader, some blessed relief. (The fact that I could put the book down and walk away only barely occurred to me, which probably says something about the difficulty Briddey would have shutting out the voices.)

The one character who isn’t impossible is C.B. Schwartz, a scientist who works in the basement, where signals are weak and no one wants to visit. He is a blessed oasis in the storm of Briddey’s life, even though she doesn’t want much to do with him. You can probably imagine where this will end up going.

The story is excessively silly, as Willis’s comedies usually are. I’m not always a good reader of comedies, but I enjoyed both To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether, which are just as wacky and a lot less annoying. Crosstalk is a long book that probably should have been shorter, but the pace is quick. I didn’t warm up to many of the characters, although I grew to like Briddey herself, and some information revealed toward the end made me a little more understanding of some of her family. In the end, I didn’t dislike it exactly, but I never quite fell into the joy of it.

The book concerns itself with questions of individuality and privacy and our always-connected world, but I don’t think it has much that’s serious or new to say about it. Connection can be intoxicating in positive and negative ways, and it’s easy to end up with too much of a good thing. But complete privacy has downsides, too. Still, I’d take it over the alternative.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

The Year of the Runaways

year-of-the-runawaysFiction about immigrants is commonplace today, so much so that there’s a whole course about it in my university’s English department. (I’d like to take it, in fact. It looks fascinating.) But like all literature, I suppose, this is not a question of repeating the same story over and over again under different names. The colonial and postcolonial and subaltern experience is different, not just for different countries and different communities and in different directions and different diasporas and different religions and different castes and classes and genders (although, that), but for different individuals. The stories can never be told enough.

And this is what Sunjeev Sahota shows us in The Year of the Runaways. This is a book about four immigrants to Britain from India. Three are more or less illegal immigrants, and one is endangering her legal status by helping one of the other three. Their stories entwine, they have similar experiences, but each person’s history, each person’s temperament, each person is unique, worth worrying about, worth getting to know.

Tarlochan (known as Tochi), Avtar, and Randeep have all come to England to make money. Avtar and Randeep come from the same neighborhood, though they didn’t know each other previously. They wind up living together in a precarious work situation in Sheffield, one on a student visa, one on a marriage visa, both trying to scrape together money for their families. Tochi comes from the untouchable chamaar caste, and suffered discrimination and violence in India. Now that he’s in England, he’s wary and closed off, but at last he can find work, and he’s not afraid to do whatever he’s offered.

Then there’s Narinder. She is a very devout Sikh woman who is just trying to do right by her fellow human beings, and has agreed to be Randeep’s “visa wife” for one year, so he can get his papers and stay in England to make money. (The title, The Year of the Runaways, is the period of this visa year, and the seasons turn the pages.) Narinder doesn’t return Randeep’s increasingly ardent feelings and gives him no encouragement; she just wants to help him, because helping people is the right thing to do. But doing right, in this book, is a complicated matter, a balance between looking out for your own interests in a hard world and honoring ethics and religion. Both are necessary and the balance is almost impossible.

One of the themes of this novel is the way Indian values, like caste and faith and modesty and marriage, follow immigrants to new countries. The people (perhaps especially the women) have no real ability to assimilate, and live on the fringes of society, living half in their old world and half in the new, not able to take legal possession of the new land and not able to go back. Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder have confusing, painful, and saddening experiences in England, searching for work, undergoing hunger, missing home, trying to find a place in the world. The book isn’t glib about the cost of this search, or about the cost of doing right. Their stories are compelling.

This isn’t a perfect book. I’d say the main flaw is that Randeep and Avtar are too much alike from the beginning, and I had to keep turning back to figure out which one was which. (By the end I could tell them apart.) And I wanted to find out more about their stories, and the epilogue wasn’t satisfying. But Tochi and Narinder are marvelous, touching characters, and their slowly-developed, wary friendship was wonderful. In a world full of immigrants, full of so many throw-away people, this was a book that didn’t allow anyone to be discarded. I appreciate that.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Follow Her Home

follow her homeJuniper Song is your fairly typical Korean-American mid-20s post-college student (if you can imagine that graduate being pretty rich.) She’s not doing much, just some part-time work and some socializing, taking in the LA scene, a pile of high heels in the passenger seat of her car and cigarettes in her glove box. She has also been a fanatical lover of Philip Marlowe and everything noir since high school. “I savored his words, studied his manners and methods,” she says. “I carried him with me like an idol.” So when her best friend Luke asks her to investigate his father, on the flimsiest of evidence — he’s found an unexplained Chanel receipt and thinks his dad is having an affair with a girl named Lori Lim — Song snaps up his offer. It fits with her notion of herself as a wisecracking private eye with a heart of gold, even though she knows deep down that she has no idea what she’s doing.

