Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Aug 2011)

atochaIf you’ve ever lived as an ex-pat, you’ve gotta read this novel.  You will see yourself in Lerner’s descriptions of the ex-pat community in Spain, even if it’s not particularly flattering.  And if you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language, you will crack up at the riffs on misunderstood dialog.  Let us count the myriad ways that we can fail to grasp what is being said to us in a language we hang on to by our fingernails.  It’s also a good reminder of how hard it is to become fully fluent in English.  Hence, an appropriate sympathy for immigrants.  This novel is also about the art world, poetry, pretensions, feeling like a fraud, drugs, the nature of intimacy, how lies impinge on our relationships . . . there’s a lot here.  It’s literary fiction that is relatively easy to read and often humorous.  It’s not light, but it is short.  It’s not a novel that will appeal to everyone.  But I thought it quite brilliantly written.

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The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman (March 2013) and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (June 2009)

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If you are easily shocked by unorthodox portrayals of Jesus and all that is precious in the surrounding religious tradition, do not read this book. If you are offended by the suggestion that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition, do not read this book. If blasphemy is a word that even momentarily enters your general vocabulary, do not read this book. If you are now curious, and can soldier on through descriptions of creative Roman torture and heinous means of delivering slow death, and tend to be delighted when your assumptions are slaughtered . . . do, please, read this book. And to make the experience of revelation even more interesting, read The Liars’ Gospel in conjunction with The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, or a book of its ilk (scholarly research into the historicity of religious belief). I have by day been listening to Wright’s audio book, and by night reading Alderman’s novel. Though Alderman’s work is fiction, it is based on dogged research, and much of how she portrayed Jesus is similar to how Wright described the historical man. I got the same feeling for who Jesus may have been, from both authors. And I must add here that the audio version of The Evolution of God is well worth the time spent on 15 discs. Wright starts with prehistoric religious belief and works his way through the historic origins of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their connections and conflicts, and concludes with a vision for how the Abrahamic faiths can foster tolerance and peace in place of what we have now in world affairs. His presentation of the historical record is frequently surprising and always engrossing. Pairing his book with The Liars’ Gospel was perfect serendipity (I didn’t actually plan it out). Alderman’s novel is written from four distinct perspectives, starting with Mary (mother of Jesus), then Judas, followed by Caiaphas (High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem), and concluding with Barrabas. I have used the Anglicized names here, but the book uses their Hebrew names, in keeping with a story that fully immerses the reader in the Jewish world to which Jesus (Yehoshuah) was born, and in which he functioned, under the thumb of Roman rule. This novel is actually more about the politics of Roman Jerusalem than about Jesus, especially in its second half. Nonetheless, if you are well acquainted with the Gospels, you come out of this reading experience thinking about familiar stories is quite a different light: you will question motives, incentives, and the political alignments of players and authors. Although Alderman’s novel was not a fast read — it is not dense, but it IS brutal, and that took some time to breathe and regroup — I highly recommend it, especially as an entre to a nonfiction work such as Wright’s.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (Sept., 2008)

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Each of the eight chapters is a story unto itself, but they are all interconnected in telling the life of a middle-school English teacher. Bynum was a National Book Award finalist in 2004, and this book really showcases her talent. I found myself getting teary in places, but mostly laughing out loud unexpectedly, with a simple, acute description or turn of phrase. I found myself suddenly surprised, when Beatrice (Ms. Hempel) talked honestly about her idealism (or lack thereof) with regard to teaching, or divulged her sexual inclinations. As a former middle-school teacher myself, I was completely engrossed in Ms. Hempel’s experiences (and I suspect anyone in education would likewise be drawn in by this novel), and I originally thought to pass the book on to my middle-school daughter’s English teacher. That would, I realize now, be awkward – God knows if her English teacher would think I’m a freak for giving her a book whose main character is sometimes embarrassingly forthright. After all, we have stereotypes in our heads about the private lives our teachers lead. Many of us would like to maintain those illusions. So I won’t be giving this novel as a gift to any of my daughter’s teachers, for the sake of propriety. But I will hope that they discover this book somewhere along their journeys.  Bynum really gets the world of middle-school teaching.

Escape by Perihan Magden (Sept 2012)

escapeThis is a short, quick, engrossing read that is additionally good literature.  I was taken with both the story — which is increasingly creepy and suspenseful as it unfolds — and the writing — which is poetic.  I enjoyed Magden’s previous book, Ali and Ramazan, but that book’s translation from the Turkish was awful.  Escape, however, is a very good translation.  Not that I know Turkish.  But the English flowed beautifully.  The story follows a mother and daughter who are completely isolated from other people, traveling every few weeks, months, or even days from one hotel to another, all over the world.  They always leave of a sudden, forsaking all their belongings in the hotel rooms, and we don’t know why until we start to figure it out about halfway through.  The primary narrator is the young girl, sometimes quite young, and sometimes a teenager, depending on the chapter.  Her chapters are interspersed with chapters narrated by the people who briefly interact with the mother and daughter, or who observe them.  This is a beautiful book in large part because it subtly challenges the reader to question assumptions, including one’s own pat moral convictions.  Highly recommended.  Advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher.

Little Century by Anna Keesey (June 2012)

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It’s been several days since I finished Little Century, but the images are still fresh.  I have a vision of Oregon at the turn of the 19th century, the smell of the land — sage and juniper and pine — on the high desert around Bend.  Yes, I was actually close by last month, in the mountains between the Willamette and Deschutes Rivers.  It’s Keesey’s vivid writing, though, that brings the land alive; and my recent visit, as well as growing up in the West, allows me to simply confirm: Little Century is the closest to the real thing you will get, without actually going there.  And the story itself — a girl coming of age and falling in love while being pulled in opposing directions by the range war rivalry between sheep herders and cattle men — is fascinating.  I remember reading a review of this book, and thinking, “should I?  Should I not buy it?”  I had decided against it, in part because this is her debut and I was unsure a “western” would get checked out by our patrons.  But after reading it, I bought it for the library.  It’s a can’t miss.  And I wouldn’t call it a “western” — Little Century crosses genre boundaries.  It’s literary, but so easy and delicious to read; it’s historical fiction; it’s a romance; it’s a mystery; and it should truly appeal to both men and women.  Highly recommended!

 

Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan (Nov. 22, 2011)

Have you ever had a bad boss?  (Wait a minute, isn’t that a stupid question?)  The main female character in this novel has a truly horrific one.  I mean, REALLY bad.  Vindictive like you wouldn’t believe.  Except, most of us can, in fact, believe the inexorable, fated decline of a working relationship that, because of its power differential and he-said-she-said trap, is impossible to put the brakes on.  You try everything, but there is nothing to be done.  There is a nihilism to this novel, something the French seem to be generally good at (if you need optimism in your fiction, you might want to stay away).  The translation by George Miller does nothing to detract from the easy flow and poignancy of de Vigan’s writing (and that is all I ask of a translation: to not make me think, oooh, this is obviously a translation).  I was drawn in to the downward spiral and could not put the book down.  The possibilities of a romance, as well as the humor inherent in life events that are simply too sureally bad not to laugh, keep this book from being a Debbie Downer.  I found it true to life.  Actually, truer in many ways than a factual account.  And isn’t that the mark of great fiction?

Ali and Ramazan by Perihan Magden (April 3, 2012)

The author of this book is a journalist (and novelist) who won Turkey’s Grand Award for Freedom of Speech.  Given that, and the pre-pub review on it, I figured this would be a powerful book to purchase for my library — one that might push the boundaries.  It is indeed a powerful book, as it tells the story of an obscure pair of orphan boys who led  lives rather horrifying to contemplate.  And it pushes the boundaries in describing child abuse, drug use, and male prostitution.  It is fictionalized, but based on actual events that were reported in a Turkish newspaper.  It’s an important book to read.  And I suspect that Magden is an important author to follow.  I know this because I just got hold of an advance reader’s copy of a new English translation of her 2007 novel, Escape.  In reading the first chapter, I am drawn in, and the language brings out a quality that peeked through in Ali & Ramazan, but fell flat and awkward in many instances: a poetry.  I had an inkling of the reason why when reading Ali & Ramazan — I thought the translation might be choppy.  But without reading Turkish, how was I to know it was the translation, and not Magden’s writing?  Escape has a different translator — and the poetry of the prose flows.  So my verdict?  I would read Ali & Ramazan, for the story.  And then I would anticipate picking up Escape when it is released September 11th (I’ll be reviewing it in August), for both the story and the writing.

The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi (Oct., 2011)

This book was actually published in 2008, when it won a most prestigious Catalan literary prize, but it’s just recently made it to U.S. shores.  And we are lucky readers, those of us who pick up this gem.  A gem that is caked with mud, perhaps.  I say that because there are places in this flowing, easy to read, conversational. even funny book where I felt sullied.  Not in an unwelcome way, and I did not resent it.  But in the way that truths about human nature, and the shock of bitter ironies we create, can make us face the inescapable.  It is often a most unpretty picture.  And yet this is a beautiful book that has us living the lives of characters far removed from the lives that many of us know.  I would recommend this book to the following readers:  anyone who has ever traveled to Spain or North Africa; anyone who has ever emigrated or even lived far from home; anyone who has ever grown up and known the optimism, fears, and dangers that accompany budding sexuality; anyone who has ever known, in their own lives or those close to them or strangers whose lives stir curiosity, the pull and push and pull and push of abuse at the hands of family; and anyone who has looked their religion and traditions in the eye and observed their many contradictory meanings.  So, hmmm . . . we have a book here, an adventure, that details an experience so removed — and yet, so very very close.

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