Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

There is such breath and humanity to any of Safran Foer’s works. 

There’s a deep sorrow that lingers throughout Here I Am.

There’s deep hope that never faulted throughhout Here I Am.

The Jewish American family slowing falling apart. Sam’s hand injury haunts them. An ageing patriarch, an ever loyal and loved dog dying and the land of the Jews under attack- by nature and by its neighbours. 


There’s so much going on in this novel. The relationship between Julia and Jacob, 16 years of marriage, is seemingly coming to an end. There’s such warmth and authenticity to the dialogue. The discovery of a second phone and explict text messages, Julia’s frank assessment: it would be easier if Jacob actually acted upon his words. She knows he can’t, that he doesn’t, and hasn’t. 

Jacob is a writer. Words mean everything to him. His TV show is watched by millions, but he is pouring his heart into a show about his family. The set pieces of dialogue around the kitchen table, in the car, visiting his grandfather are tight, funny, heartbreaking and endlessly compelling. There’s no one who can write like this. 

The intricatities of being Jewish is something I found to be so important to the novel. How a people after 5000 years of persecution remain so resolutely loyal and spiritually connected to their faith is something I will never fully understand. With each character this history lives. With each intersection in the novel, this past and the potential for the future to be different lives. There is such burden and such hope. 

The novel is a sprawling family saga. The divorce is just one part of the experience. The natural disaster that strikes Israel and the consequent war against the Jews could be straight from next week’s news. There’s no grandstanding. The withholding of medical supplies and food from the West Bank raises the moral dilemmas of the two state solution. But it’s Jacob’s answering of the call to return to Israel and to fight, and his subsequent choice to instead return home to his soon to be ex-wife and his children that is most profound. We do have choices, sometimes not making a choice is harder than making the right choice. 


This is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It will be in my top ten favourite novels. 

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The Mandibles (2016)

It’s the administration of America’s first Spanish speaking President; the US dollar has been replaced as the world’s most dominant currency; it’s not just the economy- political, military and cultural influence has shifted from the US to Asia.

That’s the picture Lionel Shriver paints of America in 2029. It reads like a Tea Party manifesto or a speech by Donald Trump. It is the nightmare of every pure-breed, white American. When so many American’s believe that their ‘way of life’ is under attack, it is a very provocative literary picture.

The Mandibles are an all American family. They have worked hard, they have been successful in their fields of study, but as their world falls a part, none of that matters. All the qualifications and bank accounts matter for nothing.

The thread that keeps the family together is the resourceful realist Willing. How else to survive the end of the American way but by adapting to the new status quo. It is now survival of the fittest, not the survival of the richest.

After the fall- the absence of the rule of law, the absence of any governmental structure, the republic is restored. The pendulum swings back; the new America is controlled by the government and corporations- mostly out of India and China- every movement, every purchase, every moment is tracked by the mammoth SCAB.

Only Nollie, Willing and Goog of the Mandibles survive the dark days. Nollie, the former famous writer, is one of Shriver’s most compelling characters. Willing is working in a local nursing home and Goog is a member of the entity of nightmares, SCAB. After another mass shooting, this time at Willing’s nursing home, Nollie and Willing decide to head for the free state of Nevada.

“Across the nation, Americans’ mental and physical health had vastly improved. Hardly anyone was fact. Allergies were rare, and these days if people did mention they avoided gluten, a piece of bread would probably kill them. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia had disappeared. Should a friend say they are depressed, something sad had happened. After a cascade of terrors on a life-or-death scale, nobody had the energy to be afraid of spiders, or confined spaces, or leaving the house. In the thirties, the wholesale bankruptcies of looted pharmacies, as well as a broad inability to cadge the readies for street drugs, had sent addicts into a countrywide cold turkey. Gyms shut, and personal trainers went the way of the incandescent light bulb. But repairing their own properties, tilling gardens, walking to save fuel, and beating intruders with baseball bats had rendered Americans impressively fit…

…It wasn’t that Americans had turned on oddity; they simply didn’t feel driven to fix it anymore.”

