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Archive for the ‘Contemporary Fiction’ Category

In which a genre-bending novel uses a sci-fi premise to examine how we all deal with the reality of mortality

Title: Never Let Me Go

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

What it’s about: Kath, Tommy and Ruth had a happy childhood at Halisham. They kept themselves healthy and developed their art under the care of their guardians, the men and women who were both their tutors and their protectors. But despite their idyllic country home and classical education, the children at Halisham have always known that they’re different from people on the outside. They won’t grow up to be doctors or teachers, they won’t marry or have children. Their paths have been laid out since birth. They will leave Halisham for a few year, then train to become carers. They’ll spend some time driving around the country from one facility to the next, caring for others like themselves. And then they too will begin their donations—four if they’re lucky—and complete by the age of thirty or so.

The story is told through Kath, who has been a carer for twelve years now, a long time but not unprecedented. She’s about to begin her donations and she reflect upon her time at Halisham and her childhood friends, both of whom she cared for herself as they went through their donations. Through her reflections we see the development of these children, their modest hopes for themselves, their accelerated awareness of their place in the world.

Though the concept sounds very sci-fi, the intriguing thing about this book is it hardly reads like it. The topic of donations and the origin of these children is really background noise for a psychological exploration. The story is quiet and emotional, more about their personal connections with one another. It rejects the conventions of the genre—it is not dramatic, action-packed, dire or preachy. But it is raw and intimate. I read an interview with Ishiguro where he addressed this choice and he said he was interested in exploring how people grow up and come to understand mortality and their place in the world, but wanted a condensed time period for this process that we all undergo. We all know on an intellectual level that we’ll die someday. We learn this even when we’re children. And we all accept it. We want more time, but we accept death as a given. It’s not so different for Kath and her friends—they’re just more certain on the timeline.

Would I recommend? I certainly enjoyed it. I will say that if you go into this book with the wrong expectations, you could be disappointed. It’s not a dystopia or a cautionary tale about the boundaries of science and morality. It’s about friendship, love, and personal identity. And clones. If that sounds good to you, pick it up.

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In which I long for my own beach weekend in Maine

Title: Maine

Author: J. Courtney Sullivan

What it’s about: The Kellehers have come to Maine each summer to stay in the cottage by the sea since Alice’s husband won the property in a game of cards after the war and carved her initials into the tree at the gate. They brought their children and now their children’s children and even their great-grandchildren are coming. But Alice doesn’t necessarily welcome the intrusion. She never wanted any of this—family, children underfoot, the life of a good Irish Catholic housewife. Wrapped up in her own guilt about events from her youth that changed the course of her life, Alice has promised the house to the Catholic Church after her death—unbeknowst to her family who expect to continue spending summers there in perpetuity.

Alice’s granddaughter Maggie joins her in the cottage for a month, fresh off a break-up with her volatile artist boyfriend and pregnant with his child. Maggie is surprised to find solace in the house and courage to accept the challenge of raising a baby on her own. Of course, she can’t tell Alice any of that. Nor can she tell her Aunt Ann Marie, who shows up by surprise one morning. Ann Marie is a Kelleher by marriage, but rather than being the black sheep, she’s something of a too-white one. Always taking on Alice’s care and modeling the behavior of a  ’50s housewife, Ann Marie can’t seem to admit even to herself that her own marriage is not what it once was and her perfect children haven’t turned out to be that perfect. She retreats to the cottage to work on a dollhouse she’s entered in a competition and daydream—harmlessly really—about starting an affair.

I read Maine by a lake and found it to be an absolutely perfect summer read. It’s like The Corrections only with more sun and sand and less anger. The characters are all flawed, but relatable. The book alternates between four women’s points of view and I enjoyed seeing their ships passing in the night as each interprets events differently and shares their side of the story. So many misunderstandings arise from misses in communication. The Kelleher women have more in common than they want to admit, but can’t stop hurting each other. Call it pride or fear, they’re each boxing up a part of themselves and boxing out the ones they love.

This is a story of evolving generations of a family and the way a single event can affect people so differently. It’s about suppression and sacrifice versus self-awareness and fulfillment. It’s about alcoholism and emotional abuse, but also lobster rolls and Irish folk songs. It’s a story about women—the way we talk to each other, the way we tear each other down or build each other up. And it’s just a good story. The writer’s voice is clear and fluid and I felt connected to these women and invested in how things would play out.

Would I recommend? Most definitely. The perfect setting for reading Maine is on the shore somewhere, but it has more than enough depth to hold up in your living room come winter.

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In which I try a favorite author’s earliest book only to find some welcome familiar faces

Title: Ghostwritten

Author: David Mitchell

What it’s about: In a series of nine interlocking short stories, David Mitchell takes us from a terrorist’s hideout in Okinawa to the booth of a late-night radio DJ in New York City. Ghostwritten (2001) was his debut novel, but many readers, like myself, will have come to Mitchell through Cloud Atlas, his 2003 best seller. It was surprising to me to take a step back in time and find not only a very similar format to Cloud Atlas, but also some familiar faces. In fact, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas inform one another in surprising and revealing ways, and I found myself making connections and opening mental doors as the events in Ghostwritten unfolded.

The nine stories in this book seemed to be more solidly connected than those of Cloud Atlas, as each character encounters the next in a fleeting but tangible way and as the book progresses more and more points light up on the metaphorical switchboard and our narrators tend to have greater effects on their counterparts. While Atlas was a journey through time and space, Ghostwritten spans a much shorter period and most of the stories overlap temporally, all the while drawing us east and forward to a terrible catastrophe.

The book begins and ends with extremes (a cultist experiencing the aftermath of a bomb he planted, and a supercomputer searching for the solution to humanity’s tendency toward destruction), but bookended are a few more grounded tales. Each story contains an element of the fantastic, be it a non-corporeal being searching for its origin or an impoverished ghostwriter roped into a gambling competition in a London casino, but also focuses on a simpler human element. Mitchell’s characters are risk takers and make sacrifices for what they want. They share a kind of drive toward something, a conviction in some goal. This brings an intensity to the book and also a feeling of forward movement. I also enjoyed Mitchell’s different meditations on the nature of love—be it the Russian woman involved in an art theft ring to please her gangster boyfriend or the scientist on the run who returns to her ancestral home on Clear Island for a few days with her husband and son before the U.S. government forcibly removes her to a hidden facility in Texas to create a master-weapon.

I do wonder why Ghostwritten hasn’t found as wide an audience as Cloud Atlas when they share so many qualities. His most recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a beautiful focused historical fiction with only a few spotlighted characters, and markedly different from his earlier books (though many have commented that intertextuality is one of his hallmarks and Mitchell claims there are several carryover characters in Autumns, but I appear to have missed them). But for fans of Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten will seem like a meeting with an old friend. It’s shorter and, with more stories, it clips along at a faster pace. You’re sure to enjoy the winks and nods to Mitchell’s other work. And if you’re coming to Mitchell for the first time, this is as good a place to start as any (and I recommend you do).

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In which I find a story about cancer cast in a fresh light

Title: The Fault in Our Stars

Author: John Green

What it’s about: Hazel has already gotten her miracle. Two years ago, the doctors seems sure that her thyroid cancer would leave her with only a few months to live. But then she started taking an experimental drug and now her expiration date is more of a question mark. Everyone knows it’s coming, but since the drug is untested there’s no way to guess when it might be. Enter Augustus Waters, a new addition to Hazel’s weekly cancer support group. Augustus is on the other side of his battle with bone cancer, but has joined the group in support of his friend Issac, whose eye cancer is about to leave him blind. Hazel finds a kindred soul in Augustus, but knows what she is—a grenade, ready to burst and leave all those who love her wounded. She tries to keep Augustus at arm’s length, but their connection is too strong.

Though Hazel has cancer, this should by no means be considered a “cancer book.” It is a love story, a story about struggle, and, most acutely, a story about how a young person deals with the reality of death. You may cry, but you’ll also laugh, you’ll think, you’ll smile, you’ll feel warm-fuzzies. It’s a deep, rich book that drives you to ponder mortality, family, love, literature and our heroes.

I’m almost through the Green oeuvre now, but TFIOS takes the lead as my favorite. Green’s back up to the emotional resonance he achieved in Looking for Alaska, but the female narrator does him a great service this time around. I saw repeated elements in Alaska and Paper Towns tied to the male voice, in particular the nerdy male narrator idealizing an unattainable female. The first time around it worked for me, but the second time I felt a bit of deja vu. Hazel’s voice retains the poignant honesty of his previous narrators, but feels singular and fresh. And though she’s also in love, this is a very different kind of love than I’ve seen Green tackle before (I haven’t yet read An Abundance of Katherines, so that book must be excluded from my analysis). Though Augustus and Hazel are teenagers, their life experiences age them emotionally and bring an element of the adult to their relationship. And that’s a good thing.

Would I recommend? Most definitely. Green has found a great balance in this book and created a compelling story that goes far, far beyond the confines of what we’ve come to expect from a story about cancer.

P.S. I did not receive a Hanklerfish or a Yeti and I’m very disappointed.

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In which a paper girl leaves a paper town

Title: Paper Towns

Author: John Green

What it’s about: Next door neighbors Quentin and Margo were childhood friends, but inevitably drifted apart. Now in high school, Q is a band geek who’s not in the band and Margo is popular and famous for her outrageous stunts. Also, Quentin is still in love with her. To Q, Margo Roth Spiegelman is revolutionary, spectacular, singular, and gorgeous. He also hardly ever speaks to her. One night, Margo appears at his window and takes him on a mad midnight revenge ride around Orlando. The next day she disappears. Q discovers that Margo has left clues about her whereabouts and believes that those clues are for him. Convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q follows her trail, hoping he can bring Margo back before graduation and also come to understand the real person behind his ideal girl.

First, as a girl raised in Florida who is fairly familiar with the Orlando area, I loved the setting of this book. Orlando is, without a doubt, a paper town. The actual people who live there and the interesting lives they may lead are just totally eclipsed by the machine that is tourism. Theme parks, theme hotels, theme restaurants—everything is artificial. If you drill to the core, there are places with some authenticity, but they are practically smothered by the hollow wonderland. Central Florida is also something of a wasteland. With none of the benefits of the coast, it’s unrelentingly humid and swampy, conditions that only add to the hopelessness that breeds in Margo Roth Spiegelman and leads to her disappearance.

But though Q makes much of Margo, she’s a paper character in this book, and we’re never close enough to her to even begin to understand her, which mimics Quentin’s struggle to figure Margo out. I like where Green takes the book, how he shows us how we invent others and that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to truly know another person. The teen years in particular seem rife with this problem. Green shows us a boy who quite clearly invents a girl. Oh, the flesh and blood person is there (until she’s not, of course), but his conception of Margo could never live up to an actual person. Though I think this phenomena is quite common, I found myself almost distractedly frustrated with Q and couldn’t help agreeing with his friends when they urged him to leave his search for Margo behind and enjoy his last few weeks of high school. As they pointed out, his obsession with Margo keeps him from his own life, taking but giving nothing.

Would I recommend? I have to admit that I enjoyed Looking for Alaska more than Paper Towns and I’d recommend making that your first stop in the Green oeuvre. Paper Towns has the same wit and intelligence, but was a little less emotionally impactful for me at least. Others have mentioned it’s their favorite (his new The Fault in Our Stars excluded as it’s just been released…it’s on my list!) and I’d be interested to hear why other readers rank Paper Towns above Looking for Alaska.

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In which a book that appears to be about baseball is more accurately about the human condition

Title: The Art of Fielding

Author: Chad Harbach

What it’s about: Baseball is Henry Skrimshander’s life. His bible is The Art of Fielding by Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. It teaches him to be a leader, to play with intensity and calm, and to never, ever make an error. What Aparicio’s book can’t do for Henry though is get him out of the no-name club team in Peoria with a losing record. For that, he needs Mike Schwartz, a college ballplayer and unofficial student coach who catches Henry’s postgame practice after a local summer game. Mike sees talent in the scrawny, underweight kid, so much talent that he practically promises Henry a scholarship to Westish College in northern Michigan, a promise he delivers on. At Westish, Henry develops under Mike’s training regiment of grueling stadium runs at 5 am and Powerboost shakes with every meal. Soon he’s in the running the break Aparicio’s streak of errorless games. Until he makes a terrible mistake.

I know that synopsis makes it sound like this is a book about baseball, but it really isn’t. Well, it is, in the sense that it centers on a team of college players. But the book is bigger than the team and spends a lot of time off the field and outside of the gym. We see Mike’s struggle with pain after years of back-to-back football and baseball seasons that have ruined his knees and his resistance to being a coach (those who can’t coach) even though it’s the thing at which he excels. We see Henry’s roommate Owen, a passionate eco-activist who clips a reading light to his cap in the dugout and whose afternoons with the university president develop from friendship into something more. At least half of the story revolves around President Affenlight, a Melville scholar who has dedicated his life to Westish College, his favorite place in the world, and who is reconnecting with his estranged daughter Pella, who is running from a failing marriage that started too young and falling for the friendly and appreciative Mike Schwartz.

These five people form a tapestry, making this a human drama rather than just a story about sports. I’m not a huge baseball fan, so I wasn’t particularly excited to read this book, but I’d seen so many good reviews that I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. The book is brilliantly written with flowing prose and nuanced characters. I flew through each chapter, enjoying the different voices and the care that’s taken to balance thought and action. The story is thoughtful but exciting, has depth but also simplicity. It has the emotional scope of The Corrections with none of the cynicism and a ton of heart.

Would I recommend? Definitely. If you’re not a baseball fan, don’t be discouraged! Sports is really just the entry point to a complex and moving story about five people trying to learn who they are and who they want to become. Don’t miss it!

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In which you think something will happen, but nothing really does

Title: Travels in the Scriptorium

Author: Paul Auster

What it’s about: Here’s something I wish I’d known before reading this book: Travels in the Scriptorium should not be the first Paul Auster you read. (Why didn’t I read a review?!) If I’d done my research rather than impulsively grabbing this off a table because of its quirky cover (a horse! in a room!) I would have known that this is Auster’s thirteenth novel and his most navel-gazing, almost a note to longtime fans. As a newcomer, I didn’t realize that all of the secondary characters were drawn from his previous novels, meaning that the entire book is a send-up to his past work, full of oblique references. Obviously I read the book completely differently than a fan would and, let me tell you, it suffered for it.

The back cover copy made this seem like a classic closed door mystery: a man trapped in a room, having lost his memory, seeking to discover the sinister force that may have imprisoned him. I’ve seen plenty of great films and books that use this as a frame, so I was intrigued. If you want the “a-ha” moment, you literally only have to read the last three paragraphs of the book. That delivery felt thin, like Auster had dashed off those paragraphs, then built a loose story around it. I was left thinking I’d wasted my time, which isn’t a good sign for a book so short that it’s practically a novella. Travels in the Scriptorium felt like a gimmick.

Would I recommend? If you’re a diehard Paul Auster fan, I think you’ll find some fun winks and nods. If you’re a newbie, avoid. There’s not enough substance here to make it worthwhile.

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