Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett (2001) E

Date read: 6.8.10
Book from: Borrowed from my brother
Reviewer: Emera

Since I’ve been wasting too much time trying to write summaries and not enough actually reviewing, I’m deploying a back-cover summary here:

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening – until a band of gun-wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.

So my main difficulty with Bel Canto laid in the fact that it’s halfway a rapturously romantic fable about the power of art – opera in particular – and love, and halfway a grim tragedy. Now, that’s basically the story’s selling point, that the author plays on the tension between romance and realism, but it left me feeling a little cold and mostly troubled throughout. The romance reaches such giddy heights, with character after character discovering hidden talents and unexpected love, that my suspension of disbelief (which is notoriously generous) just gave up and wandered away about halfway through, leaving me reluctant to be really convinced and moved by any of it. (I still teared up at the ending, though.)

This despite Patchett’s coolly, dreamily elegant and often funny prose, the artfulness of the entire set-up, and my wanting to really care for the characters, all of whom are very human and carefully drawn. There’s a French ambassador who just wants to go home to his wife, a vice president who throws himself with increasing satisfaction into his role as maid to captors and captives alike, a translator who’s forced to find words of his own for the first time in his life, a weary Red Cross negotiator who watches the breakdown of the hostage-terrorist divide with growing unease… I did think that their development suffered from the fact that the cast is so large, so that many don’t get much further than sketches, even if those sketches are evocative.

All in all, I found the book pleasing in style and admirable in craft, but as a whole it just didn’t click for me.

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Ann Patchett

Bear and His Daughter, by Robert Stone (1997) E

Date read: 2.13.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Bear and His Daughter is a collection of enormously depressing short stories about unhappy people with unhappy pasts and, frequently, drug dependencies. There’s a washed-up poet in Mexico trying to escape his need for the validation of his strung-out friends as they hustle him up the side of a volcano on a putative spiritual quest (“Porque no Tiene, Porque le Falta”); two war veterans struggling with fear and confusion (“Absence of Mercy” and “Helping”); a trepidatious drug-runner (“Under the Pitons”); a hippie mom who has an unnerving encounter with a dolphin at an aquarium (“Aquarius Obscured”); and a widowed woman who channels her grief and anger into macabre nighttime undertakings on behalf of the anti-abortion movement (“Miserere”). Oh, and another washed-up poet, a relapsed alcoholic taking a cross-country trip that draws him closer and closer to his estranged daughter, an erratic, poetical junkie and park ranger who spins myths about the caves where she gives tours (“Bear and His Daughter”).

All told, there’s a lot of rage and fear and aimlessness and rejection of meaning or acceptance of the lack thereof, and the stories end in senseless fistfights on subway platforms or gunshots or suicides or drowning or people otherwise hurting themselves and others. BUT for all that, I did enjoy (…not quite the right word) reading it. Stone delineates his characters’ psychology with finesse, and I was a little in awe of his prose: it’s incredibly lean and stripped-down, with descriptions, particularly of landscapes and seascapes, that are piercingly vivid in their concision. There’s a kind of architectural purity to his writing, coupled with an intense attention to details of setting and sensation.

Continue reading Bear and His Daughter, by Robert Stone (1997) E

Violent Cases, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (1987) E

Date read: 2.20.09
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Neil Gaiman - Violent Cases

In Violent Cases, an adult narrator evokes a confused patchwork of childhood memories, from his uneasy relationship with his father to the half-comprehended gangster stories of an osteopath who claims to have treated Al Capone.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s first collaboration? Too cool! McKean’s art can be hit-or-miss for me, but here, I loved it. It has a scratchy, sketchy, flickering quality, like a very old slide show being flicked by, or an old film, and the black inkwork is just barely shaded with beautiful shades of sepia and ghostly blue. Add in the splintering, tilting panels and the narrator’s suggestively spare commentary, and you have an incredibly evocative, ominous story about the insidiousness of violence – physical violence, imagined violence, the violence we do to ourselves in letting ourselves forget the ways in which we were hurt and damaged – and the ways that memories reach out to one another inside of our heads, and make strange but right connections.

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Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid (1990) K

Date read: 11.17.07

Book from: Borrowed from Stephane

Reviewer: Kakaner


Lucy is 19 when she comes to America from the West Indies to be an au pair and escape her restrictive life. Her employers are the picture-perfect family– the parents are in love, they are rich, and they have perfect children. However, Lucy soon discovers that they are not what they seem, and all the while, she searches for her own niche in society as she transitions into adulthood.


This novel was perfectly delectable in so many aspects, from writing to character development to story. Lucy as a whole relies on atmosphere and instead of action to propel the story, and it is a sort of eerily muffling yet discovering atmosphere. For every experience in America, Lucy would recall either a relevant or triggered memory from her time in the Indies. This juggling of worlds created delicious tension between old and new, responsibility and free will. The tensions between Lucy and the family members, particularly the wife, were so strange that sometimes I would stop and look at the cover of the book to reorient myself and remind myself that yes, I really was reading this seemingly innocent, slim novel with an artwork of a teenage girl on the cover.

Lucy herself is an incredibly atypical heroine. She has an objective and extremely cynical outlook on life, and you only slowly learn about why this is through her past. The expert sustaining of Lucy’s character and narration, as well as the delicate yet exposing portrayal of sexism and racism, are certainly testaments to Kincaid’s literary skills. I was incredibly lured by this book as soon as I started, and could not put it down until the end– Lucy’s story is real, tangible, and heart rending without resorting to dramatics. Kincaid’s autobiographical foundations are definitely visible in this novel which probably are what make Lucy such an honest and touching novel.

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Jamaica Kincaid

Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby (1978) E

Date read: 7.29.09

Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

Requiem for a Dream, although probably better known to most through Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film, is one of the most acclaimed novels about addiction. It charts a few, terrible months in the lives of a small circle of friends and family in New York in the 1970’s, all of whom are led into addiction by their own hopes for fulfillment and wholeness.  Harry Goldfarb, his friend Tyrone C. Love, and his intelligent, artistic girlfriend Marion dream of making it big by selling heroin, only to become paralyzed by apathy, self-loathing, and dependence on the drugs that once seemed to be their ticket to success. Meanwhile, Harry’s lonely, widowed mother Sara comforts herself with chocolate and endless television. When a chance phone call seems to promise her an appearance on one of her beloved television shows, she becomes reinvigorated by the conviction that she must lose weight, precipitating an obsessive cycle of dependence on diet pills.

Requiem for a Dream is one of the most grueling, brutal films I’ve seen, and for this reason I found myself reluctant to break into the novel. Once you begin, however, you feel a sense of commitment to the characters, an obligation to hear their stories out and follow them to the end, despite the sense of doom that pervades the novel from the very beginning. Continue reading Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby (1978) E