Monthly Archives: April 2014

Book Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

It’s difficult to review this book without giving away spoilers, but here goes. Gone Girl is a gripping psychological thriller about the after-shocks of a toxic marriage, but it’s much more than that. It’s like a hall of mirrors or a series of optical illusions. Just when you think you have the two main characters figured out, Gillian Flynn delivers a punch to the gut.

Flynn spends the first part of the book meticulously constructing a complex mosaic, then she tears it down and reconstructs it. And then…well I can’t say what happens without revealing spoilers.

The story begins on the morning of the 5th anniversary of Nick Dunne’s marriage to Amy Elliott Dunne. The scene is deceptively normal. Amy is making crepes as Nick enters the kitchen. The only thing off-kilter is the song she is humming: the theme from MASH (suicide is painless). Nick goes off to work. He manages a bar with his twin sister, Margo. The bar was purchased with the remains of Amy’s trust fund. In the middle of the day he receives a call from a neighbor. Someone has apparently broken into their home.

Things happen rapidly from there. Amy is missing. Furniture has been overturned, indicating a struggle. As police begin to investigate, the reader learns some disturbing things about Nick.

Flynn tells the story in alternating point-of-view chapters, first from Nick’s point of view and then from Amy’s, through a diary that dates back seven years. Amy is the daughter of two child psychologists who gained fame with a series of children’s books centered on Amazing Amy, based on their daughter. The real Amy, though, is nothing like her fictional namesake.

Amy meets Nick at a party in New York City, where they both work for magazines. He loses her number, but they meet again seven months later and fall in love. They marry and it seems like a dream marriage, until they both lose their jobs. Amy loans her trust fund money back to her parents after they make a series of bad financial decisions.

The couple is forced to move to Nick’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, where Nick’s beloved mother is dying of cancer. They live in a rented McMansion in a half-finished subdivision along the Mississippi River. Amy is unmoored and unhinged. Nick is distant and uncommunicative, traits he despised in his own father.

Like many communities, North Carthage is ravaged by the bad economy. Its economic pillar, a tourist destination shopping mall, sits empty and becomes home to drug dealers and vagrants. The bar in which Nick and his sister invest, called The Bar, seems like the only sensible bet in town.

As events unfold, Flynn cleverly drops bombshells that cause the reader to shift loyalties among the two main characters. It wasn’t until about the halfway point that I figured out where my sympathies truly lied and I can’t say why without giving away key plot points.

I found the main lesson of the story centers on the natural human tendency to develop a persona to please another person. That is what Nick and Amy did and that was their undoing as a couple. It is especially challenging to be true to one’s self in this age of social media, where people can reinvent themselves and create a persona of their liking. This notion is not lost on Nick, who reflects at one point, “It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless automat of characters.”

Gone Girl garnered much hype in the months after its release. I’m skeptical of over-hyped books, but in this case, Gone Girl lives up to the buzz.

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Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Housseini

This is a sprawling work of sharp contrasts viewed through the long lens of a multigenerational family saga that tracks Afghanistan’s turbulent recent history, dating back to 1952.

It opens with Saboor, a dirt-poor laborer, wandering across the desert with his two children in tow. Abdullah, 10, has a deep attachment to his younger sister, Pari, 3. He comes to view himself as her protector. During the journey to Kabul, Saboor tells his children a frightening tale that portends what is about to happen to his family. Abdullah discovers that his uncle, Nabi, has brokered a deal with the wealthy family who employs him as a chauffeur and cook in Kabul. Saboor must sell his daughter to the Wahdatis so he can get his family through another brutal winter in the desolate village of Shadbagh.

The beneficiaries are Nila Wahdati, a beautiful, but tortured poet, and her wealth husband, who hope a daughter can bring happiness and purpose to their marriage. Alas, it doesn’t happen and when Sulieman suffers a crippling stroke, Nila whisks her adopted daughter to Paris, leaving the devoted Nabi to care for him.

While Abdullah and Pari are the focal point of the novel, Housseini jumps around, both chronologically and in geography, introducing characters with connections to the families. The stories are filled with heartbreak and separation. Iqbal, Abdullah’s half-brother, returns from a refugee camp in Pakistan to reclaim his father’s land in Shadbagh. Iqbal discovers a freedom fighter turned drug lord has built a garish, walled mansion on the property, where his wife and son are virtual prisoners.

A Greek plastic surgeon leaves his family and his wealthy practice to join a medical mission in Kabul to repair the faces of young children who are the victims of violence in the period after the U.S. enters Afghanistan to oust the Taliban.

There are other tales woven into this complex tapestry of love, betrayal, honor and sacrifice. Housseini is a highly skillful story-teller who manages to knit together a complex series of tales that tell a story of the human impact of Afghanistan’s troubled history.

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An Evening with Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb is one of my favorite authors. The themes in his work resonate with me. Interwoven in his stories about flawed characters struggling to find their way are themes of social injustice, racial prejudice and ways in which the powerful prey upon the powerless. And I like Lamb’s setting as his books are set in my home state of Connecticut.

On April 16 I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Wally Lamb sponsored by the Friends of the West Hartford Public Library. The author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Oprah Winfrey Book Club selections She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True (my favorite) and The Hour I First Believed, Lamb read from his short novel, Wishing and Hoping, and his current book, We Are Water, and shared insights into his writing process. Here are some highlights:

The genesis of We Are Water: During a radio interview with a local station after Wishing and Hoping was published in 2009, Lamb was asked what was next for him. He wasn’t working on anything, but he didn’t want to “sound dopey,” so he told the interviewer he might write about the catastrophic flood that devastated his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, in March of 1963. “It was total BS,” he recalled. The next day, the cousin of one of the families victimized by the flood called and put him in touch with her cousin, who survived the flood but lost his mother. The cousin, Tom Moody, was an engineer living in Texas. Moody and Lamb connected and shared their experiences. Moody later wrote a nonfiction book about the flood and Lamb used it as a major plot point in We Are Water.

Writing process: “I don’t have an outline. It doesn’t work that way for me,” he said. “A lot of people outline and work toward a preconceived ending. That is not something I can do. I always write in the first person and I let that person tell me what’s next and what’s next isn’t always chronological…It took me nine years for each of my first two books, six years for my third and four for We Are Water, so I must be doing something right.”

Transition from teacher to writer: Lamb taught English for 25 years at Norwich Free Academy and was later an associate professor who directed the creative writing program at the University of Connecticut. He runs a writing workshop at the York Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Niantic, CT. He said he grew frustrated as a high school teacher when he would write helpful comments in the margins of his students’ work and they would ignore them as they were only interested in the grade they received. He changed the format to a workshop so he could give feedback as the students wrote. “In truth I’m still teaching. It’s volunteer teaching now…As tough as the balancing act is, one feeds the other. I became a much better teacher of writing when I started writing…I threw out everything I thought I knew about how to teach writing and we would figure out what each person individually wanted to explore in their writing.”

Inspiration for his characters: In an interview with The Hartford Courant, Lamb said, “I’m always attracted to what outrages me. What outrages me more than anything else is stories about the powerful abusing the powerless.” He told the audience in West Hartford his characters are not based on his own life. “My characters’ lives don’t much resemble my own. What we share is that we are imperfect people seeking to become better people,” he said,

Why he writes: Lamb said he writes fiction to “move beyond the boundaries and limitations of my own experiences so I can better understand the lives of others…I write about people who have worse lives than I’ve had. I was only 21 when I started teaching and I realized a lot of people don’t have a fair shake. Life isn’t fair. I’ve always had a strong sense of empathy but it’s been honed through my writing where I can live life in their skin. That’s been a perk for me. It has stretched me beyond my limitations.”

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Book Review: This is How You Lose Her, By Junot Diaz

Infidelity is a major theme of Junot Diaz’s 2012 short story collection, This is How You Lose Her. If this was merely a recitation of the different ways in which men cheat on their women–and there’s a lot of that in the nine stories–it would be pretty unremarkable. But Diaz offers much more than A Cheater’s Guide to Love, the title of the last story.

Many of the stories center on Yunior, the character Diaz introduced in his earlier short story volume, Drown, and reprised in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior, often described as Diaz’s alter ego, is a wonderful character–a young man who wants to do right, but is caught between his upbringing and his internal moral compass.

In Yunior’s world, the men cheat on their women. He watched his father, Papi, cheat on his mother, and his brother, Rafa, cheat on women, often in the bedroom the brothers shared. In “Miss Lora” Yunior as a teen ponders this as he lusts after an older woman. “You had hoped the gene missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself.” These little asides to the reader, as if he is a confidante of the character, are a hallmark of Diaz’s work.

What gives these stories of heartbreak and betrayal buoyancy is Diaz’s shimmering prose, a unique blend of scintillating narrative, Spanglish and street lingo. Diaz writes with an energy and intimacy that keeps the reader invested in the story.

“Invierno,” one of the best stories, describes the arrival of Yunior’s family from the Dominican Republic to a gritty urban locale in northern New Jersey. Papi won’t let Yunior or his older brother, Rafi, leave their small apartment, but toward the end of the story, their mom takes them out during a snowstorm, viewing things they’d never seen in their homeland. “We even saw the ocean, up there at the top of Westminster, like the blade of a long,curved knife. Mami was crying but we pretended not to notice. We even threw snowballs at the sliding cars and once I removed my cap just to feel the snowflakes scatter across my cold, hard scalp.”

The collection ends with a story in which Yunior has an epiphany. Cheating on a woman he truly loved, Yunior’s heart burns when she breaks up with him. It takes him years and he still is not over her. And that’s when he realizes, in Diaz’s beautiful words, “The half-life of love is forever.”

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Book Review: “On the Wild Coast,” by Patrick J. Lee

Like the country where she grew up, Alice Burley, the main character in Patrick J. Lee’s brilliant novel, “On the Wild Coast,” is caught between two lives. Alice struggles mightily  to come to grips with her past, find her identity and gain inner peace. Alice returns from the comfort of middle-class London to the remote outpost on the eastern coast of South Africa after learning she has inherited her childhood home in the shabby coastal town of Port Victoria.

The flashpoint for this story is the mysterious death of Martin deVilliers, a celebrity journalist whose body has washed up on the shores of Port Victoria. On her way to the region, Alice offers a ride to Mendi Mkhize, the chief magistrate, whose car has broken down. Mendi has been dispatched to Port Victoria to investigate the presumed murder, which in reality means he must determine whether it was a crime against a tourist.

Alice must decide whether to evict two elderly aunts, Alicia and Phyllis, from the family home and they are not exactly thrilled to see her. Alice must also decide what to do about her own life. Suffering from bipolar disorder, Alice has become unmoored as she deliberately eschews her medication in favor of an elite surfer she meets on the beach. Simon Scully could have been a champion, except that he tanked in every big competition. Alice is attracted to him because he lives in the moment and he becomes her lover.

While she enjoys her days with Simon, Alice learns that Menzi has arrested Breakdown for the murder and is holding him in a locked room adjacent to the general store. Alice tricks the store owner, Sammy, into releasing Breakdown, whose only crime was stealing and wearing the dead man’s clothes.

Alice’s internal struggles mirror the messy adjustment that the African National Congress has made in its ascension to power in South Africa. At one point Alice recalls watching her nation’s first democratic elections from London. “The country seemed full of the jumbled traffic of those going upwards to power and wealth bumping into those tumbling down…Yet, in Port Victoria, behind the barrier of the hills, the change was different. It was as though the present had arrived without completely displacing the past, and the two were wandering around in a blend.”

Lee has created a rich and colorful collection of local residents, and the supporting cast lends depth and humor to the story. Johnny Fourie is a fisherman so tough that he survived 15 hours in the choppy waters and sauntered ashore to attend his own wake. Clive Gilman is the owner of the shabby post colonial Cape Hamilton Hotel. Bob Peace is a burned out DJ who gets stoned and plays rock and roll records at an independent station called Radio Freedom. Woodstock is an outcast who makes a meager living doing odd jobs for Johnny. And then there is Breakdown, a larger than life homeless man who “scourged himself a habitat in the tidal zone between the ocean and the town, between civilized and wild.” That succinct and vivid passage describes everyone in Port Victoria. All of the characters are from somewhere else and find themselves in this region between the civilized and the wild.

And then there is Dom Marias, whose presence is almost spectral. Marias, who ran a community health clinic treating rebels during the war for freedom, has turned to growing marijuana, but he is fiercely protective of the town and its people.

In the end, Alice must confront painful things about her past and it is in resolving these long ago hurts that she is finally able to move on. It has been said that effective endings must be both surprising and inevitable. Lee has managed to craft a thoroughly satisfying ending that does both.

 

 

 

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