“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett

Imagine Me Gone

This is the sort of book that quietly grips you. You don’t realize how invested you are in the narrative until you turn the page and gasp.

That’s because it’s sort of a quiet story. A story of a family, a husband and wife, their three kids, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member. Haslett’s ability to so thoroughly transform his writing to believably portray five different voices is impressive, displaying his comfort and agility with his craft. The thoughts of his characters are so rich with details and suggestions that you feel comfortably burrowed into their minds.

This is especially important for this book, which deals with mental illness at its center. John, the father in the story, is prone to serious depression, an illness that his oldest son, Michael, comes to inherit. Thus, the narrative is laced with a sense of dread, but also inevitability, as you witness the children growing up and the parents growing old. These dual themes push the story forward in a thoroughly engaging fashion. There is something so beautiful about reading about the way in which people can care for each other, want to solve each other’s problems. The love between these family members is complicated and nuanced, and a real pleasure to read about.

However, some of the power of this novel also comes from the fact that the characters do not have to just worry about their mental states of mind. Worry about money, partnership, setting—all of these problems seem to chase the characters as well, giving one a sense of the relentlessness of the world. One big problem does not mean others cease to burden. It was an artful glimpse into some of the many stresses of living with or loving someone with a mental illness.

Haslett uses a number of creative techniques to embrace his characters. Playing with form, instead of just telling a straight narrative, can be gimmicky in some novels, but here, it really works. Hasslet includes things like letters characters have written, medical forms being filled out, and these help to further deepen our understanding of the characters themselves. Furthermore, from Maine to Massachusetts to London, Hasslet is able to weave in the settings in a beautiful way, unpacking the ways in which the character’s surroundings are emblematic of their mental state.

Really, this book is stunning. The prose is both pretty and well observed, and the plot engaging. Most importantly to me, as someone who has lived through a family member’s illness, Hasslet was able to vocalize parts of the experience that I had not even conceived into words yet. It all felt very true. I can’t recommend it enough.

Imagine Me Gone
Author: Adam Haslett
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: May 2016

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“You Deserve Nothing” by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing.jpg

In my new quest for campus novels to fill the void left in my heart from being away from college, I picked up Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing. In truth, I found it on a list of books similar to The Marriage Plot, which I last wrote about. In reality, it is nothing like The Marriage Plot.

The book is centered around three characters who share their perspectives in different chapters (the only part, really, similar to The Marriage Plot). Will is a 38-year-old English teacher at the International School of Paris, and Marie and Gilad are two of his students. This year, Will is teaching a senior seminar on existentialism, and it is those questions, about the existence of meaning in life or lack thereof, that also drive this novel. Thus, many of the class discussions that readers are privy to are also questions one might have after finishing You Deserve Nothing. The book begins simply—Will begins an affair with Marie. It is almost cliché—young, single English teacher, beautiful young woman, all set in the backdrop of the glittering city of Paris. I was almost disappointed after the first few chapters.

However, it becomes clear as one goes on that Maksik is less interested in the affair and more interested in existentialism. The class begins to read The Stranger by Albert Camus (one of my favorite novels!), and it becomes clear that that novel is a big influence on this one. In fact, Will and Gilad witness a random, cold-blooded murder on the Metro that is incredibly similar to one that Meursault witnesses in The Stranger.

Will, throughout the novel, never feels any guilt about the affair. This is interesting, because while we, as readers, might question the morality of it based on our own values, the focus of the novel is not on whether or not he did something wrong, but whether or not it does or should matter. This was very interesting to me, and aligns quite well with my personal, liberal philosophy about love and sex. Given this, as well as the focus on literature that I love, set in a city that I have always been fascinated with, You Deserve Nothing seemed like a book that I should love.

