The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Friday
Jun142019

Correspondents by Tim Murphy

Published by Grove Atlantic on May 15, 2019

I hate to use a book review cliché like “riveting,” but it fits. Correspondents tells a story that is intensely personal, while illuminating larger social, cultural, and political conflicts that have come to define America. The novel also brings to life the pain that America brought to Iraq and to its refugees when it bungled an invasion that was conducted under false pretenses, an invasion that was intended solely to advance American interests, not the interests of Iraqis.

Most of the novel covers a span from 2002 to 2009, but the story begins as a generational saga centered on the fictional Massachusetts town of Lawton, described as a melting pot that draws immigrants who work in mills so they can send wages to the families they left behind. The first chapter introduces the ancestors and siblings of Mary Jo Coughlin (a Catholic from Ireland) and George Khoury (a Lebanese Maronite), while the second describes their lives in the 1960s and 1970s. The third chapter, set in the 1980s, introduces their brainy and ambitious daughter Rita and her cousin Bobby, a descendent of the Coughlin branch. In a 2008 prologue, Rita brings her Jewish boyfriend Jonah to a Mahrajan in Lawton.

All of that is background to a larger story that begins in Iraq in 2002, where Nabil is a young man who is desperate to make a good life. His cousin is Asmaa, a bright and restless woman who teaches Nabil English. Both want life to change, but Nabil, unlike Asmaa, is not sure that it will change for the better if America invades the country.

Rita is in Beirut in 2002 as a Harvard-trained foreign correspondent. Bobby has enlisted in the military as a response to 9/11. As the invasion of Iraq seems imminent, Rita gets her career-making wish and is sent to Iraq to cover the war. Nabil is her warzone interpreter. Bobby is later sent to Iraq to assist with the occupation.

Most of the story takes place in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Rita’s interviews reveal the mess that America made. The plan to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis was sabotaged by the indiscriminate bombing of neighborhoods, the mass incarceration of innocent people, and the failure to implement a post-invasion strategy to control the chaos of looters, car thieves, and random killings. All of that is depicted in vivid detail. The notion that deposing Saddam made Iraq free is debunked by characters who tell Rita that they are no longer free to walk on the streets without fear of being killed.

Americans learned some of that from journalists who were allowed to report the story, but as the novel suggests, many American journalists pulled their punches in the immediate aftermath of the supposed “victory.” Only later did they report the hypocrisy of imposing American-style democracy by force on people who were not allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted a democracy. Almost two decades later, Iraq is still unstable, thanks to American interference with the country's governance. Rita’s realization that American foreign policy is toxic is one of the novel’s strongest moments.

The story is filled with dramatic moments, some involving Rita, others advancing Nabil’s story. One of the later chapters, set in the United States shortly before the 2008 election, focuses on a birther with mental health issues and a newly purchased gun, whose actions lead to a tragic moment that has an impact on Rita, Bobby, and the nation. The last few chapters touch upon important issues involving gun control (or its absence), PTSD, the darkness the pervades the lives of war survivors, the difficulty that refugees have while transitioning to American life, and the love of country (which many Americans can’t seem to fathom when the country isn’t their own).

Correspondents is smart, nuanced, and powerful. A key moment occurs when Rita inadvertently reveals the truth as she sees it — not a “balanced” story about post-invasion successes and failures, but an unvarnished, personal account of how devastating the invasion had been to people who, in its aftermath, lived in daily fear of kidnappers, looters, car bombers, and retribution. Correspondents dramatizes how journalism lost its way by refusing to report the truth from Iraq for fear of appearing biased, as if enabling propaganda by uncritical reporting of an administration’s statements is not itself a form of biased reporting. It tells that story — and the story of the war’s impact on Nabil and his family — in scenes that are all the more moving because of their realism.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun122019

Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Published by Scribner on March 26, 2019

Several of the stories in Sing to It are the shortest of short stories. Perhaps discerning readers will appreciate their depth of feeling or discern their hidden intent. Most of them left me cold. The title story, just a few sentences long, begins with “At the end, he said, No metaphors.” The story is, I guess, a metaphor, but not one that I grasped.

Amy Hempel’s style is to convey intense feelings using as few words as possible. That’ an admirable goal. When she uses too few words, however, I find myself missing all the rich flavor that she seems to have excised in order to get to the story’s core. I’m not sure that all of these stories are really stories at all, but I know that Hempel is popular in literary circles and that other readers are likely to disagree with me about the value of her brief glimpses of life.

As for the longer stories, I loved “A Full-Service Shelter,” which has the indirect storytelling feel of “The Things They Carried” in its heartbreaking description of how dogs perceived the volunteers at a humane society shelter. No dog lover could read the story without being moved.

The longest story, “Cloudland,” is told by a teacher who did cocaine with her students and moved to Florida to make a new life, although not the kind of life that depends on ambition. The protagonist has an abundance of random thoughts and memories and she isn’t shy about sharing them with the reader. Her most substantive memory is about giving up a child for adoption. “For safekeeping. For peace of mind.” Some of her current thoughts are fantasies about seeing or spending time with her daughter; others are about the emptiness she feels. In contrast with Hempel’s other stories, “Cloudland” might have been told more powerfully with fewer words.

