The Tyre by C.J. Dubois and E.C. Huntley

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Should one try to shape destiny, or, accept and follow the course life draws?  When untouchable, Ranji, finds a tyre on the road, he sees an opportunity to achieve his dreams.  In The Tyre, co-written by C.J. Dubois and E.C. Huntley, the story of Ranji and his family unfolds succinctly and tenderly, celebrating ingenuity as well as brotherly love.

In the countryside of Kerala, India, Ranji is content collecting wood to sell, earning just enough to keep his family afloat. The appearance of the Apollo brand tyre sets his mental wheels turning.  Wife, Meena, believes it a bad omen, because of its somber color, black, and because it drives Ranji mad. As Ranji becomes more and more consumed in planning the tyre’s sale, Meena must confront her feelings for the rich brick maker in town.  Meanwhile, the couple’s children grow into a successful student and city worker. Is success in store for Ranji and Meena, too?

The plot mirrors Ranji’s path from simplicity to chaos.  His thread in the plot widens to include other delightful characters such as Sanosh, the couple’s enterprising son sent to work in the cement business, the sage who walks the tyre home with Ranji, the tyre broker attracted to Ranji’s sassy daughter, and the white-clad widow of the Rajah.  These characters complexify the plot as well as vivify the close-knit community surrounding Ranji.

Ranji and Meena interpret of the ultimate fate of the tyre differently, each in relation to destiny.  Whatever happens to it Ranji makes happen.  No matter his caste, he takes part in building his future.  In the vein of the 2008 Man Booker Prize winning, The White Tiger, this novel dignifies underclass entrepreneurship with wit and friendliness.   find the book on amazon

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Rebellion by Molly Patterson

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Rebellion, as depicted in Molly Patterson’s debut novel, is more like a stem pushing against gravity, through soil, than teen rage blaring at a punk rock concert.  She features four women over three generations, who choose paths vastly different from their families of origin. At the turn of the twentieth century, Louisa moves with her husband away from home in Ohio to a desolate Illinois farm.  Meanwhile, her sister Addie marries a missionary with whom she moves to the mission field in China. Post WWII, Louisa’s daughter Hazel remains in rural illinois, widowed in her late forties. In China, in the 1990’s, Juanlan, a fresh college graduate in English language, finds her voice during the American bombing of China.  What ties these women together is both the forces against them and the ways they resist. Each woman charts her own path; rebellion becomes not just a reaction but an act of creation through which they’re bound to each other.

To pinpoint the moments of rebellion is not the focus of this novel.  Rather, each woman’s rebellion emerges organically from carefully developed circumstances and traits.  Patterson gives them each a voice that suits their age and era. Addie and Louisa develop their voices via detailed letters to each other.  For Louisa, the deaths and disappearances of several of her children lead her to act out. Addie reacts to the circumscribed missionary community. Hazel’s voice is informal and unpretentious, like her rural setting.  (Hers is the only first person voice, a lynchpin, providing the narrative a present as we travel in and out of past and future chapter by chapter). Her act of defiance takes place in the context of her complex relationship with neighbors, George and Lydie Hughes.  Juanlan, on the other hand, speaks as though she has a script for each of her roles as daughter, sister-in-law, English tutor and mistress. Cultural and family expectations stymie her to the point of rebellion. These women develop rebellion as they confront situations beyond their control.

Patterson enacts her own rebellion as she twists these independent narratives intricately together.  She begins and ends the book with chapters not devoted to one woman in particular. These book-ends concludes with images of a wide horizon, of endless possibility.  Reminiscent of, but more positive than, Jane Smiley’s recent trilogy, The Last Hundred Years, Patterson’s rebellion is hopeful, not angry; verdant, not calloused.       

Whippoorwill by Robert Bartram

A coming of age story deftly dovetails with America’s coming of age during its Civil War.  Whippoorwill, British writer, R.L. Bartram’s second romance novel set in the context of war, accurately portrays history as well as human emotion.

Tomboy, Ceci, has just broken a boy’s nose, so, her father, a Louisiana plantation owner, decides it’s time she become a lady under the direction of his beloved slave, Hecubah.  By the time Ceci comes out at her first ball, the suitors are already lining up. She has eyes for only Trent, a Union soldier who spends his summers in the South. Trent goes to war and Ceci can’t stay still.  When her family is killed by Union soldiers during the battle of New Orleans, she becomes a spy for the Confederate cause, in the Birds unit. Her final assignment is the hardest test of all the survival and combat skills she trained for, as well as her loyalty.

Dialogue moves the plot along in the first third of the book, with an arduous feminizing process between Hecubah and Ceci.  Hecubah and Ceci’s wits and stubbornness match each other well. Ceci falls for Trent’s gumption and beauty, which rival only hers.  Bartram nails the Southern accent and turns of phrase and adds a playful, sexy edge to the speech. It’s mostly a standard love story until the danger begins.  

The plot takes a dramatic turn after Trent leaves and Ceci accepts work in espionage.  Ceci’s maturing as her own character, and not just as a girlfriend, parallels the story’s increasing complexity.  She applies her feminine wiles to extract secrets from unsuspecting men. “In a perverse way, she actually found the danger exhilarating,” (225) and so will readers, as Ceci maneuvers through forests alone, during the night and once gets shot crossing a battlefield.  

Hecubah and Trent both make implausible appearances to Ceci out in the field; the book is not without magical realism.  Hecubah refers to Ol’ Magic, a personified force that captivates young lovers against their wills. Then there are Ceci’s “dark creatures,” her gnawing anger against the North that motivates her to defend her homeland.  These may be fantastical, but they are in keeping with the times and they help move the plot along with mystery and suspense.

In the end, Ceci becomes more than a Confederate spy.  She is an independent woman with her own opinions based on experience.  She reveals the face of female agents who could accomplish their work because, at the time, no one suspected them of being capable to do so.  Whippoorwill is a story of love not only between Ceci and Trent, but between strong female friends and divided states.  Bartram succeeds in dignifying both sides of the battle through a humane portrait of a dynamic young woman.

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The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale

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Leda wants to be linear.   In Jana Casale’s debut, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky, Leda pursues what most women do: to be thin and likeable and smart and happy.  A realistic narrative, the novel mirrors more than it inspires.

Leda is an aspiring writer at college in Boston.  But life gets in the way of her aspirations. She tracks boys and worries about her appearance and goes to parties she doesn’t really want to attend.  She eats two scones in one day. When she falls in love and moves to San Francisco with John for a few years, she hardly writes at all, instead choosing domestic life over the arts.  She and now-husband, John, settle in Boston with their daughter, who remains close to her mother even as she has a family of her own.

Leda first develops through a minute lens, like looking into well crafted shoebox displays of everyday modern life.  For example, she looks at baby booties in a boutique window. “There seemed no greater aspiration than to make a baby’s feet look like bees” (175).  She nicknames her classmate Pinched Bralette. She stages spills at the coffeeshop to gain a cute boy’s attention. The delicious irony of her pursuit of linear-ness at the beginning of the book, that narrow, ardent desire that she hopes will define her life, shines through in her idiosyncrasies.  She’s linear by being complex.

After she marries and the perspective widens to capture broad swaths of time, she becomes more a caricature of herself.  She fails to do the things she sets out to do: she attends a writing group only one time, she loses track of her friends, quits a job, starts to garden but leaves the job to a landscaper, she never does read Noam Chomsky.  She’s happy, though, loved by her own mother, husband and daughter. But there’s something sad about her. She comes to the conclusion that being a woman is lonely. Indeed, she becomes a mere dot, a shadow of the linear self she once imagined.  This is reflected in the writing: once vivid with details illuminating facets of her quirky personality, the prose in the second half serves more to move her from one age to the next. The pacing becomes more abrupt. It’s disruptive.

In the end, Leda rises above her earlier insecurities, all the expectations that come with being a modern suburban girl.  She settles into who she is, a lonely wife who sticks with it and becomes a confidant to her daughter the way her mother was to her.  She’s as comforting as any woman’s good friend. But she carried the promise of being someone worth writing about, someone whose life warranted a story, only to become someone just like the rest of us.  What started out a comedy turns tragedy.  Goodreads

The Warehouse Industry by William Macbeth followed by an interview with the author

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What is character?  What makes a person stand out?  In The Warehouse Industry by William Macbeth, the unnamed first person narrator’s primary character trait is that he wants not to stand out and be noticed.  Brilliantly developed as a “bad” character, this protagonist satirically dramatizes the Herman Hesse quote at the start of the book: “The dream of death is only the dark smoke/ Under which the fires of life are burning.”

