Tag Archives: american fiction

Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry from Lisa Halliday unfolds through three seemingly disparate sections, yet there’s an underlying theme of inequality that weaves these three sections together. I rarely comment about covers, but this clever design shows creativity and offers a visual hint of the book’s content.

Asymmetry

The first section concerns a relationship between Alice, a young book editor who lives in New York and the much older, successful writer Ezra Blazer. The book’s blurb says it’s an account of a “tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance.” Hardly. This is an account of a writer successful enough in the literary world to win the Pulitzer prize who begins a sexual relationship with a young woman. Most of their relationship takes place at his apartment (with the occasional dinner at a restaurant and a trip out to his Long Island home), and while the relationship seems at least initially to be almost totally sexual, gradually it erodes into selfish, aging male and young nursemaid/errand girl who satisfies every whim.

Of course an older male can pat himself on the back that he is offering a young woman exposure to opportunities or education that a young, male rival cannot, and so we see that here. Ezra assumes the role of professor Higgins to Alice’s Eliza, and it’s just as cringeworthy as the film when Ezra slips Alice money and tells her how to get her hair cut if she should ever decided to cut it short.

There’s almost a trance-like quality in Ezra’s relationship to Alice (Alice down the rabbit hole). Why doesn’t she tell him to shove it when, for example, they are watching a baseball game, and he sends her out at night for ice-cream?

“Darling, in the cooler in the back of the deli here on the corner they have Häagen-Dazs bar. Do you want one?”

“Now?”

“Sure. You’ll be right back. But listen. I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, nuts. If they don’t have that I want chocolate on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. And if they don’t have that I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. Plus whatever you want darling. My wallet’s right on the table there. Go.”

The second section takes place at Heathrow as an Iraqi-American tries to spend two days in London before flying onto Iraq to see his brother. While in the previous section, inequalities of power, age, wealth and experience exist in the relationship between Alice and Ezra,  Amar, who is politically disadvantaged, is held hostage to bureaucratic red tape. As Amar waits patiently, his story gradually unfolds and we see a man, who through no fault of his own, has been a hostage to history and war.

The third section is Ezra on the Desert island Discs. I disliked Ezra in the novel’s first section, and in this final part, his character is fully revealed in its egotistical, exploitative glory as he talks about his disc choices.

I enjoyed the two main sections of Asymmetry very much indeed, and the novel’s underlying themes about inequalities are lucidly argued on both the personal and political level. My main complaint is the filler used in the first section: large sections of book excerpts (recommended to Alice by Ezra) break up the story and then there’s an entire section taken from a pamphlet explaining abortion. This is not a moral complaint, but just a reader complaint. Filler such as this seems … well just like filler. Apart from that complaint (which IMO unfortunately weakened the book) the two different stories with their vastly different characters were intense and excellent

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The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

“And if there’s magic in the world, there’s magic beyond it.”

Chloe Benjamin’s novel, The Immortalists begins in 1969 with the four Gold children Varya, 13, Daniel, 11, Klara, 9, Simon, 7 who head out, pressured by Daniel to have their fortunes told by a travelling psychic. Daniel has heard that the fortune-teller can predict death dates.

The practical minded Varya asks “What is it’s bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?”

“Then it would better to know, ” said Daniel. “So you could get everything done before.”

But would the knowledge of the date of your death ‘help’ or hinder you? You won’t know if the date is correct or not until it arrives. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel as many years ago I had a friend who had a similar experience. He refused to tell me the date he was given, but it haunted him. After seeing how traumatized he was by this experience, I would rather not know. Of course, we all come with a hidden expiration date, and the novel asks whether or not knowing (or thinking you know) the day of your death makes a difference as to how you choose to live your life. What if the date is wrong? How does this knowledge, true or false, impact behaviour?

In a tatty apartment building, the children are each, separately, told the day of their deaths. Although they keep the information initially secret, it impacts their behavior in the years to come.

the immortalists

Simon Gold as a teenager who is facing joining the family’s “Tailor and Dressmaking”  business, instead opts to run off to the heady freedom of San Francisco in the late 70s-early 80s. There, underage Simon finds work as a dancer in a gay bar, and he meets an older man. Meanwhile his sister Klara who runs off to San Francisco with Simon gets a job as temp. while dreaming of becoming an illusionist. Klara turns to magic in a dangerous and obsessive attempt to cross the barriers between the living  and the dead.

