The Morels by Christopher Hacker

the morelsThe Morels by Christopher Hacker was not at all what I was expecting when I picked up the novel. I was expecting something a little lighter, a little quirkier, something more like The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. The Morel family of the title is not particularly quirky and does not bring any of the humor of the Family Fang. Once I got past this and accepted that The Morels was a much more serious novel, the role and effect of Art at the end of the twentieth century I slowly warmed up to it. In fact by the end of the novel, I was even enjoying it, not wanting it to end.

The Morels recounts the story of child music prodigy turned writer Arthur Morel. It is told from the point of view of a childhood friend who unexpectedly comes back into his life just before the publication of his second novel. This highly autobiographical second novel entitled The Morels ends with a very troubling scene between Art and his eight year old son. Is it fiction or did it really happen?

Overall The Morels is an ambitious novel. At times this ambition slows down the plot as the characters dive down into the depths of ‘ontological ruminations’ on the true nature of art. Does art need to shock in order to be truly effective? The protagonist Art certainly thinks so and often lives by this creed to sometimes disastrous results. While Art’s actions and the inevitable fall out provide for an interesting story, the long discursive sections outlining and explaining Art’s motivations slow down the story and are at times tedious. I found this to be true especially in the early portions of the novel before I fell into Hacker’s pacing.

Perhaps the most interesting characters, Art’s parents, are not introduced until the second half of the novel. They raised Art in a most unique manner, that quite likely resulted in Art’s inability to fully fit in in regular society. For me, it was the parents and flashback to Art’s childhood that saved the novel. Until this point I was getting fed up and bored.

Who would like this book? This book would appeal to those looking for a more philosophically driven read, rather than a plot driven one. It is an excellent meditation on what it means to be an artist at this point in history. Is it the role of the artist to shock and raise consciousness? Or is it enough to submit the strictures of a market driven industry? In some ways Hacker raises issues similar to those found in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, though I found the later to be much more readable and I believe it will receive much more critical acclaim than The Morels.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

illicit-happinessCan I just say that I loved Manu Joseph‘s first novel Serious Men? It was a quirky and intelligent story about a father who forces his son to pose as a mathematical genius. It was wildly different than any other  Indian novel I had read, but still managed to tap into some very relevant themes of modern life in India. So I was excited when I saw that Joseph had a new novel out (December 2012). I didn’t know what to expect, but I was expecting something great and unusual. The Illicit Happiness of Other People, like Serious Men, is a unique novel. Unlike, Serious Men however, The Illicit Happiness is also deeply troubling and a wee bit too philosophical for my liking.

The story focuses on Ousep’s quest to find the cause of his son Unni’s suicide. Three years after Unni’s death Ousep is still questioning and harassing Unni’s friends to see if he can uncover some insight into Unni’s lasts days. Overall, his journey is quite interesting for the reader, unfolding somewhat like a mystery. As Ousep gets closer to the truth surrounding Unni’s last days he discovers that Unni had some unlikely friends and interests. It is at the point that the narrative gets needlessly mired in unusual philosophical discussions. I found myself skimming through long tracts, rather than really reading them. And in the end these philosophical musings may not hold the key to Unni’s death (I will let you decide).

Perhaps as is to be expected, The Illicit Happiness of Other People is a very dark novel. The character of Ousep I found to be entirely unlikable and unsympathetic. Before and after Unni’s suicide Ousep is a drunk who torments his family by periodically getting them to enact with him his own suicide by hanging. He seems to have very little concern for his wife who is quite mad or his younger son.

The other deeply troubling aspect of the novel is they way in which girls and women are viewed as sexual objects. In part what makes this so troubling is that it resonates with my own experience of living in India. However, Joseph delves into this perception much more deeply and poses it as a necessary condition of the South Indian man. Regardless of the general goodness and moral well being of a Tamil man, they are still held hostage to these unavoidable and uncontrollable desires.  This is played out in a number of troubling scenes in which the erstwhile Unni is the ring leader. Unni also plays the role of charismatic ring leader in some other acts of troubling violence. All of this poses a rather grim view of society.

Who would like this book? Thankfully we are passed the days when the sprawling multi-generational family saga is the only thing Indian literature has to offer. The Illicit Happiness of Other People fits into a new trend in Indian literature that is exemplified by the works of Vikas Swarup (of Slumdog Millionaire fame), Aravind Adiga and Lavanya Sankaran (review). These novelist are a little bit more edgy in their approach to portraying the quotidian lives of their characters in modern India. This novel may also appeal to those who enjoyed the philosophical musing found in novels like The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson

humanity projectThe Humanity Project by Jean Thompson, as the title suggests, takes on big issues about the state of the world we live in. Poverty, violence, environmental degradation. It seems as though it is aiming to be in the category of really big American novels, the likes of which Jonathan Franzen so comfortably inhabits. Unfortunately, The Humanity Project falls short. That doesn’t mean it is not a good novel, but I think it is trying to be a great novel and doesn’t quite make it.

Most of the characters in The Humanity Project are lost souls, who at the beginning of the novel they seem utterly unconnected. There is a teenager who witnesses a horrible tragedy, a single father who goes out on a blind date, the nurse that lives in the apartment below him, a rich retired man on the verge of death. They are connected by a sense of futility and hopelessness. They are just ordinary people and yet the world seems poised to get them.  In spite of the ordinariness of the characters, they are rather intriguing. They propel the story forward and although their stories do not always end happily, their endings are satisfying.

Perhaps the largest problem the novel has is its title. The of a Humanity Project is not even introduced until 130 pages into the novel and it is the idea of a Humanity Project that seems not very well developed. It is a great title, but lacks in fulfillment. I believe with a little bit more time and editing, this could have been a much better book. It has the ingredients of a great book, but its potential is not fully met.

Who would like this book? In many ways The Humanity Project is a quintessentially American novel. It tackles large contemporary issues and tries to comment on America writ large by focusing on a few ordinary individuals. Although I initially compared The Humanity Project to Jonathan Franzen, early Wally Lamb may be a more apt comparison. Though The Humanity Project strives for high brow grand themes, the particular and the popular may be a more comfortable audience for it. Before reading this book I had never even heard of Jean Thompson. She is, however, an American writer of some acclaim. I may not read her again in the future, but I will look out for what she produces next.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

amityandsorrowI didn’t think I was going to read Amity and Sorrow. Not really what I’m into at the moment, is what I thought. Though I am interested in religion and cults I was concerned that this was going to stray into the territory of bonnet lit (Amish and Mennonite romances) given the cover illustration of the North American edition (the UK edition has a very different cover). I must admit, however, that Amity and Sorrow was not half bad.

Amity and Sorrow are sisters on the run with their mother Amaranth from their father, the leader of a cult-like Christian sect, reminiscent of hard core Mormons. Due to an unexpected accident they end up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. Until now Sorrow has always acted as her father’s Oracle and resists their move. She is also prone to arson and believes that the end of days will come in flames.

Overall, first time author Peggy Riley does an astounding job or portraying what life would be like for a teenager leaving an insular cult and finding herself out in the unfamiliar world of men. Unfortunately this is somewhat undermined by Riley’s portrayal of Amaranth, who is both still under the thrall of her charismatic husband and his arcane rules and only too ready to jump into bed with the farmer who takes them in. Amaranth’s character and the story as a whole would have been stronger and more compelling if she had not given into her desires so effortlessly.

