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.