The second brother Daniel, quiet, steady and serious becomes an army doctor post 9-11 and Varya becomes a scientist whose area of expertise/interest is longevity research. (This involves Rhesus monkeys, so reader beware). In her longevity research, quantity becomes more important than quality.

The Immortalists, beginning with Simon, follows the siblings on their life paths. Each sibling keeps the death date in his/her head, always conscious of it, even if they disbelieve it. Simon, who is told that he will die young, certainly takes this information and runs with it. Hurls himself towards it might even be a better description.

What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.

I liked the novel’s premise and the mystical elements, and I loved Klara and Varya’s stories, possibly because they tried to understand life in alternate ways. Daniel’s section stretched credulity, and readers should be aware that in Simon’s story, there’s a considerable amount of sex. This is described rather clinically, not salaciously, but still, anyone intending to read this should know what they are in for. IMO, it added nothing to the book. That’s not meant in a puritanical way, but these scenes did nothing for me whatsoever, and seemed, frankly, rather gratuitous.

The Immortalists asks how much we really control our lives. Would the Gold children have acted differently if they’d never met the fortune-teller? If you were told you were going to die young, would you dive right into life and to hell with the consequences or would you try to avoid disaster? Character is fate, right? Can you escape fate? We see each of the Gold children tackle those questions differently.

If you like The Immortalists, you will probably also like Daniel Kehlmann’s F  (or vice versa)

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In the Fall They Come Back: Robert Bausch

“Every choice is a step into the moral arena.”

I wasn’t really ready for another book set in a private school, but since In The Fall They Come Back came from the mind of American author Robert Bausch, I decided to take the plunge. Told in retrospect by Ben Jameson, who is now, twenty years later, a lawyer, this is the tale of two years spent teaching English to high school students. Freshly graduated, Ben needs “an emergency job” and needs money so that he can “save up for bigger and better things.”  He takes the job teaching in Virginia at Glenn Acres Preparatory School, and for Ben, he admits even decades later, these two years “changed the world for me in ways I’m still contemplating.” The story examines the boundaries between teacher and student–when caring goes overboard and involvement becomes entanglement. I have a feeling that teachers who read this may identity (and wince) with some of the scenarios here as our (then) idealistic narrator makes some formidable errors.

This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don’t know which.

It’s 1985 Ben is just 25 years old and lives with his extremely attractive girlfriend, Annie when he’s hired by the indomitable owner/headmistress of Glenn Acres, Mrs Creighton. The idiosyncratic nature of the school is immediately made clear through Mrs. Creighton’s behaviour with her dogs. They are locked up in her office at night and then the following morning, Mrs Creighton cleans up their poop. Only an owner could do this, and while this seems like a small observation, it’s indicative of how Mrs Creighton runs her school.

In the Fall they come back

Ben is hired on the spot with the caveat that he read his students’ journal pages: the pages that are supposed to be private and unread. He’s supposed to report anything troubling back to Mrs Creighton. Of course, this rings alarm bells for the reader, but Ben is young, needs a job, and is also inexperienced when it comes to employment.

It doesn’t take long for Ben to begin to wonder how “anybody could be a teacher for his whole life.” He also details the monumental burden of reading thousands of pages of student writing a week (a conservative estimate is 1,250 a week). So it’s not long before Ben finds himself not reading everything and making generalized comments in the margins. Ben forms a close relationship with a much older teacher, Professor Bible, and together they compare concerns about student George Meeker who bears the brunt of his father’s misplaced conceptions of masculinity.

Ben isn’t a sloucher; he genuinely wants to get his students involved, and he embarks on almost suicidal missions to ‘awaken’ his students’ moral consciences. He introduces the subject of Hitler and the Holocaust and then later, he invites the students to write about God.

While Ben’s choices make ‘sense’ as he explains them through his narratives, the reader also understands that Ben is treading on thin ice. According to Annie, who understands Ben all too well, he has a “Christ Complex,” and is deliberately placing “little traps” for himself by introducing such controversial subjects into the curriculum. Of course, Ben protests these accusations, but Annie is onto something as it turns out, and for this reader, it’s clear that Ben’s idealism contains a streak of subconscious self-sabotage when it comes to imagining teaching as a life long career.  It’s also clear that something is going to go horribly wrong….

