Annexed by Sharon Dogar
HMH, October 4, 2010
Curious to see what the fuss was all about, I took the book home with me and read it over the weekend. Annexed is told from the point of view of Peter van Pels, whose family hid in the Annex along with Anne's. I dimly remembered Peter from my own reading of Anne's diary, years ago. Dogar imagines what it would have been like to be Peter—to have to hide in the Annex, of course, but also to come to know Anne and her family, and to wonder what Anne was writing about him in her diary. I found that I wanted to know more about Peter and to think about what his experience of the Annex might have been.
As for the novel's sexual aspects, it spoils very little to say that Peter and Anne only share a few brief touches and kisses. Although I don't know whether or not the real Anne and Peter ever kissed each other, I do remember that Anne wrote about gradually developing feelings for Peter over the course of the two years they lived in the Annex together, and she also wrote about wanting to grow up, wanting to menstruate and to fall in love and to become a woman. Anne Frank was an adolescent girl, a young woman, and I can readily believe that she could have shared the kind of experiences with Peter that Dogar describes.
Dogar says she tried to stick as closely as she could to events that actually happened and were recorded in Anne's diary, such as the following scene, which takes place shortly after Peter's family arrives in the Annex:
I want to stretch out my arms and knock the walls down. I want to run so far and fast that I remember what it's like to feel my breath burn in my body. I want to move. I want to live. I want to . . .
I whistle. I whistle so loud that I imagine the whole of Holland could hear me. I'm a Jew. I'm a Jew! And I'm right here in the middle of Amsterdam. Hiding. See me! I take a big, deep breath and shout as loud as I can down the chimney.
"I won't come down!"
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
FSG • $25 • September 28, 2010
Readers have been waiting five years for another Cunningham novel, and I suspect they will be immediately drawn into the world of Peter and Rebecca Harris, a "happy" middle-aged couple in New York City. The word happy is in quotes because of Peter's constant, questioning interior monologue—"What if she is falling out of love with him? Would it be tragic, or liberating?"
Peter is a successful art dealer and Rebecca is an editor at an art magazine. Their world gets a jolt when Rebecca's younger brother, Mizzy (for "the mistake") comes to visit, eager to find work—"Something in the Arts." Mizzy's youthful presence causes Peter to question his life even more . . .
The excerpt below provides an example of Peter's thoughts early in the novel. He and Rebecca are on their way home from a party.
The cab stops for the light at Sixty-fifth Street.
Here they are: a middle-aged couple in the back of a cab (this driver's name is Abel Hibbert, he's young and jumpy, silent, fuming). Here are Peter and his wife, married for twenty-one (almost twenty-two) years, companionable by now, prone to banter, not much sex anymore but not no sex, not like other long-married couples he could name, and yeah, at a certain age you can imagine bigger accomplishments, a more potent and inextinguishable satisfaction, but what you've made for yourself isn't bad, it's not bad at all. Peter Harris, hostile child, horrible adolescent, winner of various second prizes, has arrived at this ordinary moment, connected, engaged, loved, his wife's breath warm on his neck, going home.
Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me, doop doop de doop . . . .
That song again.
The light changes. The driver accelerates.
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
HMH • $19.95 • September 1, 2010
I have been eager to read Scarlett Thomas' latest since I first heard about it back in March. As predicted, it's another book full of big ideas. This time Thomas' main focus is narrative—its limitations, restrictions and role in our lives—which she explores through the story of Meg, a would-be literary author who works as one of many ghostwriters for the Zeb Ross series of adventure novels.
Then again, perhaps it's wrong to call this a story, exactly. One of the many notions batted around in this philosophical novel is the idea of the "storyless story," a tale that refuses to follow the traditional narrative structure, and Our Tragic Universe can definitely be read as such. It's difficult to pull an excerpt from a book with so many threads—but in the one below, Meg is thinking about the ways in which tragedy is different from genre fiction.
Oedipus is an almost perfect example of the deterministic, cause-and-effect-based plot, where Y can only happen because I has happened first. . . . But every time I re-read it I marvelled at how a narrative could do so much more than just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle and an end, which was basically what I was always teaching the people on the retreat to do, and what I'd always done myself. Somehow, Oedipus seemed to dramatise a fundamental puzzle of human existence. Anna Karenina did this as well. So did Hamlet. . . . I could see that most narrative was an equation that balance, a zero-sum game, and that tragedy was special because you got more out of the equation that you put in, but I had no idea how to write like that. The mechanics of Oedipus were simple enough to grasp, but where did one get all that feeling from?
I'd once speculated about what would have happened if Zeb Ross had written Hamlet. There'd be no ghost, for a start. Or at least, the ghost would be reduced to a troubled teenager's hallucination, and Hamlet, with the help of his plucky love interest, Ophelia, would come to realise that his new stepfather didn't really do something as improbably and stupid as pour poison in his father's ear, and had in fact tried to save his life! Hamlet would start seeing a counsellor—perhaps Polonius, who dabbles in the self-help industry himself, would recommend someone—and come to terms with his bereavement and realise that it's OK for his mother to have sex with her new husband (although there'd be no 'rank sweat of an enseamed bed' or anything icky like that) and he'd go back to university happy, having now accepted the change in his family circumstances, with Ophelia in tow. Then I realised that if I'd written Hamlet it probably would have been like that too.
Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black & Justine Larbalestier
Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster, Sept. 21, 2010
Each story in Zombies vs. Unicorns is about either zombies or unicorns, although Garth Nix's story "The Highest Justice" blurs the boundaries a bit with a unicorn who can bring the dead briefly back to shambling life. Other contributors include Cassandra Clare, Naomi Novik, Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot and Libba Bray, whose "Prom Night" is a standout. By turns gory, sensual, funny and somber, these stories may surprise, disgust or delight you, but they'll surely change the way you think about zombies and unicorns. And vampires? Who needs vampires?
Here's an excerpt from "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Alaya Dawn Johnson, an impressive story by an author who was new to me:
Think of it like the best macaroni and cheese you've ever had. No neon yellow Velveeta and bread crumbs. I'm talking gourmet cheddar, the expensive stuff from Vermont that crackles as it melts into that crust on top. Imagine if right before you were about to tear into it, the mac and cheese starts talking to you? And it's really cool. It likes Joy Division more than New Order, and owns every Sonic Youth album, and saw you in the audience at the latest Arctic Monkeys concert, though you were too stoned to notice anything but the clearly sub-par cheesy mac you'd brought with you.
There's a bad drawing beneath the words, nothing like the blurry photos on the news, or the pictures you've seen of the corpses. The unicorn on the sign looks like one from the old fairy books, white, rearing, its mane flying out behind it in artful spirals. Just like a fairy tale, except for the fangs and the blood red eyes.
..."Maybe [it's] a fake one," says Katey, clinging to her boyfriend, Noah. "They have this patented process where they graft the horns of a baby goat together, and it grows up with one horn. Like a bonsai tree. We learned about it in Bio class."
I shudder and move away from the tent. Before unicorns came back, people used to do that and pretend it was this gentle, magical creature. No one realized the old stories were lies.
The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass
Pantheon • $25.95 • September 7, 2010
One of my favorite early scenes from The Widower's Tale, Glass's newest novel, is one such moment. In it, 70-year-old Percy Darling, who has been widowed for many years, journeys to The Great Outdoorsman to purchase a bathing suit--a preschool is opening in the barn in his backyard, and he can no longer swim in his pond in the nude. A sales clerk is helping him make his decision. Read the scene below, then tell us: What are you reading today? Will you look for The Widower's Tale?
“Hmm,” she said. “The pink pineapples would be a daring choice. You would turn heads in that one. . . . The hula girls are actually more conventional.”
I noticed that the pink pineapples (depicted on an aqua background) were indeed quite gaudy but ornamented a suit with a longer cut. Perhaps it would seem irrational to make the demure choice after having swum buck naked for so long, yet such was my preference. “Daring it shall be,” I concluded.
“You won’t regret it.” My handmaiden held out her hand, and I extended mine to shake it. But she was merely reaching for the hangers.
“Silly me,” I said when our hands collided awkwardly. “I thought I was to receive your congratulations. I will have you know that this is the first swimsuit I have purchased since I was in college.”
“Well then, I’m glad you’re headed back to the water,” she said.
I was about to explain my situation to her when I stopped myself. I laughed and shook my head.
“What’s so amusing?” she said.
“I’m having one of those—what youngsters so blithely call ‘a senior moment.’ I thank you for your cordial assistance.”
“A genuine pleasure,” she said, and she seemed to mean it.
At the cash register, I counted out exact change and told her I didn’t need a bag. I also remarked that I had not noticed her working there before.
“I started last month,” she said, “and I’m just part-time.”
“Well, I hope to solicit your sartorial discretion in the future.”
“What a charming thing to say.”
“Likewise,” I told her. “There is a dearth of compliments in the world these days.”
Room by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown • $24.99 • September 13, 2010
As a longtime fan of Emma Donoghue, I was eager to read Room the moment I heard about it. I took a copy home over the weekend, but didn't have a chance to pick it up until Sunday night. My plan was to read "just a few pages" before bed. An hour and a half later I had to force myself to put it down. Not since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have I been so compelled by a child narrator: just-turned-five Jack's account of his life as a captive in an 11 x 11-foot room with his mother is especially powerful because for him, it is not a nightmare. Thanks to his imaginative and loving mother, he is as close to normal as a child raised without other contact can be.
"Can they come here sometime for real?"
"I wish they could," she says. "I pray for it so hard, every night."
"I don't hear you."
"Just in my head," says Ma.
I didn't know she prays things in her head where I can't hear.
"They're wishing it too," she says, "but they don't know where I am."
"You're in Room with me."
"But they don't know where it is, and they don't know about you at all."
That's weird. "They could look on Dora's Map, and when they come I could pop out at them for a surprise."
Ma nearly laughs but not quite. "Room's not on any map."
"We could tell them on a telephone, Bob the Builder has one."
"But we don't."
