Tag Archives: new books

‘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.

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‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

I’m on the fence about Paula McLain’s bestselling new novel The Paris Wife. On the plus side, the subject matter was fascinating. McLain’s novel is the fictional memoir of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Because Hemingway himself documented this time period so assiduously in The Sun Also Rises and later in A Moveable Feast, it seemed at times that McLain merely had to add the dialogue to make the story come alive. With all of these great sources to work with, however, comes the stark revelation that the characters of the novel were not really characters at all; instead, they revealed themselves to be deeply flawed human beings. Because of this, I struggled to sympathize with anyone in this otherwise enjoyable historical novel.

In college, my Survey of American Literature Post-1870 class was by far my favorite. It was in this class that I learned to love the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and other luminaries of the Lost Generation. Therefore, to read a novel rich with images of Jazz Age Paris like the Closerie des Lilas—the famous café in which Hemingway did much of his writing—and the Dingo Bar—an oft-mentioned nightclub frequented by the Hemingways’ smart set—was a treat I was happy to indulge in.

Unfortunately, however, while I can appreciate what I think McLain aimed to do with The Paris Wife—add depth to a woman history has reduced to “Hemingway’s Paris Wife”—McLain ultimately proves Hadley to be a woman who embraced convention despite being married to a man famous for rejecting it. For all of the melodramatic musings about the “great love” that existed between Ernest and Hadley, it seemed clear to me that the fact that the marriage lasted a brief five years should serve as a testament to the poor match that it was. Hadley, however, wanted her marriage to last and went to great and desperate lengths to ensure that it did (I’m referring to the absurd “one hundred day challenge” here!). Unfortunately, Hadley’s desperation drags on a little too long and by the end, I couldn’t help but feel glad to be rid of the protagonist I originally wanted to root for.

While the premise of The Paris Wife is alluring, Hadley’s character development ultimately left me feeling frustrated with the novel. With that said, The Paris Wife is still worth a look for fans of Hemingway and the other famous artists of the Lost Generation.

‘American Boy’ by Larry Watson

Larry Watson’s new novel American Boy is a classic coming-of-age story. Despite the fact that many novelists before him have worked to perfect this theme, Watson’s take, for me, was especially resonant with its classically Midwestern setting and characters. This, coupled with Watson’s wonderful sense of language, made for a great winter read.

Matthew Garth is Midwestern to the core, born and raised in the small town of Willow Falls, Minnesota. After the death of his father several years before the action of the novel begins, the Dunbars, Matt’s best friend Johnny’s family, comprise Matt’s second home. Like Johnny, Matt idolizes Rex Dunbar, Johnny’s father and the town’s respected doctor. In fact, Johnny and Matt spend much of their time following the doctor around, gleaning information about the profession as they aspire to become physicians themselves.

Then, on Thanksgiving Day 1962, Matt and Johnny volunteer to help Dr. Dunbar locate a girl who has been shot and subsequently change their lives forever. Once the girl, Louisa Lindahl, is found, the doctor treats her wound and the Dunbars invite her to live with them as she recovers. Matt quickly develops an intense crush on the mysterious girl and as a result, becomes obsessively involved with the Dunbars. As his relationship with the family intensifies, Matt painfully discovers that the Dunbars are far from deserving of the pedestal he has placed them on.

For all of its poignant insight on American life and the human condition, American Boy is also a bona fide page-turner. The story of Matt and the Dunbars is compelling and well paced, a testament to Watson’s superior story-telling ability. Complementing the action of the story is the language. Watson evokes Minnesota’s barren winter climate with his clear, stark language and uncomplicated imagery. Altogether these achievements make for a novel I was tempted to read in one sitting.

Though the coming-of-age story is nothing new in American letters, it is always a treat when an accomplished author offers his take on the motif. Larry Watson is one such writer and has certainly gained a fan in me with American Boy.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

You know you’ve read a good book when you care enough about it has to say that you disagree with it. I’ve never read Julian Barnes before, but I’m very glad I changed this with The Sense of an Ending. Winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for its “thoughtfulness”, The Sense of an Ending is a short novel that forces the reader to review his/her own life through the lens of the story.

After a brief period of excitement in adolescence, Tony Webster glides complacently through life. He marries a nice, predictable woman, finds a decent career, fathers a healthy, if unexceptional, daughter, amicably divorces and quietly retires. Rather than considering himself a “coward” in life, the now middle-aged Tony contends that he possesses “an instinct for survival, for self-¬preservation”. However, when his college girlfriend’s mother, referred to as Mrs. Ford, bequeaths to him a modest sum of money and the rights to an old school friend’s diary, Tony begins to question his reading of the past and the decisions he has made.

Much of the narrative of The Sense of an Ending is tinged with regret. Tony clearly considers his adolescence and college years spent with fellow idealists Colin, Alex, Adrian and Veronica his high point. He fondly and vividly remembers philosophically charged exchanges with teachers and discourses on living an existential life with his friends, all the while glossing over his relationship with his now ex-wife and the birth of his daughter. Even when the mystery of Mrs. Ford’s bequest begins to unravel, Tony never ceases to regret the course of his own life. Frustratingly, even at the end, Tony is incapable of finding meaning or beauty in the choices he has made and the life he has lead.

My frustration with the protagonist in The Sense of an Ending is the reason I enjoyed this book so much. I expected that once Tony uncovered the truth of the events of his youth, he would come to appreciate his own life and relationships. When he did not, I found myself dissatisfied and had to ask myself why this was the case. I love that Barnes leads his readers on a journey through Tony’s life for 163 pages and then asks them to continue that journey for themselves when the story ends. The Man Booker Prize is much deserved for this “thoughtful” novel.

‘You Deserve Nothing’ by Alexander Maksik

Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing is a great example of why I love Europa Editions. With Europa Editions you can count on quirky, contemporary reads told from a new perspective, and this is undoubtedly what you’ll find here. In You Deserve Nothing, a provocative and inspiring teacher, Will Silver, influences high school students Gilad and Marie in a profound way. In a compelling, narrator-jumping style, Maksik manages to offer a fresh take on the idea of moral responsibility in a high school setting.

While the plot of this novel has been done before—a young, hip high school teacher engages in an inappropriate relationship with a student—Maksik’s Parisian setting and discourses on existentialism render the trope anew. Will, in his early thirties and recovering from the difficult breakup of his marriage, is teaching in his third year at the International School of France. Gilad, the son of an American diplomat, is privileged and well-travelled, susceptible to the influence of role models at school as an alternative to his abusive father at home. Like Gilad, Marie’s parents are intensely critical of her, leaving her desperate for any type of approval she can manage from authority figures at school. Through the interactions of these three characters, Maksik asks his readers examine the boundaries of morality and determine to what extent we, as humans, should be held responsible for our actions.

There is one word I can ascribe to both the strengths and weaknesses of You Deserve Nothing: indulgence. Maksik, a part-time resident of Paris, treats his readers to a local’s version of the City of Light. His characters are alternately seen stopping into the corner boulangerie on the way to a tryst, spending Saturday morning at an outdoor café sipping café au lait and reading Camus, and taking part in an defiantly anti-American war protest. While this imagery alone is enough to hook any Francophile, Maksik also endows his prose with lengthy classroom passages expounding on the ideas of philosophical heavyweights Sartre, Faulkner and Keats. While I actually enjoyed all of this romanticized imagery, Maksik’s indulgence lost much of its appeal with regard to the surprisingly explicit sex scenes. For me, the detailed account of Will and Marie’s affair cheapened the novel, lending itself to a younger, “YA” audience.

Overall, Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing is a treat of a novel. I look forward to reading more from this talented writer now that his first novel is successfully under his belt.

‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

I had a feeling I was going to like The Marriage Plot, the latest from Pulitzer Prizewinner Jeffrey Eugenides. The novel centers around three Ivy League college students just after their graduation—a time of life I am very familiar with as a member of the Arizona State Unviersity Class of 2007. In fact, I couldn’t help but find comparisons to my own post-collegiate life in all three of Eugenides’s main characters (save for manic depression, thank goodness). This believability, partnered with an engaging narrative and seductive literary backdrop, made this novel a recent favorite of mine.

As the title suggests, The Marriage Plot contains a love story. Fortunately, however, it is much more than that. Like the classics of the Regency and Victorian eras it references, this novel explores that critical juncture in a young person’s life in which the trajectory of the rest of his/her adult life is determined. However, while Jane Austen and George Eliot were required to focus their plots around the social demand of marriage, the characters in Eugenides’s novel have many other options.

Madeleine Hanna loves books. This much is clear by the opening paragraph: a detailed chronicle of the contents of the heroine’s library. In college, however, Madeleine is distracted—as basically all young people are—by the opposite sex. She meets the studious Mitchell Grammaticus as a freshman, but he quickly falls into the much maligned “friend zone”. While he continues to pine for her, Madeleine becomes smitten with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant biology student who suffers from severe manic depression. As their love triangle plays out, Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard struggle to maintain a hold on their non-sexual passions—literature, spirituality and science, respectively—leaving them all feeling emptier because of it.

Throughout The Marriage Plot there is a strong contrast between conventionality and innovation. At Brown University in the early 1980s, the setting at the opening of the novel, the study of literature experienced a philosophic overhaul. Madeleine, a dutiful English major and lover of the Victorian canon, takes a course in semiotics simply to see what all the buzz is about. As a result, she meets Leonard and becomes enraptured by the nontraditional kind of life he has to offer. Mitchell, despite his commonplace blue-collar upbringing, is spiritual and desires to overcome his agnosticism. Mitchell rejects his family’s church-on-Sunday view of religion in favor of a yearlong spiritual exploration that leads him to draw some unsettling conclusions about himself.

While there is much to love about The Marriage Plot, the novel is not without its flaws. In spite of the novel’s references to new and inventive ways of looking at literature, The Marriage Plot does not necessarily offer anything fresh in the way of form or content. In terms of form, the switches in point-of-view have already been done very well recently by Jonathan Franzen. Regarding content, the coming-of-age plot in a campus setting is very engaging here, but it is certainly not a format I haven’t enjoyed before.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel comes recommended to English majors and lovers of literature everywhere.