Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
St. Martin's, July 20, 2010
And I'm so glad I did. Delhi is an engrossing book, by turns romantic and down-to-earth. It takes the form of a travelogue: Miller sets out to walk through Delhi in a spiral, slowly moving out from the city's center at Connaught Place, and recording his impressions and encounters along the way. Miller is an appealing travel guide; a white Englishman married to an Indian woman from Mumbai, he's lived in India long enough to take the country's eccentricities in stride, but he's still enough of an outsider that he makes the reader feel they are discovering the city along with him. Delhi is a fascinating city with a long history and a rapidly approaching future, and Miller's many asides, footnotes and "intermissions" are as enlightening (and entertaining) as the journey itself.
Hidden away behind the construction site . . . is Agarsen's Baoli, central Delhi's oldest building. Six thousand years old, and built by the uncle of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna, according to its watchman. A mere seven hundred years old, according to historians. Agarsen was probably a thirteenth-century chieftain and a baoli is a rectangular step-well. Through a padlocked gate opened by a taciturn, bidi-smoking watchman, I climb up onto a large plinth from where one hundred stone steps lead down to the bottom of the well.
Although this is only my second visit, it is a view I have seen many times before, thanks to a Delhi photographer called Raghu Rai, with a Cartier-Bresson-like instinct for the decisive moment. In a photograph taken in 1976, a young boy is caught at the moment of launching himself from a wall into the waters of the baoli, a dive of at least twelve feet. Above loom some of the newly constructed high-rises of Tolstoy Marg and Barakhamba Road, but beneath is the ancient step-well. I ask the watchman if he has seen the photograph, and he stuns me by saying that he, Bagh Singh, grizzled and grey-haired, was that diving boy. He sends a young girl off to get a copy of the picture he has cut from a magazine and gets me to photograph him holding it. In the thirty years in which Bagh Singh has aged so rapidly, the water level at Agarsen's Baoli has fallen by twenty feet. A shortage of water is one of the biggest problems facing Delhi today.
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Bellevue Literary Press, January 1, 2009
Since then, review outlets have written about the inevitability of quality fiction sinking under the radar. (Tinkers was reviewed favorably in The New Yorker and Publisher's Weekly. Many other publications—including BookPage—looked it over.) And there has been some backlash, or at least raised eyebrows, at the surprise expressed after Harding's win. When the New York Times ran a piece about Tinkers' unlikely rise to fame, Jennifer Weiner retorted on Twitter: "Indie booksellers, book bloggers congratulating themselves for getting TINKERS sales all the way to...7,000" and "Then again, I also never thought Times would fail to review debut by guy w/Iowa degree. Doesn't that come free w/diploma?"
After all the write-ups and raves about Tinkers, I decided to see why the Pulitzer Prize committee called the novel "a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality."
I read Tinkers in one sitting, and though my expectations were incredibly (unreachably) high, I found the book to be deeply moving and beautifully written. It caused me to reflect on the small interactions that add up to a life, and the legacy we'll all leave behind. Tinkers is about an old man, a clock repairer, on bed rest at the end of his life. Most of the action takes place in his memory as he thinks about his father, a tinker. There are no quotation marks in the book, and the sparse dialogue feels like a smooth extension of the old man's thoughts.
The following passage (after the jump) takes place toward the beginning of the book, when the man (George Washington Crosby) decides to record his own oral history:
He began formally: My name is George Washington Crosby. I was born in West Cove, Maine, in the year 1915. I moved to Enon, Massachusetts, in 1936. And so on. After these statistics, he found that he could think only of doggerel and slightly obscene anecdotes to tell, mostly having to do with foolish stunts undertaken after drinking too much whiskey during a fishing trip and often enough centered around running into a warden with a creel full of trout and no fishing license, or a pistol that a doctor had brought into the woods: If that pistol is nine millimeters, I’ll kiss your bare, frozen ass right out there on the ice; the lyrics to a song called Come Around, Mother, It’s Better When You’re Awake. And so forth. But after a handful of such stories, he began to talk about his father and his mother, his brother, Joe, and his sisters, about taking night courses to finish school and about becoming a father. He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die. By the time the tape ran out an hour and a half later (after he had flipped it over once, almost without being conscious of doing so), and the RECORD button sprang up with a buzz, he was openly weeping and lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope. So deeply moved, he pulled the cassette from the machine, flipped it back over to the beginning, fitted it back into its snug carriage of capstans and guiding pins, and pressed PLAY, thinking that he might preserve such a mood of pure, clean sorrow by listening back to his narrative. He imagined that his memoirs might now sound like those of an admirable stranger, a person he did not know but whom he immediately recognized and loved dearly. Instead, the voice he heard sounded nasally and pinched and, worse, not very well educated, as if he were a bumpkin who had been called, perhaps even in mockery, to testify about holy things, as if not the testimony but the fumbling through it were the reason for his presence in front of some dire, heavenly senate. He listened to six seconds of the tape before he ejected it and threw it into the fire burning in the woodstove.
