Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is the story of Gifty, born in Alabama to a mother who came there from Ghana. She is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, where her research program involves trying to figure out why her brother became an addict and died of an overdose when she was a child. As part of this inquiry, she also reexamines her upbringing in an evangelical church and her relationship to God, which has changed a lot as she’s grown up and become a scientist.

In the present, her mother has come to stay with her in California, which has prompted a series of memories from childhood, centered around the loss of her brother and her experience in the church, helped along by a review of her childhood journal. It’s awfully heavy on theoretical exploration–it’s so nearly constructed to discuss the relationship between brain and self, and what role, if any, God has in that–but it mostly saves itself by being very personal at the same time.

I prefer my philosophy to take more of a back seat to the personal story, but both components are here, and it certainly kept me reading and enjoying.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is pretty consistent. She writes well, she creates colorful characters, she knows how to put together a narrative–but it just isn’t my style. I’m sure there’s part of it that’s cultural–she writes almost exclusively about Native Americans, often Chippewa, and there are aspects of world view I just can’t relate to–but I don’t think it’s just that. I want my fiction to feel more intimate than hers usually does. I’m more intrigued by internal struggle.

This book has the added complication of being set in real historical events, a 1953 attempt by the. U.S. government to terminate the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, which Erdrich’s grandfather was involved in resisting. That drama is the main structure of the book, and then there’s an individual love/family drama set within it, but they mesh awkwardly for me. Like she was trying too hard to put them in the same book.

Actress by Anne Enright

First, I have an obvious soft spot for Irish novels. Something about the sensibility.


This is a quiet novel–and one about late middle age, I think, even though the central figure is nominally a glamorous actress in all stages of her life. It’s about identity–of yourself in relation to your parents (and your parents for themselves). All the drama is the mother’s, but the impact is the daughter’s. There is a bit of a mystery, but it’s never fully solved.

So many of the facts of the book–of the narrator Nora’s life, really–are obviously fully formed but never much discussed; they just are. Her life, her house, her marriage, her children. It takes skill to create backgrounds like that.

There’s a lot of gender stuff going on here, which the book acknowledges by having a character remark on it, something the narrator doesn’t seem to like. That creates an interesting dynamic.

I’m never quite sure how I feel about books that just sort of drift through memory, pausing on things as they tie into some present thought. A book that’s about a life rather than an episode.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

downloadI have to say my hopes were not high–returning many years later to write a sequel to a very successful novel after it has become culturally relevant anew–but this novel largely ended up being able to stand on its own (minus what felt to me like an unnecessary epilogue). Three female narrators whose stories come together, a history of the horrors that occurred as it all began that’s all too believable, and a big, dangerous heist — not to mention a complex and deeply morally ambiguous woman at the center make for a really good read, even aside from the commentary on gender and power. I remember Salman Rushdie saying something once, at a reading, to the effect that if you tell a good story while you’re doing it, you can make people read anything. I think there’s enough story and adventure here to keep readers who aren’t interested in feminism.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

downloadI was so curious to read a novel about twins–because I am a twin, and because I am writing such a book myself. It could go either way–setting up a contrast using twins could be done in a way that feels obvious and artificial. But this book mostly avoided that, partly, I think, because it attended significantly to relationships, including the one between the twins (although I think that could’ve been developed even more).

We get fairly deep into the life of both twins, the twin who slips away to pass as white, and the one who never pretends, marries a black man, and returns to the hometown and family. We get into the lives of each twins’ daughter. I struggled some with the “white” twin’s psychology, largely around her reactions to racial tensions. That’s clearly a complex subject, but I came away with the sense that the writer had left something on the table there, both for her and for her daughter.

I was much more engaged in the Black twin’s daughter’s life. Those were the sections where the book felt really alive to me, as she goes to college and starts a relationship with a trans man. It draws parallels about passing, about secrets and identity, but it also just feels like a story. Some of the other sections felt more like they were created to serve a purpose.

I wonder if the book might have gelled and deepened more if Bennett had taken a few more years to sit with the characters and the material. There’s a lot here and it’s a good book as is; I just feel like there might be more.

Amnesty by Avarind Adiga

Amnesty-Aravind-Adiga-BookDragonThis book certainly has an interesting premise, and the writing is vivid. The narrator’s voice is one we badly need to hear these days, and the characters are engaging. But I came away with the feeling that this should’ve been a short story, not a medium-length novel.

The premise: Danny is a young Sri Lankan who escaped a desperate situation in his country and came to Australia, intentionally overstaying a visa. As an undocumented person and a South Asian, he is marginalized, but makes things work surprisingly cheerfully as a cleaner. He befriends one of his clients, a married woman who is involved in a long-term affair, and Danny, the woman, and her lover have a bizarrely close relationship. When the lover kills the woman, Danny seems to be the only person who knows what happened. The problem is, the killer will turn him in to immigration if he tells the police. That’s essentially it for plot — and the book begins after the murder has happened.

The book has a single-day structure (something I often enjoy) marked by time stamps, through which Danny continues to communicate with the killer and agonize ad nauseam over what to do.  Adiga certainly captures the anxiety and powerlessness Danny faces, but I’m not sure you can build a novel around endless waffling and worrying, without more.

Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

downloadIt sounds like it’s going to be one of those sort-of literary mystery/thriller things–a girl disappears on a tropical island–but it isn’t really about what happened, in the way those books tend to be. It’s about how everyone reacts, months later, years later. And it’s about how things just kind of happen sometimes, even predictable things, when we really believed (perhaps out of privilege?) they wouldn’t.

Schaitkin names her island Saint X and populates it richly. It’s not meant to be a specific real island, but it exists alongside St. Thomas and Antigua and Martinique, and it especially reminds me of St. John. She’s been up front about her reasons for doing that, and naming it so, and I think it works here; it reflects the way Americans view the Caribbean.

Race and class take a predictably foregrounded role here–wealthy white resort guests interact with working-class island residents–but that’s not the heart of the book. It’s there, and it’s an important aspect, rendered with a decent amount of sensitivity (although there’s always the fact that it was, in the end, written by s white woman), but the true core of the novel (as I believe the true core of a literary novel ought to be) is about human nature on an even deeper level. Senseless things just happen sometimes, and they change countless lives, sometimes dramatically. The book is focused on the girl’s little sister, 8 or 9 at the time, already in some ways fragile and troubled, and the need she feels as an adult to learn precisely what happened (as if that’s going to fix it for her). It’s about the experience of seeing her idolized sister being, basically, a teenager, with contempt for their parents’ well-intentioned but condescending interactions with resort staff, because she’s just taken some kind of international culture class in her first semester at Princeton. Its the utter devastation of the life of a man who becomes a suspect in the disappearance, where we see how that one night changed everything forever. There’s the mother, coming to understand what letting go is and isn’t. And all of it has a feeling of truth to it.

It’s a first novel. It’s a very good one, in my view. But I think it’s a mistake to include, scattered throughout, brief sections from the points of view of various peripheral characters (the island’s chief of police; the college boy also staying at the resort who is briefly questioned; the otherwise uninvolved woman who finds the body; etc.) It feels like author-cheating, a cheap way to get some extra insight in about what even further effects these things might have, and the lives going on around them that are or are not changed, and I think she didn’t need to do that to communicate everything she needed to.


The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

downloadI was diverted and entertained, which was what I was after. There are some insights, and some pretty writing. So, starting from a place of generally succeeding, I had two main issues with this novel.

First, it’s about Bernie Madoff, but it’s nominally about a Ponzi schemester named Jonathan Alkaitis. The fictional version is modeled so closely on the real story that it just kind of feels like cheating. If you’re going to write a novel about how the dynamics of the time and aspects of human nature allowed things like this to happen, invent an incident. If you’re going to write about about Bernie Madoff, write a book about Bernie Madoff. But when you import this many details, it’s neither here nor there.

Second, It’s trying to be too many things at once. At the beginning it seems like it’s going to be about the troubles of a drug-addicted young man who makes some terrible mistakes, but after a fairly deep dive into his psyche, he ends up being a peripheral character. Later, we get third-person-plural sections of “The Office Chorus” describing the collective experience of Alkaitis’s inside-track employees. The heroine, to the extent there is one, ultimately doesn’t have that much to offer; she ultimately exists primarily in a non-Ponzi-related concern with what happened to her mother, who disappeared in an apparent drowning when she was a child in a remote part of Canada. I appreciate the impulse to see many points of view in a story like this–how it would happen and how it would touch countless lives–but this one just feels disorganized. It has no shape. It’s not sure what it wants.

Maybe that’s an inherent hazard in writing a story everyone already knows; you can’t get your intrigue from what may happen. Maybe you need all these spinoffs and dead ends because otherwise there’s nothing new. But for my tastes, everything needs just a little more cohesion. Of course, now they’re making it into a TV series, which seems to me like a better place for this technique. I’ve read a couple of books like that lately; is the renaissance of TV driving the structure of new novels?

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

downloadOyeyemi’s schtick is repurposing fairy/folk tales. She doesn’t retell them, exactly–rather, what she’s doing here is something more like riffing. This one is Hansel and Gretel.

But it’s not about a brother and sister, and there’s no obvious correlate for a witch. Instead, there’s a mother-daughter pair of gingerbread-baking immigrants from a vaguely Slavic country that, even in the world of the book, may or may not exist, and a quest to reunite with a childhood figure (name of Gretel).

It’s an intensely odd book–it both is and is not set in our contemporary reality–but it seems for the most part to have its own logic, even if it’s not something I can articulate. It’s not a fairy tale because people act as humans, not as archetypes, even if the consequences aren’t what we’d expect. On the whole, it didn’t quite come together for me, and it dragged a bit in the middle, but I’m still impressed by the sheer ambition.

Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg

9781501197840I’ve been thinking a lot about books written in unusual formats, and this is one. Of course there are letters (whole-book or series), but that’s hardly unusual, or new. This book is written as the catalogue to a photography exhibition of the work of Lillian Preston, a woman photographer in New York in the 60’s and 70’s, and through the material included with each of the 118 photos, presented in chronological order, a totally coherent–and gripping–narrative emerges. There are a number of different sources in the “catalogue.” Each picture includes some recollections and commentary by Lillian’s daughter, Samantha Preston (later known as Jane), who has assembled the exhibition after her mother’s death. And she, the daughter, is clearly the dominant voice; there are a few letters Lillian wrote to friends, but most of the remaining material comes either from Lillian’s journal, which she always wrote addressed to Samantha, or from interviews Samantha conducted herself with Lillian’s friends. All of this makes clear, through structure, that the daughter is our anchor.

The Kirkus Reviews headline for its review is “A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.” Sure, Kirkus, if it has nothing to do with gender when the central struggle of your life is the pull of family, and especially your own child, against your art, you have to fight tokenism and pigeonholing to find a place for your work, the defining moment of your career concerns a photo reflecting an illegal abortion, and your life is upended by a court battle concerning a photo of your child in which you are blasted in the media as a “bad mother.” Sure, our culture’s consistent resistance to considering everything on its merits without gender labels is a topic in this book, and it’s an important issue to address, but this particular story is not separable from the artist’s gender. Not even a little bit.

Lilian is clearly conflicted, but she remains committed to her art first, and the book is largely about what that does to her child (and her parents). If, later in life, the child understands, is all forgiven? It has notes of a non-screwball version of Kevin Wilson’s recurrent theme about parents. And yet, after a crisis, Lillian does alter her artistic course to protect her daughter (although how voluntary that is is debatable), without great success at mending the relationship. I suppose we’re back, as always, to “You can’t have it all.”