Severance

Ma, Ling - SeveranceSeverance
by Ling Ma

Shen Fever, a fungal infection, spreads across the globe. Initial symptoms mirror the common cold, but as the infection worsens, infected lose themselves in familiar loops of activity. One of the “fevered” for example, appears to be reading, but her book is upside down, and she is regularly drinking moldy juice. Unable to break free of the loops, the fevered stop eating, drinking, bathing, or doing anything but acting out these rote activities. There is no cure, and the condition is fatal.

Candace Chen, who immigrated to the United States from China when she was six, works at Spectra, a company that helps publishers produce books like Bibles and coffee table books in Asia. Her specialization is Bibles, and she has nightmares about the thin papers used in Bibles getting stuck in the printing press. When Shen Fever hits New York City, her boss wants to keep the office open and selects Candace as part of the small team that will stay–in exchange for an exorbitant bonus.

But when New York City empties, she joins a group of survivors led by the controlling figure, Bob, who had worked in information technology before the fever hit. Bob leads the group to a mysterious Facility where they will be able to survive, though Candace fears that she may be in danger.

I became engrossed in Severance and really enjoyed reading it. However, there is so much going on in Severance, it is hard to condense, and, truly, I am still trying to work out all the implications of the narrative. In addition to the post-apocalyptic narrative, the book is an immigrant story about Candace’s parent’s painful adjustment to life in the United States. It is also a critique of capitalism and the inequities of global trade. Ma makes connections between the routines of employees and the loops of the fevered, and while there is comfort in the familiarity, there is also the risk of being subsumed. The narrative is peppered with phrases that cleverly recur and reinforce the theme of repetition.

In many ways, Severance is my favorite kind of novel: well-written and provocative. It has all the fun (to me at least) of apocalyptic fiction but is elevated by the well-drawn characters, interesting back stories, and thought-provoking themes.

Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an Advance Reading Copy in exchange for an honest review.

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The Real Lolita

Weinman, Sarah - The Real Lolita (3)The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
by Sarah Weinman

The Real Lolita tells three stories: that of the kidnapping of Sally Horner by Frank La Salle in 1948; the writing and publication process of Vladmir Nabokov’s literary classic Lolita; and how the story of Sally Horner and Lolita (Dolores “Dolly” Haze). Sarah Weinman extensively researched the topic, consulting primary sources, reading newspaper accounts from the time period, visiting Nabokov archives, and interviewing key individuals still alive.

After Horner, on a dare from the popular girls, stole a notebook from the five and dime, Frank La Salle grabbed her and told her he was an FBI agent. Weeks later, in June 1948, he found her and told her she had to come with him, posing as his daughter, always leveraging the threat of juvenile detention if she told anyone what was really going on. So began a nearly two-year ordeal as they crossed the country from Atlantic City to Baltimore to Dallas to San Jose. Finally, with the encouragement of a neighbor, Sally called home and was rescued while La Salle was condemned to jail.

Long before Sally’s kidnapping, Vladimir Nabokov was working on a book in which a man had unnatural affections for young girls, but he was not making progress, and, in fact, tried to destroy the manuscript at least twice. Nabokov knew of Sally’s case: Humbert Humbert asks himself in Lolita, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” But he and his wife, Vera, insisted that the novel was not inspired by the crime. As early as 1963, though, Peter Welding published an article in Nugget arguing that Lolita owned more to Sally Horner than the Nabokovs would admit.

The Real Lolita attempts to resolve definitively the debate over how much Nabokov drew on Sally Horner’s kidnapping in his novel. Weinman is best in my opinion when she recounts Sally’s harrowing nightmare, La Salle’s depravity, and the aftermath of the kidnapping. I hadn’t known anything about the case before, so it was all new to me. To flesh out the prosecutor handling La Salle’s trial, Weinman discusses other crimes in Camden, two in particular, both of which were very interesting. This is not so surprising since Weinman has a background writing true crime.

It’s been ages since I’ve read Lolita, and I probably should have reread it before tackling The Real Lolita. Even so, learning about the manuscript through its creation, release, film adaptation, and lasting impact was gratifying. Nabokov’s writing process, in which he wrote his research on index cards, and the road to publication were fascinating. I had not known Nabokov was so interested in butterflies (which explains their presence on the cover) or that he and his wife often took road trips across the country from their home base in Ithaca, NY.

