Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling

What is The Sound of Things Falling?

The Sound of Things Falling is the story of a common past, a novel of place, of individual and collective trauma. Told in the first person, the narrator, a professor in contemporary Bogota, looks back to when he was accidentally shot in 1996, when a friend was gunned down and killed while standing next to him. Suffering from post-traumatic stress, Antonio leaves on a journey to unveil his friend’s history, and he discovers his own, as well as painful truths about his nation. The primary story spans a period from the early ’70s to the mid ’90s and deals with Pablo Escobar’s Columbia and the war his cartel and the government waged not just upon each other, but upon its citizens.

What is the sound of things falling? Here, it is quite beautiful: “In a matter of minutes the musical scandal of crickets and cicadas burst out and a few minutes later had calmed down again, and only a few soloists chimed up here and there, interrupted every once in a while by the croak of a lost frog. The bats fluttered three meters above our heads, coming in and out of their refuges in the wooden roof, and the yellow light moved with the puffs of a gentle breeze, and the air was warm and the rum was going down nicely.”

Adding to this beauty is that the novel is translated into English from its original Spanish by Anne McLeod. Translation is its own much under-appreciated art form. To capture the essence of meaning, to capture the feeling, the ideas, the musicality of the original text, especially from a more lyrical native language–this cannot be an easy task, and must be a labor of love. It is poetry in its own right. McLeod, the translator, has indeed won major prizes for her translations. And the author of The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, is also an accomplished translator of major works, while his original fiction has won numerous awards from the Alfaguara Novel Prize in Spain to an English PEN award.

The language in evocative. The story is interesting.  It creates feeling and tone: melancholy and quiet and sadness. Add to this its ideas about what matters–about collective experience and how we treat each other and those in our care–and the result is an artful novel full of resonance.


The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, 270 pages, Riverhead Books 2013


Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart

Winner of the Guardian First Book Prize and the Irish Book Awards Winner Book of the Year, it’s assured that The Spinning Heart is a good book. It’s easy to compare it to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, because each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view. Yet how these chapters–and pitch-perfect voices–fit together to provide a traditional novel’s arc, as well as the broader story of contemporary Ireland after the death of the Celtic Tiger is where the novel truly shines.

When the construction boom goes bust, a small town flounders in its present and revisits ghosts of Ireland’s economic past. Bobby, the foreman of the local construction company, is revered by the town and is this book’s protagonist. Yet we only hear his voice once–a superb narrative trick. Yet will the hero kill his father? Is he having an affair? Has he cracked up? And who kidnapped a child from the local daycare center? These are the plot lines, but the reader arrives at them bit by bit, through each different character’s voice. For example, there is Realtin, the young single mother who shows us a broader economic story of Ireland, and how though things change, they still stay the same: “There are forty-four houses in this estate. I live in number twenty-three. There’s an old lady living in number forty. There’s no one living in any of the other houses, just the ghosts of people who never existed. I’m stranded, she’s abandoned.”

One of my favorite things about much of contemporary Irish literature is that stylistically the language and descriptions tend to be as lyrical, fierce, and flowing as the sea. You won’t get as much of the lyricism here. It is still here, however: “I’ll stand there until I start feeling like a dick, then I’ll get the bus back to the village and look at her number in my phone while the summer rain runs down the window and my cowardly heart settles back into the slow rhythm of time being wasted.”

You’ll also get sad, and almost funny, realism: “I was diagnosed with post-traumatic shock, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, manic depression, scoliosis, psoriasis, addictive personality and a few more things. I learnt them ones off by heart for telling them shitbags inside the welfare office where to stick their fucking job interviews.”

If you want to know about real Ireland and to hear the actual cadences of its people–not the packaged, plastic emerald sold to tourists that relies on nostalgia and nonsense, this is a book to read: true, fierce, tragic, and funny. At just 156 pages, it does much with a superb economy of language. Too many recently published American books suffer from bloat, perhaps a symptom of our American culture. And there are parallels to America here as well; this is also a book to read to see the stunning similarities, regardless of location, that capitalism creates, after the

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things

In my never-ending and often over-zealous quest to de-clutter and organize our house, I tossed out the issue of Poets & Writers that featured an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. This is not a reflection on either P&W or on Gilbert.  I remember being inspired by the P&W interview, and even sending an email to writer friends that contained some quotes from Gilbert. That said, I’m not big on inspirational quotes. But Gilbert is inspiring. I’d even give you some of those inspirational quotes if I hadn’t thrown them out. Sorry. So let me instead say that Gilbert’s story is inspiring, too–both the literal story of Eat, Pray, Love itself and the bigger story of its sales, its following, the backlash against it, and how, as a writer, you could possibly face the expectation (both internal and external) that inevitably exists after having one of the biggest best-sellers of all time.  Granted, most writers would love to have this problem. Most writers too revisit similar themes in everything they write, in different form and story. And The Signature of All Things, Gilbert’s new novel, does revisit some of the central ideas of Eat, Pray, Love, with a different, fictional approach–and in another century.  How does one reconcile science and the divine? Why is there such suffering in the world? What is faith? Why is it that women don’t demand more from their lives and from those in their lives?

Would The Signature of All Things be in print if Gilbert wasn’t Gilbert? Maybe. Would the story of a female bryologist–one who studies moss–set in the 1800s catch the attention of the publishing world today? Unlikely. Can you read The Signature of All Things without what I’ll call the Gilbert Question? Probably not. So, should you invest 499 pages of reading time?

If you enjoy a charming, light voice, if you want to read a story about a female scientist who is truly curious about the world, if you are interested in the history of biology and Darwin, or if want to read a big novel from which questions about women’s lives can be asked, the answer is: Sure.

For me, reading is about knowledge and not so much about fact, for facts don’t always add up to knowledge. For me, a good book is not its research (though this novel is surely well researched), but it is about the sum total and effect of that research. For me, a good book is mostly about understanding people–and perhaps this is where Gilbert most excels.

From page 320 of the novel, “She thought she knew much, but she knew nothing. She knew nothing about her sister. She knew nothing about sacrifice. She knew nothing about the man she had married. She knew nothing about the invisible forces that had dictated her life.”

I enjoyed watching this character learn. I enjoyed watching a celebrated writer tell a whole story skillfully. That said, we are talking about 499 pages of reading time and more than a century of novel time. This book covers a whole life. Parts of the book are undeniably boring. Parts of the book are undeniably entertaining. Parts of the book are undeniably smart. Parts of the book, eh. But, on the whole, the fact that all of these elements are present are what add up to Gilbert’s popular and democratic style. The Gilbert Question answered.


The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

20090305162749!Manzo_diamonds_2_2J. Courtney Sullivan’s 377-page novel published in 2013 should be a hit with readers who like well researched fiction and who have an interest in how diamonds came to symbolize marriage and love. Sullivan gives us a series of characters who live in the late 1940s to the present, and she paints portraits of several very different marriages, as well as a character who chooses to be married to her career.

The story of the real-life Mary Frances Gerety, fictionalized in The Engagements, does glitter with interesting facets. Gerety is  responsible for creating the tagline A Diamond Is Forever, and the story of Gerety certainly makes for rich mining.

Ok, I’ll stop with the diamond puns now and give you the bottom line: I enjoyed Sullivan’s earlier novel Maine (link), but this one didn’t have the same resonance for me. Although the history of diamond marketing is interesting–and important–I didn’t find a lot of new information here, and too much of it came across as research, not as research in service to the story.

I’ve written previously about how Barbara Kingsolver handles research so that it is absolutely integral to the story in her novel Flight Behavior (link), while not coming across as pedantic. Too much felt pedantic in The Engagements for me to love it, and not enough of the real blood history of diamonds was included for me to get behind the concept completely. But how the advertizing industry created a symbol of love from a rock in the ground is worth the read.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s new collection of essays is the kind of book that makes a great gift. Like its title, it is a happy book. It made me laugh out loud, it made me shed tears, and it made me share a lot of quotations with writer friends, with my aunt who is a poor Clare nun, with my boyfriend, and I even shared some with Facebook. If you love writing, dogs, your dad, opera, RVs, independent book stores, nuns, marriage, or just enjoy witty essays: This is a great book. It is deeply personal, vivid, funny, charming, and wise.

