This installment: New Delhi surrealism; a psychological thriller set on Ibiza; Scandinavian melancholy from 9-year-old’s point of view; a lusty, brutal novel from China; haunting Sci-Fi/fantasy short stories; a total “bon-bon” book; a young mother’s take on reaching for enlightenment in the midst of chaos; and a charming, romantic spy novel.
The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph
New Delhi surrealism, which starts with 17-year-old Uni, a cartoonist/student, plunging from a balcony. He was always a strange bird but not apparently in despair. His father Ousep, a journalist on the skids, tries to find out why he did it by tracking down Uni’s acquaintances. A mix of black humor, philosophy, and oddness all around, including his severely reclusive friend Alpha who suffers from the obscure Corpse syndrome. Underneath it all, an atrocity that happened to Uni’s mother, Mariamamma, when she was a girl; this is the true source of the family’s sickness. When Uni learns the story, it awakens a fierce desire for justice in him. I didn’t always follow the convoluted plot and suppositions but I got to love the eccentricities of these folks and the emerging, very touching family story.
Broken Like This by Marian Transandes
A psychological thriller that starts with Kate in a coma, after an accident on Ibiza. She’s been on holiday with two gay friends, leaving behind Louis, her best friend from childhood who’s finally become her live-in lover. And Rebecca who developed a passionate relationship with Kate in college that fell apart painfully. Louis contacts Rebecca because he needs help with Spanish, and they converge, along with Kate’s dithery mother and dangerous stepfather whom she’s been fleeing ever since she came of age. Intense, confusion crosscurrents, and lots of cat and mouse action. Absorbing and fascinating.
Child Wonder by Roy Jacobson
Finn narrates. He’s 9 and lives with his mother in Oslo. His father was killed in a crane accident but had decamped with another woman first. So there’s bitterness, tight money, and Linda, a very strange 6-year-old stepsister who shows up out of the blue. Her sudden appearance, plus the addition of a lodger, Kristien, throws a wrench into mother and son’s close relationship. Finn’s rough and tumble—lots of pranks and bloody skirmishes with neighborhood kids. He ends up a fierce supporter of Linda, who needs special help, and there’s a surprise ending with appropriate Scandinavian melancholy. I loved their island idyll, courtesy of Kristien, that reminded me of pastoral Bergman films. I couldn’t quite decode the plot completely but still a fine book, full of feeling and atmosphere.
The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan
(2012 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) Rural life in China is full of beauty and brutality, more famine than feast, especially for the benighted garlic farmers. The government dictates the crop but then the warehouses are full and there’s no market for it. The book shifts between chronologies so actions appear mysterious at first. Like why were Gao Yang, Gao Man, and elderly Fourth Aunt all arrested? What prompted the riot that destroyed government offices? Eventually it all comes out. There’s a blind street singer (shades of Berthold Brecht ), a doomed love affair, corrupt officials, tricksters galore, and lots of rigid government edicts. Also grossness: bodily processes splattered everywhere, vicious beatings, deaths. Quite a visceral immersion into a culture and a time I don’t know much about.
At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
Science fiction/fantasy with an emphasis on animals—enchanting, haunting and deft. (Shades of Ursula Le Guin whose books I love and who blurbed this one.) A carnival show with monkeys who appear and disappear—it’s their secret where they go. That story is contemporary, in “our” world. But another, “Horse Raiders”, takes place in a primitive archaic region and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is also placed in another time and place completely. Johnson’s very good with otherworldly names and regions: Jinger, Davell, The Silens, Delmoni Prime. There’s a Japanese fox- into- woman transformation, a playful romp in “Schroediger’s Cathouse,” and a very short story about a highly sexual alien life form who’s fastened on a hapless female in space. Cats, dogs, wolves, and wondrous worlds—what else could you ask for?
To The Moon and Back by Jill Mansell
My vacation bon-bon book with a twist: Ellie’s husband Jamie has a fatal accident. It was a short, delicious marriage and now she’s bereft and lost. Except the ghost of Jamie keeps “showing up” which offers great comfort, but still…They talk; he even advises her. Her boss hits on her, her house is a disaster. A deus-ex-machina, Jamie’s father (a well known American actor) comes to the rescue, as does a great new job as a PA for a very cute guy. But the way romances are plotted, the objects of affection never cement their troubled relationship until the very end. There are always misapprehensions, misunderstandings, and obstacle, including a subplot with Ellie’s intense new neighbor, once a pop singer, and Jamie’s best friend Todd. And the actor himself who pursues a charming artist of Caribbean descent. Frothy yet smart.
Not Quite Nirvana—A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness by Rachel Newman.
The author had a wild growing up with hippie parents in communes but now is a mother of two and Thich Nhat Hahn’s editor. How do you reconcile all those shining Buddhist precepts with the stuff of daily life—chaos, exhaustion, multi-tasking—which is part of a young family’s territory? Newman does a good job of sharing personal material and showing how she manages. I’ve read a few books like this recently and always want to mine them for juicy details (true confessions). Newman’s candor, humor and writing skill help make the medicine go down.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
A romantic, charming spy novel. Serena is an unlikely candidate for M15. She gets recruited by her middle-aged lover, Tony. She graduated with a degree in maths because the subject was easy for her and it pleased her conservative parents but she really liked literature better. The affair falls apart but since she really needs a job, she goes for it—what does she have to lose? They’ve devised an odd scheme for her: to be funding representative of a legitimate sounding foundation and offer it to Tom, an unknown writer. He’s cute, they’re smitten, and they start a very complicated affair from her perspective. Should she tell him the truth—and then what? He finds out and—I won’t reveal the ending. Lots of politics in the mid ‘70s—not my strong suit, but such good detail and storytelling it didn’t stop me from relishing—yes—the eponymous caper.
Back next Monday.