The book begins as the narrator takes a nondescript job in a nondescript warehouse and ends when his employment finishes.  In between, he narrates the misadventures that lead him there. Meandering randomly across various threads in his past, the pacing of the book matches this young man’s demeanor.  He’s “helpless in the face of cajoling,” and has “no intention at all” (47). He has trouble interpreting why others do things. He wanders through life. Not wanting to go to either his brother’s stag party nor his wedding, he goes anyways, carried along by events.  Finally, the threads come together and he willfully acts out despite himself. “We all sacrifice ourselves for ourselves,” he says (120).

Wry irony characterizes this book.  The only named characters are inanimate objects (Duck, Sofa, Invitation), to whom the narrator speaks more than to humans, and The Undertaker and Ratty, villainous friends of the narrator’s brother.  These names become and define these two, whereas, unnamed, the narrator defies labels. The narrator repeats himself often with pithy sayings: “wishing does me no good at all,” “I’m no expert when it comes to…,” “I felt like a ghost.”  Instead of laboring the text, these phrases point to the narrator’s singular purpose and particularity. At a pivotal juncture toward the end of the book, he is both “I” and “you,” noticer and noticed, hero and victim, at once. Satisfyingly unpredictable, the book’s unexpectedness drives the plot with wit and ingenuity.

The overall tone of the book is unemotional and distant, but its effect is full of pathos.  While Macbeth employs rich metaphors that elicit feeling as well as conjure image, he also includes irrelevant details, that the narrator says don’t matter.  The result is a tense combination of tears and laughter. Darkly humorous, this book succeeds in portraying the every man who is no man, The Invisible Man whose strength is in making himself known on his own wayward terms.        

1. I’m intrigued by the Herman Hesse quote at the beginning.  Tell me how he inspired you and what other writers influence this book.

I love Hesse. I think it’s his humanity that inspires me, and that strange mix of intellectualism and mysticism. He looks like a stern university professor, but he was actually a total hippy who wrote things like ‘I wanted to teach people to be conscious of the pulse of the earth and take part in the life of the universe’ and ‘we are … children belonging to the earth and the cosmic whole.’

Whenever I read the novels of Hermann Hesse I am left with the impression that he must have been a lovely man. I imagine him being gentle and softly spoken; perhaps prone to melancholy and sullen moods, but still gentle and softly spoken most of the time. He may not have been of course; he may have been a total pig, cheating on his wife and saying nasty things to his kids, and stuff like that, for all I know. But it’s impressions that count.

I came across the quote in one of his lesser-known books called Wandering, which I found in a charity shop somewhere in Cornwall. I was writing The Warehouse Industry when I read it and those lines just seemed to fit. I can’t imagine the book without them now. They belong together.

The main literary influence on the book was Richard Brautigan. Early attempts to start the novel were too earnest, and not at all funny. Brautigan taught me to write with a lighter touch.

2. The narrator of this book made me think of the profile of the American high school shooters these past few years.  Did you have someone in mind when you developed this character?  Did you intend for the book to be a commentary on alienation or on some other topic?

I had no one in particular in mind, but the character quickly took on a life of his own once I started writing. He is a character defined by his experiences. I guess part of what I wanted to say – not that I want to be to explicit about what I ‘wanted to say’ – was that anyone, given the ‘right’ set of circumstances is capable of doing terrible things.

The book is an exploration of the effects of isolation and loneliness. It is about feeling disconnected from the world around you.

3. What’s your writing process like?  Where/when do you write?  How long did this book take you?

I make my living teaching English to teenagers, and I wrote the first draft of The Warehouse Industry in school exercise books. By the time I was finished it filled eight exercise books, and there were three interweaving narratives: the main one that survives; the story of a tyrant (based on Saddam Hussein) hiding out in a hole in someone’s back garden; and, finally, the life of an imaginary saint. The book was initially called The Tyrant, the Loner, and the Saint. Over two thirds of the first draft ended up being discarded. I wanted to write a short book, so the editing process was quite important. From start to finish The Warehouse Industry took me two years to write.

I write at the kitchen table. Most days I have a half-hour window between putting the kid to bed and falling asleep!

4. Do you have other writing projects in the works?

Yes, several! My second novel is more or less finished. It is a modern day retelling of Matty Groves, the old English folk ballad, set in Tottenham, north London, where I live. It is called Lee Cross: An Unplanned Novel. The idea came to me by accident one day while I was driving to work. I’ve also written the first draft of a sort of dystopian/science fiction novel set on the moon, which is kind of like Waiting for Godot in space. I’m currently writing an epic novel without a plot.

 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is afraid of becoming a parody of himself.  On the verge of fifty, he’s a hipster, an author, a gentleman, but “where’s the real Less?” (33).  He’s described by love, written into existence in wit and tenderness, in a Pulitzer prize winning comic novel, Less, by Andrew Sean Greer.

Escaping his fiftieth birthday and the wedding of his young lover for nine years, Arthur Less embarks on multiple trips that will take him around the globe.  From Mexico, Italy, France, Morocco, India to back home in San Francisco, Less innocently soaks up all his middle-aged life has to offer him, and hopes to finish his rejected novel along the way.  But how can he make his main character loveable and happy when love might be lost to him forever?

The power of Less comes from what he is not.  He’s a series of mishaps, not advances – from almost missing an interview because his literary escort thinks he’s a woman, to missing a flight because he takes an unknown drug, to losing his luggage in India he increasingly threatens to become unmoored.  Greer incorporates his less-ness, his haphazard, naive malleability into his dialogue; characters interrupt him constantly, filling him up with their own wisdom while overlooking his own possible insights. They get sick around him and no one shows up to the Evening with Arthur Less event as his class reunion.  Yet, as his foibles mount, as his self-deprecation grinds him further and further down into almost nothing, he remains the bravest person the first person narrator knows.

Less is as much about writing as it is about Less.  This is not a book about overcoming hurdles or winning love or facing challenges but about being loved.  Arthur doesn’t describe himself; he’s circumscribed by someone who knows him and accepts him despite, and perhaps because of, his faults.  So, too, Greer doesn’t so much craft language as he plays and delights in it. Non-sequitors abound: “I have neglected to mention that he has, on his lap, a Russian cosmonaut’s helmet” (7).  Less’s translated German makes for some funny misunderstandings. The pacing, with two word sentences as well as three line ones, is slightly trippy, and, indeed, the book contains a variety of “trips,” ranging from slapstick accident scenes to nostalgic memory sequences.  

To enjoy Greer’s words is to enjoy Less himself, which is the point, poignantly conveyed, that, writing well is living well.  Arthur isn’t ready to die; he simply doesn’t want to regress into a metaphor. Through a well-versed narrator, Greer sculpts Less into an unforgettable and utterly likeable character, in a novel of the same name.  

Jenny by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Set during a working holiday in Rome, then a disheartening return to Norway at the turn of the twentieth century, Sigrid Undset’s Jenny is one woman’s heartwrenching journey to determine her own fate.

Jenny and art school friend Cesca share lodging while they paint in Italy.  Out with male friends Ahlin and Heggen, they meet another Norwegian, Helge, who, like many others, falls first for the vivacious, capricious Cesca, but later discovers a deep affection for Jenny’s steadfast and more sober love.  When Jenny and Helge both move back to Norway, she meets his unhappy parents. Unwilling to enter into their revengeful lives, Jenny also pities them, endeared particularly to Helge’s father, Gert. She’s torn between the joy she finds in her work, in art, and her pursuit of love.  She leaves Norway for Germany, then Italy again.

For Undset, Italy serves as a sort of alternative universe in which Jenny develops as an artist, in a natural, less rigid environment.  Italy’s idyllic, carefree beauty contrasts with the reality of Jenny’s Nordic Home, her impoverished, forbearing mother and Helge’s dysfunctional family.  Jenny resides in both these worlds, a passionate idealist holding out for one whom she can love wholeheartedly, and who will love her for independent, artistic herself, as well as a frugal pragmatist who can “expect the worst… and reap quite a bit of good from it” (23).  Although much of the novel takes place in Jenny’s head, in her stream of consciousness, she is beautifully drawn as a product of her time and place. She is on the cusp of modernity, of untold freedoms, expansions travel affords, yet still beholden to her own and her society’s principles.

Jenny is a particularly Norwegian tragedy.  It may be set in glorious Italy, but is grounded in Norwegian tradition.  Each of the Norwegian characters expresses his or her views on Norway’s relationship to the past.  Gert is stuck in the romantic period. Helge himself is a historian. Heggen is a critic of women’s rights and a staunch socialist.  Cesca opts for marriage over work. Jenny wants to create something new, to bring beauty to whatever she sees. “Never will we women reach the point where work is enough for us,” she tells Heggen.  She wonders if it possible to succeed in her work as an artist and as a woman, who needs love, who needs to be in relationship.  She embodies the creative tension of her era.

Jenny’s wonderings are never fully resolved.  Jenny doesn’t end, but, rather, becomes a recurring dream that nurtures and torments many women still today.  Undset exquisitely renders a female character in the midst of becoming, without dictating what she becomes.