The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandWhen someone like Jhumpa Lahiri comes out with a new book you just know that I’m going to read it. As a Pulitzer Prize winner, her books are always well written and highly acclaimed. The Lowland is no different, having made it on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.

The Lowland tells the story of two brothers in Calcutta who take very different paths as they grow up. Subhash more than fulfills his parents’ dreams by flying off to the United States for graduate school. Udayan, who is Subhash’s intellectual equal, remains in Calcutta to pursue a more controversial and political calling by becoming involved with the communist Naxalite movement. Most of the story focuses on Subhash’s time in the United States, which came as a bit of a disappointment to me. The Naxalite movement in India in the 1960’s and 1970’s was such an important time in the development of the newly Independent India, and its reverberations continue to be felt today, and yet outside of South Asia very little is known about it.

The Lowland is written in a very understated style that is pervaded with a sense of melancholy. I think the Canadian cover of The Lowland (pictured above) captures this style very effectively. Everything that occurs is told in a very flat way. The highs are not very high, and everything else seems to be low. I am not a fan of this style. Though there is a lot to gain from reading The Lowland, i have to admit that reading it made me a little tired. It was not a book I could sit down and gobble up in one reading.

lowlandukBy contrast, the UK cover captures the dynamism of the times portrayed in the novel, as well as the politics that are always lying just below the surface. If I were to judge a book by its cover, it is a book I would much rather read. Not only that, the UK cover brings to mind the parts of the novel I really enjoyed.

Who would like this book? Obviously, The Lowland is going to appeal to those who like good writing and literary fiction of the highest order. As a contender for the Booker Prize, I am not quite sure who it is going to fare. So far it is the first on the short list that I’ve read, but I feel its chance of winning may be slim more for political reasons than for actual merit. I think this book would also be well suited to those who are interested in finding out more about a political movement that is not normally discussed in fiction set in South Asia. Lahiri’s inclusion of the Maoist insurgents known as the Naxalites makes The Lowland her most overtly political novel. It is a direction I would like to see her move in again in the future.

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

cartwheelI felt like I was in a bit of a reading slump until Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois came along. What a well paced, well written, character driven page turner. I read it quickly and effortlessly and came out of it feeling satisfied. That’s about all I ask out of a book.

According to the author, the inspiration for the story came from the Amanda Knox trial. In Cartwheel, Lily is accused of having killed her roommate during her semester abroad in Argentina. The narrative moves around to various points of view: Lily, Lily’s father Andrew, the prosecuting lawyer, and Lily’s social awkward boyfriend. It also moves back and forth in time over a three month period in which the events occur. By employing this method, duBois is able to give extremely well thought out characters. In particular, the attention she gives to Eduardo, the prosecuting attorney, really adds an additional dimension to the story.

I was particularly taken with duBois writing style. It is crisp and clear without being simplified in the least. What comes across is an intelligent and articulate young voice. In a segment in which Andrew, Lily’s father, considered the plight he finds his family in, his liberal intellect gets in his way of truly complaining:

he had to weigh it against his socioeconomic privilage, health, maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, American citizenship, etc., etc.; he’d been in academia long enough to know how far the scales were tipped in his favor, and how strenusouly he must try at all times to acknowledge this, and how earnestly he must attempt to make his life an apology for its central accidents — and yet, and yet.

Who would like this book? Cartwheel will certainly appeal to those who are interested in following the scandals of the day like the Amanda Knox case, though I must stress that knowledge of this case is not integral to the reading. I knew next to nothing about it until I wrote this post. I am a little surprised not see Cartwheel on the National Book Award long list. To me duBois is a writer to watch, and the awards she has garnered so far in her career certainly support this. Notably, in her acknowledgements she thanks friends such as Ryan McIlvain and Maggie Shipstead, who like duBois are writers we should keep our eyes open for. I have not read duBois earlier work, but I am definitely adding her previous novel A Partial History of Lost Causes to my list.

Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll

brave-geniusI’ll admit it, the thing that attracted me to Brave Genius was a combination of the cover and the title. As far as titles go, this is a good one. My impression of the book only got better when I read that it was about Albert Camus and his involvement in the French Resistance during WWII. The book also tells the parallel story of Jacques Monod, a biologist, who like Camus worked in the French Resistance. Both Camus and Monod went on to win the Nobel Prize in their respective fields in the years following the war.

The book is basically broken into two parts: Camus and Monod during the war years and their lives and work after the war. I quite enjoyed the first part. The war in France is something I know shockingly little about and Brave Genius did a commendable job at filling that gap. In addition to relaying the lives of these two geniuses, Carroll provides ample context for their actions by really laying out what was happening throughout France in the greater theater of the war. All of the background material is wonderful, but did give me the impression that I was reading a book specifically about WWII in France.

By the time I reached the second half of the book 250 pages later, I was, quite honestly, exhausted. I dove into the second half but was quickly bogged down by the biological details of Monod’s work. Because of the thoroughness of the first part of the book I feared too much detail would follow and gave up on the book. This is not something I do lightly. I would like to stress that Brave Genius is a brilliantly researched and well written tome. As a reader who merely dabbles in non-fiction, usually of a more narrative variety, I found the book to be just a little too much for me.

Who would like this book? There a several obvious answers to this question: 1/ fans of Camus who want greater insight into his life and the effects of WWII on his writing; 2/ Fans of Monod for the same reasons; 3/ those interested int he intellectual culture of Paris and France during the Resistance and the years following the war. Another area that may be explored in the book is what exactly is it about these two men and their circumstances that propelled them to the heights of winning a Nobel Prize? As I did not finish the book I do not know whether or not this is covered, but is certainly something I would be interested in reading about. And regarding Brave Genius‘s status as a DNF – I may return to it in the future when I have more time to dedicate to it. But with the fall book season, there are just so many  things I want to read right now.

I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Asunder by Chloe Aridjis

asunderI’ve been putting off writing this review for a couple of days, which for me is a very bad thing. I need to write while things are still fresh in my head. It made me think, why am I avoiding this so much? and I came up with a pretty good reason. First person narrative in which not a whole lot happens. It’s a pet peeve of mine and Asunder by Chloe Aridjis is told in this way.

At first glance Asunder looks like a pretty engaging novel. It is told from the point of view of a security guard at the National Gallery in London. I love behind the scenes looks at places like this, and Aridjis gives you some of that. There are interesting back stories about some of the different galleries and pieces of art, as well as National Gallery lore that you need to be on the ‘inside’ to know (at least I imagine you do). All that stuff I found interesting.

As mentioned above, my pet peeve was with the voice. Remember that it is just a pet peeve, others may not find it annoying, but anytime I see the word ‘I’ in an narrative my hackles are raised. Throughout Asunder the reader spends an awful lot of time inside the narrator’s head.  At times this renders the book more of a meditation than a story.

Who would like this book? If you are planning on visiting galleries in London anytime soon, I would recommend Asunder. Perhaps one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I could have is because I do not know London or its major galleries all that well. But tracing the steps of the various characters in the novel might be fun. In addition to the National Gallery, the Tate is often talked about as well (and the Louvre when they go to Paris).

I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest and fair review.

Top Ten Books on My TBR List – Fall 2013

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. I don’t normally participate in memes, but this one grabbed my attention: Top Ten Books For Fall TBR. So here goes, the Top Ten Reads on my Fall TBR list (in no particular order).

1. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno (September 2013). What can I say? I am a sucker for JD Salinger and have been since high school. Any new news about him is good news to me!

2. Cartwheel by Jennifer Du Bois (September 2013). I don’t know much about this title, but a slow and steady buzz has been building around it.

3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (October 2013). Catton is one of those literary geniuses who needs to be read. This appears to be very different from her last novel, The Rehearsal, so I am cautiously looking forward to it.

4. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (August 2013). It’s Atwood. Need I say more?

5. Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield (November 2013). I loved her first book, The Thirteenth Tale, so I am eager to see what she does with this one.

6. The Goldfinch by Donna Tarrt (October 2013). If you have not read The Secret History, go do it now. No really, get up, go to a bookstore/ library and read it now. You will not regret it. I have high hopes for The Goldfinch.

7. The Case of the Love Commandos by Tarquin Hall (October 2013). If you have not read any installments in Hall’s Vish Puri, then get out there and get reading. These humorous detective novels are set in India and Hall gives a real taste for life there.

8. Five Days at Memorial by Sherry Fink (Spetember 2013). Not normally my type of thing, but I haven’t heard on bad thing about it. And I need to read more non-fiction.

9. The Eliot Girls by Krista Bridge (April 2013). The book came out a couple months ago, but it is from a smaller Canadian press and I think it needs a little love.

10. Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt (August 2013). This book appeared out of no where for me. I had never heard of it and all of the sudden it was everywhere. And the reviews were good.

Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

malavitaYou may have noticed that I’ve gone a little light with my reading lately. Well, Malavita by Tonino Benacquista fits right into that category. The only thing that might raise it into highbrow status is the fact that it is a translation from French. Malavita is a comedic novel that looks at an ex-Mafia family now living in France under a witness protection program. It would appear that you can take a man out of the Mafia but you can’t take the Mafia out of the man.

One night, under the cover of darkness, Fred Blake aka Giovanni Manzoni and his family move into a house in rural France. This is, hopefully, the last of a series of moves made by the FBI/CIA to keep Blake and his family safe from the long, strong arm of the Mafia. In spite of the Blake family’s efforts at normalization, it seems that where ever they go their ingrained Mafia tendencies get them in trouble. Extortion, manipulation and coercive violence are hard habits to break.  In spite of the small incendiary Blake’s wife sets off at the grocery store, she appears to be the only family member invested in living a normal life.

Malavita presents itself as Mafia-lite.  And before you ask, yes it has been made into a movie, The Family, set to come out September 13, 2013. I’ve looked at the trailer and it appears that the movie will not be as good as the book, but that is usually the case. Starring Robert DeNiro, it reminded me a bit of Analyse This but with a healthy dose of violence when the Mafia comes to France to hunt down Blake.

Malavita falls into many of the stereotypes surrounding the Mafia, but in a good way. We all like to laugh at made men. One scene in which Blake is called on to comment on the movie Goodfellas does nothing to explode readers’ preconceived notions about Mafia life, but it is exactly what readers, as well as Blake’s audience, want to hear. Yes, the gun battles and explosions near the end tend towards the extreme, but I guess that is why it is fiction.

My only complaint about the novel is that there is a rather lengthy digression in the middle of the book. Although it progresses the plot, it is also so long winded and convoluted that I found it tiresome. That part is sure to be left out of the movie.

Who would like this book? Malavita is not going to win any prizes for writing, but it is an enjoyable romp. It is kind of like watching a movie or TV. In spite of the fact that DeNiro is starring in the movie alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Diana Argon I am not expecting great things at the box office. Instead I would recommend reading the book even if you are not a big reader. It is fun and humorous. I suspect that for those more versed in Mafia lore than I am there are many inside jokes. It might also be good on a trip to the French countryside.

The Hive by Gill Hornby

the-hiveWelcome to a humorous and not entirely accurate take on my life: The Hive by Gill Hornby. This novel is about moms on the school yard, moms picking up and dropping off their kids and moms being, at times, rather nasty to one another. It has made me look at my life in an entirely different way. It has also highlighted the differences between the Canadian school culture, from which I came, and the British school system that I am now fully inhabiting.

The Hive is a subtly brilliant novel. Hornby finds drama in the seemingly banal happenings around a school. At the core of her story are four women at varying degrees of popularity on the school yard. Heather is striving, constantly striving to get in with the cool kids, er moms, especially Bea, the Queen Bee. Rachel has found herself suddenly dropped from the cool moms. Georgie is there to provide a dose of reality and Bubba is the new mom on the block.

Each chapter is framed over the course of a school day – from drop off to pick up and the story is set over the period of a school year. When I saw Hornby at the Edinburgh Book Fest she commented that the school year makes for a perfect three part drama. In autumn term everything is fresh and new. The parents and students are glad of another year beginning. The middle term is when all the disasters happen: kids come home with nits and lice, the roof starts to leak and bullying rears its ugly head. With the spring term comes a bit of redemption. As one of the characters reflects, “This was her favorite term: white ankle socks, gingham frocks, grass, rounders … She took a deep breath of gleeful anticipation. Ah. She just couldn’t wait.”

Who would like this book? Given the title of the novel and all the bee imagery, it is no surprise that Hornby was significantly influenced by Rosalind Wiseman‘s book about teenage cliques, Queen Bees and Wannabes and her follow up study Queen Bee Moms and King Pin Dads. Tina Fey was similarly inspired when she wrote the screenplay for Mean Girls. I would also pair it up with Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (my review). Both offer humorous, though rather different, takes on school societies. In either case, I would say that if you are a parent with school age children and you are constantly doing that school run, then this book is for you. If that does not sound like the story of your life, then you are still probably familiar with the horror of cliques, and this book will surely make you laugh about them.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

nightfilmOh, boy. Where do I start with this one? Night Film has been getting a lot of buzz for months now. It was poised to be the big book of the fall season. But like so many ‘It’ girls who have fizzled into post-sex tape obscurity, Night Film fails to deliver the goods. True, it is an action packed tale that brings new technologies to the reading experience, but after Marisha Pessl‘s dazzling debut Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Night Film leaves me feeling meh.

Admittedly, I expected much from Night Film. I was enticed by her use of very real looking webpages and other media in the text and curious about the ‘enhanced reading experienced‘ that could be accessed through a mobile phone app. I was also hoping for something even more brilliant than Special Topics. In short, I wanted literary genius and technological savvy all rolled up in one.

Instead I got something that came closer to resembling Dan Brown. Try as I may, I find it hard not to disparage Dan Brown. I just don’t read many thrillers and perhaps that is why I found to Night Film to resemble his work. Night Film is basically about three marginally related characters all searching for answers surrounding the death of a reclusive horror movie director’s daughter. In the early stages of the narrative they follow the path of the investigative journalist – following up on leads and asking questions. Soon things turn to black magic and our trio turn into covert operatives delving into a world in which psychological terror plays as much a part as physical terror.

Who would like this book? After all I have said, you may think that this book is not for you. That likely isn’t true. It is a good thriller as far as thrillers go. I kept turning the pages and waiting to see what would happen next. So if you want a thriller – go for it. If you want a work of literary genius, hold back. The media spectacle surrounding Night Film also makes it an intriguing read. I think this book is supposed to breaking barriers, and perhaps it is. The ‘enhanced reading experience’ provided by the Night Film app was entirely conceived of after the completion of the novel and is not integral to the reading experience in the least. However, it is an interesting add-on that I’m sure we will see employed more and more.

When it comes right down to it, I say read the book if you are interested, but it is more of a ‘borrow’ than a ‘buy’. And as an aside, I don’t think Night Film would work very well as an audio book and I question it’s usefulness as an e-book. Let me know what you think if you have used either of these formats.

The Windsor Faction by D.J Taylor

windsor-factionI am not above mentioning that I picked up D.J. Taylor‘s The Windsor Faction for all the wrong reasons. I was truly skimming a blurb about it when the name Wallis Simpson jumped out at me. Sold. I will read just about anything about Wallis Simpson, and for some reason I am particularly drawn to fiction in which she is featured. What I failed to read was the whole sentence : What if Wallis Simpson died in 1936 and Kind Edward never had to abdicate the throne for the woman he loved?

So while I thought I was about to read a novel about Wallis Simpson, the story was in fact a rewriting of history in which Edward rules Britain in the years leading up to World War II. Once I got over the fact that Simpson dies on the first pages of the novel, it was actually quite a good tale.

The story is largely set among various members of the aristocracy, most of whom oppose intervention into the European theater where Hitler is amassing his holdings. Each chapter is told from a different point of view: daughter of a colonial official who is dating a man from the American Embassy, a writer who helps the King write his Christmas day speech, and a lower class man who works in an antique shop but becomes involved in nefarious activities. Bringing together a story told in multiple narratives and from various points of view is not always easy to achieve. Taylor pulls this off with some success. There were certainly chapters that I felt were superfluous (especially those in Ceylon), but it does come together in the end. I think some additional editing could have made it a tighter story, but who am I?

Who would like this book? This book is for those who like to ponder the ‘what ifs’ of history. In particular, what if King Edward, with rumored Nazi sympathies, remained on the throne throughout World War II. A knowledge of WWII certainly brings added enjoyment to the novel as real personages such as Captain Ramsay and Beverly Nichols are key players in the book, though it is not necessary.

This book was provided to my by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Cataract City by Craig Davidson

cataract-cityCataract City by Craig Davidson is one of the big CanLit releases this fall. Everyone I know seems to be raving about it. Everyone, that is, but me. I’m going to come right out and say it – I did not enjoy Cataract City and there are very specific reasons why. My assessment does mean that it is a bad book, just that it did not ring my bells. In fact, I would say if you are interested in analyzing a novel, it is full of great imagery, powerful themes, recurrent symbols. But I was just looking for a good read.

Cataract City is set in Niagara Falls (aka Cataract City – who knew?) and follows the tumultuous twenty year friendship of Dunk and Owe. The novel jump starts with them being kidnapped by a small time wrestler and their struggles to get back to civilization. In fact, the whole man against nature, struggling in the Canadian wilds is a recurring theme throughout the novel. In this way Cataract City fits very nicely into the more traditional aspects of the Canadian literary canon.

The friendship of the two boys, growing into men, takes us to the grittier side of Niagara Falls. To a certain extent I found this fascinating since some of my best friends come from Niagara Falls, but they represent a more decidedly middle class element of the city. The Niagara Falls of Cataract City is a rough place, full of dog racing, fighting and drunkenness. And that is primarily where I found fault with the novel. Sports in general play a large role in the novel and Davidson describes them at length. And yes, his descriptions, especially of basketball, are beautiful, but as one who is decidedly not sports minded, they are also rather boring. Many of the sports described are also terribly violent – wrestling, bare knuckle boxing and pitbull fights. Just not my cup of tea.

Who would like this book? As much as I hate to gender novels, I would have to say this is a guy’s book. If you like to read about wrestling, boxing and basketball this is for you. Also it is a book for a certain ilk of dog lover. Greyhound racing is quite predominant in the book, and Davidson’s descriptions of the dogs are beautiful if you are into that kind of thing. And it many ways it is a book about survival. Dunk and Owe are near death and lost in the woods on more than one occasion. I would also recommend Cataract City to anyone who likes to dissect novels. At an analytic level I think it could be quite fascinating – great for an English class essay.

This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.