If Beale Street Could Talk

“It’s true that I haven’t seen much of other cities, only Philadelphia and Albany, but I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

“My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing.”

A classic New York love story: a girl (Tish) and a boy (Fonny) who have known each other almost their entire lives. He, artsy and from a troubled home; she, quiet and from a supportive family. They find each other as late teens, beginning a delicate courtship and plan to marry.

A classic American story: A black boy (Fonny) is in prison, arrested by a white officer and standing accused of rape while his pregnant girlfriend (Tish) and her family scrape together money to clear his name, even with the legal system set against them.

If Beale Street Could Talk is both.

At the heart of this book is Tish, a lovestruck young black woman who is otherwise unremarkable. But Baldwin imbues her with a vibrant humanity that allows the reader to live and love with her––her hopes, her fears, her anxieties, her joys, her hates––while Fonny sits in prison and his child grows inside her.

The main narrative unfolds over six months of Tish’s pregnancy. With Fonny in prison, her family (mother, father, and older sister) supports her, but they are also hard-pressed to pay for his legal fees since his own family has largely rejected him. Tish is his rock, and they are hers. We are convinced, because Tish is convinced, that Fonny is a victim of a broken system––arrested by a racist officer and pushed through a system designed to ensure his conviction. Too often, the only update Tish can offer on her visits is “soon.”

Tish cuts this story of frustrated determination with reminiscences of her life with Fonny. Here we see how she knocked out Fonny’s tooth as a child, her discomfort attending church with his family, the joy at meals supplied by employees at a Spanish restaurant, and the pain and excitement of the first time they make love.

Despite a recent adaptation of this book and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I only knew of Baldwin’s work second hand. His oeuvre was therefore a natural destination with my goal to read more books by African American authors this year. If Beale Street Could Talk did not disappoint. From first lines it is an astounding novel.

Baldwin’s prose is extraordinary. In this simple story, he brings Tish to life and gives her an unmistakable voice that most authors find aspirational. The tenderness and consistency of this voice in turn creates opportunities, whether punctuated by subtle differences in voice for other characters, scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, or points of hard observation about America.

On its own the love story between Tish and Fonny is syrupy sweet, but placed in If Beale Street Could Talk it balances the bleakness of Fonny’s crisis. By turns tender and angry, but always honest, Baldwin weaves a delicate tapestry around Tish, creating one of the best novels about American life that I have ever read. If Beale Street Could Talk might set a high bar, but I doubt it will be the last of Baldwin’s work I will read.

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I have also finished reading Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, a story set in Vermont about buried secrets come to light in the chaos after Hurricane Irene and have since begun Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.

Go, Went, Gone

“Could these long years of peacetime be to blame for the fact that a new generation of politicians apparently believes we’ve now arrived at the end of history, making it possible to use violence to suppress all further movement and change? Or have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace––so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world––inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”

Without memory, man is nothing more than a bit of flesh on the planet’s surface.

I came to Jenny Erpenbeck in a roundabout way. I had been reading Stefan Zweig through the recent NYRB Classics series when an ancient historian on Twitter lamented that people were reading Zweig and neglecting the current master, Erpenbeck. So I gave Erpenbeck a shot. She hooked me with her first novel, The End of Days, which examines the twentieth century through a series of deaths. In Go, Went, Gone, Erpenbeck is back with a masterpiece about the gulf between the citizen and the refugee in our present time.

Richard, an aging widower, has just retired from his position as a Classics professor in Berlin. Go, Went, Gone opens with him emptying his office and retreating into the mundanity of everyday life where his days are spent making food and watching the news. With his newly discovered time, Richard learns of a hunger strike in the Alexanderplatz staged by refugees from Africa. Fascinated by these men who seem so out of place, he resolves to get to know them and begins showing up at their residence.

Few speak German, but all are multi-lingual, and Richard often converses with them in some combination of Italian and English. Richard begins by treating the men as his new project, but that quickly gives way to genuine warmth as he gets to know these men who literally risked life to reach Europe. One surviving an accident that killed most of the passengers on the over-crowded boat, another sends most of the money given to him to live back to his family. They cling to the friends they have made among their fellow refugees and just want an opportunity to work while being stymied by the impersonal bureaucracies of indifferent-at-best, hostile-at-worst governments.

