Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

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In post-apocalyptic Africa, there are two peoples: the dark-skinned, oppressed Okeke and the lighter-skinned, dominant Nuru. Our heroine, Onyesonwu—whose name means “Who fears death”—is born a mixed-race Ewu, conceived in a rape during a genocidal raid on her mother’s village. The rape was intended to create a powerful sorcerer, and it succeeded, though not quite as Onyesonwu’s evil magical father had intended. Emotional, passionate, curious, strong, impulsive, and fiercely independent, Onyesonwu is a girl who is no one’s sidekick.

The first half of the book shows Onyesonwu learning who she is while battling prejudice, both as a woman and as an Ewu. At first she tries to conform to the norms of the Okeke village in which she and her mother ultimately reside, but at the same time she begins to exhibit incredible powers that ensure that she will always be an outsider. Eventually she bonds with three other girls with whom she shares a clitoridectomy ceremony, and she grows close to a mysterious Ewu boy named Mwita. Then, when she finally persuades an extremely reluctant sorcerer to take her on as a student, Onyesonwu begins to learn her destiny.

As tends to happen in fantasy novels, there is a prophecy. Although Onyesonwu does not originally seem to fit the description of the one who will literally rewrite the rules, it soon becomes clear that fate may be wrong about some details. As tends to happen in fantasy novels, a journey must therefore be undertaken, and a fellowship must be formed.

The second half of the book follows Onyesonwu and her posse through five months in the desert on the way to a showdown with her father, who leads the Nuru in attacks meant to obliterate the Okeke. Nnedi Okorafor is a skilled raconteur, but given the buildup, the ending comes so quickly that it feels like an afterthought. And Onyesonwu is hardly an untainted heroine, given the destruction she heaps on two villages along her journey. Indeed, she exhibits—even welcomes—the violent tendencies that Ewu are assumed to possess because of the violence of their conception, which is the reason why Ewu are universally shunned. But then, conception is a central theme of this book, and Onyesonwu’s Ewu lover Mwita, born not of rape but of love between the two races, is a moderating force and a healer.

The book has a hard time settling into a groove. It feels at times like a YA novel, except that Onyesonwu and Mwita (not to mention Onyesonwu’s girlfriends) are constantly having sex. (Although their sex feels like YA sex—lots of reaching for each other, and then….) The story follows a fantasy outline, but it throws science fiction elements into the mix without following the paths they suggest. And though there’s nothing wrong with a little ambiguity, there are a ridiculous number of overly sly hints about how this world came to be, with too many questions left unanswered—including the question of how a Schoolhouse Rock lyric might become embedded in post-apocalyptic African lore.

This is not to say that the book doesn’t have a great many rewards. The author has grand ambitions for her story, most of which are at least partially satisfied. The female characters, Onyesonwu in particular, are fully drawn and thoroughly believable. The storytelling is deft and compelling. And the author uses her tale to ponder a variety of social topics,from feminism to racial inequality, from acceptance of one’s fate to control of one’s body. A reader is left to wonder whether “Who fears death” is a question or a statement, and whether the answer even matters to one for whom dying is just another bump in the road.

The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

The only story

I loved Julian Barnes’s meditative, Man Booker Prize-winning A Sense of an Ending, which I reviewed very briefly here. In it, a middle-aged Brit contemplated the relationships of his youth in spare but lovely prose. When The Only Story began, it felt like it might recapture the thoughtfulness of that earlier tale. Sadly, it was not to be.

In The Only Story, we are introduced to an annoying, self-important protagonist, Paul Casey, whose summer membership at the local country club at age 19 leads to a decade-long entanglement with his tennis partner, 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, a married mother of two. Susan is a spirited woman in a drab and occasionally violent marital relationship. She quickly identifies Paul as a head case, but one with whom she is happy to trade banter. She is not the world-weary Mrs. Robinson type, a cougar on the prowl; instead, she comes across more like a spunky kitten: a woman who is a bit naïve, who regrets her lack of experience but is finally ready to do something about it. She seems to see in Paul—what? A way to overwrite the choices she made at Paul’s age? It’s hard to tell; we never truly get to know Susan, whose mid-life decisions, seen through the filter of Paul’s self-absorption, seem odd at best. It’s Susan’s life that’s the tragedy here, yet the pompous Paul seizes for himself the role of tragic hero.

