11 April 2017

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Summary from Goodreads:
From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country.

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova's new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

I loved Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian when it came out.  I mean loved.  I have a signed first edition, first printing.  But I was so disappointed in The Swan Thieves.  It was so blah I DNF'd it at fifty pages - I do not DNF books lightly.  Most just hang around the house for years until I finally finish them.  So I entered into reading The Shadow Land with bated breath.  Being set in Bulgaria, I had high hopes.

The Shadow Land was good...but not nearly as gripping as The Historian. The multiple story layers do not mesh well and it takes nearly half the book for the real crux of the story to start firing. The first half is this strange, meandering tale of an American girl (who, although 26 years old, is annoyingly naive) who winds up with a box of cremains and the oddball cabbie who helps her try to find the cremains' family members.  There's also a very strange moment where Alexandra, having worried almost constantly so far that the cabbie Bobby will take advantage of her, thinks Bobby has made a pass at her until he very casually throws out the fact that he's gay.  At which point then it is "OK for them to be friends" and so on because she doesn't have to worry about attraction between them.  It could have been handled better. (The very ending of the book feels extremely tacked on and hasty, in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.)

The second half of the novel, though, is comprised of a beautiful, gutting story about a gifted musician arrested in a Stalin-era purge in Bulgaria and who survives through sheer force of will. This portion of the novel is where Kostova's talent as a writer lies.  These layers, told by various elderly characters and a written account, blend very well and reveal the lingering effects of Communism.  It was interesting to read this book after having read Elif Batuman's The Idiot and how she depicted mid-1990s Hungary; the two authors came at it from different angles which made for good reading.  I am glad that Kostova put out a new book - I want her to keep writing and exploring these ideas.

The Shadow Land is out today, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

04 April 2017

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann

Summary from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of the National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin comes a lesson in how to be a writer—and so much more than that.

Intriguing and inspirational, this book is a call to look outward rather than inward. McCann asks his readers to constantly push the boundaries of experience, to see empathy and wonder in the stories we craft and hear.

A paean to the power of language, both by argument and by example, Letters to a Young Writer is fierce and honest in its testament to the bruises delivered by writing as both a profession and a calling. It charges aspiring writers to learn the rules and even break them.

These fifty-two essays are ultimately a profound challenge to a new generation to bring truth and light to a dark world through their art.

I've only recently discovered Colum McCann (let me tell you, Dancer is amazing).  This little book contains life advice disguised as writing advice very much in the vein of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. It gets a bit platitude-y at times, in my opinion, but the later chapters have a really wry voice.

Also, dude can write a sentence about anything.  That alone is worth reading.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher.

02 April 2017

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Summary from Goodreads:
An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam from debut author Thi Bui.

This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.

At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.

In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

The Best We Could Do is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking graphic memoirs I've ever read. Bui's attempts to understand herself as a new parent by trying to understand how her parents grew up and existed before she came along will resonate with any reader - that it is all set during the turbulence of the Vietnam War makes it just gutting. The art is superb with sharp pen-and-ink drawings colored by soft pastel watercolor. A must-read and congrats to Bui for being selected for BN's Discover program.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

31 March 2017

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Summary from Goodreads:
Guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities and long for home.

In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. Brought in to construct the towering monuments to wealth that punctuate the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force works without the rights of citizenship, endures miserable living conditions, and is ultimately forced to leave the country. Until now, the humanitarian crisis of the so-called “guest workers” of the Gulf has barely been addressed in fiction. Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs. Unnikrishnan presents twenty-eight linked stories that careen from construction workers who shapeshift into luggage and escape a labor camp, to a woman who stitches back together the bodies of those who’ve fallen from buildings in progress, to a man who grows ideal workers designed to live twelve years and then perish—until they don’t, and found a rebel community in the desert.

I can't quite remember where I heard about Temporary People.  Book Riot, I think.  Liberty?  Probably.  What I do know is that I marked it down as a May release and had a panic when BookTwitter let me know the release date had been March 14.  Drat.  Luckily, Restless Books' very, very lovely PR person approved me for a digital galley after the fact so I could power read it during breaks and evenings at my conference last week.  Temporary People did win the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing so I didn't want to pass it up.

Unnikrishnan has presented a very striking collection of linked short stories, telling fable-like stories about the exploited workers imported to build the glittering skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The use of magical or fable-like elements is a click or two stranger than Salman Rushdie's usual (if you've read him).  Workers turn into suitcases and passports to escape, a woman develops a talent for patching together the men who fall from skyscraper construction sites so that they don't die on company time or property, an elevator develops a shocking proclivity, and the roaches that invade the crumbling homes of workers start taking on human-like traits.  The most devastating and creative stories involve the bioengineering of workers who grow on vines, from seeds, and "die" after a preset number of years creating - the "perfect" labor underclass that won't get ideas, uppity, or demand much compensation.  Characters weave in and out of different stories. "Dreamers" are caught between a country that won't acknowledge them as equal citizens - i.e. the problematic term "guest workers" - and the families back home in India or beyond who depend upon their paychecks. I had a bit of trouble understanding a few stories, likely because I missed a cultural reference that would make a fable-like situation clear, but the overall collection is imaginative and devastating. It's a rough read.

Trigger warning for a few scenes of sexual violence.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.  Thanks so much, Restless Books!

28 March 2017

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Summary from Goodreads:
Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resistor murdered in the failed July, 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First, Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naïve Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resistor’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.

By my count, novels about non-combatants in World War II seem to be on a trend.  It's not a particular corner of fiction I gravitate toward, possibly because I'm reasonably well-read on the non-fiction side.  But I had an opportunity to read an advance copy of The Women in the Castle, so decided to give it a try.

I think that a reader who finds books like All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale to be their jam would also like The Women in the Castle.  The writing is very good, the characters are compelling, and Shattuck has done a lot of research into the psychology of why people who seemed to be decent people became complicit in the atrocities of the Third Reich.  However, the book as a whole just didn't do it for me.  The prologue is very clunky and I wasn't that interested in the adults' stories in that section, many of them from men who make few appearances in the book. The timeline jumped back and forth, over huge swaths of time, and between characters' points-of-view.  It made the story feel disjointed and ruined the plot tension in at least two places (and spoiled a plot point for those of us who know anything about immediate postwar Germany and Central Europe).  What did interest me very much was the point-of-view given to us by Martin, Benita's son, who is about 6 or 7 when the war ends but we aren't given that much from that particular character at that point in time.

The Women in the Castle is a good book but it's audience definitely wasn't me. Compared to recent reads like PachinkoEverything Belongs to Us, and Rabbit Cake there were too many things that weren't to my taste.

Dear FTC: I read a galley copy that was sent to my store.

26 March 2017

Standing on Earth by Mohsen Emadi (translated by Lyn Coffin)

Summary from Goodreads:
In his poems of memory and displacement, Iranian poet Mohsen Emadi charts his experience of exile with vivid, often haunting, imagery and a child's love of language. Lyn Coffin's translations from the Persian allow Emadi's poems to inhabit the English language as their own, as the poet recasts his earliest memories and deepest loves over the forges of being "someone who goes to bed in one city and wakes up in another city." Alternating between acceptance and despair, tenderness and toughness, he writes, "I wanted to be a physicist," but "Your kisses made me a poet." Mohsen Emadi is a powerful witness to life in the present times, and Standing on Earth introduces a major world poet to an English-language readership for the first time.

Standing on Earth is a beautifully written and translated collection of poems centered on loss and displacement. While you could read "the lover" invoked throughout as an actual person - and may, in some instances, be referencing someone specific - I feel like the poet means to reference country and culture. The speaker has been forcibly removed from his culture and so mourns it like a lost lover.  Lyn Coffin's translation is excellent.

Read for the 2017 Read Harder challenge.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

24 March 2017

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

Summary from Goodreads:
What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? How can we judge a book by its cover?

Data meets literature in this playful and informative look at our favorite authors and their masterpieces.
There’s a famous piece of writing advice—offered by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and myriad writers in between—not to use -ly adverbs like “quickly” or “fitfully.” It sounds like solid advice, but can we actually test it? If we were to count all the -ly adverbs these authors used in their careers, do they follow their own advice compared to other celebrated authors? What’s more, do great books in general—the classics and the bestsellers—share this trait?

In Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, statistician and journalist Ben Blatt brings big data to the literary canon, exploring the wealth of fun findings that remain hidden in the works of the world’s greatest writers. He assembles a database of thousands of books and hundreds of millions of words, and starts asking the questions that have intrigued curious word nerds and book lovers for generations: What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Do men and women write differently? Are bestsellers getting dumber over time? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? What makes a great opening sentence? How can we judge a book by its cover? And which writerly advice is worth following or ignoring?

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve is a fun intersection of statistics and literature. His methodology feels less rigorous, in my opinion, than that of the authors behind The Bestseller Code, but this is far more entertaining. It's very much a "I wonder what the percentages would look like if I searched for [insert word]" book: What word does an author use most frequently? Do authors follow their own writing advice? And do American fanfic writers try to out-British the Brits with their slang? (That was a fun one.) Blatt did try to get a wide-ranging sample of books - bestsellers, Classics, critical hits, etc. although he didn't get much into genres outside the authors who have crossed into the mainstream. I have to rap his knuckles a bit about the Gender chapter: it wasn't terrible, but an acknowledgement that he was sticking with the binary for "x reason" would have been a start.  Those conclusions felt a bit too facile.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

15 March 2017

Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes

Summary from Goodreads:
It is 1933 and Mikhail Bulgakov's enviable career is on the brink of being dismantled. His friend and mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam, has been arrested, tortured, and sent into exile. Meanwhile, a mysterious agent of the secret police has developed a growing obsession with exposing Bulgakov as an enemy of the state. To make matters worse, Bulgakov has fallen in love with the dangerously candid Margarita. Facing imminent arrest, and infatuated with Margarita, he is inspired to write his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a scathing novel critical of both power and the powerful.

Ranging between lively readings in the homes of Moscow's literary elite to the Siberian Gulag, Mikhail and Margarita recounts a passionate love triangle while painting a portrait of a country whose towering literary tradition is at odds with a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissent. Margarita is a strong, idealistic, seductive woman who is fiercely loved by two very different men, both of whom will fail in their attempts to shield her from the machinations of a regime hungry for human sacrifice.

Debut novelist Julie Lekstrom Himes launches a rousing defense of art and the artist during a time of systematic deception, and she movingly portrays the ineluctable consequences of love for one of history's most enigmatic literary figures.

Well, this underwhelmed.  If I hadn't read previously read The Master and Margarita then this debut would have just been another historical novel about Soviet writers in the 1930s and I probably would have passed on it.  Due to the Bulgakov link, I was expecting something very much more...colorful, at minimum. The plot in Mikhail and Margarita takes a while to get going.  Once it did pick up speed, the fascination for me was the dizzying, Kafkan "The Trial"-like machinations of NKVD and what it makes people do, but not the characters of Bulgakov or Margarita.  Mikhail and Margarita is a book definitely intended for fans of The Master and Margarita, because it's been a while since I read that and I was having some trouble piecing together specific callbacks and phrases.  More importantly, I found myself wishing that I was more familiar with Osip Mandelstam's work.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

14 March 2017

When the Marquess Falls by Lorraine Heath (The Hellions of Havisham #3.5)

Summary from Goodreads:
The long-anticipated and utterly extraordinary tale of the Mad Marquess that proves love truly does last forever

The Marquess of Marsden always follows the rules. Expected from birth to adhere to decades of tradition, he plans to marry a proper young woman from a good family. But when a beautiful, and completely unsuitable, woman snags his heart, he begins to realize that to get what you want, sometimes you have to break the rules.

Linnie Connor dreams of the independence of running her very own bakery. And while she may be allowed to be a marquess’ childhood companion, the baker's daughter never ends up with the handsome nobleman. Determined to achieve at least one of her dreams, Linnie makes plans to leave her sleepy village for London, intent on purging him from her heart. And yet, when an invitation to the Marsden annual ball arrives, she can't refuse her one chance to waltz in his arms.

It will be a night that stirs the flames of forbidden desires and changes their lives forever.

When the Marquess Falls is a very bittersweet and heartbreaking prequel, even if it's listed out as #3.5. I've only read Falling Into Bed With a Duke (the first in the "Hellions of Havisham" series) but its opening chapter/prologue is enough to tell you what has to happen in this book.  The relationship between Linnie and Marsden seems natural, with just the right amount of plot for a novella without all the tiresome will-we-won't-we that occasionally infests the romance genre (a little is fine for the tension, but some over do it to the extreme). You'll need the Kleenex.

(Edited to add: And while this ending is appropriate for this novella, because Marsden's problems had to start somewhere, I am not generally in favor of this No Happy Ever After trend that seems to be appearing.  Not in my genre romance, go put that stuff in general fiction or something.)

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this novella from the publisher via Edelweiss.

13 March 2017

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Summary from Goodreads:
A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.

The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.

[redacted due to SPOILERS]

With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty--and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.

Alert: The Idiot has Bad Flap Copy Syndrome. It blows almost the entire plot, so FYI (see above).  Our narrator and protagonist, Selin, is starting her first year at Harvard.  She has two roommates who both strike her as strange in their own ways.  She's mystified by the new email system she's told to use (side note: I started college in 1996 at the University of Iowa and, yes, that stuff was new and weird if you hadn't used it before).  Selin tries out for the orchestra and finds that everyone plays violin.  She's constantly unable to take classes that interest her (side note two: the "audition" system of picking college classes makes zero sense to me but apparently this is a thing?).  She's pushed into volunteering as a math tutor that lead to several scenes of increasing absurdity like a Gogol short story.  However, in her Russian class, she develops two important relationships: Croatian-American socialite (?) Svetlana, who becomes what appears to be Selin's best friend, and Hungarian international student Ivan, in his last year of undergrad.

The Idiot a very readable book, with excellent scenes and description. I had previously enjoyed Batuman's The Possessed, a book of essays about translation and Russian literature, and I remember thinking I'd like to see a novel from her. The Idiot is a true Bildungsroman, a campus novel about a intelligent, naive young woman's first year at Harvard University. First experiences, first roommates, first new friends, and first love. The novel seems almost plotless at times, just the record of one year in someone's life. I was very interested in the title, which reminded me of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, about a young man trying to experience life (or find himself) who really gets the short-end of the stick when everyone assumes he's an idiot because he gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, as does Batuman's Selin.

I have some reservations about the ending. It isn't terrible but I didn't like it very much. It felt like the novel just ran out of gas and ended.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.

09 March 2017

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary from Goodreads:
A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a dear friend from childhood, asking her how to raise her baby girl as a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie's letter of response.

Here are fifteen invaluable suggestions--compelling, direct, wryly funny, and perceptive--for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. From encouraging her to choose a helicopter, and not only a doll, as a toy if she so desires; having open conversations with her about clothes, makeup, and sexuality; debunking the myth that women are somehow biologically arranged to be in the kitchen making dinner, and that men can "allow" women to have full careers, Dear Ijeawele goes right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century. It will start a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

A follow-up of sorts to We Should All be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has published her response to a friend's request for advice. Specifically, how to raise a little girl as a feminist.  Dear Ijeawele is a beautiful essay in 15 points, both specific and general in its advice. Adichie has beautifully thought-out responses to the request for advice, but sprinkled throughout are many instances of a wonderful female friendship.

(And yes, all our favorites are problematic, as Adichie has recently made some troubling remarks about trans-women, but the specific points made in this book are quite good.)

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

06 March 2017

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Summary from Goodreads:
Twelve-year-old Elvis Babbitt has a head for the facts: she knows science proves yellow is the happiest color, she knows a healthy male giraffe weighs about 3,000 pounds, and she knows that the naked mole rat is the longest living rodent. She knows she should plan to grieve her mother, who has recently drowned while sleepwalking, for exactly eighteen months. But there are things Elvis doesn’t yet know—like how to keep her sister Lizzie from poisoning herself while sleep-eating or why her father has started wearing her mother's silk bathrobe around the house. Elvis investigates the strange circumstances of her mother's death and finds comfort, if not answers, in the people (and animals) of Freedom, Alabama. As hilarious a storyteller as she is heartbreakingly honest, Elvis is a truly original voice in this exploration of grief, family, and the endurance of humor after loss.

When you're twelve, and your mom dies in a freak accident, you use whatever facts you have at your disposal to try and create a roadmap to grieving.  Because that is the major problem facing Elvis Babbitt: there doesn't seem to be a single best way to get through mourning her mom.  So she takes the best advice available - from her guidance counselor who is obsessed with her recent divorce - and carves out the next eighteen months to mourn and to try and figure out how to help her dad and sister mourn, too.

Rabbit Cake is a funny-sad-sweet slice-of-life novel about a girl and her family as they mourn the death of their mom/wife. Elvis is a really sharp narrator, precocious without being precious or too adult.  As Elvis goes around collecting information and facts she occasionally gets the wrong end of the stick because she is a child; the adult characters eventually provide the right context for her. The cast of characters (Dad, out-of-control sister Lizzie, chatty parrot Ernest, stray roommate from the mental institution they take in Vanessa, school grief counselor Ms Bernstein, zoo veterinarian Dr Rotherwood) are kooky in that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction way. There's also a little bit of a Steel Magnolia edge - this family sticks together, through tragedy and mishap, and always finds a way to laugh.

Bonus: you get lots of animal facts, particularly about sleeping habits.

Dear FTC: I received a galley - thanks to the Tin House Galley Club for the ARC!