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. 

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.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa

America, what to say about America? For every Britney Spears there’s a Bob Dylan. For every 50 Shades of Grey there’s Infinite Jest. For every Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan there’s a storming of the beaches on D-Day. For every George W.Bush and Trump there’s a Bernie Sanders and Obama. For Las Vagas, there’s New York. The concrete jungle and Yellowstone. 

He heard their sweet angry American voices chanting and singing, saw their American bodies marching and dancing, and he was surprised to feel not fear, or anger, but a kind of happiness. A calm.

My god, man, he said to himself. This is America.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is a fine piece of America. It is a deeply serious novel, with a faint and heartfelt tone. A seriously clever novel that traces the events of Seattle and the WTO protest of 1999 through the various rungs of American society. It is both a novel of violence and serenity. There are moments of rapid flash points; but it the moments of quiet contemplation that compel and transcend the American setting.

He popped him in the pressure point of the throat. Knocked him behind the ear which was a mistake because then the blood started to flow.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

On one side we see a young protester, having left home at 16, having travelled the world, searching for something to grasp return to Seattle on the eve of the protests. Something has drawn him back. On the other side, his adopted father, the Chief of Police, wanting to take back his city. We move from time and place, to the protesters and the police and the delegates. What isn’t surprising is that each want the best for their side: to show the world they care, to show who is in charge and how they can improve their ‘lot’.

Below him on the TV a scrolling banner read:

VIOLENT PROTESTERS CLASH WITH POLICE.

And then the TV cut to a commercial of a family eating hamburgers in their car.

They looked so happy.

For me the relationship between father and son was well contrived and predictable, but this doesn’t shy away from how Yapa controls the plot, a tightly winding plot that managers to spread across hours and continents and years without effort or literary snobbery. The perspective of Dr Charles Wickramsinghe, a delegate from the small Indian Ocean nation of Sri Lanka, was most perfectly juxtaposed against the protests, police brutality and the raw truth of ‘free trade’.

This is an ambitious, original and beautiful novel. I am going to read everything Yapa writes.