Category Archives: Contemporary

‘13, rue Thérèse’ by Elena Mauli Shapiro

What an interesting concept for a book! In terms of form, 13, rue Thérèse is unlike anything I’ve read, with the possible exception of Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 bestseller House of Leaves (note to self: re-read that one for a review!). Though Shapiro isn’t easy on her readers—the novel is nonlinear, incorporates photographic images, fraught with footnotes and encourages online interaction—13, rue Thérèse is nonetheless a compulsively readable page-turner. Though not without its missteps, Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel is an exciting debut that I am excited to share with others.

In 1983, Shapiro’s mother salvaged a box of mementos from a recently deceased neighbor’s apartment in the building at the real-life 13, rue Thérèse, in Paris. That recently deceased neighbor is Louise Brunet, whose life is the subject of Shapiro’s novel. The box contains souvenirs of the owner’s life: love letters from World War I, mesh gloves, a scarf, photographs, “stray cash”. Shapiro connects the objects together with her imagination, wielding a beguiling tale of the many mysteries surrounding one woman’s life. As Shapiro proclaims in her afterword, “…[Louise] gave me the stars. I merely drew the constellations”.

What I appreciated most about this novel was the imagination of the author that created it. Shapiro manages to connect each of the seemingly random objects in the box together to create a plausible—if not uncomplicated—rendering of Louise Brunet’s life. Shapiro frames the story with the introduction of Trevor Stratton, an American professor teaching at a university in Paris. Upon his arrival at his new job, Trevor happens upon the very box Shapiro’s mother acquired in 1983 (placed there by Josianne, Trevor’s alluring secretary) and quickly becomes absorbed with its contents. By way of Trevor’s bewitching experience with the box, the reader is captivated not only by Louise’s fascinating life, but Trevor’s, Josianne’s and the many men of Louise’s as well.

While I loved the quirky nature of the mysteries of 13, rue Thérèse, these mysteries caused some problems for me as well. Essentially, there are just too many of them. As the stories of Louise, Henri, Camille, Xavier, Trevor and Josianne begin to unfold, I found the addition of Louise piano student, Garance, and her unique plight, a bit superfluous. While Garance’s set of problems do ultimately push Louise’s plot forward, I couldn’t help but wish that Shapiro had found a simpler way to achieve this and dedicated more time to either Trevor, Josianne or Louise herself.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Elena Mauli Shapiro’s debut. After getting a taste of this unique novel, I look forward to the publishing of more “interactive” books like 13, rue Thérèse in the future.

Advertisements

‘Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)’ by Mindy Kaling

What do you read when there is no time to read? My husband and I are wrapping up a move from our apartment into a house, and there has been very little time to read, let alone a place to do it. These are the times I reserve for celebrity memoirs: fast-paced, readable and easy to pick back up after the cable guy/movers/new neighbors are out of the way. This time I opted for The Office writer/actress Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), a funny treatise on romance, dieting, the creative process, and pretty much everything in between.

In order to pay homage to Kaling’s penchant for “pliests” (“a piece with a list-y quality”), I will conduct this review in the same fashion.

Why I enjoyed Mindy Kaling’s book:

KALING IS HONEST
It’s easy to tell when a writer, especially a memoirist, is being honest his/her thoughts and experiences. Though Kaling takes pains to stress that Kelly Kapoor, the boy-crazy narcissistic customer service rep she plays on The Office, is not a close iteration of her actual self, it takes an understanding of one’s own faults to play a character like Kelly so convincingly. Kaling’s understanding of her own hypersensitivity to actual and perceived social slights—as evidenced in chapters like “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back”—allows her to play Kelly Kapoor with hilarious accuracy.

IT IS LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY
After reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants last year, I had doubts about whether Kaling’s book would be as funny. I mean, come on, this is Tina Fey, creator of 30 Rock and former co-host of Weekend Update we’re talking about here. Alas, I was wrong. I attempted to read passages of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me out loud to my husband a few times, and more often than not, I couldn’t even get through them without dissolving into laughter. The “JLMP” section in particular will ring hilariously true to any female reader who once frustrated Cheesecake Factory servers by ordering one slice of cheesecake and a few diet Cokes with her girlfriends in junior high.

THE GOSSIP
Let’s face it, the reason we read celebrity memoirs is to get the gossip. And thankfully, Mindy Kaling delivers by offering readers a peak into the behind-the-scenes world of The Office. Readers get a feel for the set (not very glamorous), what the actors are really like (as cool as they seem), and a few amusing references to Mindy Kaling’s love/hate relationship with Rainn Wilson, better known as Assistant (to the) Regional Manager Dwight Schrute. There isn’t anything too juicy here, but Kaling treats readers to what feels like a true behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work with such a unique group.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading Mindy Kaling’s memoir and recommend it to anyone needing a break from more serious reading.

‘The Sportswriter’ by Richard Ford

As a twenty-six-year-old female, I am probably not the target audience for the male mid-life crisis novel, which, since its boom in the 1980s, is essentially a genre all on its own. But, alas, like the novels of Philip Roth before it, I loved and related to Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. Despite its measured pace and oftentimes frustratingly flawed narrator, The Sportswriter reveals elements of truth in the human condition that make it essential reading.

Despite the death of his eldest son, recent divorce, and self-imposed departure from Real Writing for a gig as a sportswriter, Frank Bascombe is pretty content. In fact, when the novel kicks off with Frank meeting his ex-wife at the gravesite of their deceased son on what would be his thirteenth birthday, Frank maintains the idea that “Tomorrow like all tomorrows could still be a banner day” (181). However, over the course of the novel, which takes place over Easter weekend 1983, Frank’s dreaminess (i.e. his “male” penchant for self-imposed alienation) begins to prevail over this optimism. As the events of the weekend go on (“and on and on” as some critics have said!), Frank experiences a range of events: a heartwarming meeting with his young son, a break with his vanilla-flavored Texan girlfriend, and a tragedy involving a fellow member of the Divorced Men’s Club. And as real life would have it, it is questionable whether or not Frank can find meaning in any of it.

What I loved most about this novel is the truth it reveals regarding the natural struggle we have as humans (and Americans especially) to reconcile our desperate need for human interaction with our innate discomfort with the “touchy feely”. Frank, like many of us, craves human interaction, but—modern man that he is—detests the “full disclosure” mentality that breeds it. This discrepancy is most clearly illustrated in Frank’s relationship with Walter Luckett, fellow member of the Divorced Men’s Club. Walter is like Frank in that under normal circumstances, he is just a regular guy with no desire to reveal his sensitive side to his fellow man. However, after his wife absconds to Bimini with another man, normal circumstances are negated and Walter desperately attempts to connect with Frank on a more emotionally intimate level. Unfortunately, however, Frank is not equipped to contend with such intimacy and refuses to provide Walter with the connection he so desperately requires.

While I believe I would love this novel for its content alone, The Sportswriter has a great deal to offer in terms of its style: specifically, its mastery of dialogue. Narrated entirely in the first person, Frank Bascombe’s voice is observant, analytical and entirely his own. But at the same time, the novel’s many examples of dialogue are depicted with a mastery that reveals a great deal about the other characters solely through their manners of speaking. For example, based on Frank’s perspective alone, the character of Vicki is a sweet Southern belle, all but begging Frank to whisk her off to suburban matrimony. However, via her polite-but-firm Southern intonations, she is, in fact, a fully realized woman who understands that she has too little in common with Frank to take her relationship with him any further.

Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter was a truly a great read. It is a testament to its quality that I cannot wait to check parts two and three of the trilogy out from the library as soon as possible!

‘The Lower River’ by Paul Theroux

This is the latest from Paul Theroux, the renowned travel writer whose travel writing I have regretfully never read. Having never encountered his fiction either, I was banking on Theroux’s stellar reputation when I purchased his new novel in hardcover. Unfortunately, however, The Lower River, was a bit of a disappointment. Theroux’s phenomenal writing ability saved the novel from abandonment, but ultimately, its flaws zapped the enjoyment out it.

Ellis Hock is having a late-life crisis. At sixty-two, Hock’s marriage has ended, his business has failed, and his daughter has essentially disowned him. Finding rare moments of happiness in the company of a friend-of-a-friend’s pet python, Hock reminisces about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, the most joyful time in the nearly elderly man’s life. Impulsively, Hock buys a plane ticket and takes off for what he believes will be a rejuvenating visit to Malabo, the remote Malawian village he once served as a volunteer.

