Posts Tagged ‘novel’

Short takes: ‘The Heavens,’ ‘The Psychology of Time Travel’ and ‘The Outpost’

November 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 5, 2019

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is classified by the digital media service from which I borrowed it in audiobook form as horror. That’s not particularly accurate; although this 2019 novel has some touches of horror, it also incorporates elements of romance, historical dramas and science fiction.

The variability is fitting, because the main character, Kate, lives multiple lives. In what the people around her very sensibly call reality, Kate is a sweet but feckless twentysomething American artist with Iranian roots. In her dreams, however, she is Emilia, a married young musician of Jewish and Italian extraction with ties to the royal court of a strange preindustrial land called Albion. But she — “she” being both Kate and Emilia — also has dreadful visions of a post-apocalyptic city where nothing stirs but the air. Gradually, the two-faced protagonist comes to feel that her actions may play a role in preventing this augury from occurring.

This is no easy burden to assume, not least because Kate and Emilia don’t know just which actions might stave off disaster. With Albion’s capital stricken by plague, Emilia embarks upon a peripatetic excursion across the land, where she encounters her disaffected former patron, an obscure but aspiring poet and a handsome young lord.

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Short takes: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’ and Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘2312’

September 1, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 31, 2019

The Mountain Goats released their debut record, Sweden, in 1995, and have gone on to make 15 more albums. One of its members is a Durham resident, John Darnielle, who is described in part in his publisher’s biography as “the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band.” His first novel, Wolf in White Van, debuted to critical praise in 2015.

Darnielle’s second book, the horror novel Universal Harvester, came out two years later. Genre fans should be aware that this is horror is literary, not lurid; the volume is far more reminiscent of the painting “American Gothic” than, say, a slasher film or the science fiction/horror movies of which I’m fond.

That 1930 work by Grant Wood may well have served as inspiration for the novel, which takes place almost entirely in small Iowa communities. Universal Harvester’s characters are as repressed as the Iowa couple — in reality, a dentist and the artist’s sister; in Wood’s depiction, a farmer and his daughter — that peers out of the canvas.

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Social and financial forces silently war in the American heartland in Colson Whitehead’s novel ‘Apex Hides the Hurt’

October 14, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 14, 2017

Like many places, the Midwestern town at the center of Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt is torn by battling crosscurrents. In Winthrop, one especially acute conflict pits a nostalgic longing for the past against an eagerness to embrace change — the kind of conflict, one outsider will discover, that’s hard to settle in a town still rent by deep, unspoken feelings about race, history and money.

The seemingly placid town of Winthrop is ruled by a congenial three-person council that’s normally very good at finding consensus. The group consists of Albie Winthrop, a batty divorce whose forefather manufactured and sold barbed wire to customers far and wide; Regina Goode, a grounded divorcee of decidedly more modest means, but whose roots run at least as deep as Winthrop’s; and Lucky Aberdeen, a wildly successful local software entrepreneur whose vision for the future of the town will bring as much change as that of Albie’s forefather did back in the late 1800s.

The specific issue that summons the New Yorker who is the focus of Whitehead’s novel is nomenclature. Aberdeen wants to change the town’s name to New Prospera. Goode wants to change it back to Freedom, which is what the place was originally called by her ancestors, former slaves fleeing the ashes of the Confederacy. Winthrop, of course, is perfectly content with the name that the town has had ever since it was officially incorporated by an alliance among his and Goode’s progenitors.

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Madness at the turn of the millennium: Salman Rushdie’s ‘Fury’ chronicles a disaffected writer’s experiences in New York and abroad

