The search for a missing poet is the nominal subject of the late (1953–2003) expatriate Chilean author’s blazingly original 1998 masterpiece.
This almost aggressively literary novel, which won major Latin American literary prizes and follows into English translation several briefer works (Last Evenings on Earth, 2006, etc.), evolves around the professional friendship of poet intellectuals Arturo Belano (an obvious authorial surrogate) and Ulises Lima. In the course of founding a literary movement they label “visceral realism,” the pair undertake a quixotic journey hoping to find their predecessor, Mexican poet Cesárea Tinajero, known to have disappeared into the Sonoran Desert decades earlier. But before we learn of their progress, Bolaño introduces the ardent figure of 17-year-old hopeful poet Juan García Madero, offering a wonderful account of the fledgling artist’s plunge into Mexico City’s artistic world, energetic discovery of the multitudinous pleasures of sex and hard-won solidarity with the visceral realists, once he has learned (through tireless networking) that unqualified poets are being rigorously purged from the movement. Juan García’s breathless narrative then yields to a 400-page sequence in which various involved observers relate and comment on the shared and separate odysseys endured by Ulises (an adventurer prone to miscalculations and missed travel connections), Arturo (who becomes a war correspondent, as the novel travels to Europe and North Africa) and faithful Juan García. In a brief final sequence set in the desert, Juan García resumes the narration, treating the by-now brain-teased reader to a contest in which the poets display their knowledge of arcane literary trivia. The sad, surprising result of their quest for the elusive Cesárea is also revealed.
One of the most entertaining books about writers and their discontents since Boswell’s Life of Johnson. A brilliant novel, fully deserving of its high international reputation.
The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart.
A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best—and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames’s first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people—until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames’s sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married—Ames was 67—had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel’s present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter—the pages of Gilead—addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he’s grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father’s church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America—addressed to an unknown and doubting future—is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was.
Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.
Follett’s 1,000-plus-page blockbuster, originally published in 1989, morphs into a sprawling (1.6 GB) iPad app, complete with text, videos and sound.
Closely following last season’s Starz serial, Pillars seems as much a promotion of that film adaptation as a repurposing of the original novel. The text, of course, is here in all its glory, though the text is plain vanilla, without much fuss; it’s easy to navigate and to bookmark, but with all the visual excitement of a phone directory. The non-book elements are better handled, including too-short snippets from the series (with Ian McShane doing what he does best, namely playing evil) and Gregorian chants and other medieval tunes. The text and visuals are supplemented by biographies of the cast and, more usefully, of charts showing relationships among the principal characters, from the very bad to the very saintly. Still, the makers of the app might have done more to link these good things to the text, which sometimes seems an afterthought.
Says Tom of the cathedral he plans to build, it’s “simple, inexpensive, graceful and perfectly proportioned.” This app really isn’t any of those things, though Follett fans may find it a source of wonder. Now, a mash-up with the text and David Macaulay’s book Cathedral (1973)—there would be a thing to behold.
A young Muslim’s American experience raises his consciousness and shapes his future in this terse, disturbing successor to the London-based Pakistani author’s first novel, Moth Smoke (2000).
It’s presented as a “conversation,” of which we hear only the voice of protagonist Changez, speaking to the unnamed American stranger he encounters in a café in the former’s native city of Lahore. Changez describes in eloquent detail his arrival in America as a scholarship student at Princeton, his academic success and lucrative employment at Underwood Samson, a “valuation firm” that analyzes its clients’ businesses and counsels improvement via trimming expenses and abandoning inefficient practices—i.e., going back to “fundamentals.” Changez’s success story is crowned by his semi-romantic friendship with beautiful, rich classmate Erica, to whom he draws close during a summer vacation in Greece shared by several fellow students. But the idyll is marred by Erica’s distracted love for a former boyfriend who died young and by the events of 9/11, which simultaneously make all “foreigners” objects of suspicion. Changez reacts in a manner sure to exacerbate such suspicions (“I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”). A visit home to a country virtually under siege, a breakdown that removes the fragile Erica yet further from him and the increasing enmity toward “non-whites” all take their toll: Changez withdraws from his cocoon of career and financial security (“. . . my days of focusing on fundamentals were done”) and exits the country that had promised so much, becoming himself the bearded, vaguely menacing “stranger” who accompanies his increasingly worried listener to the latter’s hotel. The climax builds with masterfully controlled irony and suspense.