As it happens, the visit doesn’t go according to plan. The villagers are starving, the school Hock assisted in constructing is in shambles, and the young village chieftain is a tyrant. Hock quickly realizes his former paradise has entrapped him, and he must orchestrate a plan of escape if he is to survive. Coupled with Theroux’s skilled prose, it is this question of whether or not Hock makes it out of Africa that kept me reading until the end.

The most disappointing aspect of this novel concerns Theroux’s beat-you-over-the-head use of symbolism. As any fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald knows, proper use of symbolism can transform a piece of fiction into something truly transcendent; but wielded poorly, it can be insulting to the reader. The symbol most detrimental to the work is Zizi, the sixteen-year-old attendant assigned to fulfill Hock’s every desire, representative of Africa’s innocence and potential during Hock’s Peace Corps days. Zizi is used so strictly as a symbol that she ceases to exist as a believable character. Not only is she devoid of a distinct personality, but her actions toward Hock are implausible, and quite honestly, a little creepy.

What is done effectively, however, is Theroux’s scathing criticism of the celebrity-endorsed charity culture that supports many Africans’ basic needs. Sympathetic everymen from more economically robust countries provide the monetary support for well-intentioned charities to orchestrate helicopter drops of food onto starving mobs of Africans, a public that is resentful of the treatment but simultaneously needing the provisions. The result is a violently embittered populace, champing at the bit to take advantage of Hock, the vacationing American with pockets stuffed with kwacha notes (i.e. money).

Despite its flaws, I am glad I read The Lower River. I learned a great deal about Malawi, a country I previously knew nothing about, and am now motivated to compare Paul Theroux’s fiction to his much revered travel writing.

‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Ever read a book compulsively over a few hours only to finish thinking, “that was just OK”? That was my conundrum of an experience with Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 debut The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides’s innovative narrative structure and unique plot had me deeply engaged, but in the end, the novel’s allegorical nature left me unsatisfied.

The Virgin Suicides charts a group of teenage boys as they obsessively monitor the actions of the five Lisbon sisters, their neighbors in a modest suburb of Detroit. The boys’ fascination is first a product of the sisters’ beauty, but their obsession escalates when Cecelia, the youngest, commits suicide at a party the boys attend. The novel relays the events that follow over the next year, culminating in the suicides of the four remaining girls.

One cannot provide an adequate commentary on The Virgin Suicides without a note on its construction. The action of the novel is relayed to the reader in the first person plural, nearly twenty years after the events actually take place. The novel has the feel of an amateur police procedural, complete with pieces of evidence referred to as “Exhibits” throughout. While I normally find it difficult to engage with a book that lacks a distinct narrative presence, the group narration in this novel feels appropriate, effectively portraying the “otherness” of the Lisbon girls as they self-destruct.

While the plot and narrative technique of the novel kept the pages turning, I ultimately had some trouble grappling with the extreme situations it details. Over the course of the relatively slim volume, five girls commit suicide (over the course of seven attempts), a fourteen-year-old is subjected to several occasions of statutory rape, and a group of hot-blooded teenage boys altruistically watch over their beautiful, female neighbors seeking to rescue them from their despair. While all of this makes for a hauntingly unusual read, the dramatic events of the novel begins to feel like allegory instead of a genuine portrayal of the real experience of having one’s innocence destroyed.

Finally, a word on the fish flies. As the child of suburban Detroit myself, I recall firsthand the surreal effect these smelly, fishlike insects can have on the neighborhood as they cover its every surface for a few irritating weeks each summer. Therefore when these nuisances invaded the Lisbons’ neighborhood, I understood viscerally that they were to be read as a sign of disaster ahead. As a reference point, here is an idea of what these insects are capable of:

Overall, I truly enjoyed the time I spent with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. It wasn’t perfect, but it is certainly deserving of the praise and high profile film adaptation it has garnered.