February 6, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 6, 2017

New York City at the turn of the millennium, writer Salman Rushdie not unreasonably posited in his 2001 novel Fury, was full of motion and spectacle. The opening paragraph gets right to business:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a gold age. Outside his window a long, humid summer, the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money. Rents and property values had never been higher, and in the garment industry it was widely held that fashion had never been so fashionable. New restaurants opened every hour. Stores, dealerships, galleries struggled to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for ever more recherché produce: limited-edition olive oils, three-hundred-dollar corkscrews, customized Humvees, the latest anti-virus software, escort services featuring contortionists and twins, video installations, outsider art, featherlight shawls made from the chin-fluff of extinct mountain goats. So many people were doing up their apartments that supplies of high-grade fixtures and fittings were at a premium. There were waiting lists for baths, doorknobs, imported hardwoods, antiqued fireplaces, bidets, marble slabs. In spite of the recent falls in the value of the Nasdaq index and the value of Amazon stock, the new technology had the city by the ears: the talk was still of start-ups, IPOs, interactivity, the unimaginable future that had just begun to begin. The future was a casino, and everyone was gambling, and everyone expected to win.

The opening is somewhat misleading, however. Although Fury immediately and vividly captures the frenzy that was New York circa 1998–2001, the novel is quite coy about revealing many of the details of the life of its protagonist. This is, of course, an intentional choice by Rushdie: Solanka has deliberately suppressed major episodes from his childhood, to the point where repressed trauma threatens to destroy his entire life. Moreover, the character suffers repeated blackouts, prompting him to wonder whether he may have committed a series of vicious fatal assaults on wealthy young women that command the full attention of the tabloids.

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Majoring in classics, minoring in murder? A handful of college students are united by dark secrets in Donna Tartt’s spell-binding 1992 debut, ‘The Secret History’

December 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 16, 2016

I first read The Secret History in the mid-1990s, a few years after its publication, and not long after I’d graduated from college. That makes it awfully tempting for me to compare and contrast myself with the narrator of Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel.

Richard Papen is a classics scholar — literally a student of the language and literature of ancient Greece; I barely have any proficiency in any language other than English, but I’ve always been a bookish sort. The only child of a miserly gas station proprietor and a receptionist, Papen was raised in a fictitious small Silicon Valley community called Plano, which he dismisses as having “little of interest, less of beauty”; I grew up outside New York City, and while I too (perhaps unfairly) dismissed my suburban community as being bland and uninteresting, I was a frequent visitor to Manhattan’s diverse, lively and culture-filled precincts. He readily, if sometimes clumsily, lies about his background in order to keep himself on par with his glamorous college acquaintances; I never had the nerve to attempt such deception.

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‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ launches an unlikely protagonist onto a heroic journey

August 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 9, 2016

Last month, my Sibling-in-Law’s family was once again kind enough my parental unit and I to join them for part of their annual summer visit to Ocean City, Md. This year, fortunately, I wasn’t suffering from dental pain, and no violence to books was inflicted during the trip.

Despite — or more likely because of — the lack of suffering and drama, I managed to zip through a novel during my time on the beach. I very much enjoyed consuming The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the 2003 bestseller by the British author, illustrator and poet Mark Haddon.

The narrator of The Curious Incident introduces himself this way on the second page of the book:

My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057.

Eight years ago, when I first met Siobhan, she showed me this picture

Sad face

and I knew it meant “sad,” which is what I felt when I found the dead dog.

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Man in decline: Anita Brookner’s ‘Strangers’ depicts an elderly, lonesome Londoner in his twilight years

November 26, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 26, 2015

When I looked at the indicia of the Anita Brookner novel Strangers, I was startled to see that the book had only been published in 2009. It seemed to me that I had had the slim brown volume lingering on one bookcase or another for forever, accompanying me to a variety of different homes.

That wasn’t quite the case. But it felt that way because Brookner’s tales have long struck me as claustrophobic and stultifying. Her characters are so boxed in — mainly by their own neuroses, with societal norms filling whatever gaps remain — that growth or action of any kind is virtually impossible.

(A quick aside, confessional in nature: Brookner has written more than two dozen novels, but I’m not certain whether I’ve read more than one of them. At any rate…)

I started reading Strangers sometime late this summer, and, after some delays, I finished it earlier this month. The novel is beautifully written, but it’s frustrating for all the reasons that I recall from whatever earlier encounters with Brookner’s work that I’ve either had or somehow imagined.

