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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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Book Review 12: “The Good Lord Bird”

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes!

 

This book by James McBride recounts the story of abolitionist John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry from the point of view of Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a (fictional) young slave swept up by John Brown as he goes through Kansas. Their relationship begins with a mistake: due to a mis-hearing, John Brown believes that Onion is a girl and also his good luck charm. Before he knows it, Onion is part of his band and, through an clever re-write of history, an integral part of the famous day at Harper’s Ferry. The best part about this book is the prose– it’s insanely good. Right from it’s rollicking first chapter, you’re taken up in the wild pace of the abolitionists’ cross country ride. Part of the fun is that it’s a completely irreverent take on the character of John Brown. Far from being a hero, in McBride’s tale, the “Old Man” is a frustrating, yet endearing, mix of clueless, religious and ridiculous. His favorite pastime is offering up long prayers:

Bullets zinged high overhead and kicked around his boots and near my face, but he stood where he was a good five minutes…He didn’t notice, course, for he was preaching. His sermon about the Holy Word and King Solomon and the two mothers with one baby was clearly important to him. He went on warbling about his sermon as one of Broadnax’s Negroes flared a light and set fire to the cannon’s fuse. The Old Man didn’t pay it a lick of mind. He was still bellowing on about King Solomon and the two mothers when Owen piped up, “Pa! We got to go.”

With such hilarious writing, the violence of John Brown as he screeches across the territories burning and killing almost escapes you. So, too, does the power of his conviction, as when he stands over the body of one of his men.

He sighed…pulled a feather off the Good Lord Bird, and rose. He turned and stared at the town grimly, burning in the afternoon sun. He could see it plain, the smoke spiraling up, the Free Staters fleeing, the rebels firing at them, whooping and hollering. “God sees it,” he said.

Without knowing much about the actual person of John Brown, I’m not sure where McBride takes liberties (aside from the obvious), but he certainly captures the feeling of the time well. As in the best historical novels, Onion’s exploits read as fresh as though they were happening right now.

As I read this, I was thinking about allyship. What does it mean for non-black and especially white people in times like these, with rampant police killings and other racial injustices? On the one hand, one of the most prominent points of the book is how John Brown set about to “free the negro” without actually consulting or listening to the black people he came across. It becomes a kind of comedy of errors that ends up costing him dearly. John Brown was also a truly devoted champion for black rights at a time when being so was perilous. As he said to his sons, “I have only a short time to live, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done…Stay here if you want. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a cause worth dying for.”

The moral of this story then, is not to be like John Brown. And none of the characters, even the tenacious Onion, are truly heroes. For all it’s tall-tale trappings, I thought it was pretty realistic in it’s portrayal of the flawed ways in which everyday people interact with the historical moments handed to them. Perhaps, like the ivory billed woodpecker, the “Good Lord Bird” that pecks on rotten trees to fell them, we’re all just working on something too big for us ever to accomplish in our lifetimes. McBride leaves us the hope that even if we don’t see the change, just as John Brown did not survive to see the Emancipation Proclamation,  it will “someday fall and feed the others.”

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Book Review 11: “The Fionavar Tapestry”

 

Genre: Fantasy

Have in the Library? Yes!

Reviewed by: Bill Oram

 

This is a deeply moving fantasy novel.  It’s long and it takes its time: its three volumes create the world of Fionavar with at least a dozen main characters and many other important subordinate figures.  (There’s a list at the front, and at first I had to keep consulting it.  After a while I entered the world and that wasn’t necessary.) The tapestry of the title is the world itself with the rules governing its existence, woven by a deity who has afterward given it the freedom to develop on its own—to destroy itself, if that’s the way things should turn out.  The fundamental conflict is the battle for Fionavar against a subordinate deity who would enslave it, destroying the races that have have opposed him (This is the main way in which it reminds me of Tolkien, however different it is otherwise.).  Fionavar, we are told, is one of many worlds, but it’s the principal world and if it falls, they all fall.  It encompasses four or five different cultures and races, with an extraordinary variety of character and incident.

