Mark Luce

Arthur Golden is an American. He is a man. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

Sayuri is Japanese. She is a woman. She lives in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Magically, though, in Golden's first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, he actually becomes the first-person voice of Sayuri, and in the process manages to strip away Western myths about geisha to fashion a tale as compellng as it is convincing. 

The fictional Sayuri, based on Golden's voluminous researc, presents an illuminating portrait of a culture too often mistakenly considered synonymous with prostitution by outsiders. While certainly fiscal transaction and sex do occur in this context, primarily the geisha is an entertainer, one who sings, dances, converses and acommpanies. In short, a type of professional companion. It is a tricky and often unfullfilling occupation, as Sayuri tells us, requiring tact, quick wit and at times unbearable situations.

Sayuri glides readers through the arduous training and ceremony of geisha apprenticeship and the rigidly controlled structure of households and relations. This world of slivers of exposed skin, demure glances, secret passions, appearance and reputation nevertheless resonates with the hushed sound of financial machinations. A geisha needs a rich danna, or benefactor, but often, the danna isn't necessarily who the geisha desires most.

Sayuri has no say when, at only 9, she is taken to the okiya from a small fishing village. She has no say as she is abused and bad-mouthed by the drunken Hatsumomo, her rival in the household. She has no say when Dr. Crab outbids the Baron for her mizuage, or virginity. And she has no say in her danna, even tough she hopes secretly, for years, that it will one day be the businessman known as the Chairman.

In many ways, Memoirs of a Geisha functions as a typical romance—poor girl climbs the social ladder—but Golden's exquisite execution never fails. The implicit risk of writing in a foreign voice never becomes and issue; indeed, it is forgotten as Sayuri's charm enraptures from the novel's first line. 

Near the beginning of the book, Sayuri says she used to joke that someone had poked a hole in her eyes and all the ink had drained out. While her translucent gray eyes do guide the reader through nearly 40 years, that spilled ink gracefully rolls onto Golden's pages, forming the alluring curves and supple lines of this elegant debut.

 

Sayuri is Japanese. She is a woman. She lives in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Magically, though, in American writer Arthur Golden's first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, he actually becomes the first-person voice of Sayuri, and in the process manages to strip away Western myths about geisha to fashion a tale as compellng as it is convincing. 

Michael Young–petulant, vindictive, petty, and absolutely charming–should be thrilled. His epic dissertation, 200,000 words on Hitler's early childhood, is finally done, printed out and ready to deliver. Then Michael learns his geneticist girlfriend Jane has left him. His thesis spills out of his briefcase and winds through the Cambridge wind. Just to twist the knife, Michael's tweedy mentor dismisses the dissertation, a fiction/nonfiction hybrid, as absolute drivel. Whoops.

But Michael's bad day turns into an interesting year (or 50 years) when he befriends Leo Zuckermann, a somber physicist. Together, with the help of some little orange male infertility pills and some high-tech gadgetry, they set out to alter history. The pair's decision to prevent the birth of Hitler and their subsequent success (or is it failure?) forms the core of Stephen Fry's imaginative Making History. For his first two novels, Fry stuck to the hilarity that earned him renown as a writer and actor on British television. Now, Fry tosses that humor with maturity and ambition, in turn crafting a novel that makes you think while laughing and laugh while thinking. Ostensibly the premise holds as much sophistication as a drunken parlor game, or worse, another Back to the Future movie. Well aware of the traps of "What if?" suppositions, Fry avoids the risks through varying voices. Proposed screenplays joust with dryly written history, academese wrestles with Michael's cheeky speech.

Such narrative leaps work to undercut stodgy conceptions of history and highlight its limitations. As Michael says early in the novel, "A: None of what follows ever happened. B: All of what follows is entirely true." History provides context and molds identity; but only after their time-tinkering do Michael and Leo learn to what extent and understand the haunting, and seemingly inescapable, effects. The pages of Making History cackle with a distinctly British flavor ("Theater is dead but sometimes I like to go watch the corpse decompose."). Much like the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, the humor serves as a glass shield, only temporarily deflecting thoughtful and terrifying implications.

Part academic send-up, part zany screenplay, and part intriguing invented history, the novel dives headfirst into the trashbin of history and roots around with alternating elan and solemnity.

And thanks to Fry's deft hand, Making History emerges smelling sweeter than a rose.

Michael Young–petulant, vindictive, petty, and absolutely charming–should be thrilled. His epic dissertation, 200,000 words on Hitler's early childhood, is finally done, printed out and ready to deliver. Then Michael learns his geneticist girlfriend Jane has left him. His thesis spills out of his briefcase and winds through the Cambridge wind. Just to twist the knife, […]

Over seven years have passed since Peter Hedges' gorgeous debut, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, overwhelmed readers and critics with its heartfelt story of a quirky family in Endora, Iowa. Hedges has returned to Iowa—moving from farm to suburbs—in his much-anticipated second novel, An Ocean in Iowa.

A precocious four-year-old, Scotty Ocean stands atop a piano bench and brazenly proclaims, "Seven is going to be my year." Fast-forward three years, and seven doesn't seem to be anyone's year, especially not Scotty's. He couldn't have known, though, for "Scotty Ocean was not in possession of all the facts." The fact was that his doting, beautiful, artist mother Joan was a hopeless alcoholic. The fact was that his father, the Judge, was a stern man with little ability to display warmth of any kind. And Scotty certainly could not have known the fact that after the public carping at Joan's art opening (she had painted wild, disfigured nude self-portraits), his mother was leaving. Not to go paint, not to run to the A&P and not to pick up his sisters, Claire and Maggie. No, Joan Ocean was leaving for good.

Thankfully, Hedges' midwestern drama lacks the contrived drippiness of made-for-TV dramas. His prose walks between humor and pain. Tempering the jolt of abandonment with boyish exuberance, he shapes poignant scenes of seven-year-old expression out of the fissures of frantic emotional trauma.

Scotty's adventures and foibles recall my youth in Iowa, the stupid things I did, the tiny world view I had. Scotty gets his tongue stuck on an icy mailbox. He wants to befriend Andrew, the junior-high kid next door with the cool bike and an eye on his sister. Scotty runs from bullies and finds a hidden cove in neighborhood bushes. He has his first sexual stirring eyeing a friend's mother. And Scotty attempts a brash stunt to remain seven forever.

Hedges explores these childhood complexities in all their fullness, letting measured understatement stand for the gaps in Scotty's understanding. He infuses Scotty with the artistic temperament of his mother—as quick as Scotty is with a comment, he is equally susceptible to criticism or anger. Such sensitivity works as both boon and bane, as Scotty negotiates fragile territory—from art class to picnics with his mother. A powerful portrait emerges of the potential artist as a seven-year-old Iowan.

A profoundly touching novel, An Ocean in Iowa, mixes the recognition of innocence with the strain of blossoming maturity. Scotty exists in that delicate space where increasing comprehension can easily shatter boyhood beliefs. Life isn't about mom and dad, the pool and the car in the garage. It's about adaptation, compromise, and responsibility. In short, it's about growing up. Beautifully spare, carefully crafted, and unerringly observed, An Ocean in Iowa laps over the reader with tides, both low and high, of evocative emotion and telling tenderness.

Mark Luce is a writer in Lawrence, Kansas.

Over seven years have passed since Peter Hedges' gorgeous debut, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, overwhelmed readers and critics with its heartfelt story of a quirky family in Endora, Iowa. Hedges has returned to Iowa—moving from farm to suburbs—in his much-anticipated second novel, An Ocean in Iowa. A precocious four-year-old, Scotty Ocean stands atop a piano […]

A catfish farm in crisis, a young woman running an obstacle course of the heart, and two old friends at a Texas prison may sound like the elements of a tear-in-your-beer country song. Don't be fooled, though, for these elements make up three distinctive first novels determined to cure your summertime blues.

The back roads of Mississippi are dotted with catfish farms, manmade lakes stuffed with the bottom feeders most folks enjoy fried. And Steve Yarbrough's The Oxygen Man is one deep-fried novel. Original, bold, eerie, Yarbrough's novel takes readers on a trip through snake-infested environs where racism and violence ride shotgun with poverty. Ned Rose works Mississippi nights checking the oxygen levels on catfish ponds for Mack Bell, an old friend with a short fuse. His sister Daze (Daisy) works Mississippi afternoons at Beer Smith's tavern. The siblings occupy the same ramshackle house their parents left, but they don't talk much, and haven't since a horrifying event that occurred while they were in high school. Mack suspects some of his African-American workers have started sabotaging his ponds and enlists Ned to give them a dose of southern justice. After a lifetime of being pushed around by Mack, Ned has a decision to make. And so does Daze, who, like Ned, walks through life as an apparition. What is so stunning about Yarbrough's debut is its downright rawness. He creates some of the creepiest scenes and characters in memory, such as a dead-on portrayal of a high school football coach at an all-white school, the kidnapping of an Ole Miss co-ed, and a screaming motorboat ride that ends in disaster.

But for all the nervy southern gothic touches and the relentless threat of violence, Yarbrough writes with tremendous heart. The pages pulse with a Faulknerian aura of familial fate and the quiet determination to overcome one's own history.

Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, constructed by chapters that jump in time and place, traces the smart and sassy Jane from summers on the Jersey shore through the rough and tumble world of New York publishing. Bad dates, neurotic bosses, a boyfriend nearly 30 years her senior, and perfectly drawn suburban parents mark Jane's frenetic existence.

Bank's whipsmart bildungsroman leaves readers not only nodding their heads in painful recognition of empty bottles and broken hearts, but also holding their sides with brutally honest laughter. To wit, in one of the novel's best episodes, "The Floating House," the socially naive Jane travels to St. Croix with her boyfriend Jamie to visit his ex-girlfriend and her new husband. Or, in the book's penultimate vignette, Jane, recently single, decides to follow the advice of a book called How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, a thinly disguised The Rules. But rather than just reading the book, the goofy Jane actually has imagined conversations with the book's uptight authors, Bonnie and Faith. Bank writes of Jane's first date with Robert, whom she meets at a wedding: "I don't know what a Luddite is, but Bonnie won't let me ask." When the check comes, Faith says, "Don't even look at it."  

"What are you thinking about?" Robert asks, putting his credit card in the leatherette folder, "$87.50 for your thoughts."

"Be mysterious!" Bonnie says. "Excuse me, I say," and go to the ladies' room.

While Bank captures the vagaries of 90s relationships how often to call, when to stay over, when to move in together, and when to bail with a wry, understated style, she never falls into the first-novel trap of self-indulgence. In fact, Bank provides the kind of balance normally found in seasoned writers. Bank gives her characters the room to move, breathe, and be human. Even when her creations suffer from disappointment, jealousy, anger, and feelings of abandonment, Bank manages to keep everything in perspective. The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing mines the delicate space between humor and heartbreak.

Prison is never fun, but prison in Texas is a whole other dark world, especially at Hope Farm State Penitentiary, the backdrop for Robert Draper's first novel, Hadrian's Walls. Hadrian Coleman and Sonny Hope are childhood buddies who end up linked for life when Hadrian saves Sonny from a perverted judge in a cornfield when they are in high school. But the judicial system in Texas isn't always fair, and Hadrian takes the rap, in turn landing in the roughest prison in the country, a place pock-marked by graft, corruption, and mysterious deaths of prisoners, and a place run by Sonny's father, Thunderball. But now Hadrian, who had a celebrated escape, has gotten a full pardon, thanks to Sonny. The problem is that Sonny wants something in return, something that likely will land Hadrian right back in the slammer. Draper's story scorches through the world of East Texas toughs a melange of prison guards, crooked state legislators, wandering wives, and ex-cons, occupants of a world where justice is in the eye of the beholder and prison construction is booming business. Although the pacing, plot, and prose are all commendable, it's Draper's eye for detail, and his dialogue, which crackles and drawls with mean-spirited slang and home-spun wisdom, that give the novel it's life.

At times Draper swings his symbolic hammer too liberally, especially in the book's title, a courtroom scene late in the book, and Sonny Hope's name. His top-notch crime reporter, Sissy Shipman, exists as one of the novel's only straight shooters. Regardless of these minor flaws, Hadrian's Walls is an excellent book. Draper uses fiction to call attention to an increasingly troublesome social problem the business of incarceration but wisely refrains from turning his book into an ideological jag.

The faint of heart reader may do well to stay away, but if you can handle this tough world, Draper's powerful examination of friendship, obligation, and freedom will not disappoint.

Mark Luce sits on the Board of Directors for the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

A catfish farm in crisis, a young woman running an obstacle course of the heart, and two old friends at a Texas prison may sound like the elements of a tear-in-your-beer country song. Don't be fooled, though, for these elements make up three distinctive first novels determined to cure your summertime blues. The back roads […]

As you hunker down for the long winter, take heart, for three new fiction debuts will help you make it through the cold. This season's theme seems to be surrealism, as each of these intriguing first books is a little off center. Mix that with extremely well-written prose and these debuts will have you wishing the winter days were longer.

In The Intuitionist, the most innovative, creative, and visionary new novel in a few years, Colson Whitehead takes readers into a world where the phrase going up takes on powerful metaphoric meaning. Lila Mae Watson is the city's first female African-American elevator inspector–a woman who relies on her senses and feelings rather than hard physical evidence when traversing and examining a timeless, Kafka-esque city fixated on verticality. With an important guild election coming, Watson is on the side of the Intuitionists, the minority party of the city's powerful elevator operators union. The Empiricists, fueled by bigotry and a desire to maintain ruling power, blame Watson (who has a spotless inspection record) for an elevator free-fall, an accident that is not supposed to happen. The novel traces Watson's attempts to clear her name, and as she is doing so, she discovers numerous secrets that have been selfishly hidden by the heads of both factions.

A stunning contemplation on race, The Intuitionist brings to mind the strength of Ralph Ellison and the quirky brilliance of Thomas Pynchon. Whitehead crafts an entire culture around elevators, complete with specifications, internecine philosophical battles, founding fathers, and corporate shenanigans. But what makes The Intuitionist so darn good is the way Whitehead balances his concerns. By turns literate, thrilling, comic, and poignant, Whitehead lifts readers into this strange world and never allows identity politics to turn the book into an ideological jag. His prose pulses across the page, seamlessly jumping characters, time, style, and events. Whether with one-word thoughts or complex, descriptive sentences, Whitehead draws readers into this fantastic world of verticality and races us to the top. After The Intuitionist, an elevator ride will never be the same.

COMING OF AGE DURING WATERGATE

When Jack Costello secretly purchases a bugging unit to record his tension-filled parents in Michael Cahill's A Nixon Man, Jack doesn't really understand what he is about to hear. Jack's father is a Nixon man in a quickly changing San Francisco in 1972. As William Costello preaches the right way to live sit up straight, look people in the eye, never underestimate the power of a handshake, and respect those who lead us his son's Record-A-Jac, a surveillance device purchased from a comic book, tells a different story. The feisty, confused 11-year-old begins tapping the phones, dramatizing the Watergate investigators he idolizes on television. But like the Watergate Tapes and their 18 minutes of silence, Jack learns that some things are better left unheard. He begins to understand the tensions in his parents' marriage, the toll his retarded 16-year-old sister Macie takes on his family and their plans for her. More importantly, he realizes what it means to be the son of a Nixon man. Unlike many fictional accounts of the era, Cahill shifts the focus away from 18-year-old young men and Vietnam, and gives us a narrator who was 11 when the Watergate hearings were at their zenith. Jack Costello's voice precocious, rebellious, yet still naive infuses A Nixon Man with a quiet innocence, allowing the events of the time to filter through Jack's eyes.

Perhaps most charming is how Jack fights against his childhood, trying to wean himself from television and toys through typical adolescent boy behavior such as streaking, sneaking puffs of pot, and devising secret plans. The world around him, complex, political, and dangerous, offers Jack only clues about what is going on, but he persists in his quest to know. And the knowledge he gathers means a quick end to the carefree days and the simple life of a child. Cahill writes effortlessly, filling the pages with acute observations of the time period, from toys to television shows, windbreakers to music. His prose evokes the wonderment of discovery, while never neglecting the emotional cost of that discovery. It would have been very easy for Cahill to lean too hard on the similarities between the characters in the story and the national events that led to the resignation of Nixon. He uses Watergate, however, as a thematic backdrop, employing it to further round his well-developed characters. Bittersweet, uproariously funny, and tremendously written, A Nixon Man delivers the laughs and heartaches of growing up in equal doses, in turn providing one of the season's best new reads.

A LOUSEY WORLD

For a trip through post-modern cool and highly rationalized, individually created bureaucracy, take a spin with David Grand's peculiar Louse. Herman Q. Louse works for Herbert Horatio Poppy Blackwell, a fictionalized version of eccentric capitalist hermit Howard Hughes. From atop a casino, Poppy has built an insulated empire, full of idiosyncrasies, wheelbarrows of prescription drugs, and unmitigated paranoia. Louse, Poppy's confidante, attendant, and valet, can't even remember when he didn't work for the reclusive Poppy; in fact, he is sure that he has been drugged to forget his previous life. Like Whitehead's Intuitionist, Grand's world is eerily invented, full of conspiracies, shadow conspiracies, and characters with names such as Crane, Lonesome, and Barnum. Grand's curt, deliberately stilted first-person prose mirrors the feelings of the mystery, enchantment, and claustrophobia of Louse's world, while lending the novel a chilly detachment.

Grand's work fits squarely in the tradition of Kafka, where individuals are the pawns of unseen controlling forces, expression of one's personal opinions is not an option, and private machinations have far-reaching impact. Wickedly funny and equally freaky, Louse is a surprisingly invigorating book. Grand's high narrative style, sizzling imagination, and twisted nervousness endows Louse with its unmistakably fresh voice.

Mark Luce is a writer in Lawrence, Kansas.

As you hunker down for the long winter, take heart, for three new fiction debuts will help you make it through the cold. This season's theme seems to be surrealism, as each of these intriguing first books is a little off center. Mix that with extremely well-written prose and these debuts will have you wishing […]

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