A Nigerian living in America has a moneymaking scheme—to return to his native village, steal the statue of a war god and sell it to a tony New York dealer who deals in such deities.
Ikechukwu Uzondu (or Ike for short) has high expectations. Although he’s a cum laude graduate of Amherst with a degree in economics, he’s working as a New York cabbie because his accent won’t get him in the door at a Wall Street firm. Recently divorced and hounded by creditors, Ike talks to Mark Gruels, owner of a gallery called Foreign Gods, Inc. that traffics in Asian and African statues of gods—and well-heeled collectors are willing to part with hundreds of thousands of dollars for the best specimens. Ike borrows some money from a friend to purchase a ticket back to his home village of Utonki and carefully lays the groundwork for stealing a statue of Ngene, the village war god still worshiped by Ike’s uncle Osuakwu. Meanwhile, Ike’s mother has come under the spell of Pastor Uka, a stern Protestant who sees Ngene worship as inspired by Satan. Not so coincidentally, the pastor believes that any person returning to the village from America must be rich, so he’s looking to Ike to “sow” a considerable sum for a new chapel. Caught between his overly pious and gullible mother on one hand and his “heathen” uncle on the other, Ike eventually steals the statue but still must smuggle it through Nigerian customs, a task made somewhat easier by corrupt customs officials willing to look the other way, but when he returns to New York, he finds the market for African deities has gone colder than he had expected.
Ndibe writes of culture clash in a moving way that makes Ike’s march toward disaster inexorable and ineffably sad.
A harrowing and fully imagined vision of dystopian America from Lee, who heretofore has worked in a more realist mode.
Lee’s oeuvre is largely made up of novels about Asians assimilating into American society (The Surrendered, 2010, etc.), and in many regards, this one is no different. Its hero is Fan, a young woman of Chinese descent who leaves her native Baltimore to find her disappeared lover, Reg. However, the near-future America she travels through is catastrophically going off the rails: The wealthy (or “Charters”) live in protected communities, the lawless “counties” are highly dangerous, while those like Fan in the struggling middle live and work in highly regimented communities designed to serve the Charters’ needs. (Fan worked in a fishery in Baltimore, renamed B-Mor.) Typical of dystopian literary novels, the circumstances that brought the country to this ugly pass aren’t clear (though social concerns about the environment and carcinogens are high). What Lee adds to the genre is his graceful, observant writing, as well as a remarkably well-thought-out sense of how crisis stratifies society and collapses morality. As Fan travels north from B-Mor, she encounters or hears about people who are actively brokering or sacrificing human life to survive. Lee’s imagination here is at once gruesome and persuasive: A family of circus-type performers who kill people and feed them to their dogs, a cloistered Charter housewife with a group of adopted children who are never allowed to leave their rooms, a doctor who accepts poor patients only to the extent they’re willing to prostitute themselves to him. The potency and strangeness of these characters never diminish the sense that Lee has written an allegory of our current predicaments, and the narration, written in the collective voice of B-Mor, gives the novel the tone of a timeless and cautionary fable.
Welcome and surprising proof that there’s plenty of life in end-of-the-world storytelling.
In Vapnyar’s (Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, 2008, etc.) latest novel, a simplicity of narrative—two strangers share their lives over a weekend together—belies the complexity of interwoven themes and ideas.
As the book begins, Lena is a self-conscious, self-criticizing woman traveling to an academic conference she does not feel prepared for, being only a professor at a community college. The trip, though, is also a temporary escape from her miserable marriage and, thus, welcome. En route, she fixates on the summer she spent, many years ago, as a counselor for 8- to 10-year-olds at a summer camp in her native Soviet Russia. There, though an outsider by nature, Lena had a friend in her co-counselor, Inka. At camp, there was the prospect of romance, and sex, with the male soldiers who worked there. There was gossip and fantastic stories told not only by Lena and Inka, but by the children they tended. And there were mysteries, too. Small things that touched Lena personally, but didn’t add up and never resolved. It’s clear that, in some space of Lena’s head, she has never left. At the conference, she meets Ben, a university professor who teaches courses on graphic novels. Because he is interested, and asks her directly, Lena begins to tell Ben stories from camp, stories she’s never told before—walking through woods, corralling children, the heat wave and the mysteries that persist. Ben has his own strangely intense childhood stories and is equally unhappy in his relationship. Impulsively, they embark on a road trip together, sharing chapters of their lives along the way; both characters grow more vivid in the process, as if dusting each other off for new use. Vapnyar’s writing style feels like Lena’s camp—everything seems to be in plain sight, but one can sense deeper truths hiding below the surface. As Ben and Lena get close to uncovering some of these truths, their time together inevitably dwindles. Purely silly moments, the headiness of strangers connecting and the universal nature of summer camp lighten the mood.
Wolitzer (The Uncoupling, 2011) follows a group of friends from adolescence at an artsy summer camp in 1974 through adulthood and into late-middle age as their lives alternately intersect, diverge and reconnect.
