Monday, October 24, 2016

Really, Ian McEwan?

Focus is elusive today, so I've decided to catch up on the blog, even though it's not the end of the month. The most remarkable book -- but not in a good way -- is Ian McEwan's newest, Nutshell, featuring one of the most ridiculous narrators of all time. But more about that later.

The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin
Hell or High Water, by Joy Castro
Her Last Breath, by Linda Castillo
Exhume, by Danielle Gerard

Her Last Breath, one of Castillo's Kate Burkholder's mysteries set in Amish country, was by far the best of these books. Most disappointing was Exhume--I thought this might be a new and interesting series about a medical examiner, but that character--Dr. Anna Schwartzman, strangely referred to by her last name throughout the book--is, sadly, utterly stupid.

Heat and Light, by Jennifer Haigh
Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
Stories for Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Bookstore on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan
Small, Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

It's hard to write a political novel without it becoming more of a screed. Jennifer Haigh clearly set out to write a book about the hazards of fracking and drilling for gas. She seems to have tried to avoid the book becoming a polemic by writing in innumerable characters and issues--infidelity, Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, loss of faith, addiction, Three Mile Island, gender identity, subsidized science. It's way, way too much--and it still feels like a book written to advance a position.

Girl in Translation is the story of Kimberly Chang and her mother, immigrants from China to New York. Kimberly is bright and hard-working and ends up in private school--but she does not tell her classmates that she works at  garment factory with her mother after school (the aunt who owns the factory is truly a horrible person) and lives in a one-room unheated apartment overrun with vermin of various types. Nonetheless, Kimberly and her mother perservere--and the reader cares whether they succeed. I didn't care for the direction the book took near the end, but overall thought it was a moving description of one immigrant experience.

I often find short stories to be head-scratchers, and Stories for Wartime provided plenty of scalp stimulation. Several of the stories are written as fairy tales or myths--those I must say I did not get at all. Others were strange but enjoyable. For example, "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background" involves the appearance of a miniature J.S. Bach in a woman's apartment; he gradually gets taller and she decides she'd like to have a baby with the composer. "The Museum of the Dearly Departed" opens with a gas leak killing everyone in an apartment building, including a woman's fiance and his supposedly long-dead ex-wife. The woman finds herself involved with others affected by the tragedy, including an artist who is building a replica of the apartment building complete with artifacts from each apartment and an elderly couple who are the only surviving residents (the husband was a Nazi).  A very few are rather ordinary--for example, "The November Story" is about the manipulations behind the scenes at a reality show (but I still liked it). My favorite story was "Everything We Know about the Bomber," which presented bits of information showing how the image of an accused criminal comes to be "known." I doubt anyone will love all the stories, but the collection is worth checking out.

The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer last year, and it is a worthy recipient. Complex and layered, the book takes the form of a confession by an unnamed protagonist who served in the South Vietnamese secret police but was actually a spy for the North Vietnamese. When Vietnam falls, he organizes one of the last flights out of Saigon--and is on it himself, along with his boss ("The General") and one of his two best friends--Bon, who is a South Vietnamese loyalist. In the United States, the protagonist is to keep an eye on these loyalists, who have not given up the struggle, despite their displacement. While in the United States, he also serves as a consultant trying to bring Vietnamese perspectives to a war film being made by a director referred to as "The Auteur" (purportedly Frances Ford Coppola). Eventually, however, his dual role causes serious problems--The General demands that he kill two men and he defies his North Vietnamese handler (his other best friend, Man) by taking part in an ill-fated mission to Southeast Asia because he feels compelled to try to save Bon. While my synopsis of the plot makes this seem unlikely, the book is often quite funny as it provides a Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnam War and skewers American politics and culture of the time. Highly recommended.

I had seen several positive notices about The Bookshop on the Corner but found it vacuous. If you believe that a stranger can come to town, start selling books, turn everyone in town into readers, and find love, then this book is for you (as is The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend). Maybe if I had read it on a beach . . .

Small, Great Things has many of the standard Jodi Picoult devices--multiple narrators, family conflict, a controversial legal issue. The conflict at the center of the book is interesting, however--an African American nurse is asked not to touch the newborn son of a white supremacist couple. Then she finds herself alone with the child when he experiences a medical crisis--what should she do? Can she be held legally responsible if the outcome is bad? Is a white public defender correct when she says they should not bring up race in the trial? I enjoyed the book until the very end, when Picoult has the public defender engage in a long drawn-out philosophical discussion with herself and another character undergoes an unbelievable transformation.

And, now, Nutshell, which begins with the line "So here I am, upside down in a woman." Yes, the narrator of this slim novel is a fetus, one who can identify the wine (varietal and vintage) he shares with his mother, was disappointed when his mother gave up on the audiobook of Ulysses, which he was enjoying (puh-leeze!), and describes in gross detail his mother's sexual encounters with her lover, who happens to be his father's brother. There's a crumbling mansion, a murder plot,  humorous word play--all causing some reviewers to rhapsodize about the magic McEwan has pulled off with this unique narrator. Seriously? This. Book. Is. Ridiculous.  I could not suspend disbelief regarding the narrator and could not discern any real point to having a fetus narrate the book. In fact, I couldn't see that the book had a point. It doesn't take long to get through this book--and yet it's still not worth the time!

Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy

I am catching up on my Tolstoy--and it's a worthwhile endeavor. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a novella, so it doesn't require the time commitment of Anna Karenina (or War and Peace, which I haven't yet taken on), but its impact is intense. The book begins with the announcement of his death--his colleagues are lining up to take his position as a judge, his wife obsessing about her pension. But who is this person whose life seems to have mattered so little? Tolstoy then takes us back through Ivan Ilyich's life, which has been dedicated to upward mobility. While successful on the surface, there's little below that surface. When he becomes terminally ill, his family's lack of concern is devastating--and his death is described in terrifying terms. Not a depiction of humanity's finer moments but a work that will leave you examining your life.

Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

This book's subtitle--Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner--aptly describes its content. The author (writing with her English-major husband) covers, often in gruesome detail, cases that she encountered during her two years in the New York City's Medical Examiner's office, a period that included 9/11 and the plane crash in New York that occurred about two months later. Although some people would likely find the subject matter hard to take, I enjoyed the book (the author has a sense of humor but also a reverence for life--both of which help).

Pick of the Litter: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Favorite Passages:

Faith, in the end, is human stubbornness on a heroic scale--the passionate denial, the absolute and abiding refusal to die.

Jennifer Haigh, Heat and Light

I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.

He had a Minnesotan's admiration for resourcefulness in the face of hardship, bred by generations of people one very bad winter away from starvation and cannibalism.

He had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental.  [This one is the choice of my son Kevin.]

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer