The swans and their darling

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE. By Melanie Benjamin. Delacorte Press. 341 pages. $28.

Think of Truman Capote not as he was in his later years: dissipated, bloated, outrageous, abusing drugs and alcohol, given to public breakdowns, unable to complete a novel.

Think of him instead as slight, blond and young, almost childlike, openly gay, flamboyant, full of life, a literary and social phenomenon. That’s how Capote was when he became the darling, almost the pet, of the glamorous women at the pinnacle of New York’s high society – women he called his “swans.” To Gloria Guinness, C.Z. Guest, Pamela Churchill and Slim Keith, Capote was almost one of the girls, a fun and nonthreatening playmate and confidant who enjoyed gossiping with the best of them.

To the most glamorous swan of all, Babe Paley, the wife of CBS founder and chief executive William S. Paley, Capote became even more. While to most of the world, the wealthy, beautiful and exquisitely clad and bejeweled Babe Paley might have seemed to have it all, there was one thing she lacked and desperately wanted. And for years, Babe Paley found Capote to be her “True Heart,” the one person who knew and loved her for what she was, not for what she so painstakingly displayed to the world.

In her new novel, Melanie Benjamin is working with a wealth of historical material, as she details in an informative Author’s Note. A great deal was written about Truman Capote from the time he arrived on the literary scene until his death at 59 in 1984. He wrote for The New Yorker and other magazines, and he was written about in newspaper gossip columns and in magazines. Books have been written about him. He was a favorite on late-night TV shows.

Dealing with real historical figures about whom much is known is nothing new for Benjamin. In earlier novels, she’s tackled the eyebrow-raising relationship between Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the child who inspired Alice in Wonderland; Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of the famous aviator and an accomplished writer; and Mrs. Tom Thumb of circus fame. Once again in The Swans of Fifth Avenue, she deftly combines what is known with what she imagines about conversations and emotions. Her beautifully written story gives readers a more intimate view of Truman Capote, Babe Paley and their glittering circle than any gossip column or newspaper article of their times could have done.

This novel is, if anything, more fascinating than its predecessors, because it deals with a more recent era – an especially fascinating era, the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. Capote’s hit novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was published in 1958 and made into a movie, complete with its theme song “Moon River,” in 1961. His masterpiece, the “nonfiction novel,” true-crime saga In Cold Blood, was published to great acclaim in 1965 and made into a movie two years later. When Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published last year, we were reminded that Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was a childhood friend of Capote’s in Monroeville, Ala., and that he was her inspiration for the character of Dill. It’s also well known that Lee, whom Capote knew by her first name, Nelle, worked with him on In Cold Blood, and that their friendship suffered from his failure to acknowledge the extent of her contributions. He hobnobbed with Frank Sinatra and other movie stars, not to Katharine Graham, the Kennedy women and many other rich, famous and powerful people. The Black and White Ball he threw at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1966 was one of the most famous society parties of the decade.

It’s also not news that Capote eventually fell from grace, largely because of a scandalous short story, “La Côte Basque 1965,” that appeared in Esquire in 1975, and was supposedly the first installment of his next grand novel. Drawing on real-life material his swans and others had confided in him in happier times, he made little or no effort to disguise the identities of those whose secrets he was exposing. As a result, he was largely ostracized as his downward spiral accelerated.

Benjamin’s fascinating novel is anything but a rehash of what’s already known, however. Instead, her well-grounded imagination gives us the very human stories behind the headlines and gossip-column snippets. Benjamin employs her considerable genius and empathy as she makes us understand, like and sympathize with the wealthy and privileged Babe Paley and the often outrageous, narcissistic and offensive Truman Capote.

This is a fascinating novel, an unusual combination of high-society gossip and insights into the profound human yearnings that transcend even wealth and fame.

 

Posted in Historical Fiction, Popular fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Quiet and powerful

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House Audio. Read by Kimberly Farr. Four CDs; four hours. $30. Also available in print from Random House.

Elizabeth Strout’s books are so different from anything else I read, indeed, from most of today’s fiction as far as I can tell, that it usually requires a brief mental adjustment for me to get into one of her novels. With My Name Is Lucy Barton, as with the two of her books I’ve read before – the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys – the adjustment is worth the effort.

