Review: “Speed of Life” by Carol Weston

Speed of Life

Fourteen-year-old Sofia Wolfe is still reeling from the sudden death of her beloved mother almost a year ago when her best friend takes her to a talk by an advice columnist called “Dear Kate”. Despite her initial misgivings, a grieving Sofia writes to Kate to fill the absence of a mother figure. Kate is pretty cool for an agony aunt and understands that not all families have two parents. This encourages Sofia to send her father to another Dear Kate talk. Soon, Sofia is regularly corresponding with Kate about grief, puberty, boys and growing pains.

A year after Sofia’s mother’s death, she realizes her father has started seeing someone. On the one hand, she dearly loves her father and wants to see him happy. On the other hand, she feels it’s too soon and Sofia doesn’t want her mother to be replaced. Imagine her surprise when Dad’s new girlfriend turns out to be none other than “Dear Kate”.

Embarrassed beyond belief, Sofia doesn’t know how to tell Kate that she has been corresponding with her for months beforehand. To compound the problem, Kate has a teenage daughter, Alexa, who is not pleased with the sudden onslaught of strangers in her mother’s life, especially seemingly perfect Sofia. Sofia and her father need to vacate the apartment, which leads them to move in with Kate and Alexa. And, at her new school, Sofia falls for a boy who has a complicated history with Alexa. How ever will she survive this year?

Even though the story is geared at children and young adults, Ms Weston has done a marvelous job of describing Sofia’s grief. Devastated by her loss, it is heartbreaking to see Sofia not understand the normal mother-teenage daughter tension between Kate and Alexa. Narrated over the course of a year, it’s heartening to see Sofia stop grieving and accept that the presence of another woman in her father’s life and her family does not mean that her mother won’t always be with her in spirit. Living with “Dear Kate” also makes her see the flawed woman behind the advice columnist persona.

While the story centers around Sofia, Ms. Weston pays a generous amount of attention to the secondary characters. The arc that Sofia’s relationship takes with Alexa was one of my favourites. The narration from Sofia’s point of view lends the story a poignant and simple tone. It is lovely to see her blossom into a happy young woman with a new “family”. Kudos to Ms. Weston for turning the Cinderella trope on its head and writing a heartwarming and touching story about grief, moving on and growing up.

Review: “The City of Mirrors” (The Passage #3) by Justin Cronin

City of Mirrors

The night is ours again. The vampire apocalypse is finally over. And I apologise in advance for all the lame vampire jokes I’m about to crack.

As survivors know, the bloodletting started in 2010 with The Passage, an engorged thriller by Justin Cronin. A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin had published a couple of literary novels before going to the dark side and selling his projected vampire trilogy for over $3.5 million. Fox 2000 landed the first book — then half-written — for $1.75 million for Scott Free to produce. Originally developed as a feature, the producers eventually determined that the property would be better served as a TV series. Sophisticates may have sucked their fangs, but how electrifying it felt to have a fine writer spread his wings and swoop into this garlic-breath genre. With its blood-slick pacing and sympathetic heroes, The Passage was a killer antidote to the CrossFit vampires colonizing the twilight.

Yes, it’s true: Cronin’s story of a bat virus that destroys human civilization got a bit bogged down in the second volume, The Twelve. But those of us hypnotized by this tale were eagerly awaiting the finale. In The City of Mirrors, we finally find out what happens to the remnant of humanity that survived those decades of terror.

But beware all who enter. This is very much a sequel for the twice-bitten. The uninfected reader will wander around these dark passages entirely lost. The City of Mirrors opens a few years after the cataclysmic confrontation that ended The Twelve. So far as anyone can tell, the vampires were all destroyed. Our modest warrior-hero Peter Jaxon eventually assumes the presidency of a bustling settlement of a hundred thousand souls in Texas. There are now substantial settlements of beleaguered humans, and the real crisis is not shooting a “smoke” or “drac” or “flyer” in the chest, but creating a feasible tax regime. “People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall,” Cronin writes. “The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking.”

The epic climax turns out to be bathetic, though the flashback to Patient Zero’s former life as Timothy Fanning is actually rather good. An inset novella, it tells of being a middle-class boy in a prestigious university, beguiled by wealth and crippled by self-doubt. In the intervening century, he’s devolved into some kind of vampiric Miss Havisham, determined to make the whole world pay for his broken heart. Fortunately, one of the emotionally wounded characters from the previous book has found a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s determined to turn it into a latter-day Noah’s Ark — an insurance policy just in case the vamps come leaping back.

The trilogy exemplifies Anthropocene masochism. When humanity has irreversibly changed the nature of the environment, the environment bites back – literally, in this case. Humanity’s ubiquity conjures fantasies of its own extinction. What survives of us is not, despite the book’s sentimentality, love; but bureaucracy. Throughout the trilogy, the central concerns are planning, management, pragmatism and resource allocation.

The Passage focused on the response to the cataclysm and the strict government of the survivors (for example, children are not allowed to know about the disaster until a certain age). The Twelve was less concerned with the serial killer vampires – most of whom were never even fleshed out – than with the totalitarian regime in Iowa that collaborated with them. The City of Mirrors is more thrilling when dealing with the relationship between the black market and the official economy than the boo-hooing of the principal villain. Even the vampires have to deal with a diminishing food supply and the results of their over-plundering. The monster in the first book tried factory farming humans; the Iowan quislings were very keen on biofuels in the second book, and now Zero himself embarks on a proactive rewilding strategy. In the earlier books, the walled townships could be seen as a prophetic parody of Donald Trump’s isolationism. The third book has everyone except the Americans dead, and they are thus charged with making humanity great again. Zero has a great affection for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Hamlet; the courageous pioneers think Moby-Dick is too difficult, wondering if it is even written in English. The future is delightfully philistine.

Cronin picks open the wound with a few unnerving disappearances, but then once the lights go out, he launches breathtaking Homeric battles between viral hordes and soft-bellied humans. Back in New York, the conflict soars from one abandoned skyscraper to another — a spectacular clash that looks ready-made for Ridley Scott. And he’s even more frightening in crowded, locked rooms where sweaty survivors listen to the vamps sniffing under the door. The lucky ones are eaten alive; the others become blood brothers of the nastiest sort.

It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday. Inexplicably, the passing of a millennium and the murder of 7 billion people have given birth to a new civilization pretty much like ours. “History teaches us that there are no guarantees,” drones some professor at an academic conference around the year 3000. “We ignore the lessons of the Great Catastrophe at our peril,” he says, which suggests that platitudes, like cockroaches, will survive us all.

What good is immortality, Count Dracula might wonder, if the distant future is so deadeningly familiar?

Review: “Modern Lovers” by Emma Straub

Modern Lovers

When do the wheels come off the wagon?  In your 20s, after a short-lived stint in a rock band? In your 30s, after your kids have sucked the life out of you? In your 40s, after you acquire grey hair and a real estate licence? How about when your almost-adult child starts having sex with your best friend’s almost-adult child? Or maybe it’s when you, nearing 50, find a guru? And the guru turns out to be a con artist?

Sigh. It’s all of the above in Emma Straub’s witty third novel Modern Lovers. Elizabeth and Andrew are a married couple in their late 40s living in Brooklyn, a few doors down from their former college band mate, Zoe, and her wife, Jane. Along with their college friend Lydia, their band, Kitty’s Mustache (a nod to Tolstoy’s heroine), first sang what later became a monster hit called ‘Mistress of Myself’ (Sense and Sensibility FTW), one of those anthemic, eternally meaningful songs whose lyrics people tattoo on their inner arms.

Lydia died glamorously of a drug overdose at 27, leaving the remaining three band members to round the corner on hipster senescence without her. There’s a saying about beautiful women and champion athletes dying two deaths. To that, I might add this: To be once young and briefly famous and painfully of-the-­moment and then morph into ­regular-people middle age is rather more insulting, as if your whole life is the worst Instagram fail.

And this is where we find the novel’s 40-something friends, past millennial hipness and on into hot flashes. Zoe and Jane own a restaurant; their daughter, Ruby, is sullen, sexual and terribly chic. Their marriage has traveled into the chill zone of lesbian bed death. Meantime, Elizabeth, a rebellious rocker in college, has traded her guitar for a career selling real estate in Ditmas Park, in one of those ­enclaves where you brew your own kombucha or risk the neighbors’ disdain. Her husband, Andrew, an aimless trustafarian, perceives himself as a brave escapee from the limestone canyons of Park Avenue. In reality, he’s a dilettante who meanders from career to career, working vaguely at a lifestyle magazine for Brooklyn fathers and seeking fulfillment through cinematography classes and carpentry. At one point, his guru—Dave, distinctive mainly for his large, shiny teeth—remarks on the artful imperfection of the shelf Andrew is fabricating: “This is beautiful, man. Wabi-­sabi, right?” It is, in fact, not an example of wabi-sabi, the Japanese term for artful imperfection and decay. It’s just sloppy woodwork.

The teenage children begin an affair. Zoe and Jane’s restaurant burns down suspiciously. (But their marriage is simultaneously and magically rekindled, apparently, by a good Chinese meal.) Elizabeth, succumbing to the entreaties of a stealthy Hollywood producer, signs away her and Andrew’s rights to a movie in the works about the mythic Lydia. (The producer describes it as “ ‘Ray’ meets ‘Sid and Nancy’ minus the Sid, meets ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ only the coal miner is an orthopedic surgeon from Scarsdale.’ ”) Elizabeth learns that Andrew may have had sex with Lydia when they were all in college, a discovery that sends their marriage into some sort of cliff-of-divorce drama that I can’t really fathom. Why the huge sense of betrayal? It wasn’t last week, after all. Does anyone remember who anyone slept with in college? (And if you do, don’t email me and burst my bubble.)

Perhaps these Brooklyn couples in their postmodern Peyton Place—one with nutritional yeast and cosmic trance nights and talk of ayahuasca retreats—are more sensitive than, say, most of the married couples in Tolstoy, Updike, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence or Jackie Collins. Or even, I would venture to say, Dr. Seuss.

Modern Lovers hurries to tie up its loose ends, and the interwoven climaxes seem sludgy. The final chapter employs a lazy literary device, a series of announcements (a notice in the New York Times weddings section, trivia from one character’s IMDB page, a précis of a thesis proposal, postings from foodie websites) that would seem more at home in the closing credits of Animal House. (Bluto becomes a United States senator!) But up until then, Modern Lovers is a wise, sophisticated romp through the pampered middle-aged neuroses of urban softies.

Review: “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” by Carol Rifka Brunt

tell-the-wolves-im-home-9781447202134

The Greek language contains multiple words for love. Agape means spiritual love. Eros means physical love. Philia means friendship. Storge means familial love. In English, a single word — love — umbrellas all these emotional varietals. Without so many fine distinctions, is it surprising that 14-year old June Elbus’s first feelings of love leave her mixed up?

In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, debut novelist Carol Rifka Brunt poignantly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and culture under strain as it comes to term with a complicated disease.

Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in 1987, the book opens with the death of June’s beloved uncle Finn, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life–Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following his death, she begins to realise that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.

As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honour Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realise how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer—blaming him for Finn’s illness and death—and who is ostracised and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; Greta is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl—or rather, every girl—growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.

Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult. Here, for instance, June reflects on the diminishing returns of getting older: “It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. . . . Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck.

Though Brunt’s approach to AIDS and homosexuality is bold, her novel is mostly an extended meditation on all the meanness that could come out of loving someone too much. The plot is never dull, and the convincing emotional climaxes, while overwrought, are appropriate for a narrator of June’s age. Though the book has young adult–novel qualities, with moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold, there’s enough ambiguity and subtlety to interest a wider audience.