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[735] Preparation for the Next Life – Atticus Lish

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” Only her predicament existed to her. She went around the elements of her life again: Skinner, papers, cops, marriage, lawyer, money, job, housing, Skinner, his illness, money. Every planet in the orbit was another unknown. ” (Ch.47, p.345)

Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese woman smuggled into the country in a truck from Mexico, is determined to survive whatever America throws at her. After three months in detention, she is released without explanation and finds her way to Queens, New York, where she ekes out a living in Chinatown in Flushing and gets lost in a sea of anonymous illegal immigrants. She works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurants where the other Chinese workers don’t understand her language. She finds a filthy mattress in an overcrowded crash-pad house. To make extra cash, she rides the subway selling bootleg DVDs. She seems like the loneliest person alive, alienated by language barriers and government obstacles.

Former infantryman Skinner seems similarly driven by a nomadic spirit. Discharged after serving three tours in Iraq, he hitchhikes to New York and, by a fluke, while looking for a massage parlor, meets Zou Lei and they become unlikely lovers, bonded over a shared obsession with fitness. Ensued is a relationship that is bound for a tragedy. Skinner suffers from PTSD and is haunted by atrocities he witnessed and committed. Still healing from his mortar wound, his mind addled by alcohols and a cocktail of prescription drugs, he makes no attempt to find work or to make sense of Zou Lei’s predicament. He passes his day drinking and lifting weights while she takes up a series of dead-end jobs that fails to give her financial stability. Above all, she is ever the subject to laws that place limits on her movement and restrict her opportunities. But she survives, through menial and often illegal work, vulnerable to the cruelties of a system reliant on cheap labor.

The army had given him anti-anxiety medication, antipsychotic medication, and something to help him sleep. Whatever else these chemicals did to him, they did not stop him from having nightmares. (Ch.25, p.208)

The book is realistic, scathing, and mournful. Zou is unflinching as Skinner is out-of-control. He is a decent man, but he treats her so badly that one sees how little control he has over his behavior and his life. He rents out the basement from a woman whose ex-con son has proven to be another threat. Through this unlikely couple Lish evokes the reality of the underclass and life at the margins. The America to the immigrant and veteran pair is tawdry, grim, and relentless. Their love story is one with much ache to it; and the element of romance doesn’t eradicate the squalor of their lives.

Lish’s vivid description landscape lends a sense of pre-apocalypse. He nurtures and encourages the smallest details until they fan out into unexpected panoramas. In juxtaposing their experiences of Zou and Skinner, Lish delineates New York’s immigrant neighborhoods and the realities of exploitation and precariousness in the lives of America’s underclass. The prose is robust, tough, and lyrical. Much of the book’s beauty is its insights into the ordinary dramas of life, which serve as narrative purpose. But it has that journalistic determination to document the experience. Preparation for the Next Life is charged with a breathless momentum as it propels towards a destiny as devastating as it is hopeful. It’s one of those rare gem of a book that is edgy and at the same time very real.

417 pp. Tyrant Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[734] A Lesson Before Dying – Earnest J. Gaines

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” How do people come up with a date and a time to take the life from another man? Who made them God? . . . Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice? ” (Ch.20, p.157)

A Lesson Before Dying is about two black men, one a teacher, the other a death row inmate, who struggle to live, and to die, with dignity. A primary school teacher, Grant Wiggins, narrates the story of Jefferson, who has been found guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death, despite the defense plea that “I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” Hog. The world lingers like a foul odor and weighs as heavily as the sentence on Jefferson and the woman who raised him, his “nannan” (godmother) Miss Emma. She needs an image of Jefferson going to his death like a man, with dignity and respect, and she turns to the young teacher at the plantation school for help.

The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God? (Ch.20, p.158)

Grant has his own problems: stuck teaching in a plantation school on the white man’s terms; visiting Jefferson in jail would just mean more kowtowing. Then his struggle overcoming racial divide is equally troublesome. His crossing the color line to love a divorced Creole woman, Vivian Baptiste. She becomes yet another reason why Grant, an atheist, must save Jefferson’s dignity if not save him from execution.

The book steers clear of being sentimental despite the very sensitive subject matter. Grant Wiggins narrates in a very muted voice. Despite Jefferson’s initial bitter resignation to his execution, which lends credence to the lesson of how Jim Crow would break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to “the nigger you were born to be,” 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. The most touching, and also the most significant message is that Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits. The entire novel lambastes a society steeped in injustice. Jefferson’s death not only liberates him, it also defies the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just or murder, but of being black-skinned. For a book published relatively in the present, in 1993, Gaines really retains and recreates that suffocating, racially-tense atmosphere of the post-World War Two South.

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[727] So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

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” What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. ” (III, p.27)

It’s 1921 in a small farm town in Illinois called Lincoln. The anonymous narrator, then a 10-year-old boy, plays on the scaffolding of a new house, which belongs to his father,a widower who is building a new home after his second wedding. In Cletus Smith he finds friendship that satisfies his yearning. Playing in the sketelal building they bond with the tacit, unquestioning camaraderie of kids sharing a game. Cletus Smith is a welcoming distraction for the narrator, who in inconsolable grief and loneliness clings to the memory of his dead mother.

There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty, even so. A little. And always will, perhaps, whenever I think about him. (IX, p.135)

The tenuous friendship comes to an abrupt end after a murder of which the perpetrator is Cletus’s father. Clarence Smith has shot and mutilated a tenant farmer named Llyod Wilson. Two weeks later deputies drag Clarence’s body from the bottom of a nearby gravel pit, where he fell after shooting himself in the head. Cletus’s mother had been having an affair with Wilson, but in a divorce proceeding the judge grants her a decree of divorce against Clarence, on the grounds of extreme and repeated cruelty.

As an older man, the narrator reflects on the blows of grief, incomprehension, confusion, reproach, and violence sustained by his then 13-year-old friend. In the face of such tremendous deprivation—of family, of normal life befit a child, of stability, what is to become of a boy? The inquiry leads him to re-examine his childhood, to imagine the betrayal and infidelity that precipitated the murder-suicide and Cletus’s life amid it all.

The bulk of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a juxtaposition of experience and recollection, abound with visceral childhood memories excavated by an adult consciousness. Instead of a suspenseful linear plot with reconstructed events leading to the murder, the narrator finds himself revisiting the same subject from different angles, trying to fill in the emotional terrain that vanished at the margins of his boyish incomprehension. The book is contemplative and quiet; the cumulative effect is a delicate rendering of ineffable loss.

135 pp. Harvill Press UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[726] The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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” For years I’d been wallowing in a hothouse of wasteful sorrow: Pippa Pippa Pippa, exhilaration and despair, it was never-ending, incidents of virtually no significance threw me to the stars or plunged me into speechless depressions . . . Worse, my love for Pippa was muddied up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother’s death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. ” (Ch.10, ii, p.632)

The Goldfinch is a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. At 962 pages in paperback, the size could be stalling. It revolves around Theo Decker, a 13-year-old boy whose life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. He miraculously survives an explosion in a gallery he’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch, a token of his memory, and which later becomes the object of barter of criminals and collectors. He’s taken the masterpiece because a dying old man who ended up beside him after the blast told him to save it. This man, Welty, also gave him a signet ring that leads the boy to the house of a charming furniture restorer named James Hobart, a place that becomes a safe haven as Theo tries to comes to terms with his loss.

Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture . . . He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction. (Ch.4, xii, p.207)

If Hobie is the father figure who has a better sense of the boy and treats him as a companion and conversationalist in his own right, Theo’s own father is the unreliable knucklehead who is steeped in substance abuse. Trying to cheat Theo’s education fund, his father is as much a rogue as Hobie as the anchor.

Despite his checkered fate, Theo is an admirably unlikable character. He’s flawed, selfish, and does very silly things. To save Hobie’s struggling antiques store he sells masterful reproductions as originals. He is drenched in nostalgia of the past, in this ruthless loop of searching. He epitomizes the pathetic “good person” who makes all the wrong decisions. All the ridiculous convolutions hinge on his keeping the painting which is classified as a crime. But Tartt imparts in him a strong sense of decency underneath it all and surrounds him with some lovable creations. Hobie is a fine gent; Boris is his partners in crime while in Las Vegas. They show us how one can never draw a sharp line between good and bad. Neither has a point to exist without the other.

The book probes into questions of human achievement and the human soul. But at times Tartt can be heavy-handed and indulgent in theorizing and philosophizing. The harangue of an explanation tacked on at the end is necessary, but could have been done more lightly. That all said, The Goldfinch is a rewarding journey that teaches the moral about outward appearance versus inward significance. It does offer a glimpse of hope at the end as Theo awakens to the truth that there is no such thing as perfection and pulchritude. It has the addictive quality of a Victorian novel—it reminds me of Dickens, but with its air of mystery, intrigue and escapades it also evokes of Wilkie Collins. It’s a book of epic scale in terms of its ambitious theme: art may addict, but art also saves one from the sadness of human beings pushing and struggling to live.

962 pp. Little Brown and Company. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Goldfinch Update

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I’ve been reading The Goldfinch for a week now, averaging about 100 pages a day. Like some of the book bloggers have commented, the page count is what ikept me away from this book shortly after I bought it in Bangkok during the recent trip. Despite the length, which can be stalling, I find The Goldfinch more accessible than The Secret History, a story told by in retrospection by Richard Pipen, a young man who, ashamed of his humble past in rural California, finds at a small Vermont college the life of privilege and intellect he has long coveted. By chance, he becomes part of a closed circle of Greek classics students whom he looks with awe, envy, and an outsider’s detachment. The Secret History proceeds with dangerous tension—the first half elucidates the “whydunit,” and the second the horrible mind-purging aftermath. It’s a compelling tale of deception and complicity, examining not so much the moral resonance as the banality of evil. In retrospect the narrator looks in dismay how his passivity and desire to ingratiate pull him into a course of destruction.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when his life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. There’s an explosion in a gallery h’’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch. At its best, The Goldfinch has that cozily addictive quality of a good old Victorian doorstopper. It at times reminded me of Dickens, but with its air of mystery, intrigue and dastardly doings it reminded me more of Wilkie Collins. At its worst, though, it can be torturous. For great chunks of the book Theo just mopes about his mum and ingests opiates in an unconvincing manner. It’s overall a good story and the story gets better toward the end.

Harper Lee

The news that Harper Lee has written a sequel to her classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird and will be publishing it this summer first sounded like a hoax to me. After the news had been confirmed and slowly settled in, to say that I was startled would be putting it mildly; it was simply astonishing news. The novel’s many fans had long inured themselves to Lee’s seemingly irreversible decision not to write another novel. I remembered back in 1990, in 9th grade, in the introductory remarks on the book made by my English teacher, Lee once declared that her pen simply “froze”, after the maelstrom of publicity and praise Mockingbird received, and she firmly rejected her loving, demanding audience’s repeated efforts to interview her or persuade her to write something more.

That all said, I could understand how shocking the news of a “lost” sequel is to readers. The announcement of the new book, to be published this summer, leaves her hometown bemused and skeptical. So this “new” novel has been a huge controversy because Lee has been accused of reneging. But for those who really read, and are familiar with the background of Mockingbird, the reason the word “sequel” has been bandied about is that Go Set a Watchman was drafted from the perspective of Scout as an adult in the 1950s, visiting Atticus back home in Maycomb, and remembering her childhood during the Depression. Lee was advised by an editor to redraft the novel from the child Scout’s point of view, cutting the later plot material and turning what had been flashbacks into the novel itself. This earlier draft will now be published; Lee’s agent reports that Lee told him it is not a sequel, but “the parent to Mockingbird”.

In anticipation to and preparation for the new book, it’s high time to re-read The Kill A Mockingbird.

William Maxwell

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Another great find from Bangkok is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, a slim novel that was published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1976. The autobiographical novel tells the story of a young boy growing up in the rural town of Lincoln, Illinois, whose mother dies of influenza and whose father remarries. The boy, who narrates the novel, forms a brief friendship with a young neighbor named Cletus Smith, the son of a murderer.

The book seems to be an ordinary tale of a murder in a small town in the early part of the century. It is told from the point of view of a man, now in his sixties, who is looking back on his friendship with the son of a murdered man. Simplicity itself.

“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995. His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves. Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.

[713] The Blood of the Lamb – Peter De Vries

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” We live this life by a kind of conspiracy of grace: the common assumption, or pretense, that human existence is ‘good’ or ‘matters’ or has ‘meaning,’ a glaze of charm or humor by which we conceal from one another and perhaps even ourselves the suspicion that it does not, and our conviction in times of trouble that it is overpriced—something to be endured rather than enjoyed. ” (Ch.14, p.215)

The Blood of the Lamb is the story of Don Wanderhope, a widower whose twelve-year-old daughter, a bright and engaging girl named Carol, dies of leukemia. But this story begins when he was a young boy reared in a Dutch immigrant family. He was reared in Calvinism and through education, reading, sexual awakening and terrible luck. He becomes a buffed, shell-shocked man who is quietly resigned to the tragicomedy of life.

The world, as has been noted, is full of a number of things, and while they may not suffice to keep us happy as kings, the troubles in which they mainly abound are diverse enough for one to distract us from the other. (Ch.8, p.112)

This book is heavy and provocative. It is a furious tract about the impossibility of religious faith written by a man who desperately wants to believe. It is poignant depiction of a life full of misfortune; but it’s also, in places, howlingly funny. The reading is a frenzy of grief and age by a comedian who, for all his horrific suffering, never lost his eye for the grotesqueries and incongruities of human existence.

I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race. (Ch.12, p.166)

After escaping rigid Calvinism of home, he moves to Connecticut to live in secularism. Yet a Job-like string of calamities stalks him: his brother dies, his girlfriend, whom he meets at a tuberculosis sanitarium, dies, his father goes mad, his wife, who is twice infidel to him, commits suicide. His life is paved with heartbreak, and the worst is yet to come. The light of his life is about to be snuffed out. He is through ups and downs, between hope and distress, as his daughter is subjected to many drugs and treatment. It’s the memory of his daughter that saves him from a hopeless scope of life. Wanderhope concludes that man’s search for meaning is doomed to disappointment. But if human life means nothing, it doesn’t follow that it is without truth. This book is definitely one of the most eviscerating reads in years.

246 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[708] Main Street – Sinclair Lewis

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” The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot, and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest. ” (Ch.1, p.3)

Main Street is a satirical novel depicting the claustrophobic life in a small rural town during the 1910s. The female protagonist, Carol Milford, is a liberal, well-educated woman from St. Paul, Minnesota. She marries the town doctor Will Kennicott, who takes her to his home in Gopher Prairie. The novel is about Carol’s perception of the town’s lack of culture and her attempts at reform. In her house-warming party, she defies common decency by sitting with the men after dinner and frees the town elites from their years of decorum.

I wonder if you can understand the ‘fun’ of making a beautful thing, the pride and satisfaction of it, and the holiness. (Ch.19, p.230)

Carol dabbles in numerous town affairs: the planning of a new council building, better selection in the library, the women’s literary club, and charity support for the poor. She was disconcerted that she was left out of the planning of the new school building. Every step of the way she meets with opposition, as the small town, inveterate in its old ways, operates to counteract the romantic and artistic idea as per the doctor’s wife. She becomes dissatisfied with the town and her life, and chooses to cope with the hidden derision by withdrawal. Her husband defends the town and his friends against her denigrating comments; but he softens in his insistence on having their marriage conform to a traditional model.

When I die the world will be annihilated, as far as I’m concerned. (Ch.22, p.281)

Carol’s fecklessness is believable and sometimes irritating, but the town-people’s general resistence to every form of non-conformity is also believable. Lewis deftly renders the frequently nice and friendly narrow-minded prejudice of small-town America that is all the most difficult to combat because it is well-meaning and patriotic. Carol is also not the most lovable person to reason with. She is overbearing and egotistic.

All that said, I have mixed feelings about Main Street, which is a satire without being overtly funny or comic. Lewis writes with intelligence, but also from an attitude of supposed worldliness that I find very pretentious. His plots meander and his tone is unclear. The story unfolds at an interminable pace, and the episodes have a repetitive flavor that quickly becomes trying.

466 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[705] A Time to Kill – John Grisham

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” But the system was not working now. It was conspiring to keep him in jail, to break him, to make orphans of his children. It seemed determined to punish him for performing an act he considered unavoidable. ” (Ch.16, p.208)

A Time to Kill, John Grisham’s first novel, is a riveting story of retribution and justice set in the South. Not only does it evoke the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, it resonates even in the present and puts the Ferguson incident into perspective.

The tiny (fictional) town of Clanton, Mississippi, is shocked when two drunk and drug-addled viciously assault and rape a ten-year-old girl. They try to hang her but fail to kill only because they could not find a bridge from which to throw the child. Tonya Hailey sustains both physical and emotional damage. The thugs have wrecked her little body and ruined her mind. They are quickly arrested and charged with kidnapping, rape, and assault, when the girl’s father, a decorated Vietnam veteran, takes the law into his own hands and kills the men outside the courthouse.

You just don’t shoot a person, or persons, in cold blood, and then tell the jury they needed killing, and expect to walk out of the courtroom. (Ch.8, p.100)

The case is complicated by the fact that the victim and her daughter are black while the two dead thugs are white. The young, up-and-coming lawyer, Jake Brigance, is confronted by the most difficult case: a black father has killed two whites who gruesomely violated his daughter. Not only is he has been prejudiced by every person in the county, he is subjected to a trial that is gauged by white standard. The issue is assurance of fairness—because of he racial divide, a black father and a white father would not have equal chances with the jury, let alone a predominantly white jury. The trial of Carl Lee Hailey is therefore a high-profile, volatile, controversial case that arouses passion for and against the defendant. It also brings forth opportunistic lawyers trying to chase the case from Jake Brigance to get public exposure. Carefully orchestrates his defense, Brigance relies on the crucial point of justifiable homicide by reason of insanity. The depiction of legal preparation is brilliant.

It was their lives the State was attempting to justify. Who would miss them except their mothers? Child rapists. Drug pushers. Would society miss such productive citizens? Wasn’t Ford County safer without them? (Ch.40, p.613)

A Time to Kill is a provocative read that grabs you from the start. Grisham raises very thought-provoking questions on races and justice. It’s more than just a page-turning legal thriller. He creates a social fabric through a colorful array of caricatures. The blue blood mentor, the hot-shot defense lawyer, a big city millionaire pimp, the ambitious smug DA, the Klansmen, the church reverend—all play their parts into the diverse perspectives and prejudices revolving around a case where the stakes are high and the pressure continued to build. The book is an intense social commentary that begs the question: can justice be truly color-blind?

655 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]