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Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

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Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

I was sufficiently intrigued by the unusual title and lovely cover of this book to pick it up; it was only after I was half-way through that I noticed the superlative blurb on the cover: “Funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it.” –URSULA K. LE GUIN

Okay, if I’d needed any additional incentive to start reading, such stellar praise from one of my favorite authors would have done the trick.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat deserves the praise.The story opens with Josephine, a young woman in desperate need of a job, interviewing with an unnervingly faceless bureaucrat. Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have been hard hit by an ongoing economic crisis, and jobs are scarce, so she is happy to take any job, even one as monotonous as this position appears to be.

Her sole duty is to enter apparently meaningless strings of letters and numbers from a paper file into a corresponding record in a computer database. It is mind-numbing work, and as someone who once did data entry as a temp back in the day, I can confirm that Phillips perfectly captures the emotional ups and downs of performing a stupefying function, the little treats and breaks that become essential to staying sane.

In Josephine’s case, sanity is under considerably more threat than usual. The walls bear the smudges of past employees’ fingerprints, and it would seem, the scratch marks from their nails. Josephine’s quest to get answers to the simplest of questions–where is a vending machine?–proves truly Kafkaesque as she encounters misinformed doppelgangers and endless identical floors. Worse still, she’s not allowed to speak to anyone about her job as a condition of employment, even as her misgivings grow.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Joseph becomes strained, smothered under the weight of unspoken secrets. They moved to the city together from their childhood home in the “hinterland,” optimistic that their love would see them through despite the skepticism of their families. They have been trying to have a baby, without success. As they move from one sad sublet to the next, Joseph begins to disappear without explanation. Josephine fears that someone is following her and somehow, missed delivery notices appear on the doorstep of each place they live, even though she’s given no one the address.

The tension and suspense continue to build throughout this strangely lovely story, and the author brilliantly balances the realities of young love, tedious work, and financial insecurity with the surreal existential logic of a recurring dream.

Genre: Surreal literary fiction.

Read it if: You enjoy Kafka, pomegranates, and novels set in the workplace; you know what it’s like to be young, broke, and in love; or you are willing to take Ursula K. Le Guin’s word for it that this is a really great book.

Skip it if: You have a deep-seated fear of bad breath; you prefer strict adherence to logic over surreal office work; you are pretty sure “beautiful bureaucrat’ is an oxymoron.

Movie-worthy: Totally. I was picturing Tilda Swinton as Josephine’s faceless boss the entire time.


Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Where did I get this book? I bought it, because it's a new Margaret Atwood book, so OF COURSE I BOUGHT IT.

Where did I get this book? I bought it, because it’s a new Margaret Atwood book, so OF COURSE I BOUGHT IT.

In this near-future dystopia, Stan and Charmaine are a young married couple caught up in the economic collapse of the northeastern United States. Despite working hard and following the rules, they find themselves living in their car, wandering from one unsafe parking lot to another just to stay alive. Charmaine brings in some meager income from her job bartending at a makeshift bar/brothel called Dust; Stan is unemployed and increasingly desperate.

When Charmaine hears about the new planned community of Positron/Consilience, it sounds like a dream come true. Residents receive housing, food, guaranteed employment and complete security. In exchange, they agree to spend every other month living in the community’s prison, wearing orange prison jumpsuits, sleeping in a shared barracks, and working at whatever occupation they are assigned.

Stan and Charmaine jump at the chance, even after Stan’s brother Conor, a criminal who seems to be thriving in the new chaos, warns him against signing up. All seems to be going well until the couple become entangled with their Alternates, the married couple who live in their house while they are in Positron prison and switch places with them monthly. It soon becomes clear that, like Charmaine, Positron/Consilience has some fairly dark stuff going on under that cheerfully innocent exterior.

The Heart Goes Last raises uncomfortable questions about just how much personal liberty people would sacrifice to ensure their own economic safety and security, and just how far those in charge would go when given the chance to exploit a captive population. When the world is all before us, do we really want freedom? Or do we long for a lost paradise of no choice at all?

Genre: Speculative fiction with robot prostitution, Elvis impersonators, and a Doris Day soundtrack.

Read it if: You’re an Atwood fan; you fear that technology will increasingly lead us into the darker crevices of the human imagination; you are interested in the relationship between free will and society.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about language, sexuality, or robot prostitution; you are easily frustrated with everyman protagonists; you were hoping this was the utopia that finally worked out for everyone.

