Novel Thoughts: The Oracle of Stamboul

Michael David Lukas weaves a mystical tale inThe Oracle of Stamboul, chronicling the life of young Eleonora as she contemplates the world and the people in it. Accused of being both a prodigy and a spy, Eleonora copes with tragedy and happiness and ultimately takes her destiny in her own hands.

Lukas does a good job of lending his novel a sense of the mysticism often associated with folk literature of the Middle East. The Oracle of Stamboul employs the curious and fascinating qualities of the geographical region without being heavy-handed to the point of distraction.

Repetition is used throughout the book in the form of ideas (“There was only one rule, and Eleonora broke it.”) and gestures (putting one’s thumb and forefinger on the bridge of one’s nose). While commonly used in folk tales, the device seems rather tedious at times when utilized in this way in a novel-length text.

Lukas does a good job of providing readers with conflict and rising action in the beginning of his novel; however, the falling action and resolution are somewhat anticlimactic. Details go unexplained, and character functions are glibly dealt with often leaving us with more questions than answers. While some readers may find this negligence prohibits full engagement with the text, others may find the reading experience enhanced by the abundance of mystery both in the rising action and in the resolution.

Ultimately, The Oracle of Stamboul provides readers with a fantastic fictional experience filled with magical realism that will encourage them to question which events are real and which are the product of the author’s imagination.

Novel Thoughts: Late For Tea at the Deer Palace

Tamara Chalabi’s Late for Tea at the Deer Palace tells the complex story of a woman’s search for her identity amid the turmoil surrounding her Iraqi family. Chalabi’s family was one of prominence in Iraq several decades ago and has struggled immensely during the many regime changes that occurred during the twentieth century.

Writing a memoir and maintaining objectivity are among some of the most difficult tasks of writing in general, but Chalabi is adept at handling the reality of her family’s situation. While her voice and emotions are evident in the text, she does a fine job of portraying her family members in a way that is not clouded by emotion. Her story, the story of how conflict in Iraq has shaped her life, doesn’t actually begin until the later part of the book, allowing readers to familiarize themselves with the context in which the story is set to the point (almost) of forgetting the book is a memoir.

Chalabi seems to struggle most of all with the connection to her grandmother, Bibi. She finds herself attracted to many of the same social figures Bibi was drawn to, despite the fact that many of these figures are long dead. Bibi seems to represent true roots in the story. Although she lived in exile for many years, Bibi always remained faithfully and authentically Iraqi. Chalabi’s own story is written across the borders of many countries, and her ultimate search for how these different identities culminate within her is the crux of the book.

In Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, readers are forced to confront the pitfalls of memoir, fraught as it is with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. While Chalabi successfully conveys the nature of her family members without excessive emotion, the conversations, actions, and reactions are keenly specific, calling their accuracy into question. Because of this, readers should take into account the capacity for misinterpretation and incongruous versions of the same story while they are reading.

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace provides readers with remarkable insight into a culture with which many of us are unfamiliar. Sure, we have the media portrayal of life in the Middle East; we know what the television tells us. But in reading Chalabi’s book, readers will be able to put a face on the conflict we’ve heard about and read about for so long. Chalabi’s account is personal and leaves readers with a sense of the way humanity is affected both by conflict and by the search to figure out who we are.

Novel Thoughts: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman’s novel is composed of short stories that relate the history of a town, Blackwell, in Massachusetts. In the book, the town binds the characters together across history; it is the only consistent element, even though Hoffman doesn’t specifically divulge the way the town itself changes, only the people in it.

Employment of magical realism helps in this book to detract from the sometimes selfish nature of the characters that inhabit its pages. The author uses colors (specifically red, green, and blue) to suggest the proper emotion for the reader without being too forceful. Readers will also notice the Garden of Eden imagery or rather the fall of the Garden of Eden. The characters in the book are related in such a way that their humanity is inescapable, raw, in need of some sort of direction which the townspeople seem to derive from nature.

Throughout the novel, a bear operates as a constant source of guidance, survival, fear, omnipotence. He transcends the generations and can always be felt lurking underneath the surface of the story and, it turns out, the surface of the garden. The insinuation, we eventually come to realize, is that we are not as far removed from nature as we like to think we are. Over the course of the novel, the people of Blackwell, the women in particular, are prone to abandon the lives they know in favor of the unknown, in favor of the mountain, of the bear. They abandon that which they have always known because it doesn’t seem to fit them. The mountain offers them a truer existence.

In its entirety, the novel is a tightly woven family narrative that spans generations and branches of the family tree. While a visual diagram of the family tree itself would have helped the reader to avoid confusion, overall the novel leaves us with an unexplainable sense of belonging and a gnawing sense of our own humanity.

Fiction Friday: Making the Call

Mike slammed the car door, turned the key, and headed for the turnpike. He was running late already. He would miss the dinner. But they couldn’t have the surprise without him. No, the surprise was his deal. Too bad he wasn’t looking forward to it.

He slammed on the brakes. “Hey moron! Ya tryin’ to get us all killed? What the hell’s your problem? D’you getcha license from a cracker jack box?” Generally Mike was pretty good at weaving in and out of traffic. Sure, he might cut someone off occasionally, but when they saw his hulking form looming over the steering wheel, they knew better than to mouth off.

He had to drive an hour out of his way to run this errand. By the time he wheeled into the parking lot, he was feeling less than cheerful. It had just started to rain, and the lights in the store window were warm and welcoming. At least they would have been to anyone but Mike. He slung the door open and sauntered in. The salesman who should have approached him found himself otherwise occupied with a tower of cords and cables. No one would look him in the eye.

Mike looked down. “Christ!” he mumbled, tearing the bloody apron from his neck and shoving it inside his coat.

“Can I help you?” came a voice from the back corner of the store.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “I want your basic package. Nothin’ too fancy, huh?”

“Are you shopping for yourself?” inquired the salesman. His pseudo-cheerfulness grated on Mike’s nerves.

“Hey look, if I wanted you to know the details, I’d’a give ‘em to ya, huh? Just give me the basic package and the basic equipment.”

The salesman selected the merchandise, second-guessing himself twice, no, three times. He asked Mike for the name on the account, threw in the extra cords, cables, and cases with which the other salesman had so diligently busied himself. Mike turned to go.

“Have a nice night,” bleated the salesman. Mike threw up his hand and grunted.

All the way home Mike fretted over what was about to happen. He thought of best case scenarios. This could be a good thing, a learning experience. He thought of worst case scenarios. Maybe she’d be distracted. She wouldn’t see the end until it was too late. He generally liked to know the outcome of a situation before he went into it, so this uncertainty was maddening. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

“Here goes nothin'” he thought. And he entered the house.
“Damn it!” he growled as he sprawled, grasping for the countertop. He’d tripped over something small and pink. A ballet slipper.

“Sweetie, you’re home,” his wife said. She looked beautiful in her red sweater and pearls. He might have told her so if he hadn’t still been cursing the ballet slipper. “We waited for you as long as we could, but you know. We haven’t cut the cake yet though.”

Was this supposed to be his consolation?

He took off his coat and threw it and the bloody apron inside it to the back of the coat closet. He checked his hair, checked his face, and made his entrance.

When he walked into the dining room, the roar of conversation trickled to a mere murmur. Mike had that effect on people, if only briefly.

“Hey Mike, how are things down at The Butcher’s Block?” his neighbor Randy asked.

“Good, good,” Mike grumped. “People gotta eat, even in tough times, ya know?”

They shared a chuckle.

“It’s about time you got here,” said Aubrey Finnerman, another neighbor.

“I just had some last minute, uh, business to take care of,” he told them. “You know, somethin’ for the, uh, party her–”

“Daddy!” He turned in time to catch the whirling, twirling form of his fifteen (soon to be sixteen)-year-old daughter.

“Hey, short stack,” he said. “Happy birthday.”

“Where’ve you been? We’ve been waiting on you to cut the cake.” With that she grabbed his hand and led him to the front of the room where a cake in the shape of a Volkswagen Beetle was parked.

“Here you go, Daddy. You do the honors.” She handed him the knife. At that moment, somewhere in the back of the room someone started singing “Happy Birthday.” He searched the throng of faces and found his wife’s. She winked at him. She knew he’d been dreading.

When the Beetle had nothing left of a trunk or a backseat, Mike retrieved from the closet the bag he’d brought home.

“Now, uh, listen up, short stack,” he said. And she did.

“Your mother and I, well, we know you’re gonna be drivin’ soon, and listen, we want you to be careful,” he said. She nodded.

“We know you’re gonna go places and do things that, well, we’d rather you didn’t do,” he said. Everyone giggled.

“Look, I don’t like this, but, uh, your mother, well, she thinks it’s a good idea. So, uh, here,” he said and thrust the bag into her hand. “It’s only for emergencies.”

She reached in the bag, squealed with delight, and frantically sought the nearest outlet into which she plugged the charger for her new cell phone.

* * * *

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved

Novel Thoughts: The Imperfectionists

Media is always changing the game. We create new, inventive ways to tell the same kinds of stories we’ve always told. Tom Rachman approaches and exposes the idea of media evolution and how it effects those crucial to its livelihood in The Imperfectionists.

The book tells the history of an international newspaper from its conception to its demise. Each chapter is a short story, a vignette unveiling some crucial information about one member of the newsroom or another. Rachman’s style allows us to simultaneously chastise and sympathize with each person to whom we are introduced, revealing elements of human character both at its best and at its worst.

The characters in the book have only one thing in common: the paper. Each, in his or her own way, believes himself or herself to be absolutely crucial to the paper’s ability to function. Each has an elevated sense of self-importance when it comes to occupation. However, by the end of the novel we are able to see that inasmuch as the paper needs them, they too need the paper. It has become, for most of them, an integral part of who they are and how they see themselves in the world. Life, for both the paper and those who write it, is completely dependent.

Organization in this book is undeniable. It warrants attention because it is so structured. Rachman’s style allows readers to catch glimpses of the paper’s origins without bogging us down in unnecessary details. Each story is precisely as long as it needs to be and no longer. He leaves enough details to the reader’s imagination to alleviate the problem of the reader feeling compelled to do all the work; however, he omits enough for the reader to feel like an important part of the story’s construction.

The Imperfectionists successfully portrays people the way they truly are. We aren’t always good; we aren’t always bad. We have our moments, but in the end, we’re only human. We interact with each other. We rely on each other. We fight with each other. We make up. And in the end that’s all we can really ask for.

Novel Thoughts: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel

Biography is unwieldy. It requires of the writer a certain amount both of subjectivity and objectivity, and that balance can be difficult to strike. For a writer to successfully accomplish the feat that is relating someone else’s life story, he or she must possess a certain level of ardour and incredulity. In The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, Karen Karbo has masterfully managed to relate the story of one of the most sought-after and coveted fashion icons of all time while avoiding the pitfalls of incrimination and idolization.

As per the title, Karbo’s book relates not only the facts of Chanel’s life, her loves, her losses, her idiosyncrasies, but also her philosophies, her business practices, and her overall sense of self-entitlement. Karbo makes no attempt to portray Chanel as more endearing on the page than she was in real life. Chanel was Chanel, and we as readers are invited to take her or leave her. You’ll probably want to take her.

Karbo’s tone is conversational but removed. Her voice invites readers to be as frustrated with the subject as we want to be, while latently reminding us of Chanel’s importance. We may not agree with her life choices. We may be exasperated with the incongruous vignettes that are her life story. But in the end, fascination trumps indignation.

Every story, life or otherwise, is multifaceted, and Chanel’s is no different. Arguably she never told the same story of herself twice. At least not for long. Karbo confronts these inaccuracies head-on. She is careful to ensure that her readers understand the tenuous nature of the story of Chanel, as told both by her and other people. By using this voice and making herself seem just as suspicious of the story’s accuracy as her readers are, Karbo builds credibility for herself in the mind of the reader.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel is biography done well. It is the story of Chanel told creatively in a way that is entertaining and informative. Karbo relates the facts inasmuch as we can know them, but she does so with wit and humor, simultaneously exposing Chanel’s humanity and genius.

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense (The End)

Tough Defense Part 1

Tough Defense Part 2

Tough Defense Part 3

Tough Defense Part 4

In court the next morning, Charlotte successfully delivered her closing arguments. She did what she could to refrain from making eye contact with Lester, and the prosecution did their best to keep from making eye contact with her. While Charlotte grappled with her unease, Lester attempted to draw the prosecution into a staring match. To rattle them, he said when Charlotte noticed what he was doing. She might have put a stop to it with any other client, but she felt too scattered at the moment to say much more than, “Hmm.” Could she actually be a good enough lawyer to convince both judge and jury of an acquittal she knew would be a mistake? Her head throbbed.

When it was time for sentencing, Charlotte found herself violently (though silently) opposing Andre Lester’s acquittal. As the jury read the verdict (not guilty, just as she knew it would be), Charlotte’s glance met that of the judge. She was startled to find a look of concern, a look that said, “Get out. Get out now before you’re too involved, before he knows too much about you and you know too much about him. Just get out.” Clearly Lester was not new to this judge’s courtroom. Charlotte briefly exchanged congratulatory remarks with Lester and the other defense attorneys before retreating to the the exit. As she passed the prosecuting attorney, his eyes (finally) met hers. She recognized the sentiment she found there, one of sympathy, and she forced herself to break away before he recognized the dejection in her own.

“Oh, Ms. Malloy,” she heard Lester shout from the front of the courtroom. “I am grateful for your services. I look forward to working with you again in the near future.” The cat that ate the canary? Yes, he was.

“Just doing my job, Mr. Lester. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to the office to file the final paperwork.”

He leered after her as she left. Oh yes, he thought, as he attempted to shake a wrinkle out of his linen pants, he would be seeing her again soon. He had to.

