Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Eastbound into the Cosmos: A search for normal in a sea of crazy

Burke_Cover_FINAL(Editor’s note: After a long hiatus The Literate Man was forced to crank up the book review machine by a book so compelling we had to share it with our readers.  Eastbound into the Cosmos is the type of book that reminds us what a pleasure a novel can be.) 

Everett can’t seem to make sense of his past or his future but he knows there’s got to be something better than the shit sandwich he finds himself stuck in.  In Eastbound into the Cosmos we ride shotgun as he transitions from emboldened world traveler and ESL instructor in China to a creature of fear and loathing prowling suburban convenience stores.  It’s a tapestry of international, intercultural and existential daydreaming that scours the deep and shallow themes of belonging.  It’s a fascinating ride and it’s extremely funny.

The unexpected death of his father forces Everett’s return to his childhood home in Chicago and opens up a can of emotional turmoil.  He’s right back where he started just several years older and less equipped to handle his circumstances then before he left.  And on top of that his mother has been carried over the deep-end by a pony-tailed mystic and his crystals.  Crazy abounds. 

Finding it strangely difficult to re-immerse himself in the vita americana and a past that's left him behind, he does the only logical thing: smuggling exotic mushrooms.  Trafficking of Asian fungus may seem an odd choice on the surface and that’s because it is.  His frenemy and ex-roommate from China, Dino, provides entrĂ©e into the world of gourmet mushroom smuggling (“the premium”) but fails to provide a road map.  Dino’s interest in the partnership is not purely commercial –a cult is involved- nor is it compliant with Chinese Communist Party laws, or FDA guidelines, for that matter.  Things get sideways in a hurry.

But superseding his mushroom entanglements is the guerrilla war he’s waging with his mother for her soul: Everett searching for the mom he used to know as Tucky the new-aged guru drags her into the light via hypnosis, naked yoga at dawn and an abundance of sage burning.  Battle lines must be drawn.  The conflict culminates with a memorable confrontation at his guru nemesis’ dojo that goes just about how you might expect.

But the thing about Everett is that he doesn’t give up, even if most of his efforts register high on the pathetic scale.  And that sloth-like relentlessness along with his unfailing narrative honesty is what makes him so compelling.  He sets out to shred through the veil of insanity he finds himself enveloped in and despite his lack of success he trudges on –partly because he’s got nothing else to do and partly because buried underneath his strange and sometimes shameful behavior is an innate sense of justice nudging him along.  As he works through the ambient lunacy he realizes that one man (or woman’s) crazy is another man’s divine.  And underneath the veneer we’re all more or less looking to get to the same place, we’ve just got different GPS coordinates to get there.  The search for that commonality is what get’s him out of bed in the morning…usually quite late after sleeping in and trying to avoid his mother.  

The story hums along, jumping continents and calendar years, filled with hilarious moments and propelled by the multidimensionality of the people and places we’re introduced to.  Burke does a masterful job amidst the milieu of East/West, past/future exploring what it means to belong in both time and place.  In the parlance of Everett that may sound like a lot of "new-age hooey" and it kind of does, but Burke has superbly grounded the characters and the backdrops and avoided the trap of devolving into something cartoonish. 

Burke himself spent a year teaching English in China and has a deep well of expertise to draw from.  He’s long honed his craft as a veteran contributor to Playboy, Tin House, and other publications as well as doing good stuff like helping emerging writers in Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa and working with Words without Borders.  We’re glad to see he finally got around to writing a novel and can’t wait to see what’s next.

Friday, December 20, 2013

So Much Unknown About The Known World

The Known World is not a book that you will soon forget.  As you turn the pages, the story reveals itself as such a singular and unique piece of work that, despite some its imperfections, it’s something that sticks in your head.  It’s one of the rare books that offers up an unknown world to the reader that far transcends the paper and ink confines that it’s written on.  Author Edward P. Jones struck gold with this, his first novel, and the compelling story combined with his unusual writing talents have resulted in a stunning book.

Set just several years before the outbreak of the Civil War in Manchester County, Virginia, Jones gives us the story of the Henry Townsend Plantation.  As with any pre-Civil War plantation at that time and place slavery was a sad reality.  However, what makes the Townsend plantation unique is the fact that Henry was black; a free man, slave owner, and shoemaker, “protected” by the wealthiest white man in the county. 

When Henry unexpectedly dies it’s up to his young widow to hold the plantation together and maintain a certain way of life.  But things began to unravel one strand at a time and we experience this upheaval and its consequences through the perspective of the various slaves, slave owners, community of freemen, crackers and other members of Manchester County.  With a sprawling cast of characters, each perspective adds a new piece to the puzzle as the author constructs a vibrant and complexly layered portrait of a disturbing, but very real, part of our past; a past that only half-a-dozen generations removed, we marvel at in disbelief.   

Jones has created one of the most vivid profiles of slavery in fiction.  Throughout the book he draws liberally from an historical record that, while highly plausible, was also invented.  In the absence of any real historical record of black slave owners, Jones superbly employs this tool to reinforce the plot-line and it adds a distinct richness to the writing.  It’s this, and other unconventional writing devices, that both surprise and add heft to the story.  And while sometimes distracting, these efforts succeed much more often than they fail.

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his writing is his restraint.  In a world founded on excess, Jones’ controlled writing is a powerful contrast to the absurdities and extremes of the environment.  It allows the reader to feel the rawness of the human emotion in its most powerful light.  As he navigates through a system of complex moral issues and social contradictions -made even more complicated by skin color- Jones reveals his character’s pain,  and societies hypocrisy, more through what he leaves unwritten, than by any of the words he puts on the page.

Comparisons to Tony Morrison’s Beloved, and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner are apt, as they have become the contemporary standard-bearers for this genre.  But what Jones has done is present this gripping subject matter in an original light; in a way that’s never been conceived before.  He has put new wine in old skin and the results are dazzling, perhaps even unforgettable.

Friday, November 15, 2013

History And Intrigue Collide In Wolf Hall

Much has been made of Wolf Hall, the fictionalized account of Henry the VIII’s court, since its original release in 2009; from the Man Booker Prize, to universal critical acclaim and monster sales, it’s all been richly deserved.  Though repeatedly the subject of writing, theater and film, Hilary Mantel’s engrossing retelling of this Tudor chapter of history is perhaps the finest since Shakespeare broached the subject.

Set in the years between 1500 and 1535 and centered on the events that helped shape modern Europe, it’s the story of Henry’s wedding of Anne Boleyn and the divorce that forever altered Western Civilization.  The courting of Anne and Henry’s quest for an heir form the ostensible backdrop of this story but Mantel’s focus on the backroom dealing and horse trading that facilitated the betrothal is the real point of interest.  Wrangling with the Vatican, the slippery French, and the hated Spanish while trying to prevent an invasion by a united Christian Europe and suppressing an uprising on the home front are just some of the preoccupations Henry faces. 

Fortunately he has a ringmaster named Thomas Cromwell to handle the delicate -and not so delicate- intricacies of his agenda.  And in the hands of Mantel, what a fascinating man Cromwell proves to be.  The archetype of a “well-rounded Englishman” he is an engrossing and complex protagonist in this original take on the Tudor court.  As a sort of a benevolent Machiavelli, who deftly balances and pragmatism and hope, ambition and intrigue are just as much at the core of Cromwell as the other courtesans, but we want to believe that his motivations are somehow for a greater good and that’s partly why Mantel’s Cromwell is so irresistible.

Contrary to most works that tend to focus on Henry or Anne as the singular characters, Mantel cleverly chooses Cromwell as the narrative vessel for navigating this era of European upheaval.  Cromwell is all the more remarkable as he is the first man of low-born status to ascend to right hand of the throne, head the government and essentially hold the keys to the realm.  And this clash of classes adds to the richness of this work by humanizing the historical events.   

Mantel’s gifts as a writer are apparent from the first few paragraphs.  From the opening scenes the prose accelerates, compelling you to burn through the 604 pages.  She flaunts convention writes with clarity and doesn't indulge in wordy flourishes.  But perhaps the most impressive quality of her writing is that she’s able to inject an almost kinetic quality into the economical, even sparse, prose; the words dance off the page and it reads almost like a thriller.

Wolf Hall is the first of a Cromwell trilogy and we give this remarkable book our highest recommendation for historical fiction.  The second of the series, Bring Up the Bodies, was published in 2012 and has also been showered in critical acclaim and awards.  We can’t wait to devour it!  

Friday, October 4, 2013

Middlesex: More Than Just An Address

Hermaphrodites, incest, boot-legging, illegal immigration…this might sound like a Jerry Springer episode but we’re actually talking about the themes in Jeffery Eugenides Pulitzer prize winning novel, Middlesex.  In lesser hands, you might expect a story woven around these elements to rely on shock and novelty to grab the reader’s attention.  But in Eugenides hands, these are little more than a starting point for an entertaining and provocative work about our search for identity.

Like so many epic novels Middlesex is a multi-generational tale of uprooted immigrants creating a new life in a foreign environment.  When Turkish forces invade the Greek countryside in 1922, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides are forced to flee their simple village life and start over in Detroit, USA.  Over the next three generations we learn of the family’s and the city’s intertwined histories, their secrets and their future.  Using prisms of ethnicity, race, socio-economic grouping and sexual identity Eugenides takes us on a fascinating tour of a colorful Greek family and the legendary highs and lows of the city of Motown.  Throughout the narrative both the characters and the city struggle to resist externally imposed identities and remain true to their heritage in an ever-changing environment.   

The protagonist of this tale, Cal, is the granddaughter of Lefty and Desdemona, and just happens to be a hermaphrodite whose condition remains undiscovered until her late teens.  You can be forgiven for assuming that this plot element is simply a gimmick.  But it’s not.  And the reader is hardly even aware of Cal’s unusual biology until the latter stages of the book.  Instead, when the story finally reaches Cal’s part in the story, her/his inter-sexed makeup is used as a tool for deconstructing yet another layer of identity: sex/gender.  And what could easily become freakish or even tawdry is actually quite tender and illuminating.

Eugenides employs science, biology, humor and unwanted sorrow to handle Cal’s story, deftly balancing these perspectives to create a holistic vision of an unusual life from birth to middle-age and the perpetual search for identity.  It’s a grossly compelling vision grounded in the universal need to be accepted -something that is certainly far more difficult for someone whose physiology does not fit within the norms of a biology textbook. 

At the heart of Middlesex is an enlarged ensemble of colorful characters that practically jump off the pages and Eugenides has a knack for capturing the immigrant experience and the reverberations felt throughout the first, second and even third generation family members.  Throughout this excellent book, the writing is engaging, the pace is crisp and the characters sparkle.  Middlesex has all the requisite ingredients for an impossible-to-put-down-page-turner and it does not disappoint. 

Eugenides has written just one other book since winning the 2003 Pulitzer, The Marriage Plot (2011), and previously authored The Virgin Suicides (1993); both of which have found commercial and critical success.  We look forward to reading these other works and can only hope that we don’t have to wait another decade for his next novel.