Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a novel about how people attempt to cope in a cold, harsh world. Don't let the fact that the main character has autism fool you into thinking this is a novel about autism. Author Mark Haddon has admitted to doing little research on autism for the novel. What the novel gives us is a different perspective on life, through the eyes of Christopher Boone, whose condition serves as a sort of tunnel vision lens, yet allows him to see things most people fail to notice. He lives by a set of rules that help him cope with the irrational and chaotic nature of the world. Of course, we all live by some set of rules, some set of guiding principles that allow us to do the same. What makes Christopher different is that while most of us learn to accept the irrationality of life, Christopher is doomed not to.

Christopher likes to interact only with a small set of people. At school he talks with his school mentor, Siobhan, about things he doesn't understand. He lives alone with his father ever since the death of his mother. His mother's death has made him more acquainted with his neighbor, Mrs. Shears, who helps his father out. His routine begins to change, only slightly, when he comes upon Mrs. Shears' dead poodle, stabbed with a garden fork. After an unpleasant encounter with a police officer who dares to touch him, Christopher decides to do some detective work and solve the mystery of the poodle's murder.

Becoming a detective means leaving his safe shell and stepping out of his way to ask people questions. Christopher doesn't much like talking to people because he doesn't understand body language. In fact, Christopher doesn't like a lot of things. He doesn't like the color yellow. It's a bad day when he spots four yellow cars in a row on his way to school. Conversely, he loves the color red, which means that sighting four red cars in a row means it will be a good day. He also doesn't like it when people use facial expressions to communicate because he doesn't know what they mean. He hates the use of metaphor because it confuses him. What Christopher does love is math. He is very logical and will probably be a very successful mathematician. The chapters are numbered by prime numbers rather than in direct sequence. Haddon is so good at convincing us that Christopher exists that it made me wonder whether Christopher is a version of himself, to some extent.

The novel revolves only loosely around the death of Mrs. Shears' poodle because the story, as told in the first person from Christopher's perspective, goes off on numerous tangents. These tangents are often amusing or revealing in some way, and they help explore the mindset of Christopher as well as what he values. Other things that are more important than the death of the poodle happen, but the poodle's murder is significant because it makes Christopher step outside his comfort zone. He appears to be the perfect sleuth, capable of sticking to the facts and not letting his imagination spoil his investigation. He considers all possibilities and eliminates the improbable ones. He even fancies himself a sort of Sherlock Holmes and talks extensively about some of the Holmes novels (as a warning, if you have not read Hound of the Baskervilles, Christopher shamelessly spoils the ending). Yet Christopher lacks an important tool to be a good detective - social recognition. What would be an obvious solution to this investigation for most observers is overlooked by Christopher because he, ironically, fails to put two and two together.

Some have compared Christopher Boone to Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, and I can see the resemblance. Caulfield, like Christopher, has a narrow view of the world. Where Caulfield sees everyone as phonies, Christopher seems to regard others as intellectually inferior. Both novels make use of the unreliable narrator, in that a reader not making full use of their critical reading skills might be mistaken in believing they are meant to adopt the narrator's viewpoint. However, with Christopher things are made more challenging by the fact that he is an intellectually gifted individual. You may find yourself with a nagging doubt or suspicion about something Christopher hasn't perceived, yet Christopher's undeniable logical intelligence will have you second-guessing yourself.

In Catcher in the Rye, one of the defining moments of how Holden views himself is when he likens himself as a rescuer of children, saving them from running off the edge of a cliff. He believes he holds the key to truth in a world of phonies, yet the reader sees otherwise. Christopher has a similar moment when he compares the way he sees the world to how others see the world. When most people gaze at a field and are asked to describe it, they may mention there were cows and a house and other details, all vaguely described. Christopher, however, will go so far as to tell you how many cows were there and how many had black spots and how many had brown spots and then how many spots each one had. He believes his way is superior, even though Siobhan admits this level of detail would be overwhelming to most. What Christopher misses out on, however, is the beauty of such a field. He takes it all in and simply plugs it into his mathematical brain.

Though the novel is written from Christopher's point of view, and though the reader has plenty of reason to sympathize with him, the character with which I made the greatest emotional connection was the father. The two most poignant moments in the novel involve him. We can sympathize with Christopher because he does suffer, yet his emotional state can be difficult to grasp. This novel does an excellent job of putting readers in the perspective of somebody with autism. However, I kept putting myself in the shoes of Christopher's father, thinking about just how difficult life would be to have to raise a child like Christopher. I mentioned in the first paragraph that the novel is about trying to cope in a difficult world. From Christopher's perspective, we see, in a peripheral way, how his own parents have attempted to cope with raising an autistic child. Raising a child is hard enough, but raising a child who emotionally does not develop the way most people do, who throws violent tantrums when things don't happen a certain way, is a trying experience. Christopher's father is a rare person who is able to do this with love, care, and patience. Not everybody is able to handle the difficulties life throws at them as he does.

The novel is very entertaining, with lots of laugh out loud moments and plenty other thoughtful ones. Christopher dives into all sorts of tangential subjects, but always from his fascinating perspective. The only parts I object to are some repetitive action scenes toward the end, where less detail may have been better. Yet, at the same time, Mark Haddon follows through with the logical impulses of his narrator. It's amazing the way Haddon is able to keep up Christopher's performance, including all the little details that go along with being Christopher. Haddon writes with such a precise style that Christopher is able to come to life as a person all his own. And when we root for Christopher to achieve his goals, we're rooting for an imperfect person to be successful in a difficult world, because if there's hope for Christopher, there's hope for any of us.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, by Annabel Pitcher

In the United States, the word terrorism brings to mind the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Though the United States does not face acts of terror on a daily basis, as those of some nations do, the psychological toll from this attack still resonates today. Almost anybody in our modern world should be able to relate to Annabel Pitcher's debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, where the attack (fictional) occurs in England's Trafalgar Square. Pitcher aims the novel at a younger audience by making her main character a boy who was too young to have felt this tragedy deeply. This makes her novel a good place for young teens to contemplate the emotional impact of a terrorist attack on its survivors, yet it doesn't quite have the depth to move adult audiences.

The main character, Jamie, lives with his father and his sister, Jasmine, whose twin, Rose, was killed by a bomb five years before. Since that time, Jamie's mother left the family for a man named Nigel, and Jasmine dyed her hair purple and began to dress as a goth. His father has turned into a raging alcoholic and quit his job, which makes one wonder how he ended up with custody of the kids. What sort of mother would let her children live with a man like him? Jamie was five when the attack happened, so he doesn't remember it very well. He also doesn't remember Rose. To him it's just an eccentricity that his father keeps an urn containing her ashes on the mantelpiece, and it's an annual tradition to head out to the water and contemplate dumping the urn's contents.

Jamie's family moves to a new town, out of London, where Jamie must now attend a new school. This is a christian school, so it's a little surprising that one of the students is a Muslim girl named Sunya. Sunya instantly becomes an object of fascination to Jamie. He is curious, not about her garb, but because his father has developed an intense hatred of Muslims since Rose's death. He makes daily visits to anti-Muslim websites and believes all Muslims are insane suicide bombers at heart. So it's distressing to Jamie that Sunya takes an immediate interest in him, yet her sunny personality eventually wins him over.

This serves as the main plot, but there are several subplots, including Jamie's and Jasmine's struggle to take care of themselves while their father spends his days passed out or vomiting in the toilet. There's conflict when Jasmine introduces her new boyfriend, of the green-haired, spiky mohawk variety. And Jamie obsesses over the day his mother will finally pay him a visit, as she has promised. Multiple subplots are fine, but their downside is that they stretch the story too thin and none of the plot points are strongly developed.

Pitcher does a nice job of writing from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. The writing is crisp, in the unsophisticated voice of a young boy. Sometimes the sentences flow breathlessly, as the narrator keeps them alive by adding another "and" to the end. This isn't necessarily how ten-year-olds talk, but it is accurate about how they write. Periods are sometimes forgotten, or the problem is that kids haven't quite grasped the concept of a sentence just yet. Sometimes this writing grows repetitive, with too many sentences having the same breathless structure, yet it's never dull.

Memory is another area Pitcher gets right. Too many stories, both in books and the movies, provide characters with photographic memories. These teenagers or adults remember everything, but the reality of memories is that they fade over time. That Jamie barely remembers his sister is understandable, and it's believable that his grief for her is almost non-existent. Perhaps Pitcher does go a little far in portraying Jamie's amnesia, though, when you consider how traumatic the event was. Most faded memories tend to be of everyday sorts of things, but when a bomb explodes right in front of you and blows your sister to smithereens, that's a memory that will have very vivid indentations on your mind. This is just an example of how Pitcher tends to deaden the emotional impact of her story, and it seems to be a trend followed by many young adult novels.

Another problem is Pitcher's tendency to portray other characters and issues as one-dimensional. Jamie's father's alcoholism seems less realistic than hyperbolic. His mother's abandonment is hard to believe considering what a loving family they were before the bombing. Sunya is often unrealistically, if not eerily, bubbly. You have your standard classroom bully who acts like an angel in front of the teacher, and the teacher who seems to hate most children. The plot goes into odd places later because Pitcher doesn't take the time to fully develop any one scenario. The only characters who have any sort of depth are Jamie and Jasmine, yet even there you'll find a strong note of melancholy and not much else.

As a novel aimed at young adults, the above-mentioned problems aren't quite so bad. There is some value to be had for young teens, and parents can take relief in the fact that the bomb violence as described in the novel is artfully, not graphically, portrayed. More than likely girls will enjoy this more than boys. Not to say Pitcher unsuccessfully writes from the perspective of a boy, but Jamie has a feminine feel, such that I was unaware he was a boy until his name, James, was mentioned. There's also the element of romance between Jamie and the Muslim girl, Sunya, that will leave boys less inclined to read this than girls. Throughout the entire novel, the only friends Jamie has are girls: his sister Jasmine and Sunya. The only boyish thing Jamie does is participate in soccer in a brief episode. It's unfortunate the novel goes the route of romance because the age of the two characters involved makes this unlikely. Not that the romance involves any making out, but it does involve the desire to hold hands and for Jamie to catch a glimpse of Sunya's hair underneath her hijab. To make matters worse, the romance is predictable and lacks spark.

The novel feels much more episodic than cohesive, and those episodes use predictable story arcs. The romance plot, for example, has Jamie's feelings for Sunya bounce between love and hate several times throughout the course of the novel. One moment he wants nothing to do with her, then he craves her attention, and then he remembers that Muslims killed his sister and ignores her, and so on. It grows irritating after a while. Random plot threads dominate the bulk of the work, involving the aforementioned soccer game with all of the usual elements involved in that kind of story line; an inevitable encounter between Jamie's father and a Muslim, which blows up in unrealistic, poorly-written fashion; Jasmine's new boyfriend and what her father thinks of him; Jamie desperately awaiting his mother to finally visit (seriously, what is wrong with that woman?); and an audition for Britain's Got Talent. This seems like a lot to happen to a ten-year-old in such a short span of time, but it wouldn't be so bad if it was done with more cheer or more originality.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth is not only the title of Jhumpa Lahiri's second collection of short stories, but the theme of this work and perhaps her entire canon of work. For a woman born in London to Indian immigrants and spending most of her life growing up in the United States, the theme is appropriate. Her characters seem heavily drawn from her own experiences, all of them American born with Indian parents (usually born in India and raised in the United States). This sets up plenty of room for culture clash, not just between different nationalities but also between different generations and the two sexes. Lahiri's themes are largely universal because everyone deals with culture clash in some fashion, large or small, and everyone at some point in their lives must tread upon unaccustomed earth.

This 320+ page collection features eight mostly powerful stories that deal with characters finding themselves on new ground. While they are rather long for short stories, they rarely fail to captivate. "Unaccustomed Earth" starts the collection, a story about an Indian-American woman named Ruma, her widowed father, and her young son. The story spans a week, but it provides a lengthy glimpse into the lives of both major characters, including the heartbreaking details of the death of Ruma's mother. Her death sends both Ruma and her father into unaccustomed earth emotionally, though it's her father who makes a new man of himself, while Ruma can't seem to reconcile this change. The dual perspectives lend this story a lot of weight, and the story is particularly effective in portraying the love Ruma's father develops for his grandson, Akash. This story may be the collection's best, based on how intimately it lets the reader into the lives of these characters.

In "Unaccustomed Earth" there is a trope found in several other stories: a distant husband and father. Ruma's father was emotionally aloof from family life, and only the death of his wife changes him, as he suddenly realizes the dreams she is no longer able to accomplish. The trope of the distant father then grows into one of a father who learns to care. This trope appears as well in "Hell-Heaven," seen in the husband who agreed to an arranged marriage only for the sake of convenience, which leaves an emotional vacuum in his wife's life. "Only Goodness" has a father who keeps his mouth shut about his son's delinquent behavior until something needs to be said. And in "Nobody's Business," a woman is engaged in a long distance relationship with a man who wants their relationship as private as possible. "Unaccustomed Earth" has a second man, Ruma's American husband, whose only presence in the entire story is by phone. This distance (though stern with expectations) shapes the personalities and ambitions of the characters in these stories.

Many of Lahiri's characters are very similar. Her female characters are largely successful and ambitious, taking up prestigious, well-paying careers and starting up small families. The material success of these characters seems to come effortlessly, a PhD earned in the matter of a few sentences, but the emotional success of Lahiri's characters is less certain. No matter how wealthy, there are matters beyond one's control that shape their emotional states. My favorite story, "Only Goodness," is the only one with a character whose problems prevent him from entering this material success. The story is told from the perspective of Sudha, but it's her younger brother, Rahul, who becomes an alcoholic and drops out of college. Sudha's successes are continuously paralleled with Rahul's struggles, and seeing Sudha watch her brother descend into such depths is heartbreaking.

"Only Goodness" is one of several stories where the story's perspective character is not the one where the major conflict revolves around. It's Rahul the reader cheers for and wants to see do well, though we may sympathize with Sudha's feelings. Similarly, the main conflict in "Hell-Heaven" revolves around the perspective character's mother, and in "Nobody's Business" a college student finds himself interested in his new, and beautiful, roommate, who is clearly having some relationship troubles. Then again, this is not all that uncommon in stories. The intrigue in The Great Gatsby revolves around Gatsby, though the story is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway. And in Hitchcock's Rear Window, a crippled James Stewart imagines plots unfolding in his backyard as he spends his days watching his neighbors. Sometimes the source of greatest conflict happens to others and not to us, but it always has some affect upon us.

"A Choice of Accommodations" and "Nobody's Business" both feature male protagonists (the collection is split evenly between male and female protagonists), and each one is about the main character's fascination with a woman who is just out of his reach. In "Choice" Amit is a married man who has agreed to attend the wedding of a woman he had a large crush on in college. His wife harbors some jealousy over this woman, and despite his assurances otherwise he fantasizes about some sexual encounter with her. Paul, in "Nobody's Business," is perhaps the college version of Amit, though maybe more nerdy, with an infatuation with the new woman in his life, Sang, whose boyfriend wants very little to do with her friends. "Choice" works by looking nostalgically at youth, the regrets of sexual encounters that didn't happen, and it also ends on the collection's most climactic note. I liked "Nobody's Business" better because I relate more to the college student, and his troubles feel more real because they are not about a distant past.

"Hell-Heaven" is the only story that doesn't work. Told in the first person from the young girl, Usha, the story fails to provide a strong sense of her character. The central action is between her mother and the man her mother falls in love with, Pranab. The story never succeeds in engaging the reader with any character, except maybe the friendly Pranab. When Usha begins describing sexual feelings towards other men, it feels like a distraction from the main action, and when Usha's mother makes a startling reveal at the end, it doesn't feel like it was earned. Fortunately this story occurs early, and so its memories become buried in the wealth of the rest of the stories.

Unaccustomed Earth ends with three stories about the lives of two characters, Hema and Kaushik. The first story, "Once in a Lifetime," takes place when Hema was a young girl, and Kaushik's family lived with her family for several months. "Year's End" switches to Kaushik's perspective when he's a little older and shows the impact of his mother's death on himself and his family. Kaushik, an aloof wanderer, wants nothing to do with his new stepfamily at first, and ultimately his feelings lead him to becoming a traveling photographer for the New York Times. "Going Ashore" alternates between Hema and Kaushik, as both are approaching middle age, both with successful careers, and both inevitably wandering into one another. Of these three stories, the second and last are the best. Lahiri avoids pinholing her writing into a genre, such as romance. The romance is largely glossed over, and the final story doesn't end the way you might think, or want.

The only problem I have with Lahiri's writing is her heavy use of exposition. Interpreter of Maladies was an excellent collection of short stories, but I struggled to enjoy her first novel, The Namesake, because her use of exposition watered the story down too much. The stories here are longer than in her first collection, and sometimes the exposition feels like too much. Writers are always given advice to show, not tell, but exposition is largely a style of telling. Lahiri tells us endlessly about many details, large and small, about her characters. It's as though her character notes have been transposed onto the final product, and sometimes the reader doesn't get to discover details so much as be told them, which has less of an impact otherwise.

However, Lahiri writes superb exposition, and if one were to learn how to write exposition, she would be a perfect model. She still manages to evoke strong feelings through her expository passages, and slows down now and then to show some action, usually very strongly written. Lahiri has an attention to detail that is surprising. She notes all the little things a person might feel, and this makes her work feel true to life. Her characters feel real, and her plot works out as one might expect in real life, not always with surprises, though not necessarily predictably. The best writers always manage to contradict the conventional wisdom of how to write, and Lahiri does that by successfully evoking strong emotion through a style whose job is to tell, not show. Lahiri does not always uses exposition successfully, but her stories are so powerful and feel so evocative, that it doesn't seem to matter how she tells them. Her words are simply magic.