Category Archives: 50 Books for 2010

An archive of all posts from my 50 Books for 2010 blog (

#45: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

Danielle Evans is the kind of author that gives one pause. And this is before one even reads a word she’s written. At the age of twenty-three, Evans’ work had already seen the glorious light of publication in The Paris Review. Now, three years and a critically acclaimed short-story collection later, Evans teaches literature at American University in Washington, D.C. And, presumably, ends world hunger.

The above-mentioned short-story collection is Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a title borrowed from “The Bridge Poem,” by Donna Kate Rushin. Shortly after the phrase that gives Evans’ book its title, Rushin’s poem ends with a declaration: “I must be the bridge to nowhere / But my true self / And then / I will be useful.”

Having just finished reading Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, I think “The Bridge Poem” is key to understanding the undercurrent of displacement among African-Americans that permeates Evans’ stories. In “Virgins,” the collection’s first story and the one that landed its young author in the vaunted pages of The Paris Review, a teenage girl vacillates between instinct and adolescent curiosity as she timorously embraces her budding sexuality. It should be noted that, refreshingly, this and the other short stories are remarkably unpretentious, no small feat in this genre. The main character in “Virgins” displays the fledgling snark that marks a phase suffered through by all urban youth, with which readers’ near-universal familiarity makes it hard not to grin when she consoles her friend, “The only difference between that girl and the subway…is that everybody in the world hasn’t ridden the subway.”

Underneath such faux-witticisms lies a deep-seated unease with concurrently, and contrarily, demanding social pressures. For Erica, the first-person narrator of “Virgins,” this conflict pits the assertion befitting her ascendancy into adulthood against familially-bred perceptions of danger. Crystal struggles to reconcile her fraying ties to her high school best friend with a desire to escape the quiet desperation of a ghetto, in the ironically-titled “Robert E. Lee Is Dead.” And in the poignant voice of a military veteran in “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,” a small lie takes on new shape when the soldier’s daughter becomes a pawn in his grasping plea for recognition and acceptance.

These, and all the stories, are framed delicately on the fringes of white America, as the characters are forced by circumstance into engagement with the Other and yet remain substantively disenfranchised from the majority’s perceived benefits. At one point, betraying a worldly cynicism that belies her youth, a high school student reminds her pal that “white kids do senior pranks. When we try it, they’re called felonies.”

This comment, joined by Evans’ other, far subtler nods to the plight of African-Americans, painfully casts even the banal aspects of Stateside dhimmitude into sharp relief. When, in “Harvest,” an inadvertent pregnancy spawns a tragic debt that cuts across racial lines, the burden of social exclusion is harshly exposed; elsewhere, implication is preferred. Regardless of methodology, however, the subtext of alienation — from country as from family — is a troubling constant. And I expect that its vivid rendering by Danielle Evans will take the author one step closer to something resembling inclusion.

#44: Room

Room is the second book I’ve read this year that features a child narrator. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was my first, an affecting tale of an autistic boy named Christopher whose mathematical genius is accompanied by a fearful awe of his surrounding world. 

Room, written by Emma Donoghue — who is, presumably, not a child but an author of several novels and story collections — takes a different tack. Her young storyteller is Jack, a precocious five-year-old embodying all the usual toddler bells and whistles. Mainly, this entails asking the questions — what, when, where, how, why — that universally evoke terms of endearment at some times and frustrated outbursts at others.

What sets Jack apart from most of those in his age group is the setting. Jack lives with his mother in a room, or Room, an eleven-by-eleven-foot square that circumscribes his micro-existence. Befitting his age, the objects in Jack’s life are capitalized and personified: “Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.” What little he is told of the world outside he categorizes as “Outer Space” or “in TV,” as when he informs the reader that “dogs are only TV.” His is a relatively happy existence whose tranquility is punctured only by the occasionally erratic behavior of his Ma.