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An intriguing tale of World War II atrocities unspools in Ronald Balson’s uneven ‘Once We Were Brothers’

August 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 21, 2015

Once We Were Brothers, the 2013 novel by Chicago lawyer Ronald Balson, regularly shifts its narrative between the present-day Windy City and World War II Poland. But the heart of this book is clearly in the events of the 1940s, which Holocaust survivor Ben Solomon recreates over a period of several weeks as he tries to provide his attorney with evidence that Chicago’s most prominent philanthropist was in fact his stepbrother, who went on to become a Nazi war criminal.

Solomon’s counsel, corporate lawyer Catherine Lockhart, initially believes her client to be a seriously disturbed crank. But she quickly becomes enraptured by Solomon’s story, and who could blame her? It’s a story of strong-willed men and women whose lives become irreversibly warped as the continent around them succumbs to a tyrant and his anti-semitic obsession. By the time Solomon brings his account to its conclusion, most of the characters — not to mention millions of Jews and their countless communities — have been exterminated by a vicious genocide.

By contrast, all the drama in Once We Were Brothers’ present-day narrative seems entirely trivial. Will Lockhart’s career — already derailed by a personal meltdown triggered by her duplicitous former husband — be permanently impaired as Solomon increasingly distracts her from her obligations to her corporate clients? Will Lockhart and Liam Taggart, the handsome, savvy private investigator who has loved her since they were children, recognize their mutual passion for one another? These are all low-stakes matters in the grand scheme of things.

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A constantly changing, convoluted narrative leads the reader to unexpected delights in Frederick Reiken’s ‘Day for Night’

July 3, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 3, 2015

Frederick Reiken’s 2010 book, Day for Night, is hard to characterize. Technically, it’s a series of connected stories; however, it reads like a novel. (The indicia page indicates that three of the 10 chapters were previously published as stand-alone stories.) Each chapter is narrated by a separate character; each is connected in various ways — some of them obvious, others not so — to people or events in other chapters.

The woman at the heart of Day for Night, if such a disparate book can be said to have a heart, is Beverly, a New Jersey physician with two teenage daughters who is poised to adopt Jordan, the 13-year-old son of David, her terminally ill boyfriend. She narrates the opening chapter, in which a young Florida tour guide takes her, David and Jordan to swim with manatees. In the next section, the narrator becomes the tour guide, Tim, whose bandmate, Dee, has spent much of her life fleeing her family, a secretive and mysterious Utah clan.

Chapter 3 takes the form of the deposition of a veteran FBI agent who interviewed Tim and Dee in Salt Lake City because they were seated on an airplane flight next to Katherine, a strangely elusive fugitive suspected in a bombing, a kidnapping and other crimes going back nearly 15 years. The agent later encounters Katherine as she spirits away Dee’s brother, Dillon, a badly injured young man who appears to be a captive of his odd parents.

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Whimsy and seriousness: Connecting the threads, comparing World War II vs. the Los Angeles riots

May 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 2, 2015

Since I can’t stop, won’t stop making connections between different things

and since I want to keep my weekly posting tallies as high as is reasonably possible…

I just wanted to point out that one of the subjects of Friday’s post, the 1992 Los Angeles riots…

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These are a few of my favorite books

March 15, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 16, 2015

Author’s note: Recently, a young acquaintance who was working on a school project asked me what my favorite book was. I sent this e-mail and then realized, Hey, this would make a great blog post. I’ve made a few relatively minor changes to the text, and — well, here it is. Enjoy! MEM 

“What’s your favorite book?” is a great question to ask someone! It’s hard for me to answer, however, because I love so many different books.

I am extremely fond of Tales of Pirx the Pilot, an anthology about a future astronaut written by the late Polish author Stanislaw Lem. (This book was published in Poland in 1968; it was translated into English and published in two parts. I refer here to the first volume, 1979’s Tales of Pirx the Pilot; the second volume, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, appeared in 1982 and is also excellent.)

