Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer

“It was getting hard to keep all the things I didn’t know inside me.”

Nothing I can say about this novel will do it justice but since I have promised this review I will give it a shot anyway. I avoided this novel for many years due to the subject matter but I am glad to have finally read it. It is an incredibly important novel.

This story follows nine-year-old Oskar Schell, who is dealing with the intense emotional repercussions of his father’s death in the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre. In attempting to find some closure, Oskar embarks on a search for the lock opened by a mysterious key found in his father’s possessions after his death. This search finds him travelling all across New York City and learning as much about himself as he does about the strangers he encounters along the way. Alongside Oskar’s story there are two other narrators who slowly share their own stories: Oskar’s grandmother and his grandfather, Thomas, both of whom are survivors the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.

The first thing I will say is that I did not expect to be laughing very often in a book about a child whose father was just killed, but I was laughing out loud by the second page of this story. Oskar is nine years old and his narration is bizarre and endearing. With quick subject changes, beautifully immature views, and a wonderful imagination (think of buildings in which elevators stay still and the floors move to meet you, limousines so long there is no need for a driver – you just walk through to your destination, or a set of wedding rings that flash each time your partner’s heart beats), Oskar’s voice is the perfect choice for telling such a difficult story. I appreciate the way that using Oskar as the story’s main narrator removes some of the political underpinnings of the events of September 11th and makes it a more human story. Another interesting aspect of Oskar’s narration is the way the conversations are presented. Foer doesn’t break up the conversations with indications of who is speaking and instead just separates comments in a single paragraph with new quotation marks. I found it difficult at times to know which character was speaking, which really emphasized Oskar’s intelligence and resourcefulness as he was often speaking to individuals much older than he was.

While this novel didn’t go into much depth about the events of September 11th, Foer did include vivid and disturbing depictions of the bombing of Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima. By incorporating these two other massive tragedies in the story Foer provided a very compelling contrast to the events in New York City in 2001. In both of these controversial attacks the United States was the attacker rather than the victim. Foer presents all three events without casting blame or passing judgment and instead uses them to show the complicated nature of these events and the repercussions that political movement has on individual lives.

In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Foer does an unexpectedly good job of exploring the complicated emotions surrounding traumatic events. This novel is extremely visual – a parallel, I think, to how visual the attacks were for people all around the world as the result of news outlets playing and replaying footage of the attacks. For example, this novel incorporates excerpts from letters that are heavily censored, overlapping text, blank pages and a mute character, all of which helped to portray the idea of unspeakable stories. Foer also uses phone calls that get cut off and increased spaces between sentences to help show the fragmented nature of traumatic memories. Foer’s experimental style of writing is extremely effective for helping to depict the complexities of remembering, forgetting, hiding and sharing difficult pasts with family as well as with strangers. This novel also incorporates many full-page photographs from a scrapbook Oskar keeps, but the photos themselves are not depictions of the story being told. Instead, the photos are only important in the larger context which is often not given until several pages after the picture appears. This seemed odd to me at first but in the end the photos seemed to underscore material that can’t be captured in a photo.

This novel places a heavy emphasis on human connection and interaction. Oskar’s quest for the lock seems to be an active opposition to the division, fright, isolation and suspicion of neighbours that was caused by the attacks on 9/11. By going out and speaking to strangers from all over the city, Oskar’s quest contrasts the letters his grandparents write. In these letters there is no back-and-forth interaction and often the letter does not make it to its intended recipient. Oskar’s insistence at asking personal questions result in people opening up to him with secrets they might not have told even their closest friends. His ability to probe for information and create intimacy, compared with the isolated letters from his grandparents, struck me as being an interesting play on the concept of “close.” The word close can mean either being near or being shut, depending on use. When I think about it quickly, I would say that a letter could create more intimacy between strangers than awkward questions being asked in person, but here the opposite is true. Highlighting the irreplaceable nature of genuine human interaction in times of trauma and pain, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a beautiful telling of a story that I never thought could be anything but horrific.

 

Story: 9/10

Writing: 9/10

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Angels in America

Angels in America

Tony Kushner

“An angel is a belief. With wings and arms that can carry you. If it lets you down, reject it.”

I am a bit ashamed to say that Angels in America is the first play I have read since the days of painful Shakespeare classes in high school. I will also say that reading this play changed the way I think about drama and about literature. Tony Kushner’s plays (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) are critically acclaimed and considered to be absolute masterpieces. They have earned a special place on my bookshelf.

