Tag Archives: coming-of-age

Isabel Allende’s latest novel is a triumph

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A review of Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende

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Pick up a copy of Isabel Allende’s new novel, Maya’s Notebook, and get ready for a wild and wonderful ride through the years and up and down the length of the Western Hemisphere. Though structured as a coming-of-age novel of young Maya Vidal, recounting the four seasons of her twentieth year, Maya’s Notebook ranges from the glorious madness of Berkeley, where she was born and raised, to the back alleys and casinos of drug-addled Las Vegas and an Oregon rehab center for incorrigible teenagers, to the magical solitude of an island off the Chilean coast. Along the way in this wrenching journey you’ll find yourself drawn back in time to the CIA-inspired coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende and the murderous repression that followed for seventeen years under the late unlamented Augusto Pinochet. Maya’s Notebook is a tour de force. Only a writer of Isabel Allende’s maturity and rare skills could pull together all these disparate threads and weave them together so artfully into such a pleasurable, and often laugh-out-loud funny, reading experience.

Maya Vidal is (of course) an unusual young woman. As she describes herself at the outset, “I’m nineteen years old, female, single — due to a lack of opportunity rather than by choice, I’m currently without a boyfriend. Born in Berkeley, California, I’m a U.S. citizen, and temporarily taking refuge on an island at the bottom of the world . . . I’m five-ten, 128 pounds when I play soccer and several more if I don’t watch out. I’ve got muscular legs, clumsy hands, blue or gray eyes, depending on the time of day, and blond hair, I think, but I’m not sure since I haven’t seen my natural hair color for quite a few years now.” Her father is Chilean, an airline pilot, “handsome as a bullfighter and just as vain,” her runaway mother a Danish flight attendant whom Maya long fantasized was a Laplander princess.

Why does this striking young woman find herself on an island in Chiloe, where she’s taller than everyone else? Therein lies the tale. On arriving, when she meets her designated host, Manual Arias, an aging sociologist friend of her grandmother, Maya introduces herself by saying, “Hi! I’m on the run from the FBI, Interpol, and a Las Vegas criminal gang.” Only deep into Maya’s Notebook does it become unmistakably clear that she’s not joking.

Maya is raised by her grandparents in a sprawling house in Berkeley. The great love of Maya’s life is her grandfather, her Popo, her grandmother’s second husband, Paul Ditson II, a huge and compassionate man as black as she is white, a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley. In exile in Chile, her constant companions are the old sociologist whose tiny home she shares; the local schoolteacher who suffers from unrequited love for the lonely old man; and a lame dog christened Fahkeen the day Maya arrived when a cab driver hears her try to get rid of the beast, yelling “Shoo! Get away, fucking dog!”

Almost in passing, Allende tosses out unforgettable passages. Berkeley is “that gritty, radical, extravagant city, with its mix of races and human pelts, with more geniuses and Nobel Prize winners than any other city on earth, saturated with noble causes, intolerant in its sanctimoniousness.” The school where Maya’s grandparents sent her “taught using an Italian system of experimental education in which the students did whatever the fuck we wanted. The classrooms had no blackboards or desks, we sat on the floor, the teachers didn’t wear bras or shoes, and everyone learned at their own pace.”

Maya’s Notebook is Isabel Allende’s 19th book. Allende, a long-time Bay Area resident, is Chilean, a first cousin once removed of the late president (not his niece, other than in the Spanish vernacular). Clearly, she’s spent a lot of time in Berkeley.

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Filed under Historical Novels, Trade Fiction

Unbearable suspense and extraordinary characters in a novel that grapples with today’s greatest ethical challenges

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A review of So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman

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I can’t get Alice Piper out of my head. Here she is, dashing off a 7th grade paper in English prose worthy of a graduate student. There she is again, fearlessly leaping from bar to bar on the high wire in her parents’ barn. Still again, she is deeply engrossed in a probing philosophical discussion with her parents at age 6. Alice is a bundle of special gifts, a phenomenon.

On its most fundamental level, So Much Pretty is the story of Alice Piper and her parents, from the time of her birth through her mid-teens. But this is no cookie-cutter coming-of-age novel. It’s an inquiry into ethical conduct in an age of moral ambiguity. It’s a study of rural America struggling for survival in a declining industrial economy. It’s a critique of industrial farming. And it’s a novel of suspense that relentlessly drags the reader with increasing urgency toward a conclusion that no one is likely to guess.

Alice and her parents, Gene and Claire Piper, both physicians, have moved from New York City to the upstate town of Haeden, population 2,000, driven by a compulsion to avoid the ethical complications of the city and find a simpler life on the land. Gene devotes himself to promoting organic farming and environmental awareness while Claire brings in a modest income from work at a nearby health clinic. Their “family,” close friends Michelle (“Mickey”) and Constant, both physicians too, are no longer close by. Mickey has enlisted in Doctors Without Borders and moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Constant (“Con”) has taken a job with a shady pharmaceutical giant to test new drugs for a salary of $300K, money he has used to buy the land where the Pipers are homesteading and to help out them and his wife from time to time.

The pivotal event in So Much Pretty takes place after Alice has entered high school. Wendy White, a likable young woman who works as a waitress in the local diner, has gone missing, and the whole town, the Pipers included, are swept up in the months-long search for her (or, as feared, her body). But the timeline in this beautifully crafted novel is twisted and turned on itself a dozen times like a cat’s cradle gone mad, so that the reader learns of the young woman’s disappearance very early in the book. Hoffman takes us on a roller-coaster ride through time, ricocheting from the early 1990s in New York City to the late 2000s in Haeden and back again, again and again, and from the perspective of one character after another. Along the way, she paints vivid pictures of many of the players in this morality play: Stacy Flynn, George Polk Award-winning big city journalist who has come to edit Haeden’s little newspaper and research the local consequences of environmental crime; Captain Alex Dino, the good-old-boy police chief who insists that only “drifters” can commit serious crime in Haeden; Wendy White, emerging from anonymity as her adolescent fat melts away and she finds her first real boyfriend.

So Much Pretty was Hoffman’s first novel to reach a wide audience. The New York Times Book Review termed it the Best Suspense Novel of 2011.

Hoffman appears to be as intriguing a character as her protagonist. Raised in upstate New York herself in a place much like Haeden, she dropped out of high school and moved to Europe, working for a time in a hotel in Athens. Back in upstate New York, where she was raised, she worked her way into a job, and ultimately a decade, as an investigative journalist for a series of newspapers; gave birth to a son; and became involved with a series of “alternative” — we used to call them “underground” — ventures,  including a “learning collective” and the long-running newspaper, Fifth Estate. Clearly, writing the story of Alice Piper came naturally to her.

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Filed under Crime Novels, Mysteries & Thrillers

Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master

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A review of Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Great science fiction requires fully fleshed, memorable characters, a beautifully realized alternate reality, and masterful prose. Many sci-fi classics written by authors whose names you may recognize (Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke) fall short in some or even all of these dimensions. A young American author named Paolo Bacigalupi puts them to shame with his much more recent writing.

Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards (the top literary prizes in the field, chosen by the fans and the writers respectively). It’s one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read — and I’ve read a lot of them. This tour de force was followed by two young adult novels, The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker, both of which I found to be excellent examples of the craft and in no way limited by the author’s intention to write for a young audience.

All three stories are set in a post-apocalyptic world that I gather to be sometime in the 22nd Century. Humankind’s failure to arrest global climate change and our unstoppable addiction to fossil fuels have drowned nearly all the planet’s coastal cities and left most of the human race living hand to mouth in abject penury while a lucky few — in China and the United States — wallow in luxury because they control trade with armies of genetically engineered “half-men” bred for speed, strength, and loyalty.

Ship Breaker relates the story of Nailer, a small, 14- or 15-year-old boy with a homicidal father and a job as head of a crew of children and teenagers who are salvaging copper and other metals — and an occasional gallon of oil — from the derelict oil tankers run aground on beaches along the Gulf Coast. Following one of the killer storms that hit the coast virtually on a weekly basis, Nailer and his boss, a 16-year-old girl named Pima, stumble across a wrecked clipper ship that belongs to one of the trading companies that dominate the planet. Inside, they find a beautiful girl of about Nailer’s age who is clearly a “swank” raised in unimaginable wealth and privilege. The three young people, together with a renegade half-man named Tool, flee the fury of Nailer’s father (who covets the precious salvage on the shipwreck). Thus begins their adventure in search of the swank girl’s father and a secure new life for Nailer.

If you enjoy science fiction, you’ll love this book.

 

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Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction