An Apartment Block of American Lives

The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel, by Cristina Henríquez (Knopf)

The year is half over and already I’ve read so many exceptional books that I might wonder if I’ve lost all discernment. Might wonder—because the good reads stick with one, and Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is definitely one of the good ones and will definitely be sticking with me.

Set in an apartment building in Delaware that houses immigrants from several Latin American nations, The Book of Unknown Americans offers a chorus of voices. The building’s residents include several single men (among them a photographer and the building owner); a woman who directs the local experimental theater, which is perpetually under-funded; a Vietnam veteran and his wife; the Toro family, originally from Panama, with one son in college on a soccer scholarship and another, less confident, less athletic son still in high school; and the most recent arrivals, the Rivera family, parents and their only daughter, who is recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

One of the delights of this book is that while narrated primarily by Alma (mother of the Rivera family) and Mayor (the younger son of the Toro family), nine other narrators are given the opportunity to tell their own stories. Each of these eleven voices is distinct and articulate, giving the book an impressive scope although it’s just 304 pages in length.

The central narrative of the story is a frustrated romance between Mayor and the Rivera daughter, Maribel. Due to her brain injury Maribel has difficulties with short-term memory, focus, and speech, so Mayor’s original attraction to her is based on her appearance. But Mayor soon realizes that Maribel is more complex and, at times, more perceptive than her family gives her credit for. Watching the gradual changes in Maribel and in their relationship is one of the real pleasures of this book.

Other arcs are simpler: fear of losing a job in the recession that began under Bush and continues under Obama, job searches, conflicts about whether or not wives should work outside the home, the difficulty of communicating with relatives left behind, fear of violence, and changing loyalties among the building’s residents.

This book is both devastating and hopeful. The worst possible happens—but, at the same time, the characters find small ways to continue their lives relying on memory and one another.

Too often the immigrant in the U.S. is presented one-dimensionally, generally with a stereotype of an illegal, often criminal immigrant from Mexico. Some of the building’s residents have immigrated illegally—but others have not, going through protracted application processes. Yes, there are characters originating from Mexico, but the building houses residents originally from Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela as well, and all of these characters, to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon the time they’ve spent in the U.S. identify as Americans, see this country as home, as a land they can benefit from and contribute to.

This book is an essential read, both for its narrative and for the portrait it offers of a community too often neglected in current fiction. Read it to be moved. Read it, as well, to come to know this country better.

Twined Tales

The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession, by Charlie Lovett (Penguin Books), 384 pages

The Bookman’s Tale isn’t a new release, but it’s just been issued in paperback. I received an electronic ARC from NetGalley, which was nice for me, since I’d wanted to read it when it first came out.

The Bookman’s Tale has several narrative strands. The one that covers the most historical ground follows the rather storied life of a copy of Robert Greene’s Pandosto with extensive marginal notations by Shakespeare (he used Pandosto as a source for The Winter’s Tale).The remainng two narratives focus on the life of Peter Byerly, a rare book dealer. The earlier strand chronicles his introduction to the world of rare books and his college romance with his future spouse, Amanda. The later takes place after Amanda’s death. Peter has been steadily closing down his life, ignoring friendships, and feeling increasing indifference for is profession.

Peter’s situation changes suddenly and significantly when he finds what appears to be that copy of Pandosto. Of course, he’s not the only one interested in this book and its provenance, and this is where his adventures begin.

Of the several narratives, I was most engaged by the one focusing on Pandosto‘s “life.” The book changes hands frequently through fair means and foul, and readers are given portraits of the rare book business over the course of centuries. The contemporary narrative offers a fairly standard looking-for-a-possible-Shakespearean-book tale, with heirs dismantling family libraries, a night spent in a crypt, and one murder for which Peter is, of course, framed.

The part of this book I found least enjoyable was the college narrative of Peter and Amanda. Peter works in the college’s rare books room, and once he and Amanda fall in love, they have weekly assignations there after hours. In the real world, this kind of misuse of his access would get him fired. In The Bookman’s Tale they make love over and over again at the feet of bookcases filled with precious manuscripts (a fourth folio, a “bad” Hamlet, and much, much more). Neither of them has any qualms about this—and apparently no one else working in the room notices any funny stains on the carpeting. What’s worse is that we, the readers, get adolescent sex, lots of it.

