Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

AuthorJhumpa Lahiri
TitleThe Lowland
Publication Info: Knopf (2013)
ISBN: 9780385367431
Summary/Review:

Lahiri’s novel, like many of her works, deals with Indian expatriates assimilating to life in the United States and coming to terms with their past in India.  The Lowland tells the story of two brothers Subhash and Udayan.  While Subash leaves for America to study in Rhode Island, Udayan is drawn to the Maoist Naxalite movement.  The Lowland is also about a woman named Gauri who is connected to both brothers.

A big spoiler here, but after Udayan is killed by the police, Subhash marries the pregnant Gauri and takes her to Rhode Island to help her escape living with her oppressive in-laws.  The marriage built on expediency cannot sustain and the desires of Subhash and Gauri to pursue their own goals and carry on in their lives with the memory of Udayan drive the conflict of the narrative.  It is in many ways a quiet story with a lot of the passions tempered under placid exteriors and one that offers a sympathetic but not nonjudgmental look at each of the characters.


Rating: ***

Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Author: Markus Zusak
Title:  The Book Thief
Publication Info:   [New York, N.Y.] : Listening Library, 2006.
ISBN: 9780739348345

Summary/Review: 

This novel balances the line between heartwarming and heartbreaking, inevitably falling to the later, but never without giving up hope.  Boldly, Zusak has the book narrated by Death who proves to be sympathetic to humanity and tired of the work he’s given in the Second World War.  Central to the novel is Liesel, a German girl taken in by foster parents when her father is taken away for being a Communist.  Set in a fictional suburb of Munich near Dachau, the novel details day-to-day life in a way that’s familiar to a coming of age tale but also has the overlooming presences of things like the Hitler Youth and nights spent in air raid shelters.  Liesel finds comfort in books, and as the title suggests, purloins some books earning her nickname.  Her life is also changed when her foster parents the Hubbermanns (already at odds with the Nazi party) repay a promise by hiding a young Jewish man in their basement.  Zusak focuses on relationships, test of character, and hope while not dodging the tragedy and atrocity in their midst.  It sounds cheesy to describe it but it really is a wonderful, well-written novel.

Favorite Passages:

“They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thin, incessantly: ‘Get it done, get it done.’ So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”

Rating: ****

Recommended BooksSkeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian, The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies, and Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Author: Claire Messud
TitleThe Woman Upstairs
Publication Info: 2013: Books on Tape
ISBN: 9780307913630
Summary/Review:

Messud’s “Woman Upstairs” is her take on the character without an identity such as Ellison’s Invisible Man or The Mad Woman in the Attic, but in this case the nice woman who no one takes notice of.   Nora is a school teacher who takes an obsession with the family of one of her pupils who are only in the country for a year.  She ends up babysitting the boy, starting an art studio with his mother, and developing a romantic attraction for the father on long walks together.  Messud makes her narrator Nora extremely unappealing in her self-absorption, and unreliable in her idealization of the Shahid family.    There’s also a sense that the Shahid’s are taking advantage of Nora the whole time.  There are some interesting internal narratives of a woman’s place in modern society and as the book is set in Cambridge, MA, some good local color.  I’m not sure I’m convinced by the conclusion, which is somewhat predictable, but I don’t get the sense that it is as life changing as Nora claims it to be.

Recommended books:
Rating: ** 1/2

Book Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Author: Ben Fountain
Title: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Publication Info:   HarperCollins (2012)
ISBN: 9780060885618

 

 

Summary/Review:   This review should be called “Liam Sullivan’s Long Summertime Read” because it took me months to complete reading.  The slothfulness of the read should reflect more on the reader than the novel, and in fact the intricate level of detail in the book may be appreciated by a slow read.  Fountain’s novel tells the story of the Bravo Squad whose firefight in Iraq caught on video goes viral making the ten young men instant heroes brought back to the US to be celebrated and used for a promotional tour.  The majority of the novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day at a Dallas Cowboys game where the Bravos are part of the pre-game and halftime festivities and is told from the perspective of the young Texan infantryman Billy Lynn.  There’s little nuance in Fountain’s writing as this is clearly an anti-war novel with a pile-on of hypocritical people using the Bravos to advance their agenda.  The incidents of the novel also grow increasingly absurd including Billy’s fling with a cheerleader and the surreal halftime show where the Bravos support the performance of Destiny’s Child.  My ultimate summation of this book is good but not great, where the small details stand out better than the overarching themes of the novel.

 

 

Rating: ***

Recommended BooksThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

 

 

Book Review: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

AuthorColum McCann
TitleTransAtlantic
Publication Info: New York: Random House, 2013
ISBN: 9781400069590
Previously Read by Same Author: Let the Great World Spin
Summary/Review:

I’m privileged to review an advanced reader’s copy of this forthcoming novel courtesy of the Library Thing Early Reviewer‘s program.

This is a novel of contrasts.  It’s an epic story covering three centuries and as the title implies crossing back and forth the Atlantic from Ireland to Canada and the United States.  And yet it is a very personal book with detailed character studies of four men and four women.  The men are well-known historical figures: American abolitionist Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour of Ireland, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown making the first nonstop transatlantic flight, and US Senator George Mitchell brokering the Good Friday Agreement.  The women are four generations of the same family whose lives briefly intersect with the historical figures: an Irish housemaid Lily Duggan inspired to go to America by Douglass, the journalist Emily Ehrlich who settles in Newfoundland, the photographer Lottie who marries an RAF airman from Northern Ireland, and Hannah Carson whose loses her son in The Troubles and as we read her story in her own voice in the present time is on the verge of losing all of her family history to the bank.

Just as in Let the Great World Spin, McCann does not interweave the stories, yet characters from other stories appear later on.  The stories are also connected by an unopened letter which acts as kind of a McGuffin and is one of the less effective aspects of the novel to me.  Other than though, the writing in brilliant and McCann has a special gift for capturing the human experience in words.  The fictional figures seem as real as the historical figures and the historical figures are so detailed as to appear as fully-realized literary characters.  This is another great novel by McCann and I highly recommend it.
Favorite Passages:

“What they need are the signatures.  After that, they will negotiate the peace.  Years of wrangling still to come, he knows.  No magic wand.  All he wants is to get the metal nibs striking hard against the page.  But really what he would like now, more than anything, is to walk out from the press conference into the sunlight, a morning and evening jammed together, so that there is rise and fall at the same time, east and west, and it strikes him at moments like this the he is a man of crossword puzzles, pajamas, slippers, and all that he needs is to get on a plane, land, enter the lobby of the apartment on Sixty-Seventh Street, step into his own second chance, the proper silence of fatherhood.” – p. 120

Recommended books: A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan  and Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Rating: ****

Book Reviews: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Author: Chad Harbach
Title:  The Art of Fielding
Publication Info: New York : Little, Brown and Co., 2011.
ISBN: 9780316126694
Summary/Review:

Set at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, this novel focuses on shortstop phenom Henry Skrimshander and the Westish College catcher and captain Mike Schwartz who recruits him for the school and team.  The early part of the novel focuses on Henry’s fish out of water at college and his sassy gay roommate Owen Dunne.  Owen seems to good to be true as he not only writes plays but also is on the baseball team (and gets away with reading books in the dugout) .  The novel takes an unexpected turn when the college president Guert Affenlight becomes the central character as he deals with reconciling with his estranged daughter Pella and an obsession with Owen.  Eventually the stories of all five characters come together, although the unlikelieness of their grouping based on a number of coincidences is one of the weaknesses of the story (especially the actions of these characters at the conclusion of the novel which just don’t ring true).  The strengths of the novel are strong characterization and beautiful prose.  Harbach is adept at describing baseball like a great sportswriter but also fills his novel with literary references (most obviously to Herman Melville, but the novel often seems to be channeling John Irving).  The Art of Fielding is not a perfect novel but it is an enjoyable read with unforgettable characters.

Recommended books:  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: Brooklyn
Publication Info: New York : Scribner, 2009.
ISBN: 9781439138311
Summary/Review: Set in the 1950s, this novel tells the story of young Irish woman named Eilis who gets the opportunity to emigrate to New York, work in a shop, and begin studying accounting and law.  At its best, the story captures nuances of everyday life from the small kindnesses to the petty jealousy, homesickness to new love.   Unfortunately, Eilis has a problem in that she seems incapable of making decisions for herself and thus allows others to shape her life for her.  This comes to a head in the final section of the book which I found so frustrating and didn’t know if should be angry at Eilis for having no spine or angry at everyone in society who made her this way.  Nevertheless, while unsatisfying on the narrative level this is a well-written and honest novel.

Recommended books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, ‘Tis, a Memoir by Frank McCourt, and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
Rating: ***

Book Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

AuthorJennifer Egan
TitleA Visit From the Goon Squad by
Publication Info: Anchor (2011)
ISBN: 0307477479
Summary/Review:

I think it took me a good 70-80 pages to get into this collection of intertwined short stories and vignettes, but from that point on I was won over.  Egan does a good job of establishing characters with seemingly minor characters from one story emerging as the main protagonist in a later story.  She also does a great job of writing in many different styles, most remarkable with an emotionally touching story written as a Power Point slideshow.  This type of experimental literature has been done before, but Egan effectively uses these devices without pretension to tell a story of ordinary people facing life and love and morality (as well as music).  The only part I didn’t like was the final story set in the future which had too many cutesy gimmicks that didn’t ring true to the rest of the book.  All the same, A Visit From the Goon Squad is in the running for one of my favorite books read this year.
Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and Ulysses by James Joyce.
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

AuthorNeil Gaiman
TitleAmerican Gods
Publication Info: New York : W. Morrow, c2001.
ISBN: 0380973650
Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Shadow is released early from prison when his wife and boss die in a car crash.  With no future ahead of him, Shadow accepts a job from the shady Mr. Wednesday.  I don’t expect it’s a huge spoiler that Mr. Wednesday is actually an incarnation of the god Odin who ushers Shadow into the worlds where the gods of antiquity have fallen on hard times in competition with the modern “gods” of technology, drugs, and celebrity.  Gaiman’s characterization is well-done as he introduces many complex figures of gods in human form.  I also like how places that Americans value like roadside attractions become temples and places of power. I am curious though why Gaiman chose to ignore the God of Abraham and the many churches, synagogues & mosques as a rival (or even the questionable “gods” of televangelists and religious extremists).  Shadow is true to his name in that he often seems to have no identity, following Mr. Wednesday with seemingly no good reason, but then there are moments of compassion where his humanity shines through and sets him apart from his godly companions and leads to a satisfying conclusion.

I have to admit that this book was a struggle to read and had it not been for Gaiman’s reputation and that I was reading this for a book group, I may have given up.  In fact the rest of my book group hated this book and we haven’t met since.  Although this is not something I would usually recommend, if you find yourself struggling through the early pages of the book, just read a summary online and skip ahead to page 150.  It gets much better from there on.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Saturday by Ian MacEwan

Author: Ian MacEwan
Title:
Saturday
Publication Info: 
Recorded Books (2005)
ISBN:
 1419332872
Books Read By Same Author:
Atonement
Summary/Review:

MacEwan’s novel follows a seemingly ordinary day in the life of a London neurosurgeon as he goes about his tasks and ruminates analytically on his life and work.  It’s interesting how seemingly major things (like a car crash) are detailed with less intensity than the  seemingly mundane (a game of squash).  Towards the end of the novel things come together too neatly with a dramatic twist that I think undercuts the more interesting stream-of-conciousness aspects of the early part of the novel.  Still an interesting read with a good focus on developing character and internal monologue.

Favorite Passages:

“What a stroke of luck, that the woman he loves is also his wife.”

Recommended books: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
Rating:
 ***

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 985 other followers

%d bloggers like this: