3.26.2015

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

B. J. Novak's debut book is a collection of short stories can best be described as charmingly well-written. Titled One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, Novak's collection contains over 60 short stories and poems, with premises like a rematch between the tortoise and the hare or Confucius at home or a comedy central roast of Nelson Mandela. The titles are lovely - "the Pleasure of Being Right" or "The Vague Restaurant Critic" or "Kindness Among Cakes" - and I loved how the lengths of the stories and poems varied. Novak, known for his work on The Office, is a "a gifted observer of the human condition and a very funny writer capable of winning that rare thing: unselfconsciousness, insuppressible laughter" (The Washington Post, from the inside cover). One great poem, only three lines, titles "If you Love Something":
If you love something, let it go.
If you don't love something, definitely let it go.
Basically, just drop everything, who cares.
The stories, however, were my favorites. The emotional depth always surprises me in short stories (no matter how many I read), and this collection was no difference. There was true heart in all of them. As the NYT Book Review writes, "beneath the hilarious, high-concept set pieces and satires here beats a surprisingly tender heart." I encourage you, even if you don't get the book (which I totally think you should), to read or listen to excerpts on NPR. Charming, loving, funny, well-written, and absurd at times, Novak's One More Thing should definitely be on your reading list. Rating: ★★★★★

3.22.2015

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I discovered Gabrielle Zevin's charming The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in the second-hand bookshop in Hanover as I procrastinated studying for my winter term finals. As an avid fan of small bookstores, this novel was light, quick and loving. One reviewer writes, "Do you fantasize about owning such a place, preferably a jumble of rooms encouraging browsers to meander all afternoon, ideally located in a quaint New England town? Gabrielle Zevin has written this novel for you." And that definitely is one of my fantasies. A. J. Fikry's wife dies in a surprise automobile accident, leaving him to run their bookstore on a small New England island. As he drinks himself into disrepair, his rare book is stolen (one that he could have sold to save his bookstore from bankruptcy) and a two year old is left for him to raise, with a note saying:
To the Owner of this Bookstore:
This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desparate.
Yours,
Maya's Mother 
And so unfolds the story. It was a quick read (I must admit I read it in one sitting) and I really enjoyed it. Nothing special, but sometimes you just need a solid story about books (I know I do). I don't really have much to review besides I loved that each chapter started with a note from A. J. to Maya about an important short story. I now have the desire to look up and read these stories. A quote from Zevin, about how she describes her characters... "I thought as a strategy it would be really interesting to describe people in terms of what they read and how they read.. I think you can do a lot, like describing people with their physical characteristics, things like that, but to me I've always found it to be a much more informative question to ask somebody what they read." A charming and heartwarming literary story. Rating:★★★★

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James's third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, tells the story of Jamaica from December 1976 to March 1991. "It is a story worth telling, and a story about Jamaica that doesn’t only take place in Jamaica." (from The Guardian's review). The story is not brief, it is an impressive work, clocking in at just under 700 pages. And there are many more than seven deaths. I was enraptured from the first line:
Listen.
Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you're coming from and you're always returning from it. You know where you're going though you nevr seem to get there and you're just dead. Dead. It sounds final but its a word missing an ing...
 The main plot focuses on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Marley is never referred to by name, only as "The Singer." And he provides the center of the story. But he's not just it. Marley is the starting point for a greater web of dynamics, as the NYT review describes: it is a "multilayered, choral inquiry into Jamaican politics and poverty, into race and class, and into the volatile relationship between the United States and the Caribbean." (X) The book began with a cast of characters, divided by location, which correlated with gang affiliation, and I did find myself constantly referring to this list as the book continued on. James divides his novel into five parts, "Original Rockers," "Ambush in the Night," "Shadow Dancin'," "White Lines / Kids in America" and "Sound Boy Killing," each a different day. There is a multitude of different narrators, which frustrated me at first, but I grew to love. Each character has a distinct voice and differing narration style. I learned so much about Jamaican history and Marlon James's writing was exquisite. I have a long list of quotes on my phone that I hoped to write in this review, but I will end with three, from very different characters:
The first, a poetic narration from gang member "Bam-Bam" who has been hopped up on coke to kill:
I run fast to you, to see you, to put you down but
But Josey beat me to the bang
Bam Bam, wife dead
And your brethren
And your sistren
And anybody that play guitar
I hear the bam bam bam bam on the ground
And reach up and push my feet
Echo in my head, bam bam
Blood rushing beat bam bam
Bomboclaat fuckery, I wanted to shoot you first
Nobody goin' forget the man that shoot you
The second, a reminiscence on the attempted peace treaty between the JLP and the PNP by Josey Wales, head enforcer, don of Copenhagen City (James's fictional Jamaican ghetto) and leader of the Storm Posse:
Peace can't happen when too much to gain in war. And who want peace anyway when all that mean is that you still poor? You can lead a man to peace all you want. You can fly out the singer and make him sing for money to build a new toilet in the ghetto. You can go wind your waste in Rae Town or in Jungle and par with man who only last year kill your brother. But a man can only move so far... 
The third, from Nina Burgess, the main female character (I won't spoil you with her description):
I hate politics. I hate that just because I live here I'm supposed to live politics. And there's nothing you can do. If you don't live politics, politics will live you.
I loved this book. Truly. I read the whole thing in less than a day, and even though I felt it got long at times, by the end I realized that those long times were necessary for the total story. So I would definitely recommend if you're looking for a longer novel. I look forward to reading Marlon James's other works, The Book of Night Women and John Crow's Devil. My apologies for the long review (a long review for a long book?) Rating: ★★★★(★)

3.21.2015

The Post Office Girl

The Post Office Girl is one of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig's most acclaimed novels.
“Time to leave now, get out of this room, go somewhere, anywhere; sharpen this feeling of happiness and freedom, stretch your limbs, fill your eyes, be awake, wider awake, vividly awake in every sense and every pore.”
The novel tells the story of Christine, who spends her days working in a post office in a lonely Austrian town following World War I. To sum up more eloquently than I can: "One afternoon, as she is dozing among the official forms and stamps, a telegraph arrives addressed to her. It is from her rich aunt, who lives in America and writes requesting that Christine join her and her husband in a Swiss Alpine resort. After a dizzying train ride, Christine finds herself at the top of the world, enjoying a life of privilege that she had never imagined. But Christine’s aunt drops her as abruptly as she picked her up, and soon the young woman is back at the provincial post office, consumed with disappointment and bitterness." (X) Another review describes the story as "Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde in Zweig’s haunting and hard-as-nails novel, completed during the 1930s, as he was driven by the Nazis into exile, but left unpublished at the time of his death." I was utterly engrossed in Zweig's writing when I began to read. Zweig was inspiration for one of my favorite films, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and my grandmother bought this book for me over the summer. I did not pick it up until winter break, after returning from Israel. While in Israel, I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem. While on a tour, our guide stopped briefly at a display of Jewish authors and intellectuals. Zweig was among them. He left his native Austria in the 1930s and fled to England, then America and Brazil. He later committed suicide at age 60 in 1942. Zweig kept popping up in my life, so I felt compelled to read his stories. And what magnificent stories they were. The Post Office Girl was a wonderful start and introduction to Zweig. It gives you a sense of the social impact of the first World War, and the immense wealth gap. I adored the novel (and his other works, hopefully which I'll write about soon) (going to try to post more often...) Highly recommend, especially if you've never heard of Zweig before. Rating: ★★★★★

Wild

Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is over a thousand miles, and Cheryl set out to do it alone. I loved every moment of this book. I had seen the movie (2014's Wild) in the fall and fell in love with the soundtrack. My favorite moment was Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)"  playing as Cheryl (played by Reese Witherspoon) finished her hike and crossed the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon at the end of the PCT. Anyway, having this soundtrack on repeat (and rewatching the movie) convinced me it was time to finally read the memoir it was based off of. And I read it in one sitting. Cheryl Strayed writes beautifully and makes you feel like you're on the trail with her. The memoir opens in the middle of her hike, as she hurls one of her hiking boots off the side of the mountain. It interweaves her life throughout, her relationship with her mother, her struggles with heroin, her divorce... the book was wonderfully crafted. Cheryl wrote an advice column for years, and one of my favorite quotes from this column (thanks to a great article from Vulture)
“I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
This memoir sums up this idea: no regrets on the life you could've had. It is an important concept, and she writes about all the decisions she has made (some bad, some good) led her to where she is now. She reads various books on the trail, and the quotes and reflections interspersed throughout make you want to go on a self-discovery journey of your own (although I probably wouldn't last a day in the wilderness). My favorite, from Emily Dickenson:
If your Nerve, deny you --
Go above your Nerve --
Cheryl did just that. Rating: ★★★★★

7.05.2014

My Promised Land

Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is an influential Israeli columnist. His book takes its readers through the history of Israel, beginning in 1897 through the current day. But this is not just your typical history book, in the slightest. Shavit "draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family's story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is large than the sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension." Each chapter is a glimpse into Israel's history, but I never felt like there were significant gaps. And within each of the chapters, all entitled with a phrase and a year (like "Into the Valley, 1921," "Lydda, 1948" or "J'Accuse, 1999"), Shavit focuses on the stories that make up each chapter in Israel's life. "It is a Zionist book unblinkered by Zionism," writes the New York Times Book Review, "It is about the entirety of the Israeli experience." He does not shy from critiquing Israel, commenting on current political realities that were shaped by historical situations. What I found interesting is that My Promised Land was written in English. It was not meant for Israelis. Instead, it was meant for American Jews. As Jerusalem Post (critically) writes, "Shavit's book gives the American Jewish community the ability to feel comfortable refusing to be inconvenienced for Israel." I viewed My Promised Land differently. Yes, it is the tale of the morally ambiguous Israel, and does give the American Jewish community ability to distance itself from Israel. But I read it as a wonderfully written account of a country that American Jews don't necessarily fully grasp and a book that everyone should read if they have the chance to understand Israel today. To end with a quote from the "Peace, 1993" chapter, describing the Valley of Hulda (currently, a kibbutz; previously, an Arab village)
Hulda is here to stay. And Hulda has no solution. Hulda says peace shall not be. I descend the hill to the well, the vineyard. It's so beautiful and calm here. But the soil is hard. The land is cursed. For it is here, in the Valley of Hulda, that history's door creaked open on April 6, 1948. It is precisely here, at the end of the Herzl forest, that the Jews crossed the threshold between the commune's oil grove and Jamal Munheir's fields and entered the forbidden....Here, by the old well of Hulda, we moved from one phase of our history to another, from one sphere of morality to another. So all that has haunted us ever since is right here. All that will go on haunting us is right here. Generation after generation. War after war.  
I highly recommend it. Rating: ★★★★★

6.22.2014

Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer

As the 2014 World Cup captures the excitement of people around the world, I decided I should learn a little about the history of Brazil. The opportunity presented itself through David Goldblatt's book, which gives a glimpse into Brazilian history through the lens of soccer. Having read Goldblatt's famous The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer in the fall for one of my classes, I should have known what I was getting into. Goldblatt's style of writing is dense; I found the beginning of the book quite difficult to get through. However, once he got into the 1950s, things got a lot more interesting. He began to focus on the intersection of soccer and politics, leading up to the Copa das Manifestações (the Demonstrations Cup, the name giving to the mass protests sweeping Brazil). With the excitement that inevitably arises from the World Cup, it is hard to focus on the costs of such an event (I highly recommend watching John Oliver's takedown of FIFA + The World Cup, a quick overview of the corruption, scandal etc. - watch here!). Goldblatt does a fantastic job of focusing on the underlying sociopolitical backdrop. As one review writes, "Along with the feats of Pelé, the tortured genius of Garrincha and the recent promise of Neymar, we are confronted with a tale of bigotry, misconduct, megalomania, deceit, murder and charlatanism." It's hard to understand how Brazil, a country once united by soccer, could be so torn apart. Pelé, hailed as the greatest soccer player of all time, is a hero in his native Brazil. With the onset of protests, he said (qtd. in Goldblatt):
Let's forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let's remember how the Seleção is our country and our blood.
 Futebol Nation highlights how Brazil is so intertwined with the national sport, but also provides a "reality check" in terms of the current World Cup. If you are at all interested in this subject matter, I recommend reading it before the tournament ends to provide another perspective on what is happening in Brazil. Also a quick google search of "Brazil Protests" provides insight on something SportsCenter doesn't necessarily cover in their coverage. Rating: ★★★★