Ma harbors very different sentiments regarding her life in Room. As the story progresses, we are gradually exposed to the horrifying, gruesome reality of her imprisonment. A man identified only as “Old Nick” arrives, sporadically, some nights; Ma puts Jack to sleep in the wardrobe beforehand because, she says, “I just don’t want him looking at you.” For his part, Jack explains his mother’s mysterious nocturnal visitor thusly: “When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.”

Room opens on Jack’s fifth birthday, and life within the bubble is worsening. He receives a present of a remote-controlled Jeep, begged for by his mother, that Old Nick brings from Outside. One night Jack drives it off a shelf and onto the bed from his nook in the wardrobe while Old Nick is there. The man explodes in anger, and the next morning, after he has left, “we’re eating oatmeal and I see marks. ‘You’re dirty on your neck.’ Ma just drinks some water, the skin moves when she swallows. Actually that’s not dirt, I don’t think.”

These intimate details, recounted in infantile vocabulary, render the pair’s nightmare in viscerally vivid color, as Jack struggles to connect his increasing understanding of the larger world with the quotidian details of perpetual confinement. Emma Donoghue ably reconciles the perfectly believable innocence of a child with a narrative more aligned with the horror genre. Despite the occasional misstep (especially late in the book, when some dialogue strains the limits of readers’ credulity), Donoghue paints a masterful portrait of a mother in distress and the indomitable spirit of the child whose only goal is to save her.

#43: All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost

In All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, words occupy the highest rung on a ladder of competing interests. Author Lan Samantha Chang, director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, vividly captures the artistic desperation and perfectionism that can lay waste to all other aspects of the life of a writer. Although recounted through the eyes of aspiring poet Roman Morris, the central figure is actually Miranda Sturgis, the seminar professor at “the School” whose classes “almost none escaped unaltered or unscathed” and whose legendarily harsh critiques of students’ work spawned the term “bludgeonings.”

And yet students, “[fearing] they had missed the age of poetry” (the year was 1986), inevitably clamor to enroll in Miranda’s classes, grasping desperately at salvation via literary osmosis. Bernard Sauvet, Roman’s fellow student and confidant — and, Roman decided, “one of the most serious poets in their class” — perpetually occupies himself with his poem about Wisconsin’s early exploration. Following a reading of the draft in class, Bernard is compelled by the seminar’s format to remain silent while his peers critique his work from contradicting angles: “The poem was overly lyrical; it was not lyrical enough. The poem did not reference history; it was too historical. The poem lacked essential irony; the poem was a farce.” When Miranda’s opinion is requested, she merely shrugs, shakes her head — “dismissing the poem, and Bernard, and possibly, thought Roman, all of them” — and states, “I think Bernard has heard enough today.”

To this, Bernard has only one reaction: “I think Miranda liked my poem,” he tells Roman. “Did you notice how she did?” Despite Roman’s attempts to manage his friend’s escalating expectations, Bernard nevertheless concludes that “we should think about what her indifference means…What might be learned from the indifference of a great poet.” It is this craving of Miranda’s attention that dominates the novel, a recognition, no matter how misplaced, that it is she alone who can rescue these would-be poets from the doldrums of their own mediocrity and earn them admission to the exclusive pantheon of literary greats. Roman, cynically refusing to read his poems in class until “he had assessed how his work would be received,” initially took an ambivalent perspective toward his teacher. “Was she indifferent to them, or was she guarding her privacy?” he wondered. “Was she cruel, or simply telling them the truth?”

When on the final day of class, Roman submits three poems — “powerful jigsaw pieces of an intimate world,” he is certain — for peer review, the critical response is less than extraordinary. Even Miranda notes, enigmatically, “In these poems, I find very little desire to speak of.” Just before dismissing the class, she concludes, “No one in the world is thanking you for being a poet.” Confronting her after class, Roman demands to know what she disliked about his poems, finally receiving the jarring reply, “You write as if you have no soul.”

What follows next is a series of events that first threaten and then obfuscate the line separating teacher and student, as Roman embarks on an unlikely relationship that is as future-less as it is extraordinary. Miranda, mentoring him in life as in poetry, spends countless hours toiling over his works with him until, at a graduation party on the semester’s last day, Roman reveals to Miranda his acceptance of a fellowship in California that will spell the end of their affair.

Chang’s narrative jumps forward immediately following this encounter. Roman is married (to a fellow graduate of the School) and has a child; he corresponds only sporadically with his formerly close friend, Bernard, and Miranda is largely a figment of a bitterly concluded past. Shortly after his time at the School, Roman was awarded a prestigious literary award for his first book of poetry, eventually earning him a professorship. But a stunning revelation regarding Miranda forces him to confront her in her office, in one of the most emotionally fraught moments in the novel. Roman’s relationship with Bernard, too, is later severed after a tense several months they spend under the same roof.

Everything, it seems, is sacrificed in pursuit of art, be it friends, spouses, or lovers. Looking at an old photograph taken the day of his graduation from the School, the older Roman marvels at his younger incarnation: “an absolutely confident young man about to come into his inheritance — not an inheritance of money, he saw now, but of poetry. There could be no higher privilege and its price was sadness.” Although not without company in his solitude, Roman came to embody this truth more than most, stumbling toward that lofty ideal of the honest poet.

#42: Nomad

“Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence.”

These words were written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Ali is an ex-Muslim, a Somalian-born intellectual who has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and, lastly, the Netherlands, before emigrating to the United States. Her bellicosity with regard to Islam has made her a marked woman, a status that is less figurative (her sharp rhetoric is a rarity in Western academia) than literal (she employs round-the-clock security as a result of death threats by fundamentalist Muslims).

Unlike most of her scholarly peers on both sides of the Atlantic, Ali has experienced firsthand the consequences of draconian Islamist laws, resulting punishments for non-adherence, and stringent sexual mores. As a woman, she also possesses an acute sense of the added burden imposed on her gender by radical Islam, a condition she unequivocally deems “the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West.” The daughter of verbally and physically abusive parents, sister of a violent brother, victim of genital mutilation, and escapee from an arranged marriage with a man whom she barely knew, Ali is uniquely positioned to editorialize on Islam, both its quotidian and extraordinary features, and the challenges it poses for modernized nations.

Why, then, has her critical reception been so muted? During interviews for positions with American think tanks, Ali’s interlocutors were “effusively polite, but…their support for me and my ideas was tentative;” one interviewer “seemed overly concerned with the possibility that I might offend Arab Muslims.” Prior to this, “when [she] began speaking out in Holland against genital mutilation…[she] was constantly told that immigrants to Europe knew that this practice was against the law in Europe, so it just didn’t happen to children once they got to Holland” (emphasis hers). New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in an uncharacteristically fierce tone, wrote of Nomad: “Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir,” and in a later paragraph, he followed this up with the truly appalling observation that “perhaps Hirsi Ali’s family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: ‘I love you.'” Ultimately, he patronizingly conceded that Ali would make “a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.”

To be sure, Ali is not one to mince words. Nomad is dotted with unflattering portraits of Islam’s lesser-known practices; and her condemnations, stated without qualification, would evoke stammers and blushes among the well-bred liberal intelligentsia in her sphere. (Although she now works at the American Enterprise Institute, Ali expresses a nebulous wish “to alter [the status quo], radically” in an attempt to disabuse her detractors from branding her an American-style conservative.) “Can you be a Muslim and an American patriot?” she asks, in a chapter on American Muslims. “You can if you don’t care very much about being a Muslim.” Elsewhere, she berates the “closet Islamist” scholar Tariq Ramadan for his book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, calling it “a badly written piece of proselytism” and claiming that “he doesn’t deserve the title of professor or a university chair from which to propagate his program of medieval brainwashing.”

Ali’s presence, then, in post-9/11 America comes at a uniquely discomfiting moment for political and religious scholars here. It is impossible to dismiss her outrage as right-wing demagoguery aimed at undermining the current political milieu in Washington; and yet, her no-holds-barred rhetoric on the subversive attributes of Muslim indoctrination feels wholly out of place in an arena largely populated by cautious (and occasionally self-loathing) multiculturalists. (For this last group she has no patience: “the culture of the Western Enlightenment is better,” she writes [emphasis hers].) What has emerged from the fallout, then, is a tacit buffer zone wedged by gun-shy scholars — what she terms “the emotional equivalent of patting my hand” — that leaves Ayaan Hirsi Ali out in the cold, defensive and smarting from a mild form of academic blacklisting.

Of course, Ali is not without her admirers. Paul Berman, in his indignant book The Flight of the Intellectuals, laments that “the campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented — at least since the days when lonely dissident refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press.” Christopher Hitchens, likewise, has condemned her negative treatment in the Netherlands as “a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction.”

And yet these and other endorsements of Ali serve only to complicate her stature. Anti-Muslim hysteria has swirled relentlessly in recent months. The vitriolic debate over the “Ground Zero mosque” seems to have uncovered nearly a decade’s worth of barely concealed animosity among some conservatives towards adherents of Islam. During this same period, the standard liberal stance has been to dutifully emphasize the sheer minuteness of radicalism within the enormous sphere of global Islam. American attitudes toward Muslims appear to be approaching a watershed moment as both sides have steadily entrenched their positions. Where the left perceives bigotry, the right decries political correctness, which the left maintains is simply the protection of constitutional rights, which the right then argues must be understood in the context of a war on terror. Never have the bookends of the political spectrum been more repulsed by each other.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands somewhere in the rapidly vanishing middle ground. Despite her tumultuous journey out of Islam, she does not exhibit the utter forfeiture of rationality that plagues those with far less cause. Principal among this latter group are the ubiquitous talking heads, but also some pundits from traditionally more respected media outlets. In one particularly disturbing editorial last month, New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz notably declared that “Muslim life is cheap” and added, “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

In contrast to the tactics employed by the most successful American shock jocks, Ali anchors her anti-Islamic message with the authority befitting one who speaks from experience. This does nothing to placate her leftist critics, who have all but fallen all over themselves acknowledging her personal fortitude while disavowing themselves of her conclusions. Armed with her impeccably authentic travails as an ex-Muslim woman, Ali embodies the ultimate headache for today’s Western liberal narrative, one in which cultural sensitivity is seen as an end unto itself.

However, while her presence causes complications among certain political factions, these unsympathetic commentators are not entirely self-serving either. In decrying Islamic tyranny, for example, Ali fails to acknowledge the relative successes of Turkey (99% Muslim), Indonesia (86% Muslim, and one of the world’s most populous democracies), and even Malaysia (60% Muslim). To lambaste a religion as the cause of many ills (in mostly smaller nations) while ignoring its more positive implementations (often in very large nations) is clearly not an oversight. It is a deliberate omission.

Ali’s shortsightedness compels her to ignore other encouraging signs of progress in the Muslim world as well. In a September 26 New York Times article titled “The Female Factor: A Path to Financial Equality in Malaysia,” Liz Gooch reports that “the number of female faces [in the Islamic finance sector] is multiplying.” One female Malaysian scholar noted that three-quarters of her university students are female. The author notes that “the roll call of female high achievers in this Southeast Asian nation cuts across almost all aspects of the [financial] sector.”

Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of Ali’s writing is her naivete in regards to both the West and the history of Christianity — which, despite her atheism, she sees as a force for good in the culture clash with Islam. In her frequent comparisons of the two faiths, it becomes increasingly obvious that Ali has sacrificed nuance for pathos. She continuously emphasizes the compatibility of Christianity with Enlightenment philosophy, and uses this marriage to illuminate the discordant relationship Islam shares with education and the sciences. Throughout her polemic, however, Ali fails to comprehend the parallels between contemporary events and religious history, and thus a possible road to a peaceful Islamic future: the ideological trajectory pioneered by Christianity centuries ago had its origins in an anti-intellectual era that very much resembles that of the Muslim world today. Just as the Christian faith has not always been as accepting as it is today (especially as depicted in Ali’s overly sympathetic portrayal), Islam has not always been, nor need always be, as insular and defensive as it is now.

