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Everyday Enlightenment

The Story Hour: A Novel, by Thrity Umrigar, (Harper), 336 pages

We’re only in August and The Story Hour is the eleventh novel I’ve put on my ten-best-in-2014 list. I know that’s a bit problematic from a numerical sense—but I also know that The Story Hour has to be on the list, even if I haven’t figured out yet what to cut.

The Story Hour takes readers on a cross-cultural journey. Lakshmi, an immigrant from a small, impoverished village in India, living with a husband who despises her, attempts suicide and is treated by Maggie, an African-American therapist raised in Brooklyn and now living in a small east coast college town with her Indian immigrant husband, who is a professor of mathematics.

The lives of these two women are both very similar and utterly different, which is what gives the novel its impact. The message here isn’t a vaguely humanistic “gee, we’re all so similar when we don’t focus on the differences.” Instead, it’s more along the lines of “we can’t assume we understand each other, but we can have a sense of commonality while exploring our differences respectfully.”

In the same way that the boundaries between similarity and difference are blurred in this novel, the boundaries between the therapist-client relationship and genuine friendship are also blurred. Lakshmi, unfamiliar with therapeutic practice can’t help but think of Maggie as a friend; Maggie realizes early on that, given her isolation in a foreign culture, Lakshmi may have more need for friendship than for therapy.

Thrity Umrigar navigates these similarities and differences deftly, creating a story that undulates like ribbons on the wind: repeatedly drawing together and moving apart. As the reader observes the choices both characters make, she’s afforded an opportunity for reflection. The complexity of Lakshmi and Maggie’s situations can remind the reader of the complexities of our own lives.

Ultimately, the message of this novel is about the value of the everyday, the ways that love is most clearly demonstrated in the small, automatic gestures with which we fill our lives. The Story Hour does have drama, but the drama is there as a foil to the commonplace, which takes on a preciousness we seldom see in it.

Time spent in the company of Lakshmi and Maggie is time well-spent. The reader will also find that it’s time spent well with her own self.

August 20 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Long Years on the Border

The Invention of Exile: A Novel, by Vanessa Manko, (Penguin Press), 304 pages

While there is a story underlying Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile, the novel is not so much a narrative as a meditation. The plot is simple enough. Austin, a Russian immigrant, and Julia, a native-born American meet, fall in love, and are married traditionally with a promise ritual, rather than legally.

It’s the early 1920s and the U.S. is in the first of a recurring tide of panics about the Red Menace. The members of Austin’s Russian social club are rounded up, he is inappropriately labeled an anarchist, and he is deported to Russia, with Julia accompanying him.

As Russian communists begin to win the civil war, the two flee—first to Constantinople, then to France, and finally to Mexico because of its proximity to the U.S.—hoping that they can return to the nation where they met. After some effort, Julia and the three children are given visas to return. The family is assured that it will only be a matter of a few months before Austin has his visa as well. Those few months turn out to be fourteen years.

Though it’s written in third person, the bulk of the novel takes place within Austin’s mind as he waits in Mexico City, hoping for his visa. The story unspools in a series of reflections that move back and forth in time. This is both the novel’s strength and its weakness. Austin’s internal monologue is beautifully rendered in an almost elegiac way. Using Austin’s memories as a starting place, the reader is invited to contemplate a variety of complex topics: national identities, the nature of citizenship, the cruelty of bureaucracies, the structure of family, and the maintaining of familial relationships over lengthy temporal and geographic distances.

However, given Austin’s years of frustrations, one memory of uncertainty or separation follows another and the mood is bleak, leaving the book intellectually rich, but emotionally monotonous. My attention and reading speed varied as I moved through the book. When I was alert and up for a bit of philosophizing I could move through it quickly and with engagement, but whenever I was a bit tired my reading speed slowed and I lost focus, the novel feeling like a dark, unseeable river moving past me at a turgid pace.

The Invention of Exile is an interesting read, but it makes demands that not all readers will want to meet, particularly those more used to narrative-driven fiction.

August 18 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Lesbian, Punk Rock Journey

Pissing in a River: A Novel, by Lorrie Sprecher, (The Feminist Press), 258 pages

I promised the women in my head that I would get to England even if it killed me.

