Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Writing:  4.5 /5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5 /5

Olive Kitteridge — gruff, direct, honest and with absolutely no patience for pretense or pretentiousness. Some people love Olive for just this reason — many others consider her a rude “old bag”.  I love the fact that Olive — in her late seventies now — continues to have epiphanies about herself and her life.

The book is a collection of snapshots of life in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Some are centered on Olive herself, but in others she plays only a peripheral, though impactful, role. Ranging in age from middle school to elderly and incorporating contextual situations such as drug use, sexual harassment, suicide, Somali immigration, and even the value provided by a dominatrix (!) — the stories are full of introspection and reflection. They are more about how people absorb experiences into their own perspective, rather than the experiences themselves.

Strout is the master of the imperfect relationship — no closure, no solutions — just the reality of evolving relationships with ups and downs and fresh interior “ahas” rather than the drama of abrupt discovery via loud confrontation.

For those who loved Strout’s 2008 work Olive Kitteridge, Olive,Again takes up where the latter leaves off, covering the next decade of Olive’s life (it’s not necessary to read the first book, this one stands up well on its own). It’s a fascinating look at life from the perspective of old age, and while there is loss and plenty of “old age indignities,” there is also a great sense of hope, understanding, and wisdom.
Great Quotes:
“It seemed to her she had never before completely understood how far apart human experience was.”

“And then he thought: how does one live an honest life?”

“It’s just the way it was, that’s all. People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something”

“…and during the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they hold on for dear life!”

“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 quite find the words — for himself — to even put it exactly as he sensed it. But he sensed that he had lived his life in a way that he had not known.”

“But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish — all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself, the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had place before her cups of coffee — All of it gone, or about to go.”

“Because as her heart became more constricted, Henry’s heart became needier, and when he walked up behind her in the house sometimes to slip his arms around her, it was all she could do to not visibly shudder.”

“Cindy Coombs, there’s not one goddamn person in this world who doesn’t have a bad memory or two to take with them through life.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 15th, 2019.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

I loved this book — far more than I expected to. It’s an intimate story about the intra- and inter-personal dynamics of an Indian-American, Muslim family living in Northern California. It opens at the wedding of the eldest daughter to a man she has picked for herself. In attendance, her brother is clearly estranged from the family. From there the narrative is subsumed by a sea of unordered memory snapshots that help establish how the family arrived at this place. I liked the collection of non-linear memories — far from being confusing, it felt the way memories of life always feel — holistic and relevant to the current thought or moment.

The prose is beautiful and the self awareness of the characters and relationships between them are complex, subtle, and both well observed and absorbing. While I’m not religious and generally don’t enjoy reading religious novels (and really have very little exposure to the Muslim religion in particular), I found the descriptions of the role of Islam in each of their lives to be pure poetry. I appreciated the thoughtful descriptions of the different characters’ choices with respect to their religion — what restrictions they perceived, what remained important to them, and how their choices changed the relationships they had with each other and the community. The multi-perspective insights were incredibly valuable to me.

The deep connection I felt to the characters and the poignancy of their thoughts and actions brought me to tears several times. The novel was an honest portrait of an actual family — it’s rare that a set of characters feels this real to me. If this continues to be the quality of book from SJP for Hogarth (this is the first book from that imprint), I will be a huge and loyal fan 🙂

One note: For some reason, the opening pages of this book just didn’t do it for me. I kept starting it and putting it back down. There was nothing wrong or poorly done with the opening, it simply didn’t grab my interest. If you have the same initial reaction, please keep reading! It doesn’t take long before you’ll be swept in.

Some great quotes:

“It was a strange time in their lives: the children like paper boats they were releasing into the water and watching float away.”

“Asfoos was the word in Urdu. There was no equivalent in English. It was a specific kind of regret — not wishing he had acted differently, but a helpless sadness at the situation as it was, a sense that it could not have been a different way.”

“It was an absurd expectation placed on women: that they agree to marriage without appearing as though they wanted it. That they at least display innocence.”

“Loving Amira was not just loving a young woman. It was loving a whole world. She was of the same world he had been born into but had only ever felt himself outside of, and sitting by her was the closest he came to feeling harmony with his own home.”

“Right and wrong, halal and haram — it was her father’s only way of experiencing the world.”