However, there was something lacking. I think that perhaps I do not find Maksik to be a particularly great writer. He tells a pretty common story in a style of writing that feels as though it has not yet matured. The characters’ perspectives all seem surface level, particularly Will’s. They do not contain a deeper level of thinking that, though might be extraneous from the immediate plot, might flesh out the characters into real human beings. This might be ok for Gilad and Marie, who are still teenagers and are not fully formed human beings, but for Will, it makes him seem particularly one dimensional and dull. I think it is difficult to ask a reader to read about a man who is engaged in questionable acts if he himself is not a dynamic character and thus becomes defined by those acts, not by his personality. The only reason that I was able to understand Will, or the concept behind his character, was because I had read The Stranger, and understood that he was something of a Meursault figure.

Certainly, You Deserve Nothing is an interesting read. Unfortunately, I think it is not much more. It falls short of the larger questions about existence it is trying to initiate. Furthermore, I’m not sure those questions are anything unique. I left the book thinking I could have been posed those same questions in a more interesting form had I been reading Camus or Sartre.

It is an age-old writers’ problem—wanting to write like your own literary idols, taking inspiration from them. Sometimes, combining this with ones’ own original style and ideas can make something unique. Unfortunately, Maksik didn’t have much of either.

You Deserve Nothing
Author: Alexander Maksik
Publisher: Europa Editions
Publication Date: August 2011

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot

Ever since I left college in May, I have been on the hunt for good campus novels. It’s interesting, because while at college I was worried that I had lost my appetite for fiction, but the moment I left, I was desperate for a book to help transport me back. In the process, I was reminded of one of the amazing things about literature—its ability to fill gaps for people, temporarily satisfy longing or escapism. Back at home in California and longing for my idyllic Maine campus, I stumbled upon Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

I had heard of Eugenides already because of his 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex, but I had never read any of his work. He exists in the same generation of late 20th century novelists like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, men who are now well known not just because of their novels, but for being writers, and for all being friends, something like the Lost Generation of the 1920s or the Beat Generation of the 1950s. I have always been enchanted by the idea of generations of writers, a kind of intelligentsia, and so I was excited to read Eugenides for that reason as well. The Marriage Plot, which followed Middlesex, received much less fanfare, but its plot was far more relatable to me, so it was my obvious starting point.

The novel follows three people in their early 20s—Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell, through their last year of Brown and the year afterward. Though the book takes on the narrative from all three perspectives, alternating in different chapters, the real protagonist is Madeleine, who serves as both of the men’s love interests. She is an English major who is writing her thesis about The Marriage Plot, a concept in Victorian novels. As such, Eugenides lets us into the conversations that take place in her literary theory class, which is perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book that isn’t based around the narrative itself. Listening to characters argue about the theories of Derrida of Barthes was a delightfully thought-provoking and almost academic experience, something I missed since leaving college for the summer.

Her boyfriend, Leonard, suffers from a mental illness that slowly becomes the primary focus of the narrative. Apparently, he is based on David Foster Wallace, a writer whose story I became very interested in a few summers ago. Reading about a character based on him, written by a man who knew Foster Wallace, was illuminating, and very humanizing, given the gigantic stature Foster Wallace has in the literary canon. To his credit, Eugenides manages to write about Leonard’s illness with elegance and grace, never revealing or pitying too much, and without glossing over some of the more difficult aspects of such a disease. Leonard’s perspective is only provided once, but it is the most fascinating chapter in the book.

Mitchell, the final character, pines after Madeleine during college and in the year after. In an effort to get over her, he leaves to travel the world with his friend, but ultimately ends up volunteering for Mother Teresa in India. Mitchell is apparently based on Eugenides, who was also a Greek, a religious studies major, and also spent time volunteering in India. As Leonard and Mitchell often serve as foils for each other, one ostensibly gets a chance to see Eugenides compare himself to Foster Wallace in this way. The way Eugenides writes it, Mitchell is a very normal guy, and Leonard is more of a character, with a mythology that follows him around college, a specific way of dressing, an aura. It is not difficult to imagine that Eugenides might have felt that way about Foster Wallace, who was winning awards, being hailed a genius, and only became more discussed and mythologized himself after his 2008 suicide.

Mitchell’s internal dilemmas about religion, similar to Madeleine’s class discussions about literary theory, provide interesting concepts and ideas for readers to think about that are a bit removed from the plot. I loved that aspect of the book, as it made me think about my own beliefs in these two areas. Furthermore, we get to see him travel through multiple countries—Paris, Greece, India—and so are given something of an honest, accurate description of the excitement, but also struggle, of traveling when young and broke. It is nice to read about a European tour where someone is counting their money down to the last dollar, and is not necessarily having an amazing experience every moment of the day.

As the book progresses, Mitchell and Leonard become more and more fleshed out, dynamic characters. However, I think the flaw of the book, and the reason it did not do as well as Middlesex, is that Madeleine, who is at first a fascinating protagonist, becomes flatter, more and more defined by her relationship to Leonard than by her own interests, both academic and personal. Perhaps this is part of sharing a life with an ill person, but I was left wondering why I had even found her an interesting person in the beginning of the book.

On the whole, however, I loved The Marriage Plot. I knew I wanted it to last, so I tried to read it slowly, but on my plane ride from California to New York, I devoured its second half in a matter of hours. The narrative is quick, framed with flashbacks that keep it interesting, and the characters all bare their thoughts in a way that is relatable and illuminating to one’s own experiences. There were different points in the narrative in which I felt most like each one of the characters.

That, I think, is another power of literature—to remind readers that people have far more in common than they might know from surface level interactions. Often the way people think, the way people experience things, might be similar. I related to Mitchell’s abstractions of people that he created in his own head, Leonard’s concern about the glorification of family in popular culture and that disconnect with his own family, and with Madeleine’s fear of broken people. None of these characters are really similar to me on a surface level, but nevertheless, I would end their chapters suddenly feeling as if they and I might understand each other quite well.

Especially for young people, in college or just out of it, The Marriage Plot is an interesting meditation on what it means to become an adult, to craft a life out of a collection of amorphous experience. Its plot is not incredibly new or cutting-edge, but there is something nice about reading a familiar story—two guys wanting the same girl—when it is written by a writer as talented and thoughtful as Eugenides.

The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition
Publication Date: September 2012

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler


I have often thought that with the advent of Modernism in Literature, readers have grown impatient with the long, lush descriptions of old, instead preferring the clipped sentences of Hemingway and the dryness of Camus. Not that these are not valid and important styles of writing, but there’s something beautifully nostalgic about writing that pays homage to the world around us, that values imagery and description just as much as plot. Stephanie Danler’s willingness to include both in her new novel Sweetbitter is what makes the book stand apart.

The novel follows a young woman who moves away from an unspecified part of America for New York City to work at a famous restaurant. It is clear that this other place does not matter, because the most important character in the novel is New York City. Like so many works of fiction before it, Sweetbitter examines the dreamscape that is New York City for many people. But unlike the trope of, “New York City is gritty and not the dream you believe it to be,” or the Sex and the City trope of, “In New York City all your dreams can come true,” Danler walks a more true-to-life line, revealing the city to be, as the title implies, sweet and bitter at the same time. Our main character revels in a city that shelters so many kinds of people, that changes dramatically from season to season, but she also finds the city to be cold and terribly lonely at times, a city that sometimes needs alcohol and a few hits of cocaine to look beautiful. To read Danler’s prose is to experience the city from your armchair. Danler’s lush descriptions of the restaurant—of oysters and red wines and cheese—of the seasons of the city—the thickness of summer, the freshness of autumn—and of people, are transformative.

It’s a novel in which the characters are undeniably secondary to the description. The characters are thinly drawn, an unfortunate weakness for a writer who writes so beautifully. Other than the protagonist, who becomes familiar only because readers spend so much time in her head, everyone else seems to inhabit some kind of cliché—tortured bartender; knowledgeable, well-traveled older woman; manager who sleeps with his female employees; edgy, cocaine-toting lesbian. When the protagonist eventually gives up on her relationships with these people, I did not have enough emotional investment in them to care much about it.

