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[785] A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

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“So he had invented some solutions, for small memories—little slights, insults—you relived them again and again until they were neutralized, until they became near meaningless with repetition, or until you could believe that they were something that had happened to someone else and you had just heard about it.” (Part IV, Ch.3, 380)

To summarize in one phrase, A Little Life is relentless suffering. It is extremely dark and disturbing, beyond excruciating, but has so much beauty in it. The novel follows a diverse crew of four friends, all graduates of a prestigious New England college, tightly bound to each other, who move to New York City to make their way. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; Malcolm, the biracial scion of a wealthy family who is stuck in an architect firm; JB, the child of Haitian immigrants, a painter in pursuit of fame in the art world; and withdrawn, brilliant, and enigmatic Jude, who really is the center of gravity of the story. As Jude’s harrowing, mysterious past is revealed in a restrained manner, mainly because Jude is determined to curb those horrible memories, the relationships between the four friends deepen and darken, each f whom is challenged by Jude’s unspeakable trauma in his childhood.

His brain was vomitting memories, they were flooding everything else—he thought of people and sensations and incidents he hadn’t thought of in years . . . He had tried—all his life . . . he had tried to make himself clean. (Part IV, Ch.3, 391)

As narrative exhausts on the camaraderie, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. A Little Life is Jude’s story; it’s a long meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, self-injury, and the difficulties of recovery. What childhood trauma that had befallen him ultimately defines his life—his fear of life and relationship. He’s inclined to self-injury, to cutting himself so that he’s numb from pain. The cutting becomes a leitmotif, recurring and queasy. Cutting is both a symptom of and a control mechanism for the profound abuse Jude suffered during the years before he came to university. The depiction of abuse and physical suffering at the hand of a priest is so graphic that would make some readers queasy.

The book is long, but what Yanagihara does in chronicling Jude’s battered past is balanced by lighter stretches. Some of the most moving parts of the novel are not its mos brutal but its tenderest ones, moments when Jude receives kindness and support from his friends, his adopted parents, and especially from Willem, who loves him and does not treat him as an object. In a way, friendship is the only solace available to him and friendship alone makes it possible for him to conceive life. The book doesn’t offer any possibility of redemption and deliverance beyond the tender moments, but it does give us the moral that however sad life is, one goes on to search for solace. It’s a book about the limits of friendship and the bright humanity of people.

720 pp. Picador. UK Paper Edition. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[784] The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont

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“For so long, I’d feared that I was hanging on to Aidan, on to all my thoughts and memories of her because of how our night together changed the meaning of all my nights with Cal. But I understood now that it didn’t change anything. I loved them both. I’d opened my life up to each of them.” (Ch.15, 297)

Jason Prosper grows up in the exclusive world of Manhattan penthouses, old-boy boarding schools, and summer estates. He’s pruned to be the alpha-male, continuing his father’s work in banking. But the talented sailor maintains a healthy disdain for the trappings of affluence and prefers to sail with his beat friend Cal, who later committed suicide. Devastated by the loss and wrought with grief, Jason transfer to Bellingham Academy for his senior year. Through the course of a single harrowing school year, the novel follows Jason and his inner emotions and secrets, as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.

What made me like her? Her pain. Her mystery. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of Cal. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of myself. (Ch.5, 86)

Coincidence and serendipity bring Aidan and Jason together. Though off to a wrong footing at the first place, the two cultivate a deep friendship as they confide in each other not-so-innocent secrets, trying to heal their wounded hearts. They absorb the hideous weight of each other’s confession, and come to self-forgiveness. Jason is a likable, appealing first-person narrator that reminds me of Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby), observing from a distance the terrible things privileged teenagers do to each other knowing wealth can buy silence. Hazing. Bullying. Debauchery. The steady, restrained unmasking of Jason’s history, in particular his powerful guilt over the death of Cal, which haunts him continuously, keeps the pages turning. As if the loss of a best friend is not intense enough to make one grows up, the destruction of a winter storm brings yet another upheaval in Jason’s life, which forces him to make sense of a secret buried by the boys he considers his friends.

Dermont compares adolescence to sailing a boat into the wind. She adeptly charts the fine calibrations of teenage love, shame, belonging, and the agony of coming of age. The book is an in-depth examination of abused class privilege, in which hazing rituals, which require secrecy and compliance, are as dangerous as the ruthless machinations of the truly powerful and wealthy parents. Despite falling in with a gang of rich indulgent kids who practice delinquency almost like a religion, Jason comes out unscathed and a better person. The book is a well-written debut that explores the balance of riches and ethics, in particular how privilege supersedes societal structures and the inner voice of one’s conscience.

308 pp. St. Martin Press. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[783] Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

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“The cancer of time is eating us away. Our hero killed ourselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, thus, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death.” (1)

Tropic of Cancer doesn’t adhere to fiction’s convention. The 1934 controversial book, banned until the U.S. Sepreme Court lifted the ban, is more autobiographical in style, written in stream-of-consciousness that captures the details and nuances of a particular moment in history in as intense a way as possible. It’s filled with Miller’s anecdotal tales that are exuberant and obscene. The book is set in Paris in the years after World War One, a time when most young people, like Miller and those he encounters, have turned permanently cynical and nihilistic, so horrified as they aptly were over what exact carnage humans have proven themselves capable of to the business of warfare.

Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair. (166)

In Miller’s hand the world is an impasse, on the verge of annihilation, with people lining up to the prison of death. In search for some kind of utopia, these young expatriates, feeling anachronistic with the time they live in, plunge into such bawdy adventures intertwined with sex and substances. Down and out in Paris, Miller lives hand-to-mouth, eking out a living with a variety of jobs. He’s at the mercy of rich patrons for whom he writes pseudoymous letters and books. The artistic pursuits do not make their lives easier. But they take life lightly. The result is an entire neighborhood that becomes boisterous, drunken melting pots, packed to the gunwales with bohemians from around the world and all stations of life who no longer give a crap about anything. they embrace such things as casual sex and exotic drugs in a way no other generation has embraced them before, as they party the way to apocalypse they are all sure is right around the corner.

The book reflects on a generation lost in the underworld of seed sex. For Miller who arrived on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1930s, he was the quintessence of abject failure. All he had going for him was creative rage, mixed with some artistic vision of the truly avant garde. But those he ecounters are borderline hopeless cases and psychopaths, all of whom are trying to make the best of Paris and making sense of their lives.

318 pp. Grove Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Hong Kong Bookseller Gone Missing

imageBanned books raised an outcry. Imagine if you’re censored and arrested for publishing materials that are at odd with the government. Imagine Bill Clinton wants to persecute and imprison all those who breathed a world about Monica Lewinsky. This is what happens in Hong Kong, in 2016. The firm believers of “one country, two system” by which the former British colony is governed after its return to the embrace of motherland get a reality check as five staff members of a local bookseller disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

The Hong Kong publisher whose disappearance has caused a major rift between Hong Kong and Beijing has written to a colleague to say that he is across the border, in China, where he is “cooperating with the authorities with an investigation.” But close examination of his handwriting revealed that the note was not written in Lee Bo’s hand. The bookseller specializes in books critical of Beijing’s Communist Party leaders. His disappearance on Wednesday, December 30 looks increasingly like an illegal abduction by Chinese police, which has no jurisdiction in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

In China, “assisting the authorities with an investigation” is equivalent to detention suspicion of criminal activity. Criminal activity can be criticizing party leaders and exposing corruption of state officials. The bookseller’s wife later went to the Hong Kong Police and withdrew of complaint of her husband’s mysterious disappearance. This, in my opinion, is very much a charade performed under duress. The bookseller’s disappearance is an assault on Hong Kong’s principles of freedom of expression and autonomy from Beijing.

Reading Henry Miller

imageFirst book of 2016. It always bewilders me when people judge a book according to the moral judgment that they pass on its characters. On top of this, how can I ditch a book for which Anaïs Nin wrote a preface? I just love how Miller manages to offend half the world in the first 3 pages.

It’s down and out in Paris written in stream-of-conscious prose, capturing the details of a particular moment in history in as intense a way as possible. It was set in post-Great War Paris where most young people had turned permanently cynical and nihilistic, horrified as they rightly were over what exact carnage humans had proven themselves capable of. They wanted to put behind the violence and formed an artistic community, but they are plagued by poverty and hunger, as Miller himself noted. All he could think was food as he strolled around the city full of Bohemians and drunks with his stomach rattling. The book is a myopic view of living in the present.

[782] The Echo – Minette Walters

“We are in terrible trouble as a society if we assume that any man’s life is so worthless that the manner of his death is the only interesting thing about him.” (Ch.21, 330)

The Echo is my second Minette Walters book after The Scold’s Bridle but this book is way more convoluted. A harmless man, Billy Blake, dies of starvation in the garage of a wealthy architect, Amanda Powell, with whom seems to have no connection. But a series of connections manifest as the sinuous plot winds on upon the probing of a journalist named Michael Deacon.

As the investigation thickens, so does the mystery of Billy Blake and the unusual asset of Amanda Powell, formerly Amanda Streeter, whose husband allegedly defrauded the bank and vanished. Billy Blake has a morality that is in conflict with social and legal definitions to right and wrong. His life echoes that of poet William Blake, who was obsessed with God. Blake has lived a life of self-purging, and has mutilated himself to evade identification. What has he done in the past that he has to erase all his traces?

The plot of the book only gets even more complicated, and Amanda is not what she seems. Her in-laws claim she has an affair with another man and together they conspire to defraud the bank and made a scapegoat of her husband by murdering him.

The book can be confusing at certain parts since some characters that are relevant to the plot are not fleshed out. But careful reading would pull you through. The consequence of these “unseen” characters is a sudden drop in dramatic immediacy. The themes of repentance and betrayal are written all over the pages but the course the story takes could stretch credibility.

351 pp. Jove Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Memorable Readings of 2015

imageSycamore Row by John Grisham.
The bigger picture is that law is indistinguishable from the history of race in the South. In this novel, the law burdens us with secrets that must be revealed, but the most brutal acts can be balanced by an unexpected act of salvation. Grisham portrays racism as something poignantly inveterate and deeply rooted in our perception. This is a multi-layered legal thriller that evolves and branches off to new direction until the end.

Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George
This one keeps me on the edge of the seat and makes me a fan of Elizabeth George. George has a deft hand in exploring the multi-facets of the murder, whichever path she explores, reader is taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse. There’s a new tiwst nearly on every page, and the sense of danger elevates as Lynley and Havers peel back the dark and murky secrets of a school that is far more interested in protecting its reputation than helping the investigation.

A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines
When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death. A white teacher Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson. In trying to save him from disgrace, justice and Jefferson’s innocence suddenly seem secondary. In reaching out to Jefferson Grant has come to embrace a new depth, irrelevant of religion, that even the reverend cannot accomplish.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
In this melodrama of a book he depicts the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, which, despite the often extravagant claims, it offers little in the way of education. The novel, no doubt, is a social commentary; but more powerful than its social protest against injustice, is the exuberant and absurd comedy that suffuses its narrative.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
For twenty years, between 1949 and 1969, Helene Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel, a London bookseller at Marks & Co; but it was not until 1971 that her fervent wish of visiting England came true. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of her long delayed visit to London, where she was met by late Doel’s wife, Nora and her daughter Sheila. Written in the diary form, this memoir is still full of exuberance and wit, although less all the literary references in her previous book.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s gargantuan enterprise of a novel advocates selfishness. Selfishness in terms of safeguarding and preserving an individual’s thinking, achievement and reason from the hijacking of the government. Groundbreaking and outlandish. In the context of the novel, men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne
This is my Paris primer when I made the trip to the French capital. Paris is riddled with history and Horne dissects into seven periods. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells
First published in 1922, crammed into just under 350 pages, in highly lurid and readable prose, is the history of the origins of the world millions of years ago until the outcome of the First World War. The book is impressive in its scope and groundbreaking in its approach. It’s the first book of its kind to try and narrate the entirety of the planet’s history on an evolutionary, sociological, and anthropological basis. The book demonstrates Wells’ admirable skill in the compression of material, and extraction of what matters, with a sense of moral purpose. The history is seen through the perspective of human psyche—the frailties and limitations.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
A mixed drama-romance-thriller. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
This is as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony to Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. The book gives insight into the mental faculty of the mind’s working of those who are prosecuted for the murders. To Bugliosi’s credit, he showed how a Mephistophelean guru had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him, most of them young girls who, disconnected from their families and loath to the world, went out and murdered total strangers at his command, with relish and gusto, and with no evident signs of guilt or remorse. They were not insane, Bugliosi showed, but was in full mental faculties and were aware that society disapproved of their acts.

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