The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.


This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots on goal.

Teaser Tuesdays: Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, trans. by Sam Garrett

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Dutch author Jan Wolkers is considered one of his country’s greats, and his fifth novel Turks Fruit (in Dutch) was among his splashiest. Sam Garrett’s is the newest, but not the first, English translation.

Check out all that text on the cover: this is indeed a feisty and erotic novel. (I love that they’re advertising Kirkus’s not-so-complimentary words.)

turkish delight

That’s why I felt this teaser was so perfect.

It was because of the ominous thunderstorm and the way the lightning kept illuminating the garden with bright flashes that, for a fraction of a second, showed you every detail of all those separate trees you’d never noticed before. As though the director was pulling out all the stops in some melodramatic B-movie.

Similarly, Wolkers could be said to pull out all the stops, and engage in melodrama; but once you’ve accepted that that’s the style of this work, I think there is much to be said for its artistic merits, and you can’t argue with its passion. Just… not for the squeamish.

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

Maximum Shelf: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

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 September 7, 2016.


wangs vs the world

Jade Chang’s first novel, The Wangs vs. the World, is an accomplishment: sparkling characters, family dynamics, humor and despair set against global historic and economic forces, rendering the title entirely apt.

Charles Wang is a proud patriarch. He has three beautiful, talented children (though his son hasn’t slept with quite so many women yet as he should have, and his older daughter lives too far away), and has built a major financial empire in makeup manufacturing. He has the house in Bel-Air, the factories, the cars; his second wife has all the designer clothing, jewelry and handbags she ever wanted. He has a “sexy little cigarette speedboat painted with twenty-seven gallons of Suicide Blonde, his best-selling nail polish color–a perfect blue-toned red that set off the mahogany trim and bright white leather seats.”

Until he doesn’t.

In 2008, the Wang fortune evaporates, like so many others, due nearly as much to Charles’s hubris as to the economic climate of the time. In the face of this calamity (frequently referred to in his inner monologue as “the Failure”), Charles turns to an old legend: his family’s land in China, stolen by the Communists. This fable of luxury and excess was his birthright, and with the U.S.-based version collapsed, he determines to take his family back to the old country and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. And so a road trip ensues, with the patched-together family forming and reforming in various configurations cross-country.

Charles and his second wife, Barbra, depart the California home they no longer own in a powder-blue Mercedes station wagon nearly 30 years old, which luckily had been transferred into the nanny’s name, so it wasn’t repossessed with the other cars. They pick up stunned younger daughter Grace from her boarding school in Santa Barbara, then son Andrew from Phoenix, Ariz., where he’d been enrolled in college (working harder on his stand-up comedy routine than on his studies). The Wangs aim for the home of elder daughter Saina in the Catskills, where she struggles to regroup from her own personal trauma–and from there, for China. But on a southern detour, Andrew leaves the group for an older woman he meets at a New Orleans wedding.

The hilarity of filial antics on this road trip, “a troupe of Chinese Okies fleeing a New Age Dust Bowl,” forms a central part of this story. But the larger narrative involves Charles’s perception of the injustices done to the Wangs by history: Japan’s invasion of China, immigration through Taiwan, investment patterns in the U.S. The next generation of Wangs has taken an artistic turn: Saina is a fallen darling of the New York art world; Andrew aspires to be a comic, but relies perhaps too heavily on Asian jokes; and Grace surprises her elders with her fashion sense (and a promising blog on the topic). The Wangs vs. the World is about generational and cultural challenges, and not just that of the Chinese immigrant to the United States. It is more about family than money.

This is a stylish novel, fun to read. The Wangs sometime speak in a mashup of English and Chinese that Chang leaves untranslated, though adequately understandable in context. Charles has his own prejudices, including a bias against “the tropical joke of Taiwan” and “the poor, illiterate, ball-scratching half men from Canton and Fujian.” Each chapter shifts perspective, beginning with Charles the patriarch and cycling through outsider stepmother Barbra (whose further crime is to be not even Chinese, but Taiwanese), the three privileged but loving children, even the 1980 Mercedes.

Chang crafts her characters expertly, with nuance and precise details. In Charles’s mind, makeup “was artifice, and it was honesty. It was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy. Not money–wealth. The brilliant Aegean blues and slick wet reds and luscious blacks, the weighty packaging, with its satisfying smooth hinges and sound closures.” In packing to leave his dorm, Andrew prioritizes “his top five pairs of sneakers–original issue Infrared Air Max 90s, Maison Martin Margiela Replica 22s, Common Projects Achilles Mid, beat-up checkboard Vans, and a pair of never worn Air Jordan 4 Undefeateds.” Saina’s social life in the Catskills is populated by few but absorbing characters–including an old artist boyfriend and a new one who’s a farmer–who are among Chang’s finest sketches. Andrew’s economics professor offers an impassioned in-class explanation for the crash: “Every one of you ought to be furious because you are the unfortunate generation who will be graduating and trying to obtain jobs in a busted economy that we might well pack up and sell to the Chinese.” These details, and perfectly formed dialogue, make an already engrossing story positively glitter.

As a novel with momentum and magnetism, reaching across generations from China and Taiwan to high-society California and New York to New Orleans and the Catskills, with stops along the way, The Wangs vs. the World undertakes an ambitious range of material. Chang manages both this sweeping plot and backdrop, as well as the finer points of characterization and relationships, with ease. The result is hilarious and heartfelt, witty and wise, and a prodigious achievement for a first-time novelist.


Rating: 8 of dad’s old paisley Hermès bow ties from the eighties.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Chang.

book beginnings on Friday: Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, trans. by Susan Bernofsky

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

memoirs of a polar bear

I have a strange and interesting one to start off this weekend. The back of the book quotes the New Yorker on “Yoko Tawada’s magnificent strangeness.” I’m looking forward to it.

We begin:

Someone tickled me behind my ears, under my arms. I curled up, becoming a full moon, and rolled on the floor. I may also have emitted a few hoarse shrieks. Then I lifted my rump to the sky and slid my head below my belly. Now I was a sickle moon, still too young to imagine any danger.

Sweet, and strange. I’m game.

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

selections from Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World ed. by Frank Stewart & Trevor Carolan

cascadiaI just read a few pieces from this collection, so I won’t finish with a final rating, but I think it’s recommendable overall for readers interested in a sense of place in this place in particular; nature & ecology; First Nations peoples; or Emily Carr.

The table of contents is organized by category: essays, oratory, poetry, memoir. Unusually, the order of the table of contents is not the same as the order in the book itself. I picked out a few things I wanted to read: essays “In the Shadow of Red Cedar” by Wade Davis, “Reinhabitation” by Gary Snyder, and “Nature’s Apprentice” by Rex Weyler; Barry Lopez’s fiction “In the Great Bend of the Souris River”; and all three pieces of memoir, “The Laughing One: Word Sketches from Klee Wyck” by Emily Carr, “The Sasquatch at Home” by Eden Robinson, and “Lew Welch: An Appreciation” by Maxine Hong Kingston. Emily Carr’s sketches appear throughout, illustrating not only her own writing but all of Cascadia.

The work of Barry Lopez and Maxine Hong Kingston were among my favorites; Eden Robinson’s story about her mother and Elvis was curious and enjoyable. But by far the standout for me was Emily Carr, a woman I know best from a work of fiction: Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. I marveled here at her skill with words as well as pencil and paintbrush. She recounts experiences as a teen visiting a mission school and other native communities, and the wisdom and humor as well as observations she expresses are impressive. I marked several startling phrases.

The house was of wood, unpainted. There were no blinds or curtains. It looked, as we paddled up to it, as it if were stuffed with black.

It must have hurt the Indians dreadfully to have the things they had always believed trampled on and torn from their hugging. Down deep we all hug something. The great forest hugs its silence. The sea and the air hug the spilled cries of sea-birds. The forest hugs only silence; its birds and even its beasts are mute.

The old man sawed as if aeons of time were before him, and as if all the years behind him had been leisurely and all the years in front of him would be equally so. There was strength still in his back and limbs but his teeth were all worn to the gums. The shock of hair that fell to his shoulders was grizzled. Life had sweetened the old man. He was luscious with time like the end berries of the strawberry season.

Luscious with time like a strawberry. I tell you. And this woman is famous for her paintings! (Etc.)

From Barry Lopez’s story, in which the narrator pours his passion into working with wood, reading wood, and using that work to read his world, comes a metaphor:

Nothing solid, I learned, can ever be built without shims.

I’ve just taken a quick overview of what this book has to offer; but I can see that it addresses the politics, history, cultures and ecology of the region of Cascadia (“a great arc from Southeast Alaska to Cape Mendocino, California”) through a variety of lenses and voices. And with some lovely words in between.

Teaser Tuesdays: One Life by David Lida

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

I’ve been enjoying this novel, which is dark but sort of darkly whimsical, thoughtful, shocking, and heavily flavored by Mexico.

one life
Here’s your teaser from One Life:

Seated in a tiny booth, a smudged window separates Esperanza from her lawyer. She looks at Catherine’s straight brown bangs, her watery blue eyes, her bee-stung lips. Squeezed into her side of the booth, Catherine has brought a man with her; Esperanza imagines he is some other licenciado. Lawyers, cops, detectives, interpreters, investigators, detectives, consular officials and their respective assistants have all come to visit Esperanza in the months since her arrest. The meetings are brief and intense and then they disappear. She has seen few of them more than once.

This story is told in shifting perspectives, here Esperanza’s in the present, although hers visits the past quite a bit as well. The other major player is the strange man brought along on this visit. Stick around for the review: I recommend this one.

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

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

A vibrant, emotive coming-of-age novel explores friendship and its pitfalls in a changing world.

another brooklyn

Another Brooklyn is Jacqueline Woodson’s (Brown Girl Dreaming) first adult novel in 20 years. Powerfully moving and lyrical, it demonstrates her expertise beyond the children’s and young adult literature for which she is known.

“For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.” This first line presents the powerful narrative voice of August, an adult reminiscing about her Brooklyn upbringing. Chapter 2 flashes back to the summer of 1973, when she was eight years old, and the novel follows chronologically from there. August and her little brother, recently relocated from Tennessee following a murky family tragedy, adjust slowly to city life. August watches a group of three girlfriends from her painted-shut, third-floor apartment window; she longs to be with them and eventually integrates herself, building an intensely close foursome. The girls share the mysteries, miseries and conquests of puberty–though their fate is hinted at by the opening chapter.

Another Brooklyn visits iconic moments in culture and history: damaged Vietnam veterans, white residents fleeing Brooklyn, the influence of the Nation of Islam in the neighborhood and in August’s single-parent household, the city-wide blackout of 1977. The city offers hope to four beautiful, talented, intelligent girls, and threatens them with men in dark alleys and the limiting judgments of others. Afros, cornrows and hijabs mark fashions in time. But despite these vibrant, evocative framing elements, this is essentially a coming-of-age story in which a child comes to face the hard edges of reality, both particular and universal. Woodson’s eye for detail and ear for poetry result in a novel both brief and profound.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 pickled pig’s feet.
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