In the opening chapter, five characters from our own world (three men and two women) are transported to Fionavar (one less willingly than the others) where they will take part in the struggle.  These five characters experience the events of the novel very differently, and the novel insists on their differing perceptions.  While they sometimes work alone, sometimes together, their development forms the novel’s center, as they all in different ways come to terms with their natures and fulfill their destinies. To speak of “fulfilling their destinies” sounds pompous, but it’s right for the novel.  Kay writes marvelously, and with a kind of absolute conviction in his world.   The book is pure romance, full of marvels—dwarves, gods and goddesses, enchanted forests with their spirits, sea-monsters, cauldrons that bring the dead back to life, magicians both virtuous and destructive, a deadly winged unicorn, priestesses, a shaman—even, in the third volume, two very different dragons.  The pleasure of the book comes partly from Kay’s constant inventiveness, and partly from the moving power of the writing.  There is a lot of action, of course, set against a world with a mythological depth, sense of events stretching back to the beginning of time.

This was written during the 1980’s, and it’s the best work of heroic fantasy I know from that decade.  It’s one of the few that doesn’t feel like a footnote to Tolkien.  That’s partly, I think, because, where Tolkien got much of his inspiration from Norse mythology, Kay looks to Celtic sources.  Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere all figure here as do a number of Celtic deities, but Kay allows himself to play with the old myths, giving them new dimensions.  In Malory’s version of the Arthur story, for instance, when the young Arthur realizes that he has begotten Mordred, who will kill him, he orders that all the young children born when he was born on be set adrift on a boat to die.  In this novel, Arthur suffers for his sin by being summoned back to life in various worlds to fight and die in the ongoing battle between good and evil.  If you’re inclined, you can trace the mythological dimensions of the novel by googling  them, or you can simply give yourself to the ongoing narrative.  If you don’t like heroic fantasy, you probably won’t like this one.  But otherwise you’ll love it. 

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Book Review 10: “In Other Words”

Genre: Biography/Memoir

Have in the Library? Yes!

In Altre Parole / In Other Words is presented in a neat bilingual version: Italian on one page and English down the other: Jhumpa Lahiri’s words in Italian, translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Two languages, two pages, facing each other. It recalls the lake she speaks about in the first chapter: the Italian language on one side, English on the other. “You can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest,” she writes. This book is a chronicle of exactly that: after growing up, and having a successful career as a famous writer in America, Lahiri picks it all up and moves. To Italy: to learn, speak and ultimately reinvent herself in Italian.

This book is divided into short chapters in which she muses on different aspects of her language learning: from her wild obsession with Italian that she likens to “love at first sight,” to collecting words in a pocket dictionary (a book that will “always be bigger than [she will”), to the joys and constraints of trying to write in her adopted language. Her prose is characteristically straightforward but at the same time the voice more enigmatic than the novelist I’m used to. In part this could be the translation, which, for reasons she explains, she decided not to undertake herself.  Yet it is also thematic:  here for the first time, she’s exploring herself. This is “unaccustomed” territory (to borrow a phrase from one of her other works), since Lahiri usually writes “in order to hide in the background of life.” This book, which she likens to Matisse’s cutouts in respect to the newness of her artistic direction, stands out because here she “is the protagonist for the first time.” And yet she’s still exploring the same themes that haunt her fiction: migration, exile, and what it means to live between cultures.

As someone who has also navigated foreign countries, as a brown person who’s also often stuck between two worlds, and as a writer who loves words, Lahiri’s observations read like a special revelation to me. It was very worth leaving the shore.

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Librarian’s Report

This past Monday, August 14, we held our Annual Meeting at the Monhegan Memorial Library. As usual we talked all about what has happened this summer as well as plans for the future. And, we bid a fond farewell to outgoing board member Sue Bolman. Sue has served the Library for twelve years, and we will miss her. We also welcomed incoming board member Sally Boynton, and new President Miki Partridge!

It’s been a fabulous year. You can read all about it in our Annual Report . Thanks to everyone who loves our little library!

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