Patchett’s essay on writing, The Getaway Car, contained some of the best advice on writing that I’ve ever read—and I have read a lot. A whole lot. “People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”

In My Road to Hell Was Paved, Patchett details her journey in an RV with her on-again, off-again boyfriend. They were off-again during the journey, on which they learned “the Great RV Truths”—and they learned about love: “I feel like I went out to report on the evils of crack and have come back with a butane torch and a pipe. I went undercover to expose a cult and have returned in saffron robes with my head shaved. I have fallen in love with my recreational vehicle. And I have fallen in love with Karl…”

While on the topic of love, don’t even the happily married wonder sometimes what is the magic, the mystery, the thing that keeps it all together? Here, according to Patchett, is a useful question to ask: “Does he make you a better person?”

And reading this collection of essays might just make you a better person too, at least while you share Patchett’s lovely world.



The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

If ever a 771-page novel could be a two-hour thriller, this is the book. Of course, it will likely take you a lot longer than two hours to read it, but it will feel like only two hours. And if ever such a thing existed as a literary thriller, this is the book.

The Goldfinch has it all: From high society Manhattan to tawdry Vegas, from the elite art world to dirty drug dens, from lost children to the kind people who save them, this book promises to entertain, with some beautiful, ugly, and wise meditations on life, love, and art.

When several bombs explode inside a New York art museum, killing 13-year-old Theo Decker’s mother, he survives, but he survives in a world in which he is very much alone–and in possession of one of history’s greatest and rarest paintings by a Dutch master. Tartt goes on to create a hard, miraculous, mysterious, and dangerous life for Theo, told with the same specific detail, extraordinary shades of light and dark, and grand scope that the Dutch masters created on canvas.

If there are only variations on two primary stories in the world—that a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey—this novel sets Theo off on both. He engages with obstacle after obstacle along the way. He experiences privilege and poverty, comfort and deprivation. Told in the first person, the reader experiences each as Theo does. The world is fascinating and exotic, but completely recognizable. Tartt makes the reader’s heart beat as Theo faces danger and makes idiotic decisions. In addition to working as a great technical feat to put the reader in Theo’s shoes, great purpose of ideas also exist in the book’s narration.

For example:

“A great  sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are. Because—isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, ever Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’ Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted?”

Like the first-person narration itself, no one idea can be trusted. Indeed, perhaps that’s where art, literature, and a multitude of perspectives come in, and it is in this masterly third novel of Tartt’s that she conveys this. She also plumbs themes about post-traumatic stress, alcoholism and addiction, and the value of work.

The book deserves to be a best seller or cool film. In fact, the LA Times reported today that the same team who made The Hunger Games series into films has signed on.

Tartt graduated from Bennington College in 1982, a contemporary of Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem, and she certainly has the chops of a contemporary master. A novel well suited for a long plane ride, quiet evenings in front of the fire, or anytime you can steal away for a few minutes to read: The Goldfinch is worth it.


Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

Once in awhile, happily-ever-afters arrive. Once in awhile, the right people meet the right people. Once in awhile, joy comes to stay. Anna Quindlen’s writing reminds us of this.

The New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist and best selling author of seven novels has one of the most charming voices in fiction today. Her new novel Still Life with Bread Crumbs is, quite simply, lovely.  Once you pick it up, you may not want to put it down.

Still Life tells the story of once-famous photographer Rebecca Winter. Rebecca has reached an age where she is overlooked, her bank account is drained, she can’t get any traction on her work, her philandering husband left long ago, and she can no longer afford her Upper West Side apartment and life. She exists as a still-life rendering of her past, yet each of these tribulations is a bread crumb that leads her to a rental house in the woods of upstate New York. What unveils is a realist fairy tale, as Quindlen shows us the pain and darkness in her characters’ lives, with levity and fun, which is a rare treat.

Told with her intelligence, care, and singular wit, Quindlen provides the reader with a trail that explores aging, feminism, the relevance of art and the creative process, pretension, mental illness, and the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of life in the big city and a small town.

At the end of the trail, Quindlen gives her readers a true gift of story telling; in Still Life with Bread Crumbs, she lets her readers feel what it is to find happiness and to be, quite simply, happy.