Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category
The thin house–a house four feet wide and occupying a space between two buildings in Warsaw–isn’t a likely candidate to entertain the guests who show up unexpectedly and demand a story from the author on the spot in the title story of Etgar Keret’s latest collection, Suddenly, a Knock On the Door. While it would not be able to hold the action of the piece, it does explain the style of the Israeli author’s storytelling: as Steven Kurutz of The New York Times writes, the thin house, built with Keret in mind, is “small but complete.” There are a total of thirty-six stories contained within the 188 pages of the book, an average of five pages per story, though as we know averages work, many come in much shorter, with some barely stretching over one page. In these brief pieces, Keret packs in whole worlds.
After missing Junot Diaz’s performance at Book Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, I consoled myself by reflecting on his new short story collection. Before I cracked the spine, the odds were long that Diaz could meet the high standard of his debut collection Drown, or his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or his recent MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which even super fans conceded was belated and perhaps gratuitous. And after being inspired by Drown to study fiction writing in graduate school, teaching the book for years to high school and college students in literature and creative writing classes, and raving about Diaz to anyone who would listen, the new book felt like a referendum on my credibility as a writer, teacher, and human being. I hesitated for several weeks before buying the book, rationalizing that if I didn’t read it, I wouldn’t be disappointed. Fortunately, Diaz delivered. Like its predecessors, This is How You Lose Her is technically dazzling, culturally challenging, and emotionally devastating. Line by line, page by page, story by story, it is a book that breaks and mends your heart.
Telegraph Avenue connects Oakland and Berkeley, two cities whose historically different racial compositions have earned them separate boilerplate reputations in the mind of outsiders: Oakland, gritty, home of the Raiders, music Mecca, melting pot; Berkeley, local, micro-climate-gifted, capital of yuppie fantasyland. Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, is set against and among such clichés as it tells of two couples, one black and one white, for whom the eponymous avenue and environs are everything.
Issues of race shot through the twin lenses of pop-culture and politics are all over Telegraph Avenue. The Black Panthers and Huey Newton play a part, as do Kung-Fu, big old American cars, and Pam Grier. There’s funk, soul, R&B, and the real meaning behind “A Love Supreme.” Chabon runs down the history of black music in the East Bay and how the first black workers came to Oakland. Nearly an entire funeral eulogy is given to expounding upon what Creole signifies. There’s a white lawyer desperate to sound “black,” and a white teenager who thinks he knows what the inside of his black friend’s house will look like before entering. And we get a black midwife’s vow to become a doctor so “then when I reach out to a black woman while she’s having a baby, maybe then she’s going to reach back.” Her white business partner, “the Alice Waters of midwives,” doesn’t understand the urgency behind the promise.
David Byrne’s new manifesto slash memoir, How Music Works, has been written many times before. Ethnomusicologists and philosophers, from Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin to David Suisman, have chronicled the historical shift from classical to popular music, lamenting it, praising it, and/or evaluating the societal changes brought about by it and its corresponding technology. Byrne’s book, which illustrates the history of analog and digital recording, narrates the advent of the music industry, and claims to describe how to create a music scene or subculture offers almost nothing new. One could learn a similar amount about modern musical historical shifts through a single listen of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.” So what gives David Byrne the right to write?
Zadie Smith’s writing has certainly changed in the 12 years since her debut novel White Teeth. She takes more risks and has become more obscure, placing more weight on the shoulders of the reader to interpret her meaning. While her style may be off-putting to some, it does allow her to creatively describe, say, the placement of teeth and fillings in one character’s mouth with a literary graphic.
In her new novel NW, Smith explores the London neighborhood through the eyes of best friends Leah and Keisha over the course of 35 years. Despite how much her neighborhood has fallen on hard times, Leah still feels sympathetic to those that dwell there, and relates to them as well. They are of the generation that grew up without global-minimizing connective technology, but eventually grew into it. Their first memories are of a limited location: Northwest London and the subtle differences between the people, streets, and homes that exist therein. They knew where their friends were without Twitter and how to get somewhere without Google Maps. Which is not to say they don’t embrace social media when they grow up. Who knew ChatRoulette could be referenced in literature?). So how does one stay grounded in the physical realm while steadily adapting to an abstract one?
Along with themes of race and gender relations, Toni Morrison has long been fascinated with the role of home in human happiness–and unhappiness. Her 1973 novel Sula opens with a history of a black neighborhood once known as “the Bottom” and now being bulldozed to make way for a golf course and white people. In Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, a female slave escapes a plantation with the ironic name of Sweet Home. The novel begins after she has escaped to the North with the iconic sentence: “124 was haunted,” referring to the literal and figurative ghosts that plague her new home in the supposedly “free” North. Now her new novel Home begins with a traumatized Korean War veteran with the Dickensian name of Frank Money, hating his home, which symbolizes his desolate, hopeless life.
The odds of a marriage proposal being accepted are 1 in 1.001, i.e. nearly perfect. The odds of a married couple making love on any given night are 1 in 5. The odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary are 1 in 6. Such stark, if not totally surprising, probabilities provide both the chapter headings and the thematic glue of Stewart O’Nan’s sharp and sad new novel, a love story wrapped in a heist wrapped in a rumination on risk, reward, and regret.
In less than 20 years, O’Nan has written 13 novels, including Snow Angels, which became a 2007 movie starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. His four nonfiction books include a manual on writing co-edited with John Gardner, whose The Art of Fiction is a Bible on the MFA circuit. His papers are already archived at Cornell University’s library. In other words, he’s a workhorse and a writer’s writer, and in The Odds, he makes the art of fiction seem effortless.