Saturday, October 22, 2011

Where the God of Love Hangs Out, by Amy Bloom

In reviewing Where the God of Love Hangs Out for The New York Times, novelist Francine du Plessix Gray describes the book has having an "upbeat sassiness" and "saucy vitality"--what? While Bloom certainly infuses humor into the stories, individually and collectively they left me feeling melancholy. The God of love evidently hangs out with some very sad and deeply conflicted people.

The book includes two four-story cycles, as well as four stand-alone stories. One cycle is about Claire and William, two professors married to other people. In the first story, they begin an affair (with their spouses in the same house with them), which languishes in stories two and three as both have health problems (William is obese, and Bloom gives a not-entirely-appetizing description of the challenges of sex with a very heavy man); in story four, they are married--happily--but William soon dies, leaving Clare bereft. The second cycle has many characters but is essentially about Julia and her stepson Lionel, who have sex the night after his father/her husband's funeral. This disastrous event scars both of them, but they eventually find their way back to a familial relationship--and then Julia is hit by a car and dies. Yes, so saucy!

The four stand-alone stories are also sad. "Between Here and Here" begins with the sentence "I had always planned to kill my father"--and you can understand why, when that father is so unmoved by his wife of many year's death that he doesn't think a memorial service is even worth discussing with his children. "Permafrost" may be the saddest story of all. Hospital social worker Frances is working with the family of Beth, a 13-year-old who has contracted necrotizing fasciitis. The parents are not doing well, and Frances is worried that Beth's will be Googling forms of suicide before she even gets home--and yet it is Frances whose life seems to shrivel over the course of the next decade, while Beth rises above her circumstances and her family. Perhaps I need not synopsize the remaining two stories (although the favorite passage is from one of them and I think you'll get the drift).

Bloom is a talented writer, the characters she creates are three-dimensional, and the situations she put them in are just unusual enough to capture your interest. So it's not that the stories aren't good. They're just so damn sad.

Favorite passage:
I don't miss the dead less, I miss them more. I miss the tall pines around Lake Pleasant, I miss the brown-and-gray cobblestones on West Cedar Street, I miss the red-tailed hawks that fly so often in pairs. I miss the cheap red wine in a box and I miss the rum and Coke. I miss Anne's wet gold hair drying as we sat on the fire escape. I miss the hot-dog luau and driving to dance lessons after breakfast at Bruegger's Bagels. I miss the cold mornings on the farm, when the handle of the bucket bit into my small hands and my feet slid over the frozen dew. I miss the hot grease spattering around the felafel balls and the urgent clicking of Hebrow. I miss the new green leaves shaking in the June rain. . . . I miss every piece of my dead. Every piece is stacked high like cordwood within me, and my heart, both sides, and all four parts, is their reliquary.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Submission, by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman's first novel, The Submission, is a complex and tragic story about the American psyche post-9/11. As the book opens, the jury named to choose a design for the memorial to be built at Ground Zero is debating the two final designs. Claire Burwell, who is representing 9/11 families, advocates for The Garden, a design where, she believes, the bereaved can "stumble on joy." She eventually prevails, and the jury eagerly awaits the revelation of who designed The Garden. To their astonishment and chagrin, the designer is a Muslim-American architect Mohammad ("Mo") Khan.

The news of this development leaks out, and the response is predictable--but the paths traveled by the numerous characters with which Waldman populates the book are not. Claire is one of the central characters--as a wealthy widow who lives in Chappaqua, she is hardly representative of many of the bereaved families. Nowhere is this clearer than through the character of Sean Gallagher, the ne'er-do-well brother of a fallen New York firefighter, who has found his metier leading a survivors' group; he is dead set against a memorial designed by a Muslim and organizes a variety of protests against The Garden. Claire's life is also far from that of another widow, Asma Anwar; she and her husband, a janitor in the World Trade Center, were unauthorized Bangladeshi migrants. Left with a baby born after her husband was killed and unable to speak English, Asma refuses to return to Bangladesh, still clinging to the American Dream. Living in a single room in another couple's apartment, while hiding the fact that she received a $1 million settlement from the government, Asma follows the controversy over the memorial with interest,

As the controversy grows, Claire is frustrated that Mo will not answer any of the questions that begin to arise, many prompted by a series of inflammatory columns by journalist Alyssa Spier: Was the inspiration for his design an Islamic garden? Did he intend the garden as a paradise for martyrs? As her support wavers, Mo, a secular Muslim whose personality is not well suited for the public eye, is stunned by the response. He struggles to deal with the fallout, becoming something of a nomad in his efforts to avoid the press.

