Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Opposite of Loneliness-Marina Keegan

Opposite of Loneliness-Marina Keegan

the facts
satisfaction: down/side
pages: 240
gender: female
nationality: USA
year: 2014
essays and short stories

A disparate collection of prose and essays from a young writer who died at 23.


I was left feeling like this meant much more to people who knew Marina Keegan than it did to me. There were moments of good reading but I feel this way about the internet in general. Otherwise, much of the collection read like I was back in my undergraduate, copyediting for the creative writing workshops-i.e. unpolished beginning experiments in a writer’s life. And so, it felt more like a memorial for a young woman lucky enough to have tremendous contacts through the Yale network rather than something I felt like it was necessary to have read. And so I unfortunately felt like the true tragedy was not that she died so young (though, that is a tragedy but unfortunately one that fells millions of promising people every day) but rather that she will be remembered primarily because she died young, not because of her talent/promise.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Frog Music-Emma Donoghue

Frog Music-Emma Donoghue

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 416
gender: F
nationality: Ireland
year: 2014
novel

Blanche tells the story of the life and death of Jenny, shot dead in the same room as her, as Blanche tries to find the killer.

This was brilliantly researched. The setting, the characters’ attitudes, and the news stories of the times are on point. Donoghue writes with a vibrancy that brings alive this whole time period and the tumultuous lives lived. She doesn’t skimp on the details but also manages not to wholly overwhelm you with them-a delicate balance.

However, I ended up dissatisfied with the book overall. The plot and the characterization were not balanced with as much skill as the research and prose were. I never really felt like I knew the characters all too well and so it wasn’t until the third part of the book (the atmosphere is what kept me turning the pages-that and my stubbornness), that I really didn’t care too much about Jenny’s death. It felt a little like Donoghue was writing a feminist book but failed to do so. The characters are struggling to find themselves, define themselves as women outside of the influence of men, but Donoghue kills off the non-gender conforming one, from the start, and the other finds herself only by realizing she was meant to be a mother. So the message I ended up receiving was not one of the strength of women when they rise above the men who keep them back but rather that it’s best for women to be proper mothers because otherwise, as prostitutes, as non-feminine women, their lives will be dissatisfactory and short.

Ouch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dove Flyer-Eli Amir

Dove Flyer-Eli Amir

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 532
gender: male
nationality: Iraq/Israel
year: 1992
novel in translation

An exploration of the Jewish community of Baghdad before their expulsion and resettlement in Israel in the 1950s.

Embarrassingly, I’ve recently realized that my nuanced understanding of the Middle East actually ends at about 2100BCE (Lagash/Gudea) and so I was almost completely unaware that there was a Jewish community in Baghdad. So this was a fascinating portrait of a community in transition that I had not actually expected. Amir explores the various tensions between the individual, the Jewish community, and the wider Arab majority-the ways they manifest and the various reactions/negotiations undertaken. My ignorance can perhaps be understood since the novel details the complete dismantle of the heritage-the complete erasure of the community. It’s tragic and too closely echoes what ISIS is doing in modern day Iraq. 
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The book itself was a slow to get into since there are just so many characters and unfamiliar geographies but midway through you have met everyone you will meet and you can relax into the atmospheric evocation of Baghdad. It helps that Kabi, the narrator, is genuinely likeable and so you end up caring about how he manages to work through this issue what home means.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gifts of the State-ed. Adam Klein

Gifts of the State-Adam Klein


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 175
gender: M&F
nationality: Afghanistan
year: 2013
short stories


A number of stories about every day life, supernatural myths, and things in between set in Afghanistan and written by Afghanis.

As with any book of short stories, there are those that stand out and those that fade into the background. Some of the writing is stilted but then again, these are written by non-writers in their third or fourth language in the midst of war. That alone lends weight to the narratives contained in the book but really, it was the surprising flow of the book from the excellent imagery of one author, to the strange but familiar plot of another. The prose is often spare, almost Hemingway spare, but the imagery is as vibrant as the mountains of Afghanistan. The stories are often heartbreaking, not always about war, but informed by the daily experience of the writers. The stories intelligently address gender, class, tradition, the city, and the countryside. This anthology is an invaluable antidote to the prevailing distancing media since most of the stories are character studies embedded in the lived experiences of these young Aghanis. You are learning about distinct personalities, the ones stuck in limbo, and striving forwards towards an unknowable tomorrow (followed by the ghosts of their history).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Testing-Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing-Joelle Charbonneau


the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 336
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2013
novel, YA


After hoping that she would be chosen for the testing as a top student, Malencia learns that the testing is a horrible experience within her dystopian society.


