Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hawaiian author, Hanya Yanagihara, was one of the first two Americans shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year.  Anne Tyler was the other.  I usually try and buy as many of the short-listed books as I can.  I managed three this year, but none of those won the prize.  I delayed reading Hanya’s novel because of its length – well over 700 pages, but a friend had started it, and urged me to get to it as soon as possible.  Let me start off here with a warning.  A Little Life is one of the most chilling, horrific, spell-binding, and wonderfully written novels I only rarely come across.  In a class with Donna Tartt for length and detail, this story explores the problem of evil and, more specifically, the depths of depravity some “humans” are capable of perpetrating.  Warning!  This novel has extended discussions of evil, and several places that give explicit details.  Most of the horrors are only alluded to, but they leave no doubt, in the reader’s mind, what happened.  However, the novel also shows the very best of goodness in humanity,

Hanya was born in Los Angeles in 1975.  She attended Smith College.  This is her second novel.  In addition to the Booker nomination, she won the National Book Award for Fiction in the U.S.

The story starts off benignly enough with a group of four long-time friends.  JB was a struggling artist, who later achieves great fame; Malcolm becomes an internationally recognized architect; and Willam, an actor, achieves world-wide fame on the silver screen; and finally, Jude, who eventually becomes a partner and a feared lawyer in a major New York firm.  After establishing some background on the four, the focus shifts to Jude.  The four men are close.  They care for and support each other.  Willam and Jude were roommates in college, so they have a particularly close relationship.

While the four are usually open and forthright about their lives, Jude revealed next to nothing about his family, childhood, or his teen years.  Gradually, the unnamed narrator – revealed in the final pages – begins a trickle of information about Jude’s abandonment as an infant on the door of a monastery.  He was an unattractive child, and suffered bullying from his classmates.  The monks considered him a distraction and a burden, but one monk, Andy, befriended him.  They run away, ostensibly to escape the bullying, but the story takes a horrific turn as 12-year-old Jude is devoured by a string of evil men.  After two years of traveling around the country from one motel to another, the police break down the door, and find Jude alone and terrified.  The bathroom door is locked, and when they open it, Andy is dead.  He is taken to a foster home, where the abuse continues.  Finally, he gets to college, meets Willam, the first kind person he has ever befriended, and his life appears about to turn around.

I know this sounds awful, but the prose is so mesmerizing, I could not stop reading despite the terrible things Jude experienced and lived with his entire life.  I found it difficult to accept the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God who could allow such depravity into the world.  How can any human being commit such acts against a young and helpless child?  I doubt the existence of Hell, but I would willingly make an exception for those who tortured and abused Jude.

Despite the horrors, I think the novel has a lot to say about the problem of evil.  What are its origins?  How can we stop such depravity?  On more than a dozen pages I cried, as Jude struggled to explain himself, to open up to his friends, and his mentor, Harold – who I found out was the narrator – all of whom offered him nothing more than love, friendship, aid, and comfort.  Unfortunately, Jude was so damaged, he blamed himself for everything and he felt he deserved all his experiences.  Even Harold gave Jude the loving family he never had when they adopted him as an adult.  But, Jude always imagined there was a string attached to their kindnesses.

I know Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is a tough read, but we should stare down evil in the face and make this world a better place with kindnesses of our own.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/17/16

The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery

I planned to begin reading Muriel Barbery’s latest novel, La vie des Elfes, after breakfast one morning.  I did not stop until I passed well over 100 pages.  I was enthralled.  My heart is firmly in the 19th century – George Eliot, the Bront√ęs, Austin, Crandall, to name a few, so I love the detailed descriptions of landscapes, pastoral scenes, and peasants.  I felt those places when I read Elfes.  It is like a painting.  I see some figures, some color, some light, but it doesn’t move me.  Then I see Monet’s “Haystacks,” and I am driven to tears.  Likewise there are novels I enjoy, but every once in a great while, a real masterpiece comes along that moves me on so many levels.  This novel is one of those.  I hear the voices, the wind, and the raining beating on the thatched roofs.  This is no ordinary novel.

Muriel Barbery was born in Morrocco, but her family left for France when she was only two months old.  She studied there and received a certificate for entry into government service 1990.  In 1993, she taught Philosophy in several colleges.  She gave up teaching and lived for two years in Japan.  Muriel has written two previous novels, including the internationally renowned The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  She currently lives in Europe.

The Life of Elves is a lyrical, mesmerizing story of discord among living beings.  The war this launches upsets the balance of nature.  Two young women – one born in France and the other in Italy – possess magical powers.  The two children possess supernatural powers, which allow them to resist the encroaching army.  The Italian girl, Clara, possesses an extraordinary power to hear music and visualize the notes.  She learns to play the most complicated compositions with almost no training.  The Spanish girl, Maria, who later moves to France, is able to understand and communicate with nature.  As the children develop their talents, they are able to see, hear, and communicate with each other.

Barbery writes, “There was a fallow field, overgrown with sleek serried blades of grass, rising gently to meet the hill through a winding passage, until it reached a lovely stand of poplar trees rich with strawberries and a carpet of periwinkles where not so long ago every family was permitted to gather wood, and would commence with the sawing by first snowfall; alas that era is now gone, but it will not be spoken of today, be it due to sorrow or forgetfulness, or because at this hour the little girl is running to meet her destiny, holding tight to the giant paw of a wild boar.  // And this on the mildest autumn evening anyone had seen for many a year.  Folk had delayed putting their apples and pears to ripen on the wooden racks in the cellar, and all day long the air was streaked with insects inebriated with the finest orchard vintage.  There was a languidness in the air, and indolent sigh, a quiet certainty that things would never end, and while people went about their work as usual, without pause and without complaint, they took secret delight in this endless autumn as it told not to forget to love” (19-20).  The prose reminds me of a Monet canvas.

Throughout the novel, Barbery has sprinkled some wonderful moments.  For example, when Maria approaches a table “with three cloves of garlic and her glass [which] is an arrangement for the eye that pays tribute to the divine” (79).  She slightly moves one of the cloves.  Some pages later, Barbery explains, “The paths of fate: a garlic clove moved one millimeter and the world is utterly changed; the slightest shift disturbs the secret position of our emotions and yet it transforms our lives forever” (114).

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery will give the reader pause to stop – on almost every page – to consider her words, to wonder at the beauty and timelessness of her prose.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/16/16

John Updike: Selected Poems by John Updike

This new collection of Updike’s poetry caught me by surprise, because he has so many collections.  This version, edited by Christopher Carduff, also has an introduction by Brad Leithauser.  While I never tire of reading Updike, this collection of poems has revealed many I had forgotten.  Unfortunately, my favorite – and his first published work in The New Yorker – “Duet with Muffled Brake Drums” – is not in John Updike: Selected Poems.  One cannot have everything.

I wish I had an hour to read aloud the words and phrases, the mastery of language so evident in everything Updike wrote.  His use of simile and metaphor almost always surprised and delighted this reader.  I visited his grandmother’s farm, and met his mother one day as she fed her chickens in the yard.  I drove past his childhood home, where he lived until John and his parents moved back to the farm.  This poem describes the home in Shillington, Pennsylvania, just outside Reading.

Updike wrote, “The vacant lots are occupied, the woods / Diminish, Slate Hill sinks beneath its crown / Of solvent homes, and marketable goods / On all sides crowd the good remembered town. // Returning, we find our snapshots inexact. / Perhaps a condition of being alive / Is that the clothes which, setting out, we packed / With love no longer fit when we arrive. // Yet sights that limited our truth were strange / To older eyes; the town that we have lost / Is being found by hands that still arrange / Horse-chestnut heaps and fingerpaint on frost. // Time shades these alleys; every pavement crack / Is mapped somewhere.  A solemn concrete ball, / On the gatepost of a sold house, brings back / A waist leaning against a buckling wall. // The gutter-fires smoke, their burning done / Except for fanned within, an orange feather; / We have one home, the first, and leave that one. / The having and the leaving go on together” (9).

Another of my favorites is “Dogs Death.”  “She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car. / Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn / To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor / And to win, wetting there, the words, ‘Good dog!  Good dog!’ / We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction. / The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver. / As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin / And her heart was learning to lie down forever. // Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed / And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed. / We found her twisted and limp but still alive. / In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried // To bite my hand an died.  I stroked her warm fur / And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears. / Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her, / Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared. // Back home, we found that in the night her frame, / Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame / Of diarrhea and had dragged across the floor / To a newspaper carelessly left there.  Good dog.: (31).  I lost a beloved pet in almost identical circumstances, and this poem brought back all that pain, and sorrow, and tears.  As my mentor once said to me, “No crying in the writing -- no crying in the reading.” 

Updike can evoke all those feelings as quickly and lightly as a feather duster, capturing motes of images and emotions.  John Updike: Selected Poems is a fantastic place to begin to explore one of the great writers of the 20th century.  5 stars. --Chiron, 3/26/16

Saturday, April 23, 2016

My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Most of the time, I enjoy books suggested by club members at our annual summer meeting.  However, on those rare occasions I have some problem, I ignore the “Rule of 50” and slog on.  This time, I encountered an interesting story, but I found the point of view a bit annoying.  Fredrik Backman wrote an international bestseller, and his second novel, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, as another story all together.

The novel tells the story of seven-year-old Elsa, who is precocious to the extreme.  She is extremely close to her 77-year-old grandmother, who might politely be described as eccentric to the extreme.  Granny has constructed, through a series of stories, a mythical kingdom where everybody is different, and no one needs to be normal.  Then Granny dies.  Elsa is devastated, and she navigates the stages of grief quite well for one her age.  Else receives a letter from her Granny, who tells Elsa the last time they speak, that she is a night in the “Land-of-Almost-Awake,” and she must deliver a series of letters to a variety of individuals.  All this hides a terrible secret, which endangers Elsa.

My problem with the novel involves the narrator.  The man – I can’t help feeling the gender of this person – tries to speak with the voice of a 7 year old,, but, because he knows all the history, he cannot be anything but an adult.  Most of the time, I have no problem with omniscient narrators, but I found this one to be distracting and annoying.  I wish the book had been a memoir – written years later – by Elsa herself.

An interesting aspect of the story is the eclectic group of residents in the apartment building where Granny, Elsa, her mother, Ulrika, and her step-father, George, along with several other odd characters live.  One is called “The Monster,” who seems to be suffering from PTSD, and who has a large, fearsome dog.  Another resident is constantly drinking coffee, and another is a therapist, who suffers from agoraphobia.  Comic relief is provided by Britt-Marie, a woman who fancies herself as the manager of the block, but she also hides an unpleasant secret.

Backman writes, “The next morning both The Monster’s flat and the sellar storage unit are dark and empty.  George drives Elsa to school.  Mum has already gone to the hospital because, as usual, there’s some emergency going on there and it’s Mum’s job to sort out emergencies. // George talks about his protein bars the whole way.  He bought a whole box of them, he says, and now he can’t find them anywhere.  George likes talking about protein bars.  And various functional items.  Functional clothes and functional jogging shoes, for example.  George loves functions.  Elsa hopes no one ever invents protein bars with functions, because then George’s head will probably explode.  Not that Elsa would find that such a bad thing, but she imagines Mum would be upset about it, and there’d be an awful lot of cleaning.  George drops her off in the parking area after asking her one more time if she’s seen his missing protein bars.  She groans with boredom and jumps out” (111).

Now parts of this sound like a seven year old, the attitude might be that of a teenager, but the overall narrator is clearly an adult.  I guess I have a soft spot for grandmothers, because I continually ignored these annoying little things.  The end of the story ties up all the knots, and I found it rather pleasing.  I am sorely tempted to try Backman’s other novel, which is an international best seller.  In the mean time, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry will have to do.  4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 3/26/16