The People in the Trees

My first thought upon finishing Hanya Yanagihara's novel The People in the Trees was "wow, I can't believe that happened so recently, I wonder if he's still alive." My second thought was "Emily, don't be dumb, this was fictional." And there lies the power of Yanagihara's twisted tale of Dr. A. Norton Pernia, a pseudo-scientific Humbert Humbert. The People in the Trees draws an automatic comparison to Vladmir Nabokov's Lolita because both are narrated by jailed elderly men for crimes of pedophilia. The People in the Trees tackles other issues than the crime for which Norton is jailed. However, my gut reaction wasn't too far off. Based on a true story (!! which I have just discovered) of Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who "won a Nobel Prize [in 1976] for identifying a fatal disease in a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. By the time of his death in 2008, Gajdusek had achieved another kind of notoriety, having been imprisoned for sexually abusing one of the dozens of native children he had adopted" (x). The main plot of Yangihara's novel revolves around a search for a "lost tribe" on the remote (fictional) island of Ivu'ivu. Norton is a young doctor on the expedition; and they discover (this is not a spoiler, don't worry) a group of "feral forest dwellers....who defy normal life expectancy while growing progressively more senile" (inside cover). Norton later learns that their seeming immortality is due to the consumption of a large turtle native to the island, the opa'ivu'eke. There is no happy ending to the novel. As the NYT book review writes, "Provocative and bleak, “The People in the Trees” might leave readers conflicted. It is exhaustingly inventive and almost defiant in its refusal to offer redemption or solace — but that is arguably one of its virtues. This is perhaps less a novel to love than to admire for its sheer audacity." An engrossing, albeit tad disturbing, read. Much like Lolita. Rating:★★★★


Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow's stunning biography of America's first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit broadway musical Hamilton. The story goes is that Lin-Manuel picked up Chernow's biography while on vacation, and started reading it, and immediately came to the conclusion that Alexander Hamilton "embodies hip-hop." Chernow writes,
Hamilton's crowded years as treasury secretary scarcely exhaust the epic story of his short life, which was stuffed with high drama. From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton's life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up. He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding. 
I am currently in Nevis on my vacation with my family, a fitting backdrop to tackle the life of the tiny island's most famous inhabitant. Alexander Hamilton wrote his way out of poverty with a poem about a hurricane, entered King's College at age 17, became an outspoken voice in the American revolution, a chief aide of General George Washington, and the creator of America's financial systems. As the first song in Hamilton begins,
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
 Ron Chernow tackles this in an impressive 731 pages. I was impressed by the adept mix of Hamilton's papers and anecdotes surrounding Hamilton; Chernow expertly weaved everything about Hamilton's public and private life to create an intensely compelling portrait of Hamilton. He leaves nothing out; everything from his sex scandal (his affair with Maria Reynolds) to his feuds with the other founding fathers (notably Thomas Jefferson) to the strength of his wife (Eliza Hamilton) gets its due in the book. As Chernow writes in the prologue,
Few figures in American history have aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton... he has tended to lack the glittering multivolumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders... In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did. Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive... 
Chernow does Hamilton's life justice.... and will deepen your already existing obsession with the Hamilton musical or inspire it. Want to know more? Some good reads & videos: this GQ interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, this profile on the show in Vogue, the 60 minutes segment on Hamilton, and this interview with Ron Chernow, and of course, listen to the soundtrack. (Thanks, mom, for taking me to the show and getting me the biography for the holidays). Rating: ★★★★★


Khirbet Khizeh

Recently translated into English (in 2008), this was published just two months after the 1948 war. The story centers on an Israeli soldier's experience on one day on duty in a fictionalArab village of Khirbet Khizeh. The plot itself is unsurprising (a soldier dealing with what they're carrying out) and moves along at a pretty slow pace (taking time to describe the landscape) but the day over which the story takes place, the "narrow focus gives the book its extraordinary emotional force." (X) What I found most interesting about the novel is the protagonist's grappling with the contradictions and issues of exile:
A single day of discomfort and then our people would strike root here for many years. Like a tree planted by streams of water. Yes. On the other hand, what of the wicked.... But they were already there on the trucks, and soon they'd be nothing more than a page that had been finished and turned. Certainly, wasn't it our right? Hadn't we conquered it today?
I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn't they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue... our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out-- that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jew being killed. Europe. We were the masters now. 
There's no resolution. There still isn't any resolution to deal with the right of return and refugees from the '48 war. There still isn't any consensus on whether or not Israel was justified. Even though Khirbet Khizeh is a fictional village, the author is writing from his personal experience. The book is still on school reading lists in Israel, and Khirbet Khizeh's "haunting lyrical style and charged view of the landscape are in many ways as startling as [its] wrenchingly honest view of modern Israel's founding." A short read and definitely worth it. Rating: ★★★★(★)


The Snow Tourist

Do you live (or have you lived) in a place where winters are filled with snow? Do you like to ski? Have you ever enjoyed a snowday? Do you think snow is magical? If you have answered yes to any of those questions... Charlie English's lovely The Snow Tourist may be for you. The Snow Tourists takes its author (a London-based writer for the Guardian) around the world searching to understand snow. He begins in Northern Canada in Iqaluit, Qikiqtarjuaq (the "iceberg capital" of the world and continues around the world over the course of two winters. I liked the narrative style of the book because it was part travel writing, part historical story. I learned so much about snow (like about the first guy that photographed snow in Jericho, Vermont) to the origins and growth of skiing as a sport and a pastime. English does a great job of interweaving his experiences in the place; as the guardian review correctly points out, "his humble, gentle tone is what makes the book so refreshing, so different is it to the slew of recent travel books in which even the smallest event is hammed up for comic or dramatic effect. Here, combined with an audacious lack of incident, is a deliciously calm pace, a seriousness and honesty that couldn't be further from the silly quests we've grown accustomed to." I loved that the book ended with a little "A Snow Handbook," detailing facts and instructions and quotes related to snow ("how avalanches occur" to "10 glacier facts" to snippets of Japanese poetry related to snow). While this book was not political at all, it was a soft reminder of the loss of snow and the impacts of global warming; English write, "Wherever I travelled, I had asked the people I met the same questions about the changes they saw in the snowfall: had they observed less, and what effect would it have on them?" (230)  This was a perfect travel book and wonderful for all who feel something towards snow. Rating: ★★★★


One Night, Markovitch

A translated work of Israeli fiction by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch was not the story of one night but of many. I decided to purchase the book because front of the book had a quote describing the story as a "fable for the twenty-first century" and the back of the book described the contents as the story of "two men -- Yaacov Markovitch, perennially unlucky in love, and Zeev Feinberg, virile owner of a lustrous moustache -- are crossing the sea to marry women they have never met." Additionally, the book had been published by Pushkin Press (a publishing house I have come to associate with Stefan Zweig), so I bought the book without really knowing the story.
Much to my surprise, I start reading and learned that this is a tale of the Irgun, the Jewish terrorist/freedom fighter organization that I have been spending the entire term studying.... Halfway through the first page:
"It required an enormous effort to keep looking at the barrenness of Yaacov Markovitch's face. People do not enjoy making enormous efforts, and so they only rarely looked at his face for any length of time. This had its advantages, and the unit commander was aware of them. He looked at Yaacov Markovitch's face for exactly the amount of time he needed, then dropped his gaze. You will smuggle weapons, the unit commander said. With that face, no one will notice. And he was right. Yaacov Maarkovitch probably smuggled more weapons than any other member of the Irgun, and never came close to being caught... 
And at this point, I let out an audible gasp because I thought I was just reading this vaguely romantic novel but no! I had stumbled into a novel about the material I had spent the entire term with!! Anyway, once I got past this initial surprise I settled into the story very quickly -- and it was a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a friendship shaped by the politics of the land. It dealt with a range of issues (the jewish divorce, gett, where only the man can grant a divorce, surprisingly played a central plot) but it did not delve too deeply into anything rooted in the real history; the characters were colored by their situations, but this was a story about Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg. Rating: ★★★★★

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie's latest novel is stories within stories -- layered like A Thousand and One Nights, where the title derives inspiration from (2 years, 8 months, 28 nights = 1,001 nights) -- and entrancing from the first page. It is set in the distant future, with the collective narrator ("we") laying out the story for the reader in the first few pages, writing that this story will be
"the tale of many other jinn, male and female, flying and slithering, good, bad, and uninterested in morality; and of the time of crisis, the time-out-of-joint which we call the time of the strangenesses, which lasted for two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights, which is to say, one thousand nights and one night more. And yes, we have lived another thousand years since those days, but we are all forever changed by that time. Whether for better or for worse, that is for our future to decide..."
I decided to include that entire quote because it gives a sense of the style of the book and the fantastical nature of it all (jinn are genies in Arabic folklore) (you may be familiar with the concept of the jinn from Aladdin, which Rushdie references "if there was one story of the jinn that everyone knew it was the tale of the jinni of the lamp who built Aladdin a palace..."). It tells the story of the "strangeness" and I like how it was narrated from some point in the far future. The only thing I didn't like about the story was that it tried to do too much -- I would've much preferred a focus on Geronimo (the main-ish character), or a general focus on those who were affected by the "strangeness." Also, at times, as the NYT book review points out, the story is a "breathless mash-up of wormholes, mythical creatures, current affairs and disquisitions on philosophy and theology." If he had focused on two of these things -- mythical creatures and current affairs -- the book itself would have a tighter focus. However, it was still highly enjoyable to read and I loved the interweaving of stories, just like its namesake. (Also check out Midnight's Children & the Satanic Verses, two other novels by Rushdie that were absolutely wonderful (links go to my old reviews). Rating: ★★★★