Monthly Archives: April 2011

Book Review: Emily Hudson by Melissa Jones

Title: Emily Hudson
Author: Melissa Jones
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780670021802
PP: 360 Pages
Genre: Literary Fiction
Price: $25.95
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Written in a combination of narrative and personal correspondence, Emily Hudson is the tale of a beautiful young woman filled with spirit and creativity, who finds herself the dependent of a strict and oppressive uncle after being tragically orphaned. Brought to live at the family’s beach house in Newport she is permitted limited freedom, yet dreams of traveling abroad and exploring her talent for art. Encouraged by her cousin William, she finds a certain amount of contentment and happiness on the Newport shore, especially after meeting the handsome Captain Lindsay.

Emily’s happiness in Newport is shattered when the threat of consumption presents itself and she feels the responsibility to decline Captain Lindsay’s heartfelt petition of marriage. After caring for and witnessing the death of her mother, father, sisters and brother to the terrible disease, Emily can not bare the thought of putting another through such a bitter and tragic experience or risk their health in so doing.

William, ever her champion, brings her to London to study art and improve her health. Yet William’s controlling and demanding persona begins to become too much for Emily and she finds that they are often at odds. Increasingly ill with the effects of consumption and tired of her cousin’s constant tantrums, Emily runs away to Rome where she can surround herself with art and make a life of her own. Fearing her end is near, Emily contemplates her life, her missed opportunity with the man she loved, and an uncertain future.

Emily is a wonderfully well-drawn character and the story is engaging. Over half of Emily’s story is told via the letters that she writes to her loved ones and this is particularly well done. This is a literary historical romance that is passionate and elegantly written.

Melissa Jones is the sister of Sadie Jones, the author of The Outcast and Small Wars and Emily’s story is inspired by the relationship between the novelist Henry James and his cousin Minny.

A sweeping tale of dreams, lies, love and manipulation, Emily Hudson is a highly captivating novel. Jones’ deeply introspective writing style endears you to Emily in a profound way, carrying you through the story as if with a friend.

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Book Review: Open City by Teju Cole

Title: Open City
Author: Teju Cole
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9781400068098
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 259 Pages
Price: $25.00
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

If there is to be a new literature born from the influential shadow of the great W.G. Sebald (who died tragically in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57) then Teju Cole and his enigmatic, sparkling first novel, Open City, occupies the place of inevitable heir by reaching back through the past while firmly, concretely settling itself in the present. The young Cole (he is in his mid 30s, and is also a photographer and an art historian) achieves this by eschewing traditional plot and using a preternaturally crystalline prose that both invites and calms the reader while shattering expectations of resolution and remapping and redesigning the terrain for that over-used phrase: the Great American Novel. Open City is a novel concerned with questions, not answers, and it is this questioning nature that permeates throughout, stopping to digress on such disparate topics as consumer society (ruminating on the disappearance of a Blockbuster video store), politics, classical music, relationships, books, movies, medical school, and academia.

Julius is in his early 30s and in the final year of a psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian. He was born in Lagos to a German mother (who he is now estranged from) and a Nigerian father (who died when Julius was fourteen) and has always felt like an outsider. Being light-skinned he was always aware, while in a Nigerian military school, of not being as black as the others, and in America he feels what it’s like not to be white. In the U.S. Julius is the perpetual “other,” belonging to neither group. A friendly glance between him and a group of young black males carries sufficient weight, though it is fleeting when they pass again:

There had earlier been, it occurred to me, only the most tenuous of connections between us, looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; in other words, on our being “brothers.” These glances were exchanged between black men all over the city every minute of the day, a quick solidarity worked into the weave of each man’s mundane pursuits, a nod or smile or quick greeting. It was a little way of saying, I know something of what life is like for you out here. They had passed by me now, and were for some reason reluctant to repeat that fleeting gesture. (212)

Another example portrays Julius interacting with his neighbor, not knowing that his wife had passed away a number of weeks ago. This scene illustrates how the people who live close to us can, in reality, remain forever distant:

A woman had died in the room next to mine, she had died on the other side of the wall I was leaning against, and I had known nothing of it. I had known nothing in the weeks when her husband mourned, nothing when I had nodded to him in greeting with headphones in my ears, or when I had folded clothes in the laundry room while he used the washer. I hadn’t known him well enough to routinely ask how Carla was, and I had not noticed neither her absence nor the change–there must have been a change–in his spirit. It was not possible, even then, to go knock on his door and embrace him, or to speak with him at length. It would have been false intimacy. (21)

Hovering in the background of the novel is 9/11, and Julius meditates while wandering the streets of New York thinking about the losses surrounding this event as well. Memory is both a blessing and a curse in this world; we wade through our day to day activities until the detritus of the past reaches out, strikes us cold, and leaves us wondering where we are and why we are here. Julius then decides to fly to Brussels in hopes of locating his aging German grandmother, and while there he meets a woman and, in an internet café, an angry Moroccan student; they eventually have lunch and discuss politics. Various other events accumulate: Julius visits an older former profesor of his; he takes in both a movie and a concert; there are digressions surronding his patients and talks with friends. What this aggregate of “fragments” does is give the reader both a veritable glimpse of Julius’s life and interactions while also portraying the city and the world as a living, breathing essence.

What Teju Cole has done with Open City is usher in a new idea of the American novel. Now, it is no longer strictly “American” but a composite of “others,” populated by the remembered and the forgotten, or like Primo Levi’s, the “drowned and the saved.” This wandering, meditative literature encapsulates a new aesthetic that best exemplifies the new American and new American novel: it asks questions without expecting answers, it is both in awe of, comfortable in, and frightened by the world; it is not loud, sprawling, or in your face, but solitary, enigmatic, and eerily prescient for the strange times we are currently living in.

Book Review: Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso

Title: Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir
Author: Margaux Fragoso
Publisher: Penguin Press (Penguin)
ISBN: 9780241950159
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
PP: 319 Pages
Source: Publisher
Price: £9.99
Rating: 5/5

This is one of the most visceral and heartfelt books I have ever read. It is a brave and painful book, difficult to read but beautifully wrought. From the time she was eight years old, Maugaux Fragoso was sexually abused by a man named Peter who is 51 years old when he meets her. The abuse lasts for years and years. Peter grooms Margaux, enchanting her with his home that is filled with animals like hamsters, iguanas, a dog and rabbits. He plays with her as if he was a child. He charms her, acts like a father and pretends to give her unconditional love. However, all this time he is truly a predator, attempting to begin the sexual abuse that is initiated in earnest when Margaux is eight years old.

Margaux becomes completely dependent on Peter and believes that he is the only one in the world that loves her. At times, however, she acts out in ways that indicate she has been abused but the adults in her life do not take notice. She has fugue states, terrible anger issues, spends the nights with Peter. Margaux’s mother is seriously mentally ill and encourages her relationship with Peter. Her father is physically and emotionally abusive to Margaux and to her mother. Her father, at one point, suspects that Margaux is being sexually abused, but shows no empathy. In fact, if she were to admit her abuse, he’d put her on the street. When Margaux is in high school, a social worker is called in because people in the neighborhood are suspicious of Margaux’s relationship with Peter but she defends him. It is not that different from Stockholm Syndrome.

I understood the trauma that Margaux was experiencing and her need to believe that Peter was her love. “I was Peter’s religion” she says. She would put on alter-personalities to please Peter and also to believe she had some control over him. One of these personalities is a “bad girl” named Nina. Nina acts rough and tough and streetwise with a foul mouth. She punishes Peter. At times their relationship becomes physical and Peter tries to choke Margaux, gives her a black eye and punches her in the face. “I like being Nina”. “It seemed as though Peter’s other self Mr. Nasty was dependent on Nina and that he needed her to survive. The favors she gave him made him feel guilty and caused him to owe favors in return. This all amounted to me being in charge” Margaux needed to feel some element of control because in reality she was under Peter’s control entirely.