That’s the kind of sentence that rivets a reader, and that’s how Lorrie Sprecher opens her novel, Pissing in a River (the title is taken from a Patti Smith song). The novel follows Amanda, the woman with voices in her head, as she builds a life for herself as an activist and a musician and covers the period from the beginning of the AIDS crisis through George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

The women in Amanda’s head are brown-haired Melissa and another, darker haired woman whose name Amanda doesn’t know. Both have British accents. They are supportive voices, by her side during times of crisis, and she moves to England twice—first as a study abroad student and later on a tourist visa with plans of gaining residency—at their urging.

The first part of the novel covers Amanda’s time as a study abroad student, her return to the U.S. and the years during which she pursues a Ph.D. in Literature while participating in early ACT UP demonstrations. The narrative arc here isn’t particularly strong, but it gives readers a chance to become acquainted with Amanda, to see her drive for justice, love of literature, obsessive thinking about (among other things) Old Testament themes, and her deep commitment to the art and politics of punk rock.

The novel picks up in the second half as Amanda builds relationships with both a best friend and a lover during her second stay in England. These three women are survivors of violence and who have turned to one another for the love and support that allows them to carve out space for themselves in a world determined to ignore or denigrate their political values and their identities as lesbians.

The punk rock that Amanda loves serves as a sort of sound track for the novel. She quotes lyrics and emulates the playing of her favorite guitarists. Long passages of the novel list bands, albums, concerts:

I had [my friend in London] listening to the Dils and X from Southern California; M.I.A. from Las Vegas; the Dead Kennedys, Rancid, Romeo Void, and the Avengers from San Francisco; Hüsker Dü and the Replacements from Minneapolis; Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains from Washington, D.C., and the first REM album.

These constant references to both U.S. and European bands can be enlightening, but they can be demanding as well. Readers will want to pause repeatedly to hunt down samples of these artists’ works, which adds texture to the reading experience, but also feels a bit disruptive.

My feelings shifted often as I read this novel. At times I was moved by it; at other times the first-person narration felt more like summary than memory. But, having finished reading it, I find my assessment of the novel is steadily improving. Sprecher, through her characters, has wrestled with significant challenges of our time, particularly the challenge of being represented by a government one disagrees with and feels powerless to change.

The fact that the three women at the center of this novel create a family among themselves is nothing short of a triumph. This accomplishment doesn’t mitigate the violence and injustice of contemporary life, but it does affirm for readers the possibility of finding a source of support that makes acknowledging and responding to this violence and these injustices possible.

*****

I received a free electronic ARC of this novel for the purpose of review from its publisher.

August 14 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Working Mother

The Objects of Her Affection: A Novel, Sonya Cobb (Sourcebooks, Landmark), 352 pages

Sophia, the central character in Sonya Cobb’s The Objects of Her Affections is almost uncomfortably familiar: a Pittsburgh mother of two small children attempting to run a struggling home business while her husband travels extensively for his work as a museum curator. Regardless of careers or geographical location, most of us have observed the challenges posed by this sort of “normal” life, even if we haven’t lived it ourselves. Add into the mix a slightly over-priced, older house, bought with a variable rate mortgage at the peak of the housing bubble, and you can predict where this novel is going.

What you can’t predict is how Sophia responds to this situation. Having always handled her family’s finances, she decides that keeping up the mortgage payments is her responsibility. Her solution? Start stealing minor pieces from the museum at which her husband works and selling them to a dealer in New York.

Because Sophia doesn’t have the art history background her husband does, she accidentally steals a piece that’s important enough to be missed—which introduces the FBI to the story.

This isn’t a novel of high-end crime a la The Thomas Crown Affair. It’s much less flashy than that, a tale of family pressures and the mistakes that are sometimes made in response.

One of the best aspects of this book is the characterizations. The premise may sound a bit unlikely, but Cobb’s characters, especially Sophie, ring true. The reader can believe that Sophie’s backed herself into a corner where art theft seems like her only option. And being backed into a corner of unsustainable mortgage payments is all too easy to understand these days.

One of the things that I like about Sophia is that she isn’t always likeable. She plays her cards close to her chest, even with those most deserving of her trust. Her judgements of others come quickly. Nonetheless, her good intentions and concern for her family make it difficult for readers to become too critical of her.

If you’re looking for a piece of “women’s fiction” (a term I’m deeply ambivalent about) that moves beyond the usual expectations while keeping the relationships among its characters at its center, you’ll be quite pleased with The Objects of Her Affection.