Maybe I’m just a bitter old woman, but these passages left me antsy and dissatisfied. I don’t like romance novels; I do like stories about searches for rare books. The Bookman’s Tale was a mash-up of the two, and my response to the book fluctuated as the book moved from narrative to narrative.

The Bookman’s Tale might make a good weekend read for someone a little less romance-intolerant, but it’s not in the same league with Shadow of the Wind and Possession, with which the publisher’s promotional materials compare it.

My New Favorite Book of the Year

Above the East China Sea: A Novel, by Sarah Bird (Random House)

I have a new favorite book of the year: Sarah Bird’s Above the East China Sea. This is one of those deeply satisfying reads that works on many levels. It moves among several settings: the U.S. military base on Okinawa in the present day and Okinawa outside of the base; Okinawa during World War II when the Island served as a defensive barrier between Japan and U.S. warships; the Okinawan spirit world, led by spirits called kami.

This book is the story of two young women and is narrated in their voices. The first, Luz James, is a military brat (a term she uses to describe herself), daughter of a single mother. Luz’s world has been torn apart by her older sister’s unexpected enlistment in the Air Force and her death in Afghanistan. She is responding to her sorrow with drug use and risk-taking, common pastimes among her two groups of friends: the “Quasi” crowd composed of other military brats (quasi because that’s the only sort of friendship one can establish with the constant moves of military life) and the Smokinawans, the local stoners.

The second young woman is Tamiko Kokuba, an Okinawan originally a fanatical supporter of Japan (many Okinawans at the time considered it a compliment to be mistaken for Japanese), who works in the cave hospitals set up on the island for the Japanese forces, and who, pregnant at age fifteen after being raped by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, chooses to commit suicide. Okinawan custom requires recovery of the body and regular tending to the remaining bones in order to to have a life after death. Because she has committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea and her body was never recovered, Tamiko and her unknown child have been unable to move on. Their spirits await guidance by the kami, hoping the kami will provide them with a body whose spirit they can displace, which will allow them to move on to the afterlife. Tamiko spends the years as a waiting spirit by recounting her life story to her unborn child.

Luz and Tamiko’s paths cross in both literal and spiritual senses as Luz contemplates suicide and Tamiko waits for a body to house her spirit. At several moments I was sure I’d guessed how these two different crises would be resolved, but Bird’s nuanced story-telling keeps adding complexity to the narrative, taking it to deeper, richer places than I’d imagined.

I don’t want to say more than this because readers deserve the pleasure of following the several paths of this novel without having parts of the narrative revealed ahead of time. Whatever your preferred genre—history, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, mystery, fantasy—Above the East China Sea offers a satisfying read that will stay with you long after you close the book.

A Tragedy Repeated

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps, by Michael Blanding (Penguin)

The title of Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief makes the book sound like a true-crime read: gripping, esteemed, millions, priceless. But like much true-crime writing, this book isn’t really a tale of justice served. It’s a tragedy.

Faced with financial difficulties, E. Forbes Smiley III, the “esteemed rare-map dealer” of the title, began stealing maps from university and public libraries. Most of these maps were included as plates in accounts of explorations and books for ships’ captains, but the value of the individual plates means more and more of these valuable old books are being dismantled. Sometimes the dismantling is legal, if still unsettling. A purchaser of a book breaks it up because the value of its parts is greater than the value of its whole.

But for several decades (at least; there’s no definitive history of this subject) high-end thieves have begun this dismembering process without authorization within the confines of the institutions created to protect these books. A carefully chosen seat away from the circulation desk, a razor blade or a length of damp string, a bit of sleight of hand—that’s all that’s been required.  And this crime is a double crime in that it’s not only the map that’s been stolen; another of the exceedingly rare intact copies of these old texts has disappeared forever, whether or not the map is ever recovered.

When I first saw the promotional blurbs for this book, I wondered whether it was actually a re-issue of a title I’d read almost fifteen years ago, Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps. In that book, Harvey told the story of Gilbert Bland, Smiley’s criminal predecessor. In Smiley’s case as in Bland’s the extent of the thefts may never be known. Both men offered some cooperation with prosecutors, but both are suspected of having underestimated their activities, and the libraries and institutions they raided have substantial lists of maps that disappeared at the time one of the two was at work, but that either haven’t been recovered or weren’t thoroughly catalogued to begin with, making the extent of the loss indeterminable.

Of these two titles, I prefer Blanding’s work, though both offer engaging, if heart-breaking reads. Both authors fold wonderful histories of the science of cartography and the production of individual maps into their books, but Harvey’s wanders afield on a regular basis, turning into meditations on the author’s own relationship with his father. Harvey attempts to tie this personal material to the main narrative, but it comes across as inappropriate and self-indulgent. Blanding’s work maintains a tighter focus.

As a life-long lover of old books and printed materials, I can’t help but see Blanding’s book as a tragedy. I may never visit any of the libraries or institutions that were robbed, but knowing that were I to travel to one of them I would be unable to see materials it once held, would be handed incomplete, rather than intact manuscripts feels like a personal loss. In some way these volumes were held in trust for me.

If that seems a bit overblown, let me share a passage in which Blanding describes and quotes from a brief the British Library submitted when Smiley was on trial. In this case, the missing map had been removed from a book once owned by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury—

He [Golding, a British librarian] took the Apian world map as an example [of the losses from Smiley’s thefts], detailing how the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer had married Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn in 1533, only to be later burned at the stake for heresy. “The volume and map remained intact surviving catastrophic events: the execution of its owner and the disbursement of his property; Civil War and the ascendance of Oliver Cromwell; times of economic depression; and the Nazi bombing of London. The volume remained intact until visited by Smiley.”

One of the most tragic aspects of this case is that Smiley’s thefts weren’t contemporaneous with Bland’s. Bland’s thefts took place in the mid-nineties. Smiley’s took place fifteen to twenty years later. The libraries and institutions victimized the first time around made some changes to their security, but these changes weren’t enough to prevent Smiley’s subsequent and near-identical crimes. Blanding does discuss increasing security measures taken in the wake of Smiley’s crimes, but it is genuinely tragic that more of these weren’t taken the first time around.


Note: I received an electronic ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review. This book will appear in bookstores on 5/29/14.

How Does Your (Night) Garden Grow?

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, (Amulet Books), 368 pages

Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener is an absolute delight—one of those “children’s books” that can just as readily pull adults into its magical world. I started it one night, read until I was exhausted, then picked it up again the next morning because I couldn’t wait to get back to that magical world.

This tale was inspired, the author tell us, by Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and the stories of Washington Irving, among other texts, but it is much more than a new twist on previously published works. One can see moments where these inspirations shine through clearly, but The Night Gardener remains its own creature throughout: moody, sometimes deeply unsettling, populated by a cast of characters one quickly grows fond of.

The novel is set in the Victorian era, and the cast include young Molly and Kip, who may or may not be orphans, making their way to a mysterious manner house in hopes of gaining work as servants; the failing, fading family who make this mansion their home; a story-telling crone; and a self-satisfied rationalist doctor, alert for any opportunity to receive scientific fame.

In addition to the human characters, we also have the Night Gardener of the title and the overgrown, menacing tree he tends and that grows not just outside, but throughout the home, shaping the lives of all who spend time there.

This is one of those novels that meets expectations, but never disappoints by doing so. Our young heroes summon bravery in difficult straits. The threatened family’s love is dissipating, but emerges still at crucial moments. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the good end happily and the bad end unhappily; that is what fiction means. Just as Harry Potter’s expected defeat of Voldemort does nothing to lesson the pleasure of reading J. K. Rowling’s series, the fact that our young heroes end (mostly) happily does nothing to dilute the pleasures of The Night Gardener. The fact that Auxier is a wonderful prose stylist doesn’t hurt, either.

Whether you live in a home with children or without them, this is a wonderful book to keep on the shelves for those moments when one needs to sink into the company of literary “friends” and to allow the cares of day-to-day life to fade into the distance. After you’ve read this book once, you’ll look forward to returning to it again.

Walking on Air and Fire

The Hollow Ground: A Novel, by Natalie S. Harnett (Macmillan)

In Natalie S. Harnett’s The Hollow Ground, the characters attempt to make peace with themselves and each other while living—both literally and figuratively—over a great emptiness. The setting for this novel is a group of former coal-mining towns. The mines have closed, but the coal still in the ground has caught fire and has been burning for years. These underground fires can render playgrounds and basements literally too hot to walk across; they produce carbon monoxide, a constant threat for those living in these towns; and, as coal burns away, great holes develop underground, undermining the foundations of homes and sometimes collapsing, taking homes and lives with them. Whole cities are being destroyed in a major eminent domain project involving the digging of enormous trenches in hopes of ending the fires’ spread.

This is where we meet our narrator, Brigid Howley. Brigid is in her early teens and her life has been completely destabilized. Her favorite aunt has died in a sink-hole collapse in the family’s backyard, the family’s home has been condemned, and they now live in a run-down local hotel on temporary assistance. All the adults in her life—mother, father, paternal grandmother—are at odds with one another, and when Brigid’s family move in with her grandmother, her life grows less stable, not more.

Brigid’s father, Adrian, is a seldom-employed former miner, who lost the use of one arm in a mine collapse. Her mother, Dolores, was left at an orphanage after her father remarried—although the couple chose to raise her younger brother as their own. Brigid’s grandmother (whose mother also grew up in an orphanage) is the second wife of a man who lost his “true loves,” his first wife and children, in flash flooding caused by a mine collapse. Everyone, including the children has learned to keep their feelings and desires well hidden because, as Brigid tells us several times, the easiest way of losing something is to let others know you want it.

Given this bleak setting and contentious cast, I admit to having a hard time really getting going with The Hollow Ground. The first third or so just seemed like an onslaught of unpleasant people being unpleasant with each other. But that changed as Brigid began to develop a friendship of her own and to create a (small) life for herself outside of her family. She still spends much of her time observing the adults around her, but she also becomes more of a girl: not completely jaded, experiencing a great many things for the first time.

If you’re looking for mindless (or just comforting) entertainment, you’ll find this book deeply unsatisfactory. On the other hand, if you’re willing to fight your way through the unpleasantness, you’ll find yourself deeply engaged with Brigid, admiring her character, if not always enjoying her story.

More Memoire than Dispatches

Friday Was the Bomb, by Nathan Dueul, (Dzanc Books)

Nathan Dueul’s, Friday Was the Bomb, recounts his experiences living in the middle east, working as a freelance writer, and caring for his daughter, while his wife worked as a war correspondent for National Public Radio. This isn’t a full-on memoire, rather it’s a collection of some of his freelance essays (with revision) that originally appeared in a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera America, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Republic.

I requested an electronic ARC of this book anticipating that it might give me an insider’s view of the political clashes and civil wars currently fomenting in the middle east—but it’s Dueul’s wife who’s the war correspondent, not Dueul. One learns little about the Middle East in these essays beyond the fact that an interesting range of ex-pats live there and that occasional violence breaks out with loss of life. In other words, this isn’t really a book about the middle east.

What it is is a book about balancing fatherhood and work, these tasks complicated by worries about a spouse with a very dangerous job. He is sincerely interested in events around him:

I was excited and honored—overwhelmed, really—to be standing in the middle [of this region], hoping the darker forces of death and destruction would keep their distance and that my own enthusiasm to learn more—with Kelly’s [his wife] ability to report well and stay alive, with the resilience of the Iraqi people, with America’s ability to be honest about its power and priorities, with my ability to have faith in something it was difficult to have faith in—maybe things might actually get better.

