Review 1779: Sudden Traveler

I enjoyed Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, so I was looking forward to reading her Sudden Traveler for my James Tait Black project. I sometimes have an uneasy relationship with short stories, though.

This thin book is a collection of seven stories. Some of them are slices of life, but others are more fantastic.

In “M,” a woman who was raped as a child transforms into a powerful creature that disposes of men who prey on the helpless.

In “The Woman the Book Read,” a man spots a woman he knew as a little girl on the beach in Turkey. He remembers how much he cared for her when he was engaged to her mother.

In “The Grotesques,” Dilly witnesses the humiliation of a local drunk.

“Who Pays” is quite mystical. Set in the Middle East, it is about village women who figure out a way to circumvent another war.

In “Orton,” a woman decides to disable her pacemaker in the town of her childhood.

“Sudden Traveler” is about a young mother burying her own mother.

I found some of the stories perplexing and “Live That You May Live” is one of them. It’s about a mother telling a terrifying story to her little girl.

The Wolf Border

Slipping

Nocturnes

Review 1759: White Tears

You may think you know what’s going on in White Tears, but you don’t. Kunzru provides a few clues to that effect, but it’s easy to glide right over them.

Seth is a nerdy outcast in college when he meets Carter Wallace, a good-looking, popular rich kid. The two bond over sound and music. Seth has been immersing himself in techno when Carter introduces him to the gritty sounds of old-time Black country soul on vinyl and even older 45s.

After college, the two form a recording company, with Carter as the face and Seth doing the creative work and sound engineering. They are beginning to become famous for an old-fashioned sound, produced entirely by analog instruments. But Seth notices Carter losing focus and becoming more engaged with collecting.

One day, Seth is indulging his hobby of walking around New York recording noises when he catches someone singing part of a blues song, “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” He plays it for Carter, who becomes obsessed with it. Carter uses the fragments from Seth’s recording to make what sounds like an old-time record, complete with cracking noises. Then he mocks up a picture of a 45, invents a singer, Charlie Shaw, and advertises the fake record on a collectors’ website.

What starts out as a seemingly harmless prank has serious consequences. Soon, apparently meeting a collector who wants to buy the fake record, Carter is severely beaten and left in a coma. Seth finds out his company and their apartment are both owned by the family corporation, and he is immediately dispossessed, the family claiming he is just a hanger-on. But Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie want to know what happened to Carter.

This novel is dark and unexpected. At first, I wasn’t so interested in the story about Carter and his fanboy Seth, neither of whom are that likable, but eventually I got sucked in. Again, it’s a novel I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but I read it for my James Tait Black project.

Utopia Avenue

Telegraph Avenue

Mortal Love

 

Review 1754: Narcopolis

The narrator of Narcopolis arrives in Bombay in the 1970’s or early 80’s after he’s been thrown out of the United States. He finds Rashid’s opium den, where he meets such characters as Dimple, a hijra, or transsexual woman, who prepares the opium and works in a nearby brothel; Rashid, who has the best opium in Bombay; and Rumi, a low-level criminal. The novel is made up of linked short stories that follow the various characters until returning to the narrator many years later.

Pimps, pushers, and junkies are not my favorite subject matter, and I would not normally choose this book to read, but it is part of my Booker prize project. By around page 50, when the narrator attends a ridiculous lecture by a poet/artist named Xavier, I realized I had no idea what was going on and almost quit reading. However, soon I was taken up by the much more interesting stories of Dimple and Mr. Lee.

I was jarred to find one Goodreads reviewer referring to this gritty book as nostalgia, considering it mostly deals with drug addiction and sexual exploitation. Still, by the end of the novel, which takes place closer to the present, things are so much worse that I got his point.

I felt that the characters’ speech, when philosophical, sounds like it comes out of a textbook, and in other moods is unrealistic in other ways. I also thought that there was no reason to subject readers to such things as Xavier’s speech, the entire plot of the book written by Mr. Lee’s father, most of the characters’ dreams (I hate reading about dreams in fiction), the long description of a new form of poetry, and so on.

Did I like this novel? Not very much.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Sea of Poppies

Arctic Summer

Review 1752: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Elif Shafak is one of the most widely read Turkish women writers. I have only read one of her books so far, so when I saw 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World on my Booker prize list, I was interested to revisit her. However, I’m not entirely sure what I think of this unusual novel.

The convention of the first part of the novel is that Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul, has been murdered. Her brain is active for 10 minutes and 38 seconds while she revisits scenes from her life, each chapter representing a minute of brain activity. These chapters are separated by short sections about the lives of her five friends, who all in some way live on the fringes of society.

My first reaction was an impatience with this idea, that 10 minutes was to be represented by nearly 200 pages of text. I have a real problem with attempts like this in fiction to represent a short amount of time with several hours worth of reading. In this case, though, I got used to the idea but felt that the sections introducing the friends are an inelegant solution to our barely seeing them in the first part of the novel while the second part deals with how they handle the aftermath of Leila’s death.

And the change of tone in the second part is what bothered me most. For, we go abruptly from an elegiac tone in the first part while we learn about Leila’s difficult life to one of almost madcap comedy as a bunch of lovable misfits try to give Leila an ending she deserves. To me, this felt like a grinding change of gears.

It is brave of Shafak in her country to write about violence against women, especially since I understand she is being investigated by the Turkish authorities for it (or was when I read this months ago), but her supporting characters seem almost like caricatures to me, possibly because we don’t see that much of them in the first part. I felt like the second part of the novel almost undercuts the first part.

The Bastard of Istanbul

The Towers of Trebizond

Dance with Death

Review 1739: Oh William!

In Oh William! we meet again Elizabeth Strout’s alter ego, Lucy Barton. Lucy’s second husband David has recently died. She considers her own grief in addition to the state of mind of her first husband, William, who begins to experience some shocks in life.

First, William’s third wife, Estelle, leaves him abruptly. Then William begins to find out some family secrets, particularly about his mother, Catherine. Lucy, who has remained on good terms with William, reflects upon her relationships with him, Catherine, and her own family as she tries to help him.

link to Netgalley

As usual, the story, which is told as a series of apparently random recollections and incidents, is written in lovely prose. What stands out for me even more than that in the Lucy Barton books is Lucy’s gentleness and the loving, accepting way she approaches the world and the other characters. Although Strout’s novels are not strongly plot driven, once you start one, you just want to keep reading.

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Review 1697: Black Narcissus

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

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Review 1675: Kingfishers Catch Fire

Before she is even eight years old, Teresa has learned to put her head down and cry when her mother has an idea. Sophie Barrington-Ward is feckless, naïve, doesn’t listen to anyone else, and only sees what she wants to see. Widowed and left relatively poor after paying off her husband’s debts, she has worked so hard at jobs she’s not qualified for that she gets sick. Recovering, she has an idea. The Kashmiri peasants are poor, but they are healthy and well-fed. Why not rent a house in the Kashmir countryside and live like a peasant?

Of course, she has no ability to live like a peasant and has no understanding of just how poor the villagers are. As she settles into her house in the high Himalayas, she doesn’t notice that the villagers are vying for opportunities to make money from her. She consistently overpays and doesn’t listen to the advice of her landlord or his caretaker, Nabir. More dangerously, she doesn’t realize that there are two feuding factions in the village, the Sheikhs and the Dārs.

Teresa knows that it is Nabir who keeps them safe, particularly herself and her little brother Moo. But Nabir has a pride and aloofness that makes him seem insolent. And he has people working against him, including Sultan, the incompetent house servant Sophie brought from the city. Over time, a dangerous situation evolves.

Like the other India-based novels by Godden I’ve been reading lately, Kingfishers Catch Fire is freighted with a love of this region that does not miss its cruelties. Its descriptions are lush. Its heroine is complex. At first frustrated by Sophie’s faults and her lack of understanding of her daughter, I eventually came to admire her. Although I thought Black Narcissus was wonderful (I haven’t reviewed it yet), I think this novel is even better.

The afterword notes that this novel is one of Godden’s mostly autobiographical, and it includes a short section of excerpts from Godden’s Kashmir diary.

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Review 1672: Literary Wives! Monogamy

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Annie, a small, reserved photographer, and Graham, a large, extroverted bookstore owner, have been married for about 30 years. Their story goes forward linearly with many visits to the past as Miller minutely examines their relationship. The crux of the story, though, is that Graham has been having an affair that he has just managed to break off. Then that night he dies in his sleep. Months later, Annie is just beginning to make some sort of recovery from her grief when she learns of the affair and has to reassess what she thought she knew about their marriage.

It’s hard to explain or evaluate this novel. Miller is generous to her characters, but she is also very observant. She examines and excavates their relationship in a detached way, even though the novel is from Annie’s viewpoint, that can seem cold. That is, there are no value judgments but also no feeling of affection, either, which may make readers feel detached. On the other hand, she really understands the intricacies and complications of marriage.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Literary Wives logo

Although Annie and Graham are happily married, we learn that Annie resisted him at first because she was afraid he would overwhelm her. For his part, his bonhomie and charm hide his insecurities, and his lust for life is characterized by a certain insatiability. He needs.