Bausch tells us that what happens is based on a “true story,” and I believe it. There’s the sense of lingering pain in the tragedy that takes place, and the novel’s strength lies in the sincerity of the narrative voice. The intriguing and paradoxical thing here is while the narrative voice is sincere, it isn’t always honest. Take Ben’s comments, for example, about Annie who is also “smirking.” Yes, Ben wants to ‘open’ students’ mind with the subject of the Holocaust, but that also allows him to sit and watch films in the classroom for hours on end. And then there’s the beautiful Leslie, and while Ben professes to have no sexual feelings for her whatsoever, he certainly crosses more than one line in this relationship.

Ultimately, the novel wrestles with moral questions regarding the teacher’s role in student lives. Mrs Creighton sets Ben on a disastrous mission when she asks him to read the students’ private journals. Where is the cut-off when it comes to involvement and concerns? Over the novel, there lingers the sense that still, twenty years later, Ben is attempting to justify his actions, and while this justification fails, perhaps this is a stronger novel because of Ben’s failure to convince the reader and himself.

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These Violent Delights: Victoria Namkung

Victoria Namkung’s novel, These Violent Delights, concerns a scandal involving a private school for girls. The novel asks questions about the consequences of our actions. If bad things happen, someone pays. But is it always in the way we expect? Can justice ever be achieved even if society and the Law intervene?

The novel centres on a handful of women in an sexual abuse case involving the very popular Dr Copeland, the chair of the English Department at Windermere, a private school for girls in Southern California. At tuition of $38,000 a year, parents expect their children to have an excellent education in a safe environment, but everything goes to hell when newspaper intern, 22-year-old USC Journalism student, Caryn, confides in veteran reporter Jane that years earlier, Copeland made inappropriate comments to her followed by emails, and sexual overtures. Even though Caryn contacted the school administration about the situation, it was basically just covered up.

These Violent delights

Caryn, feeling strongly that her story should be told, writes an article about the problems at Windermere but doesn’t name the teacher. Soon several other young women approach Jane and Caryn with their stories. Copeland abused his position and his access to young, vulnerable girls for years.

In these days of social media and “online reaction,” all hell breaks loose. Caryn is vilified by some members of the public and lauded for her bravery by others. As more victims speak out and the story widens, Windermere administration is forced to publicly respond via a ‘Special Investigative Committee.’

There were times when I wasn’t sure where the story was taking me, but overall, the plot takes a predictable course. While many aspects of the story are black and white, interesting gray sections, the politics of the ‘Special Committee’ and “organizational loyalty,” (a term that I’d never heard before) remain unexplored. Institutionalized/organizational wrong doing, which must be the foundation problem here, still comes down to a few decisions made by one individual. Possible thought processes are mentioned rather than explored when it comes down to the choices made by this individual.

Although the story unfolds via the voices of several female characters, Dr Copeland remains a murky figure.  These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends a phrase from Romeo and Juliet lingers over the novel with a sense of impending dread. These young women are permanently damaged–some much more than others. Dealing with the acknowledgment and shame causes a great deal of distress and pain, and ultimately, sadly, there seems to be very little ‘won.’

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The Last Mrs. Parrish: Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. Parrish, a tale of betrayal, adultery and revenge is the debut novel from sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine (pen name = Liv Constantine).  This page-turner is already being compared to Gone Girl which probably guarantees sales, but it is an unfortunate comparison for this reader as Gone Girl pissed me off more than anything else.

That said, expect The Last Mrs Parrish to make it to either a TV series or film. And who would I cast for the lead stars … well more of that later.

the last mrs parrish

Approximately the first half of the novel is told from the view of Amber Patterson, a young women who moves to the affluent area of Bishop’s Harbor, Connecticut with the sole goal of seducing a billionaire international real estate magnate in his 40s, Jackson Parrish. Amber, and that’s a fake name by the way, has done her research. She knows all about the Parrish family, how much they are worth, what they own and what their interests are. It doesn’t matter to Amber that Jackson is married with two children. In fact, Amber uses Jackson’s wife, Daphne, a woman who runs a charity foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, to worm her way into the lives of the Parrish family. Soon Amber is Daphne’s friend, and she pretends to like Daphne’s two little girls in order to get invited to family events.

Amber has her work cut out for her. Pencil-thin Daphne is gorgeous, educated, elegant, and an overall nice person, and what’s more, Jackson Parrish appears to adore his wife. But Amber conducts a ferocious, single-minded, obsessive campaign to hunt and bag Jackson. At first she dresses plainly but gradually moves to tarty as she gets closer to Jackson.

