This installment: an amazing conjunction; young women on their own; mythological creatures manifest; an unusual “sibling;” adolescent angst graphically portrayed; and a memoir anatomizing that awkward “sandwich” of teen on one side, demented elderly mother on the other.
Submergence by J. M. Ledgard
We first meet James More, undercover CIA operative, imprisoned in a squalid bathroom in Somalia. Then we make the acquaintance of Danielle Flinders, a biomathematician who specializes in investigating the ocean’s depths, at a hotel in France where the two met and had a brief but intense affair. At the book’s end she’s on her way down in a submersible and he’s possibly released after a nightmarish trek with Jihad terrorists. Along the way each goes into extensive mental excursions. His dip into literature, painting and music; hers involve ruminations on mythology, science and the fate of the world. It’s a dizzying compendium of information that sometimes left me reeling or groping, yet fascinated. (For instance, computer speed is measured in the following increments: petaflop, exaflop, etc. And ocean layers go from epilagic to hadopelagic.) The mosaic structure of the book—in one paragraph we’re in Africa with him; in the next we might be swimming in the Atlantic in wintertime with her—is also very challenging. But worth it.
Flora by Gail Godwin
One intense summer polio haunts the town so Helen, 10, and her cousin Flora, 22, are isolated in a huge old house in the southern hills. Helen’s mother died young, her grandmother just succumbed to a heart attack, and her father’s off to Oak Ridge where the atomic bomb is being hatched. Flora’s naïve, Helen is preternaturally sharp, and it’s unclear who’s tending whom. Into their lives comes charming but damaged Finn, who delivers their groceries. We know from the start that things won’t end well. Atmospheric.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
What a wild idea: two creatures, one made of earth, the other fire, show up in New York City at the turn of the last century. Chava, the golem, was created to be an immigrant’s wife but he died aboard ship and she’s loosed, clueless, but clever. Ahmad, the jinni, emerged when his imprisoning container got polished. They make their convoluted ways into daily life. She’s taken in by a rabbi and makes her living baking. He becomes a metal worker and gets involved with a young socialite. But their very odd natures will out and an enemy who wants power and has been tracking them, armed with fragments of spells, wreaks havoc. Fantastical indeed but so well fleshed out (as it were) that the story works compellingly.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I had mixed feelings about this intriguing book but stuck with it because of the fascinating subject matter. Which I can’t really tell you about because it would ruin the surprise that took the breath out of me 1/3 of the way through. It’s about a very unusual family in which science and a vision of a groundbreaking experiment create great trauma. The scientific material sometimes left me in the dust, but the daily challenges and emotional complexities carried the tragedy along. A hint: if you’ve read Ape House, the theme will be familiar.
Tina’s Mouth by Keshni Kashyap
Subtitled An Existential Comic Diary, this unusual teen graphic novel offers a new slant on adolescent angst. As a project for her progressive private high school, Tina decides to address Sartre with her life concerns. Perhaps he can help her figure out the grotesque contradictions and confusions that come with the territory. The Southern California setting and her intellectual Indian family set up a spicy mix. Friends and love interests wax and wane, the school play Rashomon adds appropriate drama. All in all, original and charming.
Mother Daughter Me by Katie Hafner
When Hafner’s 77- year- old mother lost her second husband, Norm, things got dicey in San Diego. The “solution:” a bold move to SF to live with her daughter and teenage granddaughter Zoe and a rare chance to bond with a woman who had previously driven her crazy at times. How did it work? Not hard to guess: mostly nightmarish. Ahh but the details: so rich, so sad, so absurd. Hafner couldn’t seem to please her mother, her relationship with Zoe grew strained, and one with a new suitor seemed doomed. Oy veh! They had the sense to call it quits after 9 months and with her mother in her own apartment, a kind of happy ending. Whew. Hafner, herself a widow, is candid, funny and employing her seasoned journalistic skills, very descriptive. Touching.
Back next Monday