Monday, November 30, 2020

Jeanine Cummins, AMERICAN DIRT

I just spent half an hour reading many of the comments on Goodreads. Clearly this book struck many nerves, and I hear the concerns on both sides. As an author, I believe that if I do my research, humbly and with an open heart, I can come close to inhabiting the subjectivity of--for example--a young, disenfranchised woman in 1870s London whose brother has just been murdered. But inhabiting the consciousness of someone in the present day--particularly someone of a different race or culture, when people are very much living that experience--is a much more challenging endeavor, requiring the most delicate of sensibilities. The conflict I see is that this book is not set up in a way to permit a nuanced exploration of the situation in which Lydia finds herself (being a bookseller in Acapulco, whose husband has written a tell-all on the new drug jefe and has been murdered for it) because fundamentally, this book is one long chase scene. This structure of escalating threats makes it a successful "page-turner"--and indeed, I felt the tension mounting throughout and stayed up much too late reading--but I think that tension comes at the expense of nuance. Still, the fact that the book can stir up such feeling in so many people, and has caused people to generate lists of books I now want to read, tells me it's a productive book. I'm glad I read it, if only to see what everyone's talking about.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Elizabeth Strout, OLIVE AGAIN

As with the first book of this pair, OLIVE KITTERIDGE, the format is not a typical novel. It's a series of vignettes, all told in third person, centered upon different people in the small town of Crosby, Maine. The outspoken, complex Olive figures in many but not all stories, and perhaps because this form is the same as the first book, I didn't find this book as fresh and original. However, there are elements in Strout's writing that I particularly admire and love. The first is the way she places us in a scene and in a character's subjectivity with extraordinary economy. Here's the first line (which caused me writer envy): "In the early afternoon on a Saturday in June, Jack Kennison put on his sunglasses, got into his sports car with the top down, strapped the seatbelt across his large stomach, and drove to Portland--almost an hour away--to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than bump into Olive Kitteridge at the grocery store here in Crosby, Maine." One sentence and we have place, two people, an intense emotion (wanting to avoid), some insight into Jack's circumstances, and a sense that we are in the hands of an observant, wry, humorous narrator. The second thing I love is that Strout shows us the disparity between two people's interpretations of the same event; that's part of the point of the book, I think, and is enabled by this structure. For example, Jack can't remember the name of a woman he met in the grocery store; Olive saw them together and felt jealous. Third, she doesn't shy away from some of our deepest feelings--shame, love, fear of death, a longing for connection. She homes in on these small moments of belated understanding--when, for example, a character realizes that he had, as a child, accepted the derogatory name "Frenchie" without much thought, but in fact it probably hurt him even then, at some level. And--again, economically--she shows characters at particular pivotal moments, laying bare the uncertainty as they face a new truth. Here's Jack: "What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing. It caused him to feel an inner trembling, and he could not find the worlds ... there had been a large blindspot directly in front of his eyes. it meant that he did not understand ... how others had perceived him. And it meant that he did not know how to perceive himself." An enjoyable read, full of humor, compassion, and humanity. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Philip Roth, NEMESIS

One of Roth's shorter novels, this one is powerful partly because it is timely. In his usual spare, clear prose, Roth explores the uncertainty, fear, anger, and blame that results from a polio epidemic striking Brooklyn in 1944, with all the uncertainty and fear of WWII as a dark echo and backdrop. The novel is focalized primarily through earnest, twenty-three-year-old Cantor, who, even after it's all over, cannot clearly assess his role in it and who bleakly ponders the unanswerable question: how can a benevolent god allow such things to happen? My favorite Roth novel (of those I've read) is THE HUMAN STAIN, but this one felt pertinent and raw. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020


This is what I think of as a warp/weft novel, reframing a story we think we know. Other examples include Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which offers the story of Bertha Mason, the madwoman whose story is reduced to Rochester's contemptuous narrative in Jane Eyre; Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which illuminates aspects of Woolf as she wrote Mrs. Dalloway; and Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, which imagines the backstory of Magwitch in Great Expectations. Gappah's novel reframes the Scotsman David Livingstone's explorations of Africa, which is traditionally refracted through the English/American Henry Morton Stanley's account of finding Livingstone at Ujiji.

Set in 1870s Africa, this book imagines the perspectives of the native Africans who buried Livingstone's heart in the jungle and brought his dried bones to Bagamoyo on the east coast. The first section is told by Halima the shrewd and sharp-tongued cook, and the second by Jacob Wainwright, one of the "Nassick boys" who were seized from slave ships and educated by the British in a school in Bombay. She is voluble and wryly humorous; he is self-righteous and naive, and their comments about each other add spice and humor. (To be honest, I found Halima's section more engaging.) There is a full complement of secondary characters, including Stanley, the various villagers, thieves, porters, chiefs, and children.

The novel is immersive, thoughtful, and profoundly aware of how our experience is deeply subjective, and the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives. I think fans of Geraldine Brooks's YEAR OF WONDERS will enjoy this book. Recommend to fans of historical fiction. (Also ... for those who like their historical fiction to hew close to the truth, I found that it did. I read this novel because I'm writing a book in which a London journalist returns from Africa in 1872, having witnessed the horrors of the ivory/slave trade, so I have been researching the topic.)