The strength of the novel lies is Amber’s tart, vindictive self-justified POV:

Amber leaned forward and did her best to look interested while she calculated the total worth of the diamonds on Daphne’s ears, the tennis bracelet on her wrist, and the huge diamond on her tanned and perfectly manicured finger. She must have had at least a hundred grand walking around on her size-four body, and all she could do was whine about her sad childhood. Amber suppressed a yawn and gave Daphne a tight smile.

And then there’s her malicious, brooding resentment of the two little girls

Once she was Mrs Parrish, those two brats were on borrowed time. They could go to community college as far as she was concerned. 

It can be tough to create sympathy for characters who are so wealthy they are removed from the cares most readers share, but the authors initially create Daphne as viewed by a conscienceless predator. Even though we don’t get to see Daphne’s first person narration until the second half of the novel, Amber’s vicious intentions are so vile (she wears Daphne’s perfume and takes her underwear,) you can’t help but see Daphne as an Everywoman walking right towards her own destruction. When the novel switches to Daphne, the novel loses some of its power which just goes to prove that ‘nice’ people are far less interesting than nasty ones. We all love someone we can hate, and the character of Amber keeps the reader turning those pages. While I regretted the loss of the novel’s momentum as Daphne took the helm, I was committed to the bitter, bitter end of this one.

Angelina Jolie as Daphne Patterson. Alexander Skarsgård as Jackson Parrish. Can’t decide who should play Amber–arguably the most difficult role. (But I’m still thinking about it.)

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The Locals: Jonathan Dee

“There was no earthly specimen more out of touch with reality than a New Yorker. People who lived on an island and paid a million dollars for a bedroom.”

The Locals from Jonathan Dee is a remarkable novel which captures American life in the decade following 9-11: the shock, the aftermath, economic stagnation, the real estate boom and subsequent bust. All of this is seen through a handful of characters who live in Howland, a town in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts.  Regular readers know that I groan at appearances of 9-11 in novels, but here, in The Locals, Jonathan Dee hits just the right note.

The novel begins on 9-11 with a rather nasty narrator, a lab worker, who subsequently drops out of the novel. He’s on his way to see a lawyer to seek recompense from an investor who fleeced him of over 200K. Also in New York that day is contractor Mark Firth, who has traveled from Howland to see the same lawyer, for the same reason.  This early section sets the scene for the stratification, the money and class divides–of American society–a theme that lies at the heart of the novel.

the locals

Mark Firth returns home to Howland, only to find that he’s welcomed like a surviving hero. And this is one of the things I loved about this novel-the way Dee captures the 9-11 feeling in the country. For a brief moment, everyone in the country seemed to come together in collective grief.

Everybody was all frightened, but really that was just a way of trying to make the whole thing more about themselves, which it wasn’t. Either you were actually there when it happened or it was something you watched on TV, period. But whenever something major happens it’s like everybody wants their little piece of the suffering. People had no idea what was coming next. That’s true I guess–when something as fucked up as that happens, something you weren’t even imagining, it wakes up your imagination pretty good–but still, they were just overdoing it, I’m sorry. Get over yourselves. You weren’t there, it didn’t happen to you . 

Mark returns home to face a bleak future. Contracting work has dried up, and as for getting his stolen money back, there’s not much hope of that. Mark’s wife Karen, who hasn’t forgiven him for losing all their savings to a con man, temporarily puts her grievances on hold in light of 9-11, and, as she sees it, her husband’s close call with terrorism.

When billionaire Philip Hadi decides to make his summer Howland home his permanent residence, things begin to improve for Mark. Hadi, who has left New York following 9-11, is obsessed with making his house ‘safe.’ He hires Mark for various security jobs, and then settles into the town taking up local politics. After a comment from Hadi, Mark decides to stop building and improving houses, and instead begins picking up houses at auction and then flipping them for profit. He’s joined in this venture by his brother Gerry.

Most of the novel is concerned with Mark’s family and that includes his aging parents who haven’t saved enough for retirement, Mark’s single sister, vice principal Candace, and Mark’s brother, Gerry, whose work at a real estate company comes to an abrupt end following a corrosive affair with a married coworker.

Hadi’s presence in town begins to sharply divide residents. Hadi, who takes up political office, begins to suck up the town’s deficit , but that comes at a cost, and Gerry in particular, who has extreme libertarian views, sees Hadi’s generosity as what it is–a benevolent dictatorship. Using the anonymity of his blog, Gerry tries to flail citizens into action, but most people are far too happy taking Hadi’s handouts to complain or question Hadi’s decisions.