In fact, Ali appears to observe this when she writes, “Christianity too once made a magical totem of female virginity. Girls were confined, deprived of education, married off as property. And yet Christian societies today are largely free of this habit of mind. Cultures shift, often very rapidly.” And yet somehow she is incapable of imagining the portability of this concept to another monotheistic religion. The result is a particularly deplorable quandary: the West has indeed found an authoritative voice that cuts between the dual extremism of the vitriolic right and the self-flagellating left. In other (perhaps less polarizing) times, this splitting of differences would be called a compromise. Here, it only adds to the confusion.

#41: Netherland

Others have already called Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland a masterpiece, summoning specters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and even “[providing] a resonant meditation on the American Dream” (so enthuses the New York Times‘ vaunted book reviewer Michiko Kakutani).

I will not be doing that. I hesitate not out of disagreement but due to some innate reluctance to place contemporary books amidst the pantheon of Great Literature. I’m not well-read enough in either area to be sure I’m connecting the right dots in the right way. And yet one can’t help but get the feeling, while devouring O’Neill’s magnetic writing, that he has managed to capture the American zeitgeist in a way few others have.

O’Neill zeroes in on post-9/11 New York, but with the unique perspective afforded to an outsider. For Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born equities analyst who had previously lived in London, home is Manhattan, even as childhood memories of The Hague and frequent dashes to and from London create a sort of love rectangle, with each city vying for his attention. To Holland belongs his nostalgia, but it is London, where his increasingly estranged British wife and adoring son have retreated following the Twin Towers’ collapse, to which Hans continues to return, both in mind and in body.

New York is just where he lives. And yet therein lies the secret to O’Neill’s subtle ode to the city: he neither waxes poetical nor transforms New York into the gritty metropolis so ubiquitous in crime dramas. Yes, he revels in the occasional admiring glance. (Of Times Square, Hans concedes that “I always regarded these shimmers and vapors as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city’s pigeons — as natural, humble sources of iridescence.”) But O’Neill’s focus, and thus that of Hans, is drawn instead to its myriad characters, most notably that of Chuck Ramkissoon.

Chuck is a Trinidadian who, and here we can echo reviewers worldwide by drawing parallels to Jay Gatsby, dreams of leveraging his love of cricket into a burgeoning business empire, dedicated equal parts to revenue generation and also to a bizarre strand of ecumenism. “I’m saying that people…are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket,” Chuck declares to Hans one day, in a characteristic burst of grandiloquence. “What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this.”

By that measuring stick, Chuck doesn’t play enough cricket himself. As Hans finds himself increasingly drawn into the sport that marked his youth, Chuck wedges his way in too, serving as Hans’ instructor, ostensibly preparing him for his impending driving test. In reality, Hans soon learns of Chuck’s ulterior motives. “It gave Chuck a measure of cover, maybe even prestige, to have a respectable-looking white man chauffeuring him while he ran around collecting bets all over Brooklyn.”

Chuck’s unsavory business dealings soon leave Hans with a sour taste in his mouth, one that fades only with geographical distance as Hans finally bids New York adieu in search of reigniting a future with his wife, Rachel. Soon after the World Trade Center attacks, Rachel had coldly expressed to Hans her intention to take Jake, their son, with her to London. “It’s safer,” she reasoned. For his part, Hans bitterly noted that “all lives…eventually funnel into the advice columns of women’s magazines.” Now, with weeks and months of separation accumulating with ever-decreasing notice, Hans returns to the United Kingdom to salvage the wreckage of what was once a marriage.

In a sense, Hans truly is the Nick Carraway of Netherland, narrating from the sidelines, an objective third party to people, places, and events that intimately affect his own life, from his wife to the cities through which he passes. He may leave the dreaming to Chuck, but Hans van den Broek’s observations virtually force readers to close their eyes and open their imaginations.

#40: Am I a Redundant Human Being?

It may be that I chose to read Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? based largely upon the agreeable cover art. That, and’s intriguing juxtaposition of this book with Elizabeth Gilbert’s contemporary memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. (Yes, the one that became a Julia Roberts-led feature film and spawned Gilbert’s encore, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.) From my brief intrusions into her posthumous Web presence, Hartwig appears to be most famous simply for her friendship to Virginia Woolf in the latter’s final years.

This is an apt metaphor for her short novel’s protagonist, Aloisia Schmidt, whose most notable (and verbosely related) achievement appears to be the emulation and adoration of those select few who befriend her. Fittingly enough, I, too, have fallen prey to the vice of sycophancy: I was only made aware of the parallels between Hartwig and her creation, Aloisia, after reading someone else make this very same point. Daniela Hurezanu, writing on, asks: “Isn’t the artist condemned to impersonating and copying other existences and others’ feelings? Could it be that Aloisia’s problem is that, in her own way, she is herself an artist, albeit a failed one?”

It could be, yes; hence, my appropriation and subsequent extension of Hurezanu’s observation. But I steal her point mainly because it makes sense: Hartwig, born late in the nineteenth century, became an actress and then a feminist writer, but (unless I’ve been hiding under a rock, which is entirely possible) has since been relegated to the dusty corners of history’s bookshelves, with nary a lasting honor bequeathed to her save her acquaintance with a far more notable figure.

Aloisia Schmidt, meanwhile, finds herself in much the same predicament. Faced by the suicide of Elizabeth, her friend who had fallen in love with an indifferent man, Aloisia muses, “It seemed to me that you couldn’t ask more from life than this: to be capable of such a grand passion. I no longer mourned for Elizabeth. I envied her.” Throughout, the protagonist continues to emphasize her overwhelmingly mundane features and betrays with deadpan fervor her utterly nonexistent self-esteem: “I…completely lacked that equilibrium between our talents and objectives that we call confidence.”

At one point, after she exasperates a potential suitor with her constant stream of self-deprecation, the wearied companion demands: “Why are you making it so hard to believe in you, Luise, I mean, who on earth can afford to be so hard on themselves, who? It’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself.” And therein, perhaps, lies the crux of Aloisia’s dilemma: her never-ending introspection leads to an impossibly negative self-image that is, ultimately, arrogant in its totality.

I can’t say I understand Aloisia Schmidt much better now than I did at the beginning of the book, but it seems that she managed an epiphany of her own, regarding an ability to feel or something of that sort. If anything, this realization was opportune in concluding a very brief novel; I’m not certain I could have made it through another hundred pages of Aloisia’s self-pity. I presume — and hope, for the sake of the late Virginia Woolf — that Mela Hartwig did not share her protagonist’s failings.

Last call for book suggestions

Dearest blogosphere,

If you (collectively, individually, or otherwise) have any book suggestions — a book you’ve read recently, perhaps, or even one you haven’t laid eyes on in years, but that you absolutely must tell someone about — well, tell me about it. At this point, I’m all queued up through book #45 (I’m still waiting on a mystery title to add it to my “on deck” panel), so I only have five slots left for which I haven’t already decided the books.

Now is the time. As a tip, I’m more likely to pick up a book if it’s on the shorter side. Until I’ve actually completed this self-imposed fifty-book challenge, I’ll never be quite sure I’m actually going to, so it helps when the book lengths are surmountable.

Thanks for reading!

#39: The Imperfectionists

As a former employee of the International Herald Tribune and the Associated Press, Tom Rachman clearly has a soft spot for the news. Although The Imperfectionists is a novel (Rachman’s first, about a boutique international newspaper based in Rome), it is really more of a series of vignettes. These brief glimpses bring us into the editor’s office, behind the copydesk, and even to the streets of Cairo, where aspiring journalist Winston Cheung plays second fiddle to eccentric news veteran Rich Snyder, who, after regaling his protégé with embellished tales of professional glory, admonishes him not to “write about diplomacy. Write about human beings. The tapestry of human experience is my press office.” (Cheung, it is later reported, eventually procures employment at an “exotic-animal refuge in Minnesota” where, presumably, industry clichés are less in vogue.)

Each story is titled after a news headline — “Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls” opens the first chapter; “Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says” heralds another — and focuses on a different member of the newspaper. Left alone, these episodes could function separately, as portraits of news-people toiling away futilely in the face of rapidly declining readership and ever-expanding free alternatives online. But instead of taking the Paris, Je T’aime approach, in which each five-minute story stands alone, Rachman opts to eulogize the printed news a la New York, I Love You, complete with recurring characters to help center the otherwise disparate perspectives.

This only partially works. Rachman is an entertaining storyteller, and his characters are mostly believable. At times, however, his writing adopts the quixotic air of a sitcom teleplay, as when straight-laced business reporter Hardy Benjamin takes on a jobless boyfriend, reasoning that “in this regard alone, she refused to see matters in terms of business.” Or when chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola is randomly assigned the airplane seat adjacent to the man she had just fired, and ends up tangling with him in an Atlanta hotel room. If these two snippets seem to have a common thread, it’s because Rachman takes genuine delight in unlikely matchmaking; but this soon becomes an easily recognizable pattern, which then prevents the reader from actually experiencing surprise. The author’s propensity to find love (or lust) in every situation ultimately takes on a distinctly deterministic flavor, as if a romantic connection necessarily concludes every story worth relating.

Perhaps this is too American of me, but I also expected a little more on the plot side of things. The end is not entirely abrupt, but it is included with little enough context to raise doubts as to its importance. I nevertheless enjoyed Rachman concluding each chapter with a chronological history of the newspaper. I’m referring, of course, to the specific newspaper on which the novel is based, not the newspaper as a concept. Not yet, anyway.

#38: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb

It wasn’t until the penultimate sentence of the final chapter that I was certain what Amitava Kumar’s latest book was trying to say. “Instead,” the author concludes, “the larger point is that the war on terror is obscuring from our sight the war in Iraq and its human cost.” Prior to this declaration, Kumar had expended 186 pages’ worth of explication, to varying degrees of success, without explicitly supporting any particular thesis.

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, whose title is a play on an earlier work with a nearly identical title (Kumar turned “book” into “bomb”), looks very much like a supplementary reader in a cultural studies class and, in fact, reads similarly to what one would expect from such a niche role. That Kumar enticed me to keep reading long after I’d given up hope on discovering the book’s raison d’être entitles the author to a small measure of genuflection, if even a bit reluctantly.

Kumar’s reflections on the American response to the September 11 attacks center around two individuals: Hemant Lakhani, “a seventy-year-old tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant;” and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who the author believes was “baited by the New York Police Department into a conspiracy to bomb a subway.” Interspersed throughout are various vignettes devoted to artists and intellectuals whose visceral repulsion with an increasingly militant national anti-terrorism campaign was duly expressed in some truly inventive works of art. Among these is Hasan Elahi’s rigorous self-surveillance routine, in which he painstakingly logs every action he undertakes, ostensibly as evidence in the event of a government investigation — but on a larger scale, as a protest against that very same state-directed intervention.

Kumar’s failings, strangely enough, can be attributed to his fascination with this and other tangential narratives. It is not that they are irrelevant to a sober discussion of anti-terror initiatives; however, at times the author becomes so enamored of his subjects that he neglects to take a larger view. He lingers for some time on the questionable role of the government informant in the Lakhani case, recounting his many failings as a businessman as if to prove his lack of credibility via low credit score. And yet Kumar recoils when such circumstantial evidence is used to convict Lakhani, a man who was caught on tape proclaiming that “it will [expletive] their mother if one or two [planes are struck by bombs]…If it happens ten or fifteen places simultaneously at the same time…The people will be scared to death that how this could have happened.”

