AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN

UnnecessaryAn Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

Some time ago, a kind, bookish friend sent me a copy of An Unnecessary Woman. When someone is thoughtful enough to send a book my way, particularly one that is so well suited to me, I usually prioritize the read. But for a variety of logistical reasons too mundane to list here, it’s taken me a long time to get to this one, a fact I would rue if the timing of this read–as my last book of 2014—hadn’t turned out to be a perfect little bow to tie up the year.

Living in a society that doesn’t always protect its women and a city that’s been devastated by decades of war, Aaliyah Saleh is a 72-year old Beiruti woman who has created a fortress out of literature. For 50 years Aaliyah ran a bookstore and in her spare time, she translates works of significant, difficult and sometimes obscure fiction into Arabic.

Though she has good reason to be guarded and reclusive, Aaliyah has taken this whole “life lived through literature” thing a step too far. (And if I’m calling her out on that, you know it’s bad.) You see, Aaliyah lacks connection to others, depriving her of not only the basic human need for contact and engagement, but by buttressing herself from the world, she’s also deprived others of the gifts she has to give through her life’s work: her translations. Good old Aaliyah has held on tight to her grumpy assertions and holier-than-thou attitudes, but fortunately for her and us, that finally changes.

So while this is a book about many things: literature, religion, gender roles, war, Islam, the Middle East, the history of Beirut, and a lot more, when I closed the book’s back cover and set it down, I decided this is also a book about letting go.* In its lovely and cathartic ending, we see how even the most immoveable among us can liberate herself from old ways and notions. And by doing so, she can enjoy freedom and possibilities of which she was never even aware.

What a perfect message for the year’s end. And if that wasn’t serendipitous enough, for Christmas I received the absolute most perfect read to begin a new year: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve heard of it, or perhaps even read it; the super-cute Marie Kondo is a force of nature, radicalizing the way her Japanese counterparts organize their homes (and thus their lives) and she’s sold over two million copies of her book internationally. Even a quick glance at the section headings (“Sorting papers: rule of thumb – discard everything” and “Unread books: ‘sometime’ means ‘never’) had me giggling with glee and revisiting my family tree to see how Marie and I might be distant relations. This resolution-worthy selection comes to us thanks to Supportive Brother-in-Law, who knows me too well. More on tidying up soon …

*Disclaimer: This book may have nothing to do with letting go and I have simply not yet deprogrammed after my Frozen-themed Christmas holiday.

 

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES

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We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

Lately I’ve been writing about my skepticism toward some of the “Big Books” that are released each year by established authors with strong platforms. While I don’t think there’s an official definition for the term Big Book, I associate it with a book that its publisher is expecting will sell well and therefore received a large advance and a lot of subsequent buzz. Written by a debut author rather than an established name, We Are Not Ourselves is an interesting addition to the conversation.

I loved the beginning of this book. In fact, for the first 200 pages or so, I thought it might end up being one of my favorite books ever as I followed Eileen Tumulty, born in Woodside, Queens in 1941 to Irish immigrants, from age 10 to somewhere around 45. This part of the story is as close to my version of The Great American Novel as any I can recall. Through Eileen’s coming of age, Matthew Thomas creates a bigger narrative about the dreams, expectations and realities of post-war, middle-class, first-generation Americans moving through the 20th century.

If this is the kind of story that appeals to you as much as it appeals to me, you can probably imagine that the last thing on my mind was any concern about the book’s length (just north of 600 pages) or any sort of editing treatment it may or may not have received. But I wondered just where this was heading, with 400 pages to go and a 45-year-old protagonist.

It’s around this spot in the book that Something Happens. If you don’t already know what that something is, I don’t want to tell you. I find that it’s a much more powerful experience to be surprised by a story’s events rather than to be waiting for them and that was certainly what I found so gripping about the second 1/3 of this book. At this point, though, the book’s pace slows down significantly, matching the course of events, and I realized that the rest of the book would focus on this thing that happened (again, very much in keeping with how the characters are experiencing the events being described).

So while I still enjoyed the rest of the book—the characters are incredibly well drawn—the things that make it so good can also make it difficult to read. Thomas is portraying events that are, at times, upsetting and scary and are, at other times, arduous and mundane. He does so in a style that mirrors these experiences so that the reader is that much closer to the characters.

This all comes around to an issue of realism. One of the topics that came up in my post about My Very End of the Universe and my accompanying interview with Chris Bower was how the succinct nature of flash fiction can lend a story a sense of realism, particularly as it reflects memory. In We Are Not Ourselves, the opposite effect is at work. Many have called this book an epic saga and while I wouldn’t categorize it that way, I do think that Thomas needed every one of his many words to accurately reflect his characters’ experiences.

Phew. I need a break from fiction, folks. This last one nearly did me in with all my worrying about these poor characters. Up next is something self-helpy, for those of us gearing up for our New Year’s resolutions.

 

THE BONE CLOCKS

puppy love

       They call it puppy love

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell. I have read most (though not all) of his books with much delight and I was very excited that The Bone Clocks was being released this fall. From what I’d heard, it promised a mix of a solid realist surface story along with shifting narrators, time periods and political backdrops plus a certain amount of fantasy. The kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought I’d like until I read Cloud Atlas (or watched LOST).

And so Supportive Husband and I trundled off to our local indie (shout out to Pegasus Books in Berkeley) where we happily procured a signed first edition, baby. And even though it kinda hurt my hand to prop up the 650-page hardback tome, I plunged in with a glee that lasted through the first half of the book. How can you not be happy when a 15-year-old female protagonist describes a boyfriend’s betrayal by stating, “My heart’s a clubbed baby seal” or when an older man going blind explains his experience as “like searching for your keys in the dirty snow.” My point is that David Mitchell can turn a phrase. And that kind of lovely writing can take a reader pretty far.

But, but, but … and I hate to have a but because I was so excited about this book … a little more than midway through this story that spans from 1984 English countryside to 2043 Irish countryside–with a lot of stops in-between–the book’s earlier, lighter flirtations with fantasy became the central plot of the story. It was at this point that my adoration started to fade. Once it crossed that (here it comes) sci-fi threshold, I found myself in a place I really didn’t want to be: an alternative universe so complex and full of lame jargon that it was all I could do to follow the silly plot devices leading up to an epic battle (described blow by blow, lord help me) in which, guess what, good guys fight bad guys. The characters and storylines preceding all this fell completely by the wayside.

It was at this most vulnerable point, when my own heart was a clubbed baby seal, that James Wood, the smooth-talking New Yorker book critic, came along and articulated my disappointment. Typically, I wouldn’t have looked at the review until I had finished the book and written about it, but I was weak, okay? Questioning my own judgment, wondering what David and I had ever had, I turned to another man.

Here’s the link to Wood’s review, where he sums it up pretty well when he says, “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites [the bad guys] and Horologists [the good guys].” Exactly. And this is coming from the gal who went on and on in her last post about how much she loves plot.

For what it’s worth, Mitchell does manage to bring us back, a bit, to a more human component of the story, though his final message is a pretty dark one. For hard-core Mitchell fans, there’s still plenty here to treasure. And despite my disenchantment this time around, I’ll still come running next time he calls.

THE NIGHT GUEST

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The Night Guest
by Fiona McFarlane

Consider this metaphor: growing old is like being the protagonist in one’s own mystery. Things start out on solid footing, but as events progress, a fog settles over your preconceptions. You start to question your memory of things but you also question the version of those around you. Perhaps you’ve misinterpreted something or are being misinterpreted. Who can you trust? Where can you turn?

The small, grainy author photo of Australian writer Fiona McFarlane had me guessing she was somewhere in her 20’s, but it turns out that Ms. McFarlane clocks in at the ripe old age of 36. That fact is notable only because this debut novel deals with the topic of aging in such wise and knowing terms, it seems hard to believe that its writer is 40 years younger than its protagonist.

So what we have here is an interesting idea—a crime story written from the perspective of its 75-year old victim—written with great empathy and understanding. But beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you. This was one of those books where I kept repeating, “I won’t know if I like it until the end.”

How do you decide whether or not you’re going to keep reading a book about which you feel ambivalent? I spent years (and years and years) following some now-bewildering code of diligence in which any book I began to read I would finish, whether or not I was actually enjoying it. I’d love to think that this vigilance was the sign of a serious mind that wanted to embrace every challenge or figure out the value in any work, but frankly, I fear I was asleep at the wheel half the time.

I really hate to admit this, but up until probably just a few years ago, I carried around this idea that if enough other people (particularly people with some credibility) liked a book, then either I should too, or, at the very least, said book deserved a complete read, because who was I with my subjective thinking to deem someone else’s work uninteresting?

I can’t identify exactly when I finally figured out that applying a Protestant work ethic to the act of reading was as joyless as a Puritan at prom, but I can pinpoint one moment that stuck with me. I happened to be looking through one of my favorite catalogs, Levenger, (fancy office supplies for reader types) and stumbled upon a quote from its founder that went something like this: “If you’re not putting down at least 20% of the books you read before you finish them, you’re not challenging yourself enough.” Now you might say, “But T, you were challenging yourself. You were reading all those books you didn’t like.” Well, here’s the cold, hard truth, friends. Those books I didn’t like? Half the time I think I’d just start zoning out and wasn’t even paying attention. I was just completing the task at hand. What a waste!

So thanks in part to the CEO of Levenger, I’ve become a lot more intentional about my reading selections. And while The Night Guest certainly passed my newly imposed 50-page test and was worth the read, know that if you choose to pick it up, much like its slightly confused protagonist, you won’t be sure how you feel until the end.

Up Next: The new Murakami!