Here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed recently.
The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver.
I enjoyed her 2010 novel So Much for That, so looked forward to reading this one. Shriver’s humor is pitch black, and this one is no exception: imagine someone writing an at least partially comic novel about a group of terrorists who periodically blow things up, causing collateral damage in the way of dead innocent bystanders. Now try to imagine getting this published after 9/11. In an Author’s Note, Shriver tells us that the novel was completed in 1998, but she had no luck selling it till now. For me, the novel succeeded as comedy, but some reviewers disagree. Michiko Kakutani the the NY Times called it “ghastly” and “very unfunny”. The main characters are a group of backbiting, cynical reporters living in Portugal. Edgar Kellogg, a disaffected corporate lawyer, has just abandoned his lavish lifestyle to join their ranks. All of them are haunted (Kellogg literally) by the spirit of a charismatic reporter who’s disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Animal Crackers, by Hannah Tinti
More dark stuff for summer. Some of these were actually too much for me — each of the stories has a human relationship with an animal at its center, and some of them involve cruelty. So I approached the story “Slim’s Last Ride” (Slim being a pet rabbit) with trepidation, and it was not unfounded. The stories are very well-written, though, and I’ll (cautiously) seek out other books by Tinti.
The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger
This is a new novel about an arranged marriage between a Bengali woman and an American man — the catch being that it’s the bride and groom who do the arranging. They meet through a dating site; though Amina’s parents approve of George, after meeting him, it’s Amina who has chosen him. Though the story kept me going, I found the characters, especially George, somewhat stereotypical: he’s an engineer, and Freudenberger gives him just the personality you might expect a cartoon engineer to have: rigid, self-centered, emotionally stunted. Amina and her family are a little less two-dimensional. Freudenberger got the idea for the novel from a conversation with a Bengali woman on a plane — the woman was on her way to meet her husband-to-be. I’d check out other books by Freudenberger, but for me, this one didn’t live up to comparisons with Jhumpa Lahiri.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s memoir about her horrific childhood is something out of Dickens, filtered through the 1960s in the north of England. When your adoptive mother tells you early on that “the Devil led us to the wrong crib”, things can only go downhill from there. Locked out of her own house overnight in freezing weather, forbidden to read anything at home but the Bible, she finds salvation by reading her way through the entire English literature section of her local library. The reader breathes a huge sigh of relief when she finally leaves home, and manages to get through Oxford. Her story is almost unbelievable, and well-written.
photo credits, from top:
Ashley Gilbertson/VII for the NY Times