Category Archives: american

Bite-sized reviews

Sometimes, a book is best reviewed in miniature. Think of it as an apéritif for the mind:

(Carol Topolski, Fig Tree, 2008, 272 pp)

The story of a the Gutteridges, a young couple that moves into a staid English suburb, and the atrocity that occurs in their home with the murder of their young daughter. It reads a bit like a Law and Order episode; one stark event occurs at the very beginning of the novel and is delved into and expanded upon throughout the story through the eyes of the couple as well as a community that has to deal with the consequences. Topolski uses her psychology background to great effect, as the story progresses we are shown the background of the Gutteridges that offers a chilling explanation for their pathological, obsessive love.  A major problem with what is a fairly solid debut novel is that it comes across as being student work quite often, especially at the end of the novel, which left me very dissatisfied. The Gutteridges seem to become more flat as the novel moves on, and it doesn’t seem entirely intentional.

(Rivka Galchen, Fourth Estate, 2008, 256 pp)

A creative and interesting debut marred by indulging too often in its own cleverness. Leo Liebenstein is an anxious, middle-aged psychotherapist living in New York with his younger charismatic Argentinian wife, Rema. When Rema enters their apartment one day holding a puppy, Leo is certain that his wife has been replaced by an almost-identical duplicate. This realisation marks the start of Leo’s quest to locate the missing Rema while avoiding her persistent clone. He is aided by Harvey, one of his psychiatric patients who has a strange connection to the mysterious the Royal Academy of Meteorology and driven by the mysterious figure of Tzvi Gal-Chen, whose presence and meteorological findings may play an important role in discovering Rema’s location. His quest and growing obsession with Gal-Chen takes him to Rema’s family home in Argentina, where his journey takes a strange turn. Galchen mixes the clinical, distantly intellectual voice of Leo with descriptions that focus on the mundane sensations of married life and the memories they invoke. The book excels in these moments, such as when Leo and Rema discuss fastenings on Tzvi Gal-Chen’s shirt in a photo they’ve acquired, or when Leo reminisces about his mother while in Argentina.  It’s when the story goes too far into its own quirks that the story falters, especially when Leo’s obsession with the Royal Academy of Meteorology grows. It could have also done with a small chop; it is too long and  sputters towards the end. Galchen is definitely a writer to watch; she has taken a story of a man’s possible breakdown and the issues that arise when marriage becomes too expected and takes it to weird and wonderful heights.

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Review: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

(Richard Yates, Vintage Classics, 1962, 220 pp)

I was pleased by my first journey into Richard Yates’s writing. In Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Yates has created a collection of short stories that delve into the intricacies of alienation in post-war America. His stories feature characters that have become Americana icons over the years- from soldiers to suburban children, housewives, expatriates and city businessmen. He expertly dismantles their carefully constructed exteriors in order to let the reader explore how constricting 1950s American life could be for both the privileged and down and out.

His short stories are cinematic and vaguely familiar; we have seen them often in the past decade in cinemas and in shows like the clearly Yates-influenced Mad Men. Yet the characters still feel fresh and contemporary, we know these characters, we have seen aspects of them in ourselves, in our parents and grandparents. I read this collection in three bursts because I was desperate to read more about these haunted lives while also being somewhat hesitant to endure the sometimes raw honesty of sadness contained amongst the pages. Four of the stories have especially stayed with me, “Doctor Jack-O-Lantern” and “Fun with a Stranger” both involving schoolchildren and their teachers; “A Very Good Jazz Piano”, about two Ivy League students on holiday in France; and “Out with the Old”, about veterans with TB and their lives in their ward on the cusp of a new year.

What Yates is masterful at is capturing the sense of transitional anxiety, the fear that surrounds people who are yearning for both their past and their future. These characters are not symbols of nostalgia; they are on the front line of all the social changes slowly occurring around them. They can’t see its effects yet but they can sense it, and it terrifies them. In my favourite stories, this fear and loneliness is intergenerational. In “Doctor Jack-O-Lantern”, a young boy confronts his loneliness and alienation through destruction, while in “Fun with a Stranger” it is schoolchildren who bear witness to their teacher’s loneliness, while compounding it with their lack of understanding. “ A Very Good Jazz Piano” shows inherent loneliness of a life abroad, where a constant sense of thwarted potentiality colours the interactions of two Ivy Leaguers with everyone around them, as well as each other. In “Out with the Old”, TB patients must continually negotiate their previous selves, and all roles they once had, with how they are regarded in their ward and their encroaching obsoleteness. I found this story to be particularly moving; it contained a bittersweet warmth unmarred by sentimentality.

One of the only flaws found in this lovely book is the end piece, “The Builder”. Longer than the other stories, the tone never felt particularly sincere to me. Though this was largely done purposefully- the story centres on a writer asked to write mawkish stories for a cab driver with stars in his eyes- I couldn’t move past the clunky metaphors bandied about by the characters. It didn’t contain the underlying gracefulness of the other stories. Whether this is simply my own preference of wanting some kind of desperate grace or an actual defect of the story, I cannot be certain.

Despite the last tale, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is a strong collection that is also aided by strong and beautiful cover art. The characters remain with you once you have stopped reading its pages and you realise how much the echoes of their actions reverberate throughout all of us as we attempt to survive the loneliness of the mundane.

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