Richard is methodical in his approach, trying to do his due diligence by not treating these men merely as monolithic outsiders, but even he has to be shaken from his complacency:

For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that the borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans.

But for all of Richard’s conscientiousness, generosity, and empathy for the plight of the outsiders, I found his character distasteful, as though much of his charity was purely self-serving. The Richard we don’t meet, for instance, has his head in the sand about the world around him while he carries on an long-time affair. It is only in the boredom that comes from his retirement that he can be bothered to see what is happening. Likewise, he conceives of the refugees as an academic project first, and, early on, spends almost as much time wondering whether their attractive, Ethiopian German teacher would be interested in sleeping with him as he does trying to help. Richard’s actions are altruistic even if his motives are not, but he nevertheless struck me as a sort of narcissistic humanitarian who is mostly interested in what is in it for him.

Despite my problems with Richard, Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant novel. In one of the first scenes, Richard learns of a drowned man in the lake near his house, creating a massive disruption in his life. Similarly, the disruption caused by the reunification of Berlin, now almost twenty years past, looms large in his existence. And yet, these are minor changes compared to the trauma experienced by the refugees. Richard even struggles to reconcile the present quiet with the memory of Hitler when faced with questions from a refugee whose lived experience was filled with violence.

Politicians in Go, Went, Gone howl about the refugees and make plans to deport them back to Italy––or anywhere, so long as they are not in Germany––but in the world of the novel, the refugees are just people. (In a nice touch that inverts two centuries of racist presentations, Richard takes to giving them nicknames out of Greco-Roman mythology and northern European literature.)

Such is Erpenbeck’s triumph, sitting alongside recent novels like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. The plight of the refugees is not exceptional––peace is. As a recent review brilliantly puts it: “this is not a world of citizens beleaguered by a tide of refugees, but a world of refugees trapped in the age of the citizen.”

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I just finished David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a riveting history from the 1920s where white guardians conspired to kill their Osage wards in order to deprive them of their tribal allotments, and have now begun Tana French’s The Trespasser, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.

Across the Nightingale Floor

I found Across the Nightingale Floor by accident. Browsing through my local bookstore, I picked up another book in the same series and opened it because Ursula K. Le Guin had given the book a blurb. Rather than get that book, I redirected to read this one because it was the first in the series, totally oblivious to who Lian Hearn was or really knowing anything about the series. I was not disappointed.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a straightforward fantasy in the tradition modeled after Medieval Romances of brave warriors and doomed love, set in an alternate medieval Japan.

Takeo, as he comes to be known, was raised among the Hidden, a secretive sect of pacifists, until his village of Mino is attacked by men of Tohan. Takeo escapes with the aid of a stranger who turns out to be Lord Otori Shigeru. This fortunate encounter catapults Takeo into a world of clan politics. Tohan recently came to prominence after defeating the Otori and killing Shigeru’s father and brother. Recognizing in Takeo something of the Tribe, a sect of assassins, Shigeru adopts him, raises him, and makes plans to use him to seek revenge.

The second half of the romance comes from Kaede, the heir Shirakawa family and close relative of another powerful family headed by Lady Murayama. In short, through Kaede lays a potential path to power, and since the rise of Tohan when she was a child, Kaede has been a hostage at Noguchi castle. Now that she has reached marriageable age, her captors have decided that it is time she marry and propose to use her as a pawn to undermine the last opposition to Tohan rule: brimming discontent centered on Otori Shigeru.

Across the Nightingale Floor does not have a complicated plot. It is filled with strong motivations, dramatic gestures, and two simple arcs that are gradually brought closer together with just enough action to propel the story. Around the teenagers at the heart of the story the motivations and plots are more complex in that this is a world of competing political motivations, but the sweeps are no less dramatic and the agendas nuanced only marginally by the weight of personal histories. Hearn hints at a more complex story and throws in a few twists along the way, but ultimately chooses not to elaborate.

