Category Archives: review

Romancing a Stone

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

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Across the cover and down the spine of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., young Brooklyn women “bursting with vibrant, almost aggressive good health” are profiled in silhouette, their pixie cuts and power bangs offering a taxonomy of the species, like butterflies pinned under glass. These are the conquests of Nate Piven, our antihero. Nate’s romantic history sounds like a lost verse of “Mambo No. 5”: a little bit of Hannah, Elisa, Juliet, Kristen, Justine, Kelly, Jean, Beth, Cara, Emily, another Emily, and a third Emily. With his frumpy Harvard intellectualism and his overblown self-regard, Nate has collected so many aggrieved ex-girlfriends that they could file a class action lawsuit. But they’ll have to settle for this book.

Adelle Waldman’s debut novel raises a wickedly fun question. Can a woman of Nate Piven’s demographic—Waldman is a young Brooklyn journalist with a book deal, just like Nate and all the sad young literary men he stands for—summon the empathy, imagination, and vocabulary required to turn the hipster Lothario of Fort Greene into a decent, relatable human being? The genius of Waldman’s question is that she wins either way. If Nate turns out to be redeemable, then Waldman will have proved that she is a masterful writer, capable of humanizing the devil himself. If he is unredeemable, then Waldman gets to flay him for her readers’ enjoyment.

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Mick Dagger

City of Bohane paperback

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City of Bohane is all talk: the sharp-edged slang of street gangs, ominous rumors floating on gloomy bogs; the brokenhearted correspondence of erstwhile lovers. Kevin Barry, author of the story collections There Are Little Kingdoms and the forthcoming Dark Lies the Island, wears his Irish heart on his sleeve—like in this passage, which kicks off a chapter in which an ancient feud is about to engulf the city of Bohane.

Solstice broke and sent its pale light across the Big Nothin’ bogs. A half-woken stoat peeped scaredly from its lair in a drystone wall and a skinny old doe stood alert and watchful on a limestone outcrop. Sourly lit, a cruel winter scene—a raven clan soared and watched for scavenge, and there was a slushy melt to the hillside as the distant sun burned, and a puck goat chewed morosely on a high mound there. […] Surge of the water was all to be heard as Ol’ Boy Mannion stood in the first of the year-turn light on a high bank of the river and pensively urinated into it.

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The Hung Over, Part II

FA Bodies

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I never watched The Hangover: Part II. I loved the original movie deeply, but was told by multiple sources that the second was a trudging, shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, and what had been so charming and fresh–even in the tired genre of drunk buddy films–lost its appeal with repetition. So with that in mind, let me be the first to ever say: The closest I’ve come to watching  The Hangover: Part II was  reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

Bodies was the 2012 Booker Prize winner and one of my most anticipated reads after loving, deeply, its 2009 Booker Prize winning predecessor, Wolf Hall. But throughout the novel, I consistently felt as if I’d seen this all before, and that what had been so engaging in the first go round–even in the tired genre of historical fiction–was less so with repetition.

This is not to say that Bring up the Bodies is not worth your time, or anywhere near as bad as the second Hangover was rumored to be. Continue reading

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The Hitchens Trajectory

The Hitchens Trajectory

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I first read Christopher Hitchens in college, when I was gifted a copy of The Trial of Henry Kissinger. This was in the post-9/11, Bush Administration days when I was reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, marching in rallies, and attending lectures like the one where I picked up a large, yellow, homemade button reading I KNOW KISSINGER IS A CRIMINAL and quickly pinned it to my messenger bag. The childhood naiveté I had recently shed left me vulnerable to Hitchens’ moral confidence and chilled outrage, and I adopted a more adult naiveté, where solutions took the form of boycotting logos, starting zines, going to poetry readings in campus common rooms and calling on the Hague to bring a former American official to trial on war crimes.

My affinity didn’t last. Hitchens had a book out about how Mother Teresa was some kind of monster. This seemed odd, but not damning. My greater concern was Hitchens’ great complaints about Bill Clinton — which I actually could have accepted had they not been followed by his support of George W. Bush, a man who couldn’t match Clinton in competence, intelligence, or even folksiness. And yet here was Hitch, mobilizing a mind fortified by philosophy, history, literature and poetry to defend a dangerously incurious and incompetent president. I gave Hitch’s line on Iraq no quarter because it coincided with the Bush line, and ultimately concluded that Hitchens was someone who didn’t mind a few thousand people dying if it meant that we could forcibly shove The Enlightenment into new acreage.  Continue reading

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Seven Houses in France

SEVEN HOUSES IN FRANCE by Bernardo Atxaga

I thought Seven Houses in France would be a political allegory about Europe. The author, Bernardo Atxaga, is from the Basque Country, and he writes in the Basque language, Euskara, which has only 715,000 speakers. Those are good reasons to have a chip on your shoulder—to feel a need to correct people’s assumptions about your little corner of the world.

So why is Atxaga writing about Belgian soldiers in the Congo in 1903?

At the height of the Belle Epoque, King Leopold II of Belgium cavorts on the French Riviera while his soldiers—the Force Publique—are stationed in the Congo, drinking Veuve Clicquot, raping village girls, and whipping the slaves who harvest the king’s rubber from the jungle. In clean, candid prose that sharpens the absurdity and brutality of the historical moment, Atxaga tells the story of three Belgian officers and one African servant whose sedentary lifestyles are interrupted by the arrival of a new comrade. But it’s less Heart of Darkness and more Beetle Bailey.

Atxaga draws his characters with the strong, clear lines of a comic strip. There’s the captain, Biran, who condones all sorts of crimes against the Congolese while writing lyric poetry about the glories of Africa; Donatien, a dimwitted orderly who fetches virgins from the jungle for the Captain to rape; Van Thiegel, an alcoholic brute; and Livo, the long-suffering native guide. Continue reading

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How Too Tame Your Dragon

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead, depending on how sensitive you are about these kinds of things.

FA Game of Thrones

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With his epic saga about the battle for control of a throne, George R.R. Martin has become the undisputed king of fantasy writing in our time. The “Song of Ice and Fire” offers up a richly imagined, painstakingly detailed world that sprawls across geographies and narratives, and Martin winds stories together that are multiple parts Shakespeare, Tolkien, Arthurian legend, Dungeons and Dragons,  late-night Cinemax, and gritty realism. There are true ethical quandaries, palace intrigues, love stories, complex political dramas, and disputes between established religions. There are also zombies and dragons and warlocks.

Most readers who picked up book one have proceeded to read all five volumes, whipping through the story in 700-900 page installments and itching for more. Some can fill the void by perusing Game of Thrones blogs and watching the ongoing HBO adaptation of the books. Others go so far as to read the official Game of Thrones cookbook, use Game of Thrones wedding invitations, and drink Game of Thrones beer.

FA GameOfThronesBeers

As with any truly effective fantasy epic, the devotions are strong and feelings run high. And those who have made it to the end of the fifth book, as I recently did, tend to share a similar sentiment toward George R.R. Martin and his stories, which is typically something along the lines of the following: Continue reading

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The Desert of Magical Thinking

Gods Without Men

In his first novel Hari Kunzru gave us a chameleon, a boy who could disappear into other identities and cross the social boundaries of India and England. Now in his fourth novel, Gods Without Men, he offers a coyote, an American Indian trickster at the crossroads between this world and the next, who makes children disappear.

The main story follows Jaz and Lisa—a Wall Street banker with roots in India, and his Jewish American wife—as they struggle to raise an autistic son, Raj, who subsequently vanishes in the Mojave Desert. A reporter wonders if the child may have been carried off by a coyote, which, in the hodgepodge mythology of Gods Without Men, is both totally wrong and somehow right. The rest of the book loops through time, from 1920 to 1778 to 1871 and beyond, weaving together the history of a unique spot in the desert where strange energies collide. Continue reading

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Candy

Sweet Tooth 1

The name of a covert operation should be distinctive but utterly random, like Sweet Tooth. That’s the MI5 program in Ian McEwan’s novel that promotes conservative politics in Britain in the 1970s by secretly funding artists and intellectuals who lean to the right. Sweet Tooth is a good name for the operation because it means nothing. But the name of a novel should be rich with meaning, hinting at deep layers of significance and irony, like Sweet Tooth. That’s McEwan’s sugar-coated novel of spies, writers, and love.

Four loves, in fact. Serena Frome is a bookish and beautiful young Cambridge student whose boyfriend (1) introduces her to a retired spy (2) who gets her a secretarial job at MI5 with a dashing agent (3) who assigns her to dupe a promising novelist (4) into supporting their cause. Serena falls for all of these men, especially the promising novelist. He is a writer of mainstream literary fiction that offers a rather nostalgic and patriotic view of Britain, but his name is not Ian McEwan—it’s Tom Haley. Tom falls for Serena’s cover story, which is that she works for an arts foundation and the money she’s giving him is perfectly innocent. It doesn’t take a master spy to see where this is heading. Serena loves Tom, but their relationship is based on a deception, and her dalliance with him threatens to unravel the whole Sweet Tooth operation. Imagine a James Bond novel from the perspective of a lusty Moneypenny, or a Graham Greene re-write of The Best of Everything.

McEwan treats the bra-burning, pot-smoking, Soviet-bashing Cold War era with the same ambition he brought to the country estates and nightmarish World War II hospitals of his wildly successful Atonement. Serena’s MI5 office is a vibrant and perilous place, like Mad Men but with all of global capitalism hanging in the balance. For Serena the political is always personal, mostly because she can’t keep her hands off the “clever, amoral, inventive, destructive men” who are drawn to the Security Service. This makes her an ideal narrator for readers with a taste for high drama, as treason and heartbreak follow her everywhere. “Civilization threatened by a nuclear war,” Serena thinks, “and I’m brooding about a stranger who caressed my palm with his thumb. Monstrous solipsism.” Indeed. In her spare time Serena reads middlebrow fiction by the shelf-full, so she doesn’t need to be reminded that espionage is always a kind of fiction. But the dashing agent (3) reminds her anyway: “In this line of work, the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big gray space, big enough to get lost in.” Serena proceeds to lose herself completely in the Tom Haley affair. Continue reading

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