It is impossible for me to dislike Sweetbitter. As a writer myself, it is often a breath of fresh air to read an author who so unabashedly worships the written word. Reading Sweetbitter is undeniably a literary feast. Occasionally throughout the book, Danler eschews narration and just gives readers lines and lines of dialogue from various people in the restaurant, and the result reads more like poetry than prose.

Certainly with some more attention to character, Danler would be unstoppable.

Author: Stephanie Danler
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: May 2016

Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.

“A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)” by George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones

As time progresses, and the literary cannon grows and grows, every new writer born in some ways gets the short end of the stick. Why? Because so many ideas have been taken, some so worn out that they get labeled as “tropes” or “clichés.” Thus, modern writers often have the burden of having to find something original in a world in which so many things have been done before. Some make entire careers out of finding ways of subverting tropes, being antithetical, and therefore exciting. This is certainly the case with George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin takes the well-worn genre that grew out of the Middle Ages and peaked with Tolkien, and turns it on its head, making for a thrilling read.

One of the unwritten rules of fantasy, at last before Martin came along, was that the hero prevails. He beats the odds. It can be tough, but he makes it out alright in the end. Perhaps he experiences loss, the death of a sidekick or a horse or a friend, but he does not perish. This is not so in A Game of Thrones. Here, much like in real life, no one is safe. In that sense, this high fantasy novel reads a lot more like the turbulence of reality than many other, less inventive books. The novel ends with the beheading of a character who is set up, in every preceding page, as the hero. Martin impresses upon his reader that everyone has flaws, even the hero, and he does not get any special treatment in the randomness of fate.

A Game of Thrones further subverts the fantasy genre with its treatment of characters. The book refuses to vilify or venerate any one character. Instead, Martin allows you to understand the motivations of each character in turn, so that even if you don’t agree with their actions, you cannot blatantly hate them. By the end of the novel, the reader is left sympathizing with a man who closes the first chapter by pushing a seven-year-old boy out of a window. Only someone as adept as Martin can paint two sides of a person that well.

Finally, the novel’s female characters serve as a potent way to subvert traditional fantasy tropes. In most high fantasy, the women do not have their own agendas. They are tools, playthings, and trophies for the men who ride horses and fight wars and move them conveniently around the chess board of their own lives. This is not so in Martin’s book. While the novel is set in medieval times and thus realistically portrays appropriate historical subjugation of women, Martin balances this with determined female characters who not only have goals, but also the ruthless will to make those goals a reality. Like all his male characters, these women are nuanced, not just good or bad. One of the most popular characters in the sprawling cast is the young Daenerys Targaryan, who, sold into marriage by the brother, becomes empowered to gather an army in preparation to reconquer the Seven Kingdoms, which she views as her birthright. Another, incredibly three-dimensional character is Cersei Lannister, who, as wife of the king, is unhappy with her secondary status in the kingdom, and whose thirst for power and militant protection of her children often paint her hands red with blood. We are horrified by her, but we reluctantly admire her, and in hard times, we sympathize with her.

The book is split into differing perspectives, mostly of the main, clashing families of Stark and Lannister. It is also long, perhaps longer than it needs to be, but the world it builds is so colorful and riveting that you probably won’t find yourself complaining. Martin will not coddle his reader, which makes the book somewhat of a rollercoaster, with nail-biting climaxes and brutal deaths, but in the end, entirely worth it. Make sure the sequel is close at hand!

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Books
Publication Date: August 1996

Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.


“Seating Arrangements” by Maggie Shipstead

Seating Arrangements

In a country where the wealth gap becomes more and more apparent every day, where the American Dream seems more and more a thing of the past, Maggie Shipstead invites her readers to take a look at the crumbling aristocracy of New England. Her characters seem like Fitzgerald-era castaways, with their biggest concerns being about premiere colleges and entry into exclusive social clubs and maintaining rather antiquated notions of propriety. And in some ways, Shipstead has written the Gatsby for the modern day, a novel that draws the reader in with its sense of escapism, allowing them to inhabit the life of the ridiculously wealthy for a time, but ultimately closes with a powerful refutation to the idealism with which we treat the life of the rich. No one ends up floating dead in a pool with a bullet in their side, but Shipstead infuses in her story an understated permutation of gloom that is equally powerful.

