Monthly Archives: November 2013

Giveaway: Thankful for Books!

Books to be thankful for!

Books to be thankful for!

I’m thankful for many things this Thanksgiving: for my family, for our crazy world-wandering lifestyle, and, of course, for all the books I’ve had the chance to read and all the books still to come.

This year, to help share the joy of reading, I’d like to give away a $25 gift certificate to Better World Books. This wonderful organization sells new and used books, but for every book sold, they donate one to someone in need through non-profit partners like Books for Africa and Feed the Children. Next time you’re thinking about ordering a book online, please take a quick look at their site. They offer free worldwide shipping and an extensive selection.

If I can get at least 100 entries for this giveaway, I’ll also donate $25 to First Book, an organization that has to date provided over 100 million books to children in need in the United States and Canada.

This is an international giveaway, so feel free to enter from whatever part of the world you’re currently residing in. The winner will receive an email with instructions on how to redeem the Better World Books gift certificate. Thanks for participating!
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Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwanPoor Professor Beard. A Nobel Prize winning physicist, his intellect is exceeded only by his appetite–for food, alcohol and women. Although he associates himself with efforts to find clean, renewable energy and save the Earth from the ravages of climate change, the truth is that Beard isn’t particularly worried about the Earth or its fate. As McEwan notes, he is a solipsist, uninterested in a future world in which he does not exist.

And anyway, “the past had shown him many times that the future would be its own solution.” After discovering his famous Beard-Einstein Conflation, the work that would earn him the Nobel, Michael Beard has found it remarkably easy to coast along on the prestige of that early triumph. It is sufficient to earn him a comfortable living attaching his name to various research centers and boards, and makes him attractive enough to woo and wed five consecutive women despite his portly stature and slovenly habits.

I expected this book to be weighty and solemn, but in fact it was sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, in the way that I also can’t resist laughing at people who crash in spectacular fashion while attempting ridiculous stunts on America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s a combination of astonishment and appalled horror that compels the reader to plow onward as Beard makes a spectacle of himself. Maybe it’s possible to laugh because Beard is so completely lacking in self-awareness. Indignities and humiliations never penetrate his confidence and self-regard, any more than his doctor’s admonitions to exercise and stop eating so much have any impact on his weight.

Ian McEwan has succeeded in holding up a mirror to humanity, as we consume without a thought for the consequences, despite the fact that we all know the consequences will inevitably follow; unless maybe they won’t, right? Maybe the technology will race ahead of our appetites, maybe that ominous growth will go away if we ignore it, maybe the perfect answer will fall into our laps. Maybe the future will solve itself. Even a logical man like Dr. Beard finds himself succumbing to the temptations of magical thinking as he grows older. Beard’s failure to believe that other people are quite as real as he is, that their needs and desires are as strong as his own, that his choices result in actual consequences–that is the sustained illusion in which he lives. Eventually, of course, there will be a reckoning, for Michael Beard as for everyone else.

Genre: Literary fiction with a suprising element of farcical humor

Read it if: You aren’t afraid to face the realities of human nature, climate change and aging, but you’d appreciate the occasional laugh while you do it.

Skip it if: You really don’t want to know to what lengths a middle aged man will go to urinate in the Arctic.

Movie-worthy: The right director could probably make a hilarious movie out of this. Maybe the Coen brothers…

Book Talk: David Szalay and Nadifa Mohamed at the British Council

Spring by David SzalayLast night I had the opportunity to attend a roundtable discussion with authors David Szalay and Nadifa Mohamed at the British Council here in Chennai. They were touring India as part of a series featuring authors from Granta’s list of best young British novelists under 40, and had already visited Ahmedabad, Pune and Mumbai.

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa MohamedAs the moderator, artist Parvathi Nayar, pointed out, the two authors are completely different in terms of background, influences and writing style. Nadifa Mohamed was born in Somalia and immigrated to the United Kingdom as a small child. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, is a fictionalized account of her father’s nomadic journey across multiple countries in search of his own unknown father.┬áDavid Szalay, born in Canada, also moved to the U.K. when he was very young, but there the similarities end. His third novel, Spring, focuses on the relationships between a man, a woman, and her ex-husband in modern day London.

It was fascinating to hear the two of them describe how they work and what they hope to do with their writing. Mohamed’s novel originally began as a straightforward documentation of her father’s amazing experiences and evolved into a novel, resulting in a blend of fiction and biography, fact and elaboration, grounded by the reality of history. Szalay described the influence of memory and the powerful role that London plays in his fiction, while noting that he did much of his writing about the city while residing elsewhere, in Brussels and later Hungary.