This is not to say that Across the Nightingale Floor isn’t well-crafted. It is a lush story with significant research into the Sengoku period in Japan and a plot that I found propulsive. But it is also a story that feels like it belongs in an older fantasy or epic tradition, one that is more like a medieval Romance.

Using these traditions leads to certain consequences on top of reducing certain characters to their broad motivations. Older fantasy has a flat-map problem where anything that exists off the world-map might as well not exist. Narnia is literally flat, but elsewhere the flatness is implied, often with an authorial choice not to engage with the possibility of an interconnected world. Sometimes the plot doesn’t demand this engagement, but the consequences still exist.

Hearn offers slight nods to a wider world, with occasional references to a land over the sea that could be an approximation of China, but stops short of engaging with the wider consequences of the historical setting. For instance the Sengoku period was a period when Portuguese merchants conducted a brisk trade with Japan and the persecution of the Hidden strongly resembled the persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. Similarly, in one scene characters eat a meal featuring maize, a new world crop that came to Japan in the 16th century and therefore would have been rather new. None of these points were critical to the plot, but struck me as limits of projecting a story into a world modeled on a historical time and place without fully engaging with that context.

There was one final question that stuck with me as I read Across the Nightingale Floor. I picked it up without looking into Lian Hearn, and only belatedly learned that she had no connection to Japan other than having fallen in love with the country after visiting. Nevertheless, Hearn clearly did her research and avoids orientalist tropes, which put me at ease regarding cultural appropriation.

In sum, I enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor as a perfectly pleasant, easy read, but many of the same features that made it enjoyable and the reasons I’m in no hurry to read any of the other books in the series. Perhaps on a beach (or a grassy equivalent) this summer I’ll be ready to pick up the second, but in the meantime I don’t really need another epic featuring a functional but flattened setting and a young male protagonist on the cusp of learning the ways in which he is special.

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It is the end of the semester here in central Missouri and while that means I’ve had a bit more time to read, I’ve also been falling behind on writing (both her and elsewhere). I recently finished Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Go, Went, Gone, a novel about immigration to western countries, and am now about halfway finished with David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a history of the Osage murders in the 1920s and the creation of the FBI.

Black Leopard Red Wolf

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself best?

Sometimes when I am reading a book the words of a review start writing themselves. Other times the author has strung out the significance of the book in such a way that the meaning of that book doesn’t become clear until the final word. (A sign of a great novel, according to Orhan Pamuk.) And then there are books where I look back and think “what was that?”

Marlon James’ new novel Black Leopard Red Wolf belongs in the last category.

Set in a fantastical world of African history and mythology, Black Leopard Red Wolf is the story of Tracker, as told in his words under question by an inquisitor. As he says, Tracker’s preternaturally gifted nose caused certain agents to employ him to track down a missing boy, presumed dead, for purposes that were originally unknown to him. Along with a motley cast that includes the Sadogo, a giant brawler with a morose demeanor, the centuries-old witch Sogolon, and Mossi, a prefect soldier from the far North East, Tracker follows the boy’s scent from city to city, belatedly realizing the complexity of the task. Not only has the boy been taken by the demon Impundulu, being turned effectively into a zombie and employing a series of magic pathways that criss-cross the land, but also his employers are playing a dangerous game: trying depose the mad king by restoring succession of kings through the female line.

This story comes out in fits and starts, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that defies identifying anything––with the possible exception of sexual attraction––as true.

Distilling Black Leopard Red Wolf to the narrative arc that explains the circumstances of Tracker’s interrogation, however, installs limits that James defies. Instead, this is a novel about setting, character, and mythology. Tracker tells the inquisitor of his childhood and background, how he rescued Mingi children and became lovers with the shapeshifter Leopard, with whom he killed the demon Asanbosam.

Only belatedly does he get to the hunt for the boy and the cities he visited along the way. The political intrigue and imminent war that forms the backdrop enter the tale slowly, coming only as Tracker begins to realize what he is caught up in.

There is a lot to like in Black Leopard Red Wolf. James brilliantly undermines the political ambitions on both sides of the conflict. The boy simultaneously serves as an existential threat to one political order, the final hope of another, and MacGuffin for our narrator. And still, James manages to in some ways undermine all three, revealing the threat to be greater, the hope to be hollow, and the catch to be more personally important than originally acknowledged.