Indeed, the effort is minimal, because Strout’s writing is so good that I want to learn more of the story even if, at the beginning, it strikes me as a bit … well, slow.

Or maybe understated is a better descriptive. There is, on the surface, not a lot of action in this brief novel. Most of it takes place as conversation or sometimes just thought in a hospital room.

Lucy Barton is recalling a time several years earlier when she developed complications after what should have been a routine surgery and had to spend many weeks in a New York hospital, away from her husband and two young daughters. At the heart of the novel are the few days when her mother came from their hometown of Amgash, Ill., to stay at Lucy’s bedside. Lucy’s husband had summoned his mother-in-law and paid for her travel, even though she clearly did not like him, and even though she had Lucy had not spoken for years.

The story unfolds quietly and guardedly, as befits a hospital room in which one person is seriously and mysteriously ill, with medical professionals frequently in and out. The family’s story often is hidden amid the mother’s tart reminiscences and gossip about neighbors and acquaintances, much as the truth of the family’s existence had been obscured by the struggles of daily life. These two women find it difficult to talk to each other without exposing old hurts. And Lucy, who is beginning to make her way as a writer, considers everything carefully, aware that memory has its limitations.

Oh so gradually, we begin to learn why Lucy and her mother have been estranged. We also learn much more about Lucy’s childhood, until eventually we see that Lucy came from a family for whom the overused term “dysfunctional” might have been coined. The details, as they slowly emerge, often more in Lucy’s memories than in what is spoken aloud by either woman, are dramatic and distressing enough for several stories. We see how far Lucy has come, how much she has struggled, to be living with her successful husband and children in New York City.

And yet, Lucy hungers for closeness with her mother – “Mommy,” she repeatedly calls her, even though Lucy is grown and a mother herself – and, despite her prickly reserve, her mother also clearly cares for this child of hers, as much as she can.

As she reveals more about Lucy and Lucy’s mother, Strout reminds us that people are much more complex than they might seem, and that the bonds of family are strong even when they are sorely strained. Lucy loves her own daughters passionately and yet, we eventually learn, she is not willing to sacrifice her essential self for their happiness.

In the end, this brief novel is quietly triumphant, the story of a woman who struggles against great odds to find and protect her own self.

This novel, told so much through conversation and introspection, is particularly well-suited to being savored as an audio book, and Kimberly Farr does a fine job with the Midwestern accents and distinctive personalities.

 

 

Posted in Audio Books, Contemporary literary fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Wealth, danger and scandal – what more could you want?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SCANDALOUS BEHAVIOR. By Stuart Woods. Penguin Audio. Read by Tony Roberts. Six CDs, seven hours. $35. Also available in print from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Stone Barrington, having had many adventures, close calls and romantic encounters recently (as always), decides to get a little R&R visiting a friend (lady of course) in the English countryside. But anyone who knows Stone knows that he will find a lot more than peace and quiet.

This is, I believe, the 36th in Stuart Woods’ series of thrillers about Stone Barrington, a former New York City cop turned lawyer turned incredibly wealthy and successful man who doesn’t really seem to need to spend much time doing anything but amusing himself, spending wads of money and climbing into bed with an endless succession of always willing, lovely, refined women.

This time out, Stone, with the flick of a pen and no prior interest, buys a Downton Abbey-style English estate complete with a stable full of horses, a private airfield and a hermit-in-residence. A very accomplished, sumptuous and available woman is completing a renovation of the house, so we know what’s going to develop there.

But, as they will, events conspire to complicate Stone’s life and those of his friends and family. Hardly has the ink dried on his purchase agreement when a prominent local man is found murdered almost on his doorstep. The death, investigated by a local member of the constabulary named – wait for it – Inspector Holmes, stirs up old scandals and secrets among the local gentry, including the dying man from whom Stone has bought his manor house.

Meanwhile, even as Stone is taking some normal interest in this mystery around him, a sinister threat arises from back in the good old U.S.A. Stone’s son, Peter, is, at a surprisingly early age, making it big in the movie world. But his new hit film steps on some dangerous toes: Dr. Don Beverly Calhoun, the well-heeled head of a cult called The Chosen Few, is incensed, convinced that the movie slanders him and his lucrative “religious” movement. To keep Peter and his associates safe, and to further their movie enterprises, Stone persuades them to move operations to his English estate and a neighboring manor that will be ideal for the next production.

Calhoun, used to getting rid of people who get in his way, decides to take down Stone Barrington. Stone, of course, doesn’t take Calhoun’s assaults passively. The game that ensues grows more and more dangerous – but who is in more danger?

Woods’ Stone Barrington books are written to a tried-and-true formula, with the latest version of the plot, the setting and the women keeping things interesting. Those who want their thrillers to be somewhat credible should look elsewhere.

Those, however, who are willing to suspend a great deal of disbelief, and who enjoy the occasional novel filled with over-the-top lifestyles, will find Scandalous Behavior just their cup of tea (served in bed, by the maid, of course). Stone is like a latter-day James Bond in his prowess as a swain, and his behavior is along the lines of some of Dirk Pitt’s power couples: He can party, live lavishly, jet around the globe and, without missing a beat, best a villain. If you find it ostentatious and offensive for someone to plunk down cash for two incredibly expensive automobiles in one day, after having just bought a mansion to add to his list of homes (and a new wardrobe? Did I mention the clothes?, then give this book a pass. If you have trouble believing that such a thoroughly American man speaks as though he wandered out of a Jane Austen novel, stay away. But if you enjoy the occasional pure escape novel, and believe that Woods is writing with his tongue well into his cheek – relishing in how outrageous his book is – you might find this one entertaining.

It’s especially fun as an audiobook, read in appropriately dramatic style by Tony Roberts. I listened while driving, and I almost felt as though I were cruising along in one of Stone Barrington’s pricey new cars.

 

Posted in Audio Books, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A sense of duty, a desire to win

Amid the sound and fury of the presidential campaign, Paul O’Connor finds that the new biography of George H.W. Bush presents a thought-provoking contrast.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH.  By Jon Meacham. Penguin Random House Audio. Read by Paul Michael. 25 hours. 20 CDs. Download $30. CDs $60. Also available in hardcover from Random House. $35

When Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush, 41st president of the United States, hit bookstores last fall, political writers immediately focused on the former president’s comments about Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Bush 41 said Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld set a belligerent tone for the administration of George W. Bush, the 43rd president and Bush 41’s eldest son. In that regard, they did not serve his son well.

That was the obvious news story to follow the publication of such an important biography of this former president. But given the overall theme of the book, the recurring depiction of the elder Bush that Meacham provides, another episode in the Bush family history might have been more relevant for columnists following the current campaign.

Prescott Bush, Bush 41’s father, was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut several times in the early 1950s, and he finally won in 1952. But during a key stretch in his bid, he spoke at a GOP event where Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy was an honored guest.

Prescott Bush criticized McCarthy’s bullying that night, speaking politely in the Bush family way but sternly about the vicious tactics the red-baiter employed. He would later lead Senate efforts to censure McCarthy. It was an act of political courage and political honor.

George H.W. Bush has sought to live by his father’s standards, shouldering a sense of duty to his country and to an ethical framework that said much is expected from those to whom much has been granted.

This biography is set in that struggle. It is the story of a successful politician, a man probably as well prepared to take the presidency as any in our history, and of his battles to survive and advance in a political world rapidly moving toward strident camps of conservative and liberal. He was a politician who believed there was much to be accomplished by bipartisanship, moderation and compromise during a time when such accommodation ran contrary to the bipolar stridency.

Similarly distasteful to Bush is the ugliness, especially in the personal realm, of current politics, for example, the press focus on Gov. Bill Clinton’s personal life in 1992. Bush was known as a gentleman first, a man with empathy. He wanted his campaign conducted on a high plane and his administration to operate with integrity.

Yet Bush was also an extremely competitive man; children of highly successful families often are. In that regard, he reminds one of the Kennedys. And his competitive drive challenged his sense of propriety.

Bush failed to live by his own standards on a number of occasions. He backed away from his no-taxes pledge. He carped on Willie Horton during his winning 1988 presidential campaign. He was also aware, to some degree, of the Iranian arms sales. The tension between the Bush ideal and the practical politician is a major theme in the bio.