The plays follow the lives of various characters who become increasingly intertwined as the story progresses. There are Louis and Prior, who try to navigate their way through a relationship in the midst of serious illness; there is Belize, an often intentionally “campy” nurse by day and an ex- ex-drag queen by night; there are Joseph and Harper Pitt, two Mormons who struggle through marital strain and psychological anguish when homosexuality comes into play; there is Hannah Pitt  (Joe’s mother), a “runaway” Mormon who moves from Salt Lake City to New York; there is Roy Cohn, an immoral lawyer who falls ill and is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; and there is the Angel, who arrives to present Prior with a prophecy. Together, these characters give us an incredibly complicated and intricate depiction of New York City in the mid-1980s through early 1990.

One of the most intriguing aspects of these plays is the way they challenge the notion that we can make major assumptions about people’s identities based on their race, political or religious affiliations, gender or sexual orientation. Throughout these plays, characters repeatedly set up expectations about their identities and then shatter them. These complexities are compounded by the way the actors in this play each play several different roles. For example, the actor who plays Hannah Pitt also plays Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Henry (Roy Cohn’s doctor), Ethel Rosenberg, Aleskii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (the oldest living Bolshevik) and one of the angels. Because of these varied roles, we see the same actor portraying diverse characters who each have different beliefs and responses to the same issues throughout the play.

I also liked the effect of the various shared scenes in these plays. In the shared scenes, two conversations happen simultaneously on separate areas of the stage, without pause when switching back and forth. For example, you might see Louis and Prior speaking in the hospital and Joe and Harper in their apartment. They are having separate conversations, but they meld into one because the subject matter is shared (for example, trying to justify leaving a romantic partner) and the characters experience similar emotions and reactions. When reading these scenes, you can often read through without paying attention to the character names and it seems cohesive; like it could all be one conversation between two characters. I thought this was a very interesting way of showing universal human experiences with several characters from very different backgrounds.

These plays are subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” and they definitely live up to that promise. Addressing issues from 1980s politics and the Reagan administration to communism and the Cold War, to religious beliefs, to homosexuality, to queer activism, to the AIDS crisis, to race, to technological innovation – the list goes on and on. The plays also emphasize varied notions of freedom, justice, responsibility, guilt and truth and the effects disagreements on these concepts have for the characters. I really enjoyed the way Kushner explores these issues critically while still maintaining a fast-moving plot and characters who grow and develop in every single scene. I have had so many thought-provoking conversations with friends who have also read these plays that I think they should be required reading (or better, performing) for every single high school and university student.

Honestly, I cannot recommend these plays highly enough. While plays are obviously meant to be performed – and I would absolutely jump at the chance to see these plays live – this book is beautiful in itself for the attention to detail Kushner exhibits. From the line breaks to the stage directions, to the capitalization and punctuation – every detail is intentional and there are layers and layers of meaning in the words of this story. This is a play that is universal in its appeal. There is something for the literary critic, for the English professor, for the university student, for the plumber, for the doctor, for the lawyer, for the physicist, for the artist, for the theatre enthusiast and for the student like me who has never enjoyed drama but was immediately swept away in the lyricism of the lines and the depth of the characters Kushner gives us in Angels in America.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Soucouyant

Soucouyant

David Chariandy

“During our lives, we struggle to forget. And it’s foolish to assume that forgetting is altogether a bad thing. Memory is a bruise still tender. History is a rusted pile of blades and manacles. And forgetting can sometimes be the most creative and life-sustaining thing that we can ever hope to accomplish. The problem happens when we get too good at forgetting.”

I am somewhat undecided about this book. David Chariandy’s Soucouyant is a beautifully poetic narrative of a young man from Scarborough and his mother, who is suffering from dementia. There are absolutely stunning moments in this novel, but overall I did not really get into the story.

In this novel, the young man (whose name we do not learn) returns home after several years to find his mother, Adele, in the grips of severe dementia. He is surprised to find a young woman – a complete stranger – living in his home and caring for his mother in his absence. As the story unravels, we learn about the boy’s past and that of his mother and father, both of whom emigrated from Trinidad to Canada in the early 1960s. We also learn about the mysterious young woman, Meera, who has inhabited the narrator’s childhood home, and the complicated ways in which her own history in connected to that of the narrator’s family.

The most striking thing about this novel is the writing. Chariandy writes with such lyricism and rhythm that I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and then being able, in good conscience, to declare that they do not like it. I especially enjoyed the way Chariandy managed to mimic the disorientation that we might imagine Adele is feeling as a result of her dementia. At the very start of this novel, the reader arrives suddenly, like the narrator, in a confusing and unexplained situation. This technique is used again and again throughout this story to reflect the experience of losing the ability to remember where you are, who is around you and even who you are. Similarly, Chariandy uses a largely fragmented narrative to depict the disjointed nature of memories – even those we are still able to recover. Small bits and pieces lead to larger revelations, and while we might begin with only a small a hint of something past, we eventually unravel the story of Adele and the Soucouyant (popular in Caribbean folklore, she is a female, vampire-like spirit who disguises herself as an old woman).

This novel also places a heavy focus on stories of immigration that do not match that of the “ideal” or “model” immigrant. Intentionally discussing often forgotten histories – such as the 1955 West Indian Domestic Scheme, which allowed Adele to travel to Canada, or Canada’s 1988 Multiculturalism Act – Chariandy addresses the experiences of the “other” in my native Toronto, which is a place so often praised for its multiculturalism. One of the most poignant moments of this entire novel for me was Adele’s experience with lemon meringue pie. Without giving away the plot, I will only say that Adele describes her first taste of the pie as a “twoness”: both sweet and sharp. Chariandy continually returns to this metaphor to discuss the feelings of tension often felt by immigrants who simultaneously feel grateful for the opportunity they have been given and lonely or angered as the result of the unfriendly responses they routinely receive from natives of the country to which they travel.

Overall, I thought this was a beautifully written novel, but it was a bit slow moving to suit my own taste. I liked the mysterious aspects of the book with Meera, the narrator’s brother and the story of the Soucouyant but, otherwise, I found the plot to be a bit stagnant at times. In terms of the characters, while I did not feel particularly warm to the narrator, I did like some of the other characters in this novel much more. I was unsure about Meera at first, but she did grow on me (somewhat) over the course of the story. The characters that made the book more enjoyable for me were Roger and Adele, and the librarian, Mrs. Cameron. The story of how Adele and Roger met brings a smile to my face every time I think of it and the kind, caring librarian whose friendship touches the narrator so profoundly remains absolutely beautiful to me.

My few minor quibbles aside, Soucouyant is an eerie and haunting – but precisely told – story of family, memory and love. Most of all, I love the way the story portrays the things we remember and those we forget and the implications this can have not only on our personal lives but also on the collective histories of our cultures and countries.
Story: 7/10

Writing: 10/10

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles

“When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains) probably could have waited, while those deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention.”

Please, read this book. Amor Towles’ beautiful, simple writing evokes a feeling of sentimentality right from the start. I fell in love with the Count in the first 10 pages of this story. Following the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who has been placed under house-arrest in the luxurious Metropol hotel, this novel is at times serious and dark while at others laugh-out-loud funny. Often, these contrasting moments come together in deeply touching ways, such as the moment when an attempt at suicide is thwarted by a swarm of bees and an enthusiastic handyman.

Because it takes place inside the hotel over the course of three decades, this novel is driven mainly by the characters that work at and live in the hotel. Nina, the serious 9-year old who befriends the Count, is a lovely character. A strong, intelligent and imaginative girl, Nina gives the Count an entirely new way of looking at his surroundings in the way that only a child can. She returns to the hotel at several points in her life but remains a passionate, single-minded woman who is sure of her cause. There is Marina, the hotel seamstress, who saves the Count in many ways on various occasions, and who teaches him to sew. Then there is is Anna Urbanov, a movie star who seduces the Count. Anna later returns to find friendship with Alexander due to a mutual fall from fame and fortune to the “Confederacy of the Humbled.” There is the talented but deeply sarcastic and pessimistic chef, Emile and the Maître d’, Andrey, who was previously a juggler in the travelling circus. There is Osip, an army colonel who enlists the Count to help him improve his language and diplomacy skills to France and Britain, and there is the Count’s oldest and perhaps dearest friend Mishka, who is so prone to pacing he frequently wears through the soles of his shoes and the carpets on which he walks. An early scene in which Mishka is distraught over having to remove one sentence of a collection of letters he is collating (because it mentions bread) later comes back in a deeply moving scene that left me in tears.

