One would scarcely expect a novel about the life of the staid Thomas Mann to be a page-turner. But in Colm Toibin's wizardly hands, The Magician achieves it. Toibin's prose is a paradoxical mix of the sober and the propulsive, and its beauty and energy keep one involved for 400-plus pages--from Thomas's childhood, thorugh his marriage and the beginning of his reputation as a writer, through the wars, his exile in America, and his final return to Europe. We're shown the genesis of each of Mann's works in particular real-life situations. Mann is portrayed in all his contradictions: dreamy but resolute: outwardly inexpressive and formal but possessed of an intense but wary inner life; a father of six who never stopped being deeply attracted to men. Toibin's account of Mann's privileged exile in the US during WWII, while most of the rest of his family was struggling, is deeply moving. This is a book to match Toibin's earlier triumph, The Master.
What Are You Going Through
Simone Weil, who lends this book its title, believed in the importance--the duty, in fact-- of paying attention to others. Sigrid Nunez borrows more than her title from Weil--she herself adopts an attentive stance. She does this on two levels: first, as a writer, paying attention to experiences large and small, and presenting them in a way that brings out the weirdness at the edges of what we encounter; and secondly, she shows how attention feels, as we inhabit the mind of her narrator, is attentive to both what others are going through, and to the impact it has on herself. Threaded throughout the book is the narrative of her concern for a terminally ill friend, and the book ends with a luminous chronicle of the last weeks of a dying friend, the narrator living alongside her. The story refuses despair and depression. Instead it foregrounds the grace, humor, and courage of the stricken woman in the face of the inevitable, and the narrator's tenacious, thoughtful compassion. Altogether, an exceptionally moving novel.
All of these stories are in fact written in the first person singular, which, along with their conversational tone, gives each of these stories an atmosphere of intimacy, as if you're sitting over a drink with a friend. These stories have ordinary elements, yes, but this is Murakami we're dealing with, and nothing can be quite taken for granted in any situation he creates. You begin on one path and find yourself, without quite realizing it, on another. Along with the lingering mysteriousness, there's often a pervading wistfulness, a signature Murakami mix.
A woman --identified only as M.--invites an artist she's long admired to rent a cabin on her property--the "second place" of the title. Let's just say that the artist--identified only as L. --isn't a self-effacing, polite guest. The effect of this new person--and eventually his girlfriend--on the lives of M. and her family forms the substance of this novel. It's study in the havoc others can wreak in one's life. Read it for the intelligence of the narrator (but what narrator in a Rachel Cusk novel is not intelligent?), the subtlety of the insights into herself, combined with areas of blindness which emerge over the course of the novel. A book one wants to begin again after finishing.
Several families are vacationing in a house together. The adults drink, complain, talk about shopping or the stock market. To their children, ranging in age from pre-school to late adolescence, they are hopeless and deplorable, to the point where the childen don't want each other to know which of the adults are actually their parents. An age-old story, you may think, until conditions change dramatically and it becomes increasingly clear who are the adults and who are the children.
Majella lives with her alcoholic mother and works the late shift in fast-food shop in a small town in Ireland. Her life is full of obligation and repetition; she has no friends and little ambition, despite her sharp mind. (She is also on the spectrum, as we glean from small details here and there.) Then the unexpected happens, and the reader, who's been rooting for her all along, lets out a resounding cheer.
Patti Smith responds, in this latest book, to the passage of time, to matters of aging and impending loss. Friends and collaborators she has known for decades are unwell. Memory looms large. And the dread 2016 election is on the horizon. To convey the complexity of her response to what is emerging in her life, the prose is at times more dreamlike and surreal than in her earlier books, but she is still the creative survivor she always has been. The result is memorable and cleansing.