September 7, 2017

Berkeley goes off the rails in this new satirical novel

satirical novelFamily Genus Species, by Kevin Allardice

@@ (2 out of 5)

In a satirical take on Berkeley’s “self-righteous mutual appreciation society,” Berkeley author Kevin Allardice meshes the language of discontent with the fantasy of the absurd. The author himself characterizes his new novella, Family Genus Species, as a “wickedly funny satire of parenting and privilege, sex and politics, set in the shadow of civil unrest.” But I didn’t find the book wickedly funny. In fact, I didn’t find it funny at all—mildly amusing at times, perhaps, but not funny. Berkeley has taken enough hits from outsiders. We don’t need another one from our own.

Here’s the set-up; take it or leave it. The protagonist is an overweight and underachieving young woman who calls herself Vee. (We’ll find out later where this name comes from but wish we hadn’t.) Vee arrives in the urban garden behind her sister Pam’s house in North Berkeley for a birthday party for Pam’s four-year-old son, Charlie. Vee carries a present for Charlie, a plastic model of a huge dinosaur. Pam had made clear in her invitation that guests were not to bring presents—family and friends are gifts enough, in her view—but for some reason Vee is determined that Charlie get the dinosaur. For much of the novel, the action centers around Vee’s hours-long and exceedingly frustrating efforts to find Charlie so she can place the gift in his hands. Somehow, this deceptively low-key domestic saga devolves into a violent climax involving an attempted rape, small children acting like characters out of Lord of the Flies, “protesters” who have invaded the Berkeley Hills, and police officers in riot gear who descend from black helicopters intent on mayhem.

So, what’s wrong with any of this, you might ask? For starters, Vee is not a sympathetic character. Even though her big sister is obviously a self-involved (and, yes, self-righteous) pain in the ass, Vee is even less likable: self-pitying, aimless, and ultimately uninteresting. The children at Charlie’s party who are described as “small children, from diaper-age to first grade,” suddenly end up acting and speaking like teenagers on speed. And Pam’s “sprawling urban farm” clearly occupies as much territory as a national forest, since people can get lost in it for hours on end. In Berkeley.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love satire—when it’s well done. The work of Christopher Buckley, for example, such as They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, which I reviewed at Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel. Or his God is My Broker, reviewed at Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley. You might also be interested in Ten great recent books by Berkeley writers. 

August 10, 2017

From Connie Willis satire that doesn’t make me laugh

satireBellwether, by Connie Willis

@@ (2 out of 5)

I’m a big fan of satire. For instance, I love Christopher Buckley‘s books. Some of them make me laugh almost nonstop. But there’s nothing worse than a satirical tale that. Just. Isn’t. Funny. Unfortunately, that’s what I found in Bellwether by Connie Willis. Apparently, Willis wrote the novel to satirize scientists and corporate bureaucracy. But the characters and their behavior are over the top. To call them outrageous might be a compliment. A little restraint would have gone a long way.

So, how did I get sucked into reading this book in the first place, much less read it all the way to the end? Connie Willis is an extraordinarily talented science fiction and fantasy author. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards—more major awards than any other writer in the field. Years ago, I was greatly impressed by her 1992 Nebula Award-winner about time travel, Doomsday Book. And the cover of Bellwether characterizes her (justifiably) as “one of science fiction’s best writers.” Unaccountably, Bellwether, published five years after Doomsday Book, was itself nominated for a Nebula Award. Suffice it to say that if I had been voting—I’m a long-time member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, though no longer a voting member—I would have gone for something much more in line with my idea of science fiction. Bellwether doesn’t cut it.

The novel’s protagonist is one Sandra Foster. She calls herself a scientist and engages in lots of mathematical calculations to prove it. She is analyzing fads and fashions for the unimaginatively named HiTek Company, presumably in an effort to discover how fads start and “how scientific discoveries come about.” (The connection between these two lines of inquiry is not obvious to me.) Management (capital “M”)—a person, not a category—of HiTek is interested in her work, she believes, because he is eager to learn how to start fads himself. Sandy is plagued by the rudeness and incompetence of the “interdepartmental assistant” who misdelivers mail, starts ugly rumors, and refuses to take on routine assignments such as photocopying. Compounding problems for Sandy, Management is obsessed with impossibly long forms on paper, which are impossible to understand, and with the latest acronym-laden management theory, which changes every few days. As I said, the story is over the top. But the situation becomes even more intolerable when Management decides that the entire scientific staff must bear down in an effort to win the prestigious, million-dollar Niebnitz Grant.

Each chapter in Bellwether begins with a brief description of one or another fad that has captivated humanity through the ages, from the hula hoop to quality circles, miniature golf, hot pants, coonskin caps, chain letters, and many more. Some of this material is interesting. But there’s entirely too much of it.

Eventually, Sandy teams up with a researcher in chaos theory named Bennett O’Reilly. Absurdly, Ben is attempting to learn what sets chaotic conditions in motion, apparently believing there must be some logic in a complex system. Will Sandy and Ben fall in love? Will they win the Niebnitz Grant? You shouldn’t have to read this book to figure it out.

For a successful effort at satire, see Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley or Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.

July 24, 2017

Sudden wealth, arranged marriages, and class envy in India today

class envyThe Windfall: A Novel by Diksha Basu

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In The Windfall, the debut novel from Indian writer and actress Diksha Basu, a struggling middle-aged, middle-class Delhi family strikes it rich and moves across town to a wealthy neighborhood in the suburb of Gurgaon. Anil Jha had strained for years to build an online business, earning just enough to send his son to an upper-class school, when a surprise offer to buy his site led to a $20 million windfall. Mr. Jha’s immediate response was to purchase a Mercedes and a large and expensive home in an exclusive neighborhood, leaving behind the family’s cramped quarters in an aging high-rise development in East Delhi. His wife, Bindu, is less than enthusiastic about either purchase. Now, the two are moving into their new quarters—and Mr. Jha’s primary concern is to impress the new neighbors with how much money he has. The old neighbors, jealous about the Jhas’ good fortune, are unhappy about the move.

Meanwhile, Basu’s other key characters enter the stage. The Jhas’ son, Rupak, is flunking out of an MBA program at Ithaca College in New York. He’s infatuated, and maybe in love, with a beautiful young American woman named Elizabeth, a student at Cornell. But Rupak is terrified of letting his parents know he’s dating an American, and he has been procrastinating about telling them. Bindu’s friend, Reema Ray, a widow at 37 and now 42, is pretending to be happy living alone. And the Chopras, who live next door to the new house in Gurgaon, are fretting about whether their new neighbors have more money than them.  Their own wealth has permitted Mrs. Chopra to buy a large quantity of flashy and expensive jewelry and their adult son, Johnny, to live at home, chase girls full-time, and avoid work.

The Windfall is what critics are fond of calling a “comedy of manners.” It’s at times an amusing tale, but it would be a stretch to call it comedy. Though the dominant themes are class envy and the corrosive effect of having a great deal of money, Basu also shows belief in the possibility of romantic love—as well as her fondness for the practice of arranged marriages. Under the story’s surface lies the tragic reality of India’s poverty and the yawning gap between rich and poor in the country’s fast-developing economy.

Indian writers have contributed a great many award-winning novels in English. Among those I’ve enjoyed greatly are Amitav Ghosh (reviewed at A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War), Neel Mukherjee (The human toll of social change), and Manu Joseph (A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too).

June 8, 2017

A novel about Middle Eastern refugees that ignores the challenges refugees face

Middle Eastern refugeesExit West: A Novel, by Mohsin Hamid

@@ (2 out of 5)

Most literary critics, and the people who hand out the Booker Prize, tend to be a reliable source of books I won’t like. So I should have been paying more attention when I picked up Exit West by the award-winning British-Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid. This book is a poor excuse for a novel.

At the outset, Exit West appears to be the tale of Nadia and Saeed, two middle-class young adults in Syria or Iraq who fall in love as the city they live in (Damascus? Aleppo? Baghdad? Mosul?) comes under attack from “militants” and soon falls to them. The promise Hamid sets up in these early chapters is that we’ll learn about the experience of becoming a refugee and adjusting to life in a new country. But that’s not what Hamid delivers. Instead, his tale veers off into silliness.

Using the clumsy metaphor of doors that open onto new lives, Hamid whisks Nadia and Saeed through a black door somewhere in their beleaguered city—and, miraculously, they find themselves on a sunny beach on the island of Mykonos, Greece. With this one swift diversion, Hamid has bypassed what has become one of the signature experiences of Middle Eastern refugees: the grueling and perilous journey from their native country to one of the gateways to Europe. Then he does it again, and again, and again. Several doors later, after a lengthy stay in an unrecognizable version of London, where “millions” of refugees have gathered and come under attack by nativist gangs and the British Army, they move on again, through another black door. The couple then end up in a shack on a mountaintop in Marin County, California, never having set foot in a car or on a ship, a railroad, or an airplane. Oh, and Native American traders show up nearby in Marin! (If you’re ever in Marin County, I strongly suspect you’ll have a hard time finding Native Americans of any occupation. However, there is a Native American Museum there.)

To compound the confusion, the story of Nadia and Saeed is unaccountably interrupted with pointless scenes involving people they never meet in cities they never visit: San Diego, Amsterdam, Marrakesh, Tijuana, and others. There is no discernible reason for these scenes, other than to make this slim volume just ever so slightly thicker.

Were Hamid’s style compelling, I might be inclined to forgive some of these blunders. But it’s not. Run-on sentences, some of them a page long or longer, interrupt the flow of the story.

Perhaps Mohsin Hamid was simply not the right person to write a novel about refugees. After all, though he was born in Lahore, Pakistan, he spent much of his childhood in the United States; his father was a university professor who was studying for a Ph.D. at Stanford. Hamid returned to the U.S. at age 18 to study at Princeton and Harvard Law School. This isn’t exactly the profile of a Middle Eastern refugee, is it?

January 12, 2017

An Indian novelist celebrates cricket

Indian novelistSelection Day: A Novel, by Aravind Adiga

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Aravind Adiga entered the literary world with a splash in 2008 when he won the Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. Although I frequently find Booker Prize-winning books to be unreadable, I picked up The White Tiger, anyway. My interest in India trumped my hesitation about the self-important “literary” Booker jurors. Imagine my surprise when the novel enthralled me. I found it insightful, timely, and occasionally hilarious. (I read the book two years before I began writing reviews, so no review appears here.)

That experience with The White Tiger led me to pick up Adiga’s second novel, Between the Assassinations. Structured as a collection of fourteen interconnected stories set in a small town on India’s west coast, Between the Assassinations was very different from his debut effort. Like so many second novels that arrive after a hugely successful debut, it didn’t measure up to The White Tiger. Still, I enjoyed the book. I found it a fascinating look from the inside out of India’s caste and class system.

By contrast, Selection Day, Adiga’s fourth novel, is a disappointment—for three reasons.

First, it’s all about cricket. The book teems with cricket terms that are nowhere explained. (There’s a glossary in the back of the book, but it’s sketchy and obviously an afterthought, probably included at the insistence of the publisher.) It’s boring to read sentence after sentence that makes no sense.

In any case, the contrary views of my British friends and the author notwithstanding, the game of cricket itself is boring. Over the centuries, the game has acquired such a massive collection of rules that no one can possibly understand them all. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would put up with that. Admittedly, in fairness, I also find baseball and American football to be boring. But at least the rules are reasonably transparent. (Well, more or less reasonably so.)

Second, though I’m a fan of English-language novels written by Indians, Indian-Americans, or in this case an Indo-Australian, I can usually navigate through the occasional word in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, or one of the other of India’s hundreds of languages. Adiga uses far too many in Selection Day. I frequently found myself baffled, since many terms weren’t clear in context.

Third, I got the impression that Adiga has come to take himself too seriously. Maybe that Booker Prize went to his head. Apparently, he wrote the book to prove he could write “literature.” At times in Selection Day—too many times, for my taste—his meaning was impenetrable even when written in plain English. Take this sentence for example: “A son’s true opinion of his parents is written on the back of his teeth.” Excuse me? (Yes, I grabbed that sentence out of context. But it still stopped me in my tracks.)

Selection Day spans a fourteen-year period. It begins three years before the day when seventeen-year-old Mumbai cricket players audition for a place on a prestigious citywide team and ends eleven years after the day. The story centers around two brothers, Radha and Manju Kumar. They live with their father in a hovel in one of Mumbai’s endless slums. Both are extremely promising cricket players forced since infancy by their brutal father to conform to his rigorous, unorthodox, and undoubtedly insane methods to train for stardom in the game. Other key characters are a third boy, a Muslim, unlike the Kumar brothers; an aging cricket scout who writes an embarrassingly self-congratulatory column for a leading Mumbai newspaper; and a wealthy Mumbai businessman recruited by the scout to sponsor the two boys in exchange for a third of all their future earnings from cricket.

Enough said. If you follow cricket, you might enjoy this novel. I have my doubts, though.

December 9, 2016

Islamic terrorism, from the inside and out

islamic terrorismThe Association of Small Bombs: A Novel, by Karan Mahajan

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s 1996. Two brothers, ten and thirteen, walk into a busy Delhi market with their twelve-year-old friend. The brothers are Hindu, the friend, Muslim. As they arrive, a terrorist bomb explodes, instantly killing the two brothers but only slightly wounding their friend. Karan Mahajan’s novel, The Association of Small Bombs, explores the consequences of this attack from every perspective over the years that follow. He traces the lives of the brothers’ parents, the surviving boy and his parents, the bomber, and a circle of younger activists who fall into an association with the bomber many years later.

Mahajan deserves high marks for his insight into the ongoing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India and into the motives of the Kashmir-based terrorists who bedevil Indian society to this day. It’s a pity that he doesn’t seem to like any of the characters he has created. Several are despicable human beings. The others are simply unpleasant.

The Association of Small Bombs was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. I can’t profess to be surprised: literary critics typically choose books that annoy me. My excuse for picking up and reading this one is that the subject matter is so compelling — and I read the book to the bitter end because it’s reasonably well written. I say reasonably, because the author uses far too many Hindi or Urdu words, the meaning of which is sometimes unclear even in context; a glossary might have helped for readers who don’t speak one of those languages. Unless you have a special interest either in contemporary Indian affairs or in Islamic terrorism, I do not recommend reading this book.

November 28, 2016

A thriller about Vatican politics

vatican politicsConclave: A Novel, by Robert Harris

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Over the course of my life six new Popes have been installed by the Catholic Church. Robert Harris’ new thriller, Conclave, is about the next election. Set a few years in the future, when a man closely resembling Pope Francis has either retired or died, the novel depicts in minute detail the process of electing his successor. It’s all written from the perspective of the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man who presides over the election.

I am not now and never have been a Catholic. Somehow, though, I found Harris’ reverential accounting of the liturgical and atmospheric details to be bearable. Yes, there’s a lot of praying, and considerable repetition when that’s called for in the process. Still, Conclave hums with the same tension and anticipation that I’ve come to expect from Robert Harris’ work. No doubt about it: this is a work of suspense.

Harris highlights the powerful forces that divide today’s Catholic Church. He brings to life the ongoing battle between traditionalists and reformers. But he makes beautifully clear that the division is far more complex than is often represented in the news media. He also shows how other factors deepen the currents of jealousy that cleave the institution. These include the clannishness of the Roman Curia and of the many Italian Cardinals, the split between European and Third World loyalties, the venality of so many senior Cardinals, and the raw ambition that rises to the surface when 118 men enter a room and know that one of them will be elected the most powerful religious figure in the world.

About the author

A former journalist, Robert Harris has written a number of nonfiction books in addition to the eleven novels that have put his name on the map. Most are historical fiction. The best known of these are Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, and The Ghost, all of which have been adapted for film or television. He has also written a superb trilogy set in ancient Rome.


August 17, 2016

No heroes on this frontier

heroesA review of Heroes of the Frontier: A Novel, by Dave Eggers

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Dave Eggers’ latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, was disappointing. It’s well written, of course. Eggers is a supremely talented writer, and he has won a very long list of literary awards, including a Pulitzer for Nonfiction. He has written books that I found to be excellent. I especially enjoyed Zeitoun (nonfiction) and What Is the What (a novel). A Hologram for the King, not so much.

I’m aware that these views are dramatically different from those of many other reviewers. So be it.

No heroes on this frontier

Perhaps Eggers was sarcastic in writing the title to his latest novel. In any case, there are no heroes in this novel. The protagonist is a forty-year-old woman from Ohio named Josie. She has two young children and is clearly unable to act rationally with any consistency. She has fled with the kids to Alaska after losing her dental practice in a malpractice suit. She is also fleeing from her worthless ex-husband and a recurring nightmare about the death of a young man in Afghanistan. She had encouraged him to enlist in the Marines. His parents were livid, and Josie feels responsible for his death.

Arriving in Alaska, Josie rents a barely functional old RV in Anchorage. She and her children head north into a wooded countryside that is often in flames. The kids, a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old daughter, could hardly be more different from each other. Ana is a hellion, bound on harming herself and breaking everything around her. Paul is a juvenile saint who dotes on his sister and in unfailingly kind. Much of the time, Paul is the only adult among the three. As they head further and further north into vast reaches of Alaska, they encounter one forest fire after another.

Though the two children figure as principal characters, Eggers tells his story from Josie’s muddled point of view. To give him due credit, Josie is a complex person, and so are the kids. But Josie’s confused thoughts and feelings dominate the novel. She makes one stupid mistake after another. It’s really quite frustrating to observe the consequences.

About the author

Dave Eggers has won an extraordinarily long list of literary awards. Writing since 1993, he has written five works of nonfiction and nine novels, among many other books. Several of his books have been runaway bestsellers. Eggers is also a major figure in the Bay Area literary scene. He co-founded 826 Valencia, a San Francisco nonprofit that tutors children ages 6-18; the organization has since gone national, with chapters in six major cities across the country. Eggers is equally well known in the region as the founder of an independent publisher named McSweeney’s. He is prolific in the extreme and displays talent in writing screenplays, humor for children, and song lyrics as well as the visual arts. This is all in addition to his prodigious output of books. He is just 46 years old.


August 8, 2016

A satisfying thriller set in Zimbabwe

zimbabweA review of The Death of Rex Nhongo: A Novel, by C. B. George

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The Death of Rex Nhongo is framed as a thriller, but its primary value (at least to me) is the intimate portrait it paints of Zimbabwe today.

The setting: Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare

Zimbabwe, as you are probably well aware, is a large nation that lies along the northern border of South Africa. It’s also one of the most poverty-stricken countries on earth despite its abundant natural resources. For decades, the country has been ruled by Robert Mugabe, who led its independence movement from the UK. Now 92 years old, Mugabe is rumored to remain as president only to camouflage the corruption and brutality of his colleagues. Many observers consider the regime a “thugocracy.” And that is the picture that emerges in high relief in this novel.

The plot: complex and full of surprises

A complex plot lies at the heart of The Death of Rex Nhongo. The complement of principal characters includes two expatriate families, one British, the other American, as well as an extended Zimbabwean family and a thug who works for the Central Intelligence Organization that terrifies the populace. The author skillfully draws together their numerous individual stories in a series of intersections that climax in a satisfying conclusion. The action takes place after the death noted in the book’s title, though the story manages to come full circle in the end. Naturally, the plot is contrived, but it’s a satisfying read.

However, there is one really annoying element in this novel. The author imagines the internal dialogue of the eight-year-old daughter of a highly educated African-American family in what once was called “ebonics.” Extended passages in italics are worded ungrammatically and full of spelling errors. It’s absurd.

The author: unknown

The background in this engaging novel is clearly based on fact, though the story itself is entirely fictitious. The author, C. B. George, is the pen name of someone who “has spent many years working throughout Southern Africa.” He is British and now lives in London.

June 23, 2016

Why did this plane crash?

plane crashA review of Before the Fall: A Novel, by Noah Hawley

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Eleven people — eight passengers and three crew members — board a private jet on Martha’s Vineyard for the half-hour flight to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, 12 miles from midtown Manhattan. Eighteen minutes after takeoff the plane falls into the Atlantic, killing nine of the eleven. The two survivors are a failed, middle-age painter who is a recovering alcoholic, and a four-year-old boy. They survive only because the painter is a former champion swimmer and manages with a supreme effort of will to swim to the Long Island shore, carrying the boy with him. Noah Hawley’s superbly suspenseful thriller, Before the Fall, explores the lives of all eleven people on the plane in the time before the crash and follows the painter and the young boy in the weeks afterward, as their changed lives become entangled with the boy’s aunt and uncle, investigators from the NTSB and the FBI, the painter’s friends, and the news media. It’s a gripping story, a tale that is hard to put down.

Why did the plane crash?

The truth about the crash emerges only after we have been drawn into the most intimate details of the eleven people on board. Hawley’s skill in delineating each of the characters in a distinctive and credible way is impressive — from the chaotic thinking of the painter to the deepest fears of the young flight attendant to the megalomaniacal thoughts of an over-the-top TV news personality. Along the way, we learn how the investigation of the crash is conducted, step by step, until the truth is, at last, at hand.

A Bill O’Reilly lookalike

One of the passengers is the multimillionaire founder and chief executive of an upstart cable TV news network with a striking resemblance to Fox News. The television commentator who emerges as a principal character in this story is a fictional rendering, perhaps slightly exaggerated, of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, a bully with respect only for his own opinions. The central conflict in Before the Fall arises between the commentator and the painter, and it is fascinating to behold.

About the author

Noah Hawley has won major awards for his screenwriting for film and television. As best I can tell from the reviews, most of that work has been judged to be mediocre. Before the Fall, his fifth novel, is definitely a cut above that.


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