Vincent Van Gogh had lived only seventy days in the small community of Auvers-sur-Oise, Northwest of Paris, since arriving in early May. He had been released from an asylum in the South of France and come North to be nearer his brother Theo, who supported him financially. In an astonishing feat of creativity, he dashed off luminous canvases at the rate of one or more per day, until his darkness returned and he went out into a field and shot himself. Carol Wallace’s novel is an account of those seventy days, as told by the person who was the reason for Vincent’s choice of Auvers: Dr. Paul Gachet.
Chris Jaynes has just been fired from his position as the token black professor at a prestigious liberal arts college, and retaliates by visiting the president and snatching off his red bow tie. This none-too-subtle reference to the preferred attire of Leon Botstein, president of Bard College where author Mat Johnson also taught, launches the book as a satire, but gives little hint of the likability of its hero or the fascination of the study of race that will follow. Johnson turns the subject inside out, standing it on its head, looking at race with an outrageous accuracy whose aim falls on black and white alike. Forgive me, therefore, if I set the comedy aside for the moment and concentrate on the book’s intellectual underpinnings.
Much of the debate concerns the nature of blackness itself, beginning with the protagonist’s own racial identity.
Struggling writer and coffee barista, Ian Minot, is frustrated and depressed. For one thing, he just canât seem to write the kind of stories that will get the publishing worldâs attention. After all, Ian knows, his life isnât as glamorous as his Romanianâs girlfriendâs Anya Petrescu, whose travails under Ceausescu, has landed her an attractive publishing contract. In a snide reference to the New Yorkerâs 40 Under 40 list, Ian points out that âAnya had recently been named one of American Reviewâs â31 Most Promising Writers Under 31.â This year, I was too old to qualify,â he adds.
The âAmerican girlâ in the title of this novel refers to Eveline Auerbach, who, when the book opens, is a junior in high school. The novel is set in the late 70âs in East Hampton, New York.
Evie (as she is often referred to) suffers two big blows right off the bat. A strong maternal figure in her life, Maman, dies from cancer. Incidentally Mamanâs daughter, Kate is a close friend of Evieâs. Second, Evie is raped by two high school classmates (for those squeamish about this, there is no graphic description here).
There is much earthy wisdom in the saying: âOne death is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.â By narrating the life stories of six North Korean defectors and their daily struggles, author Barbara Demick underscores this point beautifully. Her moving book NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA, lets us look at the human angle behind the news headlines.
THE BIG MACHINE is a genre-busting romp through the fields of good and evil. Part mystery, part science fiction, part philosophy, and part theology, this book takes us on a heady journey from underneath the earthâs surface to the wonderment of the universe.