Archive for the ‘Fiction’ tag

The Bowl Is Already Broken, Mary Kay Zuravleff   1 comment

Posted at 2:54 pm in Book review

Something sinister is afoot at the Museum of Asian Art. Its longtime director Joseph Lattimore has suddenly and inexplicably quit, leaving his diminutive and squeaky-voiced lieutenant Promise Whittaker in charge. One curator is hell-bent on acquiring a bowl that belonged to Thomas Jefferson; another is determined to have a son, and has been pilfering her department’s travel funds to buy fertility treatments. But why did the director leave? And why is a workman employed by a fast-food company measuring the conference room?

The museum, not coincidentally, resembles the Freer Gallery (its scurrilous overlords are the National Institution of Science and Art in Washington, DC). The director’s hasty departure turns out to have everything to do with the museum’s propitious location next to a metro exit, and the fact that most of its visitors are tourists in search of food and bathrooms, not lovers of Asian art.

Promise, navigating treacherous straits at work while dealing with unexpectedly tricky events at home, is in over her head: while Joseph, having run away to an archaeological dig in the Taklamakan Desert, is having troubles of his own. But, amidst the fragments, not all is broken.

Zuravleff delightfully skewers the museum world, and peoples it with likable and engaging characters. A lovely novel.

Written by Lorin on April 22nd, 2011

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The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman   no comments

Posted at 11:29 pm in Book review

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is that rare thing in fiction, a novel set within an office. The office in question belongs to a fading international newspaper in Rome whose rather fractious employees are seemingly united only by their occasionally grudging dedication to the paper.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different member of the staff–from Editor to CFO–plus a section about a reader.

The stories are all tragicomic in their own ways, perhaps reflecting the gloom hanging over the newspaper industry these days. The reader, Ornella de Monterrecchi, is particularly memorable: feeling compelled to read each edition completely, she is now fifteen years behind, and has banned all modern technology and news-conveying devices from her house so as not to encounter any plot spoilers. Ornella’s son Dario, though he does not merit a chapter of his own, weaves in a pleasantly conniving fashion through the other characters’ lives.

The longer sections are interspersed with a history of the paper, which was founded by an American millionaire industrialist fifty years earlier, for somewhat mysterious reasons. These become clear at the end, in a genuinely elegant resolution. The Imperfectionists paints incisive portraits of both the state of the newspaper industry and some highly memorable characters. Brilliant and un-putdownable: a terrific first novel.

Written by Lorin on September 22nd, 2010

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Solar, by Ian McEwan   no comments

Posted at 3:06 pm in Book review

Ian McEwan has long been concerned with climate change, but had never found a way to put it into a novel–sensibly wanting to avoid the polemic- disguised-as-fiction problem–until he was invited to a gathering of Nobel Prize winners. At a recent reading at the Folger Theatre, he described the people he met there. “You know how you’re shaking a politician’s hand, but he’s already looking past you to see if someone more important has arrived? These men–and they were all men–were like that, but by a factor of twenty.” And McEwan realized that he had his novel.

Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a piggish, serially philandering physicist, who decades previously did the work (on Einstein’s photovoltaics) that led to his Nobel Prize. Nobel prizes in physics are always won for breakthroughs by young scientists, and in Beard’s case this seems to have had roughly the effect that early stardom often has on child actors. Ever since, Beard’s life has been a round of speeches, honorary degrees, chairmanships of committees, and teaching posts that involve no teaching, all full of glory, but devoid of real work or meaning. The novel is told entirely from Beard’s point of view: selfish, irresponsible and immoral (much like the attitudes that have ushered in this crisis) but often very funny.

Beard has just become titular head of the National Center for Renewable Energy, notwithstanding his skepticism on climate change and fundamental disinterest in world-saving activities. To his dismay, his fifth wife Patrice, in unwelcome contrast to all of his previous wives, has responded to his most recent infidelity by taking a lover. To his even deeper chagrin, this has made her more, not less, attractive to him. At the Center, he finds himself unable to follow the explanations of the young physicists working there; even worse, in an idle comment, he committed most of the Center’s resources to a valueless project.

