Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Cry of the Sloth

by Sam Savage

I never actually met a book that I would have described as being “tragicomic.”  Of course I knew what it meant — it’s pretty easy to guess the definition from the word itself, and I’ve certainly read novels or memoirs that have both funny and sad parts; but none of those have ever led me to describe it using that word.  (Many words, of course, are not so easy to figure out just by looking at and I have to resort to the dictionary.  For example, I always have trouble remembering what “sanguine” means; it sounds to me as though it should mean its exact opposite.  Hold on a moment, I need to go look it up again just to make sure that it means something like confident.) 

But I digress.  I just finished a terrific little novel that the word “tragicomic” fits to a tee (or should that be a “t”?).  Sam Savage’s second novel (after Firmin, which I also loved) is The Cry of the Sloth (Coffee House Press, 2009).  In it, we spend four months with middle-aged and failed novelist, failed publisher (of Soap: A Journal of the Arts), failed son, failed husband, failed landlord, and now financially bankrupt Midwesterner Andrew Whittaker.  The book we’re reading consists of the contents of everything that he’s written from July to October of a particularly bad year: letters to writers wanting their work published in Soap, including letters to his ex-wife, letters to his tenants, fragments of a novel he’s trying to write, letters to an old college friend, letters to the bank and telephone company, and shopping lists.  These are, on the surface, the comic part.  But even as we’re chuckling over the letters, we’re coming to realize that Andrew is — really, truly — falling apart, descending ever more swiftly into despair and desolation.  So we have to ask ourselves as we head toward the last pages of the book, what happens to someone when they realize that they are, in fact, an utter failure?  What are their options then?

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book that will give you a sense of Andrew’s voice.  The first is a letter to an old college friend whom he hasn’t seen in many years:

We make choices so early, and on the basis of practically no information, and then we end up with these different lives that we are really stuck with.  It’s all so depressing.

And later in the book Andrew writes to Jolie, his ex-wife, now living in New York:

Which decision was the wrong one? Or were there five wrong ones, or a thousand?  People like to say that each moment presents us with a fork on our life path; I sit at my desk instead of going to the window, where perhaps I would have been hit by a brick, or going for a walk in the park, where I would have met a beautiful woman, a mugger, a man selling insurance, or no one at all.   Walking to the store, I turn on this street rather than that street; and everything is different forever.  Have you ever wondered if the same thing might be true in the other direction? Going backwards, there are also choices to be made every step of the way, each item revived in memory only the first link of a new mnemonic chain, and every new chain recreating a different past, constructing a different album of photos, unpacking another box of forgotten treasures — a different past, which must of necessity be the past of a different present, a different future, a different person

It’s often hard to find small press books at big box retailers (which is why independent bookstores and libraries are so important), but in my experience it’s worth seeking them out.

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Brooklyn

by Colm Tóibín

With good books, it really is better to read them late, long after everyone else you know already has, than to never have read them at all.  At least that’s how I felt when I finished Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which got (as I remember) wonderful reviews in 2009, and which my friend Anne Wyckoff just adored (and I always listen when she recommends something for me to read).  It’s a supremely quiet and strangely affecting novel, set in the 1950s. Toibin’s subjects are love, and family, and obligation (to yourself and those you love and how to decide which is the more important). It’s one of those books that you have to read slowly, in order to savor the strength and the powerful simplicity of the writing.  I had a weirdish experience while I was reading it, almost as though I had entered a large and empty gothic cathedral, where the atmosphere was hushed and all sounds were muted.  Yet I realized that almost everything of importance occurs within those four walls, just as so much of what’s important in Tóibín’s lyrical novel is never said at all: almost everything that matters is written, if you will, between the lines on the pages.

I have to tell you, though, that the plot doesn’t sound prepossessing (maybe that’s why I took so long to pick it up and read it).  At the suggestion of a priest coming home from his Brooklyn parish to Ireland for a visit, Eilis Lacey leaves her family and friends in her small Irish town and moves to Brooklyn, where she lives in a boarding house with other young women (all Irish), all watched over (and disapproved of) by “Ma” Kehoe, works days in a department store, and attends night school to get a degree in accounting.  Along the way, she meets a young Italian man and falls in love with him.

But it’s Tóibín’s economy of language and his uncanny ability to bring to life both Eilis’s home in Ireland and her adopted city that make this novel so very special.

