Archives for category: Fiction

The top 10 list of 2016’s most challenged books came out, and I immediately seized on it as a reading list. The first one I found at home was this graphic novel which I found delightful. I’m a big theatre geek. The scene when Callie steps into her favorite book reminds me of what graphic novels can accomplish in ways that ordinary ones can’t. I think Telgemeier captures the awkward adolescent dating scene and language quite well. As for the gay characters and the kiss, they are presented in a manner that aligns with the book.

As for those who object to it (and the other 7 books on the list that are challenged because of issues related to sex and gender), get the (*&$ over it. These are good books. These are stories that need to be told; in fact, they are long overdue. Children need them. Don’t be afraid. They aren’t contagious. Read them and learn. Or don’t. Just don’t get in anyone else’s way.

There is a lot to admire here. This novel reminds me of one long Robert Altman tracking shot. The whole book takes place over a very short period of time in a small, Western town. Warren is incredibly adept at giving weight to the small moments of the lives of regular people just trying to find their way through not only their present, but also their past and future  – all of this under the scrutiny of everyone knowing everyone else because of the size of the town. Warren gets inside the skin of a wide range of characters – teens, men, women – quite well. It’s definitely a slice-of-life story, so my instinct to try to draw something larger from it had to be stifled. I do know this. I look forward to finding her newer novel.

Warren’s site

The thing is, I like Saul Bellow. I od’d on him when I first encountered his work as a U of C student 25 or so years ago. I don’t want to re-read Henderson, the Rain King because I’ve turned one moment of that book into a profound experience in my life and I’m little worried that I don’t quite have the details right.

I am no slave to plot. I don’t need things to be linear. But as much as there’s a lot of great writing here, there’s no, well, story, certainly not enough of one to sustain 472 pages. A few things happen. Some of these things are less credible than others. Some things have happened in the past. But the book is mostly an excuse for Bellow to do some philosophical posturing by putting words in the mouth of Humboldt and Charlie (as well as a few others). These are not human beings; they are mouthpieces, male mouthpieces at that as Charlie, despite his age and appearance, spends a great deal of time with Renata, who comes off as quite the catch.

There are some human qualities to Charlie’s interactions with Humboldt’s wife as well as with his own brother. As a one-time Chicagoan, I enjoyed the look at the city, But again, there was not enough here to make this much more than one I had to push myself through for the sake of an upcoming book club meeting.

This novel-in-verse may have its origin in Grossman’s own life experience. Grossman’s youngest son died in the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon conflict. And this novel centers around parents who have lost a child and their attempt to “learn to separate memory from the pain” (175) by using words. As in To the End of the Land, these parents walk, sometimes in circles and sometimes with an idea of destination. It makes sense that the feelings can’t be contained. Until they can. Powerful, sad, and necessary. I wish I could see the play version.

In this perfectly-titled novel, Umrigar presents a nuanced look at the challenges facing a couple whose son has died unexpectedly. In an attempt to revive their lives and marriage, they decide to accept a business opportunity in rural India. At this point, the story only becomes more layered and complex. What does it mean to be an American who runs a business in another country, a business that makes use of natural resources that once were used by the indigenous population. Labor troubles complicate their lives. But it is the presence of the child of their servants, a boy slightly older than the child they lost, that sends Frank Benton spiraling to places he never imagined.

For three-quarters of the book, I think everything is pretty much pitch perfect. Umrigar’s characterizations, from when Frank meets his eventual wife, to their friends and associates in India, to their families (notably Scott, Frank’s brother) are all dynamic and convincing. The decision that Frank makes, which sends the story careening towards its conclusion, is also believable, even Shakespearean in its ambition. And certainly unexpected things happen to ruin the best of plans, but the easily anticipated moments here (a soccer match, a visit from a friend’s relative) did not need to come as a surprise. Taken together, these last minute plot devices as well as an effort to humanize the father of the child Frank has ‘adopted,’ make the ending come off as somewhat forced. Umrigar has one more move to make, and it is a surprising and credible one – the kind of revelation that makes one long for a sequel.

I know it’s not a trendy thing to say, but I think I am more of a fan of Erdrich’s later work. The Round House is a masterpiece, and LaRose is very good. I was unmoved by Love Medicine, and though there is much to appreciate about The Master Butchers Singing Club, I didn’t connect with it either.

There is a small-town-ness about this book. Everyone knows everyone, and that is both good and bad. A stunning accident occurs in the first few pages of the novel, in a magnificently written section titled (not accidentally) “Two Houses,” which sends all involved reeling, both forward and backward in time, even the character (not coincidentally named) Romeo. The only true outsider, Father Travis, at least has that history in his head.

Initially, because they were not very regular, it was challenging to follow the back story of the people who carried the name LaRose before the current incarnation. But as events of the story unfolded, the clarity and necessity of these flashbacks increased.

Overall, I found the characters to be genuine and interesting, and there are many memorable moments (that I don’t want to spoil).

Erdrich biography

Erdrich’s excellent bookstore

Ambitious, lyrical and teachable, this debut novel from Gyasi is little short of astonishing. It starts with Ghana in the 18th century and ends in the heyday of Harlem. It focuses on two half-sisters and the path that they (and their families) take. It is a story about how choices — the ones we make for ourselves and the ones made for us — have implications for us and our suceeding generations. Yes, all this in a neat 300 pages. Along the way, she shows a flair for the small description and the profound (if sometimes heavy-handed) insight.

The discussions of the nature of “home” and the issue of “coming” vs. “going” are worth the price of admission. The characters – though I needed regular glances at the family tree – are rich, and I generally regretted when Gyasi moved on to another generation.  The plots for each generation stand on their own and are so tightly woven with the past and future that I can’t imagine the planning that went into this novel. And, to her credit, Gyasi is equally adept at depicting male and female characters.

There is much to discuss, debate, research and write about here. In other words, I hope to use it in the classroom one day. And I look forward to whatever she does next.

Gyasi’s Facebook page