This Shriver’s best novel since We Need to Talk About Kevin. It is so because of the deeply flawed characters; her ability to vividly, but effortlessly see into the nightmare’s of the world’s greatest ever empire.

 

 

Breathing Under Water (2016)

There is something special about how Australian’s approach surfing. Partly,almost by accident,  a lifestyle choice and then as a real choice of a career, a professionalism that has seen surfing as a part of who we are. Many nations surf, but none approach it with a balance of aggression and respect. The early chapters evoke something rare: a novel that does capture the harsh beauty of the Australian surfing culture. With echoes of Winton’s Lockie Leonard and Breath, and even Malcom Knox’s This Life, Sophie Hardcastle has written a new chapter in young adult literature in Australia. 

The twins, Grace and Ben, live and breath the ocean. Their parents both love and respect the power and grace of the ocean. The portrait of their small coastal town is idealic; the school, the home, the shops, the beach all elegantly drawn from the perspective of Grace. 

The final year of school is often a catalyst for change. Decisions about the future, decisions that we were all told will shape the next fifty years. The novel made me yearn for those simple days of my school days, my memory vividly recalling a selfish desire, a time of no responsibility, with risk taking, road trips and house parties getting out of hand. Sophie might as well have had lived on the coast with me. 

The idealic life is perfectly juxtaposed with the under current of the town. Is everyone simply preparing to exit? To the city, to life beyond the simple. Even Ben, seemingly with professional surfing laying before him as a serious career choice, is touched by the drug and alcohol culture that seems intertwined with the coast lifestyle. In this sense, the novel is both a novel for now and one for an Australia that has left us. An Australia that was less consumed with the dollar, a place immune from the corporate, where one lives or where you went to school didn’t matter.

The tragic events and their aftermath will hurt- I’ve seen this, I’ve lived this. I could pick out friends and their character’s. Nearly all had a little piece of me in them. It is more than a story of someone taken too soon and  

 someone left behind. Hardcastle captures the fall and rise with beautiful prose and deeply intelligent characterisation. How one moves on after falling apart has never been perfected with words. But this comes close. 

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

Over 40 years since the end of the American war in Vietnam, to find something new and fresh about this period  is rare. Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not Catch-22, about another war that still echoes through the current wars that seemingly fall from memory. But it will live alongside it. We join our narrator in confession mode:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

Truth is fluid, there is no doubt about that, right? Nguyen isn’t concerned with truth and neither are the people who place our narrator in a situation that sees him as a servant to the failed state of South Vietnam. The vivid recreation of the final push of the North into Saigon is from his prrspective. We all know the images of the evacuation of the American embassy. Most of us don’t know the Vietnamese side.

Evacuated to the US, our narrator continues his double agent path. I was never convinced that he was for either side, simply floating between. Having spent time in the US studying US culture, the narrator is perfectly positioned for both the south and north. 

…all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner, air-conditioning, a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed, a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland, the modernist novel, freedom of speech, which if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland, sexual liberation and perhaps most of all that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism…there were also many things about America with which I was less enchanted, but why be negative?

We join the narrator as he tries to return to the South, now apart of a greater Vietnam still at war. He is soon captured and thus, his confession. His life is in the balance; what he admits or doesn’t admit will shape his fate: 

Isn’t it frustrating when the answer is right there but one doesn’t know what it is?

Want to learn about war and its effect on the individual, read this today, not tomorrow as it might on the nightly news.

  

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

Over 40 years since the end of the American war in Vietnam, to find something new and fresh about this period  is rare. Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not Catch-22, about another war that still echoes through the current wars that seemingly fall from memory. But it will live alongside it. We join our narrator in confession mode:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

Truth is fluid, there is no doubt about that, right? Nguyen isn’t concerned with truth and neither are the people who place our narrator in a situation that sees him as a servant to the failed state of South Vietnam. The vivid recreation of the final push of the North into Saigon is from his prrspective. We all know the images of the evacuation of the American embassy. Most of us don’t know the Vietnamese side.