A superb cautionary tale, and a grim reminder of the continuing cost of ethnic profiling, miscommunication and confrontation.
Brutally honest, sometimes funny vignettes about affirming faith and community in the midst of drug-induced angst. Novelist Lamott’s third autobiographical book (Operating Instructions, 1993; Bird by Bird, 1994) follows her usual pattern of cutting wit and wretched frankness. This memoir, though, is more spiritual than religious: Like many in her boomer generation, Lamott doesn’t hold much truck with churches but has found a meaningful congregation all the same. It is a small, interracial community which lovingly incorporates pariah elements. Lamott circuitously chronicles finding the church (for months, she stayed only for the music, leaving before the sermon) just as she approached a crossroads in her life, finally admitting her alcoholism and other addictions, and starting out on the long road to sobriety (these chapters are among the book’s most chilling, along with her struggles to overcome body-loathing and bulimia). When she was on the verge of becoming a single mom in the late 1980s, the church truly came through for her, with members slipping ten- and twenty-dollar bills into her pockets after Sunday services. Lamott remains an active participant, demanding that her son, Sam, attend church with her most weeks. “I make him because I can,” she explains. “I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.” Lamott also takes refuge in a wide assortment of friends, many of whom have to deal with life-threatening illnesses as the narrative moves along. In the face of these tragedies, Lamott is refreshingly silent about questions of theodicy, choosing instead just to be there for people in need. Friendship, she claims, is the best salve for anyone’s pain, anyhow. She should know; she’s obviously been through a lot of it. Still, nothing here is self-indulgent. An anguishing account that also heals.
Here’s a real find: a striking debut from an Afghan now living in the US. His passionate story of betrayal and redemption is framed by Afghanistan’s tragic recent past.
Moving back and forth between Afghanistan and California, and spanning almost 40 years, the story begins in Afghanistan in the tranquil 1960s. Our protagonist Amir is a child in Kabul. The most important people in his life are Baba and Hassan. Father Baba is a wealthy Pashtun merchant, a larger-than-life figure, fretting over his bookish weakling of a son (the mother died giving birth); Hassan is his sweet-natured playmate, son of their servant Ali and a Hazara. Pashtuns have always dominated and ridiculed Hazaras, so Amir can’t help teasing Hassan, even though the Hazara staunchly defends him against neighborhood bullies like the “sociopath” Assef. The day, in 1975, when 12-year-old Amir wins the annual kite-fighting tournament is the best and worst of his young life. He bonds with Baba at last but deserts Hassan when the latter is raped by Assef. And it gets worse. With the still-loyal Hassan a constant reminder of his guilt, Amir makes life impossible for him and Ali, ultimately forcing them to leave town. Fast forward to the Russian occupation, flight to America, life in the Afghan exile community in the Bay Area. Amir becomes a writer and marries a beautiful Afghan; Baba dies of cancer. Then, in 2001, the past comes roaring back. Rahim, Baba’s old business partner who knows all about Amir’s transgressions, calls from Pakistan. Hassan has been executed by the Taliban; his son, Sohrab, must be rescued. Will Amir wipe the slate clean? So he returns to the hell of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and reclaims Sohrab from a Taliban leader (none other than Assef) after a terrifying showdown. Amir brings the traumatized child back to California and a bittersweet ending.
Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing spectacle of hard-won personal salvation. All this, and a rich slice of Afghan culture too: irresistible.
Every story collection from Canada’s Alice Munro receives such critical plaudits that it’s tempting for reviewers to recycle superlatives and readers to take her for granted. But there is no such thing as just “another” Munro release. Each time, she extends her work in a manner that redefines it.
Her latest doesn’t represent as radical a repositioning as its predecessor, The View from Castle Rock (2006), which Munro introduced as a story cycle different than anything she had published before, based on generations of her family’s historical record as reflected in journals, letters and the writer’s research. But most of the stories in Too Much Happiness—and most of them are shorter than usual for Munro—also concern the relationship between life and storytelling, how the construction of narrative reveals deeper truths or uncomfortable lies.
In one of the stories, simply titled “Fiction,” the protagonist finds her own life recast in the stories of her divorced husband’s stepdaughter. “How Are We to Live is the book’s title,” she relates. “A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is hanging on the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”
Ha! No modern writer this side of Raymond Carver has opened that gate wider for the story’s literary regard, though Munro’s fiction has more of a novelistic scope and scale than the elliptical, tightly focused work of Carver (and so many other short-story writers). In less than 30 pages, “Fiction” combines the chronological expanse of a novel with an artful compression that merges the events as remembered by the protagonist and the fiction it has inspired.
Even more powerfully, “Child’s Play” concerns the stories we concoct in order to live with ourselves. The question posed to the girlhood protagonist—“How can you blame a person for the way she was born?”—carries greater resonance as she achieves the maturity of the narrative perspective, climaxing in a stunning confessional about childhood complicity and guilt.
Title aside, there is far more death than happiness in these stories—the body count, though not the violence, rivals a Cormac McCarthy novel. Yet the title story, the longest and last, arrives at an epiphany that combines ecstasy and mortality in a manner that puts all that has come before—in this volume and throughout Munro’s career—in blindingly fresh light.
As Munro explains in her acknowledgements, it’s a story based on the final days of Sophia Kovalevski, a brilliant Russian mathematician who also wrote fiction that enraged her father. “Now you sell your stories, how soon before you will sell yourself?” he sputters after a magazine edited by Dostoyevsky publishes her. Here, Munro herself reads like a Russian master. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could write stories richer than these. Until the next Munro collection.
First U.S. publication for a deceased Swedish author (1954–2004); this first of his three novels, a bestseller in Europe, is a labored mystery.
It’s late 2002. Mikael Blomkvist, reputable Stockholm financial journalist, has just lost a libel case brought by a notoriously devious tycoon. He’s looking at a short jail term and the ruin of his magazine, which he owns with his best friend and occasional lover, Erika Berger. The case has brought him to the attention of Henrik Vanger, octogenarian, retired industrialist and head of the vast Vanger clan. Henrik has had a report on him prepared by Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous Girl, a freaky private investigator. The 24-year-old Lisbeth is a brilliant sleuth, and no wonder: She’s the best computer hacker in Sweden. Henrik hires Mikael to solve an old mystery, the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet, in 1966. Henrik is sure she was murdered; every year the putative killer tauntingly sends him a pressed flower on his birthday (Harriet’s custom). He is equally sure one of the Vangers is the murderer. They’re a nasty bunch, Nazis and ne’er-do-wells. There are three story lines here: The future of the magazine, Lisbeth’s travails (she has a sexually abusive guardian) and, most important, the Harriet mystery. This means an inordinately long setup. Only at the halfway point is there a small tug of excitement as Mikael breaks the case and enlists Lisbeth’s help. The horrors are legion: Rape, incest, torture and serial killings continuing into the present. Mikael is confronted by an excruciating journalistic dilemma, resolved far too swiftly as we return to the magazine and the effort to get the evil tycoon, a major miscalculation on Larsson’s part. The tycoon’s empire has nothing to do with the theme of violence against women which has linked Lisbeth’s story to the Vanger case, and the last 50 pages are inevitably anticlimactic.
Juicy melodrama obscured by the intricacies of problem-solving.
The gimlet-eyed interlocutor of Meet the Press is a pussycat when it comes to matters of family and faith.
Russert, the kid from blue-collar South Buffalo who now grills the prominent and powerful, writes in a style as unadorned as the snow in the land of the Bills. Uncle Fran was a police detective and a great ballplayer. Big Russ, Tim’s father, supported his family by driving a newspaper truck and collecting garbage; he instructed young Tim (Little Russ) in decent behavior and how to wrap trash considerately. Little Russ served as an altar boy, tended his paper route, and took a summer job on a garbage truck—he still seems to recognize garbage when he smells it, even if it’s wrapped in the finest political fustian. The author fondly recalls hours with Dad at the Legion Hall, the nuns in grammar school, and his Jesuit teachers at Canisius High. In college, Tim booked speakers and entertainers for the University Club. A fan of both John F. and Robert Kennedy, he went to law school, then worked for Pat Moynihan, his intellectual father, and for Mario Cuomo. At NBC, he booked the Pope, no less, for Today before moving up to oversee the Washington news bureau and the Sunday morning talk shows. Russert offers little about the news business or his work on Meet the Press, eschewing the talking-head mode to speak from the heart in a particularly American way. (Check out the chapter titles: “Respect,” “Work,” “Faith,” “Baseball,” and “Cars,” etc.) This memory piece is primarily a devoted tribute to Dad, and if Big Russ doesn’t seem much different than anyone else’s father, that’s fine. As portrayed by his son, he’s the best national Pop since Robert Young in Father Knows Best. And Little Russ seems to be a pretty nice Dad himself.
A largely self-effacing souvenir and a fulsome, sincere Father’s Day greeting. (16 pp. photos, not seen)
The abrasive, vulnerable title character sometimes stands center stage, sometimes plays a supporting role in these 13 sharply observed dramas of small-town life from Strout (Abide with Me, 2006, etc.).
Olive Kitteridge certainly makes a formidable contrast with her gentle, quietly cheerful husband Henry from the moment we meet them both in “Pharmacy,” which introduces us to several other denizens of Crosby, Maine. Though she was a math teacher before she and Henry retired, she’s not exactly patient with shy young people—or anyone else. Yet she brusquely comforts suicidal Kevin Coulson in “Incoming Tide” with the news that her father, like Kevin’s mother, killed himself. And she does her best to help anorexic Nina in “Starving,” though Olive knows that the troubled girl is not the only person in Crosby hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout’s rueful tales. The Kitteridges’ son Christopher marries, moves to California and divorces, but he doesn’t come home to the house his parents built for him, causing deep resentments to fester around the borders of Olive’s carefully tended garden. Tensions simmer in all the families here; even the genuinely loving couple in “Winter Concert” has a painful betrayal in its past. References to Iraq and 9/11 provide a somber context, but the real dangers here are personal: aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death. Nonetheless, Strout’s sensitive insights and luminous prose affirm life’s pleasures, as elderly, widowed Olive thinks, “It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”
A perfectly balanced portrait of the human condition, encompassing plenty of anger, cruelty and loss without ever losing sight of the equally powerful presences of tenderness, shared pursuits and lifelong loyalty.
It takes a gin mill to raise a child—or so one might think from this memoir filled with gladness by a Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times correspondent.
In the early ’70s, grade-schooler Moehringer lived with his mother in her father’s house in Manhasset, a small town 17 miles east of Manhattan that F. Scott Fitzgerald used as the setting for The Great Gatsby. Listening to the radio for his absent father (a drunken deejay), puzzled by his slovenly grandfather, the boy had no male role models until Uncle Charlie took him to the local saloon where he bartended. Moehringer evokes the sights, sounds and smells that gave Publicans (originally known as Dickens) its sodden charm: not just the beer and the fund of coins accumulating in the urinal, but the “faint notes of perfumes and colognes, hair tonics and shoe creams, lemons and steaks and cigars and newspapers, and an undertone of brine from Manhasset Bay.” Sporting Runyonesque nicknames like Bob the Cop, Cager, Stinky, Colt, Smelly, Jimbo, Fast Eddy and Bobo, the bar’s denizens included poets, bookies, Vietnam vets, lawyers, actors, athletes, misfits and dreamers, all forming “one enormous male eye looking over my shoulder.” Moehringer captures in all its raunchy, often hilarious glory the conversations of these master storytellers, as intoxicated by words as by alcohol. Their saloon community later provided a retreat for the author following a disastrous collegiate love affair and failure as a New York Times copyboy. The 1989 death of charismatic owner Steve began Publicans’ demise, but also propelled 25-year-old Moehringer into growing up, as he left his buddies behind and began his journalism career anew out West.
A straight-up account of masculinity, maturity and memory that leaves a smile on the face and an ache in the heart.
A moving record of Didion’s effort to survive the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her only daughter.
In late December 2003, Didion (Where I Was From, 2003, etc.) saw her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia, the lingering effects of which would threaten the young woman’s life for several months to come. As her daughter struggled in a New York ICU, Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a massive heart attack and died on the night of December 30, 2003. For 40 years, Didion and Dunne shared their lives and work in a marriage of remarkable intimacy and endurance. In the wake of Dunne’s death, Didion found herself unable to accept her loss. By “magical thinking,” Didion refers to the ruses of self-deception through which the bereaved seek to shield themselves from grief—being unwilling, for example, to donate a dead husband’s clothes because of the tacit awareness that it would mean acknowledging his final departure. As a poignant and ultimately doomed effort to deny reality through fiction, that magical thinking has much in common with the delusions Didion has chronicled in her several previous collections of essays. But perhaps because it is a work of such intense personal emotion, this memoir lacks the mordant bite of her earlier work. In the classics Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Didion linked her personal anxieties to her withering dissection of a misguided culture prey to its own self-gratifying fantasies. This latest work concentrates almost entirely on the author’s personal suffering and confusion—even her husband and daughter make but fleeting appearances—without connecting them to the larger public delusions that have been her special terrain.
A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion’s earlier writing.