My least favorite aspect of the book was Weinman’s attempt to “prove” Nabokov was inspired by Sally Horner’s case. In some ways, she is convincing. The manuscript was floundering, but when Nabokov learned of Sally’s kidnapping (as evidenced by an index card referencing it), he seemed to be catalyzed into finishing the book. Aside from the direct mention of Sally Horner and Frank La Salle, Weinman shows aspects of the true crime Nabokov seemed to incorporate. One character was named Fogg, one of La Salle’s aliases. Humbert Humbert is sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, the same as La Salle. The fictional Humbert marries Dolores’s mother to gain access; La Salle pretends to be Sally’s father. At the same time, some of her ideas are speculative. For example, she was unable to find any material mentioning Sally Horner in the Nabokov archives, even though the Nabokovs had kept voluminous amounts of clippings related to Lolita. She implies that they were deliberately omitted to keep researchers from linking the real crime to that depicted in the novel.

In the same vein, Weinman speculates more than I would like about Sally’s state of mind and daily life. Since Sally is not available, speculation is the only alternative, and Weinman does base her ideas on narratives written by young women kidnapped and held for long periods of time. However, the fact is, we can never really know what Sally was thinking.

Weinman’s ultimate argument is that the Nabokovs would deny any connection to real life inspiration to preserve the image of Vladmir as a literary genius. In so doing, they re-victimize Sally by depriving her of acknowledgement. In The Real Lolita, Weinman effectively lobbies for the reinstatement of Sally’s voice through documenting her story.

Author’s Website

Purple Hibiscus

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi - Purple Hibiscus (2) Purple Hibiscus
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili and her elder brother Jaja live under the controlling hand of their father, Eugene, who goes so far as to create the teenagers’ schedules, accounting for every hour. Eugene, a staunch Catholic and wealthy businessman, presents a clear picture of sin which the family must observe–even going so far as to refuse to let his “heathen” father on his compound in his home village. His expectations for perfection are ever-present, creating an oppressive atmosphere that is palpable to the reader. It is clear that something very, very bad is going to happen.

Yet, Kambili is proud of her father, who is often mentioned in sermons as a paragon of virtue, and is desperate to please him. She is proud that his newspaper, the Standard, publishes articles critical of the government even though it might put Eugene, his staff, and his family in danger. Though there is a military coup that rocks the country and threatens the paper, the family is mostly shielded from change through their great wealth.

When their Aunty Ifeoma convinces Eugene to allow Kambili and Jaja to visit her and her children in Nsukka, he reluctantly agrees, sending them with revised schedules that allow for two hours a day to spend with their cousins but otherwise look the same. The teenagers realize that the visit will be very different than they expect when Ifeoma takes the schedules from them, releasing them from the constraints of their father. Jaja takes delight in Aunty Ifeoma’s beautiful and vibrant garden. Kambili, who could barely speak when she arrived in Nsukka, found herself not only talking but laughing after spending time with her Aunt’s family and becoming close to the family’s priest, Father Amadi.

Still, things happen that Kambili knows her father would disapprove of. When praying, Ifeoma and her children incorporate Igbo praise songs. Ifeoma and her daughter Amaka wear not just pants but shorts. And, when Ifeoma receives word that Papa Nnukwu is ill, she brings him back to Nsukka. Kambili worries about sleeping under the same roof as a heathen, though Ifeoma tries to teach her that he is not a heathen but a traditionalist.

The taste of freedom that the teenagers receive while visiting their Aunt creates a growing wedge between them, especially Jaja, and Eugene while at the same time the military government increases persecution of dissidents. Aunty Ifeoma faces her own challenges as the university claims that she is encouraging students rioting about the poor conditions they experience. Just as the government has a dictatorial military Head of State, the University of Nigeria has abandoned the traditional and more democratic administration in favor of a single Head. Kambili and Jaja must take responsibility and carve out their own beliefs like never before as the adults sink into their own crises.

I was most confounded by Kambili’s close relationship with Father Amadi. She has an obvious crush on him, and her family is aware of it, yet Kambili and Father Amadi often spend time alone. He helped her find her voice so he was a positive force, but the power differential due to age and status made me uncomfortable. Even though Amadi knew of Kambili’s feelings towards him, he continued to see her privately. Perhaps, though, this is a Western perspective that is irrelevant in the context of the novel.

No characters in the novel are purely good or purely evil but are complicated and challenging. Certainly, the strict Catholicism (linked to colonialism) of Eugene is critiqued, and one character argues that religion and oppression are inseparable, but other types of religion are modeled by Ifeoma, Papa Nnukwu, and Father Amadi. Though the problems of the ruling government form the backdrop of the novel, they are not as prevalent as in Half of a Yellow Sun or some of the stories in That Thing Around Your Neck. As in all her fiction, Adichie’s prose is masterful, achingly beautiful, and lasting.

Chrysanthemum

Henkes, Kevin - Chrysantemum (2)Chrysanthemum
by Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes (author of Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse) presents an endearing story about accepting one’s self and others. The illustrations are delightful, and the narrative is sophisticated enough that it didn’t seem childish. (Be sure to check out the book titles Chrysanthemum’s father reads!)

My middle name is “Dars,” and when I was in elementary school, I wished so much my middle name was “Ann” like my friends Emily and Kim. (Now, I’m happy to have such a unique middle name.) I could empathize with Chrysanthemum who was given the name out of love from her parents who thought she was beautiful and special and needed a perfect name.

Chrysanthemum loved her name until she went to school and her classmates, who had names like Jo, Sam, and Max, led by bully Victoria, teased her about it. A sad refrain in the book is “Chrysanthemum wilted.” But when Mrs. Twinkle, the music teacher, says she loves the name Chrysanthemum and was herself named after the delphinium flower, all the girls wished they were named after flowers, too.

The book contains challenging vocabulary such as winsome, begrudging, jaundiced which children will surely need help with but made the book, to me, seem less belittling than some children’s titles. As much as I liked the book, though, I wish that Chrysanthemum gained renewed confidence not from praise from a teacher but perhaps an internal source. Additionally, it is somewhat satisfying when bully Victoria gets her comeuppance, it also feels a little mean-spirited.

That said, I can see why this has been such a popular title since it’s 1991 publication. It’s a title children and adults can return to again and again.

Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead

Stoppard, Tom - R&G Are DeadRosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard

Centered around Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, two minor characters from Hamlet, this absurdist play treats serious themes about death, chance, and the relationship between the theater and life with humor.

The protagonists are commanded by Claudius to glean insight into Hamlet’s behavior since he is not himself, inside or out. Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are often baffled by the circumstances in which they find themselves, having trouble remembering what pulled them into the story in the first place. Rather than proactively address their task, they passively wait for events to transpire.

Rosencrantz and Gulderstern engage in farcical word play that on first pass seems meaningless but often reveals hidden truths. The play has some wonderful lines: “I’ve lost all capacity for disbelief. I’m not sure that I could even rise to a little gentle scepticism” and “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered” are two of my favorites.

As funny as the play is, it stumbles to its inevitable conclusion. “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.”

Monster City: Murder, Music, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age

Arntfield, Michael - Monster City SMMonster City: Murder, Music, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age
by Michael Arntfield

Nashville. Music City. A place where hopefuls come in search of country music stardom. A place where monsters come to murder. Since the early 1970s, Nashville has been the killing ground of a disproportionate number of violent predators. It’s also home to Detective Pat Postiglione, now retired, who lead the elite M Squad and later the city’s first cold case unit, putting many of those monsters behind bars. Notable cases each include the Tanning Bed Murders, the Rest Stop Murders, the Motel Murders, and the Vandyland Murders, and these are each given a section in the book, though the Janet March and Carl Williams murders as well as others are also discussed.

In Monster City, Michael Arntfield collects the stories of these murders, many committed by serial killers, and tracks the investigative process, highlighting how techniques have changed over time. As an academic and former police officer, Arntfield combines practical knowledge with theoretical insights into types of killers, meanings of weapons, interview techniques, and what the state of the body says about the perpetrator. He also references other infamous killers when relevant and sprinkles the text with allusions to popular culture like True Detective and the Making of a Murderer. Though detailed, the book isn’t sensational.

When my parents were first married, they lived in Nashville, and my father attended Vanderbilt Divinity School, so I had a personal interest in the subject. I’m a true crime aficionado as well, watching Investigation Discovery frequently, and while I had heard of some of the killers (particularly Janet March, who had an episode of 48 Hours devoted to her disappearance), this was the first time I’d been introduced to some of the cases. I also did enjoy how Arnfield included the latest forensic developments.

That said, the book was more complicated to read than it should have been. Information was presented in a strange order, as were phrases within sentences. I found myself often confused and rereading for clarification. At times, too, the prose was overwritten, and I was surprised by the overuse of the word “inevitable.” Arnfield attempted to link the murders through Postiglione, but the reality is that they were distinct crimes, so the linkages felt like a stretch. Also, it was at times implied that the killers were playing a deliberate cat-and-mouse came with Postiglione during the investigation, which doesn’t seem to be the case–though Postiglione was a target after the fact.

Unfortunately for Arntfield, at the time he wrote the book, one of the cold cases seemed resolved, with a man indicted for the murders. But this past summer, charges were dropped. That section now rings hollow since much of it tracked the movements of the now-exonerated suspect.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, though, was an exploration of why Nashville attracted so many serial killers and violent murderers. Given the focus on the city itself, this seemed a glaring omission.

I received a free copy of Monster City through a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you Goodreads and Little A.

Warlight

IMG_8361Warlight

by Michael Ondaatje

In Warlight, Michael Ondaatje has crafted a beautiful and restrained meditation on memory. How people construct their pasts in the face of faulty recollection has always been a theme that has interested me, and this novel places that question in the confusing post-war period in London where Nathaniel Williams comes to realize “wars are never over.”

Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are left in the care of their mother’s associate whom they nickname the “Moth” when their parents leave for Singapore for a year. But not long after their departure, Rachel finds their Mother’s steamer truck in the basement. The year passes and they don’t hear from their Mother, but their world is populated by the Moth’s associates, notably Olive Laurence and Norman Marshall, “The Darter,” the latter whom involves the siblings in illicit activities yet still becomes a father figure to Nathaniel.

Halfway through the novel, Nathaniel, at twenty-eight, tries to reconstruct his mother’s life, confident “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.” His parents’ absence affected him greatly. As a child, he drew maps of his neighborhood trying to anchor himself in place. When he works for the solid Sam Malakite as a teenager, Nathaniel takes great comfort in his reliability and exactitude. Insofar as maps represent a settled narrative of the past, the war disturbed them. Cities were removed from maps of England for their protection, villages were “wiped off the map” after battles, and the borders of countries on maps were redrawn after the war. An additional layer of obfuscation stymied Nathaniel’s quest for truth since his mother deliberately cultivated secrecy, asserting that covertness was at times necessary, even going so far as giving Nathaniel and Rachel code names, Stitch and Wren, respectively. But through his efforts, he forges a version of the path, at least one possible truth, and in his search for his mother, he finds out a shocking truth about his own past.

Although I certainly admired Warlight and its mastery, I did not always enjoy reading the novel at times and was particularly distressed at the matter-of-fact, sometimes even proud, manner in which characters responded to greyhound smuggling and race fixing (though Nathaniel was somewhat redeemed in my eyes when he adopted a greyhound in later life). Both Olive Laurence and Nathaniel’s mother, Rose Williams, enjoy fabulous careers that contributed to England’s war effort, but the book doesn’t explore the challenges they must have faced as women in male-dominated fields. Perhaps this is due to the narrow perspective Nathaniel brings to the women’s pasts, but it seemed like a lost opportunity to me. Three characters are described as “inhaling” experience; this didn’t necessarily seem thematic so it felt more like sloppy repetition than a motif.

But I did love the way Ondaatje discusses memory and its distillation in the present. Also of note were the repeating symbols of the natural world. I particularly enjoyed the aside about sea-peas that flourished during the war because their habitat was mined and therefore avoided by humans. Additionally, as Nathaniel tries to built his past, governments on either side of the conflict try to erase theirs, destroying evidence of nefarious behavior. Still, for both individuals and governments, war ripples into the present, and its effects in the book offer a subtle but convincing indictment of war. Warlight is worth reading, but to fully appreciate it requires attention to its layers. It’s surface simplicity, like warlight, hides the rich details underneath.

Author’s Facebook Page

Woken Furies

Morgan, Richard K - Woken FuriesWoken Furies

by Richard K. Morgan

Back on his home planet Harlan’s World, Takeshi Kovacs faces new adversaries: the priests of the fundamentalist, misogynistic Knights of the New Revolution, the Yakuza, and karikuri, nanotechnology gone rogue. He joins forces with a deCom crew led by a command-head who thinks she is the three-centuries old revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer. Most dangerous of all, someone has sleeved a younger version of Kovacs to hunt down his older counterpart and inflict real death.

Morgan excels at world building. The cities and neighborhoods in Woken Furies are well-developed with rich details, and in the third Kovacs book, it is fitting to travel to his home world. He also is a master of including small details that become relevant as the plot progresses. (It brings to mind Chekhov’s warning, “”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”) The narrative is surprising and has numerous twists and turns with an ultimately satisfying conclusion.

While the book is primarily an adventure, it also asks questions about identity when a person can exist for centuries through resleeving in new bodies and also about what is real when it is possible to exist in a virtual landscape.