The first half of this brief book tells the tale of the lovers’ happy-ish first years, in which Paul becomes a strange part of Susan’s household, bringing his college buddies home to her and doing crosswords with her husband. His parents are properly alarmed, which only makes Paul more pleased with his unconventional arrangement. Eventually, though, Paul and Susan decide to run off together, and here is where the story begins to fall apart.

The second half of the book drags, with Susan’s sad spiral glimpsed between Paul’s self-centered and stale musings on love. Paul, unsurprisingly, is ultimately unable to deal with his broken lover or accept his role in her decline, yet once he tosses her back to her family, he also remains too entangled to move on with his own life. For him, this is truly “the only story.”

The author plays with voice here, moving between first-, second-, and third-person observations with varying degrees of success, and as in previous books, he makes memory a central theme. As the book winds down, we wonder: Can we rely on Paul’s recollections or not? In the end, though, this bleak book brings few insights, and even the clean, crisp writing is not enough to wash away the sorrow of two lives wasted in the name of love.

Failure to Launch: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Two pages. That’s how far I got with Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. Obviously, it’s a Failure to Launch record, and the book against which future FtL books will be measured.

I had been looking forward to reading this book, a 2011 New York Times bestseller. It’s apparently about a descendant of witches who, in the course of her scholarly research, finds an enchanted manuscript in the Oxford University library. All kinds of demons, witches, etc. descend upon the library as a result. There’s even a vampire, described on the back cover as “enigmatic,” so clearly he’s a love interest. (Maybe that should have been the first clue.)

Now, I’m a huge fan of fantasy, and I’m willing to put up with a lot for a rousing story: J.R.R. Tolkein’s mind-numbing descriptions of mountain scenery, Terry Brooks’s stilted prose. I even slogged my way through the Twilight series, so you know I have patience and stamina, with more than a touch of masochism.

But Twilight had something that A Discovery of Witches did not.

Good writing.

(Not really, but I thought I’d take a moment to give my sister a heart attack.)

No, both have bad, bad, bad writing, but when I read it, Twilight had gone viral, and I was spending a lot of time with middle-schoolers. I needed to read the book to understand why Edward was supposedly the perfect man. I hate that I felt that way, I resent the time I spent reading that WHOLE SERIES when I could have been reading something good, and I still don’t know why Edward was even in the running to be the perfect man. But I digress.

A Discovery of Witches may have been a New York Times bestseller, but it wasn’t culturally necessary enough for me to fight my way through the bad, bad, bad writing past page 2.  Now, keep in mind, I’m a Midwesterner! I am full of optimism! I always think to myself, maybe if I just stick around for a bit, things will get better! So the writing had to be pretty bad.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what page 1 looks like:

“Dr. Bishop, your manuscripts are up,” he whispered, voice tinged with a touch of mischief.

Voice tinged with a touch of mischief? What does that MEAN?

“Thanks,” I said, flashing him a grateful smile….

He grinned back….The thin gold rims of his glasses sparked in the dim light provided by the old bronze reading lamp that was attached to a shelf.

There’s a lot of grinning going on. And unless the lamp is about to turn into a demon, I don’t care about the sparking of the glasses or the attachment to the shelf. (Actually, I was kind of tickled by the thought of the lamp turning into a demon, and then finding that it was attached to a shelf. But sadly, that didn’t seem to be in the cards.)

My smile widened.

More smiling? Did I mention that I’m a Midwesterner? We smile a lot, but we don’t dwell on it THIS much.

Sean looked at me shyly and tugged on the call slip, but it remained where it was, lodged between the cover and the first pages. “This one doesn’t want to let go,” he commented.

Maybe if he stopped looking at her shyly and looked down at the call slip, it would come out. And did we need to be told explicitly that he commented? Isn’t that what the quotation marks were for?

Muffled voices chattered in my ear, intruding on the familiar hush of the room.

“Did you hear that?” I looked around, puzzled by the strange sound.

“What?” Sean replied, looking up from the manuscript.

Wait! Wasn’t Sean looking at her shyly? When did he start looking down at the manuscript? And why are muffled voices a strange sound in a library? Did we even NEED the words, “puzzled by the strange sound”?

