Book Review 17: “The Association of Small Bombs”

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes!

 

This novel has been hailed as “timely,” and after seeing it in every bookstore window this winter, I knew I had to buy it for the Library. When I finally got around to reading it this summer, I found it so much more. Though the global politics of India and US relations play a part, as does 9/11 later on in the novel, the scope remains remaining appropriately “small”: it is a tale of the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast of 1996 (a real occurrence).

The Association of Small Bombs refers to the name of an organization for people bereaved by bomb blasts, but also to the characters in the story: the Hindu parents of two boys killed in Lajpat Nagar, their Muslim friend, a terrorist, and an activist, who form their own kind of association, bound by the bomb to each other, in often unexpected ways. Unraveling  these connections, Mahajan draws you deeper into each character, while covering a few decades and a building great deal of suspense. Though less than 300 pages, these intricacies makes it feel like much a larger novel, and Mahajan has done an elegant job interweaving the strands.

What I most liked about the book was the way in which Mahajan refuses to give easy answers when tackling the loaded topic of terrorism. To say he humanizes the characters is to miss the point: of course, all of them are human, both victim and terrorist. It is simply that Mahajan writes them so realistically. There are issues of class, religious vs. secular, Hindu vs. Muslim, East vs. West, and in this sense, An Association of Small Bombs fits right in with the pantheon of South Asian fiction. But Mahajan doesn’t lapse into stereotypes and keeps everything raw: “’They should kill everyone in the Taliban,’” says Deepa, the bereaved mother. “‘When we see what is happening in the West, we are glad. We are glad George Bush is going after terrorists. It should be a lesson to our country’… Afterwards, they were shocked at themselves. They were no longer liberals.” There are moments of tenderness,  equally surprising: the bomb maker going swimming with his best friend, “they held hands like lovers, though there was nothing sexual about this.” Most startling to me was this line: “The fewer that die, the lonelier the victims are. It’s better for the event to be big, to affect many. People say 9/11 was the worst terror attack of all time—was it? I think the small bombs that we hear about all the time, that go off in unknown markets, killing five or six, are worse,” observes one character, who concludes grimly, “Better to kill generously rather than stingily.”

This sentiment is echoed throughout the novel, perhaps the only conclusion that Mahajan allows for. The prose is smooth and even understated, and yet this will often be an uncomfortable read, especially for Americans. While 9/11 (and terror attacks on the Western world in general) are tragedies that produce worldwide empathy, it is other places that bear most of the burden of extremism. It is countries, like India, who are shaken by these “small bombs in unknown markets,” the ones we hear about “all the time,” on the TV or social media– the ones we scroll by and then forget. Like one character comments, when it comes to violence in the non-Western world, we’ve become “immune to the only disease without a cure.” As Mahajan deftly illustrates, what is often the most devastating is not the bomb, but the aftershock.

 

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Book Review 16: “News of the World”

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes!

Review by Margot Sullivan

 

The year is 1870. Captain Jefferson Kidd, once a printer but has since lost his printing press to the Civil War, now travels in a wagon through North Texas to bring news of the day. In small villages he assembles people in churches and halls and charges ten cents a head. Unhappy and alone he is. His life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled,…..”a slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas”. He was always impatient to get the readings over now.

Are you already wanting to read this book? Sort of a western, a remarkable journey through unsettled wilderness territory, with a range of human emotions. The writing is amazing and one is caught up with what Captain Kidd will do and how he will change. And what Johanna will begin to do to make the Captain understand her. In Wichita Falls Kidd is approached to return a young girl (Johanna) to relatives in San Antonio. Four years ago the Kiowa Indians had killed her family but took her into their tribe and raised her as one of them: she only speaks Kiowa. The Kiowa now find her a liability.

Reluctantly Captain Kidd agrees to take her and the reader now begins to observe a remarkable relationship develop! As they wend their way north in his wagon thieves, Comanches, Kiowa, and unscrupulous characters force them to try to understand each other to defend themselves and survive. They must learn to trust each other and also to accept what is different about each other.

Reader beware as the end of the journey is as perilous as what as already been encountered. I loved this book! I thought this is so different than what I like to read. The writing is elegant, the characters so well-drawn, and the environment with great imagery. You will become absorbed into the lives of these two people.

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WiFi at the Library! and more…

Another year has gone by at the Library and what a great one it was! We had our Annual Meeting here on Monday. We assessed where we are, tackled budget questions, and re-voted our Officers to their posts for another year. Hats off to our President Miki Partridge, our Vice President Michael Brassard, our Treasurer Don Abbott and our Secretary Sue Hitchcox.  And I, Mia Boynton, along with my co-librarian Matt  Holtzman, will be welcoming you as always in the Library!

Now the update you’ve been waiting for…Our BIG news is that we will be offering WIFI (to members only) starting in 2019! This will be done on a trial basis for one year, and at the Annual Meeting in 2019, we will re-assess and decide if this is a service that is right for the Library. Thank you to everyone who has already given feedback, it has been instrumental in us making this choice. And please continue to let us know how you feel–both pros and cons, as we make this change!

Want to know more? Please click the highlighted text to read our Librarian’s Report and our President’s Report !

Thank you to all our patrons for your support. This Library is for you!

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Christina Baker Kline Press Release

 

On Saturday, July 14th, the Monhegan Memorial Library welcomes novelist Christina Baker Kline to take part in the Third Annual Distinguished Writers Series on Monhegan Island.

 

Ms. Kline will speak about her latest novel, A Piece of the World, just announced as the winner of the Maine Literary Award for Fiction. A retelling of the story behind Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World,” the book blends fact and fiction to create a compelling account of Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson, the making of one of America’s most famous works of art, and the redemptive power of imagination. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the original painting, done locally in Cushing. Christina Baker Kline is the third writer to speak in the Distinguished Writers Series. Previous writers in the series were Richard Blanco and Paul Doiron.

 

The complete program will stretch over two days. There will be a Welcome Reception on July 13,th 7pm at the Partridge House, a Writer’s Q & A on July 14,th 10am at the Library (advance sign-up required), an Author Talk, followed by a Q & A with Christina Baker Kline and special guest Jamie Wyeth, and a Book Signing, also on July 14th at 7:30pm at the Monhegan School ($10 donation at the door). All other events are free of charge. Copies of “A Piece of the World” will be sold at the event.

 

For questions or to sign up for the Writer’s Q & A, please contact Mia Boynton: monheganmemoriallibrary@gmail.com, 207-596-0549.

 

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Book Review 15: “A Little Life”

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes

 

Some books you read and some books you endure, less a literary experience and instead something more physical and all consuming. I’ve lost myself in a lot of books, but it was reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara that taught me this.

It begins with four men: JB, an artist, Malcolm, an architect, Willem, an actor, and Jude, a lawyer, former college roommates now trying to make their way in NYC. After dipping into the minds of the first three, the narrative quickly turns to Jude and we realize the true scope of the story: it is about trauma, how we survive it, how it affects us and all those we come in contact with.

His friends call him “a magician whose sole trick is concealment,” yet bit by bit over the course of this 720 page book, we as readers gradually learn more about Jude’s past. Without giving away spoilers, suffice it to say that Jude has been the victim of sexual and physical abuse that has scarred him not only metaphorically but literally: the first glimpses we get are his unexplained “episodes” of pain and his limping gait. The novel continues to follow him through each decade of his life, taking in his three main friends as well as others such as Harold, his mentor, and Andy, his unconventional doctor.

A Little Life was shortlisted for major prizes and acclaimed when it came out in 2015, but it also drew a lot of criticism and I can see why. If any book deserves a trigger warning, this is it: not only is Jude’s past depicted in extremely graphic detail, but his present, which is full of self-injury including severe cutting, is presented so viscerally that I often had to put the book down and walk away. And yet it was at this point that I felt truly drawn in, when I started to feel the book come alive. After that I couldn’t stop reading. Early on there’s a scene of Jude in school learning about contractual law, and I felt like I’d entered a contract with Jude (or Yanagihara): one in which I was obligated to see him through, and undergo whatever places the narrative would take us.

One of the other critiques of this novel is lack of female characters, but Yanagihara did this deliberately, saying that the “emotional territory” of women was something that had already been explored in literature and thus wasn’t interesting to her. I grew to love her characters and while I can’t say I agree with her, her depictions of men are so necessary: men as victims, vulnerable, feeling pain and needing help. And, most importantly, as friends, “two people who remained together day after day, bound only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.” Men in these pages (with a notable exception) are each gentle in some way, frequently described as “kind,” “soft-spoken” or “patient.” They cry, hold each other and say sorry (sometimes a bit too often). Now, as we talk about our culture of toxic masculinity, this felt both powerful and cathartic.

And finally, yes, the novel is privileged, as all four characters grow up to become rich, live in lavish NYC apartments and take international vacations. But this, too, is intentional. Yanagihara has also scrubbed her prose of any historical markers so that  Jude’s life becomes a kind of dark fairytale, where the luxuries he gains are in direct counterpoint to the horrors he’s suffered:

Sometimes it would seem like life had not just compensated for itself but had done so extravagantly, as if his very life was begging him to forgive it, as if it were piling riches upon him, smothering him in all things beautiful and wonderful and hoped-for so he wouldn’t resent it, so he would allow it to keep moving him forward.

One of the most stunning passages is a chapter in which, after recounting the final and perhaps worst atrocity Jude suffered in his youth, we close with a scene from the present. Jude is throwing a fancy dinner party for his friends and JB is ribbing him about his good fortune. “I don’t know, JB,’ he said. “But you know, I’ve been lucky all my life.”

Yanagihara’s prose is plain and obvious, and she’s not given to lush language. But she’s drawn to the philosophical, and I found her opinions to be unique and provoking. The skill of her craft is how she slips these into conversation, dropping little hints of the larger themes she’s playing with. “In this class you will learn the difference between what is fair and what is just, and, as important, between what is fair and what is necessary,” intones the instructor in Jude’s class. “You will of course learn the mechanics of contracts—how one is created, how one is broken, how binding one is and how to unbind yourself from one.” Re-read this later, and it will give you chills.

One aspect I thought she captured particularly well was the arc of Jude’s anguish. His recovery is never clearly upward but neither is it all downhill. Rather it rises and falls, full of revelations that are then forgotten or contradicted. What struck me most is how his trust and love for his friends exists alongside his loneliness and misery, neither one mutually exclusive. And the ways in which each character struggles with Jude feels real. “He loved him…he would never hurt him—he trusted himself with that much. And so what was there to fear?” Willem wonders. But the answer is everything, because love, Yanagihara seems to think, is both the only grace but yet will never be enough to save you. It’s one of the most honest and painful reflections of the book.

When asked in an interview why she called her massive novel “A Little Life,” Yanagihara remarked, “All lives are small.” I started tracking the phrase “life” throughout the story and was amazed at the different ways she’s found to explore this. “A little life” could refer to Jude who feels his life has little meaning, to Malcolm who feels like his life is too sheltered, to JB who feels like his life is too small for his creative ambitions. It is the sense of unreality that Willem feels being an actor: “To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words! — it was an absurd life, a not-life.” It means how you can diminish your own life when you choose, as Jude does many times, to isolate yourself from those who want to know you. And it can refer to what a little thing a life is, and how easily it could be taken, or given up.

I can’t recommend this book without a strong warning: if you are not ready to read graphic and upsetting material, do not pick it up. But if you are, then give this a try. It will be worth the heartbreak. Some books are enjoyable when you’re in them, some teach you something after they are done, and some step out and linger with you beyond the page, in the world outside. “In life,” as one character puts it. This is one that will stay with me in mine.

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Book Review 14: “Kirith Kirin” and “The Ordinary”

 

 

 

Genre: Fantasy

Have in the Library? No

 

I have been on a fantasy bend lately, so I’ll start off by saying: if anyone has any recommendations, comment! (Or even better, review!) It’s long been my favorite genre, which I am finding my way back to through childhood favorites. These two novels by author Jim Grimsley however, were totally new to me. An established writer of many works of literary fiction, a playwright, and now a memoirist, this is his first foray into fantasy. I was intrigued. Did he always have these worlds inside his head, or is this an artistic experiment? Either way, I’m glad he veered off his path!

I began with Kirith Kirin. In the heroic tradition of many tales before, it follows the transformation of Jessex, a farmboy, into a powerful wizard destined to change the fortunes of Aeryn, a land of enchanted towers and sacred forests. Along the way, he falls in love with the Red King, Kirith Kirin. If you’ve heard of this book at all, it’s probably because it’s a billed as a “queer fantasy.” While this is initially what brought me to it also, I was pleasantly surprised at how well done it was. Other same-sex relationships are hinted at in the book, and we’re given the feeling that it’s not uncommon. When Kirith Kirin mentions casually that “some do not believe a man should lie with a man or a woman with a woman,” it’s news to Jessex, and the only time homophobia is mentioned in the entire series. Though there’s some angst involved as Jessex and the King grow closer, none of it is about being attracted to the same gender. Wow, gay love without self-loathing— what a novel idea! Grimsley doesn’t think so, and it’s this kind of representation that made the book worthy of it’s “queer fantasy” label for me.

My favorite part of Kirith Kirin was the characters. I enjoyed spending time with them and I was completely caught up in their world. It was a nice change to note how many women were sprinkled throughout the story, such as Kiril Karsten, a warrior and one of the Twice-Named, the tyrannical Queen Athyrn, and the three wise women who become Jessex’s teachers. (And by the way, God is female in Aeryn). Characters who I assumed by default to be men, such as Gaelex, the chamberlain in charge of the King’s camp, pleasantly surprised me when they were revealed as female by the simple insertion of a pronoun. With so many fantasy classics feeling like a boy’s club, I appreciated that Grimsley created multi-dimensional women and a society in which they have equal footing.

