Category Archives: Fiction

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy


Last week I finally understood why I am not a short story reader. I had finished Alice Munro’s collection of short stories “Too Much Happiness”, which I thought was okay. Then I read what some other people thought of the book–and realized that I had completely missed the complex character development, that I just do not pay enough attention to every word to be able to truly appreciate something that doesn’t go on for 200 pages. I am all about the big picture and I miss the nuances
Then I read this book, a collection of 11 short stories, ten of which I loved. So, now I have to go back to the drawing board to figure this out. Maybe it is a particular kind of short story that I don’t get. In any case, this is a spectacular book, filled with stories about flawed people who Meloy manages to make us care about. Do I wish that each of them went on for an entire book–of the ten I loved, I wish there was more for eight of them. For two stories–one about ‘the other woman’ and one about a man on the verge of leaving his wife for a younger woman, the point of view that I wanted was there, all told, and I didn’t want any more. That is so rarely the case (I remember vividly reading Vikram Seth’s first book “A Suitable Boy”, which carries on for almost 1500 pages, and being terribly dissapointed that it ended. I wanted more!). The stories drew me in, many of the characters were not people I wanted to meet, most were not likable (maybe none of us is likable when someone is in our head, seeing our every thought), but I wanted to know what happened to them, how the story ended. There is alot to think about in this short volume, and it is wonderful.
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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


This is a very long, sumptuously written book about not just Anna, but her interconnected family and the state of Russian society and culture in the late 19th century. It gives a very clear picture of what might have contributed to the Russian Revolution beyond the behaviour of the Tzars themselves. It was originally published in parts, and came out over a 4 year period of time, which increases both it’s length, and the retreading of common ground between parts–originally, people were reading it over a very protracted period of time, and might forget who was who.  Which is a danger, for me, with any Russian novel.  Everyone has at least three or four different names, some of them similar and some of them not, and all of them appear to be related to each other, which is initially the only way (for me) to figure out we in fact are talking about the same person.
I loved the story, but found the lead character singularly unlikable.  She is the literary classic example of borderline personality disorder.  She is a black and white thinker, someone who thrives on chaos, which if it doesn’t exist, she creates it. She has tremendous strengths as a person–she is creative, smart, hard working, and charming–but they are all neutralized by her crushing personality disorder.  I would love to see the character enter therapy and see how the story would change.

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Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers

 This is the first book by this author that I have read. He apparently has a reputation for meshing the world of science into his fictional stories. That does occur in this story, and to my taste, to an extent that is a little bit pedantic, but not unwieldy. The book has three swirling, co-occuring narratives. The overarching story is that there is a woman with a highly traumatized past, Thassa Amzwar. She is a Berber Algerian who has seen countless people die, including some closest to her. She is not dismissive of the trauma, nor is she in denial about them. She simply appears to be unaffected by them in a way that disturbs her teacher. She is too happy for his taste. She is happier than anyone he know, and she is always happy. it doesn’t wax and wane, it is a constant. She is tremendously engaging, the center of every group she is part of. The book doesn’t point this out, but her popularity doesn’t have a detrimental effect on her personality. She is not entitled because of it, which makes her even more attractive. He wonders if she is ill, and consults a psychologist about her, who reassures him this is not mental illness. It is at this point the book takes a leap, a blend of an improbable attack on Thassa combined with an improbable response to a comment that Russell makes. He unwittingly unleashes his thoughts about her onto the world. The improbable thing is that someone, in this 24/7 era of information overload, actually listens. With disasterous consequences for both Russell and Thassa. It works, this spin out of events, and the book’s perspective is that you can forsee each ensuing disaster just a moment before it happens, so the reader feels pretient. Always a nice feeling, and it keeps you hurdling onward to the end. The book is exceptionally well written, so even though I might quibble about the science, the story itself is a finely woven one that is both hyperbolic and believable, a rare blend.

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett


I hesitate to write about this book. On the one hand, I am amongst the last to read it, so how could I possibly have anything fresh and new to say about it. Secondly, the controversy stirred up by a white woman writing about the treatment of African-American maids in the 1960’s American South appears to be ferverent. But I am going to cautiously put my toe in the water, none-the-less.
First off, this is a good story. It may have no bearing on reality, but it is a good tale well told. At it’s simplest,that is what fiction is–it may go on to be something bigger than that, but it doesn’t have that obligation to be truly accurate. Some of the reviews I have read have focused on Ms. Stockett being white, that her white protagonist comes off best in the novel, that the maids have uneducated dialects. All true.
I was surprised by the notion that you couldn’t write about what you aren’t. I guess I feel that all is fair when writing fiction. It is not as if J.K. Rowling is a witch, entitling her to write about the wizarding world. The danger is that it won’t ring true, but I don’t think that happened here. I have heard dialogue very much like what Ms. Stockett portrays in the rural South of the 21st century. No reviewer I have read has mentioned that while there are clear disadvantages to writing from a viewpoint that you don’t live in, there might be an advantage as well–that what it lacks in the experience of being black in America might paradoxically be an aid in telling a story that the majority can listen to. That you know what parts people will find hard to hear and work to make them understandable.

Did the author get it wrong? I don’t think so, at least not in the big picture. She writes about privileged women whose social structure is very much like a high school girl cat fight. No surprises there. Their treatment of the help doesn’t sound much different than the portrayal upper class New Yorkers in “The Nanny Diaries”.
Are the risks of speaking up overstated? Again, I don’t think so. The violence of the civil rights movement and the animosity seen in the American South is well-documented in both the National Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum (housed in the places that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was born and died). Anyone who doesn’t think it was brave to even walk in a march for civil rights should walk in the monument ‘Racist Dogs’ in Kelly Ingram Park, north of the Baptist church where a KKK bomb killed four young African-American girls in Birmingham in 1963. Artist James Drake’s work depicts snarling police dogs made of scrap iron leaping inward from two walls on either side of the park’s narrow walkway. You can stand between and imagine the terror when civil rights marchers were assaulted with the canines and water cannons — which, by the way, are also in the park, and can be pivoted to point toward a sculpture of two marchers. I found it terrifying.
‘The Help’ takes a group of women that many of us do not know and humanizes them. We are sympathetic to even the angriest maid.

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Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese


‘Cutting for Stone’ is a novel too big in scope in some ways and too narrow in others to be a great novel. That said, it is a very good novel, and worth reading because it has elements that are not easily found.
It is the story of two brothers, born to a father who is unable to love them and a mother who dies having them. They are twins, born literally tied together. They have to be surgically seperated at birth. It is the last act their father does for them as children. The book is set in Ethiopia and the cultural and political landscape are par tof the story, as is the state of medical care in the country.
The boys, Marion and Shiva, are raised by two physicians who knew both their parents, and they raise thema s their own. Ghosh teaches Marion and Hema teaches Shiva–and this is the path in life they take, one that divides the brothers. The story is well told, and it is strongest when it is medical. The emotional side is not as well attended to, though I do agree with the New York Times reviewer, that the author cares too much, not too little. He can’t stand far enough back to allow us to see what he sees. Genital mutilation and post-partum incontinence are attended to within the story, but we don’t get enough of the back story in either case to form opinions on what the author wants us to know as a result of this story. In some ways, I want to hear Shiva’s side of the story to make better sense of what happened. The same goes for the Eritrean part of the story–where do the characters stand? It is hard to say, which is a weakness of the book. None-the-less, this is a new and different voice worth watching.

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This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper


The book is smart and witty, fast paced, yet thoughtful, and thought provoking. The scenario is sitting shiva. Judd, the second of four children, is not lucky. Or at least he is not on a good run. He has discovered his wife of nine years in bed with his boss. So he is losing his spouse and his job in one fell swoop. Then his father dies. And while his family has not been the least bit religiously observant, nor are they particularly close, they find themselves sitting shiva at the dying request of Dad.
Shiva is the mourning period, traditionally observed by the parents, spouse, siblings, and children of the deceased. During Shiva (which means ‘seven’), traditionally a seven day period beginning after the funeral, the family stays home to focus on their grief, remember their loved one, and receive visitors.
Sitting Shiva is the tradition of mourning in the Jewish religion. Gathering together as a community is at the core of sitting Shiva, just as it is at the core of many Jewish traditions. The strength and support of friends, family and neighbors, during sitting Shiva, plays a key role in helping the bereaved get through the process of grieving.
Which is not so much what happens in this book. Much like what is portrayed in the German film “Go for Zucker!”, sitting shiva is less about grief and consolation and more about making the remaining relatives live under one roof for a week and deal with each other. The idea appears to be that you get an opportunity to air grievances, make amends, and move forward. The family is repaired, or at the very least, a few bandaids have been pulled off and the wounds examined. At the end of the week the family disperses and the business of grieving the lost loved one can begin in earnest.
Judd is a true middle child. His older brother was the golden boy, his youngest brother the charismatic screw up. His sister is the family glue, but she is not a kinder, gentler glue. She is in-your-face honest, more passive aggressive than humorous, but funny none-the-less. The father is a stoic hard worker and the mother is an unconventional nightmare (hitting a little close to home for me)–she is a psychiatrist who wrote a book while her children were still in school, delineating all the embarrassing life stages they have gone through and offering advice on handling everything from toilet training to puberty.So, in his family, Judd is not the smartest, the most athletic, the funniest, the most charismatic, none-of-the-above. He is the second child in every sense of the word. Not a stand out at anything and not enough like either parent to have a true alliance or war with. As the week progresses, Judd’s childhood losses and adolescent demons rear their heads and are discarded or mulled over.

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Sag Harbor by Colin Whitehead


One of the things I like about fiction is it’s ability to transport anyone, regardless of color, creed, or national origin to another place, to experience another person’s world view, and learn a little something about their experience. Reviewing this book over Martin Luther King holiday weekend strikes me as ironically appropriate. The book is self-described as Black Boys with Beach Houses. This is not a John Edgar Wideman book, not an urban backdrop to the story. But like the Homewood Trilogy, this book taught me something about America that I did not know.

The book takes place in Sag Harbor, an African American neighborhood of summer houses on Long Island. On the one hand, it is a coming-of-age book. Benji is a fifteen year old, saddled with a younger brother and two parents with professional jobs who summers in a beach house. The book gives a good sense of what upper middle class African American adolesence of privledge is like, for those of us not much exposed to the experience. ‘Sag Harbor’ is set in the mid-1980’s and Benji often juxtaposes his life with the fictional life of the Huxtables of Bill Cosby fame. They share some similar life circumstances, but ramp up the anger and you are closer to what Benji lives with. His parents are not going to be featured in “Marriages to Emulate” any time soon. The book is also about the realities of being black in America, even if you are smart, you have a good job, good social support, and luxuries. Not a lot about that, at least not on the surface, but a little bit of it.

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