The Strangler Vine.

M.J. Carter’s historical novel The Strangler Vine has the feel of a murder mystery without an actual murder, instead sending its two central characters on a quest in 1837 India to find a missing Briton who disappeared into the north, likely of his own volition, but whose importance to the East India Company has grown in his absence. It’s a fast read thanks to the tremendous narrative greed in the story and the yin/yang Carter created in her two protagonists, but I found the dialogue completely inappropriate for the time period, as she gives her characters modern vernacular and even sensibilities that feel very out of place in this setting.

The story opens with the young Captain (soon to be Lieutenant) William Avery in Calcutta, chosen seemingly as a last resort, to delivery a message to the reclusive company agent Jeremiah Blake and later to accompany Blake on the mission to find the missing author and poet Xavier Mountstuart (which sounds like an Orioles prospect), who has stirred up quite a bit of trouble with the publication of a novel that paints both the Company and the behavior of British expats on the subcontinent in a rather unfavorable light. This comes just as the Company is trying to expand its influence over greater portions of what we know now as India, which at the time was split into many nation-states or local fiefdoms as with pre-unification Italy, and the disappearance of the author has only further complicated the efforts to bring more of the region under the British company’s control. The Europeans are also combatting the plague of Thuggee, a supposed band of marauding bandits who worship the goddess Kali; rob and murder travelers in heinous, ritualistic fashion; and threaten stability in the region as well as local trade. (Thuggee, or at least the campaign against it, was real, and the English word “thug” is derived from its name.) A handful of real historical personages, including the famed William Sleeman, appear in the book, so portions of the story will be obvious if you happen to know something about the time period.

The core suspense story in The Stranger Vine is well-crafted and manages some unpredictable elements even though you’ll see some of the ending coming because we know some of the macro results of the British role in India (especially that the Company was eventually removed from power and replaced by a colonial administration that lasted until independence and Partition in 1948, creating the modern borders of India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh). There’s a bit of a whodunit here, but the identity of the ultimate bad guy is subordinate to the journey, which Carter animates with strong action sequences and vivid descriptions of both the landscape and the various battles that befall our heroes. Blake is the stronger of the two main characters, an erudite humanist unhinged by the death of his native wife, disillusioned by the Company yet still nominally in its employ, and a spy-like investigator who keeps Avery in the dark for much of the story. Avery, while amiable in his naivete, is more simply drawn and serves as a chronicler whose involvement in the action of the plot is less than Blake’s in total but includes a couple of high points that allow for some character development.

However, Carter hasn’t captured the vocabulary or rhythm of speech from the time period – an observation I make based on novels I’ve read from that era – and has given some of her characters decidedly 21st-century views. When a man makes a (sexual) pass at Avery, the religious 21-year-old politely rebuffs the attempt and the matter is simply dropped – difficult to accept in an era when homosexuality was illegal and seen as a grievous sin. Blake’s concern for the plight of locals under the Company may have been apposite for the time, yet he speaks and acts with an egalitarian perspective that would mark him as a progressive in 2017, let alone in the 1830s. And the antagonists of the story, notably those with the Company who seek to control the subcontinent, are kind of not racist enough, with their opinions of locals marked more by cultural elitism than outright prejudice – the Indian people need the Brits to install a government, to teach them democracy, to raise them out of heathenism, but in a paternalist sense rather than the overt bigotry I’d expect from that time. (She hints at phrenology once in the book, but only to have Blake dismiss it as junk science.)

If you prefer to read for story, The Stranger Vine will be among the more satisfying contemporary novels you read; the plot works, and even with Carter’s missteps in dialogue, she never talks down to the reader or takes easy outs with her characters. I would still say I really enjoyed the book even as the inaccurate tone irked me, because there’s something so meticulous about the story’s construction. It’s merely a bit flawed, but in a way that may only matter to certain readers.

Everybody’s Fool.

I loved Richard Russo’s peak novels, including Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Nobody’s Fool, all of which combined great characterization (of men, at least), well-developed settings, and a mix of humor both lowbrow and high to present slices of life in declining Northeastern mill towns. The last one I mentioned followed the exploits of Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a charming ne’er-do-well who twists the folk hero archetype around and makes us cheer for him as he puts one over on his various nemeses in their small community. Sully returns in a sequel, Everybody’s Fool, set ten years after the original story, and while it’s a pleasant read on its own, it can’t stand up to the shadow of its predecessor.

This time around, Russo gives us two protagonists, Sully and the cop he was jailed for punching in the first book, Doug Raymer, who is now the chief of police, and is Sully’s antiparticle. Where Sully is confident to the point of rashness, Raymer is constantly worried that he’s doing the wrong thing, whether in his job or in his now ended marriage to a woman who died by falling down the steps as she was preparing to leave him for an unknown lover. Raymer and his assistant, Charice, are clearly going to end up an item by the end of the book, although he’s hesitating both because of their work relationship and because they’re different races. Meanwhile, Sully has ended his affair with his paramour Ruth, but her daughter Janie is now a mother herself, and Janie’s ex-boyfriend is an abusive asshole who keeps showing up despite an order of protection. Carl and Rub are still around from the first book, Wirf and Miss Beryl aren’t. Peter, Sully’s son, just shows up in passing; the missing cobra at the heart of the funniest subplot gets more page time.

Everybody’s Fool is similar to the first book, but it’s not the same because it can’t be, even though Russo seems deadset on recreating the past. By setting this book ten years in the future and continuing the stroke of good luck that hit Sully at the end of the first book, Russo has flipped his world upside down and has to give Sully a new stroke of bad luck – a bad diagnosis on his heart from a VA doctor – to try to rebalance the scales, but it doesn’t work. Sully was charming in the first book because he used his charisma and wiles to get by; now that he’s living on Easy Street, he comes off as more of a jerk. His best friend, Rub, is a pathetic character, and Sully’s good natured ribbing now appears mean. Carl probably deserves what Sully gives him, but there are moments where Carl is at least trying to reach across the divide for a moment of shared humanity, and Sully can’t be bothered. I loved Sully in the first book, but here, I found him exasperating.

Raymer, meanwhile, ends up with more time at center stage, and the results are mixed, as he’s certainly not as compelling a lead as Sully was. Russo tries to infuse some depth to him by giving Raymer a sort of devil on his shoulder (after he’s hit by a lightning strike) who pushes him to be bold and decisive where Raymer would ordinarily be reticent. In some scenes, such as the resolution to the cobra story, it works beautifully, the sort of serendipitous denouement at which Russo excels; in others, it comes across like Russo is trying to make Raymer sound like a crazy person, and it instead feels like a bad comic device.

I can understand an author wanting to revisit some of his favorite creations, both characters and places, but for a second novel in the same setting to work, it has to tell us something new, and I don’t think Everybody’s Fool accomplishes that in the least. Russo creates new problems for old friends and solves them in mostly expected ways. The one surprise of the book is a new character, Jerome, Charice’s brother, a side character whose depth is slowly revealed over the course of the book, and who probably should have been its main character after all – although if Russo were anxious about writing a book with an African-American protagonist, I could certainly understand that. Jerome and Charice were just what this fictional town needed: a dose of something completely different, an injection of otherness into a sea of white blue-collar folks that could have made Everybody’s Fool feel like a fresh look at an old milieu. Instead, we get a pleasant read that breaks no new ground. It’s like a Pixar sequel, where we’re glad to see the characters we loved, but realize at the end that we didn’t learn anything new about them.

Next up: I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and the next review will cover Allen Drury’s Pulitzer winner Advise and Consent.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

Adios, Cowboy.

The Croatian writer/poet Olja Savičević’s first novel, Adios, Cowboy, is a bizarre, darkly comic, postmodern fable set in Zagreb’s “Old Settlement,” a part of the city untouched by the Croatian war of Independence. (Zagreb itself is closer to Slovenia than Serbia, but was attacked by Serbian air and ground forces over the war’s five years.) This isolation drives the plot and the mood of the novel, where protagonist Dada, her mother, and her sister are trying to understand their brother’s suicide in the wake of their father’s death from an unspecified disease. And somewhere in here an American film crew shows up to film a western just outside of the Old Settlement because … I actually don’t know why, to tell you the truth, although its grizzled John Wayne-like co-director, Ned Montgomery, hovers over Dada’s family in posters and old VHS tapes.

