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Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

I listened to “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, beautifully read by Francois Chau, and found it intense, gripping, bitterly funny, heartbreaking and brutal. The character, who I believe is never named, but often called Captain for his rank in the secret police of South Vietnam, is nuanced, flawed, complex and conflicted; his fatal flaw being the ability to see both sides of a question. As a spy for the Viet Cong, embedded within the ranks of South Vietnamese army and recruited into the military police, he has to interrogate captives from┬áthe North with whom he sympathizes and is secretly working; he also has to report to his superiors on the movements of the South Vietnamese with whom he lives and works. This duality is present in his origins as the son of a Vietnamese maid and a French priest who never outwardly acknowledged him. The book begins and ends in southeast Asia, with the hero on the last plane out of Saigon and at the end, preparing to embark on a perilous journey as one of the ‘boat people’ to escape the oppressive regime of the conquerors. The long, middle portion is a fantastic tale like something out of Dostoeyvsky as the Captain continues in his dual role, spying on the South Vietnamese refugees living in California and plotting their return. His convoluted, even horrifying, maneuverings to avoid arousing suspicion in the General and Madame, his wife, while wooing their wayward daughter; the incredible interlude where he advises a movie director and is present at the making of a movie about the Vietnamese war, almost getting killed in the process; and his disastrous return to Vietnam, make for a suspenseful read (or listen). Best of all is the lush prose sprinkled with double entendres and near puns, that make for a fresh, distinctive style, sometimes airy and delightful, at others clinical and disturbing. The last part of the book is less humorous, more brutal (extremely difficult at times) and even a little tedious (as being a prisoner in a concentration camp probably is in reality), and the resolution of the plot threads is slightly less than plausible, but these are quibbles.┬áThe plotting is mostly superb, the characters are realistic and the situation is compelling to say the least.

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A waste of time. It’s too bad because there are some decent plot elements, and the viewpoint of an upper-crust black man, a law professor (as is the author) and son of a judge, with homes in DC and Martha’s Vineyard, is a welcome one. There are some dramatic moments, what with the horrific murder of the Pastor; the unjust arrest of our Professor by local police after he is attacked by thugs (reminiscent of the incident involving Henry Louis Gates); the intriguing car chase on the Vineyard; and the denouement during the hurricane. Unfortunately, any drama built into the story is muffled by the plodding narrative style. Time and again, the author tells us what this person is like, tells us what the men in his family are like, tell us what his marriage is like (over and over again) – he never shows us through dialogue or actions. The consequences of this type of writing are cardboard characters with no life in them. He tries to tie Kimmer’s affair to his own obsession with the mystery his father left behind, but, by my reading, there are problems with the marriage from the beginning of the book. I don’t believe in Kimmer, nor in Mariah, the sister obsessed with the idea that the Judge was Mariah, nor in Addison. The best characters are the law school faculty members, but even there, the relationships seem forced, as well as inconsistent, and motives do not appear to flow logically from character. I also wish the chess analogy had been more elegantly done – it seems like a fine idea tortured to fit the story. Perhaps a decent editor could have helped streamline the novel and improve the author’s style. Once there were great editors who helped writers achieve their vision – no more, it seems.

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I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?

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This novel by Julie Orringer is gripping in an old-fashioned, George Eliot kind of way – a lot of characters that you begin to care about rather quickly begin rather quickly to get into difficult situations, namely World War II. The main character is a Jewish-Hungarian architect student studying in Paris who meets the love of his life, a woman 10 years his senior living in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The reader knows what is on the horizon, but the hero and his friends and family do not, of course. This agonizing suspense – don’t stay in Paris! Don’t go back to Hungary! – keeps the pages turning as the noose of anti-semitism tightens around the protagonists, with their hopes, dreams and expectations gradually diminishing until merely surviving is all that is left – and, of course, all do not. The author has a wonderful sense of place as I felt myself on the streets of Paris throughout the first half of the book and envisioning Budapest as it was in the second half; she also stays within the moment, within a very individual context, even as forces of hate and history are unfolding all around. This is a book that has stayed with me for weeks as I turn over the forces of circumstance, personality and luck that go into one person’s journey through life.

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I read The Art of Fielding, which all the book groups seem to be reading these days. I nearly gave up in the initial chapters where Henry, by a series of fortuitous, and not entirely believable, events and circumstances is brought to Westish College to invigorate their baseball team with his skill as a shortstop. I was about to give up until the statue of Melville was mentioned, and the reason why the baseball team is named “The Harpooners” was revealed. Apparently, Melville visited the Great Lakes at one point in his post-writerly life (after the failure of Moby Dick, he spent some 30 years as a Customs inspector). I found myself invigorated by this literary link and gradually got interested in the characters.

The Melville connection was tenuous and not fully explored, which was too bad. I had expected more, but in the end I got interested in Henry, the syndrome that undermined him as a player, and his gradual healing and emergence from despair. A lot of the other plotlines felt contrived, especially the one between Pella and her father, and the decision to dig up his body: weird, tacked on and unearned sensationalism! It was news to this reader that Affenlight loved the sea that much. And there was really no parallel to Emerson digging up his wife’s body. It just didn’t fit. That said, the writing was good, and on the whole the book was enjoyable. I did like it more than I thought I would.

Given that “The Lee Shore” was mentioned as Affenlight’s favorite chapter of MD, I wanted to follow up on that reference, and in doing so, found The Big Read – Moby Dick read aloud in its entirety by 130 plus different narrators. I went straight to Chapter 23 and had a listen. It’s another of those extended metaphors, this “six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” If we had had some earlier premonition of Guert’s love of the sea, this would have worked, ie, “the land seems scorching to his feet,” or was it there and I missed it? In any case, the chapter was a good choice. I liked the analogy between the efforts of a boat to ride out a gale at sea, rather than be driven onto the rocks and that of the mind to maintain its freedom:

all deep earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore!

I also liked that Affenlight’s last meal was Chowder – that being one of the great chapters of MD!

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The Tenth of December by George Saunders is confidently called “the best book you’ll read this year” by the New York Times! If you haven’t yet read a George Saunders story, the profile of this mind-bending yet humane and compassionate writer is a wonderful introduction to his worldview. His stories are so odd and unbalancing, set as they frequently are, in some dystopic, not-so-distant future where people and places are recognizable but more than a little skewed, and he uses that leverage to pull the characters, the reader, himself, all of us, up a notch, to a slightly higher level, where the view is better, the air a little kinder. But don’t get the wrong idea, these are not exactly feel-good stories. They are well-crafted, dark and humorous, and have a stinging way of bringing you closer to your own flaws but also forgiving you for them.

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More on Murakami

Since today is his birthday, per The Writer’s Almanac, I started thinking, again, about why I like his writing. Since 1Q84 was so weird and a lot of people hated it (not me!), the question has become more insistent. I agree, even for this author, it was a very strange book. Here is Murakami on his own writing:

“I write weird stories. Myself, I’m a very realistic person. […] I wake up at six in the morning and go to bed at 10, jogging every day and swimming, eating healthy food. […] But when I write, I write weird.”

I find that the weirdness juxtaposes with the down-to-earth, normal protagonist, usually a Japanese “everyman” (or occasionally “everywoman”) who is just trying to get through the day, to produce a hypnotic writing style that draws the reader along. Weird things happen (a giant frog enters his apartment and asks him to help save the world; there are suddenly two moons in the sky). The person just trys to deal with the situation in a calm and logical manner, the weirdness escalates – sometimes an epiphany is granted, sometimes not. In 1Q84, despite some bizarre sexual situations, many unanswered questions, liberal suspensions of disbelief, and a questioning of some of his choices, there was a moment at the end where Tengo and Aomame win through to a kind of grace. There is a realization that this world may also not be the “right one”; however, they will deal with it, just as they dealt with the two moons and all the other weirdness. And, in truth, any one of us can wake up one day with everything changed by some random twist or unforeseen circumstance, the equivalent of two moons, and the new reality, whether you believe in it or not, is where you must live. There was something beautiful about the ending. In addition, the book is a page turner, which is saying a lot when there are nearly 1000 of them!

Related Posts:
Murakami’s Latest – November 2011

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