Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel by Chris Abani

The Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel.  Chris Abani. Viking Penguin Group (USA). January 2014. 336 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780143124955.

Fire and Water, two conjoined twins, lose their mother at a very young age.  Having absorbed the radiation from the nuclear experiments conducted in Nevada, she is dying of cancer and chooses her own exit.  One of the twins speaks normally in response to conversation with others but the other refuses to look at others and repeats factual statements about random subjects, sometimes at a normal pace, sometimes rapidly in a way that seems to the reader to be associated with extreme stress being experienced from other person’s questions or comments.  Fire and Water are now being, in a sense, abused by two doctors who think they would make excellent subjects for drug experimentation.  Subtlety and very real, direct statements evoke anger and poignant feelings in the reader as this part of the surrealistic plot unfolds!

Salazar, a detective, and Sunil, a research physician, unite with a common goal.  Someone has been dumping bodies in the outskirts of Las Vegas.  Salazar is determined to prove it is the twins who are guilty of murder, but Sunil gradually comes to some very powerful realizations about everyone involved in this criminal investigation, including Salazar and Sunil’s boss.  What makes this a fascinating journey is that for Sunil, in some unexplainable way, it brings back horrific memories of his family and the hell of apartheid practices in Africa – whether that be in Soweto, Johannesburg, or a little known place notorious for its death camps!

Mixed in between the investigation and memories are exquisite stories, folk tales, scenic descriptions and more delights that turn this into a very literary story about how memories and histories shape us.  Even the ghost towns left behind after the nuclear explosions are explored with grace and grit!

When we refuse to face both the lovely and the horrific, we become like the character Eskia, who is hunting Sunil with a psychopathic purpose. When we face them, as we see in this novel, there is truly a chance for forgiveness and change, redemption, salvation, call it what you will!

Years ago, this reviewer remembers Bishop Desmond Tutu beginning a campaign to get the perpetrators of severe violence meet with their victims and what a healing process that turned out for the majority of those who responded or at least tried to respond.  This novel by Chris Abani reminded me of that period of African history but unlike that process, the reader here is invited to join the journey, perhaps vicariously if that is possible, and is left with questions and ponderings that bring some understanding and some soul-searching about the past and present, our history!
Chris Abani is a literate, sensitive author who brooks no fools with platitudes or mundane commentary.  Even tough-minded Salazar in a unique fashion cannot help but be changed because of this exploration of a secret history in Las Vegas and that of Water, Fire, Sunil, Asia (a loving prostitute, and Sheila.  All are richer for their large or small part in the challenges wrought by their interaction.  

Superb historical and contemporary fiction! Highly recommended!

Twisted Sisters: A Novel by Jen Lancaster

Twisted Sisters: A Novel.  Jen Lancaster.  Penguin Group (USA).  February 2014. 320 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780451239655.

Dr. Reagan Bishop is one very uptight psychologist, in fact obsessive might be the better word, although she’d be the last to acknowledge that reality.  Claiming to come from a very unmotivated family (although her parent’s political connections certainly belie that perception), Dr. Reagan has scratched and clawed her way through high school, college and then through the Pepperdine program in which she earned her Ph. D. in Psychology.  Although she tends to be very professional with her co-workers and patients, she’s really quite funny in the asides she thinks about the people or situations in which she finds herself.  But now, after several years conducting a private practice, she’s a star on a Cable TV reality show, I Need a Push, about dysfunctional adults who need Dr. Reagan’s help.  Trying to help patients who really need long-term therapy is quite a conundrum on TV – Dr. Phil’s 60 minute cures or near-cures are not very realistic!

Now that’s about to change when her boss, Wendy Winsberg, sells her program to network TV.  The new executive producer however wants cures within minutes and dramatic scenes about the problem and the high point conflicts that arise in therapy within every show they film.  In between that huge problem is Dr. Reagan’s family and her constant carping about how fat, lazy and stupid her sister Geri is.  The reality is her parents seem to have favored Geri all her life and treated Reagan like an afterword.  As a matter of fact, her mother still berates her for her treatment of her siblings as rude and unnecessary.  Dr. Reagan is definitely suffers from a victim complex but doesn’t have a clue – at least not yet!

So who would expect her new friend, Deva, a lover of New Age trends, trinkets and techniques, to become Dr. Reagan’s salvation when put in several tight spots, with the assistance of a few pills, hypnosis, amulets with accompanying appropriate chants, and/or whatever it takes? And who’d expect her executive producer to wind up inviting Reagan’s sister, Geri, to be part of their team?  Would you believe that the sisters get to swap lives for a very brief time?  What they each experience is better than any shrink or psychiatrist could achieve in six million (let alone 60 seconds) hours of therapy!!!

Jen Lancaster is a clever writer who while being a humorous commentator also manages to seduce the reader from admiring Dr. Reagan to realizing how in need of help she really is, gradually, after one’s attention is drawn away from the off-beat, looney people she works with.  At times it’s not too hard to figure this book is full of “psycho’s” in the many different ways one may define that word.  But psycho, at least the way the author depicts it herein, is actually just a need to realign one’s understanding and expectations about other people.

Twisted Sisters: A Novel is a comedic, satiric, and clever novel that’s a fun read, with some delicate enlightening moments here and there and everywhere within!  Some light reading that’s fun and very apropos for today’s generation!

I Always Loved You: A Novel by Robin Oliveira

I Always Loved You: A Novel.  Robin Oliveira.  Viking Adult. February 2014. 352 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780670785797.

Mary Cassat has been in Paris studying art but now has to decide whether to stay or return to Philadelphia in America to assume a more staid life, waiting to be married and perhaps painting a canvas now and then.  The latter is not appealing and yet is because of her disappointment with her own artistic style.  This feeling of malaise has two sources, her father Robert’s incessant criticism and negativity and the rejection of one of her paintings by the Paris Salon where exhibits of famous artists are accepted and displayed yearly.  However, Mary’s perspective is about to dramatically change when she is introduced to the Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas.

The essence of the relationship between the two artists can best be described as mercurial with passions flaring between deep respect and love and scornful arguments laced with sarcastic innuendos.  Beyond this mental and emotional essence, however, was the passion that drove both of them to learn to “see” in a realistic way and to convey that onto the canvas.  Mary was then invited to join the new group of artists who were painting in the new style called “Impressionism,” a name Degas despised as he wanted to be known as a realist, not an Impressionist.  They then began to exhibit their newly stylized paintings in their own yearly showing.  The reactions from the critics was absolutely scathing and Degas tried to warn Mary about the public reception her art works would receive, a fact later to be woefully true and overwhelming to Mary’s artistic and emotional sensibilities.  This, it most powerfully says, is what forces an artist to decide whether he or she cares more for one’s art or public accreditation via great reviews.  Mary learns, like Degas had, that one must first develop a hard skin to endure the public evisceration of Impressionists. Not very nice at all but which builds artistic characteristics that certainly do deserve public acclaim.

The novel also covers the triangular love of the Manet brothers with Bertholde Morisot, a consuming fire that always eluded satisfaction and which consumed the wife of Edward Manet who never stopped dreaming he would return to her forever.  Interspersed into this story is a conversation in which Mary finally asks Degas if he loved her and he refuses to answer.  For art, in the form of painting and sculpture, is his great and singular love; yet the result of this cold response is devastating to Mary.  As much as the two try to separate, one is always drawn back by the other, influencing each other’s art and ways of seeing reality.

I Always Loved You: A Novel: is an intriguing look at a very famous artistic period that changed the face of culture forever.  Because of the effect of this art on history and viewers, many accepted and forgave these temperamental artists of many overt and covert slights to famous and not so famous individuals.  Mary’s sister, Lydia, is perhaps the most honest person in the lot, her vision and perspective of the group being the most realistic and serving as a Greek chorus, when shared, warning all to abandon their immense egos and see things “as they are.”  That remains the focus of artistic perspective for Degas and Cassat well into and well after their many reunions and separations.  While specific paintings are not entitled, the reader may recognize several well-known works of both artists as well as those of their artist friends!

I Always Loved You is a noteworthy and recommended fictional portrait of artists struggling to create something new in a pivotal historical and artistic period!