In this novel, although we see almost her every thought, I thought Annie was somewhat of an enigma. I find myself puzzled by her even while understanding why she is angry with Graham. I almost think that the novel provides us too many details of their lives to answer this question. Of all the books we have read for this club so far this one seems to be the most nuanced. Still, I find myself without very much to say about it.

After thinking about it for awhile, though, it seems to me that the couple is a mismatch even though they were happily married for years. It seems that Annie doesn’t realize that Graham reinvented himself from an introverted geek to the loud, exuberant charismatic person he became. Perhaps because this isn’t his true self, Graham seems to seek reaffirmation of his attractiveness through affairs. Annie is probably too self-possessed to be the person who could calm Graham’s insecurities. Perhaps he would have been happier with someone who was more dependent.

The title also makes me wonder if we’re supposed to re-evaluate the whole concept of monogamy, but nothing in the book forwards this thought.

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Review 1654: The Panopticon

Best of Ten!
Anais Hendricks, 15, arrives at the Panopticon, an old prison designed so that someone can see the inmates at all times, which is now being used as a home for juveniles. The police believe she beat an officer and put her in a coma, but she was so high that she can’t remember what she was doing.

Anais has been in the system since birth, and the system has failed her on every front. Although at first she seems to be hard and criminal, she is a feisty girl, and most of her offenses have been a defense of someone else or an act of protest against an injustice. Her trouble with the law began when Theresa, her adoptive mother, was murdered. Anais now believes she is part of an experiment that wants her to fail.

At the Panopticon, Anais makes some friends and gets a better social worker in Angus, but she still ends up in trouble. Soon, the police tell her that one more offense will result in her being transferred to detention.

In Anais, Fagan has created an unforgettable character. The novel is full of bad language, but it is fluent and lively, and makes a riveting story. I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1634: Palace of Desire

The three books of Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy are all named after streets in Cairo. The home of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is located on Palace Walk, the name of the previous book. His oldest son Yasid’s home is on the Palace of Desire, and desire is certainly a theme for this novel.

The novel is set five years after the last one, beginning in 1924. Since his middle son Fahmy’s death, Ahmad has stopped his nightly drinking and womanizing, but fairly soon in the novel he decides to go out with his friends again. Now a middle-aged man, he finds he has lost his confidence. Instead of flitting from woman to woman, he is soon spending a lot of money setting up his mistress, Zanuba, in a house boat.

Kamal, definitely a portrait of the writer himself, as I suspected in the last book, is now 17 and in love. He is entranced by Aïda, the sister of one of his school friends, who was raised in Paris. This girl belongs to a relatively aristocratic family, and Kamal seems to have no hope but just wants to worship her.

Yasid, having been divorced by his wife in the first book, now decides to marry Maryam, the girl from next door that his brother Fahmy wanted to marry. Also a terrible womanizer, Yasid only decides to marry her because she won’t sleep with him. His choice causes some family problems. His mother Amina and his sisters have broken with her because they think she slighted Fahmy by becoming acquainted with an English officer after Fahmy’s father refused to let him marry her. They also think Yasin should leave alone the girl Fahmy loved. His father cannot admit that he doesn’t approve because he himself had an affair with Maryam’s mother, Bahija.

So, Yasin must go to ask for Maryam’s hand himself instead of sending a relative. When he does, he complicates matters more by starting an affair with Bahija. At this point, I almost wondered if I was reading a farce except that Mahfouz is so deadpan serious.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked Palace Walk, but I liked Palace of Desire less. For one thing, Mahfouz doesn’t spend much time with Kamal’s sisters, Aisha and Adijah. But frankly, I found Kemal’s obsessions and long internal dialogues tedious. Either he’s rhapsodizing about Aïda, whom he seriously doesn’t want to be a real girl, or he’s philosophizing about some other subject. In Mahfouz’s attempts at realism, he frequently interjects a character’s thoughts into the middle of a conversation to show what the character is really thinking. When overused, this technique slows things down too much. Finally, Kamal’s conversations with his friends seem terribly formal and artificial, and the other characters’ flirtacious and joking comments seem clumsy and crude, but this just might be a cultural difference. I was most bothered by Kamal’s interactions with Aïda. Without saying too much about what happens, I’ll just say that he comes off as a bit of an idiot and a prig.

I still plan to read the third novel, Sugar Street, but I hope to like it better.

The New York Times reviewer comments that Mafouz essentially invented the Egyptian novel form with reference to Arabic poetry. I can see that in some of Kamal’s musings, but I don’t have much patience for it.

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