* * *

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved

Get Lost

Life very seldom affords us the opportunity to lose ourselves. There are too many people depending on each one of us. But sometimes it seems that getting lost is necessary. If we lose ourselves, it follows that we will seek to find ourselves again, who we are, who we were, who we want to be. And it is during this quest that we recover parts of our personalities that inadvertently fell by the wayside. These are attributes of ourselves that at some point we decided were ill-suited to the person we were trying to be. Rediscovery makes them new again, and we remember why they were so important to begin with. We refashion them, turning them into useful parts of ourselves. We return to them because they belong to us, because they are us.

It’s time to get lost.

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 4

Tough Defense Part 1

Tough Defense Part 2

Tough Defense Part 3

Charlotte hustled herself out of the building that housed her office downtown. The southern sun beat down, and the humidity felt like a weight growing heavier on her chest. She clipped along to the parking garage.

“God, I gotta get out of here,” she thought, knowing full well that if he really wanted to know where she was going or what kind of car she drove, he could find out. He always seemed to be one step ahead of her, a characteristic that unnerved Charlotte in all clients, particularly clients of this ilk.

More than anything Charlotte just wanted to get out of there. Why is it that on the days she most needs to get away, the parking lot becomes an obstacle course, a maze with no exit? She drove around in circles a few more times and headed towards home. Andre Lester smiled through the office window at her effort.

“Where ya been, Sis? I been waitin’ for ya,” Kip said when she walked through the door. She had that silly spool of wire of the table in front of her, attempting, it seemed, to shape it into something artsy. She looked like she hadn’t been awake for too long.

“Did you just get up?” Charlotte asked. She was hoping whatever Kip had done that day would take her mind off her meeting with Lester.

“I been up since one. I’m an artist, not a bum.” Kip smiled through her feigned indignation. “Beauty doesn’t create itself, ya know.”

As Kip dove into the details of her day, Charlotte’s mind began to wander into tomorrow. She was confident that she had thoroughly memorized her arguments for tomorrow, including the parts she didn’t believe. That’s most of it, she thought, and shook her head. But what would happen to her afterwards? What would happen to Lester?

* * * *
To be continued…

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 3

Tough Defense Part 1

Tough Defense Part 2

Charlotte exhausted that wave of positivity, riding it straight into her afternoon. Her next meeting, though, was looming in front of her, and she was going to need more confidence than today’s brief interlude with Stuart had allotted her.

“Charlotte?” her intercom crackled.

“I know, Lisa. You can tell Mr. Lester I’m headed to the conference room.”. Lisa, that was it, Charlotte thought, glad she finally remembered someone’s name without having to consult the placard on the desk.

Charlotte took a deep breath and sighed out the window for the second time that day. Without dwelling too much on where she was going or to whom she was going to speak, Charlotte forced herself to the conference room.

As she approached, her stomach began to twist. She could see him lounging in his chair as though waiting for an old friend. The gaudy gold jewelry he wore contrasted sharply with his crisp white linen suit. That, Charlotte thought, is a poorly executed disguise, and it is all you need to know about a man like that. His overwhelming cologne felt like a sucker punch when she walked through the door.

“Ms. Malloy, it’s so good to see you,” Mr. Lester leered. His accent was thick, an amalgamation of languages gleaned around the world. Charlotte tried not to think about how he’d acquired it.

“And you, Mr. Lester. Now, I spoke with the prosecution this morning, and they-”

“Ms. Malloy,” Lester tutted. “So formal. There will be time for business. Life, well, life is too short. I want to talk about more pleasant things. Like you.”

It was this part of the conversation that Charlotte dreaded the most. Despite her novice status as a defense attorney, she understood that no client should know anything more than her name and office location. She’d known Andre Lester long enough to know that she wasn’t about to volunteer anything. He could probably find out for himself if he wanted it badly enough. The thought crossed her mind that he probably had. Suddenly the conference room began to feel smaller. Charlotte tried not to look panicked, but the plate glass separating her from the her colleagues seemed to be getting thicker and thicker until the forms of errand boys and paralegals began to blur.

“Ms. Malloy, is something the matter? You look ill.” Lester appeared concerned, and indeed he was. He needed his defense in top condition. A change in attorneys would disorient the jury, and he couldn’t afford that. Not again. Besides, he hated to see an attractive woman in distress. It never occurred to him that he might be the source.

“Yes, I mean, no, Mr. Lester. I’m perfectly well. Now if we could discuss your case, I have a meeting across town in an hour. And you know the traffic here.” Charlotte faked the confidence she didn’t feel.

“But of course, Ms. Malloy. Fine, we can discuss this, what you call, situation.”

* * * *

To be continued…

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved.