Teaser Tuesdays: God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Léger

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

haiti

God Loves Haiti is a novel set in the 2010 earthquake suffered by that country, and is peopled by some striking characters – for example, the one in these lines:

…The moment, this dream-concretizing climax, felt ephemeral. Like she was about to wake up where she was born, in a roofless orphanage, naked, afraid, hungry, but pugnacious.

There is shock value to learning her roots, yes, but I love that string of adjectives for more than its shock value: how about that pugnacity, hm? Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 10, 2014.


room
“The first time I walked into the room I turned back almost at once.”

From this skillfully subtle opening line, the titular room is spotlighted as the crux of a strange and surreal tale. The first-person narrator of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room remains nameless for much of his story. He assures the reader that he has been given his new position working for the Authority because of the outstanding work done at his last post–as implied by his boss, “gesturing upwards with his hand to indicate my career trajectory.” This narrator, eventually identified as Björn, is a consummate bureaucrat and couldn’t be prouder of his efficiency. He sets himself a strict schedule: 55 minutes of work followed by five minutes of break time for coffee, toilet and sundry; if he needs the toilet sooner, he practices restraint.

Björn is odd from the first, but we take him at his word: he is good at his job, perhaps not well-liked by his fellows, but effective and ambitious. In this new post, he is determined to work his way to the top, and secretly exults in a future in which his boss Karl will acknowledge Björn’s prowess and grovel for his approval. Social awkwardness is his greatest challenge. His attempts to infiltrate the politics and society of his new office environment are clumsy; nonetheless, he endures the Christmas party. He’s unhappily positioned at the very center of the open-plan office space, with a boorish deskmate whose piles of paper threaten to encroach upon Björn’s territory.

On the other hand, there is the room. Björn discovers it by accident while looking for the toilet. It is a lovely space, a perfectly appointed, perfectly proportioned, old-fashioned, classy office. In his eyes, “The whole room breathed tradition…. Is this what monks feel like as they walk the corridors of their monasteries?” He catches sight of himself in the mirror, and is struck by how good he looks, despite not usually feeling that he is attractive, or even worrying about such things. His suit even fits better when he is in the room.

Björn begins visiting the room regularly, and a problem arises. His coworkers see him standing in a particular spot, along the hallway on the way to the toilets. He just stands there, entirely still and dead to the world, looking contented. This is unnerving. They don’t see the room; the room doesn’t exist on architectural plans or for anyone else; Björn concedes that, when he paces it off, no room should fit in that precise space. The other fourth-floor employees of the Authority gang up on him, enlisting the boss’s power against him, and he is instructed to never enter “the room” again, under any circumstances. But Björn knows that he is a worthy opponent for these small-brained incompetents. He takes on a protracted confrontation in which these conflicts only deepen.

Björn is an exemplary unreliable narrator. As in the best instances, the reader is left to put together fractured pieces of information shared along the way, and struggle to devise the truth of the room and Björn’s sanity. It’s tempting to flip back to earlier scenes and reconsider. Who is crazy here, Björn or his colleagues? Is he the last breath of reason in an insane world, or vice versa? Are we observing the workings of magic, fantasy, conspiracy or madness? Is this really modern Stockholm, or an Orwellian nightmare? The parallel realities experienced by Björn and his colleagues, and the high-strung nature of his interior drama, are sketched with exquisite subtlety in deceptively simple language, and Neil Smith’s translation from the Swedish is pitch perfect. The Room simultaneously approaches claustrophobia in its physical scope and achieves boundless significance.

There are several levels to the uncomfortable probing Karlsson undertakes throughout Björn’s odd tale. Clearly this is in part a critique of bureaucracy and office politics (is it really ideal to dispose of your problem employee by putting him to work restocking printer paper?), but Karlsson also sketches larger doubts about the subjectivity of reality, social graces and the importance of control over the different aspects of our lives.

Karlsson’s prose and the inventiveness of Björn’s surreal mental workings are often funny; indeed, the humor comes in moments of breathless surprise that amplify its effect. This story will, of course, strike comic chords with the cube-dwelling set. But the overall impact is also deeply thought-provoking and profoundly disquieting, and the combination of the banal and the absurd results in a striking and singular read.

The Room is a very slim book with a very large footprint, recalling Kafka and Beckett, and posing questions about the nature of truth as well as the value of defining one’s own work and life. As the reader interprets Björn’s world and social cues, doubts are cast on his belief in his own superiority. But the drama persists until the final, bizarre conclusion.


Rating: 8 fairy-lights.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Karlsson.

Maximum Shelf: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 5, 2014.


jaguar
The Jaguar’s Children is a striking and heartrending first novel by John Vaillant (The Tiger; The Golden Spruce). It opens with a text message.

Thu Apr 5 – 08:31 [text]
Hello I’m sorry to bother you but I need your assistance–I am Hector –Cesar’s friend–It’s an emergency now for Cesar–Are you in el norte? I think we are also–Arizona near Nogales or Sonoita–Since yesterday we are in this truck with no one coming–We need water and a doctor–And a torch for cutting metal

The sender is Hector María de la Soledad Lázaro Gonzalez, a young man from a small pueblo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He has paid 30,000 pesos to a band of coyotes to be transported across the Mexican border, from Altar in Sonora into Arizona. Along with his companion Cesar and 13 others, Hector has been sealed inside a water tank for this illegal journey, and the truck has broken down and the passengers–now prisoners–have been abandoned.

With Cesar injured, Hector becomes responsible for his friend as well as for himself. The plight of the 15 people trapped in the truck is the central struggle of the book, which spans only a few days in real time, from Hector’s discovery of Cesar’s hidden cell phone (containing only one U.S. phone number, for a person Hector doesn’t know) to their eventual fate. During these days, as food supplies and water dwindle and the immigrants bicker and weaken, Hector uses the phone to compose text messages and record lengthy sound files in which he tells his story, and Cesar’s. The Jaguar’s Children is the transcript of these messages.

Hector initially identifies himself as Cesar’s friend, but as his chronicle unfolds, it becomes clear that their connection is more tenuous. Originally schoolmates, Cesar is older, more successful and popular, and Hector is rather a hanger-on; in the hours before their departure from the border town of Altar, however, Cesar began to unburden himself to the younger man. Hector is at first hopeful that his unknown contact in the United States will save the truckload of thirsty immigrants, but as conditions worsen and he gets no response, he feels an increasing urgency to record the story of both lives. His narrative thus progressively deepens, and gains increasing gravity.

Unquestionably, the immigrants’ suffering is a large part of the novel’s significant and essential emotional impact: these people are treated as worse than beasts by the coyotes who leave them in such straits, and their torments are both unimaginable and graphically described. This agony is leavened somewhat by the interspersed history of Hector’s life in Oaxaca, but even those tales are disturbing, as they examine the injustices and poverty that drive Hector and Cesar to undertake such a dangerous flight in the first place. Principally, however, Vaillant’s masterful debut novel is deeply compelling, realistic and heartfelt, and brings to light important considerations about the way we treat one another.

Vaillant’s writing is extremely well crafted, precise and poetic, not only painfully affecting but carefully structured. He uses Spanish-language word order and sentence structure, so that Hector’s voice speaks aloud from the page. This sense of realism is outstanding, and while it is part of what makes this book distressing, it is also a fine achievement. Indeed, the reader must beware the fine line between fact and fiction, as Hector’s is represented as a true story to the less discerning members of the audience. That this story could happen–does happen–is part of its import.

The Jaguar’s Children is at once a work of intense suspense, as we worry over the question of Hector and Cesar’s survival, a larger story of conflict between two nations, and the indigenous cultures in a parallel struggle for survival. Lyrically composed, tragic and disturbing, Hector’s account will certainly be one of the most memorable books of the year. This heartbreaking novel is worth the pain, for the wisdom it has to share and the respects it can help us all to pay.


Rating: 9 capfuls.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Vaillant.

Teaser Tuesdays: Offcomer by Jo Baker

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Sorry, I know I already gave you one teaser from this one, but I just couldn’t help myself.

offcomerI loved a lot of things about this book, but one of them was the striking passages about physicality, the physical effects of noticing others’ physical presences throughout. I thought I’d share this one with you.

As she came towards him, the last grains of his ambivalence crumbled away. He suddenly realised, for the first time, that she was, in fact, beautiful. The idea was startling, even terrifying. Even that evening nearly a year ago, when she had taken off her clothes for him to draw her, when she was utterly new and unknown to him, he hadn’t really thought that she was beautiful.

Oh, the terrifying beauty! It’s not what you think, though… I suppose I’ll be mysterious and leave it at that for now.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (audio)

starryI love-love-loved Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, so I was easily sold on the idea of this, her second novel, on audiobook. Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the story of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman who fled a troubled marriage when she took her three children with her to Europe to pursue her studies in the arts. There, Fanny met a young Scotsman, a sickly lawyer with a passion for writing rather than the law. This man, 10 years her junior, is Robert Louis Stevenson. He is attracted to her first; her reciprocation comes a little later; but they end up in a passionate love affair, complicated by her married-with-children status and his family’s disapproval (of his writing, as well as of Fanny as an adulterer and an American). She goes back to California; he follows her; she eventually divorces, and they marry. Fanny and Louis (as he is called) live in a wide variety of locations all over the world, as he battles persistent health problems and writes such classics as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As Loving Frank touched on the life of the more-famous Frank Lloyd Wright while focusing on his longtime mistress Mamah Borthwick, so does this story cover Stevenson by covering his wife. Fanny is brave, and strong-willed, and protective of her own, but also strong-tempered. She is creative, and sees herself as an artist in her own right – a painter, a writer – but is overshadowed by Louis. His health is best when at sea, while she gets deathly seasick as soon as she steps aboard. Their romance, their shared life, is deeply felt, ardent, and loving, but also rocky; both are passionate people with strong personalities, and they have their troubles.

This novel was not the overwhelming success for me that Loving Frank was, although I certainly enjoyed it. Both books are novels, works of fiction, but also shed a great deal of light on the real lives of men (and women) I didn’t know much about. As I’ve discussed before, fiction is not the most reliable source of knowledge, but I know more now than I did, and I won’t go writing any nonfiction monographs based off this reading (in other words, good enough). More, I enjoyed getting to know both strong women, Mamah and Fanny. However… Under the Wide and Starry Sky slowed down for me considerably in the middle. This might be partly my fault. Due to my own life’s events, I slowed way down in my listening patterns; maybe I was too far away from regular “reading” to appreciate the rhythm of Horan’s writing. But I think more objectively that the story of Louis and Fanny was faster-paced and more engaging early on, during their courtship and the grand achievement of their marriage, and later on, as they battled some significant late-life challenges, than it was in the middle when they bickered with friends and set up a few different homesteads. Also, I think Mamah got the spotlight of Loving Frank much more decisively, where Louis was a stronger costar in Under the… Sky. This is a loss from the feminist perspective (that I suspect Horan was pursuing, and that is part of her books’ attraction), of giving the women behind these men a little of the focus and attention they deserve. On the other hand, Stevenson himself was a great character to get to know (and I loved the Scottish accent as performed by Kirsten Potter), so that if you were not concerned about the feminist angle, you might be happy to have more Louis and less Fanny. Frankly, she was a little less likeable to me.

Although it lacked the magic sparkle that made Loving Frank a near-perfect achievement in my book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky was enjoyable, and I will miss Fanny and Louis in my life. For historical fiction about the strong women behind their better-known strong men, I continue to recommend Nancy Horan. And Potter’s narration was nuanced, had personality, and improved the experience.


Rating: 7 cacao seeds.

Teaser Tuesdays: Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

screenplay

Allow me to introduce you to a strange and dreamy novel originally published in the year of my birth, which recalls somewhat The Great Gatsby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and (most pointedly) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For your teaser today, please enjoy our narrator-protagonist on his mother:

To me she behaved exactly as she did to the rest of her friends; she was affectionate without sentiment, she confided every intimate thought that came to her without hesitating, she often asked my advice on things, and when I came home at the end of the day she embraced me as she did her other friends, male and female, as was the custom in their set – in the French manner, a quick hug and a touch of the lips on both cheeks.

The oddness is only just beginning, I assure you. Stay tuned; I think it’s a good one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Donald McCaig

A familiar, but not unoriginal, expansion on a beloved character from a classic American epic.

ruth

In Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Donald McCaig (Rhett Butler’s People) tells the full story of Scarlett’s beloved nursemaid. He begins in France with Miss Solange, a wealthy heiress who travels to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). There she takes in a local child to be part servant, part daughter, and names her Ruth, then moves to Savannah. Switching focus to Ruth, McCaig details her eventual brief marriage to a free man in Charleston, years of tragedy and rebellion, and her return to Savannah.

Though McCaig does touch a bit on Scarlett’s well-known story, the bulk of the narrative is focused on Ruth’s early life: the voyage to the U.S., her transition to adulthood, her loves and losses, and the moment she deliberately gives up her name and identity in favor of a new moniker: Mammy. Miss Solange has a daughter, Ellen, who in turn gives birth to the memorable Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Where Scarlett is petulant, Mammy is resilient. Through decades of love, death and betrayal, she consciously puts on a smile. She is cursed to foresee the ugly futures of those she cares for, but, as she repeats to herself, it is not for mammies to speak all that they see.

McCaig echoes the saucy, tongue-in-cheek tone of Mitchell’s classic. Mammy’s story is complex, and she commands respect. Lovers of Gone with the Wind will be the most obvious fans of Ruth’s Journey, but it stands on its own merits as a sweeping epic of time, place and history, thoroughly worthy of its inspiration.


(Final comment: Those readers who were concerned with the racial insensitivity of Mitchell’s original will not find any clear redemption or compensation here; but McCaig’s treatment is respectful and nuanced, certainly no worse and arguably slightly better than the classic in this regard.)


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 husbands.
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