There There by Tommy Orange

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters; 4.5

This is a story of the Urban Indian. Set in Oakland, it follows twelve characters as they make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters, leading to short, rapid-fire, entries at the violent end. The author experiments with different point of view techniques, utilizing first-person, third-person limited, and even second-person narration for specific characters. The structure comprises a set of interconnected stories, mostly current but some in the past, that lead up to the powwow. These are sandwiched between an introduction and an “interlude” which serve as essays on what it means to be an Indian today and how to answer the stereotype criticisms such as “Why can’t you just get over it?”

The writing is strong and the author does an excellent job of taking on a variety of personas across age, gender, and the degree of self-identification with “Indian-hood.” Each character possesses and expresses a rich interior world combating any lazy assumption about people in any particular group being “all alike.”

While I’m glad I read this book, I did find it depressing and disturbing. Like many of the Native American books I’ve read, it is difficult to find any thread of hope. Most of the characters are caught up in drugs, poverty, alcoholism, babies born to addicted mothers, single or absent parents, foster care, etc. Even the characters who manage to avoid the worst, end up caring for family members who did not. It felt like the main aspect of Indian culture that was passed down was a sense of inherited oppression and anger, which while justified, does not help anyone move forward. I prefer novels that focus on some kind of positive path rather than dwelling exclusively on the misery of the past and present without any suggestions of hope. One character — a substance abuse counselor who herself is only 11 days sober — says that it is hard to sell “Life is OK” when it isn’t. But why not focus on what is possible for each person to do to make life OK? To be fair, several of the characters really were trying, but the overall message was one that said their chances of success were slim to none.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for an early review copy of Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, which will publish October 2, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5+ Story: 5 Characters: 5

A wonderful book — perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner. I hope that it is nominated for (and wins!) the Pulitzer Prize. It is that good.

The story takes place in Greenstone, Minnesota — a fading town in the Northern wilds of Minnesota, near Lake Superior. It is the story of the fading town, the fading men in it, and the opportunity of redemption and resurrection for both. While there are strong, interesting, female characters as well, the real focus is on the men — not the stereotype of men, but real individuals at different stages of life with their own internal struggles and desires. I loved the insight into each and every one of these characters.

Virgil Wander, the eponymous protagonist, is a fading man himself. He describes himself as “a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.” He runs the town’s Majestic theater — badly in need of a new roof and a more significant audience. The story opens when his car takes a dive off a bridge and he sails into the frigid water. Rescued by happenstance, he is a teetering, tottering, slightly damaged version of himself. He doesn’t recognize his clothes, has trouble finding the right words, and has inexplicably lost his fear of speaking up. He has become “impervious to sarcasm.”

It is full of wonderful characters such as Rune, a kite-flying, pixie of an elderly man from Tromso, who arrives to find out more about the son he never knew he had; Tom Beaman, the Samoan journalist and owner of the local paper (and Genghis, a pet raccoon); Shad Pea, an elderly fisherman with a wife in care and a disturbed son; Nadine and her son Bjorn, the wife and son of the missing Alec Sandstrom, and Adam Leer, son of the town’s original founder who made good in Hollywood, but has somehow come to embody all that is negative in the town — a smiling predator.

The language is beautiful — the description of places, people, and the things that are important to them (fishing, kite-flying, baseball) is suffused with a kind of magic that captures their very essence in just a few choice words. Every page is delightful with both despair and hope somehow tangled together.

Great lines:

“Yet it was also true he had a headful of spiders which woke now and then and altered his personal scenery.”

“It was disconcerting to think it might’ve shown itself at last, only to be swaddled in the bubble-wrap of concussion.”

“What I suddenly missed as Bjorn talked away, was the easy arrival of interests. Of obsessions.”

“ He had the heartening bulk of the aging athlete defeated by pastry”

“His gentle baritone came at me like elbows.”

“Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups.”

“He had a hundred merry crinkles at his eyes and a long-haul sadness in his shoulders.”

“I appear briefly as a ‘sun-deprived projectionist’ with ‘a degree of forbearance approaching perpetual defeat.’ “

“It’s never been hard for me to fall in love, a quality that has yet to simplify one single day of my life.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Writing: 5+ Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A powerful novel and I don’t use that word lightly. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The story takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Jojo is a thirteen year-old boy learning to be a man. He lives with his grandparents (“Pop” and “Mam”), his 3 year-old sister Kayla, and his mother (whom he calls Leonie) when she bothers to show up. Mam, Leonie, and both children have the “sight” — an ability to see and hear things that others don’t — and this filters into the story in significant and lyrical ways. The action centers around a trip to Parchman prison to retrieve Michael (the children’s white father) at the end of a three year sentence. However, the real story is about how a person can grow into an honorable and ethical human being when they are in a poisoned environment.

