This installment: Prague in ’98 (f); dark short stories based in suburban Toronto (f); physics and ghosts (f); a rock star no longer (DVD); from Ukraine to Brooklyn (f); and psychedelia in the ‘60s (f).
Goulash by Brian Kimberling
Like the title dish, life in Prague is often a confusing mishmash and more often than not, indigestible. So finds Elliott who’s teaching English there in ’98 and trying to make it work. He teams up with English Amanda, they move from the Hotel “Doom” to a peculiar apartment, and after a while it all unspools. Grim history oozes from every crack and Kimberling often employs snarky humor to bring us there. Sometimes a little too smart for its own good, but I’m always up for a strange trip as long as it stays on the page.
That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
Linked short stories based in a ticky-tacky Toronto suburb where everyone feels as if they’ve come up in the world until life goes awry. We learn of a rash of suicides in the first story and subsequent ones tell us why: A Portuguese woman’s mother dies back home and she goes crazy with grief. Mr. Finley offs himself with a hunting rifle surrounded by taxidermied heads. And more. We get this all from the perspective of the neighborhood kids: June and Josie (Chinese), Darren (black), Nav (Jamaican and somewhat gay). Sounds grisly but also elucidating as the kids grow up and sort it all out as best they can. Effortless writing, too.
Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
Charlie has died by her own hand, leaving her family and her close friend Helen undone. Helen’s a physicist and her pragmatic scientific mind rejects what seems like Charlie’s ghostly presence via cell phone messages. (And yet…) Helen, a single mom, invites Charlie’s husband and daughter Simmi to rent her in-law flat. Lots of cross-currents, lots of grief, and excursions into advanced physics that hint at time/space scrambles. Helen has written books that demystify the field for laypeople and has won prestigious prizes. Freudenberger gets into technical material with patient lucidity but I must admit some of it left me bemused, if fascinated. Boston setting, a workout for mind and emotions.
Juliet, Naked (DVD)
I really liked Hornby’s book and wanted to see if the film would reflect it faithfully. In my opinion, yes! Annie’s partner Duncan is an obsessed fan of an American rock star, Tucker Crowe, who disappeared into obscurity. Annie gets sick of it all, writes a fierce critique of an album on Duncan’s blogsite, and gets a response from the elusive guy himself. An email relationship flourishes but when Tucker actually comes to the UK all hell breaks loose: health issues, and a handful of offspring who’ve never met (products of his early, wasted days). He has a very cute little kid now and wants to be a good dad but it’s a struggle. Funny, sentimental—it fit my mood perfectly.
Mother Country by Irina Reyn
Life in war-torn Ukraine is fraught for intense, eager Nadia who sees immigration to the USA as her hope. Unfortunately her grown daughter Larrisska, a diabetic, is left behind and Nadia comes up with endless schemes to bring her over. Meanwhile she lives in Brooklyn, nannies Sasha, is caregiver for randy old Grisha, and tries to negotiate this new culture with minimal language skills. Flashbacks show what she left behind and what shapes her. Poignant, very funny, and revealing. A treasure.
Outside Looking In by T.C. Boyle
This author likes to tackle controversial subjects and here he takes on the early days of psychedelic experimentation in the ‘60s. It’s fiction but the characters are “real,” from Alpert and Leary on down. The protagonist is Fitz, a sincere graduate student scrambling to stay ahead with a wife and infant in tow. He’s recruited, as it were, to take part in the sessions, at first scientifically oriented though they happen on Saturday nights. His wife Joan participates as well. Then the program is attacked by the Harvard academic establishment and it moves to a hotel in Mexico, bankrolled by a rich woman. And finally to upstate New York where everything falls, unsurprisingly, apart, including Fitz’s marriage and career trajectory. The book ends on a somber note—what a buzzkill, as it were. Certainly grabbed my attention though I felt sad and a bit dangling at the end.
Back next week.