This is a grotesquely beautiful novel, with James’ prose creating a hallucinogenic effect that heightens the unfamiliarity of the African setting. James doesn’t shy away from the sexual and the shocking, including unexpected, if not out of place, discussion of female genital mutilation.

All together, though, I found Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to follow and Tracker an alien narrator. The end result is a novel that I found more frustrating than satisfying. I am left wondering whether returning to this world a second time when the next book in the proposed trilogy appears will be worth the investment. The prospect leaves me cold, but I also feel like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the world by the time I reached the end.

Putting these thoughts together was a challenge, so I’ve been reading other reviews. This one from Amar El-Mohtar on NPR states many of my thoughts, only better:

“like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Painful and strange, full of bodies shifting from personhood into meat, and somehow, always, still, upsettingly beautiful…Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke.” 

I also liked this review at the NY Times Book Review.

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I also recently finished reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and have since begun Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The last few weeks of the semester have been exceptionally busy, so I am looking forward to a short break coming up soon.

The Red-Haired Woman

1984. Cem is a teenager living with his family in Istanbul where his father owns a pharmacy. He remembers this time fondly, but his parents’ marriage is not completely happy and his father has a tendency to disappear, leaving for stretches at a time for reasons both political and personal. During the longest absence, the family falls on hard times so Cem and his mother move out of the city for the summer. Against his mother’s wishes, Cem signs up for manual labor for several weeks with Mahmut, a traditional well-digger, in the sleepy garrison town of Öngören, promising to study for his school exams when he returns.

Öngören is destined to shape Cem. In Mahmut, he feels that he has met a father more genuine than his own, and during this same period he meets the titular Red-Haired Woman, a married actress nearly twice his age. Cem becomes obsessed, stalking her through town before finally meeting her, drinking with her and her husband, and finally one night being invited to share her bed––a fateful encounter that sets off a chain reaction that causes him to flee back to his middle class family.

Upon returning to Istanbul, Cem studies geology and engineering in school, joins a thriving industry, and marries the capable Ayşe, with whom he has a fulfilling relationship in every way except that they are childless. Instead, they throw their attentions into a surrogate child, their construction company that they name Sohrab after a character in the Shahnemah. But two mysteries about Öngören haunt Cem into middle age: what happened to Mahmut the well-digger after the accident and what happened to the Red-Haired Woman?

The events at Öngören that summer provide the basic structure for The Red Haired Woman, but the mystery at the heart of the book is more existential: is this an Oedipal story or a Sohrabic one.

Cem encounters Oedipus first, and, perhaps naturally given the troubles with his father, is drawn to this story where the son unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. In Öngören, Mahmut and the Red-Haired Woman’s theater troupe introduce him to the story of Sohrab, who is similarly an estranged son, but one who is subsequently killed by his father––a story they tell him plays in Turkey where Oedipus doesn’t––and the childless Cem spends much of his adult life chasing down representations of this story.

This juxtaposition of the two father-son murder stories is not mere window-dressing; the plot hinges on the question at three junctures. First in Öngören when Cem has an accident involving the man he has started to think of as his real father. Second, later in life when a business opportunity takes him back to Öngören, now a suburb of Istanbul, he is introduced to the possibility that his one night stand with the Red Haired Woman resulted in a child, which, if true, could result in that child inheriting the company. Third, the final section of the novel is told from the point of view of the Red-Haired Woman who reveals her previous relationship with Cem’s father. At each turn it seems to come up Oedipus, which continues the questions Pamuk has raised in his other novels about Turkey’s Janus-faced existence straddling the line between East and West, stuck between tradition and modernity.

In sum, I liked The Red-Haired Woman. It is deceptively simple in structure, with most of the mystery and conflict unfolding inside Cem’s head as he remembers and re-remembers the events of his teenage years. The internal conflicts were at times overwrought, but Pamuk pays these off by making him face the consequences in due time. In contrast, Cem’s external married life is downright pleasant, making this one of the most normal and pleasant married couples in any of his novels.