Today, as a third Bush runs for the presidency, this time Jeb Bush, one can see how the values of Prescott and George H.W. Bush are so sorely missing from the current campaign. Yes, Jeb criticizes Donald Trump, but he’s also said he would support him if he becomes the Republican nominee. One gets the sense Prescott Bush would not have.

Meacham has delivered well in this biography, making extensive use of Bush 41’s private diaries. The book flows well, and Paul Michael was an excellent choice for the audio version. At 25 hours, this is a long slog, but it is a fascinating look at a man from the World War II generation who bridged several eras in American political history.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

 

Posted in Audio Books, Biography, Contemporary Nonfiction, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The death of the republic

A new semester of commuting to the journalism school at Chapel Hill provides new opportunities to listen to outstanding audio books.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DICTATOR. By Robert Harris. Read by David Rintoul. Random House Audio. 11 CDs; 14 hours. $45. Also available in print from Knopf, $26.95.

Cicero comes down to us through history books and popular culture as the greatest Roman orator, the man who gave us such aphorisms as “While there’s life, there’s hope.”

He was, indeed a great orator, whose words could stir crowds or Roman senators to action, and whose witticisms sometimes got him into trouble. And there was much, much more to the man and his life, as Robert Harris ably shows us in Dictator, the third in his trilogy of historically based novels about the life of Cicero.

Deftly working in the vast amount of historical information available about this period (Cicero lived from 107 to 43 B.C.) as well as some of Cicero’s recorded speeches and writings, Harris brings the story vividly to life through its narrator, Tiro. A slave whom Cicero eventually freed, Tiro worked closely with his master and friend, helping him with his extensive writings and developing a form of shorthand that enabled him to make accurate reports to Cicero about relevant events and conversations. The real-life Tiro wrote a biography of Cicero, which has not survived. That biography was likely more formal and less personal than the account Harris gives us, but it could not have been any more fascinating.

Dictator begins as Cicero, 48 years old, is fleeing Rome, heading into exile a few steps ahead of Clodios, an old enemy whom Julius Caesar has encouraged to persecute him. Cicero’s offense had been to oppose the creation of the triumvirate of Caesar and the two other most powerful Romans, Pompey the great and Marcus Crassus, to rule the Republic. It ends 15 years later with the gory assassination of Cicero after the boy Octavian (who becomes Augustus Caesar) had betrayed Cicero joined forces with Mark Antony and Lepidus, and ordered the execution of Cicero and hundreds of others.

Those 15 years are filled with civil wars, assassinations, political intrigue, personal crises and enough action and suspense to keep any reader riveted. For those of us who read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in high school, and have forgotten most of what we learned in school about the Roman Empire, this novel is a fine history lesson.

But seen through the eyes of Tiro, the life of Cicero and the gifted writing of Robert Harris, it also is a story as modern as today’s headlines. These are the years when the Roman Republic crumbled, giving way to dictatorship and empire. As Tiro’s loving yet honest portrait shows, Cicero was far from perfect. Sometimes fear overtook him, sometimes pride, and he made some poor decisions. Ultimately, though, he spoke out and took action to preserve important principles, chief among them liberty. He paid dearly for his principles.

Today’s political struggles in the United States are not as violent in the physical sense as those in the waning days of the Roman Republic – our attacks are more through the ubiquitous, instant media – but many of the same values are at stake, and this story gives us much to ponder. How much liberty can we sacrifice in the name of security, or power, or money? How far are we willing to go to “win” political battles, even if winning diminishes all that our democracy is supposed to stand for?

Dictator is the last book in a trilogy, but it is not at all necessary to have read the previous volumes. I listened to the audio version of this one, ably read by David Rintoul, a British actor. Harris writes mostly in contemporary English, with liberal doses of Latinisms, and Rintoul, of course, has an educated British accent, but once I (quickly) decided to think of the novel as a modern translation, I settled in and enjoyed the story.

Dictator is another example of one of the great values of audio books for some of us readers who are set in our literary ways: It’s unlikely that I would have picked up the print version of this book. If I read historical fiction, it’s usually books set in more recent times. But I was willing to listen to this book, and I’m certainly glad I did.