But what Dueul writes most about isn’t the political aspirations of the Iraqi people or America’s honesty. We get stories of taking children for a snow day in Lebanon, of an art opening made lively with ample beer, of getting the best shave and haircut of his life from a barber in Instanbul. Quicky finding the best safety razor in a store nearby, a great gift for the young one about to need it.

Dueul isn’t blind to the struggles being played out around him, but when he thinks of them, he’s putting a good bit of his energy into watching his own responses to them, using the times in war zones to try to work out what sort of a man he is. Near the end of the book, transitioning to life back in the U.S. he notes that, “On the eve of our new life in America, I had a feeling that everything I’d struggled with the last five years—worrying, death, guilt—would dog me no matter what country we lived in.”

If you want to read a collection about the challenges of fatherhood and manhood—albeit in an extraordinary setting—you’ll enjoy this book. But I was looking for insights into a political struggle often minimally covered by the U.S. media, and I left this book feeling none the wiser.

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Huck Finn and the River of Time

I’d been itching to read Norman Lock’s The Boy in His Winter: An American Novel since the moment I heard about its premise: Huck Finn and Jim sail down the Mississippi and along time, arriving in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina hits. This synopsis (who knows where or how I absorbed it) isn’t really accurate. Yes, Huck and Jim are on a raft. Yes, the raft passes through the edge of Katrina. But The Boy in His Winter is much more complex in its aspirations.

Rather than offering a quick one-line summary that includes only a small part of the book’s overall narrative, it might be more useful to look at the publisher releasing the book. In this case, the publisher is Bellevue Literary Press (BLP), which bills itself as “the first and only nonprofit press dedicated to literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences.” BLP hopes to “promote science literacy in unaccustomed ways and offer new tools for thinking about our world.” This isn’t a Huck-meets-Katrina book; it’s a much more metaphysical work that questions the nature of time while traversing key moments in American history.

I enjoyed this book at the beginning. Huck, now very old and near dying, is recounting his story to an anonymous amanuensis. He wanders a bit, he cogitates, he questions as much as tells: “Of course, I reckon time differently now than we did then, sweeping down the Mississippi toward Mexico as though in a dream.  Those days did seem like a dream, though not mine, or Jim’s, either, but one belonging to somebody whose hand I almost felt, prodding me onward in spite of my reluctance.” That’s rich language, the kind one wants to read aloud for the pleasure of feeling it roll about in one’s mouth.

As the book progressed and the metaphysical pondering continued, I grew less charmed. The prose was still lovely, but as I read I felt as though I was waiting for someone or something to appear that, Godot-like, never showed its face. What I was longing for, I think, was the physical Huck, the boy of flesh and blood. Yes, Huck was a thinker, but he was also young, vital, alive, and to have this aspect of him jettisoned from the beginning left me frustrated.

Many of Huck’s thoughts—on slavery and race, on friendship and its limits, on the human condition—are interesting. And the book offers some small moments of action: a Civil War battle, the brief glimpse of Katrina, the birth of jazz from southern blues music. Jim, who dies before Huck, reappears in different guises and the reader enjoys seeing him change as his spirit is transported to new eras. But too many of Huck’s thoughts are repetitious, and the blurred depiction of the external world leaves readers anchorless on this float down time and river.

The Boy in His Winter does “promote science literacy in unaccustomed ways,” but the “tools for thinking about our world” are limited: Time is fluid; People do and don’t change. This isn’t so much science literacy as scientific generalization written over and over again.

Light and Dark in Occupied France

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, by Anthony Doerr, Scribner, 544 pages

Set in World War II France and Germany, All the Light We Cannot See is my favorite kind of novel: long, rich, populated by a range of imperfect characters, some who try to transcend that imperfection, others who cannot see it.

The cast of characters includes Marie-Laure, blind since age six, with a quick mind and a great deal of self-confidence; her father, locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris; Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, an agoraphobic haunted by ghosts since he returned from World War I; the great-uncle’s elderly housekeeper, who finds the courage to join the French resistance; Werner, a German orphan who is a prodigy in the creation and repair of radios; Werner’s sister Jutta, left behind when Werner is accepted into a science academy for Hitler Youth that offers more political indoctrination than science; and a whole host of others.

