Archives for category: Fiction

When I went to went to go hear Sharon Draper talk about the book she wrote after she wrote Out of My Mind, she said her new one had been hard to write because so many people had called Out of My Mind her “best book ever.” “How,” she asked, “do you write the next book after you’ve written the best book ever?”

I’m afraid Jennifer Haigh has the same problem. In 427 pages, she has created an epic for our times. Populated by the inextricably linked small town characters she has used in her other novels, Heat and Light takes as its central plot the impact of fracking on a small town in Pennsylvania. To Haigh’s enormous credit, she tells the story of many different points of view and uses many different time periods, and what she ends up with is not an anti-fracking diatribe, but a well-balanced examination of the choices people make that they never thought they’d have to confront.

How will the novel stand up in 20 years? I’m not sure. It depends on what’s happening in the fracking world. The point is that it stands up quite well now; it is important, more than say, Hillbilly Elegy. You want to understand the world today, read this. You want to understand people – the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – read this. I hated and loved every single one of these characters.

I don’t envy Haigh’s task of following this book. It is, I suspect, a nice problem to have.

I was in a bookstore and was struck by a title – If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler – and I opened it. The first line is something like, “You are probably in a bookstore right now.” I laughed. Out loud. And I bought the book.

It was a revelation. It was my first experience with meta-fiction, long before I even had any idea what that term meant. I loved it.

I’ve since read a few other Calvino titles. He, like Saramago, takes a certain kind of concentration. Invisible Cities is another delight. Esoteric and layered, it is a series of reports from Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about cities Polo has encountered in his journeys through Khan’s empire. Maybe.

Or is it a kind of Arabian Nights tale, in which Polo is making up these reports to present to a ruler who fears the slow destruction of his empire, in a language of gestures and words so insufficient that the two men spend a great deal of time in silence. Maybe.

Or is it a criticism and / or a celebration of the dichotomous nature of cities, of which, like and despite words, we can only ever gain a temporary understanding?

I’m not sure; I’m glad it’s a book club choice. I’ll be eager to hear what others offer.

“Make no little plans,” Daniel Burnham once said. And Angie Thomas took his advice. Her sprawling, complex first novel is remarkably ambitious. Though its hot button issue is the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer, Thomas does not limit herself to that. There’s interracial dating, gangs, the ‘hood vs. the suburbs (where a pit bull – another issue – is not allowed), there’s “snitches get stitches,” a fried chicken ‘joke,’ a condom mistake, gunshots, arson, domestic abuse, hybrid families, Huey Newton, a discussion of names that black parents give their children, compromises and a debate about whether macaroni and cheese is a main dish or a side dish.

And aside from some occasional pedantic moments (often during conversations), Thomas pulls it off. This is an amazing novel – young adult? – I don’t care; it’s just an amazing book, one I’ll look forward to using in the classroom. Right now, I have a classroom that is 100% students of color. It would be a very interesting book to choose in a mixed-race classroom or even a largely white one. Much to consider here. I look forward to handing it off to students next week in order to get some reactions.

Angie Thomas’ website

I admit it; I judged this book by its cover. I had never read “an epic novel of the Roma.” The blurb said it was “the first novel in which a Gypsy himself depicts his people. .  . with complete authenticity.” I was sold. After all, we read (sometimes) in order to enter other worlds. I knew nothing of the Roma. Here, the cover said to me, is a chance to learn.

Without wasting much time, Lakatos’ work, translated by Ann Major, made me ask myself whether it was okay not to like this ‘authentic’ presentation of the Roma culture. If the way women are treated in this novel is anywhere close to accurate, then yikes.

The novel, by all indications based on the life of the author himself, also raised another cliche – just because it is true doesn’t make it a good story. The novel meanders. Small things are presented as disproportionately huge, with little justification. There is a great deal of repetition and ponderous dialogue. I neither liked nor was much interested in the protagonist. I certainly never accepted his so-called wisdom.

It can be hard to tell with a translation, but there are numerous examples where Lakatos seems to reach for lofty prose and fail miserably, that I have to believe it’s his doing, not Major’s.

There are poignant moments. The ending. The love for horses. But they are too few to sustain 464 pages.

This Anisfield-Wolf award winner is absolutely stunning. From its riveting opening pages until the truth of its conclusion, Mahajan takes us through a stunning story of small bombs, both the ones used by terrorists and the ones encountered in everyday life. I think what’s new here is that Mahajan, as the perfectly designed cover demonstrates, connects the bombs in ways we rarely get access to, let alone appreciate. What’s also new and both bold and necessary is that Mahajan takes us inside the lives of these terrorists. He accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us, if not like them, then at least understand them, both on a personal and political level. It is in these sections that he asks the most difficult and urgent questions, and I hope Anisfield-Wolf plans to host some conversations about this book even before the author arrives. (You must know that sensation of having finished a book and looking around immediately thinking, “Who else has finished it? I must talk to someone about this book. Now!) And please don’t think that Mahajan lets anyone in this story elude his hard questions. There are no angels in India, either.

In my enthusiasm for the content of the book, I don’t want to neglect Mahajan’s writing. He has passages, some as short as a phrase and others as long as several pages, that are just breathtaking in their precision and use of language. Unless I am teaching a novel, I rarely read with a pencil in hand. This time I did and my annotations and exclamation points fill this book.

The only fault with this book is mine. I know so little about India. It is not necessary to have much background knowledge to immerse yourself in this book, but I would love a suggestion of something to read to give me that background knowledge so I can appreciate it on another level when I return to it.

the cover

“From small things,” Bruce Springsteen sings, “big things one day come.” Such is the case for Paul Newcombe, Cleveland housing inspector, when he sees a childhood friend on TV. The friend, the deputy of a small-town police force, is receiving his 15 minutes of fame because a skull has been found.

This is enough for Paul, already stifled by his cubicle-d existence, to set off on a vacation for reasons he can’t always articulate. In Portsmouth, he not only runs into his friend, but the annual Roy Rogers Festival.

From there, he (and we) are entangled in the adventure and comedy of modern existence. And Megenhardt’s prose absolutely shines. Though Newcombe, after a visit to the memorable Cactus Jack, from Megenhardt’s first excellent novel, Dogs in the Cathedral, is not always on the road, Megenhardt’s language never stops moving. Whether he’s writing about a search for a map (in a passage that will make you laugh in recognition) or a search for a person, the narration will leave you breathless. When you read this book, and you should, you will get the same feeling you get riding the best roller coaster at a county fair. It’s incredibly exhilarating, but also occasionally dangerous. And the momentum does not stop until the final, remarkable (and surprising) conclusion.

Don’t believe me? Come meet the man himself.

David Megenhardt at Happy Dog

I read the first two of Penny’s mysteries in order, but then skipped ahead because I found a used copy of this one. I regret it a little because I think there’s one prior to this that informs a subplot here. Does anyone know? But this one was a step up from the previous two which I thought were quite good. Penny, perhaps because she’s grown confident because of the success of her earlier books, delves into Canadian history and politics here. They are essential to the plot (in ways that made me wish I understood them better) and make the story take on an impressive level of depth in the way Mankell did in his Wallender series.

Really good stuff. I have one more used one to read, but perhaps I should go back to reading them in order.