My great reads of the year, so far: Kate Atkinson, Justin Cronin, Ali Eteraz, Graham Joyce

Life After Life: I’m a Kate Atkinson groupie and I love her recent spate of crime novels, but was so glad when she came back to playing with time and family and gnarled old fate in “Life After Life.” Maybe it’s the groupie in me talking, but I feel that Atkinson so rarely gets the kind of ecstatic praise she truly deserves. I think people don’t quite allow themselves to understand how truly brilliant, how landscape-altering her writing is, because it’s commercially successful and hits all of the right notes and has a robust plot. Atkinson walks along the raggedy edge and dips her toes into the sublime. “Life After Life” is a novel of starts and stops on the surface – but the closer you look at it, the more you see that this is the kind of book that takes the idea that the universe is “elegant” and applies it to the novel and wins.

The Passage and The Twelve: Thanks to an agent friend in NY, I fell in love with Justin Cronin this year. His apocalyptic vampire trilogy is fantastic so far, and I can’t wait for the final book. Cronin doesn’t just get horror – he gets people. He gets what it means to bring a child into a terrible, terrible world. I’m a parent – and Cronin hits me where it hurts. He reminds me of the idea that the apocalypse is not some single event fixed in time – rather, its a narrative told and re-told every time an innocent is killed. There is nothing escapist about his writing – the “escapist” label is actually one I truly despise, particularly when it gets slapped onto genuine works of art that grapple with the issues we face every day by utilizing an imaginative set of devices. There is a brilliant paradox at the heart of “The Passage” and “The Twelve,” the idea that a single life is nothing – and everything.

Children of Dust: The dude who blogs under the name Ali Eteraz is someone I consider an online friend – though while I’ve always been a fan of his wonderful writing, there was that performative aspect to it that made me feel resigned to the fact that I’m never going to see him fully. Forget about Russia being a mystery wrapped in an enigma – Eteraz totally has that notion beat. Well, his memoir “Children of Dust,” which came out a few years ago, doesn’t make me feel any closer to “the real Ali Eteraz” – and that doesn’t matter, because I discovered Amir in its pages (Ali Eteraz is a pseudonym, in case you are wondering). I still don’t think the memoir genre exists so that we can cozy up to the author – but damn, I felt close to Amir. And I loved “Children of Dust” for its cleverness, it’s humor, the longing contained within its pages, the philosophical debate the memoir has with itself. There are brilliant snapshots of Pakistan, the States, the Arabian desert. There is much sadness and joy and masks getting ripped off and new masks showing through – and the kind of artistic daring that people in the West rarely associate with Islam (which is a huge oversight, incidentally).

The Silent Land: Although this book also has the kind of robust plot structure I am a fan of, what it reveals in the end isn’t nearly as important as the way in which it portrays marriage and the transience of physical existence. This is the kind of writing that I would compare to a symphony that features this second track, this gentle murmur about death and dying and atoms coming apart and love being the only thing there is.

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4 thoughts on “My great reads of the year, so far: Kate Atkinson, Justin Cronin, Ali Eteraz, Graham Joyce

  1. Hi,
    First time here. Read u on Rio Novosti. I am a Yank in Delaware USA, male and old. .
    I came here after reading u are leaving Rio Novo. Never knew .
    The quote below comes from Bagdhad Burning , an Iraqi woman,guess about your age, who fled Iraq for where. No idea. She disappeared and there have only been a few posts.The last I have is this. There is nothing personal, .
    Maybe you know of her already. I am guessing Syria, refugee camp possibly. Perhaps with your abilities and contacts you find her. Why her? Because she is a voice like yours, the world needs and in truth I feel sorry for her. Nothing wrong or weird with that.
    http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/ I copied last blog.
    Thanks. Elliot Walter .

    Baghdad Burning

    … I’ll meet you ’round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend…
    Tuesday, April 09, 2013

    Ten Years On…
    April 9, 2013 marks ten years since the fall of Baghdad. Ten years since the invasion. Since the lives of millions of Iraqis changed forever. It’s difficult to believe. It feels like only yesterday I was sharing day to day activities with the world. I feel obliged today to put my thoughts down on the blog once again, probably for the last time.

    In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn’t.

    Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, “Things will improve immediately.” The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, “Things won’t improve for at least five years.” And the pessimists? The pessimists said, “It will take ten years. It will take a decade.”

    Looking back at the last ten years, what have our occupiers and their Iraqi governments given us in ten years? What have our puppets achieved in this last decade? What have we learned?

    We learned a lot.

    We learned that while life is not fair, death is even less fair- it takes the good people. Even in death you can be unlucky. Lucky ones die a ‘normal’ death… A familiar death of cancer, or a heart-attack, or stroke. Unlucky ones have to be collected in bits and pieces. Their families trying to bury what can be salvaged and scraped off of streets that have seen so much blood, it is a wonder they are not red.

    We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands.

    We learned that justice does not prevail in this day and age. Innocent people are persecuted and executed daily. Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in the private torture chambers.

    We are learning that corruption is the way to go. You want a passport issued? Pay someone. You want a document ratified? Pay someone. You want someone dead? Pay someone.

    We learned that it’s not that difficult to make billions disappear.

    We are learning that those amenities we took for granted before 2003, you know- the luxuries – electricity, clean water from faucets, walkable streets, safe schools – those are for deserving populations. Those are for people who don’t allow occupiers into their country.

    We’re learning that the biggest fans of the occupation (you know who you are, you traitors) eventually leave abroad. And where do they go? The USA, most likely, with the UK a close second. If I were an American, I’d be outraged. After spending so much money and so many lives, I’d expect the minor Chalabis and Malikis and Hashimis of Iraq to, well, stay in Iraq. Invest in their country. I’d stand in passport control and ask them, “Weren’t you happy when we invaded your country? Weren’t you happy we liberated you? Go back. Go back to the country you’re so happy with because now, you’re free!”

    We’re learning that militias aren’t particular about who they kill. The easiest thing in the world would be to say that Shia militias kill Sunnis and Sunni militias kill Shia, but that’s not the way it works. That’s too simple.

    We’re learning that the leaders don’t make history. Populations don’t make history. Historians don’t write history. News networks do. The Foxes, and CNNs, and BBCs, and Jazeeras of the world make history. They twist and turn things to fit their own private agendas.

    We’re learning that the masks are off. No one is ashamed of the hypocrisy anymore. You can be against one country (like Iran), but empowering them somewhere else (like in Iraq). You can claim to be against religious extremism (like in Afghanistan), but promoting religious extremism somewhere else (like in Iraq and Egypt and Syria).

    Those who didn’t know it in 2003 are learning (much too late) that an occupation is not the portal to freedom and democracy. The occupiers do not have your best interests at heart.

    We are learning that ignorance is the death of civilized societies and that everyone thinks their particular form of fanaticism is acceptable.

    We are learning how easy it is to manipulate populations with their own prejudices and that politics and religion never mix, even if a super-power says they should mix.

    But it wasn’t all a bad education…

    We learned that you sometimes receive kindness when you least expect it. We learned that people often step outside of the stereotypes we build for them and surprise us. We learned and continue to learn that there is strength in numbers and that Iraqis are not easy to oppress. It is a matter of time…

    And then there are things we’d like to learn…

    Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Tarek Al Hashemi and the rest of the vultures, where are they now? Have they crawled back under their rocks in countries like the USA, the UK, etc.? Where will Maliki be in a year or two? Will he return to Iran or take the millions he made off of killing Iraqis and then seek asylum in some European country? Far away from the angry Iraqi masses…

    What about George Bush, Condi, Wolfowitz, and Powell? Will they ever be held accountable for the devastation and the death they wrought in Iraq? Saddam was held accountable for 300,000 Iraqis… Surely someone should be held accountable for the million or so?

    Finally, after all is said and done, we shouldn’t forget what this was about – making America safer… And are you safer Americans? If you are, why is it that we hear more and more about attacks on your embassies and diplomats? Why is it that you are constantly warned to not go to this country or that one? Is it better now, ten years down the line? Do you feel safer, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of the way (granted half of them were women and children, but children grow up, right?)?

    And what happened to Riverbend and my family? I eventually moved from Syria. I moved before the heavy fighting, before it got ugly. That’s how fortunate I was. I moved to another country nearby, stayed almost a year, and then made another move to a third Arab country with the hope that, this time, it’ll stick until… Until when? Even the pessimists aren’t sure anymore. When will things improve? When will be able to live normally? How long will it take?

    For those of you who are disappointed reality has reared its ugly head again, go to Fox News, I’m sure they have a reportage that will soothe your conscience.

    For those of you who have been asking about me and wondering how I have been doing, I thank you. “Lo khuliyet, qulibet…” Which means “If the world were empty of good people, it would end.” I only need to check my emails to know it won’t be ending any time soon.

    - posted by river @ 10:20 PM
    Monday, October 22, 2007

    Bloggers Without Borders…
    Syria is a beautiful country- at least I think it is. I say “I think” because while I perceive it to be

    beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’. In so many ways, Damascus is like Baghdad before the war- bustling streets, occasional traffic jams, markets see

  2. Good Lord. I am not leaving RIA – who on earth came up with that idea? Discontinuing a column, while a big deal for me, is just that.

    It think it’s also quite obvious that riverbend is not in a Syrian refugee camp. Considering the fact that she specifically talks of having left Syria a while ago.

  3. Hi
    You wrote Oct. 29 “my final trend watcher” and I took that as leaving.. Yes, she headed for Syria and then where? . I did a search again and this time Amazon came up. The Feminist Press of City University NY, http://www.feministpress.org has published two compilations of her blogs. None since 2006, I believe.

    I like your poignant stories of ordinary life very much . You give the reader a feeling of being there with you watching and thinking about the meaning of it all.

    Thanks for reply. EW. .

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