In Woken Furies, much of motivation hinges on one of Kovacs’ past relationships, but the underlying meaning of the relationship was not developed enough to make the motivation believable. Additionally, Kovacs is fickle with his loyalty, and it doesn’t always make sense why he chooses one character over another. It’s a small quibble, but one of my reading pet peeves: Morgan tends frequently to use similies that do less to describe than to take me out of the narrative (e.g., “like a used wipe in a beach bonfire” or “like wrappings of bloodstained gauze”).

Like the second Kovacs book, the plot in Woken Furies is self-contained, and besides the terminology (e.g., sleeves, needlecast) and description of the Martians who first colonized the universe, reading the first two entries in the series isn’t necessary. It’s a fitting conclusion to the story and will definitely appeal to Takeshi Kovacs fans.

Ordinary People

Evans, Diana - Ordinary People (2)Ordinary People

by Diana Evans

Ordinary People tracks two long-term couples, both from London, both with children: Melissa and Michael and Stephanie and Damian. Melissa and Michael live in the south London neighborhood Bel Green, the land that the tube forgot, while Stephanie and Damian moved to Dorking after Stephanie tired of the high crime rate in London.

Both couples show signs of strain. After giving birth to Blake, Melissa decided not to return to work, but she resents losing her “outside” self at the same time she begins to be disinterested in sex. For his part, Michael senses the distance between them, wishes to repair the damage but doesn’t know how, and wants the “old” Melissa back. Frustrated, Melissa turns inward while Michael searches the city for solace.

Stephanie, who always wanted a family, is happy to be the domestic czar in her relationship with Damian, but Damian misses the heartbeat of London and has failed to deal with his father’s recent death, becoming a ghost in the relationship. They’ve all reached watersheds and each handle the uncertain waters with different effect.

In lovely prose, Diana Evans shows how fractures in relationships extend to gorges through everyday slights. The characters question whether they can remain fundamentally themselves in relationships with their significant others and as parents and Melissa in particular observes the constraints of traditional gender roles. Melissa, Michael, and Damian are all people of color, and the racism they face is a subtle but important theme.

Music threads through the novel, with the title itself taken by a song performed by John Legend. A key scene happens at a Jill Scott concert; another occurs when a group of friends dances to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The author even has a playlist to accompany the book on her website. The narrative is firmly rooted in the gritty details of London, drawing on existing restaurants, shops, and neighborhoods. A story about a peripheral character encountering gang violence is especially heart-wrenching.

Sometimes the symbolism is heavy handed. Melissa and Michael live on Paradise Row, and Evans often returns to the Crystal Palace, a beautiful and hopeful structure that fell into disrepair and was destroyed by a fire in the mid-1800s. A supernatural strain that is either really evidence of otherworldly influence or simply an indication of Melissa’s deteriorating emotional state is confusing and therefore ineffective, and is so unnecessary and strange given the realistic grounding of the book otherwise. Even so, it was a very pleasurable read, and I plan to put Diana Evans’ other books on my to-read list.

I won this ARC in a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you Liveright Publishing Corporation and Goodreads!

The UK edition of the book was published earlier this year. I like the cover design released there so much better!

Evans, Diana - Ordinary People UK.jpg

Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first heard about Born a Crime, I decided to listen to it as an audiobook instead of reading it in a traditional format. I’m so glad that I did. I’m sure the book would be just as good, but it wouldn’t have the correct pronunciation of African phrases, the special voices Noah uses for his grandmother, mother, and other family members, or his emotional delivery.

Born a Crime focuses on Noah’s early years growing up under apartheid and ends in his mid-twenties as his comedy career was taking off but his family suffered a tragedy. As funny as Noah is–and he is funny–the book provides an unflinching look at apartheid and the effects of apartheid after it ended. He describes feeling like an outsider in school, recounts his schemes to make money, reflects on his relationship with his Swedish father, and laments his lackluster love life.

As Noah hilariously recounts his exploits, he never fails to situate them in the social and cultural context, asking difficult questions (e.g., might crime be at times legitimate?) or criticizing the policies of the South African state. Not only was I completely entertained, I learned a lot about the mechanisms of apartheid and the methods by which the government successfully oppressed the majority of the population.

Throughout, Noah returns to themes of empathy and understanding, often reflecting on how language can unite (or divide) people, as well as the love of family, particularly his strong though difficult mother. The last chapter of the book recounts his mother’s marriage to his stepfather, and the raw emotion it still raises was clear in Noah’s narration. Of course, the book also underlines the use of humor to cope with difficult situations.

The only drawback to the audio edition was the lack of pictures. I’m not sure if the hardback or ebook has pictures. When Noah described how he looked as a teenager and his attempts to preen for girls, I really wished I could see it!

I highly recommend this book for teenagers up!

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