Jojo, Leonie, and Richie — the spirit of a young boy incarcerated at Parchman with Pop when he was 15 — are alternating narrators. The stories they tell weave together haunting tales of the past with their parallels in the present. Hints of voodoo and the thin veil between this world and the next suffuse the interlocking narratives.

The book is equal parts disturbing and heart warming; the end is quite glorious.

Some good lines
“Pop says a man should look another man in the face.”

“But it follows, even as I follow the trail of tender organ blood Pop has left in the dirt, a trail that signals love as clearly as the bread crumbs Hansel spread in the wood.”

“Even now, my devotion: inconstant.”

“I wait until the nicotine laps at my insides like a placid lake.”

“I blink and I see the bullet cleaving the soft butter of him. “

As an aside, I looked up Parchman Prison because I couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading and found the truth to be even worse: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison. Check out the Convict Lease Program.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A fun, tangled novel about mathematics, the search for truth, and some atypical family dysfunction. The Severys are a clan of advanced academics — Isaac is a top mathematician, working on the ultimate deterministic equation based on chaos theory; son Phillip is a well-known string theorist whose output has been dwindling in both quantity and quality as he ages; utterly anti-social daughter Paige is hard at work on her Book of Probabilities which she estimates will be 565 volumes and which she doesn’t expect to finish in her lifetime. Adopted grandchildren Hazel and Gregory are the “normal” members, a failing book store owner and police officer respectively.

The novel opens with Isaac’s self predicted death and continues with wild scurrying on the part of everyone else to get their hands on what might be the equation that can literally predict everything. While there is plenty of reference to interesting mathematical problems and the motivation of those who pursue them, there is even more familial drama with insertions of mysterious agents who also yearn for the magic equation.

While the existence of such an equation lends a speculative fiction aspect to the book, it’s really more of a mystery mixed with family drama and characters more intellectually oriented than most.  All in all pretty fun to read, well written, and hard to put down.

(OK – I realize this is two reviews within the space of an hour –  I’m fast but not that fast 🙂  Just took me awhile to finish the Morton review while this one just wrote itself…)

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters:4

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Women’s prize for fiction short list

New words (to me):
– Amphibrach – a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables or (in Greek and Latin) a long syllable between two short syllables.
– Stomatologist – One who practices oral medicine (at the interface between medicine and dentistry).

Simultaneously poetic and cerebral, this is an extended and (perhaps unintentionally) comic coming-of-age story that follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, through her first year as a Harvard student. Her thoughts and experiences are meticulously analyzed and comically documented as she takes classes, meets new people, tutors locals, and goes to Hungary to teach English in a small village over the summer. The text considers the perspectives of several foreign students — for example, her best friend Svetlana is from Belgrade and Selin has a book-long infatuation with Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. While she takes Russian, we are exposed to Russian culture as perceived via primer texts, and part two of the book is a hilarious travelog of her summer experiences in Paris, Turkey, Budapest, and the Hungarian countryside. Selin’s take on things is fascinating — her observations are honest and get to the root of the experience.

The novel is full of intellectual quirkiness: a class visit to a display of E.O. Wilson’s “favorite” million ants; a discussion of aesthetic vs ethical principles; lots of comparative linguistics such as the similarities between Turkish and Hungarian (both agglutinative, have vowel harmony, no grammatical gender) and the use of the miş suffix in Turkish (something that states the degree of subjectivity in what was said). That is just the tip of the iceberg — I loved her commentary on what she was learning and how it was taught — a far cry from the party oriented “college fiction” I was expecting!

This book documents Selin’s development through the year. She is excessively self-aware and says of herself, “The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone. I didn’t have anything anyone wanted.” While one reviewer called her “young and stupid,” I think he missed the point completely. She is a social innocent for whom interactions are difficult. She tries to use her intellect to make sense of the irrational word of social discourse and the observations and commentary are hysterical.

The writing is wonderful. Although I wouldn’t bill this as a comedy, I kept laughing out loud. Batuman has this ability to swerve the sentence or phrase half way such that the ending is a jolt that makes you laugh in surprise. This pattern was writ large with the ending (which I will not give away) — similarly abrupt and surprising.

Some favorite lines:

“I said I was easy to entertain. Bojana said it was clear I had never spent five weeks in an Eastern European village.”

“The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.”

“Is there any way to escape the triviality dungeon of conversations?”

A great read if you’re in the mood for a long ponder (my usual state).