And as a matter of fact, everything goes fine for about fifteen minutes, until Song is whacked unconscious by an unknown assailant outside Lori Lim’s house. This knockout sends her spinning into a noir world where the body count begins to mount, beginning with a dead body she doesn’t recognize in the trunk of her car. Nothing is what she thinks it is, and nothing is what it should be according to the tropes of noir fiction she’s read all her life. She meets a femme fatale and she’s an overbearing mother; she meets a seductress and she’s an Asian schoolgirl who’s saving herself for her husband. Nothing endures but the cigarettes and the booze.

Steph Cha uses the themes of noir fiction to point out how brittle and outmoded the structure is. Seeping in around the edges like toxic waste are constructs of race and gender, as Song encounters white men who fetishize young Asian-American women. (There’s one particularly gross moment where Song finds revealing photos of a Korean-American girl in a hanbok, a Japanese-style school uniform, and a kimono. The man these photos are for doesn’t care about the specifics of ethnicity, just Asianness.) And what fuels Song’s detection, and her sense that justice must be done whatever the cost, is the ghost of her dead sister Iris, also entangled to her peril with a much-older white man. Indeed, Iris is the reason Song is so obsessed with Marlowe and noir in the first place. Family becomes its own mystery. “After what happened to Iris,” Song confesses, “the favorite character of my youth became a fixture in my life. I found more than fantasy in the world of noir, and I sank into the scorching bleakness with self-punishing relish.” But Song can’t live up to her hero Marlowe, and she can’t save her sister. The noir just keeps getting darker.

Juniper Song uses the phrases and similes of her hero like tossing back another bourbon. “She was about as hard to spot as a clown in a prison cafeteria, wearing just a shade less makeup.” “Mr. Cook was about as warm and playful as an onion.” “It took me a seventy-second minute to remember the BMW.” This prose isn’t always entirely successful, but who could really imitate Raymond Chandler’s baroque voice? And it makes sense: Song can’t live up to her hero in any other way, so why should she be able to live up to his prose, either? It’s not disastrous, just not delirious the way the actual Marlowe novels are. It’s workmanlike stuff. And if the language isn’t as evocative as the original, Steph Cha does pull out affecting reasons why detection takes place.

My one question about this novel is this: it’s the first of a series. The body count in this novel is so high that I can’t imagine what’s next. Where could Song possibly go from here? I’m quite curious about the second novel in the series, Beware Beware, and I’m likely to pick that up sometime soon.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 2 Comments

Man and Wife

man and wifeI’m on record as being a massive Wilkie Collins fan. I love his sensationalist prose and his twists and turns and especially his unctuous villains. The books I’ve read of his (six so far) have all been complete hoots. But now that I’ve read the four he wrote during the 1860s that made his reputation (The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name, and Armadale) I’m always a little nervous that anything else I read of his will be downhill from there. What if the next book is dull, or preachy, or badly put together? I approach each one warily, as if it might be a bomb. I chose Man and Wife with some trepidation, but thinking that the title — well, nothing can go wrong there, right? Heh heh heh.

Another smash hit! Man and Wife is the complicated story of the evils of Scottish marriage law during the 19th century, and secondarily of the evils of working out. (I’m not kidding even a little bit. I shall explain.) The book takes place in Scotland, although almost all the people involved are English. Anne Silvester, a governess and a wise, kind woman, has been promised marriage by an absolute scoundrel, Geoffrey Delmayn. She is in a desperate position, because she is pregnant and he is not willing to marry her; she has no money to tempt him. She asks him to come and speak to her at a nearby inn, but he hears that his father is on the point of death and rushes off to see if he can talk his father into putting him back into the will. He sends his reluctant friend, Arnold Brinkworth, to speak to Miss Silvester instead, and unhappily Mr. Brinkworth is kept overnight at the inn by a savage storm. He leaves the next day, and is soon married to Miss Silvester’s best friend Blanche. But. BUT. According to the marriage laws of Scotland, this marriage is… BIGAMY! Because Arnold stayed overnight with Anne Silvester! At an inn! In the character of her husband, because otherwise the innkeeper wouldn’t let him in to see her! He could never be Blanche’s true husband! Their marriage is false!… OR IS IT???

This book is absolutely as wonderfully dramatic as anyone could possibly wish it to be. It has not one but two possible bigamous marriages; miscarriage; not one but several dramatic deaths and near-deaths and announcements that deaths will come; domestic abuse; changed wills and codicils; dramatic confessions both written and verbal; a menacing mute servant; Scottish servants with heavy accents for comic relief; weddings, brilliant comeuppances, and a murder. It is unbelievably satisfying from beginning to end. One of the best things about it is that only the worst characters suspect the good characters of evil intentions; the good characters trust each other almost entirely, which is consistent with human nature (unlike, say, Othello.)