‘Bad Marie’ by Marcy Dermansky

Should you choose to read Marcy Dermansky’s polarizing Bad Marie (and I recommend that you do!), get ready for a wild ride. Anti-heroine Marie was the source of much pity, rage, sympathy and other varying emotions as I cruised through this fast-paced and unpredictable novel. But regardless of your final opinion of titular bad girl, Bad Marie teaches a lesson in love that is worth the read.

For a thirty-year-old ex-con, Marie’s life isn’t so bad. She’s managed to secure comfortable employment as the live-in nanny to a childhood friend’s daughter, Caitlin, and spends her days with the two-year-old taking lavender-scented bubble baths and eating copious amounts of macaroni and cheese. Unfortunately, however, Marie and Ellen, Caitlin’s mother, have a complicated relationship, and when Marie gets herself fired, it comes as no surprise that she doesn’t take it in stride. Marie promptly seduces Ellen’s husband and the two take off for Paris with the toddler in tow. Thus begins the licentious adventure of Bad Marie.

Unlike some readers, I never grew to love Marie, but I think I ultimately understood her. Certainly Marie is dealt a tough lot: her mother is unloving and her relationship with Ellen is fraught with envy and resentment. However, instead of overcoming her predicament, she wallows in it, using it as an excuse for bad behavior.

At first, Marie’s relationship with Caitlin isn’t much different. Marie frequently drinks on the job and disregards Ellen’s rules. But then, sensitive to the toddler’s unabashed dependence on her, Marie’s love for the child takes over. Though she puts Caitlin’s interests ahead of her own begrudgingly at first, Marie begins to do it instinctively and then tragically as the novel comes to its close.

In addition to the endearing Marie/Caitlin relationship, I also enjoyed the fish-out-of-water motif that permeates Bad Marie. In nearly every setting save prison, Marie is the outcast. As a child, she was a charity case in the company of Ellen’s family; in college, she was the only student that didn’t understand Ulysses; and as an adult, she’s a felon living with successful New York professionals. Dermansky effectively symbolizes Marie’s black sheep status as the English-speaking American struggles to communicate with both friends and strangers in their native lands. As a result, Marie’s relationships with these characters weaken irrevocably.

Marcy Dermansky’s gem Bad Marie is a quick, but memorable, read. I look forward to hearing more from this quirky writer in the future.

‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

There are authors who are great storytellers (Larry Watson), expert writers (Jonathan Franzen) and innovative stylists (Jennifer Egan) and then there are those rare authors who do all three: Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s Booker Prizewinner, The Blind Assassin is an eclectic novel that highlights her expertise in all three of these categories.

There are three stories at work in The Blind Assassin: the present day narration of Iris Chase, the heiress of a once prominent Depression era industrial giant, a science fiction novel-within-a-novel composed by two anonymous paramours and finally, newspaper clippings and correspondence, providing an unbiased perspective and the story that unfolds. The novel opens in the late 1990s as Iris, at age 83, reflects on the events leading up to her sister’s mysterious death shortly after the end of World War II.

Interspersed between the page-turning sections dealing with Iris’s youth and young adulthood is the nearly equally engaging ‘The Blind Assassin’, the novel-within-a-novel. At its most basic level, ‘The Blind Assassin’ is the bizarre story of the inhabitants of the planet Zycron as they ward off alien invaders. The paltry tale is devised by two unnamed lovers as they rendezvous in various rundown cafes and hotel rooms. Eventually, to the reader’s delight, through Atwood’s expert storytelling, the identities of the illicit couple are revealed.

While the story itself keeps the pages turning, Atwood’s writing shines throughout. In fact, not only is her style superb, but insightfully quotable as well. With Iris as her proxy, Atwood gives voice to various axioms of growing up and growing old. At one point, Iris questions her motive to document the story of her family’s demise lamenting, “Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants.”

Published in 2000, the format of The Blind Assassin is ahead of its time. Not only does Atwood weave two apparently unrelated plots into the same story, she tastefully inserts fictional newspaper clippings circa 1930 into the text as well. These clippings are not only fun to read in their period style, but they serve as well to provide an objective take on unreliable narrator Iris’s version of the events.

I haven’t always had great luck reading Booker Prizewinning novels (I still can’t seem to get through The Finkler Question), but Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin makes up for it. A fascinating story, great writing and innovative structure made for a great read that I highly recommend.