An Orchestra of Minorities
In Store Now!
In Circe, Madeline Miller gives voice to Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. He tells the goddess that his father had led a bad life. Not bad for Odysseus, but certainly bad for those around him. After duping the Cyclops, for example, Odysseus could well have walked away unharmed. Instead, he chose to identify himself.
“Why? For a moment’s pride. He would rather be cursed by the gods than be No one. If he had returned home after the war, the suitors would never have come. My mother’s life would not have been blighted. My life.”
Admittedly, this is a roundabout way of talking about Chigozie Obioma’s wonderful new book An Orchestra of Minorities, but the inside jacket calls this book “... a brilliant contemporary twist on Homer’s Odyssey.” The narrative itself opens with an invocation to the gods, as any good epic should. The twist is that the invocation, along with the rest of the narrative, is delivered by the protagonist’s chi, which in Igbo cosmology can be understood as “a person’s... other identity in spiritland.”
Immediately, I was hooked.
The story itself revolves around Chinonso and Ndali. They meet on a bridge at night. Ndali is sitting on the railing, looking despairingly into the wash below. In a desperate attempt to prevent Ndali from committing the suicide she seems to be intent upon, Chinonso throws a chicken (he is a poultry farmer) into the river.
It takes some time, but their paths do cross again, and become entwined until Chinonso decides that to counteract the shame that Ndali’s family heaps upon him (her father is a general) he’ll go to university in Cyprus. The plan’s success depends on a friend from high school named Jamike. Chinonso sells his farm, his chickens, and everything else he owns and sends the money off to Jamike, who will fix the passport, the tuition, and the residence payments.
Jamike is a scammer, though he is not the only reason the plan goes wrong.
Knowing when to act and when not to is sometimes not enough. The acts themselves matter, as do the motives
In school we learned that Odysseus was First Among the Greeks, primarily because he knew when to act and when to hold back. It was his wisdom and insight that set him apart. Life isn’t always about confrontation. Sometimes you have to hold your tongue to get what you want.
This book, like Circe, challenges not just the morality of the Odyssey, and of Odysseus, but also the insight. Knowing when to act and when not to is sometimes not enough. The acts themselves matter, as do the motives; but there is something else, too. There are aspects to life that are outside of our control.
Chinonso mimics Odysseus until the end, but it is there that their fates diverge. One story is a triumph, the other a tragedy.
Most importantly, though, this book is stunningly beautiful. The language will hold you throughout the turbulence Chinonso’s journey. Chigozie Obioma was shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize for his previous book The Fishermen, which is likewise stunning and heartrending.
Chigozie is also thirty years old. It pleases me to think of all the books of his we have to look forward to.
In Store Now!
The Great Gatsby has loomed large in the imagination of Haruki Murakami for some years now. To my knowledge, creating a Japanese edition of the novel is the only translation work he’s ever done. Gatsby is a favourite book of mine, just as Murakami is one of my favourite authors. So, you can imagine my excitement upon hearing that his new novel, Killing Commendatore, was going to be his take on the classic.
Of course, as with anything Murakami does, it’s not quite so straightforward.
Murakami is a master of magical realism. His oeuvre is filled with talking cats, animate whiskey logos, and alternate realities. Only, the fantastical is usually counterbalanced by the incredibly mundane: his characters still go to the grocery store with regularity, there’s always a lot of cooking involved, and whole scenes will transpire with nothing but two high school friends sitting in a living room chatting.
If there’s a spectrum in Murakami’s work it runs from the everyday of Norwegian Wood on one extreme to the fantastical of Kafka on the Shore at its opposite end. It’s not quite that the success of any given novel depends on the marriage of these forces, but there’s something to be said about the fact that this new novel balances those two aspects perfectly. In my opinion, this is his best work yet.
Killing Commendatore, like all of Murakami’s writing, is extremely fun
Essentially, the protagonist of this novel has three motivations: to protect the thirteen-year-old girl who lives in the neighbourhood, to solve the riddle of the mysterious Gatsby-esque man next door, and to pull himself out of the funk he’s been in for the last four months.