 

 

 

Posted in Audio Books, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A worthy conclusion

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

GOLDEN AGE. By Jane Smiley. Read by Lorelei King. Random House Audio. Nine CDs, 17 ½ hours. $50. Also available in print from Knopf.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, which, by all accounts I’ve found, are masterpieces, all you need to know about this last novel in the series is that it’s a worthy conclusion.

But if you haven’t read those earlier books and have the same question I did, here’s my answer: No, it is not absolutely necessary to have read the previous novels in the trilogy to enjoy and appreciate this book. But now that I’ve read (or in my case, listened to) this one, I definitely want to read the two that came before.

So, it’s possible to enjoy this one first. But … Yes, I’m sure it would be better, if one has the opportunity, to read the books in order.  These books are the story of the Langdons, an Iowa farm family, beginning at the dawn of the 20th century. Although Smiley skillfully works in enough family history and heritage to make this novel stand sufficiently on its own, having watched the family grow, change and disperse over the decades would make the reading experience richer.

Those who listen to the audio book have an added handicap. I almost gave up after a chapter or two, despite Lorelei King’s excellent reading, because I was having trouble figuring out who the various characters/family members were. Trying to keep everyone straight was about as confusing as walking into somebody else’s reunion. I’ll admit to having cheated a bit: I also had a print copy of the novel, and I consulted the family tree helpfully included in the front. Which brings up a point for those who publish audiobooks: If the publishers of a printed novel think a family tree or list of main characters is useful, that information would probably be even more useful for someone who is listening to the audio version. Wouldn’t it be great if the family tree could have been tucked into the package along with the CDs, or made easily available online? ((I’ve looked, but found only the brief one from the first volume, Some Luck, when the family was much smaller.)

A brief glance at the family tree in the novel enabled me to hang with the audio book until the main characters began to emerge both as individuals and as members of the extended family. Before long, I was thoroughly captivated by the story, having abandoned all thoughts of giving up.

As those who have read the earlier books no doubt know, these are epic novels, masterfully capturing the broad sweep of American history through the lives of the Langdons. Smiley does a marvelous job of working in historical events and trends – wars, the Sept. 11 attacks, elections, economic booms and busts, political crises, growing awareness of global warming and other environmental problems, and societal changes such as attitudes about sexual preferences and behaviors. For someone who’s a contemporary of some of the older characters in this book, reading this story is like seeing one’s own life put into historical context. Yes, I found myself saying, that is what happened, and that is how it affected me or someone I know. It helps that many of Smiley’s characters are intelligent and thoughtful, raising good questions and reflecting insightfully on their own lives and their changing world.

Golden Age begins in 1987, moves through the end of that century, into the 21st century and forward to 2019 and Smiley’s sobering ideas about what lies just ahead. As families do, many of the Langdons have ventured far from the Iowa farm, to places such as New York, Washington and California, and some have prominent roles in important events.

Though the book is in many ways a rich and insightful record of the period it covers, the personal stories never take a back seat to the broader sweep of history. Fittingly for the last book in the trilogy, it includes several stories of aging and death, yet most of these elements serve to make the story comforting and uplifting more than depressing or negative. We also get to know and care about several members of the younger generation.

If you haven’t read Some Luck and Early Warning, seek them out. Then read or listen to Golden Age. Jane Smiley has managed to tell fascinating stories while giving us a wise perspective on our times and those of our parents and grandparents. This is a wonderful book.

 

 

 

Posted in Audio Books, Contemporary literary fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fighting back

Tom Dillon put off reading this book for quite a while, but after he picked it up, he was glad he did.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

FACTORY MAN. By Beth Macy. Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 451 pages. $28.

You know that bricked-up abandoned factory down the street, the one you remember from the golden days of manufacturing, the one where so many of your family members worked, the one that eventually had to close because it couldn’t fight all the imports from abroad?

You remember how unjust you thought it was, all those people getting thrown out of work because of the North American Free Trade Act or the Chinese competition and all that?

Well, it may come as something of a surprise, but all that didn’t have to happen. If the folks who owned that factory had fought hard enough and scrapped the way their forebears had to decades and even centuries ago, they might have won. That plant might still be operating.

This book proves it. It’s the story of John D. Bassett III, scion of a Virginia furniture manufacturing family, and his fight to preserve and keep operating Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Factory in Galax, Va. – the last of a string of dozens of furniture factories across southern Virginia.

It tells how Bassett was pushed out of larger family-owned mills, then took over leadership of much smaller Vaughan-Bassett, and then fought off Asian competition to the point that his mill is still, today, a going thing, and John Bassett III is something of a folk hero to people in southern Virginia.

But the book also does something else: It puts faces on the victims of globalization, particularly in the down-on-their-luck towns of Bassett and Martinsville, Va. And it puts a bit of the lie to those economists who have argued that manufacturing can’t survive in America today.

Macy is a reporter for the Roanoke, Va., Times, who was tasked by her editors with telling the human side of the globalization story. But then she heard about John Bassett – or “JBIII,” as he inevitably becomes known – the never-say-die leader of the Galax plant.

And that puts Macy on a trail that leads all the way from Martinsville and Galax to Indonesia and even China, where JB III was able to uncover evidence of furniture “dumping” – or selling below cost in an attempt to run competitors out of business, a violation of World Trade Organization laws.

His successful attempt to prove that dumping was taking place alienated many: the Chinese government, furniture importers, competitors and even many people in his own family. But it leveled the playing field for American manufacturing, and it’s pretty clear that it saved his factory, and by extension the economy of Galax.

Bassett’s story also furnished the material for a darn good book. While the huge cast of characters may be hard to keep up with at times, Macy is a perceptive writer with an excellent eye for detail and the gumption to stick to a story until she gets her questions answered.

The product of a factory culture herself – her mother worked for many years in an aircraft-lighting plant in Ohio – she can identify with laid-off workers having to retrain for new jobs. She tells their stories with sensitivity.

And it doesn’t hurt that Bassett is almost a caricature of the hard-charging industrialist, easy to write about. “Not just anyone,” Macy says, “can explain the intricacies of grouse hunting and Chinese currency manipulation and tell a dirty joke – all in the same breath.”

Of course, it’s a stretch to compare John Bassett’s experience in furniture manufacturing with that of so many other people in textiles, computers, cellphone manufacturing and the like, so much of which has gone offshore in the last several decades. In 2012, Macy notes, not one of the world’s 1.75 billion new cell phones came from the United States.

Several generations of my own family worked in textiles, and it still hurts to see the mill that provided their livelihoods sitting for the most part abandoned. That pain is one reason I put off reading this book for nearly a year.

But Vaughan-Bassett’s experience proves it is possible to fight back. As John Bassett says toward the end of the book – one of many so-called “JBIII-isms” – “Sooner or later we’ve got to turn and face our enemy again. I did it, and you know what I found out? They’re not as damn tough as everybody thinks they are.”

  •  Tom Dillon is a free-lance writer in Winston-Salem.

 

 

 

Posted in business, Contemporary Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A fresh perspective: The exotic and the universal

Reviewed by Nikita Mathur

DON’T LET HIM KNOW. By Sandip Roy. Bloomsbury. 244 pages. $25.

While the shell of Sandip Roy’s novel Don’t Let Him Know may tackle issues such as the silent taboo of homosexuality in Indian society or the conflicts faced by Indian expatriates in the U.S, the book explores far more deeply the intricacies of a human psyche. It effectively captures a familiar and universally relatable internal struggle across several generations through its strong character development. With each chapter originally written as a standalone short story, Roy’s debut novel powerfully ties together through the hauntingly simple story of a Bengali-Indian family. As each chapter could be read as a story on its own, the reader is left overwhelmed and connected with the characters at every chapter’s end.

One day, a widowed Indian woman, Romola Mitra, visiting her son Amit and his American family in San Francisco, is confronted by him about an old letter he found in a forgotten address book. Amit mistakes the letter to be from his mother’s long-lost lover, though it was originally addressed to his late father, Avinash, a closeted gay man. The story starts with this secret, as Romola struggles with the sudden rehashing of her husband’s quiet truth. However, right from the beginning, the beauty of the book is defined not by the social issue, but by the details through which Romola examines her sense of self. The book opens with a powerful picture of an elderly woman desperately trying to retain her dignity without burdening her expatriated son, as he attempts to reconnect with his mother over this forgotten letter. Her resolute conviction to feel alive outside her comfort zone in Calcutta speaks to the entire story: a series of moments in a family’s life expressing violent internal struggles through generic, everyday images.

