Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Lacuna-- Barbara Kingsolver

Oh, hooray for Barbara Kingsolver! Hooray for The Lacuna.

Holding the library's glossy new copy of The Lacuna last week, I had butterflies of excitement in my belly but also some kind of creepy bugs of dread. Kingsolver's early novels and essays were a profound influence on me, and I return to them again and again. I also loved her most recent work, the nonfiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. (So much so that before I reluctantly returned my much-renewed library copy, bristling with sticky notes, I hastily purchased my own copy and transferred all the sticky notes over.) But her last two novels: not so much. And my anxiety about The Lacuna only increased when I heard an early, unflattering NPR review.

Well, dready bugs begone, and unflattering reviews be damned. The Lacuna delivers, in a big way. The writing is excellent; it is so good that slowing down to savor it is almost painful. The story is compelling, and the structure is flawless. It is everything I hoped for, and nothing I feared. How often in life does anything come through like that?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What is the What--Dave Eggers

"What is the What? What?" I thought when I saw this title. I found it off-putting: if the title was too difficult for my teeny cranium, I reasoned with my minute powers, I stood no chance with the book itself. Plus it looked like an improving book, which (I must shamefacedly admit) is also off-putting to me.

Turns out it's good though. The book is a semi-biographical tale of a real-life man named Valentino Achek Deng, a Lost Boy of Sudan. The novel's character, also named Valentino Achek Deng, narrates his life in several long flashbacks from the present moment of the story. So from the beginning, the reader knows important information about the end of the tale (e.g., that Achek does not die, that he moves to America, etc.) However there is a surprising amount of suspense along the way.

One thing of note to me was the novel's kind of double-vision perspective on America and American life. On the one hand, the reader can see how she would think about and react to present-day American Achek, and how she would understand the things that happen to him in America. His thoughts and reactions, though, come from a distinctly different perspective. The reader slowly comes to understand his perspective. The experiences that produced this perspective, and especially Achek's reflections on those experiences, are probably unfamiliar to most audiences--they were to me. Not a cheery read exactly, but thought-provoking and interesting.