The story has a simply premise—two families descends on a coastal New England island to witness the marriage of Daphne Van Meter to Greyson Duff. The Van Meters make up most of the main characters, with the focus on Winn, the patriarch, and his younger daughter Livia. The strength of Shipstead’s work has always come from her ability to understand and bring to life on the page so many different kinds of people, and this talent is expertly displayed as she allows her readers into the minds of her diverse cast of characters. She breaks this novel into sections, with each section inhabiting the mind of a different person than the last, although Winn and Livia are the most represented. She jumps expertly from the self-absorbed Winn, who is livid about not getting into a local club while also thirsting after one of his daughter’s bridesmaid’s, to Livia, who is struggling with a breakup and recent abortion while attempting to support her pregnant sister through her wedding weekend, to Biddy, Winn’s dejected and lonesome wife, to Mopsy, the aging Duff grandmother, to Sam Snead, the hyper-active wedding planner.

The reader gets to see the difference between generations—Winn seems more obsessed with the way he is perceived than his daughters, more obsessed with his own wealth and legacy—providing for a fascinating meditation on the way that the changing social dynamic in America has affected the people raised here. Furthermore, the most gratifying part of the novel is that Shipstead does not attempt to make any one character particularly likable. Instead she lays them all bare, their flaws apparent, and asks the reader to begrudgingly love them due to their humanity, their inescapable flaws. This forces the reader to understand that there is no good way to have wealth in America, no way to wear it well without being selfish or obsessed. In creating no apparent hero or winner, Shipstead provides a grippingly real portrayal of a dying aristocracy.

All of this is filled in with beautiful details and thoughtful symbolism. The world of Seating Arrangements is a vivid one, down to the colors of the character’s coats and flavors of their wine. It’s not hard to get lost in a story this rich.

Seating Arrangements
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: June 2012

Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.

“Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain

testatment of youth-small

Sometimes the most haunting and palpable accounts of war are not the sweeping explanations of historical background and strategy, but of a singular person’s experience, encapsulated in a memoir. This is certainly true of World War I, which comes most terribly alive in Vera Brittain’s home front account, Testament of Youth. Brittain writes with the skilled, articulate prose of a woman who had previously been interested in being a novelist, which lends a vivid dynamic to her retelling of real events. The outcome is a memoir that allows the reader directly into the mind of its narrator in a way that is reminiscent of fiction and makes the work all the more page-turning.

Brittain begins her story a little before the war, describing the hopeful life she had as a young woman who loved to write poetry and read the Romantics, entirely unaware of the impending carnage to her country and her life. Her cast of friends are introduced early, her parents, her brother Edward and his friends, particularly his schoolmate Roland Leighton, who takes an interest in Vera as she does in him. The novel starts with Brittain’s struggle to get accepted to Oxford and her romance with Leighton, both of which are heartbreaking to a reader who knows of the bigger problems to come. Brittain, of course writing in retrospect, often ends her chapters with dark foreshadowings of the war that render the problems of these earlier accounts rather inconsequential in her mind. This is where the power of the work comes from—the comparison of what Brittain’s life was before, to the life she had during and after the war, because it allows the reader to intimately understand the devastating effects of the first modern war not only for the soldiers in the trenches but for everyone on the home front as well. Brittain forces us to understand how the war changed people’s philosophical outlooks, their optimism, and their belief in the glory of death.

Brittain’s story finds its strength not only in her superior narration and her juxtaposition of before-and-after but also, unfortunately, due to circumstance. The reader flips the pages in horror as they realize that Brittain loses almost everyone she knows to the war. She hears of Roland’s death right before their wedding, an incident that is so devastating in part because Brittain recounts in earlier chapters how much he pushed to go to the front lines, and how frightened he was once he finally made it there. This, coupled with some of Roland’s poems about the war and about her, which Brittain includes in the book, prove almost as emotionally ravaging for the reader as it must have been for Brittain herself. Even the most ardent war hawks will have to think twice when they read of Brittain’s cruel loss. Furthermore, when Edward dies, the reader is reminded of 1914, the start of the war, when he asks Vera to help convince their parents that he should be allowed to join the army, to which she agrees and manages to succeed in. Brittain confides in the reader the guilt she feels upon hearing of his death, as though she herself sent her brother to die in the trenches.

It is common knowledge that at the beginning of World War I, no one understood just how catastrophic a fight this would be for all involved, and numbers can tell you just how many young men lost their lives, but Brittain really makes you feel the pain of finding out that the assumptions about a quick fight directly led to the loss of brothers, fathers, lovers, and friends. She speaks beautifully for a generation of young men and women who grew up during a devastating time that forever impacted their outlook on a much grimmer world. Brittain touches on the emerging pacifism, the skepticism, the spirituality or lack thereof, of the people who came of age from 1914 to 1918, while also giving voice to the experiences of those who were not lucky enough to make it past those dates. Her memoir is a reminder of the consequences of war, one that is relevant not only to the First World War, but even to the wars we continue to wage today.

Testament of Youth
Author: Vera Brittain
Publisher: Penguin Classics;
Publication Date: Reissue edition (May 31, 2005)

Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.

“Astonish Me” by Maggie Shipstead

astonish me- small

There’s something so enchanting about the world of the ballet. Perhaps it’s all the grit that lies beneath the pink tulle, the way that something that looks so graceful can require so much pain. And for those of us who do not have the physical fortitude to dance our way into that world, Maggie Shipstead’s novel Astonish Me is as good a substitute as any. Upon completing the novel, I felt as though I were resurfacing from a world in which I actually knew how a ballet company works and what a pas de deux might be. It’s almost a disappointment to come back to reality, where dashing male ballet dancers are not daringly defecting from the Soviet Union.

And perhaps it’s that part of the plot that will captivate you at first, but Shipstead introduces subplots in the novel that leave the reader pondering some of the uneasy complications of life. For one, the protagonist, Joan, gave up her life for ballet only to find out that she would never be good enough for the real spotlight. Finding out that even at what we might do best, our passions, we do not measure up is a bitter pill to swallow and often many people’s biggest fears. To see it manifest itself here is fascinating, as Joan gives up her life and her one-sided love affair with a man who really does command the spotlight for a suburban life that doesn’t seem to quite fit her. This, too, touches on the common fear of “settling” that plagues many people. Furthermore, Joan’s husband seems increasingly uncertain about his position in her life, offering yet another perspective on human relationships—the uncertainty of a partner’s love. And as Joan’s neighbor watches her wiry body glide about as she performs her routine ballet stretches in the backyard of her suburban, Southern Californian home, we get a glimpse of the very-human envy of a middle aged woman feeling unattractive and insecure as she compares herself to a female peer. This is what gives Shipstead’s novel its unique charm, its extra layer that allows it to linger in the memory of its readers long after the books has been safely deposited back on the shelf. Because many of us may know nothing of the world of ballet, but the human emotions and relationships in the novel are universal.

Shipstead is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate who wields her pen with obvious skill. She does not embellish where unnecessary but her writing is not sparse either. It is rich enough to hold a reader’s attention and sustain their delight. In that respect, she is reminiscent of the minimalist darling, Raymond Carver. By the time the last page is turned, you feel as though you have been taken on an exhausting emotional journey, one that has given you a distinct understanding of the characters she has created. Rarely do pen-and-ink people come so alive, and sustain emotions so real and so bittersweet as in Astonish Me.

To put this book down is a challenge, unless if only for a moment, to look up tickets to the next ballet.

Astonish Me
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: April 2014

Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.