In the end, though, I was mildly disappointed only because it started out with such promise. The English translation is smooth and engaging, and I didn’t have strong negative reactions to any characters, but at the same time Cem is basically the only character who is fully fleshed out and mysteries that started with such promise ended softly as it became apparent that it was an either/or proposition. Pamuk’s interrogation of which father-son story fits Turkey was a thoughtful and clever device, but was limited as the primary conflict in place of developing new characters for the rich cast of his imaginary Istanbul.

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Over the weekend I also finished reading Carol Anderson’s explosive White Rage, which I will be writing about soon, and started Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a book about Roosevelt’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany.

Girl At War

War came to Croatia in 1991. For the adults, it marked an abrupt shift, but for ten-year-old Ana Jurić it causes subtle changes to her daily routines, a reflection of her parents’ fear rather than something that had to do with her. But these changes slowly press inward and soon threaten the life of her sickly little sister Rahela, who needs medical treatment available only in America. They succeed in getting her out, but at a cost that causes the war, previously abstract and distant, to crash home on Ana.

Such is the opening to Girl at War, a novel that explores the consequences of this violent disruption. Ana escapes to America and the family that took her sister Rahela (now Rachel) in adopt her as well. In suburban America Ana buries her experiences and pretends to be normal, filling her life with boys and school. These memories resurface in college. While reading novels about the trauma of the Holocaust, Ana runs into someone she knew back then and agrees to speak before the United Nations about her experience in the Balkan War––not as a soldier, but as a child with a gun. Suddenly the past is present. Ana’s relationship with her boyfriend Brian deteriorates and she resolves to return to Croatia.

Ana’s first stop is to reconnect with her childhood friend Luka, who takes Ana on a pilgrimage to the parts of her past that even he doesn’t know about: the scene of a crime, the town where she fought, and the vacation home where she hopes to find her godmother alive and well.

In what is, at its core, a straightforward story, Nović captures the jarring transition from carefree childhood to sudden responsibility and terror, with a dash of the absurd (the Croatian militia Ana falls in with name everyone after Hollywood action heroes). But what stood out to me about Girl At War is its treatment of memory. Rachel never knew herself as Rahela and has no memory of Croatia or the war; Ana couldn’t escape her memories, so instead buried them deep. She hopes to find resolution in going home, but instead learns that she is not alone. By the early 2000s Croatia is at peace, but the healing is superficial. Even before returning to the the scenes of her particular traumas Ana sees lingering signs of the war everywhere, and the resonances grow stronger the closer she comes. Ultimately there is no resolution, Girl At War says, only experience.

Girl At War is Sara Nović’s debut novel, which makes its sensitive treatment of memory remarkable in its own right, but my copy included an interview with the that added several wrinkles.

First, there is a sense of remove to Girl At War and Nović says that it is not her own story, but a composite story of Croats she knows. Rather than detracting from the story, however, this serves to make this specific story universal.

Second, Nović talks about the experience of writing a novel while deaf. In particular, she says that she has a particular difficulty writing natural-sounding dialogue, being someone whose experience is so different than speech. Without reading the interview, I wouldn’t have known. The dialogue is not exceptional, but it is perfectly acceptable literary dialogue. In retrospect, though, Girl At War catches on vivid visual and tactile details in a particularly effective way.

In sum, Girl At War is an effective novel that is simultaneously easy to read and a raw exploration about the lasting legacy of a collective trauma.

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Next up, I am about halfway through Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Red Haired Woman, which, so far, is a return to form. At the midpoint, it is a simple novel about the clash between modernity and tradition, urban and rural, and a story about coming of age, but it is also a book invested with mystery that particularly defined Pamuk’s early books.

My Brilliant Friend

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, [Maestra Oliviero] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth , those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Back in 2017 I made a conscious decision to start reading more books by women, and have been richly rewarded by this choice. At the same time, intimate portraits of female friendship is an entire subcategory of these books that I hesitated to approach. This trepidation is mostly irrational, but stories that are first and foremost about male friendship tend not to be my favorites, either. This was the excuse I had given for putting off reading My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante*. Having finished the book last week, I can now say that waiting was a mistake.

[*Elena Ferrante is a pen-name for an anonymous Italian author. The critical acclaim and HBO show have led to people seeing to uncover her true identity, but she maintains that the authorship is irrelevant to the novel.]

My Brilliant Friend opens with a prologue where the narrator, Elena Greco, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her childhood friend Lila, announcing that his mother has disappeared. More than that, every trace of Lila has vanished. This shock prompts Elena to trace back the threads of memory to the old neighborhood of her childhood where she can write her friend back into the world.

In those days, Elena Greco lived in a poor part of town, the daughter of a porter at city hall, and shared a grade with Lila, the daughter of the shoemaker. The neighborhood had a hierarchy; Don Achille Carracci is one of the wealthiest men in town, but might as well be an ogre; The Solaras, who own the pastry shop and bar, flaunt their wealth and are rumored to be involved in criminal activities; Donato Sarratore, a railroad conductor and poet, is a notorious Lothario whose liaisons bring tragedy; other people, including Elena’s family, scrape to make ends meet.

School is the great leveler for the children. Much to the shock of her family, Elena excels academically, but not as much as Lila, who is preternaturally brilliant. Unlike Elena, however, Lila chafes at the repressive structure of school so while Elena continues on into middle and then high school, Lila goes to work with the family.

At every turn Lila outstrips Elena––she is a step smarter, braver, more determined, and, eventually, more beautiful––and yet Elena is the brilliantly educated friend. Their relationship evolves, through school, through adolescence, through relationships with boys, and building to a matrimonial climax.

My Brilliant Friend is an intimate portrait of the relationship between Lila and Elena, but it is a masterpiece because of how the two girls develop in their neighborhood. Ferrante breathes life into this poor corner of Naples, slowly awakening Elena to the wider world and imbuing all of the relationships with the depth of live-in experience. The result is that what begins as the light, childlike interpretation of serious issues grows in emotional depth as the novel progresses until the the final paragraphs land like an emotional avalanche. I declared on Twitter that the final two paragraphs are perhaps the most powerful conclusion I have ever read, because amidst a joyous reverie three different emotional arcs simultaneously reach their climactic resolution.

My Brilliant Friend only covers Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence, making the novel feel uneven with a frame story that sets up a larger, as of yet incomplete, mystery. Without that frame, the novel is a spectacular novel about a girl’s formative years (Bildingsroman), but with the frame Ferrante invites additional questions about memory, both in the development of relationships and in how adults remember childhood, but I will need to read the rest of the series in order to find these answers. At least My Brilliant Friend has made it clear that the investment will be worth my time.

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My recent schedule has mostly limited my reading time to the weekends, but I started reading Sara Novic’s Girl at War, which examines the trauma of the war in Croatia in 1991.

The Poppy War

About a year ago I started to hear buzz about a new fantasy book in a world modeled on east Asia. I adore Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books and other diverse settings for my fantasy novels, so The Poppy War quickly rose on the list of books I wanted to read. The fact that the author, R.F. Kuang, was a young Chinese-American woman studying modern Chinese history both added to the intrigue, even if it also threw up a caution flag.

The Poppy War opens with the official examination that will determine the future for the test-takers––that is, which academy they can attend. For Rin, a poor war orphan abused by her drug-smuggling adopted parents in the poor, rural, isolated South of the Nikara Empire, it provides one chance: earn the top score and earn admission to Sinegard, the academy for the children of warlords, or resign herself to an unwanted marriage.

Of course, getting into the academy creates new problems. Rin finds her new classmates, and particularly Nezha, insufferably arrogant, while they find her unprepared and uncouth. Most of her teachers don’t have the same concerns, as she shows potential and an flair for rash and risky solutions to impossible situations. Their problems arise in that Rin doesn’t always consider the consequences of her strategies. Nevertheless Strategy master Irjah and the eccentric Lore master Jiang take a particular interest in this impetuous student who, in addition to scoring well relative to her peers, is drawn to reexamining the official story of the destruction of Speer, a tributary of the Nikara, at the end of the last war with Mugen.

Rin thrives, despite the obstacles, but her life is again thrown into disarray when the neighboring nation, the Mugen federation, invades Nikara, determined to finish what they started in the previous war––a war only ended after brutal destruction of Speer and the intervention from distant powers. The trainees are thrown into war before they are ready; Rin is assigned to the shadowy Cike, a secretive force of assassins and shamans, and faces a choice: tap into her latent shamanic powers and destroy the Mugen by striking a deal with the Phoenix god or remain human and allow their crimes to go unpunished, losing all of Nikara, and quite possibly her life, in the process.

The Poppy War is a propulsive grimdark fantasy based on events in Chinese history where bad things happen and there are few good options. For all of the brutality and self-harm that Rin commits, though, its basic plot points, particularly through the first half of the book, follow a traditional wish-fulfillment path. Orphan works hard and turns out to be brilliant, goes to a school where she makes an enemy of one student and one teacher, but is adopted by the school’s eccentric master, who teaches her that she has powers she didn’t know about. Its Chinese setting and female lead are just trappings on this basic structure.

And this is fine. The novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of these stories built around white men, so there is virtue in putting this sort of story in Asian and female clothes. But neither did it make The Poppy War stand out.

What had initially piqued my interest in this story was the promise of Chinese history written. And is it. Chinese history oozes from the pages, starting with the map that posits Nikara (very)roughly the shape of China and Mugen Japan, the attention to bias within the Nikara empire, the primary geopolitical conflict modeled on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) right down to the playing out of the Rape of Nanking, and a sage-strategist whose maxims are literally those of Sun Tzu. After the fact, I saw Kuang say she modeled Rin’s trajectory on that of Mao.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t love it.

The fact that stories were ripped straight from the headlines of history consequences. Kuang fictionalized the names and places, but kept the maxims, plots, and even broad geography, which, in some ways, diminished the world-building because it came across like her contribution was to add a spot of magic and then strip away the complexity and depth of the real world. There were a couple of points where this wasn’t true in ways that hinted her promise, but these were the exception. Either dropping this story as a fictionalized history (think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or keeping the plots while doing more to fictionalize and develop the setting would have, in my opinion, mitigated all of these problems.

This is what I meant when I said that Kuang’s youth raised a red flag. Both of these features strike me as common to young authors. The fact that she wrote a propulsive, engaging, and fun novel while tackling an ambitious set of humanistic and moral questions, including radical inequality, is an enormous achievement. I enjoyed The Poppy War, even if I was simultaneously disappointed. While I am not going to hail it as the next great fantasy novel, my main takeaway is that I hope Kuang has a long career and am excited to see what she puts out next.

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I have been on a fantasy kick of late, in large part because I’m too tired to do the heavy lifting of some of the Literature I have on my shelf. I recently finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and just began George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood.

Never Any End to Paris

I shall never know why people write and how it is people don’t write.

When an old man fancies he looks like his idol Ernest Hemingway he must attend the Hemingway lookalike contest in Key West, Florida. When a young man idolizes Hemingway, he must go to Paris and learn to write. The narrator of Never Any End to Paris, a stand-in for Enrique Vila-Matas, does both.

Never Any End to Paris, which takes the form of a transcript of lectures delivered at a conference on irony, opens with the narrator’s ill-fated entry into the lookalike contest. The organizers disqualify him on the grounds that he doesn’t look anything like Hemingway. From there the novel unfolds in imitation of Hemingway’s retrospective of years spent in Paris, A Moveable Feast.

As a young man, the narrator moved away from his unhappy home life in Barcelona to be like his hero in Paris. He takes up a garret operated by Marguerite Duras in the hope of receiving words of literary wisdom that will launch his career. This works, but his experience was wildly divergent from Hemingway’s. Both lived in poverty and had a older female mentor amid the constellation of literary lights, but the narrator came to Paris after being a student, rather than having had some lived experience, and instead of working lived on a stipend from his father. Where Hemingway claimed to be poor and happy, the narrator is poor and unhappy. But he learns to write, completing an experimental novel called The Lettered Assassin that kills its reader when they finish the book.

The result is an engaging, ironic, and at times outright funny examination of the process of learning to write. As a piece of intertext, Never Any End to Paris is a brilliant inversion of and commentary on A Moveable Feast that simultaneously lavishes praise on and deconstructs Hemingway’s customary surety.

