A bit short on narrative drive, but Lichtman’s low-key treatment of two highly charged subjects is refreshing.

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SUCH GOOD WORK

The international refugee crisis and the struggle to stay sober preoccupy roughly equal portions of this thoughtful first novel, which follows an American graduate student to Sweden in the fraught years 2014-15.

Unable to stay clean in the U.S., Jonas Anderson takes advantage of his dual citizenship and the concomitant free tuition to enroll at Lunds University, hoping a change of scenery will ease his craving for drugs. In fact, he still spends a lot of his time thinking about how great it would be to get high—true to life, no doubt, but not terribly compelling in fiction. Fortunately for Jonas and the novel, he also casts a sharp eye over the Swedish social and political landscape, noting that, while the Swedes resolutely and commendably welcome refugees flooding in from the Middle East, they are far more ambivalent about the Roma often found panhandling on street corners. Spotting other people’s hypocrisies is one of Jonas’ specialties, and it might serve him well if he ever gets back to his neglected creative writing, but so far substituting alcohol for drugs has done little to enhance his creativity. And he’s not a particularly admirable character himself; he freely admits that the main attraction of his German exchange-student girlfriend, Anja, is that she’ll be gone soon; temporary relationships work best for commitment-averse Jonas. Only after he moves to the nearby city of Malmö and impulsively signs up to teach Swedish and English to young refugees does he begin to think about people other than himself. He becomes particularly close with a boy named Aziz, and he learns to maneuver sensitively with children who have suffered and lost more than he can imagine. By the time the Paris terrorist attacks prompt the Swedish government to close its borders, we see that Jonas has achieved a new stability and sense of purpose—even though he’s not entirely sure of it himself.

A bit short on narrative drive, but Lichtman’s low-key treatment of two highly charged subjects is refreshing.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-9564-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2018

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BORDEAUX

A complex tale of obsession is precisely distilled into a haunting character portrayal, in this second novel from the gifted British author (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 2007).

The subtitle denotes four years (2006–02) in the life of protagonist and narrator Wilberforce (his first name initially withheld), who creates a successful computer software company, sells it in order to accept an irresistible offer and thereafter devotes himself to the cultivation and enjoyment of a prized wine collection. That collection is bequeathed, with strings attached, to Wilberforce by his older friend Francis Black, a bachelor whose inherited wealth has gone to amass a huge array of choice Bordeaux (and other wines), kept in a vast vault (“undercroft”) beneath his family’s estate Caerlyon, outside London. Caerlyon suggests “Corleone” so much so that the reader suspects there’s more to Francis Black than the benign mentor he appears to be. Torday keeps us guessing, as precise imagery suggests the younger man’s immersion in what is perhaps a religious vocation, perhaps a surrender to temptation. Or both, we surmise, as Wilberforce’s story unspools in reverse order, beginning with the upshot of his love for Catherine, a vibrant beauty betrothed to another man; offering a poignant picture of his unhappy foster childhood and all but empty young adulthood; and climaxing with a (brilliantly described) grouse hunt, during which an episode of “innocent happiness” vibrates with the strains of an ironic prophecy of his future. Eventually, we learn Wilberforce’s first name and understand his reluctance to reveal it. But the heritage of sorrow that imprisons him within limits he both has and has not set for himself makes us think of Fitzgerald’s “great” (and, ultimately, unfulfilled) Gatsby. This elegantly conceived novel also reminds us from time to time of another Great Expectations, minus that classic novel’s unconvincing happy ending.

Vintage.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-15-101354-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2009

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Parker’s not trying to be Dostoevsky here but rather wishes to create light and good-natured entertainment—and he succeeds.

THE COMMITTEE ON TOWN HAPPINESS

Parker zings—but oh so gently—small-town politics and the pretentious politicians who regulate our lives at the micro-level.

The Committee on Town Happiness is happy indeed to make our happy lives even happier, and to this end its members vote on a constant stream of issues reflecting their concerns. This slim novel contains almost 100 chapters, and in about two-thirds of them a vote is taken on something or other. For example, the committee passes by acclamation a testimonial that “trees demonstrate steadiness of purpose and evenness of demeanor.” When things start to heat up on a controversial topic, the committee votes 5-3 “to destroy the minutes upon adjourning” (though one wag of a committeeman wonders whether "the minutes say destroy the minutes"). The primary goal of the committee is right in its name, but the members run into an obvious dilemma: How does one quantify and measure happiness? They do their best by passing legislation meant to materially increase the well-being of the community as a whole. Such ordinances include the regulation of writing on biking jerseys: “No vulgarities may be printed in sans serif fonts on jerseys; no vulgarities may be written backwards, to be read in rear view mirrors.” When citizens start disappearing, there's concern (and the launching of hot air balloons to find them), and occasionally some slight chicanery interrupts the committee's good intentions, but the plot remains minimal.

Parker’s not trying to be Dostoevsky here but rather wishes to create light and good-natured entertainment—and he succeeds.

Pub Date: June 10, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-938103-80-3

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

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