Year of the Refugee?

21 Mar

I feel like at the end of every year, there is a pretty strong general trend to the fiction I’ve read. Last year it was African-American (lots of slavery stories). Previous years WWII stands out. This year, I’m already calling it. It’s the year of the refugee novel. Fitting, huh?

exitwest

Exit West has been getting a TON of hype. I requested it from my library and was surprised to see that it had a “Romance” sticker on its spine. Strange to think of it alongside your friendly bodice-ripper. It’s a romance, sure, in the way that any story involving a man and a woman who date is a romance. Really though it’s the story of a coming war, then devastation, followed by a way OUT. Saeed and Nadia fall in love as their nameless city gets closer and closer to civil war. When the war finally reaches their doors, they decide to escape. To leave everything they have and everyone they love and search for a future as refugees. It’s a love story in that you follow their relationship, as it adjust and bends in its new form. But really it’s more about leaving, arriving, struggling to find where you fit in a different land. 4.5 stars

Stranger-in-the-Woods

Watch out, people, I read a non-fiction book. And I read it all! I didn’t skip or skim or just look at the pictures (there are none). This was an excellent story that pretty much seems like something you’d find in the middle of the fiction shelves. True story of Christopher Knight who, at the ripe old age of 20, drove as far as he could into the woods of Maine, abandoned his car and stayed for the next 27 years. His campsite, by description, was elaborate in its function and sparseness and pure functionality. Completely hidden although only 3 or so miles from civilization. In all of those 27 years, he did not have a single human interaction (except maybe 2, where he spotted another person and hid, spotted another person and waved but uttered no words). In all of those 27 years, he guesses he committed over 1000 burglaries. He only stole what he needed – batteries, food, propane, clothing, books (a necessity, duh) – and always left each residence clean and put together (he robbed and – the same 150ish houses). Finally apprehended and arrested for theft, he found himself in jail and also in an awkward friendship with a journalist, Michael Finkel. Really interesting story, plus really interesting information about how other cultures do “hermits” and what it means to really live alone. 4.5 stars

Roadblocks & Palate Cleansers

10 Mar

I hit a wall. A wall with a beautiful cover and a lot of great buzz. That wall is named Lincoln in the Bardo. Thank you, George Saunders, for killing my streak.

lincoln

I will *probably* get back to this one, because people I love are saying it’s important. And great. But I stopped about halfway because I was just not enjoying it. I didn’t want to pick it up. And then I couldn’t pick anything up.

the dry

In an attempt to sort of cleanse my palate, I picked up this Australian thriller. I’m not much of a thriller girl, they are fun and fast but in the end leave me feeling…I don’t know…maybe like I just spent too much time watching bad TV. This was good. If you love thrillers, read this! I didn’t figure it out until the end, right when Aaron Falk (the detective) figures it out. Story: Aaron Falk, detective, returns to his small Australian town in the midst of a terrible drought because his childhood friend was found murdered, along with his wife and their school-aged son. Turns out, Aaron and his friend were suspects in a death that occurred while they were in high school, so there are lots of layers to the investigation now, lots of lingering suspicion and ill will. 3.5 stars.

Inside a Dark Country

3 Feb

bandi

Political tensions are running high. Refugees and immigrants find themselves in danger. I wonder if that is why everything I’m reading is politically charged – if the current mood of the country is effecting how I interpret what I’m reading. SO far this year, I’ve read three really moving and powerful stories of immigrants/refugees. The Accusation would be political pretty much anytime it was published as it’s the first thing to come out of red North Korea. These seven stories really, really blew me away. I know next to nothing about North Korea and most of what I read in this collection intrigued and horrified me. A lot of the stories are about loss of the party’s favor – if your ancestor fell out of favor, the repercussions last for generations and generations. Some of the stories: a young mother whose young child misbehaves at a political rally. A grandmother who leaves her husband and granddaughter at a train station during a Class One lockdown (I think those were called whenever Kim Il-sung or Kim-Jong-il were traveling nearby). A prominent member of the party who has a revolutionary son. Every story opened my eyes a little bit more to what life must be like in a communist state. Bandi is a pseudonym, the author’s identity is unknown. 5 stars.

One to Second, One to First

30 Jan

I have a feeling that come December of this year, I will look back and be utterly amazed at how much time I found to read this month. Fingers crossed that I keep finding good stuff that keeps me reading.

when-breath-becomes-air

One of my book clubs is reading When Breath Becomes Air this month. I know this has been getting amazing reviews and lots of love, and I second all those people! This was a captivating, short, really moving (i.e. lots of tears at the end) memoir about a neurosurgeon in his 30s diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. 4 stars (because although I like a good end-of-book cry, this was just tooo sad for me).

ghachar

Ok, here is something fun and special that I guarantee will not be on anyone’s radar. Ghachar Ghochar is a teeny novel, only 120 pages, about an Indian family and their rise from poverty to splendor. Sort of. I think I may even give this one a re-read, because it’s one of those that has an ending that is…well…ambiguous. WHAT HAPPENED!? Our narrator, probably untrustworthy but I’m not sure, is the only son of a salesman. Growing up, he shared a teeny tiny house with his parents, his sister and his bachelor uncle. They had no money. One day, out of the blue, his father lost his job as a traveling salesman and everything looked grim until the uncle decided to open a spice factory. Basically to write much more would be to write the entire novel, I think, but there is a lot of good tension and mystery and an air of doom about this that I loved. 4.5 stars.

To Recommend, to Recommend but not really RECOMMEND

26 Jan

Guess what? Another 5 star read. And it is only the 4th week of the year!

signalflame

Remember Plainsong by Kent Haruf? or Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Innes-Brown (if you missed that one, and like Kent, look it up!)? or Crow Lake by Mary Lawson? If you remember those, and remember them fondly, you should DEFINITELY look into Andrew Krivak. I didn’t read The Sojourn, although I remember liking the cover when I saw it on the National Book Award list of finalists. The main character of The Sojourn, a man named Josef, opens this new novel. Living out his old age with his daughter Hannah and grandson Bo, Josef isn’t the main focus of this novel. Instead, we get Bo. Probably in his mid-twenties in the late sixties, Bo and Hannah are waiting for the return of a brother/son missing in Vietnam. Sam has left behind a pregnant fiancée. There is a lot of hurt in this novel, a lot of sadness and heartache, but it is SO beautifully written. Gosh I loved every minute of it. Here is one quote that I marked down, wanting to remember: “That’s the nature of loss, he said, and lifted his head and looked at his grandson. You are both lessened and left behind. There’s nothing to be done but the work that’s been given, so that the part of you that’s lessened doesn’t become lost as well.”

I’m not usually a quote writer-downer, but this one really struck me. Fully recommend, if you are in the mood for a quiet, quotation-mark-less read. 5 stars.

difficult-women

Difficult Women falls into a weird category for me. Short stories, all about difficult women. Women who have difficulties. Women who are difficult or deal with difficult men? Well, every story has a woman in it. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is this: I am, overall, really liking this collection. However. Who on earth would I recommend it to? That list is fairly limited. There is a lot of mean sex, a lot of ugly stuff. I wouldn’t EVER recommend this to someone whose reading preferences I did not know. I’d lump it with Tampa (a novel I loved but had trouble finding the right person to sell it to – a female teacher with a penchant for younger boys (think students)). Here are some of the stories I have totally loved: A woman struggling to find her place in a predominantly male work environment meets and falls in love with a swoonworthy guy who really just loves her. Because of some tragedy in her past, she struggles with accepting his love (North Country). In Requiem for a Glass Heart, a man falls in love with and marries a glass woman. The title story, Difficult Women, was also great – a segmented story defining a crazy woman, a loose woman, a frigid one. The Mark of Cain, another I really loved, about a woman married to an identical twin. Even the stories that made me feel like I needed a shower, that unnerved or embarrassed me, were really well written. A PhD student who works as a stripper at night deals with an appalling and completely horrible client. A female version of fight club. Two sisters who are abducted. Made my skin crawl, some of them, but that was the point. 4.5 stars.

Thumbs up, Thumbs down

20 Jan

refugees

I’m not a short story reader. Or am I? Every year for the past four years a collection of short stories has made my “Top Ten Litpicks” of the year. The Refugees is definitely a contender for this year. I thought this collection of 8 stories was really something special. The stories are not really linked but they are definitely cohesive – each one dealing with a Vietnamese refugee. My favorites: a man who receives a new liver and goes out of his way to find the donor’s family. A young man, divorced and now living with his father, lets his father make some big life decisions on his behalf. I don’t know. They were all good. 4.5 stars, possibly rounded up depending on what else the year may bring.

separation

You’ll be seeing this one EVERYWHERE. It is on all sorts of lists, has tons of great blurbs and is being called a “literary Gone Girl.” It was not for me. Maybe I’ve just fallen out of the literary mindset, but I thought this was very boring overall and really unsatisfying. The story is about a woman, separated from her husband but not divorced, who travels to Greece after receiving a call from her mother-in-law. Apparently, her husband has gone missing. He is not at the hotel when she gets there, and she waits. Observing the small village and its locals, ruminating on her marriage and her husband and what their future holds. 3 stars, maybe even 2.5.

First 5 Star Read of ’17

14 Jan

I’ve been reading really good stuff. Good enough to keep me reading and reading and reading. And bam, here it is, my first 5 star read of the year.

animators

Here is what the promotional blurb says: For readers of Meg Wolitzer and Adelle Waldman, and in the tradition of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, comes a bold and vibrant debut novel about friendship, art, ambition—and the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

So, right away this sounds like it’s up my alley. Kavalier & Clay pretty much changed my life in college. I’ve never read Wolitzer or Waldman, but from what I know about them they’re big on female-friendships and show a little more, I don’t know, softness? than Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay. But I loved this. A debut novel full of EVERYTHING that makes a book great: interesting/complicated friendship that results in great art, great growing-up back stories, tentative and tense romantic relationships, one or two big twists, lots and lots of heart. Sharon & Mel meet as freshmen at a small visual arts school and immediately form an all-consuming friendship that leads, eventually, to great artistic collaboration and fame in the world of animation. We follow them both as they try to deal with the things in their pasts that they think define them, hold them back, break them down. I miss reading about these two oddballs already. Release date is 1/31/2017.  5 stars.