It’s the third motivation that is both the most subtle and the most important. Each of Murakami’s main characters must be understood as suffering from some existential crisis: the normalcy of their life, upon which the foundation of their identity is based, has been uprooted. But, rather than dwell or psychoanalyze, they are forced into action. Still, whether they’re bargaining with an embodied ‘Idea’, digging a massive hole to find where the ringing of the bell is coming from, or traveling to the realm of metaphors, the fantastical is always in service to the everyday. In this, the whole story functions as something of an analogy.
But, the last thing I’ll say is that this novel, Killing Commendatore, like all of Murakami’s writing, is extremely fun. Six hundred pages might seem like a lot, but the writing is conversational, and the story immersive, so that you end up feasting through it. There’s a warmth and a certainty to be reading one of the maestros.
Simon & Schuster
Jo Hadley has a comfortable, if vaguely dissatisfied life. She lives with her vaguely dissatisfied parents in Huntington Acres, on the border of the Huntington Country Club. They are members, have been since they arrived. They could, quite easily, "have gotten along just fine..."
Jo has a reputation for intoxicants (as do her parents.) She is blessed with two very close friends, and one night an ill-advised adventure turns all the above into the past tense.
"Why would I worry?" Mother said brightly.
Jo resurfaces at The Hawthorne School, on a scholarship, boarding. She doesn't really fit, begins to wonder if she'll ever fit anywhere again.
Then she comes under the tutelage of Master Aikens, who brings some meaning to her educational life. Master Aikens is 34. Jo Hadley is 15. World-wise as she seems, Jo is still innocent. For all her innocence she has principles. Collision is inevitable.
What starts as a confessional novel by a precociously cynical teen becomes a taut and compelling litany of thwarted promise and betrayal. All indignities are absorbed. That this absorption is to be expected comes as a jarring and uncomfortable truth.
His Favorites is a beautiful and wise novel. It is elegant and understated, and assembled with admirable craft. You'll love and admire Jo Hadley, and if you don't already know Kate Walbert you'll be in for an even bigger treat.
Henry Phipps is just a boy, no matter how much offense he takes when it’s pointed out to him. It’s easy to forget his youth, considering the immense burdens he is forced to bear. Only, every now and again he’ll react with nervousness and a reckless energy that will remind you: he’ll simply run out of a conversation and into the woods, he sometimes cries.
Henry is trying to get to Baltimore, where his father is being kept in debtor’s prison, and where his older brother Franklin is due to be executed by the firing line for defection from the American army. This might be a pretty straightforward mission under normal circumstances, but there is much with which Henry must contend: he is convinced, beyond all reason, that he ought to carry his mother with him. He has a penchant for turning even allies against him. There’s a war going on.
Indeed, it is tough to know when the War of 1812 is following Henry or when he is following the war. If he is going to succeed in freeing his father, he will, after all, somehow need to raise some 900 dollars, an impossible sum. But, “war is like a rich man dancing with a hole in his pocket,” Henry repeats.
Surprisingly, things don’t turn out as easy as that. Henry does meet quite a few people in his travels, and many of them do have ideas on how it is he’ll be able to raise some capital. These notions vary in practicality similarly to how the thinkers behind them vary in circumstance and morality. But, these encounters do provide the narrative with tension and propulsion. This book is a page-turner.
It is the absurdity that gives this book its ample charm, on the other hand. In the first ten pages alone a standoff is broken by a redcoat falling on his face, a dead woman finds her voice, and a cow falls through a roof. But, these mad-cap happenstances do not by any means detract from either the realism or the effectiveness of the narrative. I found it was the opposite, in fact: it was the fantastic quirks of these characters that made them endearing, just as it was the caprice of the fortunes of war that made the surroundings so dangerous.
war is like a rich man dancing with a hole in his pocket
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was in turns rollicking, hilarious, and emotionally affecting. Henry is a fine companion through the New England territory, and what is left of his family is the type you are rooting for, despite their flaws. Surely, as the Phippses keep telling themselves, their luck must turn.
In store now!
Attila Ansare is an eminent psychiatrist, an authority on traumatic stress. He is in London for a conference, at which he is to deliver the keynote speech. While he is in London he will try to discover why his niece, who lives in an apartment with her son, has not called home for a while.
Jean Turane is an American, in England after a broken marriage, working in London conducting a study of urban wildlife, specifically foxes, and starting a business creating rooftop gardens. Pursuing a fox as it crossed the crowded Waterloo Bridge one evening, Jean bumps into a large man and is knocked to the ground. By the time she has righted herself and dusted herself off the fox has disappeared.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Jean and Attila will meet again, and that their lives will become connected in ways that neither of them could expect.
You will be surprised, and pleasantly so, by how much wisdom Aminatta Forna has managed to pack into this immensely satisfying and expansive novel.
Attila will miss most of the conference he is in London to attend. Jean’s irregular army of fox-spotters will be given a new challenge, and she herself will be thrust unexpectedly into a public role. Obstacles abound.
This is a book about care, and about caring in all its manifestations, with all its ramifications.
These are two unforgettable characters, and they are supported by a large and varied cast of secondary personalities, all immaculately rendered. All of these characters care; it’s impossible not to care about them. This is a book about care, and about caring in all its manifestations, with all its ramifications. Caring brings responsibility. There are no short cuts in this book and no sugar-coating.
Happiness is, nonetheless, a triumphant, exhilarating book, one of those rare novels that celebrates the human spirit and stays with the reader long after the last page has been turned.
Frankenstein in Baghdad
In Store Now!
Judging a book by its cover is one thing. I worry, though, that it would be easy to assume that this novel could be judged on its title alone. But Frankenstein in Baghdad is very different from what you might expect: it’s moving, sympathetic, funny, and even gentle at times. As it is, I was blown away by this book.
Each of the characters who populate Saadawi’s Baghdad, with their attempts to make a place for themselves in the scarred capital of the war-torn country, is immediately recognizable. From the lost and lonely widow Elishva who punctuates her every sentence with an allusion to the son she lost some twenty years ago, to Mahmoud, the earnest young journalist trying to cope with his new responsibilities, to Hadi the junkdealer, perpetual liar but beloved raconteur, all of them are sympathetic in their struggles and familiar in their desires.
And, while the community we are introduced to in Bataween is peopled by individuals with different religious beliefs, different sources and levels of income, different backgrounds and responsibilities, the violence that is perennially in the background exposes their similarities: each is vulnerable, each is scared, and each has suffered loss.
When a monster is created from disparate body parts of victims of bombings, shootings, etc., its mission of vengeance seems straightforward, unequivocal.
It is the last of these similarities that composes the major theme of this novel. Everyone living in Saadawi’s Iraq has a vendetta, regardless of whether they have plans to act out their revenge. Most are simply seeking a personification for their pain, someone to blame for their loss. So, when a monster is created from disparate body parts of victims of bombings, shootings, etc., its mission of vengeance seems straightforward, unequivocal.
But violence is never either of those things, and it is fascinating how this creature is interpreted by the various characters, and how it only obfuscates the already tenuous situation in the country.
It would be doing this novel a disservice, though, to call it a monster story. It is as much a monster story as Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a story about a crow, or Animal Farm is a story about a horse. Neither is it a horror story, or even a war story.
At its heart this is the story of the characters living in Lane 7 and their struggles to impose normalcy on a deteriorating situation. It is ripe with interpretations of the continuing struggle faced by Iraq and much of the area. But, it speaks to something larger, something perennial and universal: violence begets violence, vengeance begets nothing but new vendettas. Even if one is endowed with more power than one’s opposition, can there be a way out of the most vicious of cycles of violence?
Working at a bookstore is wonderful and daunting, in that people value your tastes enough to trust your recommendations. So often, though, a request for a recommendation comes with a caveat: Nothing too violent, please. No incest, no rape, no bodily harm… And I quieten, as my favourite books are slipped back onto the shelf.
So I won’t sugarcoat it: Peach is the story of a violent assault, and what happens to bodies and psyches in the days that ensue. It is an uncomfortable read. Upsetting and unsettling. At times, it is gross.
But it is absolutely engrossing. In under a hundred pages, Emma Glass will have you viscerally transfixed. I read it in one sitting. I was ‘hooked,’ from the first page.
“Thick stick sticky sticking wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hand against the wall. Rough red bricks ripping the wool. Ripping the skin. Rough red skin. Rough red head.”
The awkwardness of trauma is its temporal slipperiness: Even as it obliterates you, life goes on. Peach has a mam and a dad to come home to. A ‘squidgy’ baby to check on. And there are everyday exchanges to be had. Supper to eat. Secrets to swallow. Bedtime.
And as a new day breaks, distress dissolves into paranoia, anxiety following everywhere, as Peach has classes to attend, and friends to avoid. She has a boyfriend, too. Who is kind and devoted. Who wants to touch and make love to her.
Emma Glass outlines these critical conflicts and internal inconsistencies in language so instinctual, you physically experience Peach’s pains and joys with her. And there is pain, in all its gory detail, exposure to which makes life’s moments all the more precious. All the more joyous. And like a good peach, this book is sweet. Tender and wet and dripping with affect.
“I don't know what to do with myself. After silently dancing around the house in pyjamas for a really long time and dancing silently beside Baby asleep in his cot and feeling silly, I go into the living room and decide to watch TV. I think I should study but I’m too distracted. A bit happy and unfocused. Loose and juicy. I laugh.”
It is absolutely engrossing. In under a hundred pages, Emma Glass will have you viscerally transfixed.
As a reader, Peach did what I hoped it would do: It offered a nuanced appreciation of the horrors of having your body brutally interfered with. It shed light onto the darkening silences that encircle sexual violence. It detailed how attempts to make meaning within one’s self clashes and then casually coincides with exterior facade.
But my succeeded expectations gave way to astonishment. And that is what sets this book apart. Peach isn’t, like a lot of rape literature, a mere education in empathy. Peach isn’t out to preach.
This book is privy to our growing, collective rage at the regularity by which violence is conducted against young bodies. It is hilarious and unpredictable and…
Well, that’s enough. I can’t spoil a story this deliciously well-crafted.
Bad Dreams and Other Stories
Penguin Random House
In Store Now!
I've never understood it when people say they take their time with good books, that they savour the pages to prolong the experience. When I like a book I immediately and completely immerse myself in it. It becomes a lifeline.
So, I found myself in an odd predicament this weekend, when I realized I only had one story left in Tessa Hadley's collection Bad Dreams. I felt really sad. I wondered if I should wait until bedtime.
It is fitting, then, that this book helped me understand the unfamiliar practice of others, because that is what Hadley does with these stories: she assists in breaking down the patterned decisions that constitute personalities. She introduces ordinary people, places you in their circumstance, and offers glimpses into a life that is not your own:
The book opens with “An Abduction,” following Jane Allsop as she navigates the perils of adolescence, where bodies are made strange by the hankering for first tastes. Hadley details how much, when attended to, can be communicated by a gesture.
In “Experience,” newly divorced Laura goes to stay in another woman’s home. As she engages with the domicile and its owner’s personal belongings, she fiddles with more than just objects. Quick decisions weigh heavy moral consequences.
These ten stories, each deceptively simple in their mundanity, offer a cover for those who share a curiosity about the intimate and everyday lives of other people.
In “Flight,” Claire visits her sister—who, refusing to talk to her, seeks refuge in a bedroom upstairs—and her sister’s adult children, who end up engaging in hilarious tactics to coax their mother out of the room. The dialogue pierces the unique bond of siblings— one of shared history and an acute awareness of the glaring imperfections of the people who raised you.
These ten stories, each deceptively simple in their mundanity, offer a cover for those who share a curiosity about the intimate and everyday lives of other people.
I won’t say more. If you’re not yet convinced, visit your local bookstore and read the title story. It is disturbing. Brilliant. And likely to help you understand just what I’m trying to convey.
Random House Canada
In Store Now!
This story follows two friends, alumni of Oxford: Hugh Legat (now one of Chamberlain’s personal secretaries) and Paul Hartmann (a German diplomat). They find themselves on opposing sides of battle lines being drawn, yet they have more in common than even they seem to know. Still, trying to arrange a meeting is difficult enough in Nazi Germany, especially at a time when Hitler is raring to storm into Czechoslovakia. And it is the fate of that country which hangs in the balance when Chamberlain’s offer to travel to Munich to negotiate terms for the country’s division is accepted by Hitler. Mussolini and the French Prime Minister Deladier are also to be in attendance.
While it is easy to find Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement efforts laughable in hindsight, it is also easy to forget just how popular Chamberlain’s promotion of peace was—at least before Hitler moved into Poland. And this was so not just in England, and throughout continental Europe, but even in Nazi Germany. Crowds flock to greet Chamberlain and his entourage as they land in Munich, and seem to follow him as he moves through the city. We can easily dismiss the prime minister as naive or cowardly, but in this book I found him—for the first time—sympathetic.
Trying to arrange a meeting is difficult enough in Nazi Germany, especially at a time when Hitler is raring to storm into Czechoslovakia.
Perhaps the most striking of Robert Harris’s many strengths as a writer is his ability to take a moment in history directly preceding a crisis and to allow the reader’s knowledge of what is imminent to paint the story. He’s done it before with his novel Pompeii, set on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius towards the end of the year 79 c.e. In both books the truly impressive feat of Harris’s is his ability to deliver a balanced, subtle narrative: overwrought chase-scenes and showdowns are avoided in favour of pointed questions in interviews and a shadowy feeling of foreboding.
I loved this book. Harris is much too skilled a novelist to succumb to waxing anachronistic. His characters inhabit their moment of history properly. The reader is left to make sense of what each action implies. This is never at the expense of the story: the tides of optimism for Chamberlain’s peace efforts are arrayed against the belligerence of the Nazi leader. The reader is allowed to glimpse the good and the terrible of 1938.
The Fact of a Body
In Store Now!
In June of 2003 a first-year law student travelled to New Orleans to volunteer her services at a firm that excelled at fighting death sentences. From childhood she had an aversion to capital punishment, (both her parents were lawyers,) so this, for her, was more than just an internship to polish the resume.
That day she watched the videotaped confession of a man convicted of killing a young boy and it turned her life upside down. After she graduated from law school she “left the law,” but the effects of watching that video tape embedded. There were aspects of the case that bothered her, and the more she investigated them the more they troubled her, and the more she found eerie echoes from her own life.
More than ten years later she produced this stunning, unforgettable book. After you have read it you will not be the same person you were when you opened it up.
Masterfully combining the story of convicted pedophile killer Ricky Langley with her own experiences of growing up in the privileged confines of the North-East, Alexandria Marzano-Leznevich’s book will shake you up.
You could not, as they say, make this stuff up.
Excursions into the American legal system often have an Alice in Wonderland aspect, but this is much more than a tale of justice denied, or swept away. You could not, as they say, make this stuff up. There are times when you just have to put it down and stare off into space; there are times, days after finishing it, that you ask yourself if you really read that part of it.
This is a book about silence, and about contrived deafness; it is a book about the profound effects of resource deficits in American institutions; it is, ultimately, about the elusive nature of justice.
Ricky Langley committed an unspeakable crime. Marzano-Leznevich has created a brilliant genre-busting book. This is their story.