August 12 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

An Anatomist and Enemy Alien in Eighteenth Century London

The Lazarus Curse: A Doctor Thomas Silkstone Mystery, by Tessa Harris, (Kensington Books), 352 pages

The Lazarus Curse is the fourth volume in Tessa Harris’s Dr. Thomas Silkstone mystery series. It’s the first of these novels that I’ve read—and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more.

Thomas Silkstone is a surgeon and anatomist in London, shortly after England’s defeat by its American colonies. Silkstone is highly capable at his craft; he’s also an enemy alien. He’s accorded respect and distrust in equal amounts.

In this novel, Silkstone has been hired to inventory the samples from a scientific expedition recently returned from Jamaica. Of the three scientists who traveled on this expedition, two have died, the third has disappeared, along with a key journal of their observations, and he’s feared dead.

Along with this central mystery, Silkstone finds himself wrestling with a number of other problems which force him to confront the acceptance of slavery in Britain, despite a judicial ruling years earlier determining that those who enter the country as slaves have a right to demand their freedom. Just as in our own time, the letter of the law and its actual practice are at odds. As Silkstone tends slave owners and their slaves he is confronted with the violence and dehumanization at the heart of the institution. What he formerly viewed as an abstract issue of justice is now an immediate and distressing challenge.

Harris also gives us a love interest, Silkstone’s former fiancee, the widowed Lady Lydia Farrell. Following her husband’s death, Lady Lydia’s son has become a ward of the crown, which means she can no longer consort with Silkstone because of his enemy status.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on, and Harris balances these different plots adeptly. Too often, series novels either require familiarity with previous volumes or overcompensate by providing unnecessary backstory. The Lazarus Curse does neither of these. Harris’s portrayal of characters is rich enough that the reader quickly comes to know them—and this knowing allows the missing pieces of their stories to be inferred.

While Silkstone sorts out many of the problems he’s confronted with, he doesn’t quite manage all of them. Clearly Harris is already planning volume five in the series. Given her knowledge of this historical period and her skills as a writer, I’m looking forward to reading it.

August 11 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Tales from a Pathologist

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, Judy Melinek and T. J. Mitchell, (Scribner), 272 pages

It seems to me that if one is sentient, one can’t help but think about death a great deal. We all think about death differently of course. Some of us flee it, some of us glorify it, some turn it into entertainment, some eagerly await the next life. But I think we have a shared reason for thinking about death. We cannot control death, so we compensate for that lack of control with a desire for understanding—whether scientific or spiritual.

Among those looking for understanding are forensic scientists, anthropologists, and technicians. They come to the human body after death has occurred in an effort tell the story, to provide certainty, if not comfort, for those left living. Julie Melinek, one of the authors of Working Stiff, has made a career of this search for truth. (I want to note here that the book is coauthored by Melinek’s Husband, T. J. Mitchell, but as Working Stiff is written in first person from Melinek’s perspective, I’ll be referring to her when discussing the book.)

A significant body of forensics-for-laypeople literature has emerged over the past few decades, and Working Stiff is an excellent addition to this genre. Melinek originally pursued a career as a surgeon before realizing that she wanted a specialty more conducive to a sane family life. As she noted at one point, almost every surgeon has a cot in her office for catnaps between emergencies, but a pathologist’s patients are already dead. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t take her work seriously, just that she values being able to do her work when she’s at her best, rather than in response to the chaos of medical crises.

The work Melinek does is fascinating, a sort of problem solving simultaneously pursuing knowledge, justice, and compassion. She doesn’t treat some lives as more valuable than others. Death comes in many forms to many people, and in every instance Melinek is similarly focused on uncovering the narrative underlying each death. She writes about overdoses, accidental deaths, deaths resulting from medical error, murder (and her explanations of the differences among these categories is remarkably precise, much clearer than the brief list I’ve offered here).

Working Stiff succeeds not just informationally, but stylistically as well. Melinek’s voice is both professional and relaxed, conversational and informative. At work, she spends a great deal of time explaining complex physiological information to ordinary people, and this makes her an excellent writer. Books in this genre can feel like collections of disparate narratives, sort of a “if this is Tuesday, we must be in the brain case,” if that isn’t too irreverent. While Melinek does focus on different classes of deaths as she moves from chapter to chapter, the narrative thread of her book—the well-defined time span of two years’ work—keeps these topics from feeling isolated from one another.

The narrative flow becomes particularly effective—and particularly important—in the last few chapters, when she describes the process of working to identify human remains after the attack that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center. She gives us a sense of what this work is like over time: not just one challenging day, but months of such work. She describes moving between “ordinary” autopsies and mass casualties.

This book is precise, and it is graphic as a result of this precision. It doesn’t make for light reading, but it is compelling.

August 07 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Something Wicked…

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero, (Doubleday), 368 pages

Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements is a delight of a novel—particularly if you enjoy a bit of paranormal activity alongside your quest to solve the mystery left behind by the unknown, distant relative. The reader is thrown into the novel’s action from the start, as it literally opens with a journal entry missing the first pages. You’re in the thick of things and have to get your bearings as you keep moving.

As a preface, the novel offers the statement that “The following collection of documents details the events that occurred at Axton House, 1 Axton Road, Point Bless, Virginia, during the months of November and December of 1995. The footnotes are the editor’s only contribution. The first page is missing.”

The documents include the aforementioned journal, a separate dream journal, letters, telegrams, ciphers, written communication between a pair of characters one of whom is mute, transcriptions of voice and visual recordings—including store security cameras, and a handful of ephemera. In this sense, The Supernatural Enhancements strikes me as a modern-day successor to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which also purports to be assembled from a variety of sources.

The Supernatural Enhancements is as much puzzle as novel, requiring readers to put the varying types of information alongside one another in order to follow the narrative. That’s what makes it such a delight. I can pretty much guarantee that no matter how seasoned a reader of this sort of mystery/historical thriller you are, you won’t see things coming. The narrative shifts under one’s feet like sand, changing the meaning of material that has gone before. Even at the finale, there are surprises yet in store.

At 368 pages, The Supernatural Enhancements is substantial enough to take you through a vacation weekend. Pick up a copy, and let it keep you company as you put your ordinary life aside.

*****

I was provided a free electronic ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The views presented are my own.

August 05 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Painter Painting a Painting of a Painter Painting a Painting of a Painter Painting a Painting…

The Art Restorer: A Novel, by Julián Sánchez, (Barcelona eBooks, Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.), 345 pages (approx.)

Reading Julián Sánchez’s The Art Restorer is like walking into a house of mirrors. Everywhere you look, you see the same thing—but distorted. The Art Restorer is a novel within a novel within a novel, and although each thread is distinct, they are at the same time a set of narrative isomers: slightly different in style or structure, but serving the same purpose.

The narratives in this story occur along two different temporal paths: during the Nazi occupation of Paris and in present-day San Sebastián, Spain. The World War II narrative centers on the life of the muralist Josep Maria Sert. Sert’s name is not all that familiar today, but during his lifetime he was regarded as the greatest artist living, and he produced mammoth commissioned works for cathedrals, corporate buildings, and private collections. One of these commissions was a group of murals for Rockefeller Center that can still be seen today.

According to Sánchez’s novel, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Sert, who was popular among Parisian circles and also had solid relationships with some of the occupiers, worked as  sort of “fixer.” He provided black market goods or or could arrange the release of a detainee.

The main present day characters are all connected to Sert. There’s Craig Bruckner, the art restorer of the title, who hopes to write the definitive monograph on Sert’s works and who turns up dead—murdered?—early on. Bruckner had been studying Sert murals at the San Telmo Museum, where he befriended the new public relations director, Bety Dale. And finally we have Enrique Alonso, originally from Spain, now living in New York, author of historical thrillers, and ex-husband of Bety—who just happens to be writing a novel that includes Sert and that moves between two settings: Nazi-occupied Paris and present-day Spain.

Got all that? One of the characters is writing a book that mirrors the book in which his book is being written. In addition, chapters of the book he’s writing appear in the book in which he’s doing that writing.

What’s wonderful is that all this works. The characters and narratives are woven together so effectively that the novel feels purposeful from the start. Sánchez intertwines truth and fiction and fictional fiction in a way that leaves the reader wondering where the truth lies. And, as he explains in a forward to The Art Restorer, that’s exactly what he wants to do:

In keeping with the custom of all my novels, part of the events described are based on a true story. I leave it to the reader’s imagination and investigative ability to discover which are real, and which are fictitious.

Because Sánchez, like his character Alonso, is a writer of historical thrillers, the details of Sert’s life point to a mystery that needs solving, a mystery that Alonso puts at the heart of the novel he’s writing as he and Dale try to solve that mystery.

All in all, The Art Restorer is a delight. It demands attention from the reader, but repays that attention many times over. Once you begin reading, you’ll find yourself putting all other activities aside as you wait to see how the stories end. One particularly good piece of news is that this is the second of two books featuring Enrique Alonso and Bety Dale. You can also have the fun of reading the first of this pair of novels: The Antiquarian.

*****

Note: The publisher provided a free copy of this book for the purpose of review; the opinions expressed here are my own.

August 04 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

William Howard Taft and Fisticuffs at One Thousand Feet

The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, by Jacopo Della Quercia, (St. Martin’s Griffin), 400 pages

If you want a summer read that’s both gripping and silly, Jacopo Della Quercia’s The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy is just the read for you. One could also make a case for it as an unconventional choice for back-to-school reading. Take your pick.

In the America of this novel, William Howard Taft is much more interested in prize fighting than in presidenting—in the political arena he’s just a beard for his wife, Nellie, who really runs the country. Taft spends his time aboard Airship One (a dirigible) with his sidekick Robert Todd Lincoln holding special Cabinet meetings (the “special” cabinet is the liquor cabinet).

Taft and Lincoln stumble into a mystery via a pocket watch that previously belonged to Abraham Lincoln. They set off to solve the mystery, after first disabling the run-amok Taft automaton taking the President’s place in the White House:

“Mr. President… your decoy is stuck in the bathtub again.”

“Confound it! I keep telling them its exhaust port is not submersible. Someone get Nikola Tesla on the telegraph. Tell him I’m tired of plugging holes in the backside of Thomas Edison’s engines!”

This is pretty much the tenor of the entire work and it’s good fun, balancing the ridiculous with the historical. In fact, the more you know about American history, the more you’ll enjoy it. Della Quercia has a long resume as both a teacher of history and a writer of satire, and The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy is full of quick snippets of humor.

Thomas Edison is the brunt of a number of jokes. At one point, Taft paraphrases Edison saying, “He said something about perspiring and taking credit for other people’s inventions.” Later in the story, the first officer of the Titanic looks at Taft “with the same shock as if he had just seen an iceberg.”

As Taft and Lincoln come closer to understanding the mystery initiated with the discovery of the pocket watch, almost every major figure of the era is brought into the action: cabinet members, army officers, barons of industry, Arthur Conan Doyle, even the rapacious King Leopold of Belgium.

When you need a pick-me-up with enough complexity to stay satisfying throughout, you can’t do better than The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy.

*****

I received an electronic ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed are my own.

August 01 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Mystical Journey

The Angel of Losses: A Novel, by Stephanie Feldman, (Ecco), 277 pages

Flat out truth: Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses is a marvel of a book, a put-on-your-stranded-on-a-deserted-island-list book. It’s thoroughly its own creature, but if I were choosing comparable titles, they’d be some of the best novels of the last few decades: Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

The Angel of Losses, set in present-day New York and New Jersey, is narrated by Marjorie Burke, a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation on the character of the wandering Jew. Marjorie is pulled from the world of the scholarly to the fantastic when she discovers handwritten versions of the White Magician stories her grandfather told when she was a child. These alternate versions, featuring the White Rebbe, are found in journals he left behind at the time of his death—journals he’d wanted destroyed.

The novel uses and builds upon Jewish folklore. The White Rebbe is a wandering Jew character, one who’s made a compact with a now-fallen angel, Yode’a. The pact gives the White Rebbe great powers, but comes at a steep price. This price and its transmission from one generation to the next become Marjorie’s focus as she tries to understand both changes in her present-day family and events from her grandfather’s past.

The Angel of Losses moves effortlessly from present to past, from “real” narrative to the White Rebbe folktales and their variations. Its scope is broad, covering centuries and grappling with questions of faith, destiny, and free will; at the same time, it offers human details, the sort that keep the characters vivid and engaging, even within the larger context.

For any lover of fiction that probes human nature, for any lover of folklore, for any lover of magical realism, for any lover of fast-paced adventure, The Angel of Losses will provide an exceptional read. This is a book to buy now, while it’s out in hardback, and to buy in multiples for gifting to like-minded readers.

July 30 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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