The Count himself is an incredibly endearing character. His many quirks, such as a bizarre fascination with the weather and the ways in which it affects the events of his life or the way he converses with the birds outside his window, the one-eyed lobby cat and a pair of escaped hunting hounds, have made him one of my favourite characters of all time. He also gently and humorously mocks the etiquette and precise manners of his time, especially when he is eating in or working as a waiter in the restaurants at the hotel. I liked the way Towles portrays Alexander’s ageing through the gradual reduction in the number of exercises he performs in his room each morning. It was sometimes difficult to remember how much time has passed, so this small detail was welcome throughout the novel as a reminder of his advancing age.

Towles is a master of metaphor. The passages in which he describes the passage of time as the turning of a kaleidoscope, or chefs as orchestra conductors, or a dropped bag of oranges moving the way convicts do during a prison break, bring the hotel to life in an intriguing and original way.

Another aspect of this novel that I really appreciated was the footnotes. Throughout the book, Towles includes helpful footnotes such as those indicating which of the many Russian names will be important to memorize for later on in the story, or which acronyms for the secret police need to be distinguished from one another. I found these little notes to be quite charming and very useful to a reader easily confused by similar names and phrases.

Reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters, A Gentleman in Moscow is perceptive and deeply funny. More than anything, this story is a heartfelt exploration of what it means to lead a full, meaningful life. After reading (and loving!) Towles’ earlier novel, Rules of Civility, last fall, this novel has cemented Towles as one of my favourite authors. The story culminates in a plot just as endearing as one would expect from the Count and, without giving anything away, I will say that the simultaneous ringing of all 30 telephones in the lobby of the hotel at midnight had me grinning from ear to ear. I finished this story and immediately ached for more, wanting to turn back to the beginning and read the entire novel again.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

What a beautiful collection of stories! This is the first short story collection I have ever read from cover to cover and it made me fall in love with the genre. I like short stories because they are often denser narratives (especially emotionally) than what could likely be sustained throughout an entire novel. In this collection, brevity is key; each story can easily be read in one setting. But, while compact, the stories in this collection are expansive glimpses into lives that always left me wanting more.

Lahiri’s use of short stories to explore the experience of migration is striking for its ability to depict the complexities of this experience much more accurately than could be portrayed in a novel with a single storyline. Each of these stories is a complex and moving account of a different immigrant experience. The thread that stood out as holding this collection together is an underlying criticism of the notion of the “American Dream” and the happy, model immigrant seeking a happier life in this world. In each of these stories, we see individuals struggling in one way or another to fit into this idealized version of immigration. To me these stories suggest that, maybe, the universal immigrant experience isn’t one of working hard and being rewarded with a better life, but one of struggling for a better life that is always slightly out of reach.

My favourite aspect of this collection is the characters. In each story, Lahiri brought her characters alive and I fell in love with every one of them. From young Lilia and her older neighbour Mr. Pirzada, whose presence leads to her education about her own family’s past in Calcutta, to husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba who are struggling in the aftermath of a miscarriage, to Boori Ma, a durwan (doorwoman) in Calcutta who is blamed and exiled by her neighbours for a crime she did not commit, to the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” and Mrs. Croft, his 103-year-old landlord, to young Eliot and his nanny Mrs. Sen – each of these stories moved me with the beautiful characterizations of individuals of all ages and from all walks of life. The small and often unlikely intimacies shared by these characters was touching throughout the collection.

This collection of stories also gave me a window into a history of which I know almost nothing. One of my favourite things about reading is that it never fails to show me how little I know about the world around me. In almost everything I read, I frequently have to look up references and inevitably learn about the story’s era, politics, geography and so on. This was especially true in Interpreter of Maladies, which continually introduced aspects of Indian history (the Partition of India in 1947 or the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, for example) of which I had never heard.  As someone who has been relatively isolated from this history, it was very interesting to get to know more about this history and to see the ways it affected and continues to affect individuals both in India and around the world.

Overall, this is a collection of stories that is sophisticated while still remaining accessible. Told with poignant and poetic prose, Lahiri gives us a glimpse into the lives of individuals in whom we can all see ourselves, no matter where we come from. More than anything else, Interpreter of Maladies tells the universal story of individuals struggling to form and maintain meaningful connections with our homelands and families while still striving to achieve greater and more beautiful lives than our parents and grandparents ever imagined possible.

 

Stories: 9/10

Writing: 9/10