Category: underappreciated books
The young Jewish and Arab women portrayed in Wandering Star are so convincing that it’s easy to forget that the book was written by a sixty-something-year-old French man. J.M.G. Le Clezio also understands that while in wartime it is most often the men who go off to fight and die, it is the women who bear the brunt of their battles.
There Are Jews in My House is a collection of stories that takes its title from the first (and longest) story, in which a young gentile woman offers refuge to a Jewish friend and her daughter during World War II, and then grows so resentful about their presence that she contemplates turning them in. The five stories that follow are also about Russian, or Russian-American, culture, but Vapnyar goes so far beyond the sleeping-four-to-a-room-and-smell-of-boiling-potatoes immigrant story cliché and so deep into the emotional lives of the people in these stories that it is impossible to lump There Are Jews in My House in with other WWII/Russia/Coming to America tales-these are stories woven together by the common threads of longing, secrecy, and emotional turmoil; these are stories about the human experience with all its intricacy and contradiction and complexity. And I fell in love with it from the opening line (which, incidentally, does involve potatoes, but excusably so).
Vapnyar’s voice is distinct, her command of the language impressive-even without this added wow-factor: English is not her native tongue (she emigrated from Russia to the US just 9 years prior to the publication of this book). But rather than putting a limitation on her writing, this newness frees her; she is not bogged down by decades of vocabulary, blinded by the glare of abundance, compelled to sling adjectives around haphazardly. Nothing clutters the starkness, not one stray phrase that she left in simply because she liked the sound of it. Her brilliance lies in her subtlety-she is painstakingly careful with her words, as with a strong spice: use sparingly. Vapnyar extracts moments, gentle and precise like a surgeon, from her subjects’ lives. Like:
(From the title story) “She took a cold teakettle off the stove and began drinking hungrily right out of its rough tin spout. The streams of water ran down her chin and her neck, causing her skin to break out in goose bumps.”
(From “Ovrashki’s Trains,” a story told from the point of view of a 5-year-old girl about her summer spent in a dacha near a train station, and her obsession with finding her long-absent father) “I pulled on my old rubber boots, which were a little too tight around the toes, and my shiny bright blue raincoat. I splashed down the steps and ran into the garden that smelled of jasmine and rain.”
Imagine: 149 pages of this delightfully bare prose. As a writer, I am in awe. As a reader, this book has never left my nightstand.
It’s not just that the stories are so striking, or that Vapnyar’s writing is so exquisite-though either of these things on their own would be reason enough to recommend this book-it’s the uncanny way in which the two are fused together: like an onomatopoeia of sorts, the words themselves feel like the worlds she writes about. There is grace, and sadness, and not a lot of fluff. No fluff at all, actually. Her work is elegant and plain and pure, pared down-like bones, or a single flame burning in a dark room.
Wendy Blackburn is the author of Beachglass (May 2006) which is a St Martin’s Reps’ Pick, an Amazon.com editor’s pick, and a PNBA award nominee. She is also a counselor and a mother, and she lives in the Seattle area.
If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.
Rabih Alameddine’s I, the Divine has a very innovative narrative style. Each chapter lays claim to a new beginning and retraces the lives of the vibrant narrator, Sarah Nour el-Din, as she crosses transnational borders and psychological landscapes. We experience the Lebanese civil war as Sarah experienced it–in fragments and in small doses. I, the Divine is funny, painful, and solid. Alameddine writes very convincingly of young womanhood, sexual awakening, and the devastating effects of war on a culture. These days, we don’t need any more reminder about war’s injuries, but we do need a writer who may offer ways of redeeming ourselves in the face of loss and alienation.
Radius of Arab American Writers. She is also a member of a Dearborn/Detroit subcommittee that will help mobilize women for a national gathering organized by AMWAJ, Arab Movement of Women Arising for Justice.
“The man dies in him who stands silent in the face of tyranny.” The words are Wole Soyinka’s, a longtime critic of Nigerian corruption and brutality. When first quoted by a student organizer in Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, the rallying cry ushers in a demonstration that, despite the rubber bullets, teargas and temporary shuttering of the university, leave the campus heady with triumph. But a few pages later, a character unhinged by the sudden death of his parents and sister, launches into a speech with this phrase and is carried off by security agents; their vicious beating seals his insanity.
Such is the ambiguous but no less astute commentary on the wisdom of protest that flows throughout this novel. At its end, which is actually the beginning of the story, the fate of the central character, Lomba, who has raised his voice against the regime, remains unknown. Still, what is fully resolved, is Habila’s accomplishment in crafting a story that remains all too rare in contemporary fiction. It is an intimate look into the soul of a young, African man who has prioritized artistic expression, intellectual diligence and emotional honesty.
Essence Ward is a freelance radio producer living in Atlanta.