I wasn’t initially sure if I was liking this or not liking this book. The challenge is that like a lot of books written from an immigrant perspective there’s a kind of tendency to write into the novel a sense of totalizing voice, as if this will be the only book ever written about the experiences of, in this case, Ethiopian, immigrants. This book does challenge that structure to some extent by the end, especially given that this book is as much a geopolitical thriller as much as a novel of immigrant experiences. There’s some similarity to Chinua Achebe’s Man of the People in this book, and there’s some real similarity to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. And the places where this novel is more similar to those novels, the better this novel gets. This novel takes a young immigrant’s voice, a young woman living in Boston, who gets involved with a kind of man of means/jack of all trades who owns a series of parking lots in the area. As she gets involved and develops a kind of father-daughter but also lover relationship with him, the more she becomes entangled in the political dealings, realizing that this man is trying to fund an overthrow of a foreign government. She has to figure out to what degree he’s using her and to what degree he cares about her. And the subsequent investigations into these question unravel more and more questions.
There’s a very strong narrative voice here, and some confused sense of purpose throughout. This is the kind of book that maybe feels like two half-written books.
The Children of Men 4/5 Stars
And so obviously reading this book for the first time in 2018, 25 or more years since it was first published and more than a decade since the movie came out, which I’ve seen 5 or more times, the thing the most comes to mind is how and if it compares to the film version.
Simply put, they are different. The tone is a little different, the structure is much different, and the choices of the filmmaker versus the choices of the novelist diverge quite a bit. It feels somewhat useless to compare them in terms of worth ala which is better, because neither is so much like the other that we can’t have both, appreciate both, and think about how the choices of each affect the final product. While this is more or less true about any adaptation, it feels specifically good here to have and like both.
So the biggest difference is the narrative voice, which splits its time between Theo’s journals, which tell the extensive back story of the world, his relationship with his ex wife, and his relationship with the leader of England. For one, the film tightens the narrative in a few ways. Making Julian Theo’s ex wife contracts the plot and allows the shared pain of their lost child drive the plot forward. Two, having Miriam, the Black woman carry the child, provides a more poignant connection between England as a former colonial power and innate bastion of historical whiteness be challenged in its role as policing the world’s immigration. But for the novel, having the pain of a lost child and a failed marriage be important to Theo but disconnected from the remaining characters provides depth to his character.
In addition, the novel places a lot of importance on his relationship with the leader of England, which in the movie is present, but starkly de-emphasized. Lastly, the tone of the novel is not not hopeful, but not expressly hopefully. The film tries to make that hopefulness be a cornerstone.
Mirror Shoulders Signal – 3/5 Stars
A strange little Nordic novel, specifically a Danish one. I read Nors’s other collection of short stories a few years back and kind of liked it and kind of didn’t like it. But since this one was available and because I liked the idea of it, I gave it a shot. It reminds me a lot of the novel I reviewed recently The Faster I Walk the Smaller I get. Both are small, compact novels. Both are in great contrast to the bulk to the rest of the Nordic novels I read, which are near universally crime novels. This novel has a fun time parsing out these differences and plays upon the general American understanding of Nordic literature. Our protagonist is a translator of these kinds of Danish crime novels and because those novels are often good, but hardly literature, she begins to become frustrated with authorial choices and wishes to step in a make “fixes” as needed for the novels to work better in her native language. In addition, post-40, she’s learning to drive and splits the early part of the novel choosing between two different instructors, one a domineering woman who barks orders at her and does little to teach her and the understanding but decidedly lecherous older man who plays in sweatpants and rubs cream on his bald pate, but also actually teaches her. These kinds of compromises she makes, wresting control from what feels like a hopeless life and making shortcut choices to get what she wants while probably giving up too much in return plague and punctuate her life.
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang 3/5 Stars
Pictured: Joyce Carol Oates in her Girl Gang youth
I am guessing that maybe I am wrong and Joyce Carol Oates is not REALLY in a girl gang. As I will say in the next review, there’s a kind of reversal of expectations in this novel that catalogues the life and times of a girl gang from the 50s. Because boy gangs, more commonly known as gangs, receive 99.9% of the attention all gangs receives, this is an under told story and this novel works to supplant that and tell the story of a gang of girls who find the same kinds of alluring life of violence and crime as a willing compromise from otherwise being victim to violence and having few options in the world. It’s an attempt to create and employ agency where generally that has been stripped.
And like some of the other early Oates novels, not this one, which is from the 1990s, Oates is very interested in small town life in upstate New York, which if you have never lived in the upstate New York, there’s a real life being led there that does not get a lot of play in wider culture. Again, as I have said in previous reviews of these types of novels by Oates, check out Derek Cianfrance’s underrated but flawed movie “The Place Beyond the Pines” to better understand what this world is like and looks like. This novel also does a perfectly ok and competent job doing so.
The Merry Spinster – 3/5 Stars
Oh modern retelling of fairy tale and myth and Biblical stories, I wish I knew how to quit you. Because, as I universally state in these reviews…I mostly don’t like them and sometimes, but rarely do like them. I like a few of the stories in this collection and was pretty meh about the rest. Ortberg’s not doing anything egregious here at and an joins the ranks of other good writers who write these kinds of books that I can just never truly get behind. That is, aside from the psychological retelling of myths and legends by Mary Renault…I also cozen to stories based on and in the stories but aren’t like fairy tales with a twist kind of thing.
The most interesting things that happen here in these stories is the reversal and in some cases complete erasure of gender norms, as well as placing characters who have the ability to just say no to certain conventions populate the worlds here.
Ultimately, it’s a fine book and isn’t bad, but like the other books I have read for this site: Her Bodies and Other Parties by Julia Machado, The Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, and I am sure there’s more, there are better books to be written by these writers and others. And if this is what we get, I am content to have not read them.