Tag Archives: Contemporary Fiction

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Michelle Obama is a very public first lady.  We follow her fashion choices, hairstyles, arm workouts.  She flaunts her organic vegetable garden, recently featured on a special episode of Iron Chef America.  Her predecessor, Laura Bush?  Not so much.   What do we know about her pet projects?  Literacy, for one — she was a librarian, after all.  But the American public, while it approved of Laura Bush at rates much higher than those of her husband’s, didn’t know how she stayed in shape, what designers she wore, or what she ate.  Laura Bush was a fairly enigmatic, “traditional” First Lady.  At least, she seemed that way until I read American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

When I was in Washington, DC, last July, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which features the perennially popular First Ladies exhibit.  One of Laura Bush’s inaugural gowns, a long-sleeved sequined number, was on display.  I remember marveling at her tiny shoulders and narrow waist.  Obviously I’ve never seen the woman in person, nor been close enough to see the size of her figure.  But seeing her red gown hugging the mannequin made her seem a bit more approachable, though of course far removed from the actual museum display.

Reading American Wife is a bit like this — you catch a glimpse of what the woman is really like, as the novel is clearly modeled on Laura Bush, but so much of it is imagined that you can only confirm the outlines of the story.  The true woman is more mysterious and unknown.

In short, I loved American Wife. [Spoiler alert — plot points after the jump.] Continue reading

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The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y.K. Lee

Head’s up: I am going to throw down some spoilers.  So if you haven’t read this book and intend to, maybe skip until you read it.

We’re shifting from post-colonial narratives to colonial era narratives, from Zadie Smith’s multicultural London to Janice Y.K. Lee’s Hong Kong in the 1940s and ’50s.  I sat in my pink Snuggie this afternoon and immersed myself in Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, which was very much a voyage into a darkly sophisticated past.  It’s concerned with English Will Truesdale, who arrived in Hong Kong just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an act which precipitated the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, then a British colony.  Will falls in with the lovely, vivacious Eurasian Trudy Liang (product of Portuguese and Shanghainese parents) in 1941; she haunts him still in the early 1950s, when he is romancing Claire Pendleton, a married Englishwoman out of her depth in Hong Kong.  Given the book’s title, Claire is ostensibly the protagonist, as she teaches piano lessons to the daughter of a couple with whom Trudy and Will are connected; however, the more interesting storyline concerns Trudy and Will and how they each react to the Japanese occupation.

The book reminded me of the movie “The White Countess,” which concerns an outcast Russian countess and a blind American in Shanghai, but in the pre-war era.  I suppose it’s the international mix of characters, the focus on expatriates who seem bewildered by Chinese customs and impose their own practices on the setting.  The colonial mentality of ownership permeates both works, and in The Piano Teacher there are no prominent Chinese characters who have not been steeped in either American or British education systems and culture.

The book also raises the interesting question of what kind of person one truly is, under duress.  Continue reading

Guest Post from Flora: Post-Colonial Fiction Smackdown

Today I offer up a point-counterpoint Guest Post from my friend Flora, who tackles two novels: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis.   Flora and I went to grad school together, so beware the references to post-colonial narratives and such.  These are awesome books, and I hope you enjoy Flora’s take on them.

I read too much Babysitter’s Club as a child. Despite token acknowledgment of ‘difference’ (Stacey’s diabetes! Mary Anne’s shyness!)  the series was a pretty unsuitable template for a second generation American kid whose best friend lived 45 minutes away, who’d never babysat in her life (since when were 11 year old’s appropriate caregivers anyway?), who couldn’t even name all her aunts and uncles, much less tell you which continent they lived on. Split the hairs on difference: most of my high school friends were either first or second generation themselves, and spoke at least two languages fluently. This was Washington, DC, after all. But I was stubborn and confused: ripe fodder for angsty writing, except I didn’t think to give whatever my heritage was a book of its own.

This was long before I’d heard of Bhabha and Appadurai and post-colonial narratives, and when Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came out my reading list docket was full of 1960’s R&B histories. I finally got to it a few weeks ago, and I have to admit the first two-thirds were spent just a little jealous that I didn’t think to write something similar when I was 24. By the last third I caved in to overwhelming admiration of literary talent, aided by a pleasant but not captivating detour into Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis. The two books both detail late 20th century identity politics, although Petropolis is a picaresque novel which follows the misbegotten adventures of the quarter-African, nominally Jewish Sasha Goldberg of Asbestos 2, former USSR, and in White Teeth the stories and characters of immigrant London come twirling together, 200 years in the making, converging on a evening’s celebration of the allegorically denominated “FutureMouse”.  In short: ok, maybe they have different scopes, but Petropolis made a great sprint of a plane read, whereas I submerged myself in White Teeth‘s London for weeks. Continue reading

Guest Post from Sarah: Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

Today I offer you a guest post from my friend Sarah, who is such a voracious reader that she has her library identification number memorized.  Now that’s dedication, friends.

If you suddenly received millions of dollars, what would you do with the money?  It is one man’s (fictional) response to this question that Tom McCarthy explores in his novel, Remainder.  The premise of the novel is that the protagonist/narrator gets 8.5 million pounds in a settlement following an accident.  He has no idea what he wants to do with the money, rejecting his friends’ suggestions that he either live a rock star life full of drugs and (well-endowed) women or invest in development in Africa.  Then, when using an acquaintance’s bathroom, he sees a random crack in the wall.  This crack triggers a detailed vision based around an identical crack in the protagonist’s imaginary bathroom, which is part of an entire imaginary apartment complex, including the people who live there and what they do.  Suddenly, he is gripped with a compulsion to bring this vision to life.

The book really takes off as he “re-enacts” the apartment building.  He has to buy property, renovate it to match every detail in his vision, and hire “re-enactors” to fill the roles of the people living there.  For example, there has to be one old woman who has to be constantly frying liver, the smell of which must waft up into the protagonist’s apartment.  The protagonist describes testing for the smell of liver frying:

An extractor fan had been installed above the liver lady’s stove, its out-funnel on the building’s exterior turned towards the windows of my kitchen and my bathroom.  Liver had been bought that day—pig’s liver; but we found that frying just one panful didn’t produce enough smell.  Someone else was dispatched to buy more frying pans and a lot more liver.  They cooked it in four frying pans at once.

After completing the apartment complex, the protagonist becomes obsessed with re-enacting a variety of different events in different locations.  While this is strange, the book lulled me into accepting these activities.  It even made me identify with the protagonist through descriptions about how events make him feel and about what he is searching for by undertaking the projects.  Eventually, though, his re-enactments led up to a shocking (but fitting) ending which snapped me out of my identification with the main character.  I finally realized that, although I knew some of his inner thoughts, I really didn’t know anything about him: I didn’t know the details of the accident, anything about his life before the accident, or what kind of person he actually is.  As I was writing this review I realized that the character doesn’t even have a name!

Overall, I found Remainder to be very original and interesting.  Although it’s been a few days since I finished it, I still find myself thinking about it at random times.  To me, that’s the sign of a good book.

All Lauren the Bookworm Reads: Never Let Me Go (Installment 2)

Thanks to my friend Ben, who initially recommended the book Never Let Me Go, we have this lovely online book club.  I hope that you’ve been intrigued enough to grab a copy of your own to start reading, and I welcome comments and guest posts.  Here’s Ben’s response to my post.  Spoiler Alert!!

Attraction of the Clones

I enjoyed Lauren’s comments on Never Let Me Go, especially since I also was reminded of The Giver. (Maybe this shows how important that book was in the Holy Trinity English curriculum.) One of my favorite aspects of the book is how it is such a great story about love and what keeps people apart and the fact that the people in the story are clones is really kind of secondary. It is really Ruth’s fault that Tommy and Kathy are apart for so long, not the fact that they give up their organs to rich people. This sounds somewhat unrealistic but reading the book you see how human interactions (even when the humans are clones) aren’t always logical but still can be just as powerful as other circumstances.

Lauren said she didn’t especially like the fact that the exact science of the donations was never explained, but that was actually one of my favorite stylistic choices of the book (which is ironic considering how much I love science). I thought it gave the book a feel of being old, when in fact it is set in the future. And even though the fact they are clones is a key plot driver, the mechanism for it is not the point and I think Ishiguro wanted to focus more on the emotions it caused. It is like Kathy assumed you knew how the donation worked so she didn’t need to go into it since the details were not crucial to the story.  Much like The Great Gatsby doesn’t explain internal combustion, and cars are a key plot element in that book.

I definitely was annoyed by Ruth as well, however I might replace “was annoyed by” with “wanted to stab in the throat with a lightsaber.” However, I think the biggest reason I was so annoyed is because we all know people like her. We all know people who act childishly and keep what they can’t have away from others. And maybe it angered me more to know in the future those people are still around. 😉

So that is what I got. I am glad you enjoyed the book and hopefully some other people did as well.

All Lauren the Bookworm Reads: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Installment 1)

Never Let Me Go is a truly thought-provoking book, by turns mysterious, unsettling, and sad.  It’s the first book I’ve read by Kazuo Ishiguro, so I didn’t know what to anticipate, aside from an undercurrent of science fiction from the accounts of some of my friends.  I found it reminiscent of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which is a middle-school classic about a dystopic society that assigns roles to its community members and shields them from true emotion.

The voice of the narrator, Kathy H., who at the time of the telling is thirty-one, is friendly and direct.  There are no swoopy narrative descriptions — she tells her story like it happened, although she continually circles back and foreshadows what’s to come with subtle hints.

Early in the book, you’re thrown into the strange world that Kathy lives in, which is removed from typical British society.  Ishiguro frames the story as though Kathy is speaking to a fellow “carer” (something I’ll get more into later), who might have been raised in a different boarding school but who implicitly understands her role in society.  Of course, the reader doesn’t implicitly know all this, so it draws you deeper into the mystery of the story.

I want to delve into the details, so I’m going to throw in a big Spoiler Alert and continue after the jump.  Join me there! Continue reading

Away, by Amy Bloom

Away, by Amy Bloom, is an utterly original novel about a Russian immigrant to America in the 1920s, a woman who crosses the American continent to get back to her missing daughter in Siberia.  I found it emotionally rich and rewarding with surprising turns of event. The protagonist, Lillian Leyb, is a strong-willed, independent woman who is willing to do pretty much anything she needs to do in order to return to her Sophie, and the people she encounters along the way make the book mesmerizing.

Lillian starts off having recently escaped from her family’s massacre (she is Jewish, and her Jewish identity, thought not in a religious sense, is an integral part of her character and her world), which haunts her dreams.  She makes her way to a distant cousin’s home in New York City, where she quickly maneuvers to become a seamstress at a theatre company and where she learns English.  Endearingly, she loves her thesaurus, so when she thinks of certain words, she also thinks of their synonyms.  Lillian becomes the mistress of the theatre company’s owner and his son, the lead actor, until she hears the news that her young daughter is still alive.  Lillian’s tale is heart-wrenching, but because she is so willing to take on whatever duties (labor or sex, especially), she becomes a strong, rich character to root for.

While in New York, Lillian befriends a tailor who tutors her in English, Yaakov Shimmelman.  Yaakov is friends with the Bursteins (the father and son who have Lillian in turns), but he is especially taken with Lillian.  Unlike the relationships with the Bursteins, the relationship between Lillian and Yaakov is more daughter-father, and they are close in part because Yaakov also has heartache from family losses.  Yaakov is the first of several protectors for Lillian, who is somewhat naive in her belief that if she just keeps going, she’ll be able to get her child back.  (It’s a little like the father in “Finding Nemo,” who crosses the Pacific Ocean to find his son, against whatever odds.)

An interesting narrative device in the book is a short flash forward for characters whom Lillian leaves behind in her quest to reunite with her daughter.  For instance, as she leaves New York, we learn what happens to each of the Bursteins and what happens to Yaakov. (And so on for other major characters.  It’s satisfying for a reader to get some closure on what might otherwise be transitory characters, and it opens up the story to be more than just Lillian’s adventure.)
Continue reading