These characters are deeply flawed, and yet none is completely without redeeming qualities (on the other hand, there are minor characters who do lack any redeeming qualities). Their struggles reflect how difficult it is to deal with powerful emotions, ideas about right and wrong, and ambiguity. Occasionally, scenes involving debates/meetings go on a bit too long, but the ideas under discussion are worth our consideration. And the story captures a moment in time that we have not yet, unfortunately, left behind.

While I have read a number of novels that deal with 9/11, Amy Waldman's is, for me, by far the most successful.

Favorite passages:
In architecture, space was a material to be shaped, even created. For these men, the material was silence. Silence like water in which you could drown, the absence of talk as constricting as the absence of air. Silence that sucked at your will until you came spluttering to the surface confessing your sins or inventing them.

She had been shaped, was being shaped, not only by those she met on her journey but also by how she lost them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri. Ian Drake is one of her best customers, a ten-year-old boy who loves to read. When his mother limits his reading to books "with the breath of God in them," Lucy helps Ian smuggle other books out of the library, checking them out on her own card after he hides them in his clothing. When she learns that his parents have enrolled Ian in a youth group run by Glad Heart Ministries, an organization "dedicated to the rehabilitation of sexually confused brothers and sisters in Christ," she becomes deeply concerned, remembering a high school friend who committed suicide over gender identity issues. When she discovers that Ian has slept in the library after running away from home the previous evening, she somewhat inexplicably loads him in her car and starts driving.

Their days on the road take them to Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Vermont; along the way, they stay with Lucy's Russian immigrant parents, as well as an associate of her somewhat shady father. As Lucy tries to figure out what exactly she is going to do with Ian, she is also grappling with understanding her family's history of rebellion and retreat. While she was always suspicious of her father's stories of his life in Russia, she is stunned when his associate Leo gives her a radically different version of the story, one that calls into question the family mythology.

The Borrower is full of allusions to both adult and children's literature. Some are subtle (I'm sure I missed many), but others are obvious. For example, Makkai several times presents passages written in the style of a well-known children's book (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Goodnight Moon, Alice in Wonderland, etc.). She also references such classics as The Great Gatsby, Lolita, the Oz series, Huckleberry Finn, and many more. Deciphering these references is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading the book.

The Borrower clearly has a message about acceptance, tolerance, and the power of reading. What Makkai is saying through Lucy's ongoing ruminations about her family history and her own ill-advised decisions is less obvious. Because both Lucy and her father chose to act out their protests in ineffectual if not counterproductive ways, does it mean that Lucy should simply give up the idea of helping others/changing the world to simply "stamp and scan"? I think not, and I can't really believe that Makkai does either. But the book might lead you to think she does.

Favorite passage:
It was the universal revelation of adolescence, that the adults around you do not have all the answers--and like all children growing slowly and painfully into their mature selves, he'd realize it again and again over the next few years.

It gave me pause, for a moment, that all my reference points were fiction, that all my narratives were lies.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty

One day, Alice Love falls off her bike in spin class, hitting her head hard on her way to the floor. When she comes to, she has forgotten the past ten years of her life. Instead of the 29-year-old happily married and newly pregnant, slightly flaky and sedentary but fun-loving young woman she thinks she is, she is a 39-year-old separated mother of three, thin, driven, uptight, and at odds with her sister Elisabeth, who is struggling with infertility. She doesn't know why she is getting a divorce or why her sister (and a few other old acquaintances) don't seem to like her anymore. She doesn't recognize her children and has no idea what they like to do or eat, when they go to bed, etc. Nor does she know whether she has slept with the man who appears to be her new boyfriend, the principal of her children's school. She knows that someone named Gina had an important role in the ten lost years, but she doesn't know what that role was.

Alice's story unfolds in a third-person narrative from Alice's perspective, but also includes two first-person elements that provide other views on Alice's predicament and introduce subplots of their own. One of these elements is a series of diary-style entries written by Elisabeth and addressed to her therapist, who is helping her with the psychological toll that infertility has taken on her. The other is a series of letters written by Alice and Elisabeth's adoptive grandmother Frannie to her long-dead fiance. Frannie is first irritated by and then falls in love with a new resident at her assisted living facility.

I liked the premise of the book, which sparks reflection: What about your current life would be surprising if you suddenly woke up with no memory of the past ten years? Would you like yourself? How would you feel about having certain people falling out of your life? Might you recognize influences that shaped where you are today, without your perceiving those influences as they occurred?

Moriarty has packed the book with quirky characters, and some provide genuinely funny moments. The book seems long, however, and perhaps a good editor might have encouraged some judicious trimming of characters and scenes (perhaps Frannie's subplot could have gone entirely, as it is not as compelling as the two sisters' stories). Moriarity's choice of a happy ending for everyone seems a bit contrived, although perhaps she intends to convey a message that no matter the challenges faced and missteps made, you can build the life you want. Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed What Alice Forgot.

Favorite passage: None (this book is really about the premise and the plot--the writing itself is competent but not memorable)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is the story of Japanese picture brides who came to California in the early years of the twentieth century. But forget whatever image of a novel that sentence conjures up for you. Otsuka's book is unlike any other novel I can recollect.

What makes the book so unusual? Otsuka made the unusual choice of first person plural as the voice. While this is the third book I've read this year that employed first person plural, this is the first case in which it felt like the right choice. The way in which Otsuka uses first person plural also means that there is no individual character development; rather, we learn about the group. Similarly, while Otsuka arranges the book in chronological order, it does not have a plot in the traditional sense. In each of eight sections, Otsuka presents what I can only describe as a rush of sentences about how various women experienced the topic of the section. For example, the chapter "Babies" begins with the following passage:

We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin.

Otsuka ends the section titled "Whites" with a torrent of questions that begins:

. . . without us, what would they do? Who would pick the strawberries from their fields? Who would get the fruit down from their trees? Who would wash their carrots? Who would scrub their toilets? Who would mend their garments? Who would iron their shirts? Who would fluff their pillows?

It is a measure of the hardships these women experienced that the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes during World War II seems not so much a separate tragedy as a piece with the rest of their lives. However, Otsuka also turns our perception of that event on its head by writing the final section of the book from the perspective of white residents of the West Coast communities whose Japanese residents were interned.

I doubt I would enjoy reading too many books written in the style Otsuka uses here, but I admire her innovation in writing a novel about a group of women and their experiences as immigrants to the United States.

Favorite passage:
. . . the rest of us would lower our heads and smooth down the skirts of our kimonos and walk down the gangplank and step out into the still warm day. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.

The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister

In The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister uses a somewhat overworked structure--she creates a group of people, in this case a cooking class, and devotes a chapter to each person, exploring the person's issues/problems and then revealing how being part of the group helps them resolve those issues. Here, the group includes chef Lillian, who found comfort in food when her father left her mother and her mother lost herself in reading; Tom, who is recovering from his wife's death from breast cancer; Claire, who has lost her identity in the daily demands of caring for two small children; Antonia, a kitchen designer faced with recalcitrant clients; Chloe, a young woman so clumsy and uncertain she cannot keep a job or sustain a relationship; Ian, the nerd who yearns for love; Carl and Helen, whose "perfect" marriage was damaged by Helen's affair; and Isabelle, an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia.

The book is predictable, and yet I enjoyed it. Perhaps it's because I like reading about (and eating and preparing) food; perhaps it's because Bauermeister writes so gracefully; perhaps I was simply ready for a sweet story with a positive view of humanity. Whatever the reason, I liked The School of Essential Ingredients and I am taking to heart the notion that "we're all just ingredients . . . What matters is the grace with which you cook the meal."

Favorite passages:
Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain-soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her--ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her . . .

How strange, she thought. These people here, they looked at her and thought she was alone, she whose children were with her even in her dreams.

"Our bodies carry our memories of them [loved ones], in our muscles, in our skin, in our bones. My children are right here." She pointed to the inside curve of her elbow. "Where I held them when they were babies. Even if there comes a time when I don't know who they are anymore, I believe I will feel them here."