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 Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover by Isabel AllendeDon’t judge a book by its cover. Seriously, are we back to that old adage? But so, so true. I picked up The Japanese Lover for two reasons: I haven’t read anything by Isabel Allende in years and based on the cover I assumed it was a war time novel set in Japan. I was close. The Japanese Lover is a novel partially set during WWII in San Francisco.  Continue reading

Hilltop by Assaf Gavron

The Hilltop by Assaf GavronThe Hilltop by Assaf Gavron was one of those books I was saving for the right moment. I wanted to love it and savor it; read it at a leisurely pace and take it all in. Gavron is a highly acclaimed Israeli writer, he’s won tons of prizes and I truly believed that this was going to be the book to bring Israeli literature to the fore in North America. Continue reading

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha ArangoI was on a bit of a reading slump when I came to The Truth and Other Lies by German screenwriter Sascha Arango, and it fed my slump to the dogs. That means it was good. The story was crazy, but crazy good. Continue reading

Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda

bonita-avenueWhat is it about Dutch-Scando-wegian literature that makes me so uncomfortable? Admittedly, I have not read much, but what I have read always takes me to an uncomfortable place. It takes rather black and white issues and blurs them all together into innumerable shades of gray. Continue reading

The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannink Grannec

goddess-of-small-victoriesLike many book bloggers and avid readers I am always on a quest to read more. Whether it is more books, more diversely, in more detail, life long readers want more. In reading more diversely one of my goals was to read more in translation. I think English readers are hesitant to read in translation because we have so much great literature to choose from already, but we may be missing out on something. So of late, I’ve been picking up books that should appeal to me and that are translations. Things have not been going well. Continue reading

Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

summerhouse-with-swimming-poolThe Dinner by Herman Koch (review) was one of my favorite books of 2013. It was controversial and had me on the edge of my seat the whole time I was reading it. I was recommending it to everyone and anyone who would listen. So it should come as no surprise that I went into Summer House with Swimming Pool with pretty high expectations. It was good. It wasn’t great, but it was a solid good. Continue reading

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.

Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

swimming to elbaAs I’ve mentioned before, I don’t often read books in translation. I’m kind of suspicious of them. Like The Dinner, Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone should put those suspicions to rest. It makes sense really, only the best books in a foreign language are going to be translated into English. Like The Dinner, Swimming to Elba was one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Having said that, I should also warn you that Swimming to Elba will not be to everyone’s taste. It is edgy, gritty and sexually charged. It is tragic and heartbreaking. In spite of this, I was unable to put it down.

The story focuses on two teenage best friends growing up in a working class factory settlement on the coast of Italy. They are at an age when they are discovering the power their bodies can have on members of the opposite sex. This power does not go unnoticed by Francesca’s father, who spends his days peering at them through his binoculars in what can only be described as a predatory way. Over the course of the novel the girls make different choices and drift away from one another.

Swimming to Elba has been described as both graphic and defiant, characterizations that I agree with. The novel is suffused with a feeling of discomfort surrounding the girls’ sexuality. Most of this surrounds their young age and therefore innocence, which is contrasted with their knowledge that it is their looks that will bring them escape from the drudgery of daily life. They willingly and deliberately put themselves on display and yet, there is still something very predatory about them boys and men watching them.

The writing style of Swimming to Elba is exquisite. First time novelist Avallone slips back and forth from one perspective to another almost seamlessly. Her changes in perspective flow into one another the way one wave melds into the next. Without Avallone’s brilliant writing, Swimming to Elba may have been filed away as just another coming of age story.

Who would like this book? This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste and is certainly not for the faint of heart. There is no doubt that Avallone is pushing the boundaries and taking you to a place that is uncomfortable. There is overt sexuality, abuse, drug use, crime and death. But for all of that, it is not a depressing story, though perhaps it should be. It gives a straight up view of working class life in Italy and for that it is an insightful and important work. I have a hard time finding another book to compare it to, though Lullabies for Little Criminals may do the trick. Both are edgy and expose a side of the world that is not always pleasant but is nonetheless true.