Book Review: “The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson

I was required to read The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson for college, and finished in just two days. Equal parts hilarious and touching, this novel has a great amount of depth and soul, with fully developed characters and an incredibly original plot line. Although a bit offbeat, I would highly recommend this book to anyone — it’s easy to read, but the prose is excellent and the story not one to be missed.

The novel, which alternates between past and present, centers around the Fang family — parents Camille and Caleb, and their two children, Annie (Child “A”) and Buster (Child “B”). Camille and Caleb are performance artists who seek to create chaos and, in effect, something that they call beauty. At one point in the novel, Caleb muses to himself:

“The act is not the art,” he told himself. “The reaction is the art.” (page 166)

Many of the public acts they commit are incredibly bizarre, only stirring up trouble and undoubtedly disturbing the people around them, whose spontaneous reactions the Fang art depends on (one such example: the book opens with a scene in which Camille attempts to steal a ludicrous amount of jelly beans from a candy store, with the intent of getting caught). In the flashbacks throughout the book, Caleb and Camille use their children as props in their pieces, often forcing them into strange and often dangerous situations all in the name of art.

The present-day plot focuses on Annie and Buster who, now adults, have to deal with the irreparable consequences of a childhood of forced participation in their parents’ art projects. Annie is a fairly established actress with a bad publicity streak and Buster, a struggling writer. After several unfortunate turns of events, Annie and Buster find themselves living again with the parents they haven’t spoken to in years. At this point, the novel changes pace — losing some of its earlier hilarity as the reader becomes more invested in the lives of its characters. Annie and Buster must confront their past again, and observe how their parents’ art has evolved since losing “A and B.”

There are many unexpected twists and turns in this novel, all of which reveal something deeper about the characters. Wilson has deftly crafted a story that is truly brought to life by its protagonists — a story which is entertaining and engaging on the surface, but also one which delves into moral issues underneath. It is soulful, witty, and packed with originality, while at the same time managing to be incredibly thought-provoking. This is a can’t-miss novel with a lot of heart, and I would recommend it to anyone.

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From the Shelves | “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk

Snow, a novel by contemporary Turkish author and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, is widely regarded as a great work of literature.  The story is told simultaneously from two angles: that of the protagonist, a poet named Ka, and the wider political context of the cultural change in Turkey following the rise of Ataturk. I suppose it must be noted here that I find this novel particularly fascinating because I also find Middle Eastern and Turkish history incredibly intriguing. However, you do not need to be a historian to read this book: ultimately, it is a work that focuses on the life of its protagonist and does not dwell on any sort of political or historical context. Anyone who loves a compelling and beautiful story will enjoy this novel — the setting of dramatic cultural change in Turkey is only a bonus for those of us who happen to be interested in it.

Of course, the history is central to the plot, but all is explained. In summary, the book takes place in a small city in Turkey called Kars. Ka, the poet-protagonist, visits the border city from his home in Germany, with the intention of doing journalistic work on the recent plight of the “head scarf girls” — a group of school girls who, rebelling against Ataturk’s westernizing policies, have continued the tradition of wearing head coverings. However, Ka also has another intention: to win the love of Ipek, the girl from his childhood whom he hopes to marry and take back to Germany with him. (Her younger sister, coincidentally, is the leader of the head scarf girls.) The majority of the novel takes place within a few days, as a blizzard descends on Kars and no one can get in or out. Violence escalates in the small city as the head scarf drama unfolds and multiple religious and secular groups clash. It is important to note here, I believe, that this by no measure reads like a thriller: instead, it is a poignant account of Ka’s few days in Kars, the poems that he writes there, his relationship with Ipek, and his reluctant role in the violence that begins to unfold.

Without giving anything away, it must be said that this is a tragic story. Ka’s character is not a perfect one: he is flawed, like any human being, which makes him so much more compelling. His time in Kars revolves around the poems he is able to write in the city, which flow from his pen more easily than they have in many years. These poems, he decides, represent different facets of his conscience (reason, imagination, memory), but ultimately they lead to little conclusion in terms of self-discovery. This is a complex novel, and one that can be confusing to read, but the language is beautiful and the plot is mesmerizing if you allow yourself to get into it. Snow is not a light and fun read, but it is a wonderful piece of literature (it almost reads like a meditation) that I would highly recommend to anyone.

As Margaret Atwood aptly writes in her introduction to the novel:

Pamuk gives us what all novelists give us at their best: the truth. Not the truth of statistics, but the truth of human experience at a particular place, in a particular time. And as with all great literature, you feel at moments not that you are examining him, but that he is examining you.

… Just some food for thought.

Have you read Snow, or any of Pamuk’s other works? What were your thoughts? If not, do you plan on reading any of them?

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From the Shelves | “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a dark and extremely dense book — the first few times I spent reading it, I felt as though I were inching through the pages. (I read the Norton Critical Edition, which contains about 77 pages of the actual text, and it took me about 4 hours to read less than 30 of those pages.) At first, I’ll admit that I couldn’t stand it. It was difficult to read and it’s not exactly one of the fast-paced thrillers we’re used to reading today. But after reading it twice and analyzing it through discussions, I slowly grew to like it. There is literally so much material packed into this book that you have no choice but to read it carefully so as not to miss details (and, even then, you’ll miss a ton — I’m certain I did). But it is worth it. Because, in the end, you will have read such a thought-provoking work of literature that your head will be spinning with ideas and questions that seem to branch off in endless directions.

The book, published in 1902, is set aboard a ship on the Thames river, where several seamen sit watching as the dusk fades, waiting for the tide. Marlow, one of the men on the ship, spends much of the novel recounting his time spent in the Congo during the illicit ivory trade. He spends much of his venture there searching for the infamous Kurtz, the chief of one of the ivory trading company’s inner stations buried deep in the jungle. Marlow describes his experience as unsettling and illusory, but he ultimately shows an ambivalent devotion to Kurtz, claiming that he must remain loyal to “the nightmare of his choice.”

With so much of the story being consumed by Marlow’s tale, it is important to remember that he is not the narrator of the novel — indeed, one of the nameless seamen aboard the ship is in truth telling the story. Which brings us to one of the key nuances of Heart of Darkness that makes it such a complex novel: the different layers of storytelling within the book itself, and the different ways in which our opinion of the situation at hand is manipulated by the interpretation of the storyteller. In many cases, this is Marlow, who, as we see throughout the book, is not the most perceptive, nor dispassionate, translator of events. At the beginning of the book (page 5 in the Norton Critical Edition), Marlow is described by the narrator of the novel as finding the true meaning of an episode “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” This makes the book much harder to analyze and understand thoroughly because the reader cannot completely trust the primary storyteller.

The 1979 film Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness. Although the setting and context of the story are different (the movie is set during the Vietnam War), the details and ideas that really define the book — racism, loyalties and motivations, individual perceptions of events, restraints, etc. — are what make the movie so similar. If you haven’t watched the film yet, I would highly recommend reading the book before seeing it, as it will make the experience of watching it so much better.

There is so much to say about this classic! I really enjoyed reading it and I would suggest reading it at the same time as a friend, so you can discuss it together. This is one of those reads that really benefits from thoughtful analysis, and you need to be alert to pick up on important details and themes. It is well worth the read, I promise — just be aware that it is difficult to get through the beginning, but once you acclimate to Conrad’s dense writing style, it becomes easier to understand. Happy reading!

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From the Shelves | “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder

In August, I posted 10 of my all-time favorite reads (which you should check out if you’re looking for a good book!), including Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains. This book, Strength in What Remains, from the same Pulitzer-prize winning author, has definitely taken its place of honor on my virtual bookshelf. Not to say that Mountains Beyond Mountains isn’t an incredible work, but I felt that I connected more with Deo (the protagonist at the center of Strength in What Remains) and his plight.

