Things Fall Together : Yaa Giasi – “Homegoing”

The greatest and most powerful novel yet written about Africa (Africa both as a multi-national continent, and as a monolithic concept to the Western eye) is still Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” There is no more stark assessment of white misapprehension than the chilling final lines to that masterpiece.

BUT

Yaa Giasi’s “Homegoing” is a very, very sprightly offspring.

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Two half sisters from Ghana, Effia and Essi, are separated by life (half the family will suffer through the American experience, half will deal with colonial abuse.) We follow their descendants through six generations, divided in two continents (make that 14 perspectives) and in a series of short stories we go through all of the horrors that American slavery and European colonialism have wracked on Africa over the last three centuries while also making clear the native complicity. The language is precise and taut and perfectly evokes the settings for each little punch-to-the-gut scene, so much so that I was left wanting a lot more. We start with a rich world worth exploring, but the book becomes increasingly bent on moving on to the next characters just as we are becoming attached to the ones in each chapter, and the American side of things is much more cartoonish than the African side of things, which at least will engage lovers of history. The effect is not novelistic: there is no real accumulation of feeling. This feels like a collection of shorts stories threaded together into the more marketable shape of a “novel.” At times “Homegoing” almost runs the risk of turning into what Achebe warned against: African (and African-American) lives turned into briefly glimpsed  vignettes. It is a testament to Gyasi’s nascent talents that I was left unsatisfied, wishing  that I was given a James Michener whale of a tale. I really look forward to her next effort.

RATING: COOL! but I wanted MORE.

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Unreliance : Kazuo Ishiguro – “A Pale View of Hills” + “An Artist of the Floating World”

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ABOVE: The Japanese Hills Are Alive

Nobelist Kazuo Ishiguro is perhaps a luckier writer than he is a great writer. (Don’t fret, I’m punching up, so it’s okay.) The two books of his I really DO like, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go,” got turned into reasonably popular movies. I’ve also read “The Unconsoled” (baffling) and “When We Were Orphans” (boring) but don’t remember those much, and what I do recall thinking of “Nocturnes” is that it was as fraught with middle-brow pretense as the expression “fraught with middle-brow pretense.” This is to say that Kazuo’s Nobel Prize Award in 2017 was a conservative dialing back on whatever unorthodox decision-making process led to the feather-ruffling 2016 assertion that Bob Dylan was deserving of a Nobel prize in Literature. In fact, upon hearing that Kazuo Ishiguro had won the award, my first thought was: “They misspelled Haruki Murakami.”

Wood-Kazuo-Ishiguro

ABOVE: “My ploy of being pleasantly literary has paid off!”

Giving him a Nobel is overrating a very good writer who is rarely great. His body of work is small enough that he has not really embarrassed himself, but that’s exactly why Ishiguro doesn’t really thrill me: he plays it so safe that he rarely risks anything. The clones in “Never Let Me Go” are the edgiest of his concepts, but how many un-Nobelled sci-fi writers have dealt with the idea of cloning far more brilliantly, deeply, humanely, and even poetically? Anyway, I thought maybe I’d missed something along the way, and read both the 1982 debut, “A Pale View of Hills,” (which the author himself admits doesn’t quite work) and the follow-up “An Artist of the Falling World.” But reading them back to back either “reveals Ishiguro’s consistency” or “exposes Ishiguro’s repetitiveness.” Charity is all when it comes to criticism. Both novels rely on the same exact trick that he would use yet again in “Remains of the Day.” These are short, terse family dramas told by a first person narrator that sounds pretty much alike- even if one. All three novels tell a largely deflective story that centers on coping with post-war delusions. All three novels slowly reveal inconsistencies in the telling that let us know we are dealing with that rascally UNRELIABLE NARRATOR. Ishiguro loooooves this.

Should they give Nobels for over-relying on this newfangled technique that goes back at least as far as Cervantes in 1605?!?

Add to this that “An Artist of the Floating World” annoyed the “overbearing nerd” side of me. A section set in 1947 makes frequent references to the popular “Godzilla.” COME ON! “Godzilla” came out on 1954! That’s a pretty sloppy anachronism or…

WAIT…

Can we blame that mistake on the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?!?

MIND BLOWN.

Know this: if you you ever catch any mistake on “The Pageaholic,” asume it is made on porpoise, as a techniqe to make you aware that book revues are unreliabull.

RATING: COOL! But no NOBEL Masterpieces.

an artist of the floating world

ABOVE: We All Float On

 

Lit Up : M. L. Stedman – “The Light Between Oceans”; Anthony Doerr – “All the Light We Cannot See”

ABOVE: “I’m going to show you my lighthouse. Yeah, that’s my name for it.”

A lighthouse in post-WW1 Australia provides the picturesque excuse for M. L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans.” Now, this is a very pretty romance, for the most part; a Nicholas Sparks pot-boiler solemnized by history and setting. The premise is genuinely good: Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife, Isabel, are still mourning over her inability to bear a pregnancy to term. They stumble upon a dying man and a baby, presumable the dying man’s daughter. The couple then makes an ethically questionable choice that is justified by their grief and their location: they keep the baby and raise it as their own.

The baby, of course, belongs to a family that knows as much about grief and loss as the couple.

The first two thirds are absorbing: lyrical language, sympathetic characters, enough Aussie-ness to make the foreign reader feel like they’re getting their educational worth…That will do for most readers. But the resolution disappointed me.

SPOILERS:

A tear-jerker should accept its intentions. Even at their little-girl-killing worst, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens had the courage of their convictions. But “The Light Between Oceans” half-asses its tear-jerking. We’re promised melodrama of nearly operatic power. Instead, we get a climax that is nearly undone by a triple set of flaws.

First: An element is introduced for cheap suspense- and it does not pay off. (It is hinted again and again that Australia’s wild life, in particular snakes-in-Eden and scorpions, will bring about a deadly denouement. They don’t, and it pisses off the Anton Chekhov in me.)

ABOVE: They even put the frikkin scorpion in the cover!

Second: The potentially horrifying climax is built upon the frustrating, clichéd, ridiculous contrivance of people refusing to tell a simple truth out of proud reticence EVEN IF IT MEANS KILLING SOMEONE THEY LOVE.

Third: Let’s say we accept the melodrama and we’re biting our fingernails over it. I half did! But THEN- it all comes to naught. Without further spoiling: imagine if a novel’s final act was about how a husband refused to give his wife an alibi because he was upset about a cold soup, so he puts her in a position to be given the death sentence- and then a judge was like: “Eh, let’s give her two months community service instead. Oh, and the couple should make up.” VERY DEFLATING.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH


“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.
—Joseph Goebbels”

ABOVE: All the poetry we cannot grasp

Anthony Doerr’s WWII novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” ticks off any number of crowd-pleasing melodramatic tropes on its way to some eventual Oscar-bait cinematic adaptation two or three years down the line. Pulitzer prize winners have rarely been this mild and conservative, (“Did you know that Nazis suck?” might very well be its most provocative statement.) I’m a sucker for this stuff, (how can I resist the fact that Marie Laure, a blind French girl, is a Braille-reading fan of both Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas?). But I’m hating on it because nearly universal praise should always be punctured a little.  Doerr can endure my insignificant hate. This IS a lovely novel, a delicate novel, but surely these are times when Pulitzer prizes should go to sturdier stuff, not to lovely and delicate novels about little blind French girls and sweet German boys forced into the horrors of war!  (The National Book Award did indeed go to “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, which caused an uproar among the very, very small circle of people who care about such things.) “All The Light we Cannot See” is a very conventional, respectable novel, is what I’m saying. But, I mean. WWII? Again? It’s kind of playing it  safe, isn’t it?

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

 

 

 

 

Haitian Butterfly : M. Ketsia Theodore-Pharel – “Rope”

“Everywhere in the world, the roving Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit, indifferent to all risks. He drops anchor at random.”- Giaccomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” as quoted on the liner notes to Weezer’s “Pinkerton.”

The tale of the invading Yank who impregnates the naïve native only to abandon her to the painful consequences goes back much farther than Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” It is, after all, a stark symbol of colonialism’s callous penetration made palatable by the operatic melodrama. It’s a story that can inspire both Boublil and Schomberg’s “Miss Saigon” and Weezer’s “Pinkerton”; it lends itself to revisiting and re-setting.

M. Ketsia Theodore-Pharel’s “Rope” takes the basic “Butterfly” concept and sets it not in the East, but much closer to American shores: Haiti in the 20s and 40s. It’s useful to know that in 1915, U.S. Marines occupied Port-Au-Prince in efforts to a) punish the popular lynching of U.S.-friendly dictator Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, b) protect the interests of the Haitian-American Sugar Company and c) keep the dreaded Imperial Huns’ supposed claws out of the Caribbean, roughly in that order.

Colvin Donner is one of those Marines, a rapist and an expert tracker whose grand achievement is to take care of the hanging of Chango Champagne Pepla, a legendary rebel “caco.” The hanging takes place with the novel’s titular rope, one that holds a curse which changes Colvin’s life, and leads him, curiously enough, to evangelism. Cut to 1945: that rope ties together the lives of Colvin; his son, Robert Donner; and the “Butterfly” of this tale, Moiselle, a girl who, like many before and after, believes that marrying a foreigner is the only ticket out of a limited Third World life.

Haiti’s society of the period is envisioned vibrantly: this is a locale where seemingly strict racial and class lines are frequently crossed; so are the lines between the mundane and the magical. The action scenes in “Rope” are as brutal as the romance between Donner and Moiselle is tender, (but is it a plot spoiler to mention it is doomed?) One only wishes Theodore-Pharel had provided more context to fill in the historical background; a certain familiarity with Haiti is assumed, and those who don’t necessarily know a lot about that country’s history beyond Toussaint Louverture and Papa Doc Duvalier (guilty!) might feel compelled to seek additional info elsewhere. It doesn’t matter: abundant plot twists (and knots) will entertain the rest, as the novel unfolds to its sequel-setting conclusion. “Rope” appears to be the first in a purported “Grace Donner” trilogy.

RATING: COOL!

 

Blurbin’ : Phony McFakename – “Fast Breaks” and “Best Sellers”

Fastbreaks

Weirdly, I’ve been on quite a few Acknowledgment pages so far. It comes with having talented, writerly friends. Up to now I felt like it was a conflict of interest to review those books (I’m IN them, darn it!) so I’d abstained, but I’ve decided to come around on that policy. After all, I read books, I review books, someone thought kindly enough of me  to put me in there – why not talk about the books?

Why not blurb?

I mean, you DO realize that all those lines of praise snaking around the front and back of books were written by the author’s buddies? That most of them didn’t even read the book before pronouncing it “a rip-roaring roller-coaster thrill-ride!  A sensational tsunami of suspense! A violent burst of volcanic vocabulary power!”

But you blurb, because you do want to get the word out about the friend’s efforts. But then you’re caught in the trap.What if the book sucks? If you give the book a positive review, you look like a fraud, flattering your friend. If you give the book a negative review, then that friend ain’t gonna be so friendly anymore.

It’s a lot of pressure!

Luckily, my friend, by the pseudonym of Phony McFakename, has written two really funny books in a row and neither sucks. I read “Fast Breaks” and “Best Sellers” on my iPhone while taking long walks and I must have looked all sorts of idiotic as I cracked up continuously, and if I did not literally roll on the floor laughing, that’s because I was outside, and the “floor” was the sidewalk, and the sidewalk was not very attractive from a hygienic point of view.

Literary humor is such a rare elusive beast. Honestly, once you tick off your Mark Twains, your P. G. Wodehouses, your Robert Benchleys, suddenly you’re down to Dave Barrys. Who’s the humor writer of the 2010s? We do have Christopher Moore. But it feels like fewer and fewer writers set out to create laughs on the page (humor is doing just fine in other media.) This is partly why “Fast Breaks” is such a joy; it doesn’t hurt that McFakename and I share similar senses of humor, so I was very much the demographic. The book compiles McFakename’s humorous flash fiction, and includes a series of light-hearted, surreal vignettes, as well as longer pieces – and even a zombie love story (zombies seem to be McFakename’s metier.)

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“Best Sellers,” an even more accomplished piece, uses a hilariously deranged narrative framework to skewer and parody pretty much every literary “phenomenon” that has plagued the New York Times best-seller list within recent memory. What I’m gonna do is let you glimpse the table of contents, and let me assure you, McFakename delivers in every instance:

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(I laughed particularly hard at “Important Literary Fiction Story,” which knocks good old targets like Jonathan Franzen down a peg or two.)

In any case, I thought I would make things easy by coming up with two blurbs, so that no one has to scramble through the post to gather one of those crudely assembled Frankenstein quotes that go like:

“I laughed…(this is an) important literary…story. Good… like Johathan Franzen.”– The Pageaholic.

So here they are:

“‘Fast Breaks’ is a fast read that goes right for your funny bone and isn’t afraid to break it.”

“‘Best Sellers’ reads like a tornado passed through your local Barnes and Noble, except that tornadoes aren’t this quotable, and aren’t likely to cause howls of laughter.”

“Fast Breaks” can be purchased at Amazon.com, and “Best Sellers” is on its way.