Tag Archives: book reviews

Point Omega — Don DeLillo

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Don DeLillo does with language what Arvo Pärt does with music. Their work yields little when casually approached. But it rewards close attention with spare and beautiful lines capable of containing truth. Point Omega was a pleasure to read for its pure artistry, if not for its compelling characters.

The characters are barely limned in this slim novel. Richard Elster is an aging academic who spent some time drafted to help create a language with which to sell the Iraq War to the American public. He worked with top level political strategists, looking for a linguistic architecture to frame the war, to give it shape and meaning. Disillusioned in the end, he has retreated to the remote California desert, a landscape so sere and austere that it is as powerful as a character in this book.

Jim Finley is a much younger filmmaker who wants to place Elster against an industrial wall in Brooklyn and film him talking about his experience, his deep cogitation about it and his conclusions about what it all means. Finley joins Elster in his ramshackle dwelling in the desert where time loses all significance and philosophical questions are endlessly debatable over drinks on the porch.

When Elster’s twentyish dreamy daughter arrives from New York, sent away by her mother after a sinister date begins to stalk her by telephone, the dynamic of the story shifts. Elster has been postulating, in and out of his cups, about the absence of time in the desert and the Teilhardian concept of the omega point when the human imagination has exhausted itself and something cataclysmic occurs. The philosophical choices seem to be oblivion or a profound illumination. Finley is no closer to convincing Elster to document his own soul and story and Elster appears to be disappearing into the stark landscape.

Then something cataclysmic does happen but it is in no way theoretical and profundities are rendered meaningless by its mystery. Elster’s daughter disappears. One day they return from picking up groceries and she simply isn’t there. The search for the “otherworldly” Jessica lends some drama to the story but no answers. Tragedy takes away words. Elster no longer speaks. Finley can’t remember the passionate obsession with making his film. Search helicopters break the desert silence.

The events in Point Omega are framed by another kind of stillness, an art installation in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is played in a bare room in a gallery, slowed and stretched to fill 24 hours. The excruciating slow motion mesmerizes a faceless character who returns to the gallery day after day to stand in a corner and experience the obliteration of known time. The silent, painstaking screening, detailed at length in the beginning and end of the story, inspires more contemplation of the nature of reality and perception.

This is a beautiful book, packed with Big Questions about life and meaning but not overly concerned with plots and people. DeLillo is a pure pleasure to read but the usual pleasures of slipping into a book are absent here. You are in thrall to DeLillo’s deserts, the real and the metaphoric ones. The journey will leave you uneasy, impressed and a little bit empty–rich in images and no closer to the truth than when you ghosted into the nameless gallery with Norman Bates on the first page.

 Point Omega  Don DeLillo | Scribner 2010

Are You Somebody? – Nuala O’Faolain

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Ireland is such a myth of mist and legend to those of us whose ancestors made their wretched way here and promptly buried their secrets. We have no history but we have the legacy – the enchantment of stories, the entrancement of drink, the scars of deprivation and humiliation passed down for generations. Ireland seems to me to be a land of lilt and loss and Nuala O’Faolain’s unsparing memoir provides plenty of both.

She was one of nine children – I remember an Irish-American family in one of the parishes where I grew up who were admired for their twelve. As if the rest of the families hadn’t quite made the cut as Catholics, as if that family was restocking the ranks of the faithful and we fell woefully short. The Ireland O’Faolain writes about lived on in the diaspora, too.

Growing up she had a mostly missing, charming father, a mother who adored him but was quickly overwhelmed by babies, poverty, an absent philanderer and a retreat into drink. New siblings arrived year after year and Nuala barely got to know them. Mammy was a voracious reader. Daddy was a journalist and raconteur. Young Nuala absorbed their gifts, and the rigid definition of what it means to be adult and female and the blessed forgetfulness at the bottom of a bottle. Her escapades sneaking off to dances got her kicked out of the local parochial school and sent to boarding school where she failed to reform. She pitched her life against the constraints of a country in which women had few options and managed to win scholarships to university and to Oxford. She became a producer for the BBC and a columnist for The Irish Times.

It is to her credit that the litany of lovers–many lovers–and drinking and failures and rescues holds up. These are not revelations in any surprising sense. The society that shaped her was slow to accept the autonomy of women and to grant them options for work, for romance, for making meaning of their lives. But nowhere was it much better and families everywhere hold each other in the same suffocating thrall. So we travel her bumpy life with her and marvel at what she achieved and recognize in her stories our own.

O’Faolain the journalist does a good job reporting on herself without pity or embellishment. She traces the spiral that circles her back on herself through episodes, lovers and leavings and shares her hard won introspection without fanfare. “Are you somebody?” is a question asked when you might just be recognizable, maybe a minor celebrity, a person whose name might be known. But it’s the deeper question as well, one O’Faolain has spent a lifetime asking. In the end she still wants what she was trained all her life to want, the answer to the question revealed in the eyes of someone who loves her. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask but it is everything. People are each unhappy in their own way, lonely in their own lives, she finds. Extricating a life from the tentacles of family and society’s suffocating constraints is a life’s work.

O’Faolain died of lung cancer in 2008. Her memoir was a bestseller and she took some comfort from the outpouring of recognition and emotion that it generated among readers, especially women. But she claimed in the book and in interviews shortly before her death that she never felt like a success, always felt on the cusp of beginning her life. Despite the intelligence and optimism that she chronicled in Are You Somebody?, the story affirms that what goes missing in our earliest years creates wounds that never heal.

Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman   Nuala O’Faolain | Henry Holt and Company First Owl Books Edition 1999

The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

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Robin McKinley does literate fantasy with enormous intelligence and a sure command of story. Her re-imaginations of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are revelatory and emotionally satisfying. Her heroines are strong and believable in ways more female protagonists should be. The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal for its characters as much as its flawless craft. The story draws you into a world that seems real from its first detail to its last litter of puppies in the middle of the royal featherbed. It is Aerin’s story but it is a classic hero’s journey and every girl who reads it should get a few ideas. Every boy who reads it should re-examine a few.

Aerin is the king’s daughter, child of a mother who died at her birth, a mother who was considered by the good folk of Damaria to be a witch. So Aerin’s place in the kingdom is far from assured and she is the merciless taunt of her gorgeous and shallow cousin who schemes for power and position. The people believe Aerin may be a witch-child, a sol who has no apparent magical gifts, uncommon blazing red hair and white skin and a tendency toward unladylike pursuits.

From earliest childhood, Aerin has been inseparable from her friend Tor, the appointed first sola or heir to a king with no male children. Tor teaches her swordplay and confides in her but even Tor can’t define where Aerin fits in and what she is meant to be. She heals and tames her father’s injured war horse who has been turned out to pasture, teaching herself to ride hands-free and wield sword and spear on horseback. When she discovers an old formula for a fire-shielding ointment, she determines to perfect the recipe and become a dragon-killer—the dragons being fiercely volcanic vermin that terrorize the countryside, although they bear little resemblance to the legendary flying monsters that are long gone from Damaria.

Arlbeth, the king, refuses to take his daughter to battle with threatening dissidents from the North so Aerin sets out in secret to destroy Maur, the horrifying Black Dragon now returned, a massive evil presence laying waste to villages and farms at the outskirts of the kingdom. Her adventures are epic, her encounters deadly and the consequences of the lethal struggle with Maur set events in motion that spin wildly through tragedy, deep magic, heroism and destruction to the story’s conclusion.

McKinley has written another terrific tale, a fantasy with no fairytale princess but a tough, smart and battle-scarred heroine who shies away from the people who mistrust her and is desperate to prove her place. Aerin is funny, irreverent and brave. She is also impulsive, awkward and a miserable dancer. Her uncanny empathy with animals and the powerful magic she doesn’t realize she has propel her on a journey into a Tolkienesque hell that she undertakes as if fate compels her. Fate does. Aerin is no ordinary mortal but she is an extraordinary heroine and her quest captivates us. I rooted for her, even as I wanted to shout, “Go back! This is a really bad idea!” But there is no turning back. The losses are losses that can’t be redeemed; the victories are bittersweet. The story unspools as intensely visual as a film and I was sorry to leave the world McKinley created as I turned the last page.

 The Hero and the Crown    Robin McKinley | Firebrand 2002

Why Not Say What Happened? — Ivana Lowell

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Ivana Lowell is a person cobbled together out of careless bits of the damaged, larger-than-life characters who were her legendary family. The biological ancestry is the star-crossed and very alcoholic Irish Guinness clan, titled and landed British aristocracy, and some confusion in the region of actual parentage. Her revolving cast of relatives and serial stepfathers included the poet Robert Lowell, whose name she was given, and the colorful companions of her extravagantly social, unconventional and decidedly undomestic mother. Why Not Say What Happened? is a memoir sprinkled with high-profile names – painters, writers, filmmakers, actors, royalty, politicians – lists from social registers and from tabloid headlines, and rosters of the incredibly rich.

Lowell lived on estates that were grand and never centrally heated. The children were often housed in another wing, neglected, abused and gathered into the manic warmth of parental attention and parties just often enough to be imprinted with all of it. The child Ivana is molested by a servant, scalded, scarred for life and nearly killed in a kitchen accident and alternately fussed over and abandoned. But second-best caviar is all she knows so, like any child, she adapts. The theater that is her life is a perpetually alluring road show she learns to navigate and emulate.

Why Not Say What Happened? is a very sad chronicle of terrible tragedies and near criminal culpability that reads like a juicy novel. The rich are different—normal life is a money-fueled, exalted procession of privileged experiences, invaluable connections, flights to this and that exotic place and flights from uncomfortable brushes with reality. But Lowell is so resilient, or so enabled, that she prevails through bout after bout of drunkenness and rehab, madcap moments and memorable parties, screen shots of cinematic clarity and lucid introspection. All the broken people in her world adore and despise each other, cling to and castigate each other, love each other in some original fashion that usually looks nothing like love.

The mystery of Lowell’s father, a question raised in the beginning of the book, doesn’t begin to haunt her until after her mother’s death. But the truth of it, and the lies, deceptions and utter narcissism that hides from her a true identity informs her whole life. Money and position kept Ivana Lowell far from a dirty and seamy death in the streets. Her talent for telling a good story on herself gives us a glimpse behind the moth-eaten velvet curtain that hides her particular stage from view. It is an interesting mess of a life that was doomed from the start but spun itself out in joys and sorrows anyway. She’s a likable character in this book. A character from another world at once fabulous, appalling, fascinating and just plain awful. But eccentricity makes for page-turners and spilling secrets lures readers on. Why Not Say What Happened? is high-level gossip, engagingly divulged.

The death of Caroline Guinness, Ivana Lowell’s mother, is where it falters. Caroline was a destructive force as impossible to overlook as a Category 5 hurricane. Once she leaves the stage, the lurid headlines vanish, too. The encounter with DNA and finding a father, the ill-conceived marriage and the next generation of Guinness girls, the ongoing struggle with the family’s curses aren’t neatly resolved in a happily ever after. This tale full of sound and fury doesn’t signify nothing but it doesn’t deliver epiphanies either. Ivana Lowell’s life is what it is, spangled in glitter, weighted with regrets, some truth uncovered, a few more lies waiting in the wings to bring the curtain down.

 Why Not Say What Happened?: A Memoir (Vintage)   Ivana Lowell | Alfred A. Knopf 2010

Falling Man — Don DeLillo

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Before I started booklolly in earnest, I experimented with a few days of reading and blogging to see if I could read a book a day. It was tough but definitely doable and, being the sort of person who heads right into the thick of a guerrilla war to discover the truth about it, I created a blog and sat down to read. This book is one of the early experiments–saved it because the book is interesting and the read was relevant to its location and the day I read it. 

I grabbed Don DeLillo’s Falling Man from a display shelf at the library, thinking it would be the perfect novel to read on September 11th. I confess to my own hardcover copy of Underworld, spine cracked but never really started due to single-parent-small-child-around-house-who-has-time-to-read-huge-books-? syndrome. It isn’t getting read for this challenge either because there aren’t enough hours in one day and DeLillo is worth reading slowly enough to savor. That said, Falling Man was probably not the best choice for 9-11.

Everyone has their story about where they were and what they were doing on that day, at that moment, and most particularly when the towers came down. I have mine. I have the futile attempt to protect a four-year-old from too much knowledge, too burning a memory of that day. I have the images—the man in a suit, clutching a briefcase and covered in white ash, trudging up Central Park West hours after, not looking, not seeing, just walking. He might have been DeLillo’s Keith, minus the glass shards and the blood.

What was ripped apart on that day was the fabric of the world we imagined we lived in. Just ripped like the old canvas of a circus tent, ripped right across your heart. The grief was sharp, personal and inexplicable—meaning I could never explain it and still can’t. Meaning certain sights will always bring tears to my eyes and shadows hover not far out of sight, ready to cast a pall. Sadness and loss are tangible things; they drain all the energy from the day and from your body. September 11th, ten years later, spun the wheel backwards and it was as if the planes veered out of the blue into black smoke, flames and everything falling  just yesterday.

So, Falling Man. Very very beautiful and true in its detail and a potent reminder. Keith walks down the stairs, away from the buildings, out of the mushroom cloud of debris and dust, to the apartment of his estranged wife who is sure he died in the towers where he worked. In some way, he did. In the same way, Lianne stops feeling safe, moves in a dream through the streets to the emergency room, accepts the husband who reappears in her life by accident and then cannot leave. Lianne is haunted by her father’s Alzheimer’s and his refusal to watch his memory fade. Lianne’s mother is deliberately fading before her eyes. Lianne’s child, and Keith’s, Justin, is self-composed beyond his years and has his own stories about what happened on 9-11. He takes binoculars on playdates to search the skies out the window for planes.

Even those who escaped the inferno and the collapse never escaped from that moment and that day. DeLillo’s people replay their memories like an endless tape loop, revisit their own minds for what they can’t remember, don’t bother to reinvent themselves, seem incapable of moving on. There is healing from events so huge and so terrible that they stop time but this nation did not choose healing and these characters can’t find it. There is loss that saturates everything it touches and lingers in the air. Falling Man slowly collects the fragments of that day and holds them up to the light. Bits and pieces surface and fade back into the rubble of memory. Lives bob, float and swirl in the eddies. Desolation seeps into the soul and stains it forever.

9-11 was a game-changer. From that day forward we began to live in a different world. There are many ways of falling. DeLillo captures the brief angels spilled from a hundred stories up, the performance artist dangling in his suit from hotel balconies and railroad trestles, the tower survivors who walked away but did not really survive, the witness in thrall to an altered landscape, half understood. Falling Man is a beautifully wrought book and very sad. I wish I’d chosen to read it on some other day when the ghosts of loss hovered farther back and the consolation of small, normal things was not so overshadowed.    

Falling Man: A Novel   Don DeLillo | Scribner  2007

River of Smoke — Amitav Ghosh

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River of Smoke opens in something of a muddle and it takes a while to get into the story. Had I not committed to finishing the books I start each day, I might have abandoned it at several points. But I’m glad I didn’t. Amitav Ghosh is a modern-day Dickens, writing dense, visual depictions of a nineteenth-century world with Dickensian conventions that give the story a deeper authenticity, if not fluidity. Five hundred seventeen really, really packed pages is not a smart choice for a daily read—I’m not a speed reader so it took forever–but it was time spent in a convincingly rendered world.

The novel is the second in a trilogy detailing the time of the opium trade with China. Sea of Poppies, book one, apparently sketches the lives of compelling characters in India where the British have become poppy farmers to produce the export that enriches them in China. River of Smoke takes up where the first book leaves off but it isn’t a smooth transition. A character from book one, Deeti, who is prominent in the opening chapters of book two, just disappears along with her story and we are cast adrift in a different tale of ships in a storm, holds awash in opium sludge, and Indian Parsi merchants gambling fortunes on a single boatload of the contraband drug, all accounts heavily salted with local patois.

Language is both Ghosh’s ace and an obstacle to entry into the book. The opening chapters are stuffed with so much pidgin, patois and whatever that I had no idea what was going on and began to get a little testy at my exclusion from the story for the sake of show-off linguistic mastery. But the Babel that punctuates the entire book is actually a valuable device to establish the individual characters, contrasting cultures, and mixed-race/mixed-class society in old Canton, the epicenter of the opium trade. I got past the idioms and pidgin and learned to use some of the linguistic constructs to tell who was speaking, and to whom.

Three ships limp into Canton harbor after the storm, the Anahita, Bahram Modi’s exquisite three-masted opium hauler, The Redruth, a two-masted brig collecting specimens for the lucrative botanical trade, and the Ibis, a schooner carrying indentured servants from India to the Far East. Descriptions of the storm and the ships are detailed and the research in this and every aspect of the novel is prodigious. Modi, the opium trader, is linked intimately to China, India and the British traders so his story is an illuminating thread to follow through the book.

Ghosh has written a dissertation on the economics of opium, Chinese horticulture, the sights and sounds of the developing ports of Canton (now Guangzhou), Macau and Hong Kong (a near-deserted island in 1838 when the Opium Wars began). Modi, the Parsi trader, has a gourmand’s appreciation for a good meal in any language and he embraces China, its wonders, and one of its women with enthusiasm. His illegitimate son makes a cameo appearance in the book but I spent a lot of time wondering when Ah Fat, the son, would turn up again as he seemed important but faded out pretty quickly.

The foreign traders’ enclave in Canton is painted meticulously as is the glib insistence on Free Trade, a holy writ to the opium importers who look suspiciously like the unbridled and unprincipled capitalists amassing stupendous wealth through exploitation in our own time. Brutality abounds—some deaths are flatly announced and nuanced later; some gruesome threats are foretold explicitly. People and their motives are described minutely and that helps in sorting out the large cast of characters. Set-pieces, like an interview with the exiled Napoleon on St. Helena, are colorful and convincing. One device, the lengthy, stylized letters written by a gay artist to his childhood friend, succeeds in delivering a boatload of information about the crisis in Canton as the stand-off over opium smuggling unfolds. But the correspondence is jam-packed, pages-long and obvious in its didactic intent—that observation does pull you out of the book and remind you of a history lesson.  

Ghosh is a good storyteller—I did fall under the sway of the book and was happy I had resisted the urge to set it aside. River of Smoke—the name refers to China’s Pearl River that carried the ships full of raw opium to Canton and upriver to the interior—is history made vivid and unforgettable. It’s too much to swallow in one big gulp. But, despite my detachment from the characters, who arouse more curiosity than empathy, I wanted to find out what happens. I did learn a lot about a place I have only visited briefly and an era I knew only by name. I’m still not sure about the disappearing characters but suspect they have bigger roles in book one and the concluding volume.

One definite takeaway from River of Smoke: next time I read a book by Amitav Ghosh, I’ll give myself a week to finish it.           

 River of Smoke: A Novel  Amitav Ghosh | Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2011

Cuba and the Night — Pico Iyer

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I arrived in Miami, unwilling refugee from the North, just as waves of Cubans arrived in Miami, revolutionary casualties from an offshore island to the South. My best friend in Catholic school was the American daughter of an Italian-American mafia casino manager who fled the island once Batista fell. I shared an office in one of my first jobs in television with Carlos Prio’s daughter, a young woman raised to be a princess, who was privileged, delightful and sad.

On days when my father and I drifted in his small fishing boat in the Gulfstream, lines trailing behind us in the impossibly blue water, eyes squinting for a flash of silver that would signify dinner, we would talk about Cuba. Next week, next month, next year, we would cross the slender divide of the Florida Straits to fish for its legendary tarpon and marlin, as soon as the blockade lifted, when it was safe to go. I dreamed of Havana, exotic, seedy, tropical and haunted by Hemingway. My Spanish is still Miami street lingo and the Cuban accent has complicated my life more than once. We never made it to Havana. Castro soldiers on but my father is long gone, the Gulfstream polluted, that promise unfulfilled.

Pico Iyer has logged his time there, though. His novel, Cuba and the Night, was gathering dust on my shelves for years before I added it to the stack of books to read on this impossible book-a-day quest. Video Nights in Kathmandu was so much fun to saunter through that I thought this novel would be a jaunt across an island forbidden to me. When I realized it was more like Graham Greene does Horny in Havana, I set it aside. Now, with the dust blown off, it was ready to be tackled again.

Iyer captures a particular moment in the long, slow dissolution of Cuban society through a particular lens. The photographer who stars in this book is an itinerate shooter, a guy who keeps the world at a distance through the viewfinder of his camera. He’s the classic war photographer without a war, at loose ends, scraping the rough places for an adrenalin rush, wary of being pinned down. And he’s lonely. His life is running on empty and there are moments when that knowledge catches him like a big steel hook.

Richard is slick and practiced at working the local scenes to get the shots he needs, the booze that fuels his nights and the girls to share his bed. He has an eye for beauty shots amid poverty and irony amid political ideals that don’t pan out. He can spot a gorgeous hooker in drag a mile off. But he doesn’t see Lula coming and when he begins to wonder what she wants from him he’s already thrashing on the end of a line.

Iyer is a favorite writer of mine and his skills are in evidence in this cinematic glimpse of Cuba in decline, people finessing a bleak survival, rum, salsa and sequins standing in for dreams. Lula, or Lourdes, is unpredictable enough to keep you guessing, as she does Richard. But I could see the trajectory of this story from the opening sentence, a paragraph-long evocation of heat and night and sex for sale that paints the desperation of a country trapped in time and facing nothing much to relieve it. Not Hemingway with his loaded, macho haiku. But rich enough in detail to embroider loss with vivid threads of sights and sounds and the stink of the unwashed streets.

Normally, stories that hold no surprises don’t hold my attention. These characters were lifted from a life I knew—the photographers, the slick operators, the backstreet entrepreneurs, the desperate women, the hesitant voyeurs. But Iyer is an engaging writer and I don’t have the luxury of setting aside a book on a day when I’ve committed to finishing it, so I did. Could have written the ending without reading it. Sorry that a client called for a rush overnight rewrite when I still had 150 pages to go. Even sorrier that the hours of web sweatshop work to earn less than it takes to pay the bills were ahead of me. Rushed the ad copy, wrote the online crap, read until I saw double. Remembered the sun beating down as an open boat gently rocked on the ocean current and my father and I sat silent, each with our dreams of a Cuba we would never see.

Cuba and the Night: A Novel   Pico Iyer | First Vintage Contemporary Edition 1996