Okay, maybe you’re thinking that I’m being a little too harsh. Maybe I was in a bad mood that day, maybe I needed a nice soothing romance or a Jack Reacher novel to take the edge off. I had the same thought. After all, this is a New York Times bestseller! If that many people bought the book, I must be missing something—Twilight notwithstanding! Why, People magazine had called it “an irresistible tale”!

So I set it down and picked up a nice soothing romance, and the book sat on my bedside table for months, bookmarked on page 2.

But when I finally picked it up again, taking care to be in a forgiving mood, nothing had changed. There was still all of that smiling, and looking up without looking down, and sentences spoken with concerned frowns and prim disapproval and smothered sighs.

I opened the book randomly to other pages. Maybe things got better? After all, authors sometimes over-write the first few paragraphs, trying to make a good impression.

Things didn’t get better.

I lifted to my toes. He bent his head. Before our lips touched, a tray clattered on the table.

“That’s it; I’m outta here,” I remarked gruffly with a disappointed frown while stiffly flashing a look over my shoulder to my extreme right. The pale globe of the lamp on my bedside table taunted me with its jaunty brightness, contrasting with the dank darkness of my disenchantment.

And so A Discovery of Witches, Book One of the All Souls Trilogy, was moved to my Failure to Launch pile of shame, with a scrap-paper bookmark in permanent residence on page 2.

What’s in YOUR FtL pile?

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Moscow in 1922 is no place for a count. The Bolsheviks are in charge, and they are not fond of the leisure class. Happily for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, there are those who feel that despite his membership in the ranks of the elite, he is a hero of the prerevolutionary cause, thanks to an inspiring poem he published in 1913. Thus, rather than execute him, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs decides that he should be confined to his recent place of residence: Moscow’s grand and glorious Metropol hotel. But if the Count should ever step outside of the building, he will be shot.

Thus begins the splendid story of the Count’s decades-long house arrest. The Count—already, in his own gentlemanly way, a man of the people—may find himself in reduced circumstances, but his charm, humor, and powers of observation will serve him in good stead. He makes his attic hovel into a home and accidentally creates a family out of the Metropol staff and guests.

The cast of characters is delightful: the precocious young girl with a fondness for yellow, whose curiosity cannot be contained (and who ends up giving the Count two precious gifts); the brilliant, temperamental chef; the snooty actress; the warm-hearted seamstress; the officer of the Party with a thirst for knowledge (and for film noir); and many, many more. Each character has a role to play, and all offer the Count ample opportunities for bon mots, erudite ruminations, and cheeky capers.

Though occasionally the author gets a little too cute (the bouillabaisse project comes to mind) and the depiction of Stalinist Russia can be a little too jaunty, all is forgiven when Count Rostov begins to muse–which he does often. He is a gracious and endearing companion, a man who manages to make fine wine from the grapes at hand, and saying adieu to him as the book came to an end was sweet sorrow.

Behind Closed Doors, by B. A. Paris

Ever since Gone Girl, I’ve been waiting for the next great creepy relationship book with a twist. There’s just something about a gripping story in which an attractive façade disguises true, shudder-producing evil. The key to a successful story like that, though, is that its dangers need to be shocking, and its pretty surface needs to be at least passingly believable—we need to be horrified that such evil can live unquestioned in plain sight, and feel the emotional claustrophobia of the situation.

Here’s where Behind Closed Doors fails. We’re introduced to a successful 40-year-old lawyer, the ironically named Jack Angel, who has built his career defending domestic abuse victims. He is smooth, drop-dead gorgeous, and unmarried, and (we later find out) he has built a very pretty house of horror with metal security shutters on all of the downstairs windows on spec. After all, who knows when you’re going to run across the ideal prey? He’s been a creep since he was 13 years old and killed his mother—maybe. But apparently since then he’s gone regularly to Thailand to fulfill his nonspecific terrifying fantasies that don’t include sex with vague, nameless people, as one can apparently do with impunity in Thailand. It seems that he’d really like to up his game, though, and ideally move his horror show closer to home, for convenience. After all, he went to all of that trouble, building the house.

Fortunately for Jack, he eventually happens upon Grace, a young, successful, beautiful, globe-trotting professional woman with ridiculously irresponsible parents and a sister, Millie, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. He courts Grace and quickly wins her devotion by being nice to her sister. They marry hastily, Jack bizarrely skips out on the wedding night, and the next thing Grace knows, she’s in Thailand on her honeymoon, locked outside day after day on a hotel balcony, unable either to go to the bathroom (which I found to be the most chilling part) or to make anyone believe that her brand-new husband is a raving lunatic, despite her best efforts. But then, a thriller that can do no better than “My experience … was made even worse by the knowledge that when Jack wasn’t with me, he was exhilarating in someone else’s fear” is no thriller at all.

When the newlyweds return to the US from this idyllic (for one of them, anyway) wedding trip, Jack continues to hold Grace hostage. Every day, as Jack goes off to work, he locks Grace in an empty room for the day with nothing to do. If Grace somehow displeases him, she is forced to miss a weekend of visitation at Millie’s special boarding school. (Apparently, no one from Millie’s school finds it odd that previously devoted Grace would go almost two months without visiting her sister.) But the real threat is that once Millie graduates, Jack is planning to bring her to live with them and have his totally unspecified nonsexual but terrifying way with her, somehow feeding off of Millie’s fear, which Grace finds too frightening to even contemplate. He puts together a secret red room for Millie (despite the fact that her favorite color is yellow—the horror!) in the pretty house’s basement and decorates it with portraits of battered women that he forces Grace (a very, very amateur painter) to paint as a form of torture. When Grace has been particularly uncooperative, he punishes her with the ultimate form of torture, by making her … sit in the red room looking at the awful portraits she’s painted. The couples with whom he makes her socialize on the weekend and for whom she’s forced to bake perfect souffles have no idea of the anguish Grace is enduring, because she has no way of saying anything—Jack has cut off all access to pens.

As Millie inches closer to leaving her boarding school and coming to live permanently with Jack and Grace in the menacing red room, Grace finally feels the need to take action. Grace’s conundrum is that although she desperately needs to get away from Jack, she knows that in everyone else’s view, he’s Prince Charming. So whatever she plans to do needs to hold up against the judgment of the outside world. In unbelievable fashion, Millie herself hatches a surprising plot, giving Grace an unexpected tool. (What luck that Millie had been recently listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks!) Grace then creates her own elaborate plot and lays the groundwork for carrying it out by demanding a glass of whiskey every night in her prison room. For some reason, once she really puts her foot down, Jack is happy to share a whiskey with her night after night—whew! Thank goodness! Because without that poor decision on his part, Grace is never going to be able to carry out her plan to get out of her empty room and save Millie from the miserable fate of Jack feeding off of her fear in undefined but nonsexual ways!

Author B. A. Paris just doesn’t seem to be able to dredge up the kind of ickiness needed for this kind of story. And there’s really no shame in not having a sick, twisted mind—it just means less fun for the rest of us. With characters and plot that have little grounding in reality, the cringe-worthy questions the book asks on its cover—“The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?”—beg for a third option: The perfect dud.

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

Even if Anne Tyler’s name hadn’t been prominently displayed on the cover, it would nonetheless have been obvious very quickly that the wispy Clock Dance is an Anne Tyler book, with quirky characters, odd family dinners, a fondness for Baltimore, and a protagonist, 62-year-old Willa, who greets an out-of-the-blue opportunity to shake things up with impulsive decisiveness.

Willa is a mild-mannered harmonizer with a lifelong attraction to people who make use of her peacekeeping skills without ever appreciating them, or her. The backstory in the first third of the book attempts to explain how Willa has come to be living rather uncomfortably in Arizona with her pushy retired second husband, wishing she felt needed, even if she doesn’t quite realize it yet. To start, we see Willa as an 11-year-old dealing with a manic mother, a milquetoast father, and a much younger sister. She makes a clear if unconscious choice at that impressionable age to avoid drama at all costs. We are then shown Willa ten years later, bringing the young man who will become her first husband home from college to meet her parents. We see why she makes the choices that she does, but we also see the behaviors that lead to the next scene, twenty years later, when she loses her first husband in a tragic accident.

Fast forward to the present. Willa is going through the motions, newly settled in Arizona, longing for connections but unable to create them for herself. Then comes a shocking phone call: Her older son’s ex-girlfriend Denise has been shot in Baltimore, she’s in the hospital, she has a 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl, who needs to be looked after, and a neighbor is reaching out to Willa, who is mysteriously listed as an emergency contact on Denise’s phone list. Willa doesn’t know the neighbor, the ex-girlfriend, or the ex-girlfriend’s daughter, but she suddenly sees a chance to be useful, and she barely hesitates in booking a flight.

Once Willa arrives in Baltimore and meets her delightful charges, together with the engaging, eccentric neighbors, there are few surprises. But despite its familiarity, her journey is entertaining. Willa is her usual self: cheery and polite and genteel and, yes, maybe a little superficial. Perhaps in this setting, though, her gift for harmony can be appreciated, and she can learn how to achieve balance between everyone else’s needs and her own.

The reader is left to supply much of the detail regarding Willa’s relationships with her sister and two sons, which are at best strained. One can sense their likely frustration with her terminal inability to take a stand against the forceful personalities she attracts. “Marriage was often a matter of dexterity, in Willa’s experience,” Tyler writes, and we are left to wonder if perhaps what Willa saw as dexterity, those closest to her saw as weakness. The reader can feel the pain and bewilderment that the absence of these key figures in her life causes Willa, perhaps driving what would otherwise be some odd choices in Baltimore.

Anne Tyler leaves her beloved Baltimore to work its magic on Willa, in an ending that’s neat, predictable, but satisfying nonetheless. As the book ends, it’s hard to say goodbye to its inhabitants, particularly level-headed young Cheryl, who loves to bake and is a sweet pastry of a character, with much to teach her surrogate grandmother. We leave Willa in a good place, though, learning that family can have many names and faces, and embracing her serendipitous second chance.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

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In the first few pages of Less, I admit, I thought that perhaps I’d made a mistake—or that the Pulitzer Prize committee had, in awarding the book the 2018 prize for fiction. The start of the book felt like a version of what Arthur Less, the central character and a midlist-level author, describes his most recent (rejected) novel to be: “… About a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his … his sorrows….”

“Is it a white middle-aged man?” he is asked. Yes, he admits.

“A white middle-aged man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?”

“Jesus, I guess so,” he answers.

“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”

“Even gay?”

“Even gay.”

It was a surprise, then, to find myself slowly coming to love the self-esteem-challenged, bumbling, generous, sweet, reluctantly aging, possibly talented–and yes, gay–Arthur, dealing with simultaneously turning fifty and losing his much younger lover by planning a trip around the world. He accepts expenses-paid invitations for odd panels, award ceremonies, and author residencies to finance the journey, which allows him to give a reasonable excuse for turning down an invitation to his ex-lover’s wedding. What could go wrong?

The trip gives Greer an opportunity to gently lampoon the life of a mid-list author—the weird situations, which Arthur accepts genially, and the constant self-doubt, which just adds to Arthur’s unwitting charm. All of his travel adventures are awkward and amusing, but the excursion to Germany is laugh-out-loud funny, largely due to Arthur’s overestimation of his German-speaking talents. I found myself wishing I knew German, so that I could understand the humor here at its deepest level, but truly, the author manages to convey Arthur’s unknowing mistakes and the Germans’ bemusement at his odd pronouncements with skill and endearing humor.

Less is a rather short book, but it nonetheless manages to thoughtfully examine themes of love, family, genius and mediocrity, the creative process, and aging. Illness, tailors, the Odyssey, and Charlie Chaplin all serve to shine light on Arthur’s inner and outer journeys, with gentle pokes at poets and Little League along the way. The main character’s naive innocence and sentimentality are wholly believable and adorable, but they also allow the author to sneak in sharp, humorous, sometimes unexpected observations about the human condition.

When Arthur has made his indelible mark in Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, and India, with a quick trip to Japan on the horizon, he encounters his supposed nemesis, who poignantly cuts to the chase, explaining to Arthur with some reluctance: “You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won. And you don’t even realize it.” Greer does a masterful job of making sure that we laugh at the crazy situations in which Arthur finds himself, at his quirks, occasionally even at his thought processes, but never really at Arthur himself. Because in the heartwarming end, no one can help loving lovable Arthur Less, whether he recognizes it or not.