Though Kirith Kirin is rife with fantasy tropes, it feels fresh because the focus is not another quest or apocalyptic battle, but the relationship between Jessex and the King, and Jessex’s ascension through the different levels of magic. There are dark powers and fight scenes to be sure, but last minute twists upend the archetypes. By the last page, I was ready for more!

The Ordinary picks up long after Kirith Kirin ends but includes some of the same characters, notably Jessex. It’s more evenly written; Grimsley seems to have settled into the genre. He states in a forward that this is a “companion” but not a sequel; though The Ordinary follows Jessex’s development as a wizard, he’s no longer the main character. Instead, there are two: Jedda, a Hormling linguist from the world of Senal, a scientifically-oriented civilization that is somehow attached to Aeryn, and Malin, Jessex’s niece and a ruler of-sorts in Aeryn. These are two pretty cool women, not only does Grimsley give them power and respect among their people, but they’re also human characters, with doubts and insecurities. And, they fall in love, in scenes proving that once again Grimsley can write queer relationships in a way my younger self would have killed to read.

The Ordinary is a tale of two cultures colliding, and the first half of the book involves Jedda’s impressions of the world you were immersed in throughout the first book. Though Senal is supposed to be a futuristic society where communication takes place through “mentext messages” sent wirelessly to “personal stats,” it actually sounds similar to how we live today (Grimsely wrote this 15 years ago). The Hormlings are so technologically advanced that they are unused to experiencing anything outside of what can be summoned on their flatscreens. This book feels like Grimsley’s taking us on a ride through his own creation, with the Hormlings’ experiences mirroring our own reactions, as if we were suddenly dropped inside Kirith Kirin.

It’s fascinating to see Grimsley, through his character Jedda, describe and dissect the world of Aeryn that he’d previously had you accepting without question. Details such as style of dress, building materials and even plumbing were all just background in Kirith Kirin but are now closely observed by Jedda and her Hormling companions, both expanding your experience of the first book while also subtly undermining it. It added a “meta” aspect to the story that I really enjoyed. The Ordinary plays with the questions: What’s real? What do we believe and why? And who is behind it all? Jessex observes, “What I’ve learned from your world teaches me she might be anything, this god of ours. She might be a being in possession of a science so far beyond your own that it seems like magic to you, and to us.” This issue is never resolved (to my dissatisfaction), but I started to think Grimsley’s giving a nod to himself: the author, the ultimate “creator” of both Senal and Aeryn.

The downside of both books is that they’re too short. Grimsley is a rather reticent writer, but he has such interesting ideas and empathetic characters that I found myself feeling at times that this was just a teaser…I wanted a little bit more of everything! However, take note: Grimsley has since written short stories set in these worlds that can be tracked down in sci-fi collections. These two books may lack the polish of more well-known novels in the genre. But if you want some solid queer/female representation whilst indulging your fantasy urges, definitely pick them up! I was so glad I did!

 

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Book Review 13: “Exit West”

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes!

 

“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” So begins “Exit West,” a graceful book about Nadia, a spirited and rebellious woman, and Saeed, a gentle and sensitive man. Their love story originates in this never-named city as it falls apart, and their lives are altered first in small ways, then in ways that are irreparable. Soon, they’re traveling through doors both literal and metaphoric, and the book blends the fantastical with the all-too-real in a way I’ve never quite encountered before in fiction. Interspersed vignettes bring us to farther flung locales all around the globe where, at the same as Saeed and Nadia are embarking on their journeys, people are moving, migrating, mingling. A man climbs through a window in Australia, Filipina women emerge from a dark alleyway in Shikoku, in Mexico a woman walks through a cantina and reclaims her daughter, in Prinsengracht, an old man gets a second chance. The sense of movement is momentous but there’s still a subtlety to the prose that, much like the doors themselves, you don’t entirely realize what’s happened until you’ve passed through.

This book was published in 2017. Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani writer better known for his book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” This is a book for our time, about our modern world and the reordering and upheaval of people because of violence. And yet Hamid handles this subject with so much gentleness that it reads almost like a fable. His choice was interesting to me, and ultimately effective. Saeed and Nadia’s tale is sad, the sacrifices of immigrants presented in a straightforward way that seems all the more devastating: “She felt she was abandoning the old man…and so by making the promise he demanded she was make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

But what I got out of this book is not sadness so much as wonder. I think this line (like so many of Hamid’s, beautiful in its simplicity) encapsulates that feeling best: “Throughout this time she had never moved, traveled, yes, but never moved, and yet it seemed the world had moved.”

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