Even a trip to the Arctic, where he is in stark contrast to his idealistic  ship-mates, does not stir his his environmental conscience. The trip is hilarious, with Beard narrowly escaping being eaten by a polar bear, and the ship’s uncontrollably untidy boot room evoking both humanity’s failure to control nature and the very messy id beneath Michael Beard’s ego. A comic high point arrives when Beard takes aim at an artist who carelessly invokes Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, furiously striking out at what Murray Gell-Mann so felicitously called quantum flapdoodle.

But when a brilliant young colleague accidentally dies in Beard’s living room, he sees the chance to begin anew. After framing his wife’s lover for murder, Beard steals his colleague’s plan to create energy through artificial photosynthesis. Finally convinced of climate change, he begins working furiously to save the planet. He is no more palatable a human being than before, all of his moral inclinations (assuming he has any) channeled into his work. He is a familiar type–if a heavily exaggerated version thereof–in the environmental world, which raises the interesting question of just what part altruism and what part messianic drive underlie this work.

There is little to admire about Beard, dishonest, self-centered, mostly devoid of morals or decency, prone to extreme overeating, his early genius seemingly exhausted in his Nobel prize calculations. But he is not a caricature. There are aspects of Beard that everyone can relate to, in particular his tendency to eat too much. Beard is difficult to sympathize with, but not impossible to understand.

People can always redeem themselves, but don’t tend to do so in response to any particular thing or on any particular schedule.  It is to McEwan’s credit that he allows Beard not to grow, not to draw any human lessons from these events. But though Solar ends bleakly, it is a deeply funny and altogether admirable novel.

Written by Lorin on June 19th, 2010

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Double Negative, by David Carkeet   1 comment

Posted at 9:24 pm in Book review

Academia has long been excellent fodder for fiction, from David Lodge to Amanda Cross.  In Double Negative, David Carkeet–somewhere in between these two writers, though less gifted than Lodge and, happily, less cerebral than Cross–draws a highly entertaining picture of a quarrelsome group of linguists who study language development in children. They work at an institute that doubles as a day care center, where they record every utterance of their small charges.

The resident social misfit genius is Jeremy Cook, eternally irritated by his colleagues and convinced that the feeling is mutual.  The colleague who is his chief rival with the female graduate students who arrive every summer draws his particular ire.  Nerdy in the extreme, Cook subsists off revolting but efficient “grunt meals” so as not to lose any research time.

The institute’s uneasy peace is shattered when a linguist dies under suspicious circumstances, and Cook is framed for the murder. As he tries to extricate himself–even occasionally interrupting his studies of toddlers’ use of made-up words–he is distracted by a beautiful graduate student, his irritating colleagues (who appreciate him more than he imagines), and an idiosyncratic police detective.

By the end, Cook–an interesting and likable, if flaky, character–has learned something about relationships, and, mercifully, food. The solution to the mystery is truly original and clever, as is the entire novel.  It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Double Negative is the first volume in a trilogy: I am looking forward to reading the other two.

Written by Lorin on May 26th, 2010

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Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett   no comments

Posted at 9:13 pm in Book review

Bel Canto–which means “beautiful singing” in Italian–takes place in the grand house of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country. An illustrious and international set of guests has been enticed there by the host country, which has hopes of foreign investment. The guests have ostensibly come to celebrate the birthday of a successful Japanese businessman, but really want to hear Roxane Coss, the most celebrated soprano in the world, sing. (She is strikingly, though apparently accidentally, like Renee Fleming.)

The house is taken over by terrorists, who, frustrated in their attempts to kidnap the President, take the guests hostage instead. Thus begins a long process of terrorists and hostages trying to live together in the same house–and in some cases, coming to respect and like each other. This constitutes what I suspect is a very good depiction of Stockholm syndrome*.

