In a nutshell, “The Convalescent” by Jessica Anthony is a remarkably absurd novel, alternating the contemporary story of Rovar Pfliegman with the history of his ancestral Hungarian people. Rovar is an outcast living just outside a small town in South Carolina. He sells meat (his people are butchers) from an abandoned school bus which doubles as his home. He develops a relationship of sorts with Dr. Monica, a pediatrician who is willing to explore Rovar’s various ailments. These include some fascinating dermatological symptoms. The history of his people includes generations of failure, remarkable feats of magical proportions, and some spectacular liaisons.
In some ways, “The Convalescent” has much in common with other novels of outcasts, such as “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. I loved that book when I read it years ago. I confess that I respond to these characters with a little impatience. On the one hand, they’re often funny in the sense of how someone quite outside the mainstream interacts with “regular” people. On the other hand, their continued isolation is sad–and I realize that I want them to Get Better, whatever that means. In this case, I didn’t sense my interest in Rovar growing once he was introduced. Sometimes a book like this just asks the reader to suspend expectations and enjoy the ride.
Why is this on the Notable Books list? It’s creative. Anthony uses words well. She seemed to have a great time creating Rovar and placing him in remarkable situations.
I’ll probably recommend this to only a few people. Although it isn’t for the mass of readers who expect a novel with a linear plot from introduction to conflict to resolution, it IS for those who prefer to have it all turned upside down from time to time.
I have a new way of evaluating how well a book is working for me–do I find it engaging when I read it in the evening? Many of you recall that I’m a morning person, and if a book doesn’t make it for me around 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, it never will. Conversely, if I find a book compelling after dinner, well, THAT’s a good book.
“Little Bee” by Chris Cleave came from the fiction portion of this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list AND I enjoyed reading most of it in the evening. I hadn’t exactly been looking forward to reading it. I knew that it involved a girl who’d been chased and … I wasn’t sure what… in Nigeria before ending up in England.
As it turns out, I enjoyed reading this, despite the intense Nigerian scenes of Little Bee’s sister’s death, and a British woman’s violent act to save Little Bee. The story is told in the alternating voices of Little Bee and Sarah, that woman. Part of the effectiveness of the story lies in the contrast between Little Bee as a traumatized and marginalized undocumented alien and Sarah, a stylish magazine editor. Neither is all bad or good, and yet both won my sympathy. I admire the way that Cleave doles out pieces of their stories and weaves secrets together. Sarah’s story is that of a regular person who finds herself in the midst of a bewildering and dangerous situation. She wants to rise to that, despite her clear shortcomings. Now that I think of it, Little Bee, too, is a regular person who finds herself in the midst of a bewildering and dangerous situation.
I’ll recommend it to readers who appreciate a fine sense of plot and timing and who are willing to work through difficulty to consider how the human spirit responds to evil.
In my continuing project of reading the Americian Library Association Notable Books list, I finished up the novel, “Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin a few weeks ago. It’s the story of a young Irish woman named Eilis who leaves unpromising propects in Ireland to a more engaged life in Brooklyn, just after World War II.
This book takes its own sweet time to gain momentum. At a certain point early on, I began to wonder whether this was simply a book where nothing would happen. Eventually, however, it started moving along, and it got me hooked. I was sorry when it ended.
Eventually Eilis becomes interesting. In Ireland, her weekend work wasn’t especially engaging, and the young men had little interest in her. Once in America, she stands out by doing a good job and minding her own business, both at work and in the boardinghouse where she lives with several Irish women. She enrolls in business school. Things become especially interesting when she becomes attached to a young man.
But then, she is called back to Ireland, and must decide where her home truly is, and face her own lack of clear intention. Of course, by then she is a worldly American, with American self-confidence, fashion, and style. The men give her plenty of attention.
Toibin’s pacing still strikes me as odd, although I can see that the “nothing ever happens” pace of the early book underscores Eilis’s lack of prospects in Ireland. What he does especially well is to observe the social interaction between people, and to get inside Eilis’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I had to wince on her behalf, she seemed not to see what was coming.
I’d recommend this to fiction readers who enjoy coming-of age stories, themes to do with immigration and cultures colliding, and stories of women who strike out on their own.
I was in the midst of reading “Columbine” by Dave Cullen as I read my way through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a good book, but intense. After a nightmare involving a Columbine-like incident at the Omaha Public Library (remember, just a dream!), I realized that I needed a break. So I took home “The Vagrants.”
It wasn’t that much of a break.
Here’s what I wrote in a review in Visual Bookshelf:
“I chose this book because it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I expect that many people would consider it depressing–I found it so, too.
Li weaves together the lives of several people in the [fictional Chinese] town of Muddy River in the late 1970’s. Widespread poverty, the sense of lingering loss from the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing scheming to get ahead without getting caught, combine to destroy trust and love…or maybe trust and love don’t exist much here. It feels like nobody has a haven, either in a place, or in a person’s arms.
And I think that’s the author’s point…that things became so crazy in China that the bonds that hold people together in the best ways, through family, friendships, and rewarding work, are broken. And “The Vagrants” leads us to face the dismal result. Not an easy read, but sometimes we ought to face and recognize evil.”
What I’d add to that is that Li does a wonderful job of introducing a cast of characters, and then interweaving their lives. These aren’t necessarily people that we’ll come to love and trust and hope the best for, but they are distinct individuals, well-drawn. She reveals their particular vulnerabilities, and we learn how they’ll suffer for them.
I’d recommend this to readers who are interested in China, especially on the impact of recent politics there, who love a novel with interweaving plots, and who don’t insist on a happy ending.