Last Man in Tower

“It’s your society. Keep it clean.”

So reads a sign in the elevator of Tower A of the fictional Vishram Society apartment complex in Mumbai — the “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey building” that serves as the focal point of Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga’s new novel. Decades of monsoons and erosion have left the building standing “in reasonable chance of complete collapse.” But, Adiga writes, “no one, either in Vishram Society or in the neighborhood at large, really believes that it will fall. Vishram is a building like the people living in it, middle class to its core.”

I reviewed Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga for The Second Pass — the full review is online here.

Stone Arabia

“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to?

My review of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is now up at The Millions.

Please Look After Mom Essay Contest

After I reviewed Please Look After Mom this past spring, I was contacted by the Korean Cultural Service of New York to serve as a judge for an essay contest they’d decided to host based on readers’ responses to the book.

It was both an honor and a pleasure to read the contest entries and experience Kyung-sook Shin’s novel anew through some of her fans.

The Korean Cultural Service announced the winners a few weeks ago, and has now published a collection of selected essays.  You can download a PDF the collection — which includes all the winning essays and a short essay I was asked to write about judging the contest — here.

Guadalajara

Three pages into Quim Monzó’s new short story collection, the opening tale’s seven-year-old protagonist makes a startling discovery: everyone over the age of nine in his family of carpenters is missing the ring finger of his left hand, and it’s not by accident. Welcome to “Family Life,” which fits within the morbid boundaries of Guadalajara—a realm where fables are subverted, where rote tasks lead to existential confrontations, where absurdity masks philosophical heft, and where grim uncertainty and playful possibility coexist.  Armand is terrified, and perhaps the reader should be too: in Monzó’s hands, the possibilities are limitless—and entirely unpredictable.

Head over to Words Without Borders for my full review of Guadalajara, Quim Monzó’s delightfully subversive collection of short stories.

The Absent Sea

Where were you Mamá, when all those horrible things were taking place in your city?”  This question, put to Laura by her daughter Claudia, is what has drawn The Absent Sea’s protagonist back to the fictional town of Pampa Hundida at the start of novelist Carlos Franz’s exploration of the turbulent aftermath of Chile’s 1973 coup.

Pampa Hundida is a recurring setting for Franz’s work.  He places it in the northern part of the country, an oasis hidden in the Atacama desert; he has described it as “above all, a region of the spirit.”  In The Absent Sea’s opening pages the city is in the midst of La Diablada, Pampa Hundida’s annual religious festival.  Costumed pilgrims from the region—“a disparate bewildering, arbitrary crowd”—come “to beseech and to celebrate, to plead and to dance” in an age-old collective reckoning with evil.  After twenty years of self-imposed exile, Laura has returned for a reckoning of her own.  She’s come to reclaim the same judicial post she left two decades before, and to face up to where she was when all those “horrible things” were happening in Pampa Hundida.

My review of The Absent Sea by Carlos Franz is now up at Words Without Borders.

Please Look After Mom

Outside the market you saw two people cutting apart a fish that was as big as a sedan. You asked if it was tuna, since it was so large, but the vendor said it was an ocean sunfish.  You were reminded of a character in a book whose title you couldn’t remember. She was from a seaside town, and she would go to the huge aquarium in the city every time she had a problem, to talk to the ocean sunfish swimming inside. She would complain that her mother took all her life savings and went off with a younger man to a different city, but then, at the end, would say, But I miss my mom; you’re the only one I can tell this to, sunfish! You wondered if that was the same fish.

Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin sold close to a million and a half copies in South Korea, and is set to be published in 18 countries around the world.  It’s the first of Shin’s books to be translated into English.  My full review for Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is here.

Whatever Spell

There’s a scene in Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives where an unhinged author starts to drive himself mad waiting for a particular writer’s review of his latest book. Given what he knows about the critic, he’s sure the review will be scathing, and will destroy his career.  Rather than wait to see what this critic comes up with, the author challenges him to a duel to the death.

To keep myself out of fatal sword-fights, I find it helpful to look at John Updike’s rules for book critics from time to time when I need a little bit of refocusing in the book reviewing department:

Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Daniel Mendelsohn takes a similar position:

Even Aristophanes — who was, we should remember, a comedian and not a critic — seems to have been made uneasy by the sadistic aspects of criticism. “I cannot judge anymore,” his Dionysos apologizes when the word-weighing is over.  “I must not lose the love of either one of them. / One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one.” The lines remind you that loving and liking are as much a part of criticism as are hating and hacking; and that the impulse underlying good criticism ought to be affection for literature rather than animus toward writers.

When the Killing’s Done

Knowing that Jay is a fan of novelist T. C. Boyle, on Friday one of his Daily Beast colleagues (who works in the books section) gave him an extra copy of Boyle’s latest novel.

When the Killing’s Done is officially is out tomorrow, and Boyle will be on The Takeaway to talk about some of the environmental questions it raises.  Over the weekend, I decided to give the book a read ahead of Boyle’s interview. I borrowed Jay’s copy and blogged about the book for The Takeaway:

Boyle gets around the difficulty of dramatizing environmental issues by dramatizing the environmentalists themselves. To drive home the tension between their positions, he draws out the similarities between Alma and her nemesis David. Alma and her biologist boyfriend Tim Sickafoose are vegetarians, and so are David and his girlfriend Anise Reed. They all live in the Santa Barbara area, they all drive white Priuses, and they all grapple with the quandaries of consumption while listening to the same hippie folksinger—and the similarities don’t end there. Like Alma, David’s girlfriend Anise has matrilineal ties to the islands: Her mother worked as a cook on an island sheep ranch in the 1970s.

Though their philosophies on what’s best for the natural world around them clash perfectly, Boyle makes it clear that both the Alma/Tim and David/Anise camps are equally motivated by a mix of childhood sympathies, inclinations of personality, and adult life politics. Our approach to moral questions about the environment, Boyle seems to suggest, is as complicated as the environment itself.

The full post is at The Takeaway’s blog.

One small thing I left out: I was more than a little bit annoyed at Boyle for making one of his character’s conversion to meatlessness come at the hands of a proselytizing Hindu.

Alma won’t touch the bacon– she hasn’t eaten meat since her conversion to vegetarianism in the seventh grade under the influence of her best friend, a girl from India whose parents were both doctors and who persisted in wearing a red caste mark on her forehead through the end of junior high …

Of course this is the only mention that this nameless character and her persistent “caste mark” get.  And of course, my annoyance comes from personal recognition of this particular bundle of stereotypes.  I stopped eating meat at age 10; my mom applied a small dab of kumkuma on my forehead every morning before school, after we said our prayers; my father is a physician.  But preach vegetarianism?  That kind of “girl from India” would know better.  So should Boyle.

The Scale of Maps

It is said, my friends, that a number located between seven and eight was lost with the writings of Diophantus, the algebraist.  Of course this is a legend, but I do not have to remind you of the theory that there can be no sign without a referent. It is tempting indeed.  Imagine, my friends: another number, an hour every day outside the flow of time, a month unaccounted for every year between July and August.

Belén Gopegui

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind if some secret hours, days, and months were quietly slipped into my life.  So much to do, so little time!

Among the things filling my recent accounted for hours: A review of The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui I wrote for the latest issue of Words Without Borders.  Enjoy!

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Opposition to my book seems more symptomatic of our moment than produced by its contents,” Moustafa Bayoumi, writes in an October Chronicle for Higher Education article.  I just finished reading How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? and I agree. It’s not a “radical” book. It’s a multifaceted celebration of the contradictions of Arab-American youth, seeped with a love for New York City and respect for the country at large.  But the content of the book is not what set off the controversy surrounding it. The New York times reported:

The seeds were planted last winter, when professors in the [Brooklyn College] English Department, with Donna Wilson, the dean of undergraduate studies, chose this year’s ”common reader”: a book given to all freshmen and transfer students in an effort to provide a common experience at the outset of the school year. The books are generally memoirs set in New York City, by authors available to speak on campus.

In past years, the committee has selected Frank McCourt’s ”Angela’s Ashes” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s ”Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” This year it picked Dr. Bayoumi’s 2008 book, which profiles seven Arab-Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

The young Arab-Americans profiled in the book have a range of aspirations and conflicts.  There’s the Iraq War veteran, the high school student who launches a legal battle with her school’s student council, the rebellious Iraqi teenager who runs away dozens of times before growing into a conservative, devout Muslim herself.  The book is interested in the roadblocks these young people hit on the way to adulthood — and the negotiations they make with their background in the process.  It’s a coming of age story particularly relevant in these times and in this city: The young men and women in the book are interested in school, friendships, dating, their families, and their careers, as well as politics, current events, and religion.  They’re figures most 20-somethings can relate to, making their clashes with contemporary culture all the more thought-provoking for a college-aged audience.

But when the English Department announced it had picked How Does it Feel to Be a Problem as its common reader, Bruce Kesler, an alumnus living in California (writing in a blog post entitled “I Just Disinherited My Alma Mater”) blasted the book as an attempt to inculcate political views in Brooklyn College’s entering class.   “I just updated my will and trust,” he wrote, “and, with heavy heart, cut out what was a significant bequest to my alma mater, Brooklyn College.” The post went viral, sparking widespread opposition to Bayoumi’s book and prompting plenty of other objectors.

“My first reaction was one of disbelief,” Bayoumi writes. “Wow, I thought, is my writing really that powerful? But on closer inspection, it became clear to me that my detractors hadn’t actually read the book.” Reading the book weeks and months after the crisis’s peak, I see why Brooklyn College picked it in the first place. Spirited and opinionated, it’s written in colorful accessible language.  It’s an easy read, but not a light one.  This is a book that wants (and deserves) to be talked about.  So I’m glad to see Bayoumi hasn’t dropped the topic yet because, as  The Daily News reports, neither have New Yorkers:

Last Thursday, a [book club] discussion of Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” quickly turned personal.

Kerry Sahadi, 38, a blond married to a Christian of Lebanese decent, explained how she and her husband were both pulled over for speeding while following each other. Her husband was ticketed. She wasn’t.

Brooklyn-born Thikra Esa, 25, wearing traditional Muslim dress, admitted to anger over having to miss her prom and pass on an internship in Manhattan because of her parents’ strictness.

Bay Ridge mom Omayma Khayat, 31, opened up about her decision during college to cover her hair and her less-religiously strict mother’s embarrassment over it.

Muslims in the heavily Arab-American area are often reluctant to branch out of their tight-knit community, fearful of being rejected amid images of them as terrorists, said Linda Sarsour, 30, the Arab-American Association’s co-founder and a book club member.

“This is an opportunity for people to have a regular conversation,” Sarsour said. “If this can happen in Bay Ridge and be successful, it can happen anywhere.”