Sunday, August 31, 2008

Memoir writing at its finest

Julia Blackburn is a well-known writer of non-fiction, but it is this, the memoir of her growing up years, that will likely go down as the definitive work in her oeuvre.

The daughter of a poet father and painter mother, Julia grew up in a Bohemian household that comes across as horrific for the scant regard it paid to the conventions of family. Her father Thomas was an alcoholic addicted to sodium amytal. In his madness, he turned into a violent beast who would come close to snuffing the life out of Julia's mother Rosalie.

There are long descriptive scenes of Julia's mother using her as a shield against her husband, confident in the knowledge that Thomas would not harm his daughter. Which he didn't, physically that is. It's another matter what effect this sort of experience would have on the psychology of a little girl.

The real thrust of Julia's memoir, however, is not the violence perpetrated by her father (whose love she was always certain of), but the strange jealousies that her growing up aroused in Rosalie. Soon after her parents separated, Julia moved in with her mother, and so began the process of renting out the spare room to eligible male lodgers, all of them potential mates for a ravenous Rosalie.

What follows is a disgust-inducing account of Rosalie competing with her daughter to win the affections of the lodgers, even as she is preternaturally interested in introducing her daughter to the vocabulary of adulthood — fellatio, masturbation, lesbians, dildoes. A stung Julia, desperate to make sense of Rosalie's vanishing motherhood, falls deeper into the vortex of self-destruction.

Matters come to a head with Geoffrey, a divorced artist, who seems as interested in Rosalie as Julia, at least in the beginning. Mother and daughter must go their separate ways in trying to win his charms, even as their collective story builds to grief, ending in crime and guilt.

Each chapter in the book ends with a footnote from the present (1999), as a dying Rosalie comes to stay with an adult Julia. Finally, with the smell of death hovering in the air, the duo are able to reconcile their bitter past and make peace.

Julia is a gifted writer, a consequence perhaps of the experiences life has handed her. Which is why, in spite of its grimly cautionary tone, The Three of Us is memoir writing at its finest.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Yoga Teacher

Alexandra Gray, yoga teacher to celebrities and author of one previous book, explores the Western fascination for this ancient Indian exercise form. The story revolves around Grace, a pharmaceutical saleswoman whose lifelong fascination with yoga, combined with the gentle initiation of her yoga instructor, gives her the confidence to chuck her dull job and head to California to take lessons at the Bodhi Tree, a disciplinarian yoga camp...Read more>>>

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A mellow Muslim everyman

Hanif Kureishi's books, from The Buddha of Suburbia to My Beautiful Laundrette, have explored the lives of British Muslims in the crossfire of tradition vs. modernity. Combine this with his ever-present gaze on the paradoxes of sexuality, and you have a writer who does not shy from the veiled and the thinly revealed.

His latest, Something to Tell You, is a mature work, transforming his classic fiery young Muslim hero into a mellower middle-aged man. Jamal is battling midlife demons, particularly sex and identity. A psychoanalyst, he shares a comfortable relationship with his ex-wife and adores his teenage son, Rafi. However, the memory of Ajita, the love of his younger self, haunts Jamal, in a surprising aftershock of his profession. Too used to analyzing others' problems, he tries to believe, in vain, that his problems are products of his imagination that can be wished away by pep talk. Sadly and thankfully, that's not the case.

The novel plots Jamal's journey toward Ajita, interspersed with his interactions with a cast of characters as interesting as it is diverse. Jamal's sister, Miriam, is a no-nonsense woman who single-handedly raised her children and plies a lucrative drug smuggling trade. His friend Henry is a theater director sick of the rarefied traditions of intellectualism. And there is Karen, a television producer with whom Jamal has enjoyed intermittent spells of intimacy.

Something to Tell You is interesting also for the narrative thrust of Jamal's younger years, in which Kureishi speaks, autobiographically it seems, of the utter strangeness of the Thatcher era, dipping into pop culture references. From trying Ecstasy for the first time to discovering the charms of Tina Turner and The Police, Kureishi explores, vicariously through Jamal, the dissipation of those years.

Back to the present, and no prizes for guessing the hero's disenchantment with Tony Blair. The novel is at its polemical best in speaking of Iraq and the London tube bombings. As it draws to a close, we are satisfied with having been in the company of a fine writer, who, while speaking for a certain community, targets universal themes of loss and the desire to be desired.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times. Also read Personal accounts of racism.

A charcoal sketch of despair

A tiny collection of seven short stories, Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields may be among the best books you will read this year. Set in rural Ireland, where time stands still and passions run deep, these stories remind us of the universality of despair and deprivation.

In the first story, The Parting Gift, a young woman is being sent to the United States to escape a lifetime of abuse from her father. As her mother and brother prepare to send her off at the airport, Keegan builds on the silences and the dispersal of precious, meaningless advice ("Watch out for pickpockets in New York") to draft a story of considerable emotional heft.