Who would like this book? I suspect Amity and Sorrow is going to be a big book this spring and summer. It will undoubtedly be marketed as a great book club pick: focused on women’s experiences with enough controversy to spark good discussion. It reminded me of David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, which depicts the estrangement of Brigham Young’s wife in the early days of Mormonism. For research Riley relied quite heavily on Under the Banner of Heaven by noted journalist Jon Krakauer, which is a fascinating account of Mormon fundamentalists in the United States and Canada. Also out this spring is Elders by Ryan McIlvain, a novel dealing with Mormon missionaries in Brazil.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

brain on fireI have been waiting to read Brain on Fire since Christmas. It received so much unbelievable press, I knew I had to read it. The author, Susannah Cahalan, was at every media outlet possible and did a great job of hooking you into her story. The book recounts her month long descent into madness as a result of brain inflammation (encephalitis). She has painstakingly pieced together what happened during a month when she was utterly unlike herself and unable to remember what happened.

As her symptoms first presented themselves she sought medical care. MRIs, blood work, everything came back negative. The doctors concluded that physically she was fine. Symptoms grew worse including highly erratic and irrational behavior and seizures; one doctor diagnosed her with “partying to hard”. Finally, she ends up in a seizure ward at NYU but they still can’t figure out what is wrong with her. If it weren’t for one very good doctor and diagnostician, she may well have ended up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.

Before and after this episode of Cahalan’s life she worked as a journalist, so it comes as no surprise that Brain on Fire is a well written read. I often avoid books about tragedies for fear that they will slip into sentimentality. Cahalan avoids this at all costs and tells a straight forward story about her month of madness and the perils of the medical system. She is unflinchingly honest where she could just as easily gloss over details to portray herself in a more flattering light.

Who would like this book? This book would appeal to anyone interested in mental health and the mechanics of the brain. It reminded me of Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg, a wonderful account of Greenberg’s daughters struggle with manic depression. Both books are honestly told and gripping. Both books also reveal faults in the way in which mental health issues are treated in our society. Both books receive a 5/5 from me.

The Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran

hope factoryThe Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran is set in the South Indian boom town of Bangalore. The story runs in two streams: one focused on Anand the owner of a factory and his desire to expand; the second revolves around one of his housemaids, Kamala, as she tries to make a better life for her son. Interspersed with these two main story line are the antics of Anand’s wife, who is both dramatic and ridiculous.

One of the main themes running throughout the novel is the issue of corruption in India. How does one get ahead without paying the bribes necessary to grease the wheels of an unwieldy bureaucracy? Buying land to build a new factory proves fraught with pitfalls requiring extra money from Anand.

I wish I could say that I liked this novel a little bit more than I did. You know how sometimes you pick up a novel and it is the perfect story for that moment in your life? Well, the opposite happened with The Hope Factory. I was feeling unsettled and disjointed and the novel appeared that way as well. Was it me? Or was it the novel? I often felt bored and like nothing was really happening. Many sub-streams of the novel were left unresolved. Her literary pedigree is good however, having written for The Atlantic, The Guardian and such publications, so maybe it was more me than her.

On the plus side, however, Sankaran has a real ease with dialogue. The diction of characters of various classes was dead on. And her portrayal of Kamala, a widowed mother raising a son on her own was poignant without treading into sentimentality.

Who would like this book? My initial suggestion would be that The Hope Factory would be a great companion piece to Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger. Both are set in Bangalore and deal with issues of corruption and India’s place in the new economic order.

Audio Sample: Z by Therese Anne Fowler

zThis came to me from MacMillan Audio at just the right moment. I’m dedicating April to writing my novel in Camp Nanowrimo, so finding time to read and write posts for the blog is falling by the wayside.

Here is a sample of the audio version of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald read by Jenna Lamia. Just listen to that southern drawl, y’all. It lulls me into a state of absolute relaxation. I absolutely loved the novel edition of Z (here’s my review) and from what I’ve heard of the audio version, it sounds great.

The thing about audio books is they come alive in a a completely different way that traditional books. In this case the audio gels pretty well with what my imagination came out with. What I want to know, is do you, fellow readers, listen to audio books as well? It is never something I’ve done in any big way. If you do, why do you? What do you like, dislike about it?