Each author also did a brief reading, sharing an excerpt from their books. While my friend enjoyed the Black Mamba Boy passages the best, I was intrigued by Spring and wanted to find out what happens next. I downloaded it today, feeling simultaneously irritated by my poor impulse control and happy to support an up-and-coming author. Ultimately, happy won.

It was sobering, though, to think that here were two clearly talented, award-winning authors, one with multiple published books, and I had never previously heard of either of them. It was dismaying as a (somewhat) aspiring author myself (i.e., even if you get published you won’t necessarily be known), and it was dispiriting as a reader (because even if you read as fast as you can you will miss out on many brilliant books you never even knew existed.)

Still, I now have one of their books securely contained within my Kindle, and read it I will. I fully intend to make a new year’s resolution not to buy any physical books in 2014, because we are moving (destination as yet unknown) and my books are a significant part of our allotted shipping weight. I virtuously donated a big box of books to a charity sale and it barely made a dent. What’s worse, my subconscious, aware that this no-book-buying resolution will be kicking in soon, has been sneakily tossing books into my shopping basket while I’m looking elsewhere. How else to explain the presence of The Luminaries now leaning on the bookshelf next to a sparkling new copy of Bring Up the Bodies? At least they’re both in paperback.

I will definitely have to make an exception for any author that makes the effort to come to Chennai, though–in the future, I will buy their actual, tangible books, assuming I can find them.

Category: Book Talk

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallOccasionally when a book is widely hyped and roundly celebrated, my contrarian streak kicks in and I just don’t want to read it. And although I sometimes enjoy historical fiction, it’s not my favorite genre. Also, my hardcover copy of Wolf Hall is big, massive even, and heavy to lug around; that was enough to tip the scale in favor of leaving it on the shelf for the past couple of years. When it was selected for this month’s book club meeting, I shrugged and decided to finally read it, even if that meant hauling it around in my purse for a couple of weeks.

It was totally worth it. Thomas Cromwell is such a masterfully drawn character, so complex and alive and sympathetic, despite his failings and his flaws. I have to admit I had never heard of this particular Cromwell before (my twelve-year-old son stared at me in scornful shock when he heard that; he’d just finished Henry VIII: Royal Beheader, one of the Wicked History books, and couldn’t get over my ignorance.)

Maybe Cromwell is widely known and I’m just clueless, but I found his perspective the perfect vantage point from which to view the much more familiar history of Henry VIII and his kingdom. It’s always tricky to create a story where the ending is already widely known (spoiler alert: Henry marries Anne Boleyn! They do not live happily ever after!) Given my fuzzy memories of English history, the rest of the characters may as well have been straight out of Game of Thrones–I had no idea who was going to prosper and who would end up on the chopping block.

So much is going on in this book: political maneuvering, legal wrangling, religious conflict, financial dealings and good old fashioned manipulation are all in play with seemingly every decision or event. Watching Thomas Cromwell master the games played by those who consider themselves his betters is exhilarating. He is ruthless yet remarkably loyal, relentless yet exceptionally pragmatic, forceful yet seamlessly charming. What made me love him, though, were the thoughts he kept inside and shared with no one but the reader: that the frescoes he saw in Italy changed him forever, that it troubles him when a random servant remarks that he looks like a murderer.

Wanting to check whether he actually did look like a murderer, I googled the portrait Hans Holbein made of Cromwell and ended up geeking out a little and making an entire Wolf Hall Pinterest board of people and things from the book. A quick peek at Pinterest reveals that the Tudors are the subject of many a board already, probably thanks to the Showtime series about young Henry VIII and his court.

Wolf Hall left me with many questions about what is going to happen to Cromwell and the people he cares about, even if it’s a given that things are going to get a whole lot worse between Henry and Anne. Most intriguing of all is the title of the book. The family home of the Seymours, Wolf Hall is only mentioned a few times, almost as if everything in this first volume of Mantel’s trilogy points toward that destination without ever actually going there.

At least by waiting to read this remarkable book, I can indulge my penchant for instant gratification and start reading the next book in the series, Bring Up the Bodies, right away…

Genre: Literary prize-winning historical fiction full of intrigue and suspense.

Read it if: You’re waiting for the next George R.R. Martin book (Ned Stark could have used Cromwell’s help, that’s for sure) and you don’t mind the absence of sex and dragons.

Skip it if: You have trouble distinguishing characters when every single person is named Thomas, Henry, George, Richard, Mary, Jane or Anne. Egad.

Movie-worthy: No doubt, but I think the Showtime series has already cornered that market.

Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves*Warning: this review contains spoilers for the previous book in this series, The Raven Boys. So if you haven’t read it yet, go read it right now.*

I have to admit I didn’t like Ronan Lynch very much in The Raven Boys. It seemed strange that such an apparently well-adjusted (if magic-dead-king obssessed) guy like Gansey would insist on having such a disagreeable person around, unless it was just for contrast. The Dream Thieves provided some significant back story on Ronan, making him a much more fascinating and sympathetic character, while also advancing the story toward the inevitable (?) fulfillment of Blue’s prophecy and Gansey’s appearance among the soon-to-be dead. To ratchet up the tension even more, The Dream Thieves ends with an unexpected cliffhanger scenario that will make it that much harder to wait for the third book.

Now that I’ve finished The Dream Thieves, I love Ronan and feel bad for not appreciating him more throughout the whole first book. He has experienced greater inner torment than anyone should and worse, he seems to think he deserves it. Only if he faces what he is and accepts the true nature of his gift can he stop the nightmares from entering his waking world and taking over. The only other choice is self-destruction.

Meanwhile, Adam’s life has turned inside out since he left his home behind and with it the constant threat of abuse from his father. The consequences of that step are obvious; less clear is what will happen to him because of the sacrificial deal he made with Cabeswater. His pride stands in the way of his friends’ efforts to help him and Blue begins to realize that maybe there is more than one reason she can’t kiss him. Watching Adam misread and misunderstand every glance and comment from the only people who care about him was painful, and completely believable.

From the mysterious and complicated hit man Mr. Gray to the destructive and amoral drag racer Kavinsky, every character in The Dream Thieves is vividly drawn and intriguing. Stiefvater’s writing elevates the book from fun genre fiction to a powerfully affecting coming of age novel with an ensemble cast who just happen to have some really crazy things happening in their lives. I especially loved one scene featuring what may be the most bittersweet first kiss ever. It was beautifully done and like so much of the The Raven Boys story so far, weaves the fantastic and the emotionally true into something unique and memorable.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is: when does the next book come out?

Genre: Dreamy and inventive YA fantasy.

Read it if: You love imaginative, beautifully written YA with a highly original twist on magical themes (but make sure you read The Raven Boys first!)

Skip it if: You are not a big fan of magic, or dreams, or teenagers, or you have issues with the occasional moment of bad language or moral complexity.

Movie-worthy: Absolutely! I would love to see the inside of Ronan’s house, for one thing. And also the cars blowing up.

Category: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

The Flame AlphabetThe Flame Alphabet┬áby Ben Marcus imagines a world in which speech has become toxic, in which the words of children sicken the adults around them. The idea sounds far-fetched; yet after finishing the book I knew from personal experience that words can nauseate their audience. That seemed to be not only The Flame Alphabet’s plot, but also its goal.

Sam, the narrator of this profoundly disturbing tale, once lived a life of smugly satisfied marriage and humbly defeated fatherhood. When he and his wife Claire become ill, they initially assume it has nothing to do with their daughter Esther and the words she routinely hurls at them like so many stones. As it turns out, the content of her speech is completely beside the point; even the sweetest words are ultimately lethal to the adult who hears them. Words kill and only children are immune.

Sam attempts all sorts of implausible home remedies, urged on by the mysterious voices he hears together with his wife in their “synagogue hut.” They belong to a secret sect of Judaism which holds that faith should not be practiced or discussed with any other person. The rituals of this particular sect are bizarre and organic, involving a pit in the ground, orange cables, and a device called a Listener, or Moses Mouth, described in terms that make it sound like a living thing.

Meanwhile, a man who calls himself Murphy skulks around the community and it appears he is involved in the perpetuation of rumors about the sickening. He knows more than he should about the synagogue huts and their purpose, and seems to believe the cables connecting them hold the link to a deeper truth. He is obviously a manipulative liar, yet Sam encounters him repeatedly throughout the events of the novel, and seems unable to resist the force of Murphy’s personality.

The story grows increasingly nightmarish as Sam describes in visceral detail the symptoms of his and Claire’s illness, his strange interactions with Murphy, and his passive responses to the bizarre events around him. Reality has no footing; there are only rumors and speculations, absurd experiments designed to cure or at least alleviate the symptoms of the sickness, Kafkaesque attempts to devise and test an alphabet or script that can be perceived without harm. Without language, the surviving adults behave like mindless cattle, treating each other with cruel indifference, while the children run wild in quarantine zones.

The method ultimately devised to allow speech for at least short periods of time seemed to deliberately echo the horrific accusation of blood libel, which frankly creeped me out. In fact, the entire novel made me think of the alienation effect of Bertolt Brecht’s plays (assuming I’m remembering it right; it’s been a while since college.) Sam is not a narrator who evokes empathy or sympathy or any human warmth whatsoever. His reactions to events appalled and repelled me, so often it felt deliberate. Similarly, it was impossible to slip into the story and flow with it, because the author constantly turned the familiar on its head, usually in a nausea-inducing manner. For example, people keep eating “lobes.” What the heck is a lobe in this case? I had shudder-inducing visions of families sitting around the dinner table with a quarter brain on their plate. Maybe the whole disease is a bizarre form of kuru.

Coincidentally, I saw a thread on Quora the other day that discussed whether you should keep reading a book you’re not enjoying. I was curious to see how people answered because I’ve always had a hard time putting down a book once I’d become sufficiently invested (although I’m getting better about this as I get older.) Most people said life is too short to read a book you don’t enjoy, or suggested that the only reason someone might persist is to earn imaginary points for reading some critically acclaimed tome or essential classic work.

In this case, while I can honestly say I did not enjoy The Flame Alphabet, I suspect that wasn’t exactly the point of the book in the first place. Something else was going on in the dark heart of this twisted novel, something powerful and deeply unsettling. It took words and made them toxic, imagined communication as a form of weapon, comprehension as a curse. Although a similar theme was explored in a much more accessible and high-concept manner in Max Barry’s recent thriller Lexicon, The Flame Alphabet had a significantly more ambitious and sinister message.

In the end, when Sam is utterly alone, he wishes more than anything that consciousness had been extinguished along with the ability to speak, to read, to write, to convey something from that strange and lonely universe within the individual. If communication is no longer possible, the interior monologue becomes a burden, a hated voice that never stops. It is just about as bleak a book as I have ever read. Seriously, The Road seems kind of hopeful by comparison. But it also seared itself into my brain in a way that few books do.

Genre: Surreal literary horror

Read it if: You enjoy a challenge, you’re not put off by a little vomit, or you have always secretly envied children their blissful lack of comprehension.

Skip it if: You dislike feeling seasick while reading; you can’t stand reading about bad things happening to children; or you strongly feel that protagonists should be likable, relatable, etc.

Movie-worthy: No, thank you.

Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

FingersmithDespite having heard great things about Fingersmith, I let my copy languish on my to-be-read shelf for years before finally cracking it open over vacation. This is definitely one of those cases where I had to ask myself: why on earth did I wait so long to read this amazing book?

Set in Victorian England, Fingersmith is the story of Sue, a teenage orphan. Her adopted mother, Mrs. Sucksby, makes a living by “farming” infants, taking in babies for a fee, selling the unwanted ones, and dosing all of them with liberal quantities of gin to keep them quiet. The household includes Mr. Ibbs, a locksmith who fences stolen goods, and the ragtag thieves and con artists who come and go throughout Sue’s childhood. Among all the babies Mrs. Sucksby has cared for, only Sue receives special treatment, as the stand-in for Mrs. Sucksby’s own long-lost daughter.

Although Sue lives in a hive of criminal activity, she is a happy and well-loved girl. When a rakish con artist known as Gentleman arrives with a proposition for her, she overcomes her initial doubts and agrees to help him convince a lonely heiress to elope with him; they plan to confine the unfortunate girl to an asylum once the marriage is finalized. Sue agrees to the plan mainly because she wants to bring back the promised reward of 3,000 pounds to Mrs. Sucksby, and she has few qualms about the fate of the unlucky bride-to-be. Soon she finds herself involved in a con more complicated and fateful than she could ever have imagined, with consequences for everyone she cares about.

In the second part of the book, the heiress takes over the narrative. Maud has had a distinctly unorthodox upbringing. The daughter of a lady who died while confined to a mental institution, she was taken in by her uncle, a warped and eccentric scholar with uniquely specific tastes in literature. She has secrets of her own, and her interaction with Sue becomes more complicated when attraction flares between the two girls.

The twists and turns in Fingersmith’s plot are perfectly calibrated: each initial shock is inevitably followed by a deeper understanding. Each time the floor gives way beneath what you think is happening, the author reveals another hidden layer of conspiracy and motive. Tension builds as Sue’s predicament intensifies and Maud’s fate hangs in the balance. It was extremely difficult to put this book down without finding out what would happen next.

Thematically, the book reminded me of all the best aspects of The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, and Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue (although it wasn’t nearly as crushingly depressing as the latter). It also had a certain Dickensian flavor, as signalled in the opening scenes, in which Sue recounts one of her first memories: attending a play of Oliver Twist.

Genre: Historical twisty mystery with literary flair

Read it if: You like surprises, a rollicking read full of shocking twists and breathtaking revelations, and a satisfying ending.

Skip it if: You read Oliver Twist and hated it. Or you read The Moonstone and hated it.

Movie-worthy: I’m not sure they could compress the whole plot into a two-hour movie. Maybe a mini-series? [Note: I googled it and OF COURSE the BBC has already done a mini-series. In 2005. Where have I been?]