The problem with focusing so heavily on character is that the same technique Kumar uses to condemn the government’s methods in pursuing suspected conspirators is doubly as effective against the perceived victims of the state’s investigations. Clearly, as evidenced by American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, serious crimes were committed in the name of justice. But Kumar’s valiant attempts to humanize the enemy notwithstanding, his defenses wither in the face of insurmountable evidence. Seemingly realizing this, Kumar mostly shies away from directly contradicting judicial verdicts; instead, he observes from his perch on the periphery, remarking on incongruity on the margins as the heavy hand of the state came crashing down with a vengeance.

Describing the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Kumar notes that “what saves me from the annihilating hatred, if only for a moment, is the voice of the terrorist at the other end [of the phone conversation, which was recorded]…He is more interested in describing to his superior the rooms that he says are large and lavish. It’s amazing, he says, the windows are huge here…Rightly or wrongly, I’m caught by the drama of the displaced provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of wealth.” This all makes for a tidy little novel, but reality is rarely so neatly synopsized. By dancing along the edges of the legal process, Kumar contributes little to the discussion of where the American response went wrong. This is an unfortunate consequence caused by a writer’s compassion; the result, then, is a scattered cacophony that leaves one unsatisfied with the hurried conclusion.

#37: Super Sad True Love Story

There are many aspects of a book, aside from the text itself, that effectively preclude it from being taken seriously. It would seem that a title like Super Sad True Love Story falls squarely into this arena. Safe to say, in any case, that Gary Shteyngart is lucky to have been a known commodity before he burdened libraries and bookstores worldwide with his latest effort.

I say “burdened” not because the novel is so hard to read. If anything, the prose is easy on the eyes, and the brain. An average Shteyngartian observation is, “I just wanted to hold her. She was wearing an oatmeal sweatshirt, beneath which I could espy the twin straps of a bra she did not need.” This is actually a perfect microcosmic sentence in a way, since it also illustrates the author’s frustrating (and all-too-frequent) displays of paternalism. Time and again, Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old love-tortured protagonist, finds himself involuntarily expressing his infatuation with Eunice Park, his twenty-something muse, through a decidedly condescending lens. “A child, just a child,” he muses as he watches her shiver from alcoholic over-consumption. Elsewhere, Lenny makes an effort to convey this thought to Eunice: “Soon you will be home and in my arms and the world will reconfigure itself around you and there will be enough compassion for you to feel scared by how much I care for you.

What say ye? Shteyngart is too self-aware as a writer to commit to such indulgent (not to mention italicized) sentences without at least the light sauté of irony thrown in. This is a man who casually remarks that “Dr. Park was landing the plane of his soliloquy,” or that “I prepared myself to become Chekhov’s ugly merchant Laptev again.” Shteyngart’s transparent ease with language renders his patriarchal episodes all the more confusing, and I’m not persuaded this ambiguity benefits anyone.

As the critical praise splotched onto the book’s back cover makes abundantly clear, Super Sad True Love Story is a satire — of contemporary American culture, our youth-obsessed society, and the vapidity of unchecked materialism. I usually stumble over faux-prophetical gazes into the future, precisely because these hypothetical apocalypses nearly always go too far. So hypnotized are many authors, by the creative license afforded them by the fiction/sci-fi genre, that they fail to pump the brakes on the less accessible elements of their vivid imaginations.

Nevertheless, in this particular case, resistance, as they say, was futile. Shteyngart’s American dystopia is littered with such head-scratchers as Credit Poles (containing “little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by”), Onionskins (entirely see-through jeans worn by fashionable women), and the ubiquitous äppäräti, high-tech portable devices that seem to straddle the line between a camcorder and the iPhone. And yet, the ugly shades of gray that comprise Lenny Abramov’s values-depraved universe remain strikingly, even maddeningly, believable. Chalk it up to Shteyngart’s installment of the Chinese as the ascending global hegemon, or perhaps the futile American war in Venezuela that practically begs for the reference to our contemporary military expeditions in the Middle East. Whatever the reasons, the depressing world of Super Sad True Love Story retains more than enough real-life potentiality to prevent itself from being dismissed out of hand. Whether this is sufficient for it to be included in the pantheon of classic contemporary literature may, however, require a slightly further suspension of disbelief.