The premise of The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe immediately grabbed my attention. Set at Vassar at the end of the 19th century, it tells the story of Anita Hemmings the first black women to graduate from the gilded institution. While at Vasser, she passed as white until … well, you know. It is wonderfully researched and I loved the afterword that tells you what parts are made up and what is true. Continue reading
I don’t know whether it’s the rubbish weather we’ve been having or celebration at the end of term, but I tore through Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman in less than 24 hours. To start, the story was right in my wheelhouse: beloved Harvard professor under suspicion for murdering a student. Second, comparisons to Tartt, Eugenides and Wolitzer sealed the deal (and fell short, but that is beside the point), and finally, conjecture that the story was based on actual occurrences at Yale. All that spells great summer (or rainy day) read. Continue reading
If you haven’t noticed by now, you should know that I am a sucker for novels set in academia. I loved the campus novel when I was in grad school and I love it even more now, especially if it is a novel about disillusionment in the academy. Cue Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. This book is laugh out loud funny. It took Herculean feats of strength for me not to read every second sentence out loud to my husband. Continue reading
Virgin by Radhika Sanghani will not be to everyone’s tastes, but I thought it was a very funny and quick read. The book is dedicated “To Anyone who has ever gone through the pain of a Brazilian wax”. If that is funny to you, then you’ll like Virgin. If you think that is the kind of things that should not be discussed in public, then give this a pass. Continue reading
The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag is a slightly more whimsical and magical book than I normally go for. It is set in a magical house in Cambridge where notable women for generations have sought refuge. Here they have 99 nights to turn their lives around, find their path and listen to the advice magically offered by previous residents including Virginia Woolfe, Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Nightingale. Continue reading
I read The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal as part of the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge put on by Roof Beam Reader. I first came across this book in 2013 at the Edinburgh Book Festival. As a new resident of Edinburgh I was immediately drawn to it since it is set in Edinburgh. Also, Erdal’s other book, Ghosting, has been on my radar for years.
I love reading books sets in places I know, and with that in mind I’m glad that I waited to read The Missing Shade of Blue. It is definitely a very Edinburgh book and gives a good feel of the city. Now that I know the city better I was able to picture exactly where the characters lived and conducted their lives.
The story is told by Eddie, a French translator who has come to Edinburgh to work on a book of David Hume‘s essays. He is quickly befriended by Harry Sanderson, a philosopher at the university, and becomes embroiled in the life of Sanderson and his wife. To large extent the novel is really about Sanderson and the scandal that envelopes his life.
As a lover of literature, I was keenly aware of the role that novels played in The Missing Shade of Blue. Eddie grew up in a bookshop in Paris and sees the world through the frame of books. He and Sanderson often refer to how life is sometime similar (or utterly dissimilar) to a novel.
Who would like this book? Erdal is a fine writer and I thoroughly enjoyed The Missing Shade of Blue. Language and words play a key role in the novel, as you would imagine when the main characters are a translator and a philosopher. Erdal does a commendable job at bringing Scottish life, fly fishing and Edinburgh to life. So far one of the aspects I’ve overlooked is fly fishing. The only other book I’ve read where this sport takes a starring role is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday (don’t bother with the film, the books is so much better). Erdal’s book is not as humorous as Torday’s but brought the sport to life much more for me.
Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a departure from what I think of as typical Robert Stone work. Usually his works are set in far flung locations and are distinctly political. His latest novel, however, is a campus novel. It is set at a small liberal arts college in New England. I don’t think I will ruin anything by saying that a black-haired female student dies during an altercation. Yet, Stone still brings his distinctive voice to what some may call a typical story. He deals with the politics of the situation on various levels by exploring the dead student’s political views on abortion, the role of sex and power in the academy and subtle but every present influence of religion in the lives of various players.
Generally, I love Stone’s books for their locations – Israel, Cuba, South America. The campus setting of Death of the Black-Haired Girl was unexpected, but as with all of his other locations, Stone very convincingly takes you there and makes it real. He also takes a rather typical campus plot line and turns it into something new. There was some nod to the thriller genre that his work can often slide into, but I think this novel remains firmly in the literary fiction genre.
Who would like this book? While fans of Robert Stone’s writing will still find much to appreciate in Death of the Black-Haired Girl, it is not a typical Robert Stone novel. It has not of that international intrigue and adventure. That being said, it is a very compelling read. I think that Stone often writes himself into his novels in some way. In this one I’m convinced he has cast himself as the dead girl’s father. The novel ends with his death from emphysema. Is Stone foreshadowing his own death (he has emphysema)? And will this be his last novel? Only time will tell, but I’d wager that anything else he writes will be similarly domestic.
When 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.
By 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.