The story progresses gently, constantly switching among characters and periods in the Mitra family’s life, be it from Romola’s childhood, to Amit’s earliest memories of his great-grandmother, or Avinash’s cognizance of his duty to be a respected Indian man and son. The book also jumps from Calcutta to San Francisco, and Roy remarkably captures the essence of both places, honoring the quintessential identity conflict for an Indian living in either, or both places.

Though the plot moves slowly, Roy lets his readers sink into a world of fabulous details. Without letting the central conflicts of sexuality and family dynamics overpower the story, he fleshes out his characters deeply, highlighting their guilt, sadness and tenderness to which every reader can relate. By examining enduring dissatisfaction and unhappiness, Roy brings forth the struggles of being human with a recognizable clarity. Roy takes us from Amit as a 9-year-old, feeling piercingly guilty over losing his watch, to a newly wed Romola quietly worried about married life as she assures herself that “desire will come,” to a teenage Avinash refusing to confront his earliest dreams about other men. Through it all, Roy’s skillful ability to delve into the innermost nuances of fear and love make his book extraordinary.

While audiences of all backgrounds can appreciate this book, its subtle, though powerful, images may be most touching to a reader familiar with Indian society. Roy’s descriptions of fluffy cotton sarees, the tanginess of mango pickle, and the hot aromas of the Indian city accurately construct the striking color of Calcutta during the summer season. The reader who knows Indian culture will particularly enjoy everyday, overlooked objects depicted in an elegant yet heartbreaking manner. The unyielding importance of social image and familial duty in Indian society also drives the novel, and it will be best understood by the reader familiar with these subtleties.

This book, though poised to discuss prevalent social issues in Indian culture, is not a dramatic story with a conventional narrative. It is an examination of the deepest, most unaddressed struggles of an ordinary individual from an ordinary family. The book effectively depicts our deepest conflicts with our own willpower and desires, amid societal pressures that leave us in a quiet desperation to affirm own happiness.

 

Posted in Contemporary literary fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A fresh perspective: Nerd fiction

Reviewed by Jessica Coates

WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE .By Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Harper Perennial. 401 pages. $19.99

Welcome to Night Vale is probably the most highly anticipated piece of 2015 nerd fiction you’ve never heard of. It debuted at No. 4 on The New York Times bestseller list, just below J.K. Rowling’s Career of Evil, and, this fall, the authors’ 21-city book tour sold out Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theater. But, unlike most other pieces of popular fiction, this one is based on a quirky, twice-monthly podcast with a small but intensely loyal following. And its listeners may not know what they’re getting themselves into when they pick up this novel.

The podcast and the book, written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, both take place in the fictional desert town of Night Vale and center themselves on Night Vale community radio shows.  Fink, creator of the “Night Vale” concept, says that they originally chose community radio because they had no money and wanted to distribute their ideas using a cheap and easy platform. Now, only three years later, both Fink and Cranor have been able to quit their day jobs and tour the world doing live Night Vale shows.

But, while the podcasts provide listeners with somewhat light and humorous takes on existential quandaries, the novel dunks their heads directly into some of their deepest, darkest fears. From dissecting the complicated relationship between a single mother and her son to exploring the subtle terror of losing one’s sense of order, the main characters of the Night Vale novel do much more than dip their toes into the waters of existential crises – they essentially drown in them.

Diane, the single mother, has a lot going on. Her son, Josh, can alter his shape into anything – a fruit fly or a fanged puppy, to name a couple. Josh’s father, Troy, has reappeared in Night Vale after years spent elsewhere. And, to make matters worse, one of Diane’s coworkers disappears from the office – and no one remembers his ever existing except her. As she digs deeper into the mystery of his disappearance, and into the mystery of Troy’s reappearance, she starts to feel distance growing between herself and Josh, who wonders if she’s gone insane.

On a similarly wayward path is Jackie, a perpetually 19-year-old woman who can’t remember the last time she had a birthday. Unable to make friends who are her own age, because they keep getting older and leaving her behind, she instead devotes all her time to running a pawnshop where everything costs $11. The routine of running the shop is all that gives her life purpose, because it gives her a chance to ignore whatever concerns may be lurking in the back of her mind. But that is all disrupted one day when a strange customer comes into the shop and pawns a piece of paper of which she can never get rid.