Okay, so. I read a lot of YA dystopia and with the popularity of Hunger Games, many dystopia books have sprung up and invaded the book market. I try to read them with an open mind and thus enjoy many of them more than I probably should but every so once in awhile the implausibility really gets to me.
I’m afraid The Testing is one of those. So implausible I really could not get into it. Such a shame really. There was such good attention to world-building, you learn about the history-the seven stages of the collapse of civilization. And Malencia is actually not perfect or effortless (in every way at least). And there is quite some brutality in this novel-Malencia cannot cleverly avoid killing nor does she spend angsty page after page moaning about how she never wanted to kill (very Battle Royale in this lack of sidestepping the brutality). The ending was even skillfully done in my opinion-a rare feat indeed.


But the core tenant of the book? Goodness.


So in a society with dwindling population and a lack of skilled and intelligent people (due to the harshness of the post-apocalyptic world), they take the best and the brightest of each colony…


and kill most of them. The survivors get to go to university-sure they are the best of the best but let me repeat this, most of the best people in this society are killed off. Some of the colonies are left with no best students.


huh? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. This goes beyond social Darwinism and becomes far too implausible in my opinion.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Someone Else's Skin-Sarah Hilary

Someone Else's Skin-Sarah Hilary

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 416
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

A thriller about secrets and what it really means to be a victim. Detectives Marnie and Noah investigate a murder in a women’s shelter.


Oh, this is a hard one to review without spoilers. I often find thrillers to be fairly black and white. Even when characters are tested and seen to be the opposite of what they seem, it’s not to go into a grey nebulous, who can know territory but just a switch from hero to villain. Hilary does not take this easy way out. Every character is hiding secrets, from Marnie’s personal demons, to the ‘villain’s’ coping mechanisms, they are all opaque in a way which means that others project their own biases upon them. And that makes this novel very creepy and unsettling.

Hilary is an able character writer-she doesn’t require pages of prose to form her characters, instead they spring up within a paragraph feeling like people. This is particularly skilled since these characters are so oblique and changeable. The plotlines are very disparate at first to be honest, and you do spend half of the book feeling a bit adrift on a sea of details and plotlines but they get gathered together in the end in a way that doesn’t seem pat or contrived. Instead, these varied plotlines become more of a reflection of the characters themselves.

I really enjoyed Hilary’s skill and though I hope her next one is not about domestic violence, I’d probably read it anyway.

An Officer and a Spy-Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy-Robert Harris

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 429
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

Based upon the Dreyfus affair, an infamous miscarriage of justice in fin de secle France. After having hunted down a spy, an investigator, Picquart, gets promoted to the head of the Statistical Unit. Unfortunately, he was unaware of the politics and machinations that were going on in the corrupt heart of his country’s intelligence bureau. Of course, once he asks questions, things go awry.

I have no idea, still, how much of this historical fiction tale is real. Because it is told in a way that it feels like you’re reading narrative non-fiction. There is nothing that seems unbelievable in the way Harris presents this story-nor in the prose nor in the plot. Amazing work. His attention to detail really forms the background to the story-the details of the daily work of an intelligence bureau as well as the little details that signal power within a hierarchy are all as richly drawn as the characterization. The pacing is immediate and that forces you to emphasize with the frustration as Picquart tries valiantly to correct the misdeeds of his government. And I think the prose was excellent-Picquart comes across as principled and meticulous as you’d expect a top-notch inspector to be which makes the whole awful mess more stark. I came to really like Picquart as a person-intelligent and curious-but Harris doesn’t neglect the character development of the ‘villians’ of the story either. The anti-semitism can be hard to read through but Harris carries you through.

I also enjoy how Harris never really forgets the modern world in which he is writing. He clearly seeks to the universal-many of his aphorisms and introspection apply to both the 19th century and the 21st. So in this way, he really keys into the strength of a historian-the application of previous events to the understanding/enrichment of today.