The characters–the Vice President, who comes into his element serving as host to his fellow hostages, terrorists (mostly but not entirely male), a clutch of international businessmen and diplomats, the opera singer, who sings daily, casting a kind of spell over the house, a laconic Swiss Red Cross officer, and a brilliant young Japanese translator, who in admirable-Crichton fashion becomes the most useful and sought-after person in the group–are credibly and fascinatingly drawn, with no one wholly admirable or not. Bel Canto ends in the same vein: not all good and not entirely bad; with opera and tragedy closely intertwined.

*The novel’s events are loosely based on an actual terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima in 1996. The term “Lima syndrome,” which describes abductors being fond of their hostages, was coined from it.

Written by Lorin on May 26th, 2010

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Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge   2 comments

Posted at 4:24 pm in Book review

Desmond Bates is, on the face of it, a recognizable David Lodge character–a hapless retired professor of linguistics at a fictional northern university–but both he and Deaf Sentence, Lodge’s fourteenth novel in which he stars, are, while still funny, more melancholy than Lodge’s previous work.

Desmond left the university when a departmental reorganization, along with his increasing deafness (which mirrors Lodge’s own hearing loss), made retirement appear to be a good idea. Four years later, he is increasingly restless and plagued by physical problems. By contrast, his wife Fred is running a successful interior design shop; and having updated her appearance to befit an upscale shop owner, she now looks younger and more beautiful than ever. To Desmond, the eight-year gap between their ages–which hadn’t seemed very large–appears to be an ever-widening chasm, exacerbated by the fact that he finds it more and more difficult to hear his wife.

Into this rather fraught situation comes Alex Loom, a graduate student working on the linguistics of suicide notes, whom Desmond has unwittingly agreed to meet. (The novel opens on Desmond pretending to follow what Alex is saying at a noisy and crowded party.) As Desmond becomes her unofficial thesis adviser, she is gradually revealed to be both mendacious and unstable, in a way that threatens to unravel Desmond’s quiet existence.

As the pun of the title suggests, Deaf Sentence makes much of the humor of deafness. Blindness is tragic and deafness comic, Desmond explains, and there are a number of deeply funny situations in which he misunderstands what he is hearing. Milton’s lament: “Oh dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon/Irrecoverably dark, without all hope of day” doesn’t have quite the same pathos when applied to deafness, he notes: “Oh deaf, deaf, deaf, amid the noise of noon…”

But deafness is in fact tragic. Desmond speaks movingly of Beethoven and Philip Larkin’s loss of hearing, and often refers to the similarity between the words ‘deaf’ and ‘dead’, in both wordplay and more serious allusions to the eternal silence that looms over him. Gradually, Desmond achieves a kind of acceptance of both.

Deaf Sentence is not all it could be: the Alex Loom story peters out rather than being resolved more effectively. But it is funny and profound and full of lovely and fascinating allusions to linguistics and art and literature; to my mind, it is Lodge’s most successful novel since Small World.

Written by Lorin on May 17th, 2010

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Twilight (Twilight, #1) by Stephenie Meyer   no comments

Posted at 10:36 pm in Book review

Twilight is the first volume of Stephenie Meyer’s staggeringly successful series, which I had managed to be only dimly aware of until I found it in paperback at Manhattan’s aptly-named Books of Wonder.

Bella Swan, who serves as the narrator, has moved from Phoenix (which she inexplicably loves) to Washington State to live with her father. Bella was not popular at her old school, but this does not seem to be the whole reason for her move. Things have changed at her new school, where she has attracted the attention of the beautiful, but odd and stand-offish, Cullen family. Edward Cullen in particular becomes her friend.

The Cullens turn out to be vampires, though of an unusually scrupulous sort who do not drink human blood. Skirmishes with less-friendly vampires ensue, as Bella and Edward try to stifle their growing–and dangerous–feelings for each other.

The plot moves along briskly, and is entertaining. But having finished Twilight, I didn’t feel especially driven to read the next volume in the series. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of compelling. Fun, though.

Written by Lorin on March 15th, 2010

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