Peter tells her that “all men like young girls whether they admit it or not. Most guys are just dishonest about it”. “If you were to openly admit, yes, I find young girls attractive, you’d be burned at the stake.” Peter also tries to get Margaux to believe that she is his only ‘love’ but she finds out that, like other pedophiles, this is not the case. There have been others, he has been in jail, and is chock-filled with secrets that gradually come out. He brainwashes her over and over again with lies and twisted love.

Margaux begins to believe that only someone like Peter – old, without teeth, perverted – could love someone like her. She is an outcast at school and doesn’t know how to interact with young people her age. All of her life is spent trying to please Peter. “What did kids my own age talk about? If they’d seen me with Peter, who would I say he was? My father? He was so old he could have been my grandfather.”

As to the subject matter, it’s very difficult to stomach. Very. If my circumstances were different, I’m not sure that I would have been able to handle it. I had wanted to read it because I thought it might be an insightful portrait of how a child molester truly preys on his victims (which it is). Having worked in the past with many, many victims of sexual abuse, I was already very aware of the grave misconceptions that abound about child molesters. After reading the review from NPR, I wasn’t sure if this book was going to have what I was looking for but it was Kathryn Harrison’s much more favorable and less ambivalent review in the NY Times that prompted me to try it.

I was concerned about the number of reviews I saw that mentioned that the book “humanizes a pedophile,” including Alice Sebold’s, as I didn’t want to feel pity and forgiveness for a warm and cuddly child molester. I was already aware that vast numbers of abusers come from very traumatic backgrounds and I had already had many experiences seeing the humanity in monsters who had committed truly deplorable crimes. That was not what I was looking for. I consider it a great success of the book that the reader remains consistently aware and disgusted by the despicable behavior of the abuser while simultaneously understanding the perspective of the narrator who felt charmed by and loved by him, who felt sympathy, love and desperation for him. He was humanized in the sense that he was a fleshed out, embodied being that was comprehensible to the reader, and not the one-dimensional caricature of a monster that is typically portrayed. For this reason I think this book is an excellent work. It does no one much good to only perceive pedophiles as the latter description. It certainly makes it easier for us to keep them at arm’s length but it does nothing to help us “see” them. Of course, knowing that they are all around us, people whom we know and interact with everyday, makes it incredibly difficult for any of us to want to come to grips with actually “seeing” them. Yet it is so important that we do so.

I encourage anyone who is in the field of trauma or sexual abuse to read this book. If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, read this book. If you want to read a beautiful memoir written by a brave and courageous woman, read this book. It is without comparison in its forthrightness, pain and hope.

Book Review: The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville

Title: The Universe in Miniature in Miniature
Author: Patrick Somerville
Publisher: Featherproof Books
ISBN: 9780982580813
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
PP: 307 pages
Price: $14.95
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Looking for a collection of stories that never bores? That always retains its flavor and texture? In his new collection of short stories Patrick Somerville has, with scattered precision, invented a whole new genre. The stories are intertwined in an Escheresque way that allow you to discover them again and again, backwards and forwards, sideways and roundabout. If you are a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Alice Through the Looking Glass, if you enjoy science fiction and love stories, and if you like a little apocalyptic darkness mixed in with your post-millennial philosophy you will fall in love with these stories. If you want to know the answer to: what should you do with a billion dollars? Then read this book.

For example, the opening tale, which gives the collection its name, introduces us to the School of Surreal Thought and Design. SSTD makes an appearance in other stories that do not involve the characters of the first. Similarly, the random stabbing of a young man on the street plays a role in at least three of the stories. Characters, meanwhile, make an appearance in seemingly unrelated stories, serving to provide a common thread. More important, virtually all of the stories are at heart about their characters, characters often broken in one way or another. Those who are damaged often are, as one says, “stuck in time” or, in the words of another, represent “the human mind trapped by itself in a vacuum but there’s a very small window somehow within this empty and airless prison.”