In the quirky The Long and Painful Death, a female author checks into a residence (formerly the house of writer Heinrich Boll) to overcome a disabling writer's block, only to be disturbed by a persistent stranger who seems intent on visiting her. The meeting, when it happens, fizzles out after little more than the exchange of pleasantries, yet it comes to provide the template of a new, dark tale that the writer pens, about a lonesome man dying of a terminal illness.

Rural Ireland, viewed through Keegan's eyes, is a place brimming with marital discord and unhappy alliances. In The Forester's Daughter, a woman gets revenge for having married the wrong person by narrating the shared sadness of their lives to the entire village, many years after the wedding, on her husband's birthday. Martha's dissatisfaction with Victor, while always tending toward something tangible, is delayed until secrets begin to unravel on one shocking evening.

Keegan is partial to women in her tales. In Night of the Quicken Trees, a woman gifted with the power to heal walks away from the promise of happiness, unreasonably. Even as Keegan tries to tie this up with the weight of an oppressive past, Margaret does not quite come across as the heroic figure the author would have us believe she is.

Yet Keegan's writing offers stark, intelligent flourishes and a look into the heart of rural Ireland, gurgling with desolate undercurrents.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ambitious 'Cure For Grief' a shining debut

A work of great ambition, The Cure For Grief (Scribner, 288 ages, $24) is a shining debut from writer Nellie Hermann. The novel begins with the chance discovery of a gun by the protagonist Ruby Bronstein. Ruby, the youngest of the Bronsteins, must share the thrill and horror of landing upon a weapon with her three elder brothers, Nathan, Aaron and Abe. This opening sequence is a gentle initiation into the bonds that tie the Bronsteins and also the fear and loathing that the family patriarch holds for weapons of any sort.

Ruby's father is a Holocaust survivor who maintains incomprehensible spells of silence and holds steadfast to his Jewish identity. As Ruby slips into adolescence, tragedies begin to strike the family. Both her father and Nathan, to whom Ruby is especially close, die, and Abe, always distant, gradually slips into madness. The slide from happiness to sadness to rage is evoked with restrained passion, not just in Ruby's response to the crumbling family around her, but also in Hermann's portrayal of it.

With the deaths in the family chasing her like friendly ghosts, Ruby's life acquires an altogether new dimension in that she is forced to constantly watch her place through a hitherto absent third eye. Whether it is attending kerem (Jewish camp) or recounting her traumas to potential love interests, or even just commenting on the banal idiocy of network TV, an unbreakable cycle of depressed homogeneity stalks Ruby -- which is why even though there is a tendency to repeat what the reader will get tired of acknowledging, the book never falls into dull territory.

The similar nature of tragedies (both father and Nathan die of brain tumors) and the springing of sudden madness (Abe's violent revolts are blameless forays into making sense of a senseless world) lend counterweight to the repetitiveness. One wonders if Hermann meant these as elliptical references to the destructiveness of the Holocaust.

The Cure for Grief is fine writing. In a touching scene, a disturbed Ruby is comforted by Aaron, his pale words bubbling into nothingness. The reader is brought to the point of lashing out on Ruby's part, which she does, and this realization, this stage-setting -- more than anything else -- is the mark of a great writer.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Exploring mother's delusion, son's compassion

Matthew Kneale is a stylistic chameleon. His 2000 Booker-shortlisted English Passengers was a swashbuckling account of 20 characters involved in the search for an elusive land. He followed that up with a short story collection and novella. And now, he is back with When We Were Romans, a heartbreaking story of a young boy and his mother's battle with folie a deux.

Folie a deux is a mental disorder that occurs when two people share the same delusion. While one of them is genuinely delusional, the other one simply plays along, at times missing the boundary between fiction and reality.

Lawrence is a 9-year-old astronomy buff who is preparing for a road trip at the beginning of the novel, because his mother, Hannah, wants to take him and his sister Jemima to a place where their father "doesn't follow us . . . somewhere really far away. Somewhere he'd never be able to find us. Somewhere like Rome."

And so begins a trip from England to the Italian capital that is always on the cusp of disaster. Hurtling from one residence to the next with her children, surviving on the mercy of her friends from an earlier time, Hannah is on the perpetual lookout for tiny moments of reprieve. Since Lawrence is the narrator, Kneale satisfyingly defers exploring what monstrosity Hannah's husband has perpetrated for her to fear him so.

Which, of course, is artistic license, for Hannah's husband is no monster, just someone she has differences with. In the garb of a chivalrous son, Hannah has the perfect accomplice to her delusions. Lawrence is ever sensitive to his mother's distress. So touching is his willingness to reassure her at every juncture that one can't help but weep at the sadness of the situation.

If you enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, definitely pick up When We Were Romans. It will make you thank God for children in a world made absurd by adults.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.