The women in these stories are not living happy lives. The narrator of “The Chicane” tells the story of an an American woman who got pregnant by a French actor, then married a guy from Portugal and labored to turn him into an American after she got pregnant again. Neither relationship works out well for her. “Greed” is narrated by a destructive woman whose husband has an affair with an older woman. In “The Correct Grip,” a woman who was attacked by a man with a knife chats amiably with her attacker’s wife.

Only one of the stories in this collection appealed to me, so I cannot recommend the volume to readers who share my tastes. Your mileage may vary. Other than “A Full Service Shelter,” I was largely indifferent to the book’s contents. Even the stories with more substance, such as “Cloudland,” came across to me as pointless. Maybe pointlessness is the point, but it isn’t a point that makes me want to read story after story. The quality of Hempel’s prose, on the other hand, made the stories easy to read, even when I lost interest in the narrative.

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

Monday
Jun102019

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Published by Crown on June 11, 2019

Recursion begins with a phenomenon called False Memory Syndrome (FMS). People who are afflicted with FMS develop full memories of having lived a different life. Some falsely remembered lives are better and others are worse than the life the FMS sufferer has actually lived. The afflicted retain their actual memories, overlaid by months, years, or decades of finely detailed false memories. Medical researchers have not identified a cause and do not know whether FMS is contagious, although outbreaks have been concentrated in the Northeast. In many instances, people are linked by shared memories of events that never happened.

Later — and maybe this is a spoiler, although the premise is established fairly early in the novel [continue reading at your peril] — the plot begins to build on theories of time derived from quantum mechanics, which nobody understands, allowing a central character to assert that time is a meaningless function of our limited perceptions. The book posits that time travel can be facilitated by memory travel. Characters therefore come to experience multiple timelines by perceiving one, traveling back to an earlier memory, and creating a new timeline that follows that memory. In fact, the story makes the interesting point that Alzheimer’s is a form of time travel, casting sufferers adrift in time, tricking them into believing they are living in the past except for moments we define as “clarity” because they perceive the present as we do.

The story proceeds on two fronts. Barry Sutton is an NYPD detective. He is haunted by memories of his dead daughter. When he fails to prevent the suicide of a woman who suffers from FMS, he senses that there’s more to the story than an unexplained disease, and begins an investigation that takes him to the Hotel Memory. Like the Hotel California, it is easier to check in than to leave. Much of Barry’s story takes place in two timelines, one that starts in 2018 and one that seems to start over in 2007.

The second plot thread involves Helena Smith, a researcher who studies memory formation and storage. Her goal is not to prevent memory deterioration caused by dementia, but to preserve core memories that can then be accessed by patients. One of the world’s wealthiest tech wizards gives her a lab and unlimited funding for her research, which allows her to make rapid progress. Her financial benefactor, however, seems to have an agenda of his own that make Helena wonder whether an isolated laboratory on a converted oil rig in the ocean is the safest place to be.

The novel has a “do-over” theme that is popular in science fiction novels and movies (the story is vaguely reminiscent of the movie Edge of Tomorrow with a little bit of Minority Report; maybe Blake Crouch is a fan of Tom Cruise movies?) — if you could live your life again, with knowledge of how you screwed it up the first time, would you make something better of it on the second go-around? But this novel adds several twists to the time travel theme. What if, to return to an earlier point in your life, you need to die? What if, when you change your own life, you change everyone’s?

There is a love story in Recursion that is touching, in part because it deals with the reality of love rather than the gushiness that romance fans seem to crave. There is also an action story that keeps the plot moving, but the story stands out for the intelligent way it resolves the paradoxes that are inherent in time travel stories. Helena and Barry are sympathetic characters, and they are in conflict with an unlikable nemesis who fails to understand that any technology capable of changing reality will inevitably change it for the worse. The story builds suspense with every page. In the realm of time travel stories, Recursion is fairly regarded as an instant classic.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Jun072019

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Published by Algonquin on January 8, 2019

Desperate people are still people. People who think of themselves as losers are still people. Those are among the lessons of Sugar Run, a novel of desperate people who seem destined to end up on the losing side of any conflict. For all the bad choices they make, the key characters in Sugar Run are the kind of people who would make good choices if they realized that they are not constrained by their pasts.

Jodi McCarty was a juvenile tried as an adult. After serving 18 years, she is unexpectedly released from a life sentence. Jodi hops on a Greyhound to southern Georgia to see Ricky Dulett. In the town where she thinks Ricky lives, Jodi meets Miranda Matheson, who has an on-and-off relationship with her baby’s daddy, Lee Golden, a redneck singer who performs at county fairs, having lost the rights to the songs that once gave him modest fame.

The plot involving Jodi, Miranda, and Ricky takes place in 2007. It alternates with scenes from 1988, when Jodi met a poker player named Paula, a woman who lives for a sweet run of cards, the sugar run that keeps gamblers coming back to the table. Their time together is a blur of drugs and highways — they have a Thelma and Louise approach to life — but Jodi and Paula promised to one day come back for Ricky, to take him away from the father who beats him. The reader eventually learns of Paula’s tragic past and her connection to Ricky.

In the 2007 story, we learn that Ricky has a dark side but is capable of surprising compassion, and that Jodi’s brother Dennis is a low-key drug dealer whose manipulative nature doesn’t stop him from occasionally behaving as a caring human being. Both characters create conflict in Jodi’s life, as does her desire to get back the family land that was auctioned to pay a tax debt while Jodi was in prison. Fracking is destroying the mountain around her, but fracking might be a metaphor for all the destruction that surrounds Jodi.

A number of subplots drive both stories forward, although the key question is whether Miranda and Jodi have a future together. They enjoy sleeping together, but hiding out with Miranda’s kids is stressful, and Jodi wonders whether Miranda still has a thing for Lee. She also wonders whether Miranda will lose her kids if the locals find out that she and Miranda are engaging in acts that the locals would regard as sinful.

Mesha Maren waits until near the novel’s end to reveal Jodi’s crime. That’s wise because, as in real life, after we come to like someone, it is difficult to unlike them because of a single bad act, at least if the act is directed at someone else.

To the extent that Sugar Run is a domestic drama, Jodi’s relationships are so unconventional that they never veer into soap opera territory. Local politics provides atmosphere, as environmentalists who oppose fracking are in conflict with people whose jobs depend on ruining water supplies.

Mesha Maren’s prose contributes the novel’s success. Here’s how she sets a scene: “Jodi couldn’t quite place their faces or remember specific names but she knew these women well. They’d always been there in the background with coffee and sticky, starchy foods. At the scene of every disaster and celebration they’d fill out the edges of the room with their pillowy housedresses and clouds of smoke. By the very generosity of their bodies they comforted the children and men.”

Sugar Run suggests that our lives have patterns and that, once made, an old pattern will easily shape a new life. Yet the story also suggests the possibility of gaining the strength and courage to break a bad pattern. There is always more to life if you make the effort to find it. Or perhaps the novel teaches that when you’ve hit bottom, there is nowhere to look but up. Regardless of what a reader might take from the novel, I suspect that most readers will find something worth taking.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jun052019

The Club by Takis Würger 

First published in Germany in 2017; published in translation by Grove Atlantic on March 12, 2019

The Club is a story of privilege and of how the privileged come to believe that society’s rules do not apply to them. It might seem over-the-top if not for recent revelations about Swarthmore fraternities that used date-rape drugs and maintained a “rape attic.” The Club is also about the malleable nature of truth, “the stories we keep telling ourselves until we believe they’re the truth.”

The Club is told in the first person from the perspectives of several characters. The primary character is Hans. He was picked on when he was a kid, so his father took him to the gym for boxing lessons. Learning to fight taught him to tolerate other people.

Hans becomes an orphan shortly after the novel begins. Some of the story is narrated by Hans’ Aunt Alex from England, who becomes Hans’ guardian. Alex teaches art history at Cambridge. She considers herself mad, so she sends Hans to a Jesuit boarding school in Germany rather than dragging him into her abyss. Hans studies, works on his boxing with a monk, and tries to ignore his loneliness.

After a time, Alex invites Hans to become a student at Cambridge and to join the Pitt Club. The club is not dedicated to the admiration of Brad Pitt, but consists of a group of privileged students, some of whom box. Alex wants Hans to infiltrate the club and help her find out who committed a crime, the nature of which she refuses to identify. To that end, Alex meets a mysterious woman (a grad student of Alex’s) named Charlotte. Her father is Alex’s ticket to an invitation to join the Pitt Club.

The wealthy, upper-class students who belong to the Pitt Club are instantly unlikeable. One of those, Josh, occasionally narrates a section. He thinks of himself as a decent chap and has no clue what a prick he is, oblivious to the impact on others of his elitist attitude and his inability to manage his anger.

Charlotte’s wealthy father, Angus Farewell, also narrates some sections. Peter Wong, a foreign student who wants to join the Pitt Club, is one of the more interesting narrators, if only because he keeps a daily log of (among other things) his masturbation.

A couple of the characters are a bit clichéd — the gay victim of homophobia, the American who emphasizes his patriotism and his Christianity (which is apparently the way British writers see all Americans) — and the story has a contrived feel, relying on one coincidence too many. As an indictment of the sense of empowerment that comes naturally to the privileged, however, the story also feels real. Some of that reality comes from details that Takis Würger no doubt gleaned from his own brief membership in the Pitt Club.

The story moves at a steady pace. Its ending is easy to foresee, but the ending is satisfying. The novel might be faulted for simplifying complex social issues surrounding privilege and women’s rights, but Würger’s heart is in the right place and the story is timely.

RECOMMENDED