By now you probably know that Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil was published yesterday. This is Martel’s first novel since Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize and sold more than two million copies. (Click hear to read an interview with Martel about his new novel.)
If you’ve been following review outlets, you’ll also know that critics are divided over the novel. (I reviewed it for BookPage, and I liked it.) In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani uses adjectives like “misconceived,” “offensive” and “perverse” to describe the novel. In USA Today, Deirdre Donahue suggests that the book is “a masterpiece about the Holocaust.” In the blog world, Ti at Book Chatter calls Beatrice and Virgil “brilliant.” Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog says it’s “one of the most disappointing” books of the year.
My conclusion? Depending on taste, you'll either love this book or hate it, and you just need to read it to find out. It's a short read at only 200 pages, and I can guarantee one thing: Beatrice and Virgil will at least leave you thinking.
It is difficult to summarize the novel's plot in just a couple sentences, but basically the story follows Henry (whose life parallels Martel's), a novelist, who comes to have a weird friendship with a taxidermist who's writing a play. The play stars Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey, and Henry comes to see their story as an allegory for the Holocaust.
The passage I've chosen to excerpt is from my favorite scene in the book, in which Virgil describes a pear to Beatrice, who has never eaten or seen one before.
By the way: What are you reading today?
Virgil: If you could magnify it a hundred times, do you know what it would sound like, the sound of fingertips running over the skin of a dry pear?
V: It would sound like the diamond of a record player entering a groove. That same dancing crackle, like the burning of the driest, lightest kindling.
B: A pear is surely the finest fruit in the world!
V: It is, it is! That’s the skin of a pear for you.
B: Can one eat it?
V: Of course. We’re not talking here of the waxy, thuggish skin of an orange. The skin of a pear is soft and yielding when ripe.
B: And what does a pear taste like?
V: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or cinnamon?
B: I can.
V: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested, spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep to understand the allure of this beguiling smell—which it never comes to understand, by the way.
B: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
V: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
B: Oh, that sounds good.
V: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark.
B: I must have one.
V: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a little crunchy.
B: Like an apple?
V: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to. . . kissing.
Day for Night by Frederick Reiken
Reagan Arthur Books, April 26, 2010
It is often said that successful novels need at least two out of three things: good writing, good characters or a good story. That may be true. But in the best novels, like Frederick Reiken's Day for Night, you get all three.
Just a handful of pages later, we leave Beverly to fly to Utah with Tim and the lead singer in his band, Dee. A few pages after that, we're reading a deposition from a federal agent who's been tracking a suspected terrorist for the last 20 years. All of these threads, and more, come together in surprising, compelling ways. Poetic and moving, Day for Night is a novel to remember.
This excerpt is from the second section, told from Tim's perspective.
We have a song, which Dee wrote—she's written all of our songs—called "Close You Are," and unlike "Down in the Sea of Me," it isn't cryptic and it isn't about Dee's history of childhood trauma. What it's about is the idea that we're much closer than we think to the random people we see on any given day, that everyone in this world carves out a little groove and that although you may think your world is large you rarely venture far outside that groove. That there are other people in these grooves with you, that grooving, at least in this song, means to be dancing with the people in your groove. The chorus of the song—Close you are, grooving!—might sound dumb just to say (especially since people hear it as "groovy" and not "grooving"), but it sounds good when you hear Dee sing it. She jumps around a lot when she sings this song and it's fun to watch her. It's like she's two different people singing, one who sings Close you are and another who chimes in grooving! She seems so happy and clear, unlike in "Down in the Sea of Me." When she sings that song, you get scared because it's like she's turned into this big black hole and you're sucked right in. Her face turns mean and you would think a person with a face like that could kill you. A face like that you will keep on seeing in your mind and you'll feel relief when you drive home and know that face is just a memory. The problem is that when you're far enough away you'll want to see it again, this face that is cruel and luscious and arousing. You think you really might be willing to go down into that sea.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Random House, June 29, 2010
Count me among the obsessed. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an amazing historical novel that has it all—mystery, romance, adventure, betrayal and scenes with so much intensity, complexity and historical detail that you'll wonder if Mitchell was reincarnated from an earlier life.
The novel opens in 1799 in Japan, where the Dutch East Indies Company has a trading post at Nagasaki. The young Dutch clerk de Zoet arrives at the post with high hopes of making his fortune and impressing the family of his beloved fiancee, Anna. But soon after his arrival he is drawn to Aibagawa, a Japanese woman whose beauty shines through the disfiguring burns on her face. As he settles down to sleep one hot summer night with his servant Hanzaburo nearby, Jacob can't keep his mind off the alluring and mysterious Aibagawa:
Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubby-hole outside Jacob's door.
Jacob lies awake clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue's root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily he re-enacts today's scene over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut, and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window . . . Glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust.
Day break must be near. 1796's ledgers are waiting in Warehouse Doorn.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.
Beneath his glaze of swat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .
All you Mitchell fans: we know you can't wait for this one. But how about the rest of our readers? Does anyone plan to join me as a first-time Mitchell reader and dive into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?
Between Friends by Kristy Kiernan
Berkley, April 2010
Kristy Kiernan's third novel follows a contemporary family through some major turmoil. Sixteen years ago, Cora donated an egg to help Ali and Benny conceive a daughter, Letty. Now Ali wants to have a second child—but Benny isn't so sure. And neither is Cora, who has a secret she's not sharing with her very best friend. Kiernan is an insightful writer with a gift for dialogue—especially teen dialogue—that lifts Between Friends above the rest of the crowded women's fiction field.
"I'm not going to discuss having another baby when we can't control the one we already have!"
"She's not a baby!" I yelled back, matching his volume, tired of being on the receiving end. "They grow up, Benny, they grow up and they lie and they test you and they do things that make you crazy. That's what they do. That's not a reason to turn into a dictator, and it's not a reason not to have another one."
"Well, I think it is." He clenched his hands, looking for something to do with them, his face red and mottled.
I should have been terrified for him. He looked like someone about to have a heart attack, or a stroke. But instead, I was terrified of him.
"I'm not going to stay here when you're this angry, and I'm not going to expose Letty to it, either." I said, my voice trembling.
"If you walk out that door, Ali, don't be so sure that it's going to be open when you come back."
I shook all the way to Cora's.
(In the interest of full disclosure: Kristy Kiernan is among the authors who have occasionally written reviews for BookPage.)
The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw
Doubleday, April 6, 2010
I’m pleased to say The Swimming Pool has lived up to its own hype—and then some. It’s the tangled story of two families linked forever by a love affair and a shocking murder. Marcella Atkinson fell in love with her summer neighbor, Cecil McClatchey, but before their relationship could even get off the ground, his wife was murdered. Seven years later, Marcella’s daughter is hired to nanny for Cecil’s daughter; Cecil is now dead, but his grown children are spending the summer at the family’s Cape house. And then his handsome son, Jed, finds an old swimsuit in his father’s closet, and begins to connect the dots between his father’s affair, his mother’s death and this mysterious older woman, Marcella.
At the bottom of the closet, among the dust bunnies, was a half-crushed shirt box. It felt light, and he opened it expecting to find nothing, or, at most, some old, ill-considered birthday gift. But instead, neatly folded, there was a woman’s bathing suit.
He felt he was seeing it not only with his eyes but with his whole body. A one-piece, plunging neckline, dark blue with vertical white stripes. Almost clownish—but then he lifted it out of the box and held it up by the straps. Yes. He remembered.
How old had be been?—that afternoon by the pool, their pool, when Marcella Atkinson had been stretched out in a lounge chair, alone at the corner of their patio? She had seemed separated from the rest of them, from the party that was going on, not only by a few feet that the chair was pulled but also by her stillness and, Jed had sensed, her sadness. And her beauty. Her perfect legs and olive skin and dark upswept hair had not seemed to belong with the cheerful Yankees in their madras shorts and flowered dresses, grilling fat American burgers and drinking gin and tonics.
Faithful Place by Tana French
Viking, July 13, 2010
"Howyis," I said, in the doorway.
A ripple of mugs going down, heads turning. My ma's snappy black eyes and five bright-blue pairs exactly like mine, all staring at me.
"Hide the heroin," Shay said. He was leaning against the window with his hands in his pockets; he'd watched me coming down the road. "It's the pigs." . . .
"Francis," Ma said. She eased back into the sofa, folded her arms where her waist would have been and eyed me up and down. "Could you not be bothered putting on a decent shirt, even?"
I said, "Howya, Ma."
"Mammy, not Ma. The state of you. The neighbors'll think I raised a homeless."
Somewhere along the way I'd swapped the army parka for a brown leather jacket, but apart from that I still have much the same fashion sense I left home with. If I'd worn a suit, she would have given me hassle for having notions of myself. With my ma you don't expect to win.
Roses by Leila Meacham
Grand Central, January 2010
At 600 pages, Roses is the kind of story that you’ll read under your desk, at the dinner table and through the middle of the night until you get to the end. We learn in the opening scene that cotton plantation matriarch Mary Toliver has unexpectedly changed her will at the end of her life. Meacham hooks us by offering no real explanation for this drastic move, and then shifts to the beginning of the 20th century, when Mary first inherits the plantation. The entire saga—filled with heartbreak, betrayal, power struggles and love—spans nearly 70 years. Looking for a good old-fashioned page-turner to gobble up this weekend? Roses fits the bill.
What are you reading today?
He gaped at her, truly shocked. “But, Mary, why?” You’ve had a marvelous life—a life that I thought you wished to bequeath to Rachel to perpetuate your family’s heritage. This codicil is so...” he swept the back of his hand over the document, “adverse to everything I thought you’d hoped for her—that you led her to believe you wanted for her.”
She slackened in her chair, a proud schooner with the wind suddenly sucked from her sails. She laid the cane across her lap. “Oh, Amos, it’s such a long story, far too long to go into here. Percy will have to explain it all to you someday.”
“Explain what, Mary? What’s there to explain?” And why someday, and why Percy? He would not be put off by a stab of concern for her. The lines about her eyes and mouth had deepened, and her flawless complexion had paled beneath its olive skin tone. Insistently, he leaned father over the desk. “What story don’t I know, Mary? I’ve read everything ever printed about the Tolivers and Warwicks and DuMonts, not to mention having lived among you for forty years. I’ve been privy to everything affecting each of you since I came to Howbutker. Whatever secrets you may have harbored would have come out. I know you.”
She lowered her lids briefly, fatigue clearly evident in their sepia-tinged folds. When she raised them again, her gaze was soft with affection. “Amos, dear, you came into our lives when our stories were done. You have known us at our best, when all our sad and tragic deeds were behind us and we were living with their consequences. Well, I want to spare Rachel from making the same mistakes I made and suffering the same, inevitable consequences. I don’t intend to leave her under the Toliver curse.”
Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart
Harper, May 2010
Sarah and Nathan are just your average American couple: still in love after more than 10 years together, they have a toddler daughter and an infant son; Nathan is a novelist poised for commercial success with the release of his new book, Infidelity. But when Sarah learns that the book isn't all drawn from Nathan's imagination, what they thought they knew about their relationship is called into question.
Leah Stewart (Body of a Girl, The Myth of You & Me) is an acute social observer, and her take on this oldest of stories is worth reading. Told from Sarah's perspective, the novel puts readers in her place and asks them to consider the temptations and trials of a longterm relationship.
"Do you still love me?" I asked, as though I was just now following up on what he'd said as we got in the car. Two hours ago it wouldn't have crossed my mind to ask this question. Now I heard how tremulous my voice sounded when I did. I stared at his profile. The corners of his mouth turned down, as in a child's drawing of a sad face.
"Of course I do," he said, but this time he didn't sound sure, and I said so. "It's just . . ." He shot a look at me, gripped the wheel with both hands. "Sometimes, part of me wishes I didn't."
"What do you mean?"
"I wish I could say I didn't love you, or we were unhappy, or I was in love with her. At least then I'd have a reason for doing what I did."
"Yes," I said. "That would be much better." "You're gazing at me adoringly!" I used to cry, when I caught him looking at me, and he'd deny it, and then I'd insist that he was, that he was freaking me out, and I'd pretend to flee his presence, and he'd chase me and tickle me and fix me with wide eyes, a goofy smile, and say, "I love you, I love you, I love you, you can't get away."
"Let me go!" I'd shriek, laughing and squirming. "Let me go!"
"I'm sorry," he said now. "I don't know what I'm saying. I don't really mean any of that. I love you. I just feel so bad."
I said nothing, though what I wanted to say was, Yes, you love me, you do, and how could you ever for one moment wish that away?