The pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive

A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara

This book has consumed my life for a month. It is often sad, upsetting, shocking even, but I still wanted to dive back in as soon as I could whenever life dragged me away from it.

This is a big book, and it takes a while for its main themes to become apparent. Although I knew quite a bit before I started reading, I’m going to avoid spoilers here.

We open with four men in New York, good friends since college, now in their late 20s and trying to put their stamp on the world. Willem is an actor, making most of his money waiting tables at a high-end restaurant. JB is an artist, trying to find his subject. Malcolm is an architect, working long hours, dreaming of the day when he will have his own projects. And Jude is a lawyer at the public prosecutor’s office, not really making enough money to live in Manhattan.

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The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

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Holiday in USA: New York City


Okay, it’s more than a month since we got back from our US holiday and I still haven’t sorted through all the photos (partly because we’ve only had one free weekend, but it’s still remiss of me) so I’m just going to have to try to summarise our week there before I forget it all completely. It was an amazing trip, with far more activities on our to do list than we had time for, inevitably. It’s New York.

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Something missing

Trance of Insignificance
by Jennifer Rainville

This book was sent to me by the author after a short e-mail exchange during which she intrigued me with her title and synopsis. It sounded like a smart, modern romance that would make an easy but satisfying summer read. It certainly had all the right components, but for me it didn’t quite hit the spot.

Rainville has created a main character with a lot in common with herself. Jules Duvil, like her creator, worked as a political aide in Washington and then as a TV journalist in New York City before becoming a media adviser and writing a novel, which is about to be released at the start of this book. This lends a weight of authority to the passages set in newsrooms and I was a little sorry that there wasn’t any detail about Jules’ time in Washington, because I’d have loved to learn more about that.

The book cuts back and forward in time, mostly to three periods: Jules’ problematic childhood on the rougher side of Boston; her relationship 10 years ago with local celebrity news anchor Jack who is a known womaniser and yet is jealous of Jules’ every move; and the present day, in which Jules is trying to make things work with the far more staid and predictable ad exec Noah, who comes from money and believes in doing things in a certain way. It is clear that neither man is good for Jules; both of them want to change her, but they also love her deeply.

For me, the novel started on a bit of a bum note. In an early chapter we hear about Jules’ first day as a lowly production assistant for a big New York news station and that day just happened to be 11 September 2001. It’s a bold decision to take and gives Rainville the chance to quickly explain a lot about how TV news works while relating it to a news story that we all remember vividly. However, she doesn’t write much about the effect of 9/11 outside the news room – the state the city was in, the change that was suddenly and irrevocably wrought. I know she is trying to make a point about news journalists being bloodthirsty enough to not think about the human side of tragedy, but surely that was too big and awful an event for that to be true? Maybe I’m wrong.

I didn’t warm to Jules. Though we gradually learn from the flashbacks why she is a little cold and label-obsessed, I was annoyed by the need to detail every one of Jules’ outfits, including accessories – all designer. I wasn’t convinced that a single woman living alone in New York and struggling to make it as a journalist would honestly be able to afford such extravagant outfits, not coming from a poor background. Maybe she earned a small fortune during her couple of years in Washington? But that seems unlikely. It’s more believable in the present-day sections, when she’s become a successful self-employed media adviser and it would have been interesting to see a contrast from perhaps her envy of other women’s clothing in 2001 to having a designer-filled wardrobe in 2011.

Jules’ rough upbringing wasn’t, sadly, entirely convincing. Rainville drops in a lot of family trauma and some scenes are frank and shocking, but they didn’t feel fully fleshed out. They were often very brief – just a page or two – and could have done with expanding, perhaps even softening with some warmer or even just mundane memories.

This is Rainville’s first novel and it’s self-published, neither of which is necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it shows. Though Rainville has some talent, she would have benefited enormously from a professional publishing house to give her some guidance and edit the text line by line. The copy editing is poor, though that may have particularly stood out for me because it’s how I make my living. But more than that, there are some clumsy lines, poor exposition and extraneous details that a professional would have helped Rainville to iron out.

I suppose I would have liked to see more descriptions of the city, rather than just name-dropping restaurants and bars; and more small, nuanced details that reveal something about a person rather than a personals-ad-style height, figure, hair and eye colour list. Rainville does know how to turn a phrase, and uses some great imagery, not to mention having a good ear for dialogue, but there’s too much clumsiness in-between to ignore. That said, I was involved enough in the story to read the book pretty quickly and care how things turned out. If Rainville works with a professional publisher for future novels, I do think it will be worth giving her another chance.

This is all, of course, just one person’s opinion, and I may have been negatively influenced by the grammatical errors. Other reviewers out there seem to have more positive views.

Published 2011 by Rainville Books.

Absorbing the pain

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

This is a big book and, like all the best chunky tomes, it’s a little bit heartbreaking when you get to the end to leave that world and all of its characters behind. Which is a long way of saying that I liked it.

Like Chabon’s previous books, this is a historical novel with a strong Jewish slant and a great deal of research has clearly gone into creating a believable setting for the action. Many’s the time I reached for my laptop to look up details mentioned, famous people or events named in passing, but I invariably changed my mind because I was too eager to carry on reading to pause, even briefly.

The story is that of two Jewish men, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, during and after World War II. Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague and goes to live with Sam and his mother in Brooklyn, NYC. Sam’s mother has somewhat exaggerated his career and influence in her letters to Joe’s family but the appearance of this strange foreign cousin – and Joe’s astonishing skill as an artist – spark an idea in Sam that shapes the rest of their lives, and proves his mother’s faith worthy. Sam and Joe create a series of comic books that take America by storm, their greatest character being The Escapist, a superhero with Houdini’s escapism skills and a particular hatred for Nazis.

The book follows Joe and Sam’s changing fortunes over a couple of decades, but it also tells the larger story of comic books in America, as well as, on a much smaller scale, looking at changing attitudes toward Jews, Germans and homosexuals in the US.

With such huge events and themes, it is inevitable that some things will be dwelt on while others are skipped past quickly. The examples that stood out for me were the excellent long passage covering a brief section of Joe’s military service – a brilliant study of loneliness and self-evaluation – and the woefully short description at the start of Joe’s escape from Prague. Joe trains, as a boy, in escapology and it is his escapology teacher who plans his escape in a coffin. The origins of the plan, based around the smuggling out of German territory of a golem, precious to Jewish clerics, are detailed over several chapters but when it comes to the actual escape, a brief paragraph summarises Joe’s route before his arrival on Sam’s doorstep. This seemed to me to be a shame but it certainly added to the mysterious silence that Joe maintains regarding his past and his violent anger toward Nazis and Germans. Having left his family and friends behind in Europe the origin of his anger is obvious and his helplessness whenever he hears more bad news is devastating to follow.

I know very little about Jewish culture or escapology and, while I’ve read a handful of graphic novels, my knowledge of the history of comic books is almost non-existent, but I don’t think any of that matters. I loved this book. The tone and subject matter could veer from light comedy to the darkest exploration of humanity’s guilt and yet it never stopped being readable. The characters and story were absorbing, the writing style a good balance between faux memoir and adventure novel, and there were some descriptions of brief moments that were astonishingly vivid. This is definitely a book to lose yourself in.

Published 2001 by Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-1-8411-5493-0