Perhaps the oddest and most unexpected thing about the book is the issue about exercise. Wilkie Collins took it into his head to use this novel to expatiate about the trend in England at the time for men to harden their muscles, to run about, to use bats and balls, to row boats, and so forth. He was very much against this sort of thing. In the book, the villain, Geoffrey Delmayn, is one of these muscular fellows, and cares for nothing else — in fact, he is one of the fastest foot-racers in England, but he’s also an extremely nasty cad. “Look,” Wilkie Collins essentially says, “working your muscles but not your head or heart makes you a barbarian. What good will this do your nation or your soul? When it comes to making selfless decisions, how will your muscles help you?” The funniest thing about all this, of course, is that we’ve gone much farther this direction. Geoffrey Delmayn’s utterly exhausting foot-race is four miles (!). What would Collins think of an Ironman triathlon? (Of course, what do I think of one?)

This was a marvelous sensationalist novel, and totally enjoyable. Unless one of you has another suggestion, I’ll probably read Poor Miss Finch next, which is about a blind woman in love with twins. Doesn’t that sound fantastic?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 13 Comments

How It Went Down

This novel by Kekla Magoon begins with a brief description of the incident:

The known facts about the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson are few. On the evening of June 2, at approximately 5:30 P.M., Johnson sustained two nine-millimeter gunshot wounds to the torso. Police officers arrived at 5:37 P.M. Johnson was pronounced dead at the scene. Police apprehended a person if interest, Jack Franklin, who was present when Johnson was shot but left the scene in a borrowed vehicle shortly afterward. Franklin was pulled over nearly four miles away from the site of the shooting, at 5:56 P.M. A nine-millimeter handgun, recently fired, was found in the back seat.

Over the course of the novel, we learn more details from witnesses and people in the neighborhood. Tariq was running an errand for his mom. Someone heard the shopkeeper shout “Stop! Thief!” But it turns out he was mistaken. The shopkeeper was calling Tariq back to get his change. But other facts aren’t clear. Did Tariq have a gun? If so, where did the gun go? Was he in a gang? Does it even matter?

The book follows the community over the week after the shooting. In short first-person narratives, usually just a page or two long, people touched by Tariq’s death reflect on what happened and on their own lives. We hear from Jennica, a young waitress who saw the shooting and tried to perform CPR. Brian Trellis, who thought Tariq was a thief. Brick, leader of the 8-5 Kings, who has been trying to recruit Tariq and was on the scene. The Reverend Alabaster Sloan, a politician who arrives on the scene to support the family and get in front of the cameras. And then there’s Tariq’s family and friends, each person with his or her own perspective on how things went down and what to do next.

One of the boldest things about this book is how Magoon refuses to answer a lot of the questions around Tariq’s death. She doesn’t allow for easy answers or clear finger-pointing. Only a few things are clear by the end. Tariq was surrounded by violence, and his death was a tragedy. There are people who are clearly part of the problem, who are making things worse for boys like Tariq and everyone in the neighborhood. But most of the people in the book are just trying to figure out how to live.

Take Tyrell. He was probably Tariq’s closest friends and one of the few boys in the neighborhood who managed to stay out of the Kings. But without Tariq around, who will protect him? Kimberly, a hairdresser, is also not part of a gang, but she longs for a way to a bigger life. Will meeting Rev. Al help her get there? And Will has gotten the chance to live in a better neighborhood, thanks to his new step-dad, but he misses the good things about his old world and sneaks back to make street art and tags whenever he can.

Written in 2014, the book echoes the Trayvon Martin case in some respects—hoodies and candy feature prominently. And Magoon clearly has the injustice of Trayvon’s death on her mind, but this book takes a wider view, looking at how the people in a community intersect and how each person has to plot his or her own course in light of community pressures.

At times, I found the large cast of characters overwhelming, especially early on before I’d gotten to know any of them. The quick jumps between chapters took me a while to get used to as well. But once I got involved, I liked how the book presented so many different sides of the neighborhood. This is a book about a community, and communities are filled with so many different types of people that showing just one or two won’t capture the whole picture.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Contemporary, Fiction | 4 Comments

The Truelove/Clarissa Oakes

Captain Jack Aubrey has never much liked having women on his ships, and in the 15th book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, we can see why. Titled The Truelove in the U.S. and Clarissa Oakes overseas, this book follows the HMS Surprise through the South Pacific after their sojourn in New South Wales. The book takes place almost entirely at sea, and the drama mostly involves the relationships among the crew.

The source of a lot of the tension on the ship is a stowaway named Clarissa Harville, an escaped convict brought on board in Sydney by Midshipman Oakes. Although Jack in not a bit pleased about her being there, he decides to be kind and allow them to marry and stay on board. He even gives her cloth for a wedding gown and makes sure that some of the most skilled stitchers on the crew are able to help create a suitable dress. Once again, Jack proves to be soft-hearted.

But even after the wedding, Clarissa’s presence causes tension. Her casual attitude toward sex gives several of the men the wrong idea about her feelings and creates rivalries. Stephen later learns that she was sexually abused as a child and worked for years in a brothel, usually as a bookkeeper but sometimes serving clients. This, we’re led to assume, accounts for her attitude toward men. I’m not sure that this psychologizing really holds up, but I’m impressed that O’Brian makes an effort to round Clarissa out and make her sympathetic, rather than merely a object for the men to dispute over.

Like the other books in the series, this novel is filled with little subplots and incidents, some of which are related to the larger arc of the story, and some of which are not. Jack shows some signs of depression, and Stephen encourages him to exercise. Jack gets orders that he’s not sure he should share with Stephen, and Stephen continues to seek out the spy Wray previously reported to. Clarissa proves to be helpful here, having seen Wray and Ledward at the brothel with another man. When Clarissa eventually leaves the ship, Stephen sends a coded message with her in hopes of getting the investigation moving ahead.

A worrying development involves Stephen’s daughter, Brigid, born while Stephen was on this journey. Diana seems to have little interest in the baby, and her letters are brief, undated, and focus mostly on horses. Sophie’s more detailed letters to Jack hint that something is wrong with the child. Although I’ve grown to like Diana very much over the course of the series, I’ve been uncertain about whether she’d handle motherhood well, and if the baby is still, I’m even more concerned. Stephen has been so excited about becoming a father, and I fear there’s going to be heartbreak ahead. I hope I’m wrong, but things so often go badly for poor Stephen that I won’t be surprised if I’m right.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment


oblomovThis 19th-century novel by Ivan Goncharov spends its first hundred and fifty pages establishing its main character, Oblomov. Who is this man, and why is he the way he is? It seemed to me at first an excruciatingly slow way to get going, and at first I thought there might be nothing more to this book at all — just a portrait. But instead, when things started moving, I was so invested in Oblomov that even tiny events filled me with hope or despair. Goncharov succeeds completely at creating Oblomov and his friends, so that even an ordinary man with an ordinary life is thoroughly fascinating.

Oblomov is the world’s laziest man. He went to school and didn’t like it, and he worked in the civil service for a couple of years and then just never went back. Now he lies on the couch in his parlor, wrapped in his fraying dressing-gown, and daydreams. He thinks of the improvements he wants to make on his estate, revises them, adds new ideas — but never goes to his estate or does anything about the improvements. He dreams of music, dancing, and brilliant witticisms, but when his friends invite him out, he refuses to go (it’s cold, it’s dull, it’s too late in the day.) He dreams of travel but wouldn’t venture abroad to save his life — and his doctor tells him that if he keeps sleeping after dinner, drinking, and eating heavily, travel might be the only thing that can save his life. He doesn’t read; the page of his book where he left off has turned dusty and yellowed. He simply lives in his mind, dreaming of his perfect childhood and of all the things he could do if he chose. In other words — in the words of his active, energetic friend Stoltz — he has Oblomovitis.

One day, Stoltz drags Oblomov out, by main force, to the home of some friends of his. There, Oblomov meets Olga, a sparkling, sardonic young woman. The shape of the love story that follows is wrenching, as Oblomov rises out of his torpor for love and then slowly finds that this new, beautiful life is too frightening. His love and then slow descent from love are at the center of the book. The insidious effects of Oblomovitis play themselves out right to the end.

Goncharov’s real masterpiece in this book, however, is not so much the plot as the characters. You’d think Oblomov would be boring or infuriating, but actually he jumps off the page. He is incredibly sympathetic. Even though he is supremely lazy and deeply flawed, I came to love him and be profoundly concerned about his welfare. The same is true of the other characters, especially Stoltz, Olga, and Oblomov’s housekeeper. Even Oblomov’s manservant Zakhar, who is mostly there for comic relief, has depths to him. The long descriptions of Oblomov’s childhood serve as a satire and as a window into what spoiled him for society. The humanity of this book is what makes it shine.

So far, I’ve read most of the “obvious” Russian novels that most people begin with (with the exception of Eugene Onegin) and am starting to branch out into books I haven’t heard of as often. I have the sense that there’s richness and depth to this literature that I will take a lot of time discovering. If Oblomov is any example, it’s going to be great. (Incidentally, I included the most hilarious cover image, not the one I read. I read the 1954 Penguin Classic edition, translated by David Magarshack.) Any suggestions about what Russian novel I should read next?

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