The war may not have reached the Old Settlement, but the village exists in the war’s shadow. This is a town of survivorship, and the postwar generation is inured to suffering and crisis; Dada says early in the book that “people who have been lucky talk about the worst and the best days of their life. We who have been less lucky don’t talk about that.” Her name is no accident, as Dadaism emerged after World War I as an antiwar, anticapitalist, “anti-art” movement in reaction to what its adherents saw as the bourgeois underpinnings of that pan-European conflict. Here Dada exists in a circle around life rather than within it, heavily detached from her romantic affairs and the problems of her addled mother, yet obsessed with solving the mystery of why Daniel took his own life.

There’s no single plot thread in Adios, Cowboy, in case you couldn’t tell from those two paragraphs; the narrative, such as it is, is as scattered as the prose, producing a constant sense of unease in this reader, similar to that of reading the work of an unreliable narrator. Here, Dada isn’t unreliable so much as muddled, only partially present in her own life as she tries, like a bad noir detective, to unravel what drove Daniel to throw himself in front of a train Anna Karenina-style. She uncovers a partial plot involving their veterinarian neighbor who is probably gay but doesn’t appear, despite the suspicions of the local thugs, to have molested Daniel or any other boys, and finds some of Daniel’s last correspondences to the professor, which only serve to show how confused Daniel himself was becoming over the last few months of his life.

The main story of Dada and Daniel sputters out when she learns some of what was bothering Daniel but fails to find the smoking gun you’d expect in a story like this – if those books, where a survivor finds out some big secret that drove a loved one to suicide, are a type of art, then Adios, Cowboy is its anti-art – and the narrative jumps to the film shoot just outside of the Old Settlement. This bit reads like a related but disconnected short story, where the shoot descends into comic tragedy over a dead chicken and a local Roma woman whose grip on reality is tenuous. Ned Montgomery, of the posters on Daniel’s wall and the VHS tapes that Dada discovers, appears in the flesh on these pages, but as a relic, past his prime, trying not to admit it to himself, dependent on his assistant to function, working on this film as a last gasp back towards the embers of his old career.

Adios, Cowboy appears to have been met with universal praise when it was first published in English in 2015, and it is indeed a highly literary novel, rich with allusions, with a unique prose style and an unconventional structure. But I don’t think I fully understood Savičević’s point(s) here, perhaps because I don’t know much about the Croatian War of Independence or Croatian culture since the war, or perhaps because I couldn’t follow her peripatetic plot. It’s probably best for folks who like reading experimental literature, but not for those who read for story first.

Next up: I’ve finished Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table and have movde on to Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.

My Brilliant Friend.

I’ve been guest-hosting the Baseball Tonight podcast this week during Buster’s absence; today’s show featured Eric Karabell and Tim Kurkjian, and yesterday’s show featured Jayson Stark and WATERS singer/serious Dodgers fan Van Pierszalowski, whose newest single, “Fourth of July,” came out last month.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a quartet of books documenting the lifelong friendship between two women, from early childhood in Naples onward, have sold over a million copies in the U.S. since their translation into English in 2012. All four novels ended up on various bestseller lists. And yet their author is unknown, writing only under a pseudonym, while the stories themselves are mundane, devoid of the violence or suspense that tend to dominate fiction sales. The tetralogy, which Ferrante considers one novel published in four installments (a true bildungsroman), tells a very ordinary story in compelling, realistic detail.

I was aware of the books – it’d be hard to be a bookworm without encountering them at some point – but hadn’t picked one up until Lindsey Adler (writer for Deadspin) recommended them, saying she couldn’t put them down. My Brilliant Friend, the opening novel in the series, did not grab me quite to that extent, but it is a superb work of modern realism and characterization, especially of the two women, who get the kind of depth rarely given to female characters in fiction, even contemporary fiction.

Those two characters, the narrator Elena and her friend Lila, are two halves of a whole, different in many fundamental ways but complementary in times when they’re close to each other. (Like any friendship between kids, this one has its vicissitudes, including periods where they’re not really speaking to each other at all.) Elena is booksmart but has to work to get there; Lila is precocious, autodidactic, but has a devil-may-care attitude to schoolwork and life. Both girls come from poor working families averse to continuing their education; Elena’s family reluctantly permits her to continue her schooling thanks in part to the efforts of her teacher, while Lila’s family won’t hear of it and Lila has to continue her learning on the sly. The possibilities of their lives seem limited to them at an early age, and while Elena has at least the sliver of hope provided by an education, Lila’s only real way out of poverty appears to be through marriage, even though she has the idea for a business and the spirit of an entrepreneur.

The novel lacks the intrigue of a modern bestseller. There’s a murder in their town, but it’s tangential to the main characters and only seems to exist to set up some later circumstances. There’s an affair, with consequences, but again it’s sort of off-screen and serves as backdrop for the younger generation of girls and boys. The town itself is tiny, like Jane Austen’s three or four families in a country village, and the social circle of Elena and Lila is small and constantly rotates them back into view with the same handful of kids. Lila’s withdrawal from school when Elena continues sets them on distinct paths that strain their friendship but, apparently, don’t break it, even when the way the two girls are treated by others starts to change.

My Brilliant Friend is definitely an incomplete story; I haven’t bought the next book yet, although I will at some point because I’m interested in what the future holds for the two characters and found Ferrante’s spare, descriptive prose highly readable if a bit dry. The novel doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, which would be untrue to its spirit as a story of two ordinary lives and the bond between these two women. It just leaves you wanting to know where they’re going next.

Next up: I just finished Olja Savi?evi?’s strange postmodern novel Adios, Cowboy and have begun Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table.

The Sellout.

My updated ranking of the top five farm systems right now is up for Insiders.

I first heard about Paul Beatty’s farcical novel The Sellout when looking at predictions of nominees for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which also led me to Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew … neither of which ended up a finalist for the prize, won by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. It did win the National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, and ended up on several top ten lists for 2015. I’d already picked up Beatty’s book at Changing Hands during one of my trips to Arizona, however, and am glad I found it, because it is absolutely hilarious – offensive by design, taking Zadie Smith’s brand of hysterical realism and distilling it through a filter of American racism to produce a unique work of indignant comedy.

The narrator of Beatty’s book, known only as “Me” in one of many examples of absurdist wordplay in the novel, grows up in the Los Angeles-area town of Dickens, so poor that cartographers prefer to ignore its existence. It’s a segregated, neighborhood originally filled with farms, but the only farm remaining is the one the narrator runs, having inherited it from his militant black atheist sociologist father, who had some rather interesting ideas on child-rearing. (The novel’s satirical strain runs deep; the narrator is raised by a single father, and has no idea who his mother is, eventually finding the woman his father claims gave birth to him only to learn she had no idea what he was talking about.)

After his father is killed by a white policeman – prescient, or merely evergreen? – the narrator embarks on a bizarre quest to reestablish Dickens on the map and improve its lot by reinstating segregation, first on the local bus route and then in the local schools. He even takes a man as a “slave,” although the slave sort of volunteers for the role, doesn’t work, and loves to rant about the lost Little Rascals films in which he appeared. He erects new road signs and paints a literal border on the ground around Dickens, all of which has intended and unintended consequences. Of course, he can only get so far in this effort without running afoul of white authorities, and he ends up facing the Supreme Court – getting high on one of his hilariously named strains of marijuana while waiting in the corridor.

The novel’s best character, however, is Foy Cheshire, the would-be intellectual whose ambition outstrips his abilities, and whose brand of liberation theology involves quixotic endeavors like rewriting classics to improve or star African-American characters, such as The Great Blacksby, Uncle Tom’s CondoThe Point Guard in the Rye. By turns fatuous and pathetic, Foy is part con man, part demagogue, representative of a brand of empty black intellectualism for which Beatty appears to have no use whatsoever.

Beatty doesn’t spare anyone or anything in The Sellout, and that includes many jokes at every race’s expense that, if we’re all being honest here, wouldn’t see the light of day if they came from a white writer. I have no problem with this; if anything, the parody is far more effective coming from a writer of color, lampooning many of the people and institutions that purport to help black and Latino Americans but are primarily there just to help themselves. Charles Dickens was known for social commentary in his work, some of it veering into satire; Beatty draws on that tradition of criticism, marrying it with realism run amok – what critic James Wood termed “hysterical realism” in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – for a sendup that scorches the very earth Me uses to grow his prize satsumas, watermelons, and weed.

I’m sure there are allusions and subtexts in The Sellout that I missed or simply couldn’t appreciate as a white man who grew up in a very white town and knew racism because I read about it once, but I still found the book by turns funny and thought-provoking. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in the last few years, and pushes the boundaries of what modern realism in literature can include. There may simply be more here that I didn’t catch.

Next up: Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal, on how the Jesuits did everything they could to stamp out the mathematical concept that gave rise to the calculus.

The Snow Child.

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a grown-up fable, a fairy tale in the more traditional sense of the term (where endings were seldom happy), a very simple story in one of the most striking settings I’ve come across in contemporary literature. In a quick read with only a half-dozen characters of any import, the book manages to delve into questions of love, parenthood, loss, grief, and meaning, without becoming cloy or mawkish. The novel was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist in 2012, losing to Adam Johnson’s amazing novel of North Korea The Orphan Master’s Son.

The Snow Child takes place in Alaska in 1920, where we meet a childless couple, Mabel and Jack, scratching out a life as farmers in the forbidding landscape, where starvation is a threat each winter if you haven’t grown enough crops and killed enough game to get through the season. The pair lost one baby in childbirth many years ago, and it appears the death and subsequent inability to have another child has left them in a permanent state of barely-there depression, culminating in Mabel’s suicide attempt at the start of the novel. Shortly after, during an early snowfall, the two end up building a snowman – or snowgirl, giving her mittens and a scarf and talking about what this girl might be like (and yes, it’s like that sappy movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but only in setup). The next morning, the snowgirl is gone, but both Mabel and Jack spy a young girl running around in the woods with a fox, a girl who turns out to be very real, at least in the tangible sense, but only appears in the winters and says she lives by herself in the mountains in the summers. Mabel recognizes similarities between this child, named Faina, and an old Russian children’s book she had growing up in Pennsylvania, while Jack learns more about Faina’s life before they found her that seem to ground her firmly in reality.

Ivey never bothers to clear Faina’s backstory up for the reader, allowing the character’s reality to flicker before us so we can experience the uncertainty of Mabel and Jack. It reminded me of nothing so much as the saying that being a parent is like learning to live with your heart outside of your body; not only did the couple suddenly find a child years after such a thing seemed impossible, but her appearance defied reality and she would disappear for months at a time without explanation. Mabel in particular seems to vacillate from high highs to deep funks around the girl’s appearances, while Jack is trying to grapple with his rational side even as he comes to love the girl like a daughter.

Faina’s story arc is a bit predictable, and Ivey doesn’t even try to hide it, providing plenty of foreshadowing (and, I thought, winking and nodding at the reader all the way) through the Russian folktale, but despite the girl’s status as the title character and hinge for the story’s action, this book is far more about everybody else. Faina herself has no depth; she’s a wisp of a thing, in physical and emotional sense, but whatever her true identity might be, she’s ultimately the book’s primary plot device. Ivey crafts this forbidding setting that combines breathtaking natural beauty – her landscape descriptions are some of the most evocative I’ve come across – and dark, menacing conditions that seem unfit for human habitation, then drops two characters, already drenched in melancholy for the life they didn’t expect they’d live, into it. Finding moments of joy or even simply of humanity – the relationship the couple develops with the Bensons provides a second emotional center, not to mention lots of great talk of jams and preserves – without resorting to pure sap is a deft trick of both plot and character development. Ivey manages to celebrate life and all that is good within it even in the face of the certainty of sorrow and the realization we all face that we have less control over our lives than we’d like, right up to our endings.

Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, comes out on August 2nd. Given how much I enjoyed this book, including the detailed yet quick prose, I imagine I’ll read that one fairly soon.

Next up: I’m most of the way through Zia Haider Rahman’s Tait Prize-winning novel In the Light of What We Know, an expansive, erudite novel of ideas that seems to grow in scope with every page.

All the Light We Cannot See.

Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, defies the standards for that prize in its complete lack of American characters or themes, but the work itself overcame the prize rules’ stated preference for a work “dealing with American life” with exquisite plotting and searing character portraits. The novel seems ripe for sentiment – I can only imagine what Hollywood will do to the conclusion – but Doerr manages to dance on the line separating emotion from mawkishness without crossing it, building up to a single moment lasting no more than two pages that brings his two protagonists together in one of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in years. (It’s only out in hardcover in the U.S. but is available in paperback in the U.K.)

Doerr gives us two narrative threads for most of the book, adding a third a bit later on to help tie the first two together, with each of the pair of primary subplots featuring one of his two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind 12-year-old girl who flees Paris with her father, a locksmith at the French Museum of Natural History, when the Nazis invade in 1940; and Werner, a German orphan who saves himself from a life in the mines by showing an early aptitude for working with electronics, especially radio transmitters. Marie and her father, who may have been entrusted with a priceless jewel from the museum’s collection, end up in Saint-Malo, a walled city on the northern coast of Brittany that was badly damaged by Allies near the end of World War II; when her father is taken prisoner by the Nazis on questionable pretenses, her care falls to her shell-shocked great-uncle Étienne, who has a sizable radio transmitter in his home’s hidden top floor. Werner ends up in a draconian military academy before a little age-modification lands him a spot in a roving military unit that’s assigned to locate and snuff out Resistance radio transmitters within occupied Europe. When Marie and her great-uncle join the Resistance and begin such transmissions, it’s obvious that Werner’s unit will end up in Saint-Malo to try to find the source … but she’s also sought by the Nazi treasure-hunter von Rumpel, who believes her father took the genuine diamond and is desperate to retrieve it before he runs out of time.

The story comes to the reader in very short bursts, too short to be called chapters, with interludes toward the very end of the war interspersed throughout the longer sections that lead from 1934 (when Marie-Laure and Werner are still little children) to the war’s outbreak, eventually catching up to the second timeline in the interludes where all three subplots collide in Saint-Malo. Flashbacks are themselves a tired technique, but the brevity of each passage gives the novel the quick-reading feel of an epistolary work, and in this case there’s value in forewarning the reader of the tension of the final denouement while also tipping us off that certain secondary characters might not be around for it.

Doerr relies a bit too much on coincidence to deepen the tie between Werner and Marie, a detail that in some ways overshadows the generosity of spirit in their single encounter, where Werner takes multiple actions that save Marie’s life. However, he avoids so many other hackneyed devices both in the path to that scene and in that meeting itself that still manages to explore new emotional territory, looking into the possibility of kindness within the heart of darkness in ways I’ve only seen before in fictionalized parent-child relationships. (All the Light is also one of the only contemporary novels for adults I’ve read recently that has very little sex or profanity, both of which are frequent and overused crutches in modern adult fiction.)

Marie-Laure is a bit romanticized, the innocent girl waiting for one of various men – her father, her uncle, and eventually Werner – to save her, but Werner is a fully-formed character with ambition and remorse, driven by emotional and physical needs to succeed at his task yet haunted by knowledge of the results of his triangulations and scarred repeatedly by assaults on the shreds of his innocence. He is the moral center of the book, this teenaged Nazi soldier through whom Doerr shows us the horrors of war via an unusual and new lens.

Next up: Roger Zelazny’s Hugo winner Lord of Light.

Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Haruki Murakami wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, his magnum opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a masterful blending of reality and dreamlike sequences (some literally in characters’ dreams) that combine to explore Japan’s trouble dealing with its brutal legacy from World War II. It’s #16 on my top 100 novels of all-time list. He followed that up with another tremendous novel, Kafka on the Shore, in 2002, another book that deals with the philosophical aftermath of the second world war, weaving a brilliant twin narrative that also delves into dialectics, the dream/reality divide, and “really good dumps.”

Since Kafka, however, Murakami has written just three novels, none up to the level of those two works. After Dark was short and felt unfinished, while I never bothered with his thousand-page tome 1Q84 due to its heft and comments from friends that it wasn’t worth the time required. Given the positive press around his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I at least had some optimism that Murakami was getting back to peak form, but after ripping through it last week, I am sorry to report that this book sucked. It’s a cold, aimless, distant, unsatisfying novel that takes Murakami’s frequent theme of alienation to the extreme of alienating the reader from the book itself.

The title character is seriously bummed out, with good reason: once part of an extremely tight-knit quintet of friends, he found himself abandoned and shunned by the other four without reason or warning, entering a period of suicidal depression for six months before emerging a very different person on the other side, although his life afterwards remains monotonous and largely friendless. Now in his late 30s, Tsukuru, an engineer who designs railway stations, finds himself in the first serious relationship of his life, but his semi-girlfriend, Sara, insists that he confront his four friends to deal with the unresolved sadness and angst that is blocking him from fully committing to their (or any) relationship.

It’s a solid premise for a book, but what happens next is a whole lot of nothing. Tsukuru visits his friends one by one, eventually going to Finland for the last of the encounters, and gets factual answers to his questions of why he was excommunicated, but only in the most superficial way. He learns about two crimes committed against one of the friends, the first of which was loosely connected to his banishment, but Murakami never bothers to go into those in any detail, much less tell the reader who committed them. While the novel ends with Tsukuru obtaining a sort of closure, it’s a thoroughly unsatisfying variety at least for the reader; there’s no cathartic event, but there isn’t even enough of an explanation to justify Tsukuru feeling any resolution of what’s “blocking” him. He believes he’s “colorless,” but why did the novel about him have to be that way too?

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant.

The Goldfinch.

I have Insider posts up on Troy Tulowitzki trade, the Ben Zobrist trade, and the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

Donna Tartt’s nearly 800-page bildungsroman The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, sparking an ongoing controversy over its worthiness, with some highbrow critics arguing that its prose was too pedestrian while other critics and authors railed against the inherent elitism of those claims. I think I come down in the vast middle between the two camps: It’s a good novel, certainly not dumbed-down for anybody, elaborately plotted and written in an adult voice, yet it finishes weakly and doesn’t seem to fit the admittedly vague guidelines for the Pulitzer (“for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”). It is, however, one of the only books I’ve ever read that seems to take a serious view of post-traumatic stress disorder and tries to bring it to life in an empathetic yet unstinting fashion.

Theo Decker, the protagonist and narrator of The Goldfinch, is a typical, bookish thirteen-year-old boy, living in Manhattan with his adoring mother after his alcoholic father walked out on them a few months earlier, when the two of them are caught in a terrorist attack on an art museum that’s exhibiting Dutch painter Carel Patritius’ (real) painting of the book’s title. The blast kills Theo’s mother, while Theo, in another room at the time of the explosion, tries to comfort an older man who’s dying near him and who tells Theo to take The Goldfinch from the wall, perhaps to protect it. Theo ends up carrying the painting with him for years, a physical manifestation of the PTSD (reminiscent in a slight way of Emma Sulkowicz’ Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)) from the attack, which he chooses to self-medicate via substance abuse and reckless behavior. The story takes him from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and eventually to Amsterdam, where the novel makes a sharp left into this weird noir-ish crime-story territory, losing much of the emotional impact from the first five hundred pages or so, losing the thread of the PTSD exploration in favor of, I think, finding a way to wrap up the book.

Some critics called the portion of the ending that eventually gets the painting back to the authorities too obvious/predictable, something Theo should have done far earlier, but I think that ignores or dismisses the idea of the painting as a symbol of Theo’s PTSD – he can’t get rid of the painting just by wishing to do so, but has to find some way to start to heal himself before he can do so. I could argue that Tartt fails to establish his healing well enough by the ending, but then again, the book was already too long by a third and by that point the escapade around the painting’s theft was approaching the ridiculous.

Theo is a flawed character but a well-developed one, and with almost 800 pages to spend in his head we get a full picture of his personality and his struggle to come to any kind of grips with the death of his mother and everything bad that comes after. He’s the only character in the book to get that treatment, however, as everyone else has a two-dimensional quality, from his angelic mother to the similarly wispy Pippa (a crush who is, herself, tied to the museum bombing and thus remains in a tangible way just beyond his reach) to the furniture restorer Hobie who becomes a surrogate parent to Theo in the latter half of the book. Even Boris (why always Boris?), Theo’s best friend during his time in Las Vegas, is half character and half caricature, not to mention capable of consuming unfathomable quantities of drugs and alcohol … although fictional Russians have a preternatural capacity to metabolize vodka.

The Pulitzer committee gives only a terse explanation for each winner’s selection, so we’re left guessing what they saw in The Goldfinch that many critics didn’t see or didn’t value. The only explanation I can conceive that fits the guideline about “American life” is the PTSD angle: the National Center for PTSD says about 8 million U.S. adults suffer from PTSD in any given year, with causes ranging from military combat to rape to disasters like the book’s museum bombing. PTSD isn’t quintessentially American, but it is a fact of life all over the world today, and it’s increasing in our consciousness if not in prevalence, especially with soldiers returning from lengthy tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with the disorder. If that’s the book’s greatest strength, however, the slapdash finish undermines the exploration of the disorder and its effects. Theo’s recovery, such as it is, is unsatisfying from a reader perspective and, I’d guess, from a clinical one too. The Goldfinch spends two-thirds of its bulk as a serious literary work, but by its final pages it has devolved into a smart page-turner, diluting the impact of its more ambitious passages.

Next up: Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.