Middle-class suburban Julie becomes Jules when a group of more sophisticated kids from Manhattan include her in their clique at Camp Spirit-in-the-Woods in upstate New York. Her lifelong best friend becomes beautiful Ash, an aspiring actress. Ash’s older brother is sexy bad-boy Goodman. Cathy, who wants to dance, becomes Goodman’s girlfriend. Jonah, the ethereally handsome, slightly withdrawn son of a famous folksinger, is musically gifted. And then there is Ethan: homely, funny and a brilliant cartoonist. Although he and Jules are immediately soul mates, she rejects his physical advances, unable to work up any sexual attraction. After this first idyllic summer, the novel cuts to 2009 when Jules, now living a modest middle-class life as a therapist married to a medical technician, receives her annual Christmas letter from Ethan and Ash, who are married and wildly successful. As she looks back, the reader follows the evolution of the group. While still in high school, Cathy and Goodman break up in disastrous fashion; they both disappear from the group but not without causing permanent repercussions. For one thing, to Jules’ surprise, Goodman’s grieving sister Ash and Ethan become an unlikely but devoted couple. Jonah, who evolves as the inevitable sympathetic gay character in a novel tracing social mores through the last decades of the 20th century, gives up music for engineering. Ash becomes a feminist director and marries Ethan, the true genius of the group, who experiences major creative and financial success with his long-running animated series. Jules, who has given up acting to become a therapist and has married sweet but unambitious Dennis, tries not to envy her friend’s success. Secrets are kept for decades among the six “Interestings”; resentments are nursed; loyalties are tested with mixed results.
Ambitious and involving, capturing the zeitgeist of the liberal intelligentsia of the era.
A long-after sequel, of a sort, to A Time to Kill (1989), in which dogged attorney Jake Brigance fights for justice in a Mississippi town where justice is not always easy to come by.
That’s especially true when the uncomfortable question of race comes up, and here, it’s a doozy. When local curmudgeon and secret millionaire Seth Hubbard puts an end to a lingering death, he leaves a holographic will placing the bulk of his fortune in the hands of the black woman who’s been taking care of him, cutting his children and ex-wives out of the deal. That will also alludes to having seen “something no human should ever see”—a promising prompt, that is to say, for the tangled tale that follows. When Jake brings the housekeeper, Lettie Lang, news of the extent of her newfound wealth, her world begins to unravel as her husband brings in a battery of attorneys to join the small army of lawyers already fighting over Hubbard’s will. Grisham, as always, is spot-on when it comes to matters of the bar, and the reader will learn a thing or two from him—for instance, that Mondays are the busiest days for divorce lawyers, “as marriages cracked over the weekends and spouses already at war ramped up their attacks.” This being 1988, there’s casual sexism aplenty in Grisham’s tale; it being the flatland Deep South, there are heaping helpings of racial tension, and it’s on that fact that the story turns. Grisham, as ever, delivers a vivid, wisecracking and tautly constructed legal procedural from which the reader might draw at least this lesson: You never want to wind up in front of a judge, even one as wise as the earwig-welcoming Reuben V. Atlee, and if you do, you want to have Jake Brigance on your side.
Trademark Grisham, with carefully situated echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird. A top-notch thriller.
Tan, who made her name with The Joy Luck Club (1989), blends two favorite settings, Shanghai and San Francisco, in a tale that spans generations.
Granted that courtesans and the places that sheltered them were (and in some places still are) culturally significant in East Asia, Tan takes what might seem an unnecessary risk by setting her latest novel in that too-familiar demimonde (Miss Saigon, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc.). Tan is a skilled storyteller, capable of working her way into and out of most fictional problems, but the reader will be forgiven a sinking feeling at the scenario with which she opens, featuring “the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.” Where are the Boxers when you need them? Said white woman, Lulu Minturn, aka Lulu Mimi, is in Shanghai for a reason—and on that reason hinges a larger conceit, the one embodied by the book’s title. She has a daughter, and the daughter, naturally enough, has cause to wonder about her ancestry, if little time to worry overmuch about some of the details, since her mom leaves her to fend for herself, not entirely willingly. The chinoiserie and exoticism aside, Violet makes a tough and compelling character, a sort of female equivalent to Yul Brynner as played by Lucy Liu. The members of the “Cloud Beauties,” who give Violet her sentimental education, make an interesting lot themselves, but most of the attention is on Violet and the narrative track that finds her on a parallel journey, literally and figuratively, always haunted by “those damned paintings that had belonged to my mother” and that will eventually reveal their secrets. Tan’s story sometimes suffers from longueurs, but the occasional breathless, steamy scene evens the score: “He lifted my hips and my head soared and I lost all my senses except for the one that bound us and could not be pulled apart.”
Flagg highlights a little-known group in U.S. history and generations of families in an appealing story about two women who gather their courage, spread their wings and learn, each in her own way, to fly (I Still Dream About You, 2010, etc.).
