Tuesday, November 29, 2016

All the Missing Girls-Megan Miranda

All the Missing Girls-Megan Miranda

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Nic returns to her hometown that she had left behind after her friend disappeared. Her father is unwell and a new disappearance of another girl who had been connected to Nic's family throws her into a tizzy.

Listen, this book could be a causality of my trope-to-kinda-hate of the moment: dangerous white teenage girls but I didn't really enjoy this book. I want to start with the observation that Miranda writes her narrator very credibly. As a character, she is following a clearly established logic and value system. But for the reader, Nic is incredibly frustrating. She's so off putting that it kind of boggles my mind. The structure of the book doesn't particularly help her case as Miranda hides so much from the reader that you essentially are treated to pages and pages of hysterical hypocrisy. Nic is nosy and self-involved-a combination that is common enough but when you add in the hypocrisy of her actions, makes for a potent cocktail of unpleasantness. "TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW" she cries over and over again while stampeding through people's lives, hiding her own knowledge, and tampering with evidence in an open investigation. That last bit particularly irked me because, I'm sorry, you either tamper with evidence and redirect the investigation away from what you know to be true OR demand they investigate and find out what you know to be true. You can't have it both ways Nic!
I was particularly frustrated because with a different sort of narrator this could have been such a different book with some very interesting points to make. Instead Miranda's points are buried underneath Nic's hysteria. But see, Miranda made me think and care about her character anyway.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wolf in the Attic-Paul Kearney

The Wolf in the Attic-Paul Kearney

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

Anna is stranded in strange cold England with her father, both refugees from the Greco-Turkish population exchange chaos. She has only her doll for company but then she meets Luca, a strange amber eyed boy. She later finds him in her attic and her whole life changes.

I am ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, I really really enjoyed it. The way Kearney uses myths and twists them about into a fascinating blend was what kept me reading it. I enjoyed reading this rather strange account of the utterly lonely Anna. It is evocatively written and the pacing is quick and decisive.
Then I put my reviewer's hat on and my goodness, there's a lot to say that sounds so negative. But I enjoyed this book! Ok, so to start, there's a fair bit that seems almost unnecessary (like the short-lived Tolkien/Lewis plotline) but that's excusable-it did set the scene and time. The ending is both pat and obscure-on the one hand, it's a happy ending but also what on earth happened?! But I guess what I liked least were the more ethnic aspects. When Kearney stuck to the more British folklore and myths, that's when this story shone. His use of the British landscape and the vagueness of his sources kept me going along and enjoying myself.  But I think it's endlessly lazy to  paint the Roma as exotic manipulative villains. Really now. And then there was the very heavy dose of Anti-Turkish sentiment in Anna's (a Pontian Greek) backstory. In my experience, knowing many Pontic Greeks and reading dry historical accounts, the stories told about this (horrific episode in history) tend to be different in tone-a strange-to-convey balance of love for their land, the betrayal of their neighbors but also their own culpability in a way. Children in particular tend to express such pasts in a different way so Kearney's approach was a little too heavy handed and a bit too "adult". I do wonder that were I not so familiar with the situation, would this have been a problem? Probably not but it did destroy my suspension of belief especially along with the manipulative charismatic Roma.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Kaminsky Cure-Christopher New

The Kaminsky Cure-Christopher New

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

A novel about a family of a Lutheran Reverend classified as half Jewish in Nazi Austria.


This was a deceptively hilarious account of being 'other' in Nazi Austria. The title refers to the tactic of holding a mouthful of water in order to stop from saying what you will regret. The converted-to-Christianity-Jew in this novel, Gabi, is forced to frequently employ this tactic. This is a tragicomedy. It shouldn't be funny but it is with the utter surrealities and ironies of life delivered with perfect timing. And like any good improv sketch, there are call-backs and repetitions that make it even funnier. But New is never taking his subject lightly. It is hard and difficult to be a half-Jew born to a Lutheran true party believer during the World Wars in Austria. The family characters are well developed from the thoroughly unpalatable Reverand Willibald to the ill-in-the-body Jewish Gabi fighting to educate her ungrateful half-Jewish family any way she can to the self-hatred of Ilse and the heartrendingly sad Sara who grows up too fast. Martin is the least developed, leaving him as a kid blind to the fact that he is not the best nor could he ever be a fighter in the German army. The child's viewpoint actually works here (part of the surrealism comes from the child's vantage) and matures accordingly to his age and circumstances-a rarity when done without jumps in time. A rewarding read-entertaining but never shying away from the horrors of the fight for humanity.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-Alan Sillitoe

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-Alan Sillitoe

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 192
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1951
novel (rerelease)

Arthur is a lathe worker who has little care for authority all day and spends his nights drinking in the moment.


I lived in Sheffield for a number of years and though I knew mostly educated non-steelworkers, the industry and its people were a very proud legacy. Though Sillitoe is writing about Birmingham, I feel like this working class experience was shared across the industrial Northern cities as it tied together so much of the facts of the industry of the 19-20th centuries with the folk bravado remaining in the songs and drinking habits and gave it a human face. Our Arthur is surprisingly likable despite his self-centeredness and really not giving a flying f--- about other people. He is the typical young industrial worker-binge drinking his paycheck away and out to cheat the world before it cheats him. But Arthur is not dull or an idiot, he is simply a young man of his time. He muses on his father (a rather sad figure), the future that awaits him and says nope, and lives as much in the present as possible with whoever he can. Yet there's also an inevitability, he knows the future will catch up to him, he'll find the girl to settle down with and marry and maybe it'll be alright anyway. Much of his anger seems to stem from the inevitability of his life. He's proud of his work and good at it but keeps himself down because it's not like his paycheck will be better or he'll be able to rise through the ranks. He spends his paycheck on drinking because who knows if saving it would actually mean he could buy what he wants/needs. He uses people because he's used all week anyway. This is angry young (white) man lit for sure with a proto-punk unconsciousness but Sillitoe writes it well. The voice of Arthur is enjoyable and the pacing suits the novel. Perhaps not much actually happens but Arthur is a different person anyway.
I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

High Mountains of Portugal-Yann Martel

The High Mountains of Portugal-Yann Martel

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 332
gender: M
nationality: Spain
year: 2016
novel

Tomás goes into the High Mountains on his few days off in search of a strange artifact to be found in a tiny village. Years later, his story intersects with a pathologist who is visited by an inhabitant of that village. Many years later, a Canadian senator seeks refuge in that same village, bringing a chimpanzee as his companion.

This is an inventive and compelling novel about grief. That´s what the three disparate plotlines are really about. I'm aware that is likely to be labeled as magical realism since the setting is mostly reality with a few "magical" or unexplainable aspects (all related to faith I might point out) and it's a favored label for Luso-Hispanic texts but I find myself wondering whether it's actual magic or simply the things grief does to our sense of reality. All of the magical elements are related, in part, to faith-the acceptance of the irrational. Things that are presented as one thing become something different all the time in this novel and sometimes it's overtly implied that it's simply a manifestation of the narrator's grief but when it is one of the threads linking the three main characters together, Martel just lets them go. Grief, the village setting, and the artifact all link the three main characters so I really don't think the magic must be real and it is actually a much more interesting novel if you consider the cultural notions that would manifest similar grief symptoms. Martel even has some of those overtly in this novel, the oldest story becomes almost a myth, a legend and aspects that were a singular experience morph into tradition without an origin story. These are all the almost subconscious collective memory of culture that underpin some of the more irrational seeming aspects of lives. Martel is a skilled storyteller and handles the various connecting threads well giving both overt and subtle links between the three stories. At times, he veers into too much detail which makes some parts feel repetitive (I'm looking at you, 3 instances of starting up the automobile on 2 pages!) but overall, this is a gentle novel to read.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Wild Ones-Jon Mooallem

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America-Jon Mooallem

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 334
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2013
non fiction

Jon Mooallem travels in the world of animal conservation groups after realizing how many fake animals we surround our children with and asking what are we doing about the real ones?

That subtitle says it all, doesn't it? This book really delivers on its long promise. I was indeed, sometimes dismayed, often reassured despite myself by the stories Mooallem shares. Mooallem writes in a charming and self-conscious manner about what his journey talking to various kinds of animal conservationists. There are many references as to why he was doing this and those reasons changed along the way. His choice of the central stories were well done. There's the super trendy and controversial polar bear. The 'sexy' image of conservation campaigns. The stories sometimes took on surreal aspects (Martha Stewart shows up) as Mooallem discusses the disconnect between the under-researched public's demands versus what the scientists think would be the right thing to do. The polar bear also demonstrates a central issue-our emotional reactions to the plight of animals. His second was the unknown and more endangered Lange's metalmark butterfly whose survival depends on the constant maintenance of its last known habitat which has been so studied that the studies themselves endangered what they were studying. This is a great demonstration of the issues of what is "natural" and "saving" as well as a great historical lesson on the well-meaning actions of the past which time has shown to be so harmful. Finally, the book goes onto the discussion of Whooping Cranes. This is also an often not-funny but also funny journey into the people teaching the cranes to migrate. The disconnect between what the people want (the cranes to be like the historical cranes) and what the cranes actually do is an excellent depiction of when reality clashes with romanticism and how we really can't control what the animals we "conserve" do. It is also heart warming in that these people really give up a lot in order to do something with so little overt reward-shepherding for 6 months or so, a flock of willful giant birds while simultaneously doing everything they can to minimize the cranes' identification of them as human.
Mooallem really won my heart as he never gives into moralizing nor does he romanticize the "wild" but rather presents these stories as three case studies of what it means to be in a broken world and what we can do, what we try to do, and the indignities people endure in order to attempt to make it a little less broken. I'm left not with a sense of animal conservationist groups are unilaterally amazing nor with a sense of critiquing the efforts of various groups but rather with a deeper understanding of the immensity of the problem and a deeper appreciation for what people are out there attempting to do. I'm simultaneously a little more depressed and a little more hopeful and also still fascinated.

Oh, by the way, if you doubt this book's relevance or interest for non-USians, this book was literally handed to me by a British lady and a German man who had bought each other a copy as presents for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tell the Wind and Fire-Sarah Rees Brennan

Tell the Wind and Fire-Sarah Rees Brennan

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 560
gender: F
nationality: Ireland
year: 2016
novel

A fantasy-dystopic novel about a city split into Light and Dark according to their magical abilities. Lucie has everything she wants in the Light but only due to careful secret hoarding. Yet the Dark side draws her back in.

Honestly, I almost didn't finish this book which would have been a pity. I loved the ending. This is such a rare thing that I have to lead this review with that fact-I liked the ending more than the rest of book. And not in that cruel, "glad it ended" way. Nor in that, oh, that was a charming happy ending. No, it was the way it suited the novel, the feelings it engendered and the way that is ended up making me cry even though I nearly didn't even get to the ending.
Well done Brennan.
But to get there, it's a little difficult. This is not an easy world to transition into-there's a lot that contradicts each other and the narrator's, Lucie's, refusal to engage with the realities of her world means that a lot of the world building was almost done in the periphery. You only got information just as it affected the plot. As such, coherency was difficult to achieve and it lacked the 'sinking into this world' feeling so essential to feeling like you understand what the setting is. And then, there's Lucie herself. Since she hides so much from everyone around her, the reader, herself, she's hard to like or recognize as a well-developed character. I fear that I still don't really understand why all this happened to her (especially given how much she fought being involved in any way).
Yet I'm glad I continued reading so perhaps it was just me, my mood, my own stresses that made this almost a DNF.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Shelter-Jung Yun

Shelter-Jung Yun

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
gender: F
nationality: S. Korea
year: 2016
novel

After a truly violent home invasion, Mae and Jin (and their housekeeper Marina) move in with their son, Kyung and his family. Their family relationship is the center of the novel and it is dysfunctional.

This was so hard to read. Not because of Yun's prose (razor sharp) or pacing (thriller-style) but because the main character, Kyung, is such an angry, damaged, insecure (emotionally and financially) individual. There are reasons for this-his strained relationship with his father is visceral but it did make his every action so grudging that it was difficult to actually feel for Kyung. You sense that he's happy with nothing, anxious, and when he rejects kindness, makes obvious mistakes and just generally walks around like he's blind to anyone other than himself (though, he's not?), you don't find yourself rooting for him precisely. Yun however, handles him masterfully because you never root against him either. He's a nuanced and well developed character which is sadly rarer for an Asian-American character. There's the standard tropes of culture clash but he's also clearly American in his struggles. Then there's Mae, his mother, she's both victim and victimizer and she's a complex character in of herself. I honestly can't process what I think of Mae. Her attempts to escape, her lashing out, her baffling about-faces are so confusing that I can't even begin that I sympathize with Kyung's attempts to weather her storms.

I feel like I'm not selling it right. None of these characters are particularly likable but Yun makes you care about them. The pace keeps you going. The story is intense and it lingers for quite a while past the last pages of the novel. I can't believe this is her first novel because the execution of all these difficult tasks-making a reader care about such damaged family dynamics, incorporating the complexities of multiple cultures, and allowing the reader to parse all this information in the context of such an overwhelmingly violent first scene while never giving into the easier path-is near perfect.

This is reread material.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac-Ethan Canin

A Doubter's Almanac-Ethan Canin

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 558
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Milo Andret is a mathematician. Is he a genius? He is certainly haunted by his rival and the woman he met as an undergraduate even as he lives his life in the present with his wife and children.

This is an surprisingly engaging portrait of a truly difficult man. Milo is obsessive and selfish as well as egotistical in a way that isolates himself from everyone in his life. Canin makes his early life so lyrical and beautiful-the maths in the woods and the carvings Milo can make but things quickly really begin to derail as an undergraduate. Milo's lyrical view of the world narrows to a tunnel of math and poison-his rival who stole the woman he sort of but not really was involved with. He never moves from this and this poisons and ruins his family dynamics. Since parts of the novel are narrated from the viewpoint of his son, Hans, you get this portrait of a bristly utterly unapproachable man married to a saint. Hans is unflinching in his own drive to understand Milo though he too forgives Milo for a lot (too much) in my opinion. Having this angry, failure, alcoholic of a man (Milo) dominate this book really is quite a risk and it doesn't always pay off-parts of this 500+ tome really really dragged for me. Hans was more interesting as he negotiated his own mathematical promise and I really did like the character of his mother but they really don't get enough exposure over these pages compared to Milo's character.
What did get a lot of exposure was the maths. Thankfully there are few equations and numbers involved since Canin spends a lot of time translating mathematical concepts into his own flowing prose but personally wrapping my head around the particular distinctions within the mathematical world and Maslosz's conjecture was hard going. It felt like whole chapters of this book were the working out of...phrases of maths which I found difficult to follow. I am, however, of a decidedly non-mathematical type of mind so I assume all responsibility for it since Canin does his best to translate the numbers into words.