Both women, wrestling with different insecurities and questions, find themselves intertwined as the story moves along, finding that their ultimate goals may not be so different. But, through their struggles, readers proceed along a darker path than ever explored in the podcasts, which might lead fans to question whether they even want to come along for the ride.

Which is to say: Fans of the podcast should not miss this chance to explore the town of Night Vale in more detail, but they shouldn’t expect the two experiences to line up perfectly. For those who have yet to listen to the Night Vale podcast, take heed – you are about to enter a strange and twisted world.

 

Posted in Popular fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A fresh perspective: Bold gambit

Here’s another of our interesting and well-done reviews by students in the opinion-writing class at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism.

Reviewed by Nick Niedzwiadek

DISCLAIMER. By Renée Knight. Harper. 336 pages. $25.99.

 Starting a story by introducing a book-within-a-book — and having it be central to the plot— is a bold meta gambit, especially for one’s debut novel.

Disclaimer, written by British documentarian and screenwriter Renee Knight, begins with Catherine Ravenscroft nauseously distraught from reading The Perfect Stranger, a book mysteriously left on her bedside nightstand. What could make her so violently ill? A secret she held for two decades, believing it died with the only other person who knew it.

Much as in 2014’s acclaimed psychological horror movie The Babadook, a mysterious book can be a surprisingly effective conduit of terror. The Perfect Stranger has its disclaimer — boilerplate language that the story does not resemble any person living or dead — crossed out by the author-cum-antagonist who also ensures the book finds its way into the hands of Catherine’s loved ones. The Perfect Stranger’s end also portends a gruesome death for Catherine, which naturally terrifies her.

It’s not meant only to terrorize Catherine, but also to force her secret onto her husband, Richard, and son, Nick, in the hope that it ensures its vengeful author’s vindication.

The author of The Perfect Stranger is Stephen Brigstocke, an elderly schoolteacher who was despised by students and forced into retirement under questionable circumstances. He tells his story in the first person, contrasting with the third-person narrator who follows Catherine and her family, as he plans to ruin her family and kill her. He dons his wife’s old cardigan — which he grows increasingly attached to — and calls himself a widower. But years earlier, Nancy Brigstocke had begun telling people Stephen was dead. Catherine may be the protagonist, but it’s through Stephen that readers uncover her past.

The Perfect Stranger in many ways is a manifestation of Stephen Brigstocke’s obsession with Catherine and what she’s held that affects his family more than 20 years thereafter. Stephen has the manuscript printed and sent to Catherine, and then awaits her response — while also manipulating her family against her.

The sub-novel, which Knight makes more erotic and amateurish to enhance its effect in the narrative, is excerpted judiciously, never giving away the story’s epicenter. In this way it is proficiently placed, but perhaps too much so; fans of “Law and Order” or similar entertainment can expect where The Perfect Stranger will be introduced to give the plot a jolt. There’s also a final reveal, a gratuitous appendage that goes for cheap shocks by using an increasingly common trope.

Disclaimer has drawn comparisons to Gone Girl, and it’s understandable why.  The central conflict is domestic, as the wife and husband cannot come to terms with their actions and therefore have kept the secrets that have plagued their marriage for years. It’s hard for the reader to trust anyone —Stephen Brigstocke, obsessions and all, is the most sympathetic character for large parts of the novel — and yet the reader stays captivated by the sinuous nature of the characters’ circumstances.

The wordplay, with its colorful metaphors that too often border on camp, prevents this story from likely finding an audience beyond fans of the thriller genre. It never quite reaches as high as its premise allows. It is a deconstruction of the genre that merely settles for being an entertaining dispute between two intertwined families searching for the truth.

But the flaws of Disclaimer don’t distract the reader for the most part,  cropping up only to distract and annoy for a page or two at a time. Alternating between the narrative perspectives of Stephen Brigstocke and the Ravenscrofts — as well as excerpts from The Perfect Stranger — keeps the story engrossing despite its tics.

Posted in Popular fiction, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment