Friday, April 1, 2016


I have GOT to lighten up.  So far this year the books I have blogged have revolved around a murder in Central Park, a marriage disintegrating in Colombia, and now I have moved on to a book of a mere 832 pages about a character who suffers almost unimaginable abuse as a child – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.  

The novel begins with a familiar premise – four friends from college move to New York to begin their adult lives. Is this an updated male version of Mary McCarthy's “The Group”? The men are all smart, talented and witty, and it's entertaining to watch as each finds his footing in his profession – art, architecture, acting and law. But gradually the story begins to narrow its focus onto Jude, the most enigmatic of the four. What he has endured in his childhood, revealed in flashbacks, has left him in such physical and emotional pain that he resorts to cutting himself to try to gain control over it. His friends try to help and protect him, his kindly and paternal law school professor adopts him, but his past continues to haunt him. Are you still reading this? Yes, it is just as grim as it sounds.

Why did I keep going? It was hard to look away. And in between the dark scenes of trauma and brutality were tender scenes of friendship among the four men that continued over decades. The writing is uneven, and did all the characters have to turn out to be SO successful? But the book relentlessly asks serious questions about the meaning of suffering, the limits of psychiatry, the power of friendship.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Colombian Idyll

Sometimes it takes a while. Respected Colombian writer Tomás González published his first novel, In the Beginning Was the Sea, over thirty years ago, but it has only recently been translated into English. Like many first novels it is autobiographical, but it does not seem like the early attempt of a young writer.

Elena and J. are a young couple who have left their life as intellectual dilettantes in Medellín for a life of simplicity and sustainable agriculture on the coast of Colombia. Or at least that is their idealized vision. It's the 70's, and their hippy naivete allows them to believe that they are perfectly suited for this endeavor. But their backgrounds of urban privilege have left them totally unable to deal with real life. They alienate the locals, their farming attempts fail, and the omniscient narrator discloses early in the novel that J. will not survive. Their disintegration is uncomfortable to watch, but I couldn't look away.

The story is based on the real life tragedy of González's older brother.  But their is no trace of filial empathy in the narrative. The prose is spare and straightforward but powerful, whether describing the beauty of surroundings or the poignant intricacies of a marriage breaking down. I hope this translation will allow González to gain greater literary attention.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Too Big to Blog

My New Year's! No, I didn't stop reading. I just stopped writing about it. The books stacked up but the words just rattled around in my head. The start of my troubles was probably when I tackled Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire – all 911 pages of it. By the end I was exhausted and overwhelmed. How to get down on paper (figuratively) my thoughts on this sprawling, complicated story? The setting is New York of the 1970's. The city is approaching bankruptcy, drug addiction is rampant, punk rock and the rad art scene are emerging, the rich are getting richer by making their own rules. Hallberg puts a character in every one of these camps - young, old, black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor. They are all fleshed out human beings, complicated and compelling. The center of the story is the murder of a a young NYU student in Central Park on New Year's Eve, but in Dickensian fashion Hallberg weaves interconnected subplots, flashbacks and flashforwards, coffee-stained reporters notes and teenage zines into a staggering story that climaxes with the July 13, 1977 New York City blackout.

The characters belong to such different social strata that it seems each of their stories is separate strand, and yet by the end they are all braided together in ways that I didn't see coming, but didn't feel forced or artificial. This is Hallberg's first novel. I can't wait to see what comes next.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Good Grief, Eileen

Have you ever read a book that you couldn't put down but you couldn't recommend? I kind of feel that way about Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. It's not that I felt it was a waste of time (to obtain that miserable feeling, read “The Girl on the Train”). Maybe it's closer to the way I felt about “Gone Girl” – these people are all despicable but I can't stop reading. But Eileen isn't despicable, just depressing.

Eileen Dunlop, 23 year old resident of a small coastal Massachusetts town she calls X-ville, is planning to escape from it all – her alcoholic father, her dead-end job at a correctional facility for adolescent boys, her marginal existence – for a new life in New York. And since she narrates from a remove of fifty years, we know she made it. We even know as she begins the story – a week before Christmas – that by Christmas Day she will be gone. And I was certainly rooting for her. But as she piled on detail after detail about her life – her father's abusive insults, her disgust with her own body, her sad workplace crush on a prison guard– I couldn't imagine how she would gain the strength to succeed.  Every time I thought her self-esteem couldn't get any lower, it did.

But then the glamorous and mysterious Rebecca comes to work at the facility, and forms an instant bond with Eileen. Eileen sees her as an escape route, and in an unexpected and shocking way she is. But by that time I was exhausted. Did I really need to endure that much misery to get to a semi-happy ending?

I have to admire Moshfegh’s ability to make a character and story so compelling that I couldn't stop reading. And amazingly I did come to care about what happened to Eileen – as opposed to that stupid girl on the train. But be warned – it's the most disturbing Christmas story you'll ever read.