Evacuated to the US, our narrator continues his double agent path. I was never convinced that he was for either side, simply floating between. Having spent time in the US studying US culture, the narrator is perfectly positioned for both the south and north. 

…all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner, air-conditioning, a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed, a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland, the modernist novel, freedom of speech, which if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland, sexual liberation and perhaps most of all that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism…there were also many things about America with which I was less enchanted, but why be negative?

We join the narrator as he tries to return to the South, now apart of a greater Vietnam still at war. He is soon captured and thus, his confession. His life is in the balance; what he admits or doesn’t admit will shape his fate: 

Isn’t it frustrating when the answer is right there but one doesn’t know what it is?

Want to learn about war and its effect on the individual, read this today, not tomorrow as it might on the nightly news.

The Nest, by Cythia D’Aprix Sweeney (2016)

In terms of debut novels, The Nest is special in its exploration of contemporary America. The flowing, time and perspective changing style is easy to digest and very easy to love. This is an America that has come to value and appreciate all the layers of its’ identity. Centred on New York, the Plumb family, are a microorganism of the a self assured, self confident America. The Bush years are gone, but this is far from a political novel, but the arena of self confidence in the writing is certainly influenced by the pieces of America fabric coming together. 

The novel is one of family. Starting with an insight into the speedy life of Leo, one incident turns the whole family upon each other. Throughout there’s a sense that the family and their resilience on the nest- and the financial security that it would establish, means that the division and bitter family infighting would have been their natural course. 

The intricate family connections and the interconnected ness of the diverse New York character list is expertly handled, skilfully drawn together. Such care and technique makes the story a stunning example of a fresh voice. The actions of Leo are the catalyst for something warm and refreshing, but the insight into his sister Melody and her family in 21st century America is so appealing. Melody’s daughters and their world is brilliantly crafted. 
The ending was the only disappointment. Once it is established that the selfish Leo has left the others to stumble through his mess, there’s an epilogue, with the family gathering, a year later. The family is relaxed, comfortable in their skin, the world settled and the American Dream restored. It was a little contrived and felt rushed, particularly after such a strong character driven novel. I wouldn’t have hesitated to leave the ending and bring the family back in another novel, giving each generation the space and time they deserve. But that is a simple worry considering the stunning style. 

The Infinite Sea, Rick Yancey

A thrilling, sophiscated sci-fi, dystopia novel that plunges between the real and the unreal just enough to build a compelling character driven novel. It is Yancey’s follow up to 5th Wave and his style has grown, with flash points of plot and character being built slowly, as if he is more confident with his characters.

The setting is key. This is America. There’s plenty of heavy weapons just laying around for the group of survivors (or are they aliens too? Implanted many decades ago to learn the ways of the humans?) to use against the aliens. There’s a passion and commitment to the American ideal of freedom (though we know there’s 150+ nations with freedom), yet it is that American zeal for Liberty that drives so much of the novel. Freedom American style involves a lot of violent death; perhaps as Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam et al could tell you. 

The interlocking of pre-aliens and post-alien world was hinted at throughout the 5th Wave. Here it confronts Cassie and drives the majority of the narrative. Cassie makes the novel- a young woman, strong, resourceful. Yet, there’s still something immature and unrealistic about Yancey’s representation. In the middle of a war of the worlds, would she be still looking to kiss the boys around her? In contrast, Yancey’s intricate details of the aliens plans, and how embedded they are, drip throughout the novel. 

I’m still not sure about the structure and plays on time and place, or even who the target audience may be- yes, young adult readers would love this, but it is so violent. Though, I’ll grab the third in the series as soon as it is released!