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Getting Stoned with Savages

by J. Marten Troost

J. Marten Troost’s Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu is an anecdotal (and frequently hilarious) account of the year he spent with his wife Sylvia living on the South Pacific islands of his book’s title.  This is the first of his books that I’ve read, and I found Troost to be delightful company.  He’s eminently curious, open to new experiences without being foolhardy (most of the time, anyway), and entirely without pretension.  Whenever I read the sort of armchair travel book in which first-world authors spend time in third-world locales, I am always on the lookout for any signs of looking down on, or making fun of, the native populations. Troost is entirely respectful (even when he’s describing how corrupt the government is), saving his harshest criticisms for his own fears, inadequacies, and dumb decisions — all of which just made him seem more human to me.  Whether it’s traversing (or trying to) the mud-slick, unpaved roads of the islands; landslides; encountering active volcanoes; giant centipedes seemingly bent on household domination; musing on the pros and cons of cannibalism (while visiting a village in which the last incidence of this practice took place within living memory); surviving Cyclone Paula; or trying out kava, Vanuatu’s intoxicating drink of choice, Troost’s writing is lively and entertaining.  When Sylvia gets pregnant, the couple moves to Suva, on the advice of the obstetrician on Vanuatu, so that they could have access to more up-to-date medical care.  Troost calls the bustling metropolis of Suva, the capital of Fiji, “the Midtown of the South Pacific,” a description that somewhat unaccountably brought the city alive for me.  When I finished this book, I was sorely tempted to spend my next vacation in Vanuatu and Fiji, but reason belatedly kicked in, and I realized that I would probably need to bring Troost along as well, in order to guarantee myself a good time.

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Two Great Books for Older Teens

by Justine Larbalestier

I am generally not fond of books with unreliable narrators — they simply seem to add to my already abnormally high level of anxiety. Call me naïve, but I usually want a narrator that I can believe. Which makes it all the more interesting that I am recommending Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (Boomsbury, 2009), in which the main character admits right away that she seldom tells the truth, can’t be trusted, and may (or may not) be guilty of a horrendous crime. And that’s all that I can tell you about the plot of the book without giving away too much. I want everyone to experience it just as I did, one page at a time. I will say that it’s a spectacularly imaginative and gripping story, and the narrator is a young woman whom I won’t soon forget. If your adult book group is interested in trying a teen novel, this will make for a great discussion.

by Libba Bray

Another novel that I suspect teens will enjoy a lot is Libba Bray’s Going Bovine (Delacorte, 2009). I don’t love the cover (although we all know you can’t judge a book etc. etc. etc., but it’s hard not to), but the plot hooked me right away. Told in the voice of a 16-year-old boy, the story begins when Cameron Smith is diagnosed with Mad Cow disease. As his doctors search desperately for a cure, Cameron spends his time trying to save the world (and himself) by trying desperately to locate a mysterious Dr. X. Aided on his journey by his classmate Gonzo, a Mexican-American hypochondriac dwarf, a punk rock angel named Dulcie, and a lawn ornament who was once (perhaps) the famed Norse god, Balder, Cameron sets off on a complicated quest. Based loosely on Don Quixote (a comparison I didn’t get until near the end of the book) and both comedic and tragic, this is another novel that will leave readers talking about what really happened: how much of Cameron’s trip is simply a delusion caused by his disease and how much really happened. I know which of the two I’m hoping for.

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Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space

by Cees Nooteboom

There are some armchair travel books I would put into a category simply labeled “Something Special,” and Cees Nooteboom’s Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space (Mariner Books, 2009) is one of them.  This collection ranges over a number of years, and includes essays originally written between the 1970s and the present decade. The two earliest pieces are from 1975: one, a prescient account called “An Evening in Isfahan,” and the other a charming tale of an unexpected trip Nooteboom took to The Gambia, in Africa. (It was unexpected because he had actually intended to journey to the Spanish Sahara but ran into visa difficulties.)  What sets Nooteboom’s travel articles apart from many others is that he is both a real reader and a real writer.  By that, I mean that he frequently refers to the experiences of other writers (but in a way that doesn’t make you feel inadequate because you haven’t read them) and is also able to capture the essence of a place in a paragraph or even a single sentence, which meant that I felt I had experienced the soul of, say, Venice, without ever having set foot on a vaporetto.  Much has been written about Venice, but this is how Nooteboom does it: 

In Venice anachronism lies at the very heart of things: in a thirteenth-century church you look at a fifteenth-century grave and an eighteenth-century altar; what your eyes see is what the no longer existent eyes of millions of others have seen.  Here, on the contrary, that is not tragic, for while you are looking they go on talking, you are constantly accompanied by the living and the dead, you are involved in an age-old conversation.  Proust, Ruskin, Rilke, Byron, Pound, Goethe, McCarthy, Morand, Brodsky, Montaigne Casanova, Goldoni, Da Ponte, James Montale, their words flow around you like the water in the canals, and just as the sunlight causes the waves behind the gondolas to fragment into myriad tiny sparkles, so that one word, Venice, echoes and sparkles in all those conversations, letters, sketches, and poems, always the same, always different.  Not without reason did Paul Morand call his book about this city Venices, and actually even that is not enough.  There ought to be a superlative degree of the plural just for this island.

In the article on his trip to The Gambia that I mentioned earlier, Nooteboom describes a young woman who is headed off for a two-year Peace Corps stint as someone who ”resembles the beginning of a novel that is destined to have an unhappy ending.” 

For me, the most moving chapter dealt with a trip Nooteboom made to Canberra, Australia, to the war memorial and museum dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Battle of Gallipoli in the First World War.

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