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  • Ester Bloom 7:15 pm on 2016/11/28 Permalink
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    Michael Chabon enchants with Moonglow 

    It’s unusual for an author to cheerfully refer to his own 400+ page novel as a “pack of lies,” as Chabon does in the Acknowledgements section of his new book Moonglow. But Chabon is an unusual author in many respects. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for propulsive literary epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, he has pushed the boundaries of traditional fiction, trying his hand at experiments of genre, voice, and tone. With Moonglow, he attempts something new and possibly even more radical: he creates a work of “fictional nonfiction” out of what purports to be the story of his own family.

    Moonglow takes us back several generations to the so-called “greatest” one. The true-ish story it tells is not about Chabon himself but about his maternal grandfather, who, as the book begins, lies dying of cancer. As author/narrator Chabon feeds the old man Jell-o, he simultaneously pumps him for stories. And so he learns the tale of his grandfather’s remarkable life, starting in a rundown, working-class Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, ending in a ritzy retiree community in Florida, and ranging through setpieces of war, suburbia, office life, and prison. As you might expect, Chabon learns much more than he expected to about his family, and about himself.

    Are these increasingly baroque details of his past believable? Maybe. Why not? As history never tires of reminding us, truth is stranger than fiction.

    At times while telling his grandfather’s story, Chabon is digressive, and at other times, too enthusiastic; see: his zeal for capturing his grandfather’s sexual feelings towards women in general and Chabon’s grandmother in particular. And he zigzags through time in a way that ignores the wisdom laid out in Alice in Wonderland (“Start at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop”).

    Still, the novel is overwhelmingly effective at what it sets out to do. First and foremost, that is to tell the complicated story of a brilliant, introverted engineer who starts out as an odd but well-meaning kid and ends up the adopted father of an odd but well-meaning kid of his own—the daughter of the beautiful, broken European refugee he falls in love with, and shapes the rest of his life around, after World War II.

    Chabon’s grandfather is a magnetic character, and a complicated one. He’s a war hero and a felon. An observer and a brawler. He’s also an obsessive whose life is animated by furious rivalries. Some of these are pedestrian: he feuds with his no-goodnik brother Ray and, later, a pet-eating wild snake in Florida. Others are loftier, even noble: he tracks the Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun across the bombed-out battlegrounds of Germany, only to encounter him decades later, under very different circumstances, near Ft. Lauderdale. But his life is also animated by real tenderness, and not just for the members of his family but for his enemies, too.

    Moonglow‘s other mission is to complicate our relationship to the stories we tell to and about each other and ourselves. At one point during Chabon’s conversations with his grandfather, the old man loses his temper and tells his grandson to stop trying to make an accumulation of “dates, and names, and numbers” add up to a satisfying narrative, one that could help Chabon make sense of their lives. Just as scientists tried and failed to explain the Challenger explosion, Chabon’s grandfather says, “‘The answer was always going to be dates, and names, and numbers….the point was to find out. The meaning was in the inquiry.'”

    Helped out by an unlikely discovery in the flood-damaged boxes in an old therapist’s estate, Chabon does end up with an explanation of sorts for the equivalent of the Challenger explosion in his own history (his grandmother’s madness). It is an explanation fuller than any his grandfather himself ever received; but like many explanations, it still prompts more questions than it answers. That’s okay. The meaning is in the inquiry. Besides, as Chabon has put it together, this inquiry is well-written, engrossing, and emotional. Its professed loyalties may be to the moon, but, like one of his grandfather’s beloved rockets, and like one of his grandmother’s beloved episodes of arson, this story manages to astonish while shedding both light and heat.

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    The post Michael Chabon enchants with Moonglow appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Ester Bloom 6:40 pm on 2016/09/13 Permalink
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    Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder Will Make You Believe 

    As award-winning author Emma Donoghue made clear in her breakthrough novel Roomshe is a master of tight spaces: both the physically cramped confines of a single small area in which a woman and her young child are held prisoner, and the inside of a character’s mind. With her latest novel, The Wonder, set mostly in a small cottage in a rural, poverty-stricken town in 1800s Ireland, Donoghue revisits some of the literal and psychological terrain she has explored in earlier works, with fresh, surprising results.

    Room was noteworthy in part because it so ably captured a child’s point of view without being precious or twee, and, even once its premise was made clear, without piling on salacious detail for the sake of shocking readers. But the book became a hit because, at a time when much of realist literature suffered from an almost fatal self-seriousness, it refused to be cynical, slow-moving, or depressing: Donoghue rewarded readers’ investment in her characters with a thrilling escape attempt and a happy, though still complex and believable, ending.

    Here she takes up that pattern again. Donoghue’s philosophy seems to be that a story does not need to be dour to be important, and that change is always possible. Even within the most desperate situation, if there’s life, there’s hope.

    When The Wonder beginsthat there is life, or rather that it will continue, is by no means certain. English nurse Lib Wright, who trained and served under Florence Nightingale herself, has been called to examine and oversee an Irish girl named Anna O’Donnell, whose family says she has been existing without food. To an effusive local doctor and other residents of her village, who have so recently survived famines and plagues, she is perhaps a saint and certainly an inspiration. To the skeptical Lib, however, Anna’s a pious faker whose deception needs to be uncovered.

    At first, Donoghue deploys the contrasts with a heavy hand. Lib is experienced, while the countryside is provincial. Lib is fixedly secular, the countryside oppressively religious. Lib is pointed forward toward progress and science, the countryside pointed backward toward tradition and superstition. Each entity is as hostile to the other as a cat in an alley. A reader familiar with Diana Gabaldon may half expect the townspeople to start muttering curses at the “Sassenach” in their midst.

    Yet Anna herself, despite being the golden child of her neighborhood—and, as her fame spreads, of Ireland as a whole—is not a distillation of her community’s values. She is her own person, a kindhearted and quick-witted individual who enjoys riddles and the natural world, and, it transpires, Lib’s company. She is artless, and her artlessness disarms even her battle-hardened nurse.

    Anna, Lib realizes, is no Abigail Williams, a young woman intent on destruction because she has nothing to lose, using religious fervor as her tool because she has access to no other. In fact, Anna is neither Lib’s enemy nor the proper target of her investigative powers. Someone else is. But who?

    As Lib delves deeper into the mystery of how and why Anna seems to be existing without food, Anna’s health begins to fail, and Lib realizes she is racing against time as well as a power structure that may not care if one girl dies, so long as certain myths and assumptions are maintained. Lib gets an unlikely assist from a good-natured and intelligent reporter up from Dublin, who represents a more modern Ireland; he helps infuse the last quarter of the book with sexual tension as well as some real momentum.

    Superficially, The Wonder could be read as anti-Catholic, or even perhaps anti-religion in general. Lib arrives impatient with repetitive Latin ritual and with the ineffectual village priest, as well as the nun helping her watch Anna. She only becomes more impatient as Anna declines and people of faith don’t act. But Lib is not always as “right” as her name would suggest: she has a lot to learn, from her charge and about life itself. And whether or not Anna’s interpretation of scripture is misguided, it is earnest, even inspiring.

    Anna’s religiosity also seems, at least in part, to echo the philosophy of the author. Donoghue is well-acquainted with the cruelty of man and the unfairness of fate, but in her wise, humane, and lovely books, as in traditional Catholic belief, the one unforgivable sin is despair.

    The Wonder is on sale September 20, and available for pre-order now.

    The post Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder Will Make You Believe appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Ester Bloom 6:30 pm on 2016/08/02 Permalink
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    Colson Whitehead Takes The Underground Railroad From Metaphor to Devastating Reality 

    In the midst of this never-ending election, America is focused on either accepting or rejecting the notion that the country needs to be made great “again.” Meanwhile, some enterprising souls have wondered, When was America great? As recently as the 1950s? As long ago as the 1780s? Of one thing we can be sure, thanks to Colson Whitehead’s searing new novel about a young woman who escapes a Georgia cotton plantation: it was not the 1830s.

    The Underground Railroad, just named the latest Oprah’s Book Club selection, is a guided tour through the worst of American history. It makes brief detours to West Africa and aboard slave ships, but for the most part, it begins in the deep South, travels up to the Carolinas, and goes West to Indiana. Whitehead’s protagonist, Cora, initially escapes in the company of Caesar, a young man who is her equal in resilience and determination. Both have suffered. Both know they will suffer far more vividly if they are caught, especially since the man chasing them is a sadistic professional tracker named Ridgeway.

    Although the flap copy compares The Underground Railroad to Gulliver’s Travels, Whitehead’s book reads more like the American answer to Les MisérablesLike Victor Hugo’s 19th-century epic, Railroad follows a survivor who wants nothing more revolutionary than her own freedom. She tries to escape a man who is relentless in his pursuit of her. Whitehead uses Cora’s story to indict a society built on the injustice of the idea that an entire population of people like Cora is somehow biologically, morally, and intellectually subhuman.

    But while Hugo puts faith in, well, faith, embracing Christianity as a corrective to the meanness of man, Whitehead’s characters are not redeemed by religion. The cruelties visited upon characters like Fantine and Cosette pale in comparison to those Whitehead depicts. In many cases, those cruelties are even administered by people who consider themselves Christians, and think their actions are justified by the Good Book.

    In this world, the average American is not innocent. The average American is complicit: in clearing the deep South of Native Americans via malice and massacre, and then in farming that stolen land using labor stolen from people who were, themselves, stolen from their own land across the sea.

    Whitehead’s 19th-century America is a colder, more brutal place than even Hugo’s 19th-century France. But though the end result is bracing, it’s not overdone. It’s history, unwhitewashed, and that can be hard to take in, but Whitehead leavens his creation with a dash of hope, some humor, and just enough characters who aren’t sinister, callous, or bloodthirsty. Then he lets just enough of those characters survive.

    Still, those characters, like Caesar and Cora, who live up to the royal nature of their names and whose fierceness and intelligence keep them going no matter what, are liable to break your heart. At one point, in South Carolina, Cora hears the word “optimism.”

    Cora didn’t know what optimism meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.

    This woman was born into the bleakest kind of bondage and was never taught that she deserved anything: not liberty, not the pursuit of happiness, not even her own life. But she stays hopeful, anyway. Keeps moving. Keeps trying.

    Over his years as one of America’s most imaginative, capable authors of literary fiction, Whitehead has become known for writing stories that tweak the circumstances of everyday life. The worlds he describes are grounded in reality, but they grow in unexpected directions, toward elevator-related mysteries or zombies. In The Underground Railroad, the tweak is the railroad itself: instead of being a metaphor, it is an actual network of tracks running like a hidden subway from South to North and back again, serviced by a few devoted eccentrics who, even when threatened with torture and death, refuse to condone a status quo of slavery.

    Because of those engineers, the reader cannot entirely despair, even of a society in which a weekly lynching is considered family fun. Like trains, Caesar and Cora may stall, but even in hellish darkness, they keep pushing forward, hoping that, at the next station, or the next, they may finally find freedom, or at least light.

  • Ester Bloom 6:00 pm on 2016/06/08 Permalink
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    Homegoing Traces a Family’s Lives Across Continents and Generations 

    Any novel that begins in West Africa and follows members of a family across an ocean to America will be compared to Alex Haley’s seminal Rootswhich has now been turned into two television miniseries. Haley’s historical epic didn’t just change the literary landscape; arguably, it changed American culture.

    Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing comes a couple of generations later, but it is another rare achievement, a book that is as successful in detail as it is ambitious in scope, and one that deserves to be read alongside Roots, as well as Edward P. Jones’ The Known WorldToni Morrison’s Belovedand Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

    The institution of slavery seems, in some ways, like an inexhaustible source for fiction, offering conflict, drama, poignancy, heroes, and villains, much in the way that war does. But while war novels proliferate, slavery novels do not, possibly because, in America, the subject still feels too raw. Perhaps authors are intimidated by the notion of contending with normalized, state-sanctioned evil, or perhaps by the standards against which their work would be measured: Beloved is widely considered to beone of, if not the, Great American Novel, and conventional wisdom at the time held that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped start the Civil War.

    If Gyasi is intimidated, though, there is no evidence of it in these pages. Her writing is assured and her storytelling confident from the moment she begins her tale on Africa’s Gold Coast. Three hundred years, and as many pages, later, she ends it with two Americans visiting contemporary Ghana. At the outset of the tale, two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are separated by circumstance: one, who is affiliated with the element of Fire, stays in Africa; the other, whose element is Water, is kidnapped, abused, and shipped across an ocean to be enslaved. Homegoing drops in on their descendants’ lives on both continents as time passes and they marry and mourn, burn with rage and flood with grief.

    The novel’s morals are clear: fathers should value their daughters, for example; mothers should not be parted from their sons; corporal punishment is almost always a destructive misuse of power. But it never descends into moralizing. And although there are dozens of characters to keep track of, each manages to stand out in some quiet way. Foremost among them is the ex-con coal miner who attains folks hero status as Two-Shovel H. (He was the eighth child of a free black woman in mid–19th century Baltimore who was nonetheless kidnapped and sold into bondage while pregnant and before she and her husband had chosen a name for their unborn son.) And there is Akua, a tragic figure known as the Crazy Woman, who manages to outlive her misfortune and refuses to let it define her. “You have to let yourself be free,” she tells her son, in what could pass as the message of the book.

    Gyasi’s empathy for her characters is generous enough to extend even to warrior kings, greedy slavers, and impoverished drug addicts in Harlem who produce children they can’t support. Throughout, she asks the reader to look down. Referring to the English slaver headquarters on the Gold Coast called the Castle, where some luckier individuals walked, learned, and even prayed mere meters over the heads of others destined for the most abject torture, Gyasi writes, “it was the way most people lived their lives, on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.” Though Gyasi does not make it easy for us to peer underneath, she does make it very much worth our while.

  • Ester Bloom 5:00 pm on 2016/05/19 Permalink
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    Mean Girls Meet Their Match In Girls On Fire 

    Many of us remember our teenage years as the most intense period of our lives. The highs are higher, the lows lower, the mediums all but nonexistent. The best books about adolescence echo the way life felt with the volume turned up to 11.

    Girls on Fire is the first novel for adults by bestselling young adult author Robin Wasserman (The Book of Blood and Shadow). The same way mainstream novelists successfully transition to writing for children by not condescending to them, Wasserman makes the move from YA by retaining many of the same elements that have worked for her in the past. Why, after all, should we pretend grownup readers are less interested in sex and violence and danger than teens? When it comes down to it, who doesn’t like a good story?

    The year is 1991, and Wasserman’s protagonists, high schoolers Hannah Dexter and Lacey Champlain, are outsiders in Nowhere, Pennsylvania. Smart, sad Hannah has been floating through her own life like a balloon; new-in-town Lacey grabs Hannah’s string and ties it to her wrist. For the first time, Hannah feels seen, even if Lacey mostly looks at her to make adjustments to the way she dresses, and thinks, and enjoys herself.

    Hannah knows that, in many ways, she’s still a balloon, but she’s so pleased to be attached to one person instead of floating freely she doesn’t mind that Lacey is the one who makes decisions. Lacey declares the local woods off-limits and the local lake a nearly sacred place. Lacey sets Kurt Cobain up to be worshipped. Lacey gives Hannah a new name to go with her new identity: Dex.

    Lacey is the one with ideas and plans. Lacey is interesting, and being friends with her makes Dex interesting, too, so Dex overlooks the ways Lacey is erratic and unstable. Lacey, after all, has been damaged: by her alcoholic mother, her absentee father, her abusive stepfather, her rough childhood and even rougher present. Like many of us, Dex is as drawn to Lacey’s drama and her strong personality. And though Lacey mocks Dex’s bourgeois life, two-parent household, and penchant for following the rules, she is likewise drawn to Dex’s stability. The way she is vulnerable. The way she is normal.

    As close as Dex gets to Lacey, much about her friend remains a mystery. Wasserman, though, lets us into the heads of both characters as their older selves reflect back on this tumultuous period in their lives, and that gives us more insight than either Lacey or Dex has in the moment. We know, for example, that the woods are off-limits because Lacey had some connection with the apparent suicide there of popular boy Craig Ellison. We also know that Lacey has more history with popular girl Nikki Drummond than she’s willing to let on.

    We know, in short, much more about the depths of Lacey’s darkness than Dex does, who is content to enjoy her visit to the edges of the abyss. Lacey acquaints Dex with dancing, drinking, and drugs, but when the fun takes on a more disturbing tint—when, for example, they join some Satanists for recreational animal slaughter—Dex is content to forget it and not think too deeply about what Lacey’s more lurid impulses could mean.

    Wasserman leans into her own lurid impulses, especially as the story of Dex and Lacey builds towards a climax. Her subject is not just the power of obsessive female friendship, but how breathtakingly cruel ordinary people can be, and the decay that often festers beneath the facades of individuals and small towns alike. (“They knew she was a carnivore, but didn’t understand she was a cannibal.”) Girls on Fire is descended from FoxfireGirl, Interruptedand the dark teen-vengeance comedy Heathers, and like those tales, much of it is told at a fever pitch, as eager to get a reaction from us as Lacey is compelled to shock and enthrall Dex. But Wasserman is just as good, if not better, in quiet, perceptive moments like this one:

    Dex’s mother knew what it was to lose herself in someone brighter, to be trapped by the gravitational field of another sun. She knew what happened when it emerged that the sun was only a lightbulb, and what happened when the lightbulb burned out.

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