My sole qualm with Never Any End to Paris is that it is too erudite for me. I loved the intertext with Hemingway and the discussion of writing, but most of the literary references to the people the narrator meets in Paris were new to me. I came away with deep appreciation for for the first two threads of the novel, but the third, a literary portrait of Paris in the 1970s, went over my head.

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I also finished American Prometheus, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, earlier this month, and last night started R.F. Kuang’s fantasy novel The Poppy War, which I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year. Kuang is a very young author and is working on a graduate degree on modern Chinese history. Both facts clearly inform the book in the early going. I’ve only read the first chapter, which feels a little bit like heroic wish-fulfillment that is common in the fantasy genre, but the setting has me wanting to read on.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

There are adjustments one must make if one comes here from America; a different way of observing is required. I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter when war was in the offing. I was struck at first by how shabby our house appeared, with cracks running through its ceilings and dry bubbles of paint flaking off where dampness had entered its walls…I was saddened to find it in such a state—no, more than saddened, I was shamed. This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of my lowliness.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens with the simple question: “excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” An unnamed, vigilant American is seated against the back wall of a cafe in Lahore when he is approached by the speaker, a bearded Pakistani who offers his assistance. The young man introduces himself as a lover of America and, in a one-sided conversation that lasts long into the night, explains his affinity for America and how he came to be in Lahore.

Changez was once a model immigrant to the United States. Elected from the cream of the international crop of applicants, he graduated at the top of the Princeton class of 2001 and won a job offer from the prestigious Underwood Samson corporate valuation firm. The sign-on bonus from the job allowed Changez to take a trip to Greece with scions of American wealth and fortune, where he meets Erica, a beautiful writer reeling from the death of her childhood love. Naturally, Changez falls for her.

The seeds of their courtship contribute to Changez’ charmed life, but the relationship that sprouts creates the first crack in the facade that will lead him back to Lahore. Memories of her old boyfriend form a labyrinth that Erica cannot escape; as much as she likes Changez and as much as he tries to help her, their relationship is doomed. Her condition deteriorates parallel to his relationship with America.

Then the Twin Towers fall. In an instant, Changez transforms from just another New Yorker to a Pakistani, a potential threat. He remains valued at work, but under a new level of scrutiny from his coworkers. Thoughts of the American war in Afghanistan and fears of a war with India intrude on his working hours, threatening his once-promising career. Now he grows a beard and soon he makes plans to return to Lahore where he becomes a teacher.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist uses a simple story-telling device to juxtapose two young men. The outgoing, talkative Pakistani Changez bears only passing resemblance to the guarded, watchful Changez in America. Mohsin Hamid gives no indication that Changez is an unreliable narrator, so the differences lay in his level of comfort. In Pakistan, Changez cheerfully talks about the women, the market, the waiter, the food, and his past; in the United States, even a successful immigrant is an outsider feeling his way around. At the same time, he is shocked to learn that the years in the United States alienated him from Pakistan when the home he returns to looks grungy and dilapidated to his western eyes.

This fundamental tension is at the heart of the book, with everything else serving to highlight it further. The romantic storyline, for instance, is effective, but feels like an extended metaphor about living in the past and the impossibility of Changez’ American ambitions. (The digital assistant for Bank of America is also named “Erica”.) I felt deep sympathy for Changez, particularly on the issue of feeling out of place, and could relate to the experience of relocating from the superficially new that is identified with America to the lived in that is somewhat worse for wear. In that sense, and not for the first time, I took slight issue with defining “America” synonymous with New York and New Jersey. But neither that complaint nor the somewhat predictable arc of the Lahore storyline detracts from a masterful novel.

In sum, I loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid tackles the experience of disassociation and loss at a lively clip, with a protagonist who bears no visible scars. Exit West, his most recent novel is a bit more sophisticated and less predictable, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, deserves every accolade it received.

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I’ve fallen behind again and am giving up on writing about every book. I still plan to write about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but am delaying because I intend to watch the film again first. I also finished Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, which is a perfectly pleasant installment in his Stormlight Archive world, but not something to read on its own. I’m now in the middle of Tana French’s The Broken Harbour, a riveting murder mystery set in Ireland.