Clearing the Backlog

I’m so far behind in reviewing that I’m almost paralysed by it. So there’s only one solution: a mass review of books I’ve read over the last 3 months. Here goes:

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt. I really liked this one. Coming of age against the backdrop of Communist Russia. So many good things about it, if only I could remember it more clearly.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I was disappointed in this one as I am normally a fan of Ann Patchett. It gets off to a really slow start, in my opinion. It does, however, find its footing by about halfway through. If you’re an Ann Patchett fan, you’re going to read this regardless of what I say, but if you’ve not read Patchett before, I might not start here.

Peacekeeping by Mischa Berlinski. In the beginning I loved this book, but ultimately it was a little too long. Set in Haiti, it had a really interesting look at local politics and NGOs. The cover is great though, and i do plan to go back and read Feildwork, one of Berlinski’s earlier novels that I remember loving.

Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch. I really liked Koch’s two previous novels. They had a very Koch feel to them. That feel is lacking in Dear Mr M.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, but if you’re looking for that distinctive Koch uncomfortableness, it isn’t so apparent here. The one thing i did like about it though, is that it’s about a writer. That always gets me.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. If Orange is The New Black were set in a Zimbabwean prison, you might get this book. It is a great book and one that I highly recommend. Propulsive story, great characters, skilled writing.

So there, it’s done. Backlog cleared. Hopefully this means I can get back into the groove.

The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji

magic-of-saidaM.G. Vassanji has long been a favorite writer of mine. I’ve had The Magic of Saida sitting on my shelf for years now – it moved from Canada to Scotland with us – but it just hasn’t been calling to me. In fact, many of his more recent books haven’t hit me the way his earlier works did. So what did i think of The Magic of Saida? Continue reading

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen by Chigozie ObiomaLet’s just say I had high hopes going into The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and I was not let down. There has been a lot of murmuring in literary circles that Obioma is one to watch and I think people are right – Obioma can write! Continue reading

O, Africa by Andrew Lewis Conn

O AfricaYet again, I should have read the blurb more carefully when I picked this book. True, O, Africa by Andrew Lewis Conn is partially set in Africa in the 1920’s, but it was still not what I’d envisioned (ie/ Out of Africa). I should have read the comparisons to Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay and Doctorow’s Ragtime to know that this was not the book for me. Continue reading

The Explorers by Martin Dugard

the explorersThe title of The Explorers by Martin Dugard pretty much gives away what it is about – explorers. Specifically, Dugard looks at the seven qualities he believes have guided explorers through time and not just in the field of global exploration. These are curiosity, hope, passion, courage, independence, self-discipline, and perseverance. Dugard knows the topic well, as he has previously written books on Columbus, Stanley and Livingston, and Captain Cook. Continue reading

Local Customs by Audrey Thomas

local-customsIs it just me or is Audrey Thomas one of Canada’s most underrated writers? She’s won numerous prizes for her works over the years, and yet she doesn’t seem to garner the same sort of attention and conversation as Carol Shields or Elizabeth Hay. Her new novel, Local Customs, is a fabulous and fascinating true tale that I read in one sitting. Continue reading

Foreign Gods Inc. by Okey Ndibe

foreigngodsReading more diversely seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. I read to escape, so I love reading about other places and experiences far from my own. That is what attracted me to Foreign Gods Inc by Okey Ndibe. The story follows a Nigerian cab driver from New York on his quest back to his home village to steal the local god. This he hoped to convert into fast cash at a posh art shop back in New York. Yeah, this is pretty far from my own experience.

I ended up having very mixed feelings about the novel. I felt that the parts that took place in New York were well written and engaging. Before I started the book I was most looking forward to the parts set in Nigeria, but to me those sections fell short. In particular, Ndibe spent far too many pages recounting the fate of an early missionary to his village. On the other hand, the speech and diction of some of the village characters was brilliant.

So where does that leave me? Well, it has been about a week since i read the book, and over all my feeling are more positive than negative. The story was interesting, the perils of an America-returned villager were well cast and the family dynamics were heart breaking.

Who would like this book? This book appealed to the traveler in me. I love the exotic and to me Nigerian village is exotic, as is the life of a cabbie in New York. In some ways Foreign Gods Inc was reminiscent of Ghana Must GoBoth recount the experiences of African immigrants to the United States, and what it is like to return home. However, Ghana Must Go was a more finely crafted novel and more literary. Foreign Gods Inc is a faster read, that still provides valuable insight.

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

A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon

a dual inheritanceA Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon is a big book. At first it appears to be a rather simple story of two unlikely friends during their university years, but as the story proceeds it grows into much more. It spans two generations of two families and deals primarily with issues of money: how to get it and if you have it how it determines your life path. The perspective on money is quite unusual. For those who have it in spades it is almost seen as a limiting factor. The moneyed are expected to go to certain schools, have certain interests and work in certain fields, such as law, finance or medicine. But what happens when one steps outside of these prescribed roles?

However, A Dual Inheritance is more than just a university novel, a good chunk of it is set in for away places. In addition to good old America, parts of the narrative are set in Africa and Haiti. I am a sucker for stories about people in foreign places so this really appealed to me. In some ways it may have detracted from the major trajectory of the novel, but I think Hershon is a skillful enough writer to keep things in check.

Who would like this book? A Dual Inheritance has been compared to both The Marriage Plot and Rules of Civility. For me, these comparisons do not hold up. But having said that, I do not know what I would compare it too. Like The Marriage Plot, A Dual Inheritance takes place in an university setting for at least half the story. Aside from that I would argue that they are very different sorts of novels. I do highly recommend A Dual Inheritance. It took me some time to get into, perhaps 100 pages, but it was worth it. It will go down as one of my memorable books of 2013.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

unchangeable spotsThe Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma is one of those post-modern, meta novels that is hard to describe. There are stories within stories, outside of stories all told by a highly unreliable nameless (or multiply named?) narrator. Sound confusing? Well, it was and it wasn’t. One thing that can clearly be said about The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is that it is brilliant. I feel like I’ve been saying that about books too frequently lately, but it is true. It is also true that I do not choose to read books that I don’t think will appeal to me.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a readers’ and a writers’ novel. The two main protagonists are writers who meet in college and continually push each other to achieve greater writing. One of them finds fame, the other doesn’t but leads an exciting life. At its heart it is a novel about writing. For the die hard readers out there, the novel is jam packed full of literary illusions from all over the place. I probably only caught onto a fraction of them, but the ones I saw were captivating. I suspect that due to all the literary illusions it is a novel that gets better with multiple readings, kind of like the movie Magnolia, that gets better each time I watch it.

The central theme of the book is truth and the nature of storytelling. Jansma plays with these two ideas throughout the novel to the point where you do not know what is really happening, or just happening to make a better story. The narrator slips on different identities that become so real you forget that he is just playing a part. It becomes all the more confusing when he meets his doppelganger in Ghana. While trying on these different identities the narrator tells the same story of love and loss, but in different ways and in different setting, though the outcome is always the same. It is utterly fascinating the way Jansma weaves the narrative together.

Who would like this book? As I have already mentioned, this is a writers’ and a readers’ book. As a writer it appealed to me in the same was as The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman did. It is about writing, struggling to find your story and making it better. The writing style of The Changeable Spots of Leopards, which I like to call post-something and meta, reminds me very much of Eleanor Catton‘s The Rehearsal. Because you are never exactly sure where you are, the narrative style is slightly destabilizing, but highly rewarding once you orient yourself. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It is challenging at times, but it is also humorous, adventuresome and rewarding.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

ghana-must-goGhana Must Go is a pretty awesome achievement for first time novelist Taiye Selasi. It is a powerful story written in dense poetic language that is stunning. The story focuses on the death of Kwaku, the family patriarch. Told in three parts, the first section focuses on Kwaku’s experiences in leaving Africa and immigrating to the United States for medical school. The second part takes place mostly in the United States and focuses on Kwaku’s wife, Fola, and the life she assembles for herself and her four children in the wake of Kwaku abruptly leaving them. The final section of the story deals more with the four children and the emotional fallout that their father’s death and his abandonment of them years earlier has on their adult lives. The overall effect of the novel is haunting and devastating.

Before Ghana Must Go came out I heard lots of praise for Selasi’s writing and it is certainly deserved. Her writing is dense and poetic, which means that this novel is not a fast read and probably deserves another look to fully appreciate everything Selasi is doing. I must admit that I did not love the first section of the novel as I was reading it. It was more in hindsight that I saw the craft behind the story’s literary structure. I also found the second two sections to be more interesting and therefore more readable because of the psychological dimensions added to the narrative.

Though I argue that Ghana Must Go would be more fully appreciated with a second reading, for me that second reading will never come. There are aspects of the story that are just too heartbreaking for me to read again. Selasi is ruthless in the truths about families that she presents. We know that all families are unhappy in their own particular way and, moreover, that each member of a family bears that unhappiness in their own way and Selasi illustrates this with aplomb.

Who would like this book? This book is for the connoisseur of serious literary fiction. Selasi’s prose style is unique and takes some time to get used to, but it is beautiful. Ghana Must Go is a book to be studied an appreciated. The story itself would appeal to those looking for the immigrant experience, both first and second generation. Surprisingly, given the title, very little of it takes place in Africa.