Pirx’s adventures are often kind of comical: In the opening story, a very persistent fly gets caught in Pirx’s capsule on his first solo rocket flight. Sometimes, they’re dull — Pirx’s first duty assignment in outer space is essentially watching two scientists who don’t really need any help at a very quiet observatory on the far side of the moon.

The protagonist is a bit bumbling and ordinary, but at the same time he is hard-working, stubborn and kind of charming in a quaint way. Also, Pirx manages to escape some genuinely dangerous situations. We can’t all be Captain Kirk from Star Trek (my favorite TV show when I was a kid), but I like to think that there’s a little bit of Pirx in everyone.

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A day in the life: Modern Cubicle Man visits Texas and reminisces about his life in James Hynes’s ‘Next’

February 11, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 11, 2015

Next, a 2010 novel by James Hynes, conveys the thoughts and experiences of a middle-aged man over the course of a brief trip to Austin, Texas.

The book’s main character is Kevin Quinn, an academic editor at the University of Michigan who has spent his entire adulthood living and working in Ann Arbor. He’s traveled to Texas for a job interview with an outfit called Hemphill Associates. The company’s offer to pay for plane tickets for the journey surprised Kevin so much that he neglected to ask for a hotel, so Kevin is taking a day trip without any luggage whatsoever. During the few hours that he spends in the state capital, this man will spend a great deal of time reminiscing about his life and fretting about his future.

Many of Kevin’s musings revolve around women he has known. He’s dating a younger woman named Stella, who is also a tenant in his house. He met Stella a few years ago, after Beth, his longtime girlfriend, got pregnant by another man and moved out to have the family that Kevin would never agree to start with her.

When, sitting in a coffee shop with four hours to kill before his scheduled interview, Kevin sees the beautiful young woman who sat next to him on the flight down to Austin, he impulsively leaves the shop and begins trailing her. This woman, whom he initially knows only as Joy Luck (because she intently read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club throughout the entire plane ride) becomes a sort of Beatrice to Kevin’s Dante for the early part of his journey through Austin.

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Pain and joy mingle in ‘The Lost Legends of New Jersey,’ Frederick Reiken’s excellent coming of age tale

February 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 5, 2015

Frederick Reiken’s wonderful 2000 novel, The Lost Legends of New Jersey, is the tale of a fractured Garden State family in the early 1980s.

Teenager Anthony Rubin and his parents, Michael and Jess Rubin, are three of the book’s main characters; the fourth is Juliette Dimiglio, the young neighbor who fascinates and frightens Anthony. The novel explores the quartet’s longing, loves and losses, which are often but not always romantic.

A younger Michael ardently pursues Jess, the product of an Orthodox Jewish couple who frown upon their daughter’s rebellious ways — she becomes a high school cheerleader and marries Michael, who hails from a less-observant Jewish family.

The marriage eventually fractures because Michael is inherently unable to deal with Jess’s unhappiness, mental illness and physical and emotional distancing. The doctor launches a reckless affair with Claudia Berkowitz, a family friend. Jess tolerates the infidelity for years until she can bear it no longer; one day, she drives over to the Berkowitzes and starts throwing rocks at their house.

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In ‘Donald,’ Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott turn the tables on an architect of George W. Bush’s wars

November 8, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 8, 2014

Donald, a 2011 book co-written by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott, is one of the first novels centered on a key figure in the presidential administration of George W. Bush. (I know of one other — American Wife, the 2008 novel by Curtis Sittenfeld that fictionalizes the story of Laura Bush.) Donald, I would guess, is likely to be one of the strangest novels ever to be written that centers on a key figure in the Bush administration.

It’s not that this novel, which is told from the perspective of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is fantastical in execution; to the contrary, the story unspools in realistic fashion.

Instead, the odd thing here is the premise. One night, Rumsfeld is kidnapped from his Maryland home by covert operatives. He is detained and interrogated in a series of settings — first a residence that appears to be near his own house, then in a prison camp in Afghanistan or Iraq, and finally in various prison facilities located at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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Lost in light: A city descends into chaos in José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’

September 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 30, 2014

In 1995, the Portugese author José Saramago published a novel in his native tongue. Two years later, a translated version of the work was released in English under the title Blindness, and it attracted a great deal of acclaim.

At some point, I acquired a first edition of the American publication of the book. I started reading, but I got no more than 30 or so pages in before I stopped.

I carted the book around with me from home to home to home, but not until a few weeks ago did I resume reading. (Actually, I restarted from the beginning. Quibbles, quibbles…)

This is a strange book, due both to the unusual proceedings that it depicts as well as as its unique style. The story begins at a busy intersection during afternoon rush hour in an unnamed city when a driver stops in the middle of the road:

Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it will not hold up the traffic, they beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movements of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind.

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Veteran Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch gets a second shot at justice in Michael Connelly’s ‘The Black Box’

September 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 17, 2014

Michael Connelly is a best-selling mystery author who’s written more than two dozen books. The Black Box, Connelly’s 2012 novel, is the 16th entry in the Harry Bosch series, which chronicles the exploits of a hard-bitten Los Angeles homicide detective.

I’ve read a few Connelly works, including Nine Dragons, the 14th of Bosch’s adventures. In The Black Box, the detective is working on a cold-case investigation of the murder of a Danish journalist and freelance war correspondent on the final night of the 1992 L.A. riots, which broke out after not-guilty verdicts were rendered against the four police officers accusing of beating Rodney King.

Bosch originally investigated Jespersen’s killing two decades ago, but the riots afforded him only a matter of minutes to search for evidence. With the 20th anniversary of the riots fast approaching, he gets another crack at providing justice for the victim, as this early expository passage shows:

Bosch specifically asked for the Anneke Jespersen case and after twenty years returned to it. Not without misgivings. He knew that most cases were solved within the first forty-eight hours and after that the chances of clearance dropped markedly. This case had barely been worked for even one of those forty-eight hours. It had been neglected because of circumstances, and Bosch had always felt guilty about it, as though he had abandoned Anneke Jespersen. No homicide detective likes leaving a case behind unsolved, but in this situation Bosch was given no choice. The case was taken from him. He could easily blame the investigators that followed him on it, but Bosch had to count himself among those responsible. The investigation started with him at the crime scene. He couldn’t help but feel that no matter how short a time he was there, he must have missed something.

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A psychiatrist unravels mysteries of love and art in Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Swan Thieves’

September 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 15, 2014

The Swan Thieves, the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, is the understated tale of the intertwined lives of a psychiatrist, a painter who comes under his care, and the 19th-century Frenchwoman with whom the painter has become obsessed over the years.

I described one of the characters just now as “a painter,” but in fact, all of the main characters paint: Dr. Andrew Marlow; the almost completely silent patient, who is named Robert Oliver;  Mary Bertison, Oliver’s lover; and the key 19th-century characters, Béatrice de Clerval Vignot and her husband’s uncle, Olivier Vignot. Only Oliver works as a professional artist; Marlow and the rest are essentially amateurs of varying talents and dedication. (Bertison makes a living as an art instructor.)

In this 2010 novel, Kostova mainly spins her tale through the reminiscences of Marlow, the doctor; an unpublished memoir written by Bertison; the people whom Marlow interviews in his quest to understand his patient’s derangement; and letters exchanged by Béatrice and Olivier. A few segments, evidently imagined and written down by Marlow, portray some events from Béatrice’s point of view.

Throughout the narrative, which spans 561 pages, Kostova teases out several mysteries: What dark obsession motivates Oliver? Why did Oliver attack a painting in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.? How have history and other forces conspired to obscure Béatrice’s artwork?

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Hollywood denizens grapple with the good, the bad and the in-between in Bruce Wagner’s ‘Still Holding’

September 5, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 5, 2014

The intertwining lives of three people form the center of Bruce Wagner’s 2003 book, Still Holding. The work, subtitled A Novel of Hollywood, tracks Kit Lightfoot, a superstar film actor searching for personal and professional fulfillment; Becca, a young actress and Drew Barrymore lookalike taking a shot at stardom; and Lisanne, 37-year-old single executive assistant grappling with pregnancy and motherhood.

What’s intriguing about the book is not so much the characters as the difficulties they face. Becca, the book’s least interesting protagonist, becomes involved with Rusty, a headstrong Russell Crowe lookalike. Through him, she meets Grady and Cassandra Dunsmore, a hard-partying, wildly ambitious couple who hope to transform a pair of rich malfeasance and wrongful-death settlements into a film and television empire. The attentions of these three mercurial acquaintance are by turns enticing and frightening to Becca, who vacillates between concealing and playing up her rural-Virginia roots.

Becca also gets an opportunity to become personal assistant to Viv Wembley, Kit’s TV-actress girlfriend, which gives the would-be starlet an opportunity to spy on Lightfoot’s glamorous existence without ever actually getting to meet him.

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Stumbling toward decency: ‘The Leftovers’ in Perrotta’s 2011 novel grapple with the aftermath of a mysterious vanishing

May 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 29, 2014

Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, spins a moving story based on an unusual premise.

One mid-October day, millions of people suddenly vanish from the Earth. This eerie phenomenon is not the Rapture, because many of the departed were Jews, Muslims and others who did not worship Jesus as the messiah. Perrotta, one of my favorite American novelists, mainly tracks the aftermath of what is called the “Sudden Departure” from the perspective of the Garvey family.

Following the stage-setting prologue, in which mother of two Laurie Garvey joins a cult that forbids its members from speaking, the main action begins three years after the still-unexplained mass vanishing. Kevin Garvey is now the first-term mayor of Mapleton, a small town that seems to be located in central New Jersey; he decided to run for office after selling the chain of liquor stores he inherited and expanded. Most of his constituents have gathered for the town’s first Day of Heroes celebration. The event is a sort of curative, meant to keep the third anniversary of the Sudden Departure from being too depressing.

Kevin’s wife, Laurie, is struggling to adjust to the vow of silence, and the effective life of penury, that is required by her “organization,” the Mapleton chapter of a new sect called the Guilty Remnant. Her commitment is affected by her first trainee, a lonely, vulnerable young woman named Meg who has broken her engagement to join the G.R., as the group is called.

Their son, Tom, has also separated himself from his family to join a different cult-like group. But unlike the G.R., which is growing, the Healing Hug Movement is on the verge of disbanding. Its central figure, Wayne Gilchrest, a.k.a. Holy Wayne, has been arrested on a battery of tax evasion, sexual assault and other charges.

Tom’s growing disaffection with Gilchrest and general malaise is disrupted when a teenager named Christine, Holy Wayne’s fourth “spiritual bride,” shows up at the San Francisco Healing Hug Center. “Congratulations,” Christine tells Tom. “You’re my new babysitter.” Tom finds himself drawn to the pretty young woman, despite her being pregnant with Gilchrest’s supposedly prophesied miracle child.

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Painting a family’s story over four generations: Dara Horn triumphs in ‘The World to Come’

May 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 27, 2014

Dara Horn’s wonderful 2006 novel, The World to Come, is the tale of four generations of a family and two artists whom their progenitor met in the Soviet Union in 1920.

The tale begins in the present day when a man steals a Marc Chagall painting. The thief is a twin whose mother died recently; at around the same time, he was divorced by his unfaithful wife after an 11-month marriage. The dual blow, which follows the painful death of his father when he was 11 years old, has left the intelligent but shrimpy and uncharismatic man bereft.

Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead, that he was a citizen of a necropolis. While his parents were living, Ben had thought about them only when it made sense to think about them, when he was talking to them, or talking about them, or planning something involving them. But now they were always here, reminding him of their presence at every moment. He saw them in the streets, always from behind, or turning a corner, his father sitting in the bright yellow taxi next to his, shifting in his seat as the cab screeched away in the opposite direction, his mother — dead six months now, though it felt like one long night — hurrying along the sidewalk on a Sunday morning, turning into a store just when Ben had come close enough to see her face. It was a relief that Ben could close his office door.