"We could ask for one for Sundaytreat." I remember. "If Old Nick stops being mad."
"Jack. He'd never give us a phone, or a window." Ma takes my thumbs and squeezes them. "We're like people in a book, and he won't let anybody else read it."
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
FSG, $28, August 31, 2010
At this point about I'm about a quarter into Freedom, but I couldn't wait to share an excerpt with you. That same crackling dialogue that I loved in The Corrections is back; the same absurd family situations that make you think, "These people are insane." (And then, "These people remind me of my family.")
The novel starts with an essay called "Good Neighbors," the very same that The New Yorker ran in 2009. This introduces us to the seemingly perfect (but soon to become unhinged) world of Patty and Walter Berglund, a couple in Ramsey Hill, Minnesota. After their lives seem to collapse—their son's moved into a Republican family's house next door—the narrative turns to Patty's teen and college years, through her marriage to Walter. (You can read the first chapter of that section in The New Yorker, too.) Then, it comes back to 2004—and that's where I am now.
The excerpt is from the "Good Neighbors" section.
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like: What about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts O.K. politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labelled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Crown, $26, February 2, 2010
All the HeLa cells ever grown would weigh about 50 million metric tons, and HeLa cells are still used in labs around the world. They have helped develop drugs for treating numerous diseases, from influenza to Parkinson's. While this research was taking place—and pharmaceutical companies were making millions of dollars—Henrietta's family could not afford health insurance.
Skloot spent 10 years of her life working on this book, and over that time period she became close with the Lacks family, especially Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter and the heart of the book. The excerpted passage describes the moment Deborah agreed to cooperate with Skloot.
A few days later, ten months after our first conversation, Deborah called me. When I answered the phone, she yelled, "Fine, I'll talk to you!" She didn't say who she was and didn't need to. "If I'm gonna do this, you got to promise me some things," she said. "First, if my mother is so famous in science history, you got to tell everybody to get her name right. She ain't no Helen Lane. And second, everybody always say Henrietta Lacks had four children. That ain't right, she had five children. My sister died and there's no leavin her out of the book. I know you gotta tell all the Lacks story and there'll be good and bad in that cause of my brothers. You gonna learn all that, I don't care. The thing I care about is, you gotta find out what happened to my mother and my sister, cause I need to know."
She took a deep breath, then laughed.
"Get ready, girl," she said. "You got no idea what you gettin yourself into."
What are you reading today?
Learning to Lose by David Trueba
Other Press, $16.95, June 22, 2010
With the World Cup kicking off this weekend, it seems like the right time to read a novel from an international talent. David Trueba's latest work, Learning to Lose, even features a young Brazilian soccer player, whose romance with a 16-going-on-30 girl in Madrid is just one of the many threads that make up this multidimensional tapestry of a novel. The two meet in an unconventional manner:
Sylvia, alone on the street, walks quickly to release her rage. Mai's happiness is a betrayal, her tiredness a personal affront. She steps down into the street to avoid any unpleasant encounters on the sidewalk. . . . The ground is dry and the streetlights barely reverberate on the asphalt. the laces on one of her black-rubber-soled boots have come untied, but Sylvia doesn't want to stop to retie it. She takes aggressive strides, as if kicking the air. She is oblivious to the fact that, crossing the street she now walks along, she will be hit by an oncoming car. And that while she is feeling the pain of just having turned sixteen, she will soon be feeling a different pain, in some ways a more accessible one: that of her right leg breaking in three places.
What are you reading this week?
by Adam Ross
Knopf, June 22, 2010
The story is about video game programmer David and his obese wife, Alice, who is highly allergic to peanuts. Though David loves his wife, he often contemplates her death in the day-to-day routine of their marriage, and when she dies on account of her food allergy, David is the primary suspect. Throughout the book, Ross makes reference to Hitchcock films; Escher's Möbius strips; and Sam Sheppard of the highly public murder trial. I'll stop there in my summary, except to say that Mr. Peanut might just keep you up at night. Wrote Stephen King, in what has to be one of Knopf's favorite quotes of the year: "And it induced nightmares, at least in this reader. No mean feat."
Edited by the legendary Gary Fisketjon (who has worked with Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Donna Tartt and many others), Mr. Peanut is part marital drama and part police procedural, and as the opening paragraph demonstrates, it will hook you from page one. We'll be running a review of the novel and a Q&A with Ross in the July edition of BookPage, but based on the excerpt below, will you pick up Mr. Peanut?
When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God. At a picnic on the beach, a storm front moved in. David and Alice collected their chairs, blankets, and booze, and when the lightning flashed, David imagined his wife lit up, her skeleton distinctly visible as in a children’s cartoon, Alice then collapsing into a smoking pile of ash. He watched her walk quickly across the sand, the tallest object in the wide-open space. She even stopped to observe the piling clouds. “Some storm,” she said. He tempted fate by hubris. In his mind he declared: I, David Pepin, am wiser and more knowing than God, and I, David Pepin, know that God shall not, at this very moment, on this very beach, Jones Beach, strike my wife down. God did not. David knew more.