This is Patrick Somerville’s most ambitious book by a mile. The characters and situations here are so delightfully varied. In these stories we encounter a group of college students with bizarre self-designated assignments. A somewhat washed up sci-fi writer and his balding friend. A man in the middle of a nervous breakdown. This book stands in stark contrast with other collections I’ve read recently, where it can feel like the same character is being used in ever story, re-named again and again.

I was also impressed by how comfortably Somerville shifted tone and genre, which came as something as a surprise considering that his earlier books were traditionally literature (with a few shots of oddness here and there). “No Sun”, for example, is a grizzly, stripped down tale of survival in the vein of Justin Cronin’s “The Passage”. The next story, Varra in the Woods, is a straight-up horror story with parental overtones, while “The Wildlife Biologist” is a very honest, naturalistic and probing look at high school lust and middle-age failures.

Combining a light touch of science fiction with greater emphasis on the characters, “The Machine of Understanding Other People” also helps epitomize Somerville’s “genre-busting.” Yet it also reminds us that the work as a whole may be its own machine of understanding other people, one that tends to give insight into not only the empty prison but, more important, the window.

Any fan of genre-bending, compassionate characters and general goofiness should give this book a shot.

Book Review: The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

Title: The Shape of Water
Author: Andrea Camilleri
Publisher: Picador
Genre: Crime
ISBN: 9780330492867
PP: 256 Pages
Source: Publisher
Price: £7.99
Rating: 5/5

This was a fast-moving thriller set in a fictional Sicilian town. The author is Italian, and his hero is a local police chief, Salvo Montalbano. Unlike other crime fiction that is set in Italy but written by foreigners, this stuff is more down to earth and skips a lot of the pretty description and social observation. That is not to say that there is no social observation here – what would be the point of writing something set in Italy without it? But Camilleri, being a local, gets to the point faster and uses a lot of cynical humor and quick dialogue. The style reminded me a little of Simenon, although the characters and situations are different.

The story begins quickly, with the discovery of a leading politician’s corpse, sitting in a car in a sleazy part of town frequented by whores and their customers. Although it is pretty strange that he should be found dead in such a place, pressure is immediately applied to the Montalbano to quickly wrap up the investigation. Feeling that he is being used, this cop instead begins to investigate. Montalbano is pretty much a classic paperback detective, but without the vices. He is tough and rational, but primarily a decent man who tries hard to do the right thing. Camilleri paints a picture of a Sicily that is rife with corruption of all kinds – financial, political, sexual – especially sexual – and a lot of this is taken for granted by everybody. This is, I suppose, a cliche about Southern Italy, but in this case it is employed by an Italian writer.

Montalbano begins to investigate, and discovers that, not surprisingly, things are not what they seem. But neither do they turn out to be the usual type of thing one would expect either. The pace is quick, and things are interesting and hard to puzzle out up thru the ending. The ending is a surprise too – a double ending, in which Montalbano, the only one who seems to have a clue as to what really happened (with one exception), ends up with two plausible explanations for the politician’s death – and no arrests appear to be imminent.

Also coming into the picture are the dead man’s political rival, his party boy son, and the son’s Swedish blonde bombshell wife, who is apparently screwing any man who gets within a few feet of her. This was the first book in a series, and it seems like the author is trying to set up a series. There are an awful lot of characters that pop up in such short book, and I would bet that they reappear in other tales. Camilleri is no poetic prosemaster, but this was a solid, taut, well-designed page-turner with a fair amount of humor to balance out the violence.

This is very cerebral detecting, even given the Maigret-like texture of the narrative. Fans of rough-and-tumble may be disappointed. Those who flinch at the social critique of the South of Italy may find the portrayal of Sicilians to be a bit problematic too.

But I think these objections are misplaced. The real action in this book is on the social and personal level. It is precisely the quality of thought that the ever-humane Montalbano brings to the proceedings that make them exciting. More importantly, his dim-eyed view of Sicilan society and mores is an invitation to reflect on its similarities to our own. Sicily here is not a stand-in for some uncivilized ‘other’. It’s handled with a sympathy that makes it a proxy for all of us.

You can purchase the book on Flipkart here and on Infibeam here