Movie-worthy: To be honest, I was picturing Chris Pratt and Anna Faris as Stan and Charmaine the whole time. You would have to get the right director for this blend of dark and wacky though–maybe the Coen brothers or the Wachowskis.



Review: A Free Life by Ha Jin

Rescued from the bargain bin at a Landmark bookstore in Chennai, India

Rescued from the bargain bin at a Landmark bookstore in Chennai, India

This quietly powerful novel opens with a married couple, Nan Wu and Pingping, awaiting the arrival of their young son, who is flying unaccompanied from Shanghai to San Francisco. Their son, Taotao, has spent the previous three years living with his grandparents while Nan Wu studied political science, the subject assigned him by the Chinese government. The Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 convinces Nan Wu and Pingping that they must reunite their family and leave China behind for good.

Nan Wu abandons political science, which never particularly interested him. He always dreamed of becoming a poet and had published well-received poetry in China. His life in America, however, focuses almost exclusively on establishing financial security for his family. He and Pingping ultimately save enough money to buy a small Chinese restaurant in a suburb of Atlanta, and eventually a house. They work hard, exercise extraordinary thrift, and focus on ensuring their son receives a top notch education.

Based on that plot summary alone, the novel sounds like a stereotypical immigrant success story–the American dream with Chinese characteristics. In fact, Ha Jin has done something far more extraordinary: delved deeply into the soul of a man and the heart of a marriage.

Nan Wu is never content with his life. He works very hard, but derives little satisfaction from his acquired skill as a cook or his status as a homeowner. He maintains friendships with artists, writers and poets, but always finds reasons not to commit to pursuing his own creative dreams. He loves his son but ignores or shouts at him by turns; he feels no love for his wife, but remains steadfastly loyal to her, even as he clings to the lingering memory of another woman. In other words, he is as complicated and complex as any real person you might pass in a parking lot or a grocery store.

Ha Jin brings Nan Wu and his family to life with deft and subtle skill. This is not a novel of shocking plot twists or stylistic pyrotechnics. It builds slowly and requires thoughtful attention, but the reward is a deeper understanding of what it means to have a good life, a meaningful life. In that respect it reminded me of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, another novel that shows how even the most apparently mundane life holds depths the casual observer could never guess at.

Genre: Literary fiction

Read it if: You are interested in the perspective of outsiders and peripheral figures; you enjoy exploring the nature of art and what it means to pursue a creative life; or you appreciate a deep dive into character.

Skip it if: You have a short attention span, you prefer plot-driven fiction, or the thought of reading a 600+ page novel about a guy who keeps not writing poetry has already put you to sleep.

Movie-worthy: I have no idea how you would convey the interior emotions experienced by Nan Wu and Pingping in a movie, but it would be cool if someone tried.

Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

LandlineWhen Rainbow Rowell has a new book out, I don’t even bother to read what it’s about. I just buy it. Ever since I got my hands on an advanced reader’s copy of her first novel, Attachments, I have been a huge fan of her funny, heart-warming style and her lovable characters.

In Landline, 37-year-old Georgie McCool is looking at what might be the biggest opportunity of her successful career: a chance to run her own TV show along with her longtime writing partner Seth. The catch: finishing the four scripts she needs for the big meeting would mean working over Christmas, separated from her husband and two daughters.

Georgie’s husband, Neal, is a man of few words. He has stayed home with the kids while Georgie pursued her dreams and although Georgie knows he isn’t particularly happy in LA, she has taken his help and support for granted. Unable to reach him at his mother’s house in Omaha, increasingly unsure whether Neal has left for Christmas or for good, Georgie begins to wonder if her choices have jeopardized her marriage.

While Georgie is crashing at her mom’s house, she pulls out an old rotary phone and attempts to reach her husband on the landline at his  mother’s in Omaha. She discovers that, somehow, she can use the phone to speak with Neal in 1998–the Christmas break after their big fight in college, the last time she thought they might have broken up.

I’ll be honest here, people: if this were any other author, I would snort derisively and toss the book aside at this point. A magic phone? Seriously? But since this is Rainbow Rowell we’re talking about, I not only continued to read but couldn’t put the book down. Tension builds as Georgie struggles to focus on her work while the looming questions about her marriage distract her; in the meantime, her nightly conversations with 1998 Neal remind her why she fell in love in the first place.

It’s possible this book resonates with me even more because I married at about the same age as Georgie, and 16 years later a lot has changed. It is all too easy to forget who we were all those years ago, broke and in love, ridiculously optimistic and really, really young. Four kids and a few countries later, I loved reading this book not least for its funny, heartfelt depiction of marriage and parenthood, and because it reminded me of my own choices and why I’m still very glad I made them.

Genre: Contemporary fiction with a magical twist

Read it if: you already love Rainbow Rowell, you fell in love in the 1990s and want to have flashbacks, or you can’t resist a novel featuring a bedazzled pug sweatshirt.

Skip it if: you dislike funny heartwarming books about married people pushing forty; you have strong feelings about strong language; you have an unreasonable hatred of Omaha.

Movie-worthy: Yes! The casting would have to be perfect, but this would make a great movie. They could release it at Christmas. I demand to see this movie!


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Review: Hitched: The Modern Indian Woman and Arranged Marriage by Nandini Krishnan

HitchedNandini Krishnan, author of Hitched: The Modern Indian Woman and Arranged Marriage, participated in a panel on the modern Indian woman at the Chennai Lit for Life festival in January. After hearing the discussion, I picked up a few books by the panelists, including this one.

And what a fascinating book it is. From an American perspective, the idea of arranged marriage is more than a little difficult to comprehend. Because this book is written for an Indian audience, the author never attempts to explain or justify the concept, but instead interviews “modern” women (and a few men) who have gone through the process.

The women whose experiences she shares are educated and empowered; most have advanced degrees, professional careers in fields like communications, and a choice about whether they want to pursue an arranged marriage. Many, but not all, live with their parents until they marry; many, but not all, dated men prior to seeking an arranged match.

The women have varying and sometimes exacting criteria, whether their own or based on their family’s wishes. This can include marrying someone within their own caste (or a specific subgroup of their caste), of the same religion, fluent in the same languages (multilingualism is a fact of life in dizzyingly polyglot India), employed in a particular career at a particular level of financial success, vegetarian or not. Height, complection, family connections, compatible horoscopes, shared cuisine–any and all of these considerations can come into play.

Interestingly, though, the factors most of the interviewees list as essential to a successful marriage could well apply to any relationship. Can you talk to the person? Are you both willing to compromise? Do you share the same vision of the future? What may strike an outsider as hard to comprehend is how you could reach such a determination based on a relatively brief acquaintance, or even a single meeting.

On the other hand, people in love may neglect to talk about some of the very things that play a role in the success of a marriage, either because they fear the answer or they believe it will all sort itself out in time. If prospective marriage partners are able to discuss these things frankly from the outset because they both seek the same end goal, marriage, this may give the relationship an advantage. This is especially true if potential prospects have been filtered for compatibility beforehand.

I may never truly understand how it’s possible for a woman to enter into an arranged marriage with a virtual stranger, but this book gave me some eye-opening insights into what the women who do make this choice are like. They speak in their own voices, from Uttara who recommends applying dog-training techniques to prospective mates, to Aarthi, who finds unexpected success as a radio DJ after years as a stay-at-home mom. There is also Vaidehi, who felt pressured to marry young and found herself locked into an unhappy marriage. Without exception, the women in this book are interesting, capable, and yes thoroughly modern, women who have embraced a traditional approach to marriage, with varying results.

Genre: Non-fiction

Read it if: You wonder why anyone would agree to an arranged marriage in this day and age and how the whole process works.

Skip it if: You are looking for a justification of arranged marriage intended for a Western audience, or an in-depth sociological study of the practice.

Movie-worthy: There are probably countless Bollywood movies about arranged marriages, but it would certainly be interesting to see a non “filmy” one!


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Review: Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Oleander GirlKorobi’s name means “oleander,” and the question of why Korobi’s mother named her after a poisonous flower is only one of many secrets at the heart of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s expertly paced family drama. Korobi knows only that her mother died in childbirth, heartbroken at the death of her husband a few months before. Raised by her stern but loving grandfather and her sweet, long-suffering grandmother in Kolkata, Korobi has led a traditonal life secluded from the influences of the modern world. Only when she becomes engaged to the dashing but vulnerable Rajat, the son of affluent art gallery owners, does she begin to pull the thread that will unravel everything she thought she knew about her family and herself.

Although Korobi has led a sheltered life, she is determined to uncover the truth and willing to make sacrifices to get the answers she needs, even putting her engagement at risk. The author weaves numerous Indian social issues into the fabric of the story–sectarian violence, union activism, classist and racist attitudes, the interaction of employer and domestic staff–yet much of the basic plot would be familiar to Jane Austen. Can a love match survive family secrets and financial pressures? Will social considerations trump the motives of the heart? Can the engaged couple survive the deceit of others and their own miscommunication?

What I particularly liked about this novel is that the author gives even the secondary characters depth and complexity; no one is easily categorized as completely good or bad. For example, Rajat’s mother, Jayashree Bose, sometimes makes choices that are based on snobbery and suspicion, but she also clearly loves her family and wants them to be happy. You understand why she makes the choices she does, even when they are bad ones. Rajat’s parents’ marriage is also a lovely example of two people who complement and bring out the best in one another, a true love match that has succeeded despite initial family opposition and financial strain.

For Korobi, no decision is easy. India and the values she grew up with pull her in one direction, while the lure of America, where her parents met, offers a whole new world of challenges and opportunities. She struggles to balance her own needs, the ties of family, the promises she’s made, and the commitment to honesty that drives her. This anchors what could have been a sensational tale in real and believable emotions, thoughtfully portrayed.

Genre: Fast-paced family-secret fiction

Read it if: You are interested in Indian society and culture, but would prefer your knowledge wrapped in a suspenseful and interesting plot.

Skip it if: You have a strong aversion to first person present tense narration, or you wince at the idea of a dream/ghost mother giving her daughter tips on major life choices.

Movie-worthy: Sure, this could be a really interesting and visually arresting movie.

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Review: Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart

When Sarah Price learns that her husband Nathan’s new novel, Infidelity, is based on fact, it derails her entire life. This sounds like the setup for a fluffy chick lit romp, but Husband and Wife packs a surprisingly powerful punch, capturing essential truths about motherhood, marriage and identity.

Sarah was once a poet pursuing her MFA, an artist who could spend hours arguing about literature and meaning; now she has an office job, a three-year-old and a baby. Her choices have enabled her husband Nathan to divide his time between writing and caring for the children, and his new book seems destined for success. When Nathan reveals that he cheated on her with a writer during a retreat, she can’t help but wonder if the choices she has made to support her family have changed her forever. Was Nathan looking for someone like she used to be?

Struggling to decide what to do, whether to forgive her husband or strike out on her own, Sarah revisits her past and takes a good look at herself. Will she ever read that seven volume Proust collection? Does she even want to anymore? Can she be a mother and an artist? Is that possible?

Stewart has created an engaging and genuinely interesting character in Sarah, believable even when she’s going off the rails. When faced with a crisis, who wouldn’t turn to the season two finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a bottle of red wine? Supporting characters like Nathan’s stalwart friend Smith, Sarah’s best friend and fellow poet Helen, and the beautiful film maker Rajiv bring dimension and freshness to the story.

Most importantly, the novel feels emotionally true. Sarah’s choices aren’t easy ones and her emotions are as complex and nuanced as the rhythms of marriage itself. Yet the novel often manages to be genuinely funny; one scene in particular in which Sarah attempts a solo roadtrip with her two small children was simultaneously so hilarious and horrifying that I had to read it through my fingers as if I were watching a horror movie. I, too, have felt like a cautionary tale for anyone considering having a baby. “Remember this, and use birth control,” Sarah thinks as two teenage girls witness her efforts to deal with a diaper explosion in a McDonalds restroom. Truer words.

Ultimately, and to the novel’s credit, there is no neatly wrapped bow on this story. Sarah makes choices, like we all do. She doesn’t know what will happen. Because who ever does?

Genre: Literary mid-life crisis fiction

Read it if: You have children, are thinking about having children, or wonder what it would be like to have children; you are in your mid-thirties, have been in your mid-thirties, or plan to be in your mid-thirties at some point in the future. Also, if you are a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan.

Skip it if: You get enough reality in your real life and don’t want to think about it, even when it’s presented in a thoughtful and entertaining manner. I’m not judging you.

Movie-worthy: Yes! I was picturing Paul Rudd as Nathan the whole time. Maybe whoever made Crazy Stupid Love could do it? I would see that movie, laugh, cry and buy the DVD.