Benjamin Ziskind takes “Study for ‘Over Vitebsk’” when it is left completely unattended during a cocktail reception at a New York City museum. (In real life, that painting actually was stolen in just those circumstances.) The theft is impulsive, a crime of opportunity, but Ziskind also views it as an act of redress. The Chagall study had long been in the family; he thinks of it as having been stolen, for reasons that aren’t revealed until the book is nearly over.

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The gangster, his love, the aristocrat and their friends: Notes, questions and rambling ruminations upon revisiting Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece, ‘The Great Gatsby’

September 4, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 4, 2013

I started reading — or re-reading, rather — The Great Gatsby on the evening of Labor Day. By the time I put the book aside, I’d read to the final page, and it was early on Tuesday, Sept. 3.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel is, of course, an American classic. I believe I read it originally in high school, or perhaps junior high school. It has, of course, been adapted for film five times, including both a 2000 TV movie and this year’s Baz Luhrmann big-screen adaptation. I have, to the best of my recollection, seen none of these features, although the Luhrmann film brought me back to The Great Gatsby: A relative bought a paperback edition of the book tied to the movie release, which paperback was passed on to me. (There’s a chance I may have been shown the 1974 Gatsby film, starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston, in school.)

One of the hallmarks of revisiting works of art is the extra insight one gains upon subsequent perusals. Perhaps I should feel more mature when I spot things that I’d never before seen; instead, however, this phenomenon makes me acutely aware of my past immaturity. “How could I have missed this or that aspect?” I ask myself. This time around, I was surprised by how obvious a gangster Meyer Wolfsheim seems. (In addition, I identified quite strongly with the narrator’s fixation upon Wolfsheim’s grotesque nose hair, which diverts attention from the rest of his personage. I’ve had to fight that kind of distraction myself.) 

I’m also shocked not just by how imperfectly I’ve appreciated a book or movie but by how little of its plot I have remembered. Spoiler alert: I did recall the fatal car accident near the conclusion to The Great Gatsby; I did not remember the identity of the victim, or how the victim was tied to the other characters, or that the car crash led (with an assist from Tom Buchanan) to Gatsby’s murder. Oh, and memory had also elided pretty much everything about the desultory New York City excursion that preceded the crash. These are pretty important things to have forgotten!  Read the rest of this entry »

Running on empty: One young man wrestles with life decisions both big and small in Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’

September 3, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 3, 2013

Harry Angstrom is a man in nearly constant motion, yet he usually seems to be falling behind. The 26-year-old protagonist of Rabbit, Run, the 1960 John Updike novel, is a perpetual man-child: He has the body of an adult but the moral sensibilities and decision-making abilities of an adolescent.

When the book opens, Angstrom — Rabbit to his high-school classmates — is walking along an alley when he comes across six boys playing basketball. Although he is wearing a business suit, he joins in their game:

In a wordless shuffle two boys are delegated to be his. They stand the other four. Though from the start Rabbit handicaps himself by staying ten feet out from the basket, it is still unfair. Nobody bothers to keep score. The surly silence bothers him. The kids call monosyllables to each other but to him they don’t dare a word. As the game goes on he can feel them at his legs, getting hot and mad, trying to trip him, but their tongues are still held. He doesn’t want this respect, he wants tot tell them there’s nothing to getting old, it takes nothing. In ten minutes another boy goes to the other side, so it’s just Rabbit Angstrom and one kid standing five. This boy, still midget but already diffident with a kind of rangy ease, is the best of the six; he wears a knitted cap with a green pompon well down over his ears and level with his eyebrows, giving his head a cretinous look. He’s a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in the high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb up through the little grades and then get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adult things that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later, that is, four years ago. Read the rest of this entry »

A restless 1960s kibbutznik seeks ‘A Perfect Peace’ in Oz’s inquiry on personal and community strife

August 15, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 15, 2013

Yonatan Lifshitz, age 26, isn’t sure where his destiny lies. But in the winter of 1965, Lifshitz — Yoni to friends and family — becomes convinced that he must break away from the communal Israeli farm where he was born and raised.

Lifshitz’s escape is both aided and delayed by the arrival at Kibbutz Granot of a mysterious young man named Azariah Gitlin. The gregarious foreigner makes quite a contrast with Lifshitz, a taciturn Israeli native. One thing they have in common, however, is their grandiose, unfocused ambitions.

They also come to share the social circle of the insular Kibbutz Granot. Yolek, a lion in both literal and figurative winter, is the patriarch of the Lifshitz clan and a co-founder of the kibbutz; he’s also a Labor Party official who once served in the Israeli cabinet. Yolek takes an immediate liking to Gitlin, an affection that is soon echoed by Yoni’s emotionally distant wife, Rimona.

The action in A Perfect Peace, the 1982 novel by Israeli author Amos Oz, spans a little more than a year. Gitlin finds his place at the kibbutz as Lifshitz works up the nerve to leave it — an adventure that seems liable to plunge the other characters into chaos. When Yolek passes the kibbutz reins to Srulik, his longtime associate, the former struggles to come to grips with his waning influence over family, community and nation as his successor strives to find his feet. Yolek’s friend and rival, the seemingly ineffectual Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, visits the kibbutz and is lectured by a wild-eyed Gitlin. (“If we Jews hate each other so much, why be surprised that the Gentiles hate us?” the young man asks feverishly.) The question of Yoni’s paternity, and of Yolek’s possible role in driving away his wife Hava’s other lover, is relitigated. Read the rest of this entry »

A species’ survival and a housewife’s future hinge upon the ‘Flight Behavior’ of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest outing

June 18, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 18, 2013

Dellarobia Turnbow is a woman with a kindergartner, a toddler and a problem: She feels trapped and bored by her marriage. What she doesn’t realize at the opening of Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel, is that her life is about to undergo an amazing transformation.

The change is prompted by the migration of monarch butterflies to the Tennessee mountaintop owned by her husband’s family. The unexpected winter visitors attract the attention of one Ovid Byron, lepidopterist extraordinaire, and trigger all sorts of upheaval in the Turnbow clan.

Kingsolver, a former scientist, is a tremendously gifted writer with twin specialties: The American makes both complex biological systems and rural American culture seem equally understandable to outsiders. Both subjects receive prominent play in Flight Behavior, which takes place during one winter outside the fictitious village of Feathertown.

This book makes a fascinating companion to Kingsolver’s 2000 outing, Prodigal Summer, which was set in the Virginia mountains in, obviously, a much warmer season. But whereas the earlier book was told from the perspective of three different characters, Flight Behavior never strays out of Dellarobbia’s head. Read the rest of this entry »

‘The Comedians’ play against a backdrop of Haitian poverty and corruption

June 11, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 11, 2013

Some readers might say that there’s very little humor to be found in The Comedians. The opening line of this 1966 novel by prolific and accomplished British author Graham Greene conjures images of dreary monuments to forgotten personages, including “the modest stone that commemorates” a key character in the novel. The narrator, a hotelier named Brown, is ambivalent, impotent (literally, on occasion) and also cynical.

As the novel’s action begins, Brown has failed to sell his hotel in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and is sailing back to “the future of my empty hotel and of a love-affair which was almost as empty.” His hotel is without guests because of the oppressive rule of (the democratically elected) Papa Doc Duvalier and his violent paramilitary loyalists, the Tontons Macoute, who have driven away the foreign tourists that once powered the economy of the impoverished Caribbean island-nation.

Brown’s shipmates include an obscure American third-party presidential candidate named Mr. Smith and a con artist named Mr. Jones. Jones, Smith and his outspoken wife want to establish a center to promote vegetarianism in a city and country of striking poverty. Jones is determined to enrich himself in Haiti’s climate of corruption. But Brown — all but unable to draw guests other than the Smiths to the hotel that he genuinely loves — is more or less adrift. For most of the book, the hotelier mainly strives to serve the Smiths, to intervene on Jones’ behalf with the authorities, and to rendezvous with his lover, the wife of an ambassador. Read the rest of this entry »

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