In the book, Deo comes to the United States from Burundi after having endured a civil war and a genocide. I found his story especially interesting because it dealt a lot with the Rwandan genocide (of 1994) which also took its toll on the bordering country of Burundi. This was an issue that I admit I had not previously been aware of, and I’m glad that Kidder has brought this to the public’s attention. However, in the book, Kidder cites scholar Peter Uvin to make an important distinction between the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi. While the Rwandan genocide was orchestrated and launched by a Hutu government against the powerless minority Tutsi in a violent eruption of ethnic tension, the Burundian genocide/civil war was indeed a war, between a Tutsi government and Hutu rebels — a war in which both sides had equal power (page 199). To quote the text:

In Rwanda, ordinary people killed mainly out of prejudice. In Burundi, it was mainly out of fear. These were different catastrophes, Uvin insists, not to be conflated. But they had essential ingredients in common: “Social exclusion and the ethnicization of politics … are the two central elements to violent conflict in Burundi and Rwanda that, like electrons, spin around a core of massive poverty and institutional weakness.” — Strength in What Remains, pages 199-200

Aside from the background story of the conflicts in Burundi and Rwanda, Deo’s story is truly inspirational. Strength in What Remains holds all the same qualities we’ve come to expect from Kidder from reading Mountains Beyond Mountains — resilience, hope, humanity. Being his latest book, I thought that it was much better organized than Mountains and I liked the way the chapters were broken up by time and place so the reader could create a timeline for the story in their mind. The story flowed better, in my opinion, Deo’s life, not his work, took center stage. Only the last section of the book details the story of the clinic he went back to build in Burundi, although I’m sure Kidder could have focused on that alone if he wanted to. But he didn’t, and it makes Deo’s story so much more fascinating because it’s not so much about what he does and how that defines him (like in the case of Paul Farmer and Mountains), but about his struggles that provide insight into the universal human spirit — something everyone can connect with, whether Burundi’s civil war interests them or not.

In all honesty, Strength in What Remains just had something special in it for me that Mountains Beyond Mountains couldn’t quite capture. It felt so much more personal and real, and while reading it I felt as if I was learning along with Deo, rather than being lectured to. But without comparing the two works, Strength holds its own as an incredible book. Kidder’s writing, as always, is clean and straightforward: easy to read, yet still intelligent and poetic. I’m a big fan of his prose — it blends detail and simplicity perfectly, without cutting too much out or loading the text with unnecessary description.

Recently, I had the honor of attending a lecture by Tracy Kidder. I thought he was an excellent speaker and I very much enjoyed his presentation, which mainly focused on Strength in What Remains. When I got in line to get my book signed, however, he wasn’t very engaging — maybe this is just the impression I got from him, but it’s funny how meeting the author can give you a new perspective on his work. I really do enjoy his books, though, and I’m going to try my best to read the rest of them without bias.

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P.S. Sorry I haven’t been posting much lately – I will try and post a bit more when I have free time and return all your lovely comments!


From the Shelves | “All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy

While reading this book, someone said to me, “in a hundred years, McCarthy will be the Hemingway of today.” I believe it.

All The Pretty Horses is not McCarthy‘s most widely-read novel (see The Road for that), but its unbridled descriptive power and beautifully structured prose make it fascinating. You could spend hours dissecting the thousands of sentences in this book without ever running out of things to say and contemplate. I’ll admit it: there were points when I had to take breaks, just because the material can be so mentally overwhelming if you really let yourself get into it.

Reading McCarthy is refreshing. He pulls apart every bit of grammar you’ve ever learned, destroying it with torrents of run-on sentences and lack of punctuation (namely quotation marks — indeed, sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of who’s talking). Yet he does this in a manner so eloquent and powerful that you can’t get enough of it.

McCarthy’s style underscores the story itself: wild, turbulent, and raw. He tells the story of John Grady Cole through bouts of long, poetic paragraphs composed of only a few sentences contrasted against short, rapid-fire dialogue. In the book, the first in The Border Trilogy, McCarthy lays bare both young love and violence in “a place where dreams are paid for in blood.”

As fair warning to potential readers: it’s easy to get lost in this book mentally. This is one of those books where it is, in my opinion, best to discuss the story as you read it — to truly make sense of the details and understand on a deeper level what is going on. Especially with a novel like this, when the language can sometimes be very detailed and confusing at first glance, it is a good idea to take your time reading it so that you don’t miss out on anything.

That said, this is a stunning work. The prose is breathtaking and the language is beautiful. Take the time to read it, to enjoy it, and you will not be disappointed.

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