As the plot continues, Mark’s daughter, Haley, who serves as the battleground for her parents’ toxic marriage, grows up in a new America–an America in which the one-percent live in their own stratosphere while city budgets face shortfalls, small businesses fold, libraries close and homes across America fall into foreclosure at unprecedented rates. Howland has its year-round residents, the locals, who, in many cases, depend on income from the wealthy second home residents. Some of the businesses that spring up for the wealthy are totally inaccessible to the average local: the phenomenally expensive yoga retreat centre that’s booked up for almost a year in advance:

Rich people who led lives full of manufactured stress. Women who worked harder than they needed to, or women who didn’t work at all. Their hyper-refined problems expanded to fill the shape of expensive solutions.

Or the pretentious destination restaurant that serves 16 or 17 course meals, so expensive that the locals who can scrape up the money can come for a “special occasion.” Diners are given a booklet and a “small pencil, in case they want to record, for memory’s sake any details or impressions.”

Mark Firth tries to rise in American society in the shadow of Hadi, and we see Hadi, a man who has no emotional investment in the community, try to transform Howland into a personal fiefdom. In spite of the fact that Hadi is a prominent figure in the plot, his motives remain cloudy. The wealth he drops into Howland improves life, but there’s a cost that some of the locals are unwilling to pay. Hadi states that “democracy doesn’t really work anymore,” and then consciously or unconsciously proves he’s right.  The novel takes the town of Howland as its crucible and asks some important moral questions about the sustainability and future of American society. This is a story that begins in collective grief, purpose and cooperation and ends in divisiveness and an unsettling, uncertain future

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Hoodoo Harry: Joe R. Lansdale

Joe Lansdale’s novella Hoodoo Harry is one in the entry of Bibliomysteries (“a series of short tales about deadly books by top mystery authors”). Hoodoo Harry features Lansdale’s much-loved fictional duo Hap and Leonard, and since it’s a short trip with these two, I’d recommend it for fans rather than newbies.

For those unfamiliar with Hap and Leonard, they live in East Texas, outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Later in the series, they work at a detective agency run by Hap’s girlfriend, Brett. Hap and Leonard’s close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple. Hap Collins is white, Leonard Pine is gay, black, a Vietnam vet. Digging back in Hap and Leonard history, Hap, who was a member of the counter-culture, refused to go to Vietnam, and served time. The two men operate as a team, with Hap as our narrator, so the novels clearly lean towards the Hap side of things. Hap is often troubled about acts of violence that take place while Leonard isn’t troubled by moral questions.

Hoodoo Harry

In Hoodoo Harry, Hap and Leonard are on a fishing trip when a bookmobile barrels towards them:

As we came over the hill. the trees crowding in on us from both sides, we saw there was a blue bus coming down the road, straddling the middle line. Leonard made with an evasive maneuver, but by this point the trees on the right side were gone, and there was a shallow creek visible, one that fed into the private lake where we had been fishing. There was no other place to go. 

Hap and Leonard survive the accident, but the driver of the bookmobile van doesn’t. Turns out the driver, am orphaned boy named James, had been “couch surfing,” and picking up odd jobs in Nesbit–a town with an ugly history. Hap and Leonard are troubled by James’s death, and although his death was caused by a horrendous accident, they feel responsible. The fact that James was covered with cigarette burns and had clearly been tortured before his death indicates that he was running, terrified from some awful fate. And then there’s a question about the bookmobile. It disappeared 15 years ago along with its driver, Harriet Hoodalay, otherwise known as Hoodoo Harry. This was a cold case until the perfectly preserved missing bookmobile plows into Hap and Leonard.

Where has the bookmobile been for the last 15 years? Where is Hoodoo Harry and why was a runaway child at the wheel of a vehicle he couldn’t handle?

Anyone familiar with Hap and Leonard, who typically take on the cases of the disenfranchised, can guess that these unlikely best friends will investigate the case and find the answers. Race issues, as always, float to the top of the tale. Hap and Leonard operate in East Texas and Nesbit is one of those out-of-the-way unpleasant little towns where everyone appears to know everything about all the mostly unsavory residents.

The tale also includes Lansdale’s signature style and that is occasionally crude. It goes with the territory:

When I came to, I was lying on the ground on my side by the edge of the creek. I was dizzy and felt like I’d been swallowed by a snake and shit down a hole. My throat was raw, and I knew I had most likely puked a batch of creek water. 

For Lansdale fans, this tale is a short, fun trip, but it’s probably not the best place to start if you’re new to the Hap/Leonard team

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The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

“Everything that happened to you before you got here has either been forgotten or is better off forgotten.”

Adam Sternbergh’s book The Blinds is set in a remote bleached-out, dusty town called Caesura– a fenced area in Kettle County, Texas, “the third least populous county” in America. Caesura, a secret facility created by the Justice Department and maintained by the murky Fell Corporation, does not exist on any map or census, but its existence is the subject of internet speculation–“chatter of secret government camps and black helicopters, mind experiments and covert crackdowns.” The town is set inside a perimeter fence. There’s no hospital, no school, but then only one child lives there. There’s a rundown-trailer for the sheriff, a structure that serves as a bar, and a small library for those who can muster the energy to read. The town is run on a cash-less basis, but there’s a commissary, which has groceries delivered once a week, and a laundromat. There’s no internet, no phones, and only two cars–the sheriff’s pickup and another in case of emergencies.  The residents can leave if they want, but they do so at their own peril. It’s well known that a woman left with her son some years ago, and it didn’t end well.

The Blinds

So who lives in this sunbleached hellhole? Who are the residents of Caesura or the Blinds as it is otherwise known?

She looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their identical cinderblock bungalows, each with the same slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it all grow wild and just wait for whatever’s coming next. 

The residents are a blend of career criminals, the worst sort of scum–hired killers, serial killers, epic child molesters and even a few ‘innocents’ as they are called who were offered a way out for certain testimony. Instead of going into the Witness Protection programme, they disappeared, with new names, into Caesura, but only after having their memories wiped by The Fell Corporation. Over the years, and Caesura’s been in existence for eight years now, the memory wipe has been perfected.

He remembers something vaguely, as a kid, with his dad, in a dusty basement, with small windows, and the sound of tools clattering, but that’s where his memory gets ragged. Orson’s case, the doctors told him before he entered the town, was a deep dive; the relevant memories required something like a root canal for his brain. Plus he was one of the early ones, the original eight, back before they’d perfected the precision of the technique. Some of the newer people, they remember almost everything–childhoods, first crushes, wives, kids–except for the part of their lives they chose to forget.  With Orson, they scoured most of his memories, just to be sure.

So here you have a town full of vicious killers whose memories of their past mis-deeds have been wiped away. What can possibly go wrong?

That’s what happens when you wipe out a big chunk of a person’s memories: Fear breeds in the empty space that’s left behind.

Caesura, with its community of memory wiped villains has run smoothly for the past eight years, but cracks begin to appear. One resident commits suicide, and while the act itself isn’t a shocker, it’s the fact that a gun was used that is unsettling since “theoretically at least,” Sheriff Cooper is the only one who is supposed to have a gun. Then Cooper’s long-term deputy left in a hurry after the suicide, and he’s been replaced by Dawes, a woman who begins digging into loose ends. ….

Sheriff Cooper, the story’s anti-hero, is laid back and laconic, a style which causes him to project a lazy mind, but in reality he has the perfect temperament to run this hellhole. His temperament also matches the plot which unfolds layer upon layer.

Now he stands at a remove from the body in question, studying the scene with the weary air of a man who’s returned from  particularly tedious errand to find that his car’s been keyed.

To say more about the plot would ruin this book for others. I’ll add that Sternbergh’s style meshes perfectly with this dark tale that is creative and yet also oddly possible at the same time. The Blinds has to be one of the most unusual, interesting and creative books I’ve read this year. There are a couple of loose ends at the end of the story, but that’s relatively minor. It’s not often I come across a book and find myself thinking ‘this is really different,’ but Sternbergh created something new and plausible here.

Someone…. please… option this book for a television series

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Mrs Fletcher: Tom Perrotta

When I saw the title of Tom Perrotta’s novel, Mrs Fletcher, I thought immediately of The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson, and as it turns out, the connection wasn’t that far off. The titular Mrs Fletcher, or Eve, turns out to be a middle-aged woman who’s lusted after by a man young enough to be her son. This is a novel about growing up, growing older, and moving on in a brand new world where sexual confusion meets PC expectations. Perrotta’s light humour makes this story of human flaws and human failings a delight to read.

Mrs Fletcher

The novel opens with 46-year-old Eve packing up the U-haul and getting ready to send her only son, high school jock, Brandon, off to college. Brandon, who should be helping his mother is busy getting a farewell blow-job from his h.s. girlfriend, lithe cheerleader, Becca. Brandon actually broke up with Becca, via text, a few weeks earlier but nonetheless she arrives and breezily pushes her way into Brandon’s bedroom.

Eve, annoyed that Becca has spoiled her last day with Brandon, goes to his bedroom door and is shocked when she overhears a detail of her son’s sex life.

Mrs Fletcher follows two trajectories: Eve, divorced, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, and whose entire social life revolves around Facebook, vows to get out and ‘mingle.’ By day she’s the executive director of a senior center, but she enrolls in a night class: Gender and Society taught by a transgendered professor at the local community college. The small class is made up of a wide range of students, but a classmate, bar owner Barry, a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy” latches onto Eve.

“I’ve never met a transgendered person before,” she said. “At least I don’t think so.”

“Not that I’m attracted to her,” Barry added in case she’d misunderstood his earlier comment. “I mean, to each his own, right? But that’s a bridge too far for me. I wonder is she tells the guys she dates beforehand.”

“How do you know she dates guys?”

“Just the general vibe I’m getting. You think she got the surgery? I’m not really sure how that works.”

That conversation which is vividly real, is indicative of the book’s tone and main focus. The world has changed. Yes we have male and female but we also have “LGBTQIA voices,” and terms such as “cisgender” and “heteronormative” (I had to look up the definitions). Perrotta’s characters must negotiate this new world with its new terms, new rules. Eve for example, defends the professor’s right to be transgendered, and yet in her secret moments, questions the choice:

In a minivan outside a sports bar, however, the professor’s gender identity seemed a little more precarious, as much wish as reality. It was partly the timbre of her voice in the darkness, and partly just the size of her body in the passenger seat, the way she filled the available space. 

I can see who you were, Eve thought, One self on top of the other. 

As soon as this uncharitable image occurred to her, she did her best to erase it from her mind. She wasn’t the gender police. 

Eve’s life begins to expand into new territory, yet still there’s an emptiness. One night she receives an anonymous text: “U r my MILF,” bored and lonely, she surfs the internet and discovers milfateria.com, a site devoted to “Amateur MILF Porn.” Before long she’s addicted and “infected.”

The second story line follows Brandon who is out-of-his-depths at college, a place he chose specifically for its reputation of being “a party school and he liked to party.” A popular jack in high school, here, he’s an anachronism. He can hang out with other jocks, or he can pursue a girl he’s very attracted to: Amber whose politically active college life includes Autism Awareness.

Perrotta paints a lively picture of college life, and how the sensitivity of gender and gender issues create a minefield in modern society. On the two college campuses seen here, patriarchy is under attack, rape culture is vilified, and yet beyond the campus grounds we see the other side of sex–the stuff minus the philosophical discourse: casual hookups through tinder.com and the sex on porn sites–sex that seems to have escaped the rules of society.

In the porn world, no one seemed to have heard of sexual harassment. Doctors went down on their patients. Personal trainers fondled their clients. Underperforming employees found creative ways to save their jobs.

Given the subject matter, it would have been easy to dip into smutty territory, but this is not Perrotta’s aim. There’s a feeling of melancholy throughout the novel as we follow our troubled, confused characters. He shows us two people, mother and son, at important crossroads in their lives. Both Eve and Brandon face ‘the next stage’ and they both blunder through it. In this ever-shifting world, with the temptations of Craigslist, Tinder, and the internet, it’s hardly surprising that people may make mistakes about sex.

Mrs Fletcher has been optioned by HBO

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Filed under Fiction, Perrotta, Tom

The Confusion of Languages: Siobhan Fallon

“You become friends with someone you wouldn’t be able to stand if you actually had options.”

Siobhan Fallon’s richly textured novel The Confusion of Languages is set during 2011 in the American ex-pat community of the US embassy in Jordan. The story centres on the relationship between two of the wives, Cassandra Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw, both married to career military men, and both, due to their roles in a foreign country, shoved into an ill-fitting friendship. The novel examines conflicts between vastly contrasting cultures, the treacherous friendships between women, and the chasms between husbands and wives.

When the novel opens, Margaret Brickshaw has left her toddler, Mather, in the care of Cassandra Hugo in order to attend to the aftermath of a traffic accident. But as the hours tick away, and there’s no word from Margaret, Cassandra, bored and annoyed that she’s stranded with the baby, turns to Margaret’s journal, and there she learns some unpleasant truths about herself and possible clues to Margaret’s extended absence.

