Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Review: Songs for the Missing

This weekend I went camping with my roommate at the DAR State Forest Saturday night. I brought three things from work with me that made the experience infinitely better; a Mighty Bright book light (a surprisingly powerful LED light, convenient not just for reading in my tent, but for generally finding my way around in the dark), a Sigg bottle (since Nalgenes are out and my mason jar method of transporting water can be a bit cumbersome, I caved in and tried one of these- I love it!), and Stewart O'Nan's new book Songs for the Missing, due out November 3, 2008.

After the fire had died down and we'd stomached as many smores as possible, I crawled into my tent, flipped on the book light, snuggled into my sleeping bag and opened Songs for the Missing. This is the first book I've read by O'Nan, so I didn't know what to expect and was completely blown away. I could not stop reading and it was only when I realized it was past midnight and I would be waking with the dawn, that I forced myself to close the book and turn off the light. The next morning after a campfire breakfast of oatmeal and apples, I headed to the Cummington Old Creamery, sat down with a cup of coffee (Dean's Beans' Creamery Blend is one of my favorites in the Valley; incredibly smooth and mild, but with a complex flavor that belies its mellowness, and the Creamery is the only place to get it), and a super delicious pumpkin cake, and kept reading.

Emily C. picked up Songs for the Missing for me at the Neiba Conference last week on an hunch that I might like it. I don't know if she knew that it was set in Northern Ohio, in a small town called Kingsville just off of I-90 and east of Cleveland. I certainly did not know when I began reading that this was a place intimately familiar to me, not because I've ever been to Kingsville (I have not), but because I grew up in Ohio and spent all of my life there prior to moving to Massachusetts. The stark contrast between Ohio and Massachusetts is always difficult to describe to folks out here; the long flat roads that stretch out endlessly, the wide highways with cars zipping along, the endless strip malls with the same collection of fast food joints and dollar stores, the repetition of suburban houses that vary only in their shades of pale yellow and white exterior siding, a monotonous sequence on loop. If I should ever again need to explain to anyone what that part of my childhood was like, I just might hand them this book. Kingsville is the kind of place I've driven past dozens of times on my way to and from larger places, barely pausing to notice its presence except perhaps to stop off the freeway to fill up on gas or get something to eat; the kind of place I could describe in great detail without ever setting foot there. O'Nan of course, does it better than I ever could.

O'Nan gets small-town Midwest life dead-on. The picture he paints of Kingsville is at times painfully real. While I grew up in Columbus, a large city and far off almost mythical land for the characters in the novel, I spent a good deal of time outside of the city in places just like Kingsville. The slow summer boredom of the recently graduated teens as they wait for September so they can leave for college, that endless ache to get out and leave small town life behind, the nights spent hanging out on the hoods of cars in parking lots, or hopping over rocks on a river-front, the taunting appeal of drugs and alcohol as a means of staving off boredom and tolerating the tedious trickle of time, congregating with friends outside the Dairy Queen drinking Blizzards and beer, and the persistent confident knowledge that you were merely biding your time until you were gone; this is how O'Nan opens the novel, and this is what I remember of the summer after my senior year.

O'Nan's characters are abruptly jerked out of this late-summer stupor by the disappearance of eighteen year old Kim Larsen. The novel follows Kim's family: mother, father and introverted younger sister, and her handful of close friends, including her boyfriend J.P., as they struggle with their loss and the precarious state of uncertainty that searching for a missing person brings. As their search widens and the community rallies together in support of the Larsens, one appreciates the close-knit and familiar nature of Kingsville, but the search also reveals that even in the smallest towns it's possible to have secrets. O'Nan intimately describes the sense of helplessness Kim's father feels and the frustration of not knowing what happened. He maps the transformation of Kim's mother as she repeatedly steps into the public spotlight to raise awareness and rally support for their search, while in private tackling a fraught mother-daughter relationship with Lindsay, her other daughter. O'Nan also traces the trajectory of Kim's college bound friends and boyfriend J.P. as they eventually leave Kingsville; rather than coming off as a trite teenage love story, J.P's process of pulling in and letting go and his insights into his relationship with Kim that develop only in her absence are sincere. Each figure in this somber story comes alive with the breath of purely good fictional writing; their grief is acute and their struggles poignant. Songs for the Missing is a persistent but beautiful heartache and an incredible assay into the nature of loss.

-- Joe

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ahoy! Book Review - Sea of Poppies

Hello Readers!

This being my inaugural blog post (and first book review of any sort for the Odyssey) I could not ask for a better book with which to introduce myself than this: I have just started Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh's newest novel, due out in October. I am a long time Ghosh fan and count The Hungry Tide among my list of favorites, so I was quite excited when Emily Russo, our Events Coordinator, handed me an advance copy of Sea of Poppies. I was even more thrilled to find that the book opens in Ghazipur, not far from the dusty village in India where I lived for a year. I was hooked before I had even turned the first page.

Sea of Poppies is the first volume in what promises to be a rousing and enlightening trilogy about the British opium trade during the early 19th century and the ways in which it altered the lives of a myriad cast of characters. Vast in scope, Sea of Poppies spans multiple continents, traverses both land and sea, and weaves together the narratives of a motley crew of ship-bound strangers.

Many of Ghosh's books focus on characters who straddle cultures, countries with impossible to define borders, and regions with shifting lands; in The Hungry Tide island villages emerge and disappear each hurricane season, The Glass Palace explores the rise and dissolution of political regimes, nations and empires. In each of these, Ghosh forces readers to consider how history reveals the most enduring and seemingly stable of things to be ultimately tenuous, as ever changing as the ebb and flow of the ocean. Sea of Poppies is no exception.

The point of convergence for Sea of Poppies' characters is an ocean vessel called the Ibis. The Ibis is a retired slaving ship from the Americas that has been acquired by a British merchant who wishes to conscript it for the British East India Company's opium trade with China, which operated out of the Bay of Bengal. As a result, Ghosh sets up both Sea of Poppies, and ostensibly the trilogy as a whole, so that much of the action will take place in and around the Bay of Bengal and its many tributaries in India, across the ocean and toward the Chinese coast.

Bodies of water are a recurring theme across Ghosh's works and often form the unifying element of individual novels. By centering this new tale on the Ibis, Ghosh further distances himself, and his characters, from identifying with or planting their feet on any one land, nation, religion, or culture. His characters are either rootless or uprooted early on in the book, each instance of which serves as the impetus that guides them toward the Ibis. In addition to being a captivating narrative, this rootlessness makes Sea of Poppies a pointed comment on the struggles of displaced colonized peoples and on the rippling effects of colonial expansion. Ghosh spends some time early in the novel describing how the opium trade effectively pushed all other crops out of many Indian farmers' fields, forcing those farmers into increasing debt as they took advances and loans to cover the expense of buying the basic foods that they had previously grown. A virtue that Ghosh's books consistently reveal is his ability to make history come alive while drawing the reader's attention to stories often washed over in traditional historical accounts.

The language of Sea of Poppies also takes on an interesting historical dimension. The novel is written in English, but Ghosh calls attention to English's role as a colonizing tongue and does not position it as an assumed norm of the time. Rather, his characters' dialogue reveals English to be as eccentric and confusing a language as laskar, the sea-specific language of the sailors, or culurally based and geographically specific as perhaps Bhojpuri, a local Indian dialect. This is nowhere more evident than in the person of Mr. Doughty, an Indian-born Englishman, whose unique mixture of languages is both mildly humorous and indicative of the nature of cultural exchange that resulted from colonial commerce.

To say that Sea of Poppies is a complicated novel would perhaps be appropriate. However, Ghosh's style might be better characterized as involved and elaborate. Ghosh's language is beautiful, rich with detail, and the amount of historical research that went into Sea of Poppies is incredibly evident, but his characters' dialogue can at times require some deciphering, aided in part by a glossary that appears at the end, written as if it were the record of a character in the novel.

If there is one criticism I'm inclined to pose, it's that Sea of Poppies might over-indulge Ghosh's penchant for extreme detail in pursuit of historical authenticity. It is a delicate balance that allows his works to seem incredibly present and brings characters into sharp focus, but which threatens to become distracting as his use of multiple languages and list of terms becomes ever larger and more unwieldy. It remains to be seen if embarking on a trilogy alleviates or exacerbates this tendency.

For now, I will continue to both forgive and enjoy Ghosh for his resurrection of the laskar's language and his fusion of Hindi and English, because it was those very details that made me feel completely transported to the Sundarbans in The Hungry Tide and that I hope will keep me sailing on the Ibis through all three novels.