Archive | January, 2018

Sad Characters

26 Jan

Is it possible to really enjoy a book even though the main character is pretty much all-around unattractive? In looks, demeanor, attitude, thought? I think it must be, because I really enjoyed The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman even though Pinch, our “hero,” is pretty pathetic. As the son Bear Bavinsky, a famous and philandering painter, Pinch lives his life struggling to earn his father’s approval. He questions every move, every decision, every conversation – hoping that it is the “right” one. He finds himself teaching Italian at a small, unremarkable college in London having cast aside long ago his desire to paint. When he finds himself suddenly in Bear’s confidence and good graces, he makes some interesting and life-changing decisions that propel the second half of the story. I was completely interested the whole way through but found Pinch pretty pathetic. 4 stars.

This galley of Everything Here is Beautiful literally sat on my bookshelves for seven months. It hit bookstores this week and for the past seven months I’ve been thinking that it must hold some heavy expectations. And while it’s been getting a lot of buzz, while it was gripping and compelling and lots of things you’d want in a novel, I think it may be a little bit of a tough sell. Here’s why.

It’s very sad. It’s very honest. It’s terribly depressing.

The story is about two Chinese-American sisters. Miranda, the older of the two, is a rule-follower. A nurturer. Smart, independent and reliable. Her younger sister Lucia is impetuous, spontaneous, wild. She’s also schizophrenic and maybe bipolar. Everything Here is Beautiful is the story of what it’s like to live with and around serious mental health issues. The novel switches perspective – first Miranda, then Lucia’s husband Yonah, then Lucia herself. There are tons of good discussion points in here; how much responsibility should the sister take, and when has she done all she can do? Where do you draw the line? How far would you go to take care of someone who doesn’t want to be taken care of? There are no easy answers in this book. There are no right ones, either. It’s a tough read, but the characters are so well portrayed that you feel like you know them all. It sucked me in for sure, but left me feeling so sad. I think the buzz around this one will be enough to create adequate sales, but it’s a tough one to recommend. 4 stars

And We’re Off!

11 Jan

I can’t really say that 2018 started with a great big BANG, but I’ve definitely been into books so far this year. Two of these aren’t out until the spring, but since neither one really struck me I thought I’d go ahead and get them out here. By far the best thing I’ve read so far this year is Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.

The book opens with a woman and her teenage daughter driving to a dinner party in Istanbul. Caught in highway deadlock, some thief swings open the back door of her car and nabs her purse. Something comes over Peri, and she leaves her car (and daughter) to chase the crook. She catches him, retrieves her bag after a scuffle, and heads straight to the dinner party she is now late for. The thief, ripping through her purse, had dislodged an old photo of Peri and two of her college friends smiling with their Religions professor. This triggers a lot of memories and they come flooding back to her, interspersed with the happenings of the party she’s attending. I loved Peri – loved her ambivalence and her childhood and the way her family worked (or didn’t). I loved her college friends. I loved the way the novel was about religion but not so much about religion as to be a turn off. And of course I loved the ambiguous ending! 5 stars

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin came out this past Tuesday and has been getting LOTS of buzz in the book world. It’s the story of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune-teller in a cramped New York City apartment. She tells them, separately, the date each of them will die. So the question becomes, is she right? Will the prophecy alter the way each sibling lives their life? I’m not sure I know the answer, even now after finishing it in one big gulp. The siblings are great characters – Simon, the youngest, with the WORST date-of-death prediction, moves to SF on a whim. Klara, always sort of reckless, tries to pursue a career as a magician, performing death-defying acts certain that her death-day is in the future. Daniel was maybe my least favorite, mostly because he was just so totally normal. And Varya, the oldest, working in a lab that does tests on primates trying to increase longevity.  Really interesting premise with good characters. 4 stars.

Women in the Castle came out last year and had been popping up in my book-feeds. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and am continually impressed at how books about WWII can keep being published and also keep being good. This is the story of Marianne, a German woman whose husband was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler at the beginning of the war. The plot failed and Marianne’s husband, as well as his collaborators, were executed. Marianne had made the men a promise that she would look after all of their wives and children, and this is the story of her trying to do that. 4 stars.

Another WWII novel that didn’t resonate so much with me was The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It’s the story of, surprise, the tattooist of Auschwitz. The Jewish man tasked with tattooing numbers on all of the incoming prisoners at Auschwitz. This story is based on interviews with the actual man, and his story is really impressive and tragic and also a great love story. My problem was with the actual writing of the novel, it felt like translated interviews and not like a novel. 3 stars

Girls Burn Brighter came up on a list of books to look forward to in 2018. It comes out in March and I loved the cover so I bumped it up in my queue. I loved the opening 50 pages or so where we meet Poornima and Savitha, two young girls in India. Poornima is named after the moon and Savitha the sun and the story of them meeting in their small, impoverished town and the growth of their friendship was really great. And then. Sigh. Nothing good happens and everything bad you can think of does. Savitha is raped by Poornima’s father and flees into the night. Poornima is sold into marriage and ends up living with terrible abuse until she too escapes. They both end up working in brothels, sold into slavery and on and on and on and on. I felt like I owed it to them to read their entire sad story but sort of wish I had never started it. 2.5 stars

Circe was maybe my most anticipated read of 2018 (Song of Achilles! swoon!). I am pretty sure this wasn’t even a case of being overly excited and expecting so much as to be disappointed with the reality. I think this was really just not that great. It is basically an imagined biography of Circe and, while interesting, had no real depth of story or plot or character. 3 stars.