6.19.2014

xo Orpheus

Continuing my summer reading 2014, I read this collection of short stories of fifty new myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer. "If “xo” signals a goodbye, then xo Orpheus is a goodbye to an old way of mythmaking." I liked reading xo Orpheus because each author had an extremely distinct style with a creative interpretation of their chosen myth. Sometimes it was a myth I knew; like the tale of Persephone, which is retold many times. My favorite retelling of the Persephone/Demeter myth
was "Lost Lake" by Emma Straub and Peter Straub, where Persephone is transformed into 14-year-old Eudora Hale who travels back and forth between her divorced parents. Other stories, the original myth was unknown and foreign to me, like the West African myth of the trickster Anansi. This story was beautifully re-imagined by Edith Pearlman in "Wait and See", which was the story of a human pentachromat (could see more than the normal spectrum) who was overwhelmed seeing too much. Pearlman was inspired by Anansi's proclamation, "blindness is a man's highest good." Bernheimer writes in the introduction to the collection that "classical myths are worldly tales, generally involving some contact between the mortal and immortal realms, between humans and the gods." What makes the collection so great to read is that even though myths are these fantastical tales, they don't necessarily have a fantastical interpretation. Some definitely do; there are many that focus on nonhuman characters, like the ogres in Aimee Bender's "Devourings." My favorites were the ones that placed the otherworldly in a real world (á la Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series) or ones that made the stories themselves realist, like making Persephone the tale of divorce and custody. There were definitely a few stories in here that I didn't like, as expected in a large collection, but on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. I highly recommend this collection. Rating: ★★★★(★)

6.15.2014

Salvage the Bones

Deviating a little from my planned Summer Reading 2014 due to my grandma's recommendation, Salvage the Bones is a fantastic look at Hurricane Katrina. Author Jesmyn Ward is herself a victim of Katrina; the story definitely has the touch of someone who has lived through such a horrific situation.
"On the day before a hurricane hits, the phone rings. When Mama was living, she picked it up; it is a phone call from the state government that goes out to everyone in the area who will be hit by a storm....I picked it up for the first time yesterday. A man's voice speaks; he sounds like a computer, like he has an iron throat. I cannot remember exactly what he says, but I remember it in general. Mandatory evacuation. Hurricane making landfall tomorrow...There is a list. And I do not know if he says this, but this is what it feels like: You can die." 
The protagonist, Esch, a 15-year old with an affinity for mythology, is in a very rough situation. Her mother died in childbirth to her youngest brother, her father is an alcoholic, and she is pregnant. As the New York Times Book Review writes, "is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale. Think of Noah or Gilgamesh or any soggy group of humans and dogs huddled together, waiting out an apocalyptic act of God or weather. It’s an old story — of family honor, revenge, disaster — and it’s a good one." I wholly agree. I could not put the novel down. The story begins 10 days before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall, continues during the day of the hurricane and the day after. Esch's family lives right in Katrina's path: the poor bayou town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. In the Q&A with Ward at the end of the novel, she says she wanted to write about Hurricane Katrina because she lived through it, and she was "angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return...after the storm." The book is raw and real and has a "narrative ruthlessness." It was undoubtedly a fantastic read. You feel as if you are in Esch's world. The novel isn't simply about Katrina; it is a story of survival, of love, and of family. Highly recommend, if you haven't had the chance to read this yet. Rating: ★★★★★

6.12.2014

Deathless

A book I know I will read again and again, Deathless is Catherynne M. Valente's stunning homage to Russian folklore. Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, is an antagonistic figure in Russian folklore. I cannot do an adequate job expressing the plot of this tour de force. Essentially, the story of Koschei (which you do not need to know in order to read this novel) is set against twentieth century Russia. The protagonist is Marya Morevna, who "transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei's beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing." Deathless combines magical history with actual history. Not only did I learn these century-old stories (or Valente's interpretation of this folklore), you understand Russian history as you read. As one review writes, "Yes, the book is about a Russian folklore, but it’s also greatly in juxtaposition with Stalinist-era Russia and essentially- war. It is grounded deeply in both its principle worlds, and those double back on each other all the time, so it can get a bit confusing. Marya moves between these worlds, fighting in a war between Koschei and Viy, (a war they’ve been waging since time began), and surviving during the siege of Leningrad in 20th century Russia." Sounds confusing, I know. I was lost for the first few chapters, and definitely confused at the start of each section (they correlate to different parts of Marya's life; time jumps are always confusing). All sections begin with a poem of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian modernist poet who experienced the Russia Marya lives in. This book was so intriguing and rich that I simply could not put it down. Even though it was folklore retold, it felt new and exciting. To end with a quote from the novel:
That's how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.
Happy Summer Reading! Rating: ★★★★★