After marrying off all three of her daughters (one of them twice to the same man), Sookie Poole is looking forward to kicking back and spending time with her husband and her beloved birds. She’s worked hard throughout life to be a good mother to her four children and a perfect daughter to her octogenarian mother. Lenore Simmons Krackenberry’s a legend in Point Clear, Ala., and has always been narcissistic, active in all the “right” organizations, and extremely demanding. She’s also become increasingly bonkers, a disorder that seems to run in the Simmons family. Throughout much of her life, Sookie’s never felt as if she’s measured up to Lenore’s exacting standards, and she’s terrified she, too, might lose her marbles. Then, Sookie receives an envelope filled with old documents that turn her world and her beliefs about herself and her family topsy-turvy. Her emotional quest for answers leads Sookie down a winding yet humorous path, as she meets with a young psychiatrist at the local Waffle House and tracks down descendants of a Polish immigrant who opened a Phillips 66 filling station in Pulaski, Wis., in 1928. What she discovers about the remarkable Jurdabralinski siblings inspires her: Fritzi, the eldest daughter, developed a unique idea to keep her father’s business operating during difficult times, but her true passion involved loftier goals. During World War II, she used her exceptional skills to serve her country in an elite program, and two of her sisters followed suit. Finding inspiration in their professional and personal sacrifices, Sookie discovers her own courage to make certain decisions about her life and to accept and take pride in the person she is. This is a charming story written with wit and empathy. The author forms a comfortable bond with readers and offers just the right blend of history and fiction.
Flagg flies high, and her fans will enjoy the ride.
Kidd (The Mermaid Chair, 2005, etc.) hits her stride and avoids sentimental revisionism with this historical novel about the relationship between a slave and the daughter of slave owners in antebellum Charleston.
Sarah Grimké was an actual early abolitionist and feminist whose upbringing in a slaveholding Southern family made her voice particularly controversial. Kidd re-imagines Sarah’s life in tandem with that of a slave in the Grimké household. In 1803, 11-year-old Sarah receives a slave as her birthday present from her wealthy Charleston parents. Called Hetty by the whites, Handful is just what her name implies—sharp tongued and spirited. Precocious Sarah is horrified at the idea of owning a slave but is given no choice by her mother, a conventional Southern woman of her time who is not evil but accepts slavery (and the dehumanizing cruelties that go along with it) as a God-given right. Soon, Sarah and Handful have established a bond built on affection and guilt. Sarah breaks the law by secretly teaching Handful to read and write. When they are caught, Handful receives a lashing, while Sarah is banned from her father’s library and all the books therein, her dream of becoming a lawyer dashed. As Sarah and Handful mature, their lives take separate courses. While Handful is physically imprisoned, she maintains her independent spirit, while Sarah has difficulty living her abstract values in her actual life. Eventually, she escapes to Philadelphia and becomes a Quaker, until the Quakers prove too conservative. As Sarah’s activism gives her new freedom, Handful’s life only becomes harder in the Grimké household. Through her mother, Handful gets to know Denmark Vesey, who dies as a martyr after attempting to organize a slave uprising. Sarah visits less and less often, but the bond between the two women continues until it is tested one last time.
Kidd’s portrait of white slave-owning Southerners is all the more harrowing for showing them as morally complicated, while she gives Handful the dignity of being not simply a victim, but a strong, imperfect woman.
Perry (This Is Just Exactly Like You, 2010) follows up his poignant debut novel about a father and his autistic son with a lighter novel about impending fatherhood, Hiaasen-ian Floridians and the way life carries us forward whether we want it to or not. Walter and Alice used to have a fine life in North Carolina, stable enough that they began to tiptoe toward the idea of having children. “Yes, I told her, yes, which was not quite a lie: I could easily enough see us having a child, or children. I imagined we’d keep them fed and watered, that we’d find ways not to kill them, or ourselves,” Walter muses. And then life carries them forward: Walter loses his job and Alice quits hers, and they move 500 miles south to a remote vacation condo south of Jacksonville owned by Alice’s sister, Carolyn. Walter is soon drawn into working for Carolyn’s husband, Mid, whose considerable wealth comes from owning things: real estate, sea kayak rentals, umbrella shops, a pizza place—all the strange accoutrements that adorn the beach to leech money away from tourists. Walter is talked into running the ice machine empire while he and Alice fumble their way through a difficult pregnancy. This is an interesting book with a slightly offbeat tone. Walter, who tells the story, makes for an amusing worrywart whose fish-out-of-water state becomes more and more obvious as Mid gets arrested and Walter begins to realize that he’s become attached to a serious criminal. Even Mid feels bad: “I had something else pictured. Something calmer. Fewer police, fewer wayward children, you know?” There are some madcap elements here that recall the novels of Tim Dorsey or Laurence Shames, but the core story of Walter’s family makes the enterprise feel closer to an Alexander Payne jaunt than anything else.
A funny, frenzied tale of a terrified man plummeting helplessly into his own adulthood.