Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: All The Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

The setting is World War II Paris -- when the Germans begin their occupation of the city, the protagonist of this story is just turning sixteen. Maral Pegorian and her older brother, Missak, are part of an Armenian family displaced to France after the Armenian genocide. They are stateless refugees and have made the suburb of Belleville in Paris, their home. Maral’s father is a cobbler and owns a small shoe shop hoping to one day pass on his skills to his son.

Missak, on the other hand, has different plans. He is a skilled artist and wants to work as an apprentice at the local print shop while spending most of his time secretly helping the French resistance. As a girl from a fairly conservative family, Maral can’t do much to help her brother, even if she sometimes wishes she could. “Was this to be my lot? Stuck in an apartment knitting or sewing or cooking while waiting for the men to come back from some adventure? It made me want to take the kitchen plates and throw them out the window just to hear them smash into a thousand pieces on the cobblestones below,” she laments.

Easily the smartest in the family, Maral goes through school even with the war progressing all around her, and towards the end of the story, graduates with an offer of admission to one of France’s most prestigious universities.

The Pegorian family’s fate is not unique to Paris or even to Armenians. Their neighbors, the Kacherians (also Armenian) are scraping the barrel to get by as are the many mixed families (including Jewish folks) in the neighborhood. Food is hard to come by -- it’s mostly bulgur and turnips that the Pegorians manage to finagle with their ration card. There’s hardly any butter or meat to be had and even onions can be a rare delicacy. Despite the evident sufferings of the citizens during the Occupation, the children somehow manage to be themselves. Maral, in fact, falls in love with Zaven, one of the Kacherian sons, and Missak’s best friend. The two meet surreptitiously and pledge themselves to each other. Yet the best laid plans don’t always come to fruition.

Zaven and his older brother, Barkev, are swept up by the force of history and spend time in a German camp which changes them forever. The war crimes they witness leave permanent scars on their psyches -- and ripples from these will eventually touch everyone they know including Maral.

History plays out in more than one way in this touching novel by Nancy Kricorian. With the weight of the Armenian genocide on their shoulders, the Armenian families in All The Light There Was, only want to lie low and not be subject to more tragedies. Maral’s parents have witnessed the horrors of the massacre personally and understandably it defines their life perspective in many subtle ways. When a Jewish family next door is rounded up by the Germans, the Pegorians hide the youngest girl in that family in their own apartment until the child is ready to be shipped to her aunt in Nice.

The Armenians in Maral’s generation might be removed from the immediate horrors of the Armenian genocide but they use the lessons learned from it to know that survival depends on many complicated factors. They are not ready to judge when they see their fellow brethren wear the American or the German uniform in the war.

In the end this story is a coming-of-age tale about Maral, a girl of promise at the novel’s start but who gradually gets worn down as the story moves along. “This is the story of how we lived the war, and how I found my husband,” Maral says at the beginning. The path toward finding her husband is not necessarily the most optimal but of course this is wartime and everyone’s lives are shaped by it. For someone who was fairly strong-willed at the beginning, it is a little frustrating, if understandable, to see Maral give up her education and instead fall into what comes more easily.

All The Light There Was is told through Maral’s voice and her perspective. In one sense, since she doesn’t do much except to bear witness to events that happen around her, this point of view feels limiting at times. The lens is never trained away from Maral and it occasionally gets claustrophobic. Yet it is precisely because the story is told through Maral’s voice, that the reader gets to feel what life was like for everyday citizens in occupied Paris. You realize that even during the worst wars, life can plod along -- and even shine through -- with grace. The beautiful cover art in this book drives home the point gracefully. Maral and her boyfriend are up front, lost in each other, while the rest of Paris goes on around them. You realize that while teenagers are often self-centered anyway, in times of war, this can be an essential mechanism to get through its many tribulations.

Ultimately the story ends with a ray of hope. “This world is made of dark and light, my girl, and in the darkest times you have to believe the sun will come again, even if you yourself don’t live to see it,” Maral’s father once tells her. As the reader turns the last page, you hope that the sun will indeed come again and shine down on the young and vibrant Armenians. 

Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review: Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet

In the period right after the first Gulf War, an uneasiness hung all over Kuwait—its residents forever waiting for Saddam Hussein to strike again. As an American expat in the country for five years around that same time period, author Anastasia Hobbet witnessed this unease first hand. It forms a perfect backdrop for her novel, Small Kingdoms, which tells the story of an assorted set of Kuwaiti and American characters.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

The Muhammadiyah school in Belitong island in Indonesia is just about ready to fall apart at the seams-- worse, the government officials looking to close the school down will be only too happy to do so. There are big gaping holes in the roof, animals saunter in and out of the classroom, the medical kit is sorely lacking; there aren’t even the requisite pictures of the nation’s leaders on the wall. Yet the school is blessed with two of the most devoted teachers any child could ask for: Bu Mus (who is herself young enough to be in middle school) and Pak Harfan. These two are determined to educate the 11 elementary school-aged children they have in their charge, and they manage to do so despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

The rest of the review is here.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders

Even if I might not be a big fan of the short story form, there are three authors whose short stories are so incredibly arresting I will never pass on a chance to read them. George Saunders is one of them -- the other two are Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz. I was first introduced to Saunders’s work when I picked up Pastoralia many years ago -- and have been hooked ever since.

Saunders has been referred to as one of the greatest American writers and especially as one for our times. It is his ability to entirely grasp (and succinctly document) the fading American dream that makes his work so utterly compelling and yes, breathtaking. His latest collection, Tenth of December, hits the bullseye yet again.

In a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, Saunders was asked why he liked to write short stories. “America likes big,” Colbert reminded Saunders, adding that he typically liked to pay for books by the pound. Saunders explained that he likes the short-story format because it compels you to get your point across with an economy of words. Interestingly enough, Saunders likes to compare a short story to a joke. It has the same genetic makeup, he argued on the Report. You have just a short amount of time to leave the audience exhilarated or let down. Saunders’s most recent short story collection achieves the latter. His stories are absorbing and incredibly touching.  

There’s the downright scary “Victory Lap” which describes the attempted kidnapping of a young girl, through the eyes of a teenaged boy across the street. What’s especially compelling about this story is that it paints the picture of not just one, but three tortured souls -- the girl, the boy, and the criminal. The slow extent of the crime creeps up insidiously and the reader can’t help but watch as the crime unfolds.

There’s also the fantastic science fiction look at contemporary love in “Escape from Spiderhead” when an ex-convict young man is given increasingly higher doses of various medications to make him love someone he might not be attracted to. “What a fantastic game-changer. Say someone can’t love? Now he or she can. We can make him. Say someone loves too much? Or loves someone deemed unsuitable by his or her caregiver? We can tone that shit right down.”

The best of Saunders’s work is a brilliant reflection about class in America. He achieves this not just through the stories he narrates but through the language he uses as well. In the absolutely wonderful, “Home,” a character named Harris says, “A boat could be for boys or girls. Don’t be prejudice.” This same story, one of my favorites in the collection, describes a washed-up court-martialed war vet trying to get back into his life. “Thank you for your service,” he is told wherever he goes, in what could be interpreted as a case in irony. Meanwhile, Harris’s mother and her new boyfriend are hanging on by the most tenuous of threads while his ex-wife and her new husband have a fancy house across the river. “Three cars for two grown-ups. I thought. What a country. What a couple selfish dicks my wife and her new husband were. I could see that, over the years, my babies would slowly transform into selfish-dick babies, then selfish-dick toddlers, kids, teenagers, and adults, with me all that time skulking around like some unclean suspect uncle.”

“That part of town was full of castles,” Harris points out, “Across the river the castles got smaller. By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts.” As Saunders so brilliantly points out, at its most basic essence, life can indeed be boiled down to a fairy tale. The rich get to live in castles while the poor languish in peasant huts. And in this fairy tale, poverty plays a very effective villain--one that is very, very hard to slay. 

Galley copy courtesy of Netgalley.