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Once Again, Reading Goes Viral

Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t read ALL of these books during my long session on the couch last week; some of them are from weeks ago. But I’m not up to full speed, so will do short reviews of this run of excellent books I’ve lucked into recently.

First was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I’d been eagerly anticipating since I first heard it was in the works. This was no disappointment: great characters, varied settings (Mother Teresa’s hospital in India, Brown University, the inside of a mental hospital, an elite biology lab on Cap Cod). The characters are college students: Madeleine, an English major who loves Jane Austen but runs head-on into postmodernism, which threatens to dismantle her love for reading and possibly even her ideals of love; Leonard, a brilliant biologist who struggles to overcome his abusive childhood and keep his mental equilibrium; and Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major who goes halfway around the world seeking answers to big questions, but ultimately becomes obsessed with a very personal one.

These three characters graduate from an Ivy League school in the 80s, and I finished at a state university on the West Coast in the mid-70s. But Eugenides has nailed the excitement, uncertainty, and misery of being in your 20s, and the blessing/curse of having your whole life ahead of you, with way too many momentous choices to make, in a way that is universal. The canvas is smaller than Eugenides’ Middlesex, but I think the book will stay with me almost as long.

Next was a title from 2010 that I’d heard nothing about, pressed into my hand by a friend. It’s from a writer, Cristina Garcia, who I’d read and enjoyed before (Dreaming in Cuban). The Lady Matador’s Hotel is a slim novel made of interconnected chapters. The characters are all guests at a posh hotel in a Central American country where the politics are unsettled. A Japanese-Mexican-American lady matador, a hotel employee or two with a revolutionary past, some gringos hoping to adopt a baby with the help of an adoption lawyer, a brutal general, a Korean factory owner with a pregnant, underage girlfriend, a Cuban poet… all of these characters cross each others’ paths in a way that keeps the suspense and plot moving along. I’m repulsed by bullfighting (and had trouble getting through The Paris Wife because of it) but Garcia kept me reading right through the gore. This book was good enough that I may go back and read another novel by Garcia, Monkey Hunting.

Book #3 is a brand new novel by Hector Tobar, Pulitzer-winning journalist and columnist for the LA Times. In a set-up reminiscent of Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood, The Barbarian Nurseries is a story about race and class, this time a little farther south: in coastal Orange County. The Thomas-Torreses are a well-off couple with two sons and a baby daughter. The father, Scott, is a half-Mexican software designer; his white wife, Maureen, grew up in Missouri with an abusive father. They’ve risen economically to the point that they now employ a full-time nanny, a maid, and a gardener to keep their ocean-view home in a gated community immaculate. But a financial reversal or two and some over-the-top spending force them to let the maid and the gardener go. The extravagant tropical garden begins to wilt; much of the work of caring for the children is shunted off on Araceli, the maid, without discussion or an increase in pay. An argument between Scott and Maureen that begins over — what else? — money initiates a chain of errors, abdications of responsibility, and miscommunications which set this compulsively readable novel’s plot in motion. Tobar juggles multiple voices (Mexican-American, illegal immigrant, Orange County surfing prosecutor, Filipina public defender) and multiple big issues (immigration law, foster care, what constitutes a family, who do we trust and why) with ease. This is an excellent novel of this particular moment in California history.

To clear my palate before tackling my next novel about the serving class, ThrityUmrigar’s The Space Between us, set in present-day India, I read something completely different, urged on me by a friend who reads very little fiction, at least in English. Nick Hayes’ The Rime of the Modern Mariner retells Coleridge’s classic poem, re-setting it in modern times, with an environmental theme. The hardest part for me was to slow down enough to take in the drawings, which manage to be heartbreaking, whimsical, and atmospheric, all at once. With the best of intentions, I bookmarked the original poem online, planning to look at them side by side, but the experience of the book was too compelling for me to want to interrupt my enjoyment to do that. I think this is only my third graphic novel (the other two are Persepolis I and IIby Marjane Satrapi, both excellent) and it made me realize that I want to read more in this genre.

author photos, from top:

Ricardo Barros
Norma I. Quintana
LA Times
The Guardian