The confusion of languages

Cassandra and her husband, Dan, have already been in Jordan for a couple of years when Dan signs up to sponsor newcomers Margaret and Crick Brickshaw. Margaret, mother of a young baby, is new to military life. She doesn’t ‘get’ the rules of contact with locals, and her desire to see the ‘real’ Jordan and to be friendly infuriates Cassandra, but then again, Cassandra is annoyed with Margaret before she sets eyes on her. Margaret’s apartment is much better, but that’s not all, Margaret “blond and Brahmin thin” has “the sort of body that denotes an entire class system in America, its own regal title regardless of bank account or upbringing, Mayflower ancestors or cabbage soup diet. As long as the thinness comes with a decent set of teeth, the bearer of such luck has it made.” Plus Margaret has a sexually-charged husband and the child that Cassandra is unable to conceive. To Cassandra, Margaret “had it all,”

All this because biology favored the Brickshaws with a child. As if that’s fair. As if lucking out and being able to conceive isn’t enough, then the US government gives you extra bedrooms to pat your propagation of the species on the back 

Cassandra is a tricky character. She does things that no one can actually point to as meanness or sabotage, but her actions have that result nonetheless. Cassandra had another friend before, Rebecca Eisenberg, and while Cassandra says she was just being “helpful” setting up Google alerts to be sent to Rebecca about violence in the region, what was she really playing at? We first see Margaret through Cassandra’s eyes, and Margaret seems possibly, subtly bitchy, and yet when we read Margaret’s words through her journal, we see a very troubled naive young woman who feels guilt about her mother and is unsure of her husband’s love. Beyond that, we also see the country through Margaret’s eyes: Children “trying to sell eggs, eggs! arranged in a little pyramid on a handkerchief.”

We passed a park and I saw two girls swinging, hijabs fluttering over their heads, sneakered feet kicking at the the sky.

Crick and especially Dan remain mostly in the background here, but there are scenes that take place between husbands and wives that illustrate the sex divide. In one scene for example, Crick carelessly knocks papers off the bed without a thought that his wife will be the one who picks them up, and while Margaret acknowledges that “men rule the world,” (at least they do in the world of women married to career military men) she chafes against that. Of course, there’s a time when the men deploy. …

While a sense of impending tragedy gathers like a storm cloud on the horizon, the plot concentrates on the relationship between Cassandra and Margaret and their relationship to the local population. Cassandra follows the embassy guidelines to a fault, but she also holds any of the local help at arm’s length, occasionally dipping into abuse if she feels that they are slacking or becoming too familiar. Meanwhile Margaret “a force of minor collisions, setting off small earthquakes, never thinking about what her tremors might rearrange or crack,” stops at all the street vendors buying “things she doesn’t need.” When “fallen women and widows” pass from car window to car window begging, Margaret throws money:

Margaret in her breathable, no -wrinkle cotton-blouses, her three-hundred-dollar car seat in the back. Can’t she feel how much they hate her?

Margaret doesn’t recognize that the line between us and them is real. She’s infected with our great American hubris of assuming that deep down every single person wants the same thing: autonomy, freedom, democracy, independence. I try to tell Margaret things here are different, that our American tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breaker is not shared in a place where the literal translation of the name of the faith, Islam, means ‘submission.’ 

Margaret is open to friendships with Jordanians, but is this appropriate? Does her attitude, openness and naivete make her a better human being or a foolish one?

Years ago, I worked with someone who firmly believed that while most of us are too ‘small’ and insignificant to make a difference in the world, we can bring about change in our little corner of the planet. That question of making a difference in the world stayed with me throughout the book as I read about Margaret. Cassandra knows that no good can come from Margaret’s attempts to battle the culture–an idea Edith Wharton also explored in The Age of Innocence. Here’s an example: Margaret feeds the stray cats in her neighbourhood, but ultimately does she help the cats? To twist that question even further, what would ignoring the cats say about what kind of human being Margaret is? Ultimately does Margaret make her ‘corner’ a better place? We know we should adjust our behaviour depending on where we live, should we also adjust our morality according to location? Those questions stay with me after turning the last page.

Unusual, insightful and thoughtful, The Confusion of Languages will make my best-of year list.
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Filed under Fallon Siobhan, Fiction