Anthony Doerr brings this wide assembly of individuals to life, moving among them, slowly drawing them nearer one another, fleshing each of them out so that even those we might expect to be stereotypes are much more multifaceted.

And among these multifaceted characters lies a multifaceted stone: a diamond with a legendary history. In less able hands, the diamond would have dominated this story, which would have degenerated into a variation on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s the characters who are the heart of All the Light We Cannot See. There are a few we hate, but for the most part, we can’t help but see the better parts of them. The question is whether they will discover these better selves in time to make a difference of some sort in a world quite literally in flames.

I’m hesitant to provide more summary. Reading this book, meeting the people in it, sharing their journeys, is an engrossing experience that shouldn’t be undercut by foreknowledge. All the Light We Cannot See contains a great deal of action, but that action is more than balanced by the development of characters we witness over the decade or so that this novel encompasses. This is novel of people more than it is a novel of events.

I received and electronic ARC of this book to review and find myself longing for its release date so I can get a paper copy, one that will feel as solid in my hands as Doerr’s narrative. We’re less than halfway through the year, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if in December I remember All the Light We Cannot See as my favorite read of the year.

Half-Understood Stories

The Wall and Other Stories, Jurek Becker, (Arcade Publishing), to be released 5/6/14.

Jurek Becker is probably best know for his two novels Jacob the Liar and The Boxer, but this is the first of his works I’ve read. It’s a slim volume, just under 150 pages, containing five short stories and one essay. Becker is a Holocaust survivor—one who was quite young during WWII. He was born in Lodz, Poland, and lived in the Lodz Ghetto for several years before being sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp at the age of five. Later, he was sent to Sachsenhausen. His father, from whom he’d been separated, survived as well, and the two were united after the war. His mother died just as the camps were being liberated. He lived in East Germany for many years, a dissident author and playwright, but moved to West Berlin in 1977, retaining his East German citizenship.

The editor (Becker’s wife) has placed the one essay at the end of the book as a way of demarcating the line between fiction and non-fiction, but, not surprisingly, this line is significantly blurred, and the book is better because of that, detailed in its brevity with stories in which scene and character are quickly established.

If there is one theme that runs through the book, it’s the ways that we don’t understand the stories of our own lives as we live them. Four of the five stories are narrated in the first person: and each narrator’s grasp of his own situation is limited in some significant way. In the title story, an unnamed boy whose family is moved from one part of the Lodz Ghetto to another, recounts the adventures he and two friends devise. The narrator is aware that people are being summarily executed—an elderly shopkeeper friend of his was killed for the “crime” of having a plant in his apartment—but at the same time, cannot quite grasp the risks he faces, even in moments when he fears his own death is at hand.

In “The Most Popular Family Story” an uncle relates a “prank” played on him while he was on business in London, one made possible by his lack of English and limited knowledge of local customs. In “The Suspect” a loyal East German deals with the fact that he’s under government surveillance with a series of rationalizations that make him unable to see the true nature of that government.

This lack of full understanding is made clear in both the introduction and in the book’s final essay, “The Invisible City,” written to accompany an exhibit of photographs of the Lodz Ghetto. Becker, the author, knows the outline of his own childhood, but doesn’t remember it; he knows about the war years only through the handful of stories his father told him.

I found this incomplete understanding moving. The opening story and the young narrator’s incomplete grasp of his own situation are heartbreaking because we, the readers, know so much more than does the story’s central character. What the boy sees as arbitrary rules and limitations, we see as the leading edge of a horror about to be fully enacted.

The incomplete understanding also made me think of my own time and the things we choose not to understand because full understanding would overwhelm us. We “know” of injustices, famines, human rights violations, natural disasters, but for those not living through them understanding is not just impossible, it is also unwanted. As is the case with several of Becker’s narrators, it is, in fact, our lack of full understanding that allows us to survive.

While this is a brief book—so brief as to be frustrating—it is absolutely worth reading, offering us mirrors on the past and, if we look closely, on our own present as well.