2013 Books

Books I Read in 2013

To understand the list: 
G = Horace Greeley High School English [AP English Literature and Literature of Childhood]
100 = Modern Library's Choices (why Modern Library? explanation here!!!!)
SR = Summer Reading
D = Dartmouth [The Global Politics of Soccer, the Cold War & American Life, and Spanish Culture & Conversation]
WR = Winter Reading

Hyperlinked titles go to my blog post on the book

Happy New Year!!
List after the break (it's sort of long...)



Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie is a fantastic Nigerian writer whose third novel, Americanah, is one of the best books I've read this year. Adiechie has been talked about lately, because her TED talk, "We Should All Be Feminists," was excerpted by Beyoncé on one of the tracks on her self-titled album, "***Flawless" (a full paragraph of her speech is inserted into the female-empowerment song). Coinciding with Adiechie's new fame (the hundreds of thousands of albums Beyoncé has sold has surely introduced Achiechie to people who have never heard of her), her novel Americanah appeared on the NYTimes best books of 2013 (as did the last book I read, The Goldfinch). I am a fan of Beyoncé and avidly read the Times: therefore, when looking for something to read, Adichie was on my mind, and rightfully so. Americanah is deserving of the attention. It is a beautifully written, a novel that one can emotionally connect with, even if the experiences of the narrator, a young Nigerian women, Ifemelu, are foreign to the reader. Adichie focuses on a discussion of race, the experience of, as she phrases it, a Non-American Black in America (focusing on the difference between African-Americans and American-Africans). The moments I found particularly poignant were the commentary on American-isms:
When you tripped and fell, when you choked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say "Sorry." They said "Are you okay?" when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said "Sorry" to them when they choked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, "Oh, it's not your fault." 
Through Ifemelu, it is clear that Adiechie realizes the "fine-grained differentiations don’t penetrate the minds of many Americans... Many of Adichie’s best observations regard nuances of language" (source). The foreigner-coming-to-America is not an uncommon trope, however Adichie doesn't focus on the differences between Nigeria and America, or Nigeria and Britain, but on how race is viewed in these countries. As one reviewer succinctly writes, "Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite." (I encourage you to read that review after reading the novel). Americanah offers commentary on the intricacies American race relations and the capitalist Nigerian life, where "Third Worlders are forward looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past." Ifemelu also bluntly offers advice to Americans on her blog (this is just an excerpt, the whole section is fantastic [location 5443 in my kindle if that means anything]):
Don't say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America's assets and America's debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don't say it's just like antisemitism. It's not. In the hatred of Jews, there is also the possibility of envy-they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews- and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American blacks, there is no possibility of envy- they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.
I don't know if you can truly get a grasp of the greatness of this novel: it is a "novel that holds the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us." If you're looking for one book to read on your winter break, this is a fantastic choice. Or, if not this winter break, I encourage read this novel when you can (I realize I'm ending most posts like this nowadays, oh well). Rating: ★★★★★


The Goldfinch

Ranked on the top books of 2013 by numerous publications (chosen as "book of the year" by amazon), Donna Tart's third novel, The Goldfinch, is undoubtedly a masterpiece similar to the Carel Fabritius painting over which the main drama of the novel revolves around. Reminiscent of Dickensian storytelling; with larger-than-life characters, a miserable orphan, and "startling coincidences and sudden swerves of fortune." (x) Narrated by Theo, the novel begins with his mother's tragic death, the singular event that shapes the rest of his life. "Still, The Goldfinch is more than a 700-plus page turner about a tragic loss: it’s also a globe-spanning mystery about a painting that has gone missing, an examination of friendship, and a rumination on the nature of art and appearances." (x) Seeing a novel this size makes it hard to commit, I know. But this novel is worth it (and I have to admit I read the whole thing in a day). The language is rich and enticing, the story grabs you and refuses to let go. The Goldfinch is a "glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all [Tart's] remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading." (x)
Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life. (The Golfinch, page 7) 
Theo is suspended from school, and his mother and him are on the way to the conference when they go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get out of the heavy rains. Here, a terrorist attack occurs. The novel doesn't focus on the political consequences of the attack. Rather, Theo's life and how that moment - his mother's death - so drastically shapes the person he becomes. In the moments (or hours, Theo is an unreliable narrator, to say the least), an old man begs Theo to save "the Goldfinch" from the rubble, setting off a chain of (sometimes dangerous) events. However, I have to emphasize that the book does not focus on the painting so much as it focuses on Theo and his journey through life (and Boris, one of the more memorable characters I have encountered in a while). Each section in the novel begins with a quote:
I. "The absurd does not liberate; it binds" Albert Camus
II. "When we are strongest - who draws back? Most merry - who falls down laughing? When we are very bad, - what can they do to us?" Arthur Rimbaud
III. "We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves" François de La Rochefoucauld
IV. "It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us fathers and sons." Schiller
V. "We have art in order not to die from the truth" - Nietzsche
I believe that the quotes authors choose offer insight into what meaning they want their readers to glean from their work. These five quotes aptly demonstrate Theo's development over the years that this novel covers. I strongly urge you to read this novel when you have the chance; even if you only have time just read the first chapter or two, I am sure you will be completely enthralled. Rating: ★★★★★


People of the Book

The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the oldest surviving Jewish illuminated texts. Inspired by what the haggadah has been through, Geraldine Books wrote People of the Book to understand its complex past. She writes in a New Yorker article entitled The Book of Exodus (a really interesting read about the historical aspects of the haggadah), "quite apart from the opulence and artistry of the illustrations, the fact that they exist at all is extraordinary." The haggadah goes from creation in Spain in the mid-fourteenth century, survives the Alhambra Decree (Ferdinand & Isabella's expulsion of all Spanish Jews), makes its way to Venice where Hebrew books were routinely destroyed by the Pope's Inquisition in public burnings (a Catholic priest inspected the Haggadah in 1609 and "apparently found nothing objectionable in the Haggadah," according to Brooks), then it goes to Bosnia & Herzegovina and in 1894 a Jewish family offered it for sale. This is when it enters the public eye, and until this moment "art historians widely believed that figurative painting had been entirely suppressed among medieval jews." (x) Saved from the Nazis and during the Bosnian War, the journey this haggadah has been on is nothing short of remarkable. One can only imagine the stories behind them. Each of these historical events is given a chapter in Brooks' novel. The readers come to understand the history through the story of Hanna, a rare book expert set to conserve the famed haggadah. When Hanna discover tiny artifacts in the haggadah (an insect wing, wine stains, a white hair), the story of the book is slowly revealed to the reader. I do admit that parts of the flashbacks were sort of boring (they're not exactly flashbacks- mini-stories woven into the larger one) only because I wish it had focused more on the main character, Hanna. However, it was still a really interesting read and the mini-stories definitely added to the overall story of the haggadah. Rating: ★★★★


Tell The Wolves I'm Home

"After a snowstorm is one of the best times to be in the woods, because all the empty beer and soda cans and candy wrappers disappear, and you don't have to try as hard to be in another time. Plus there's just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you're special, even though you know you're not." Chapter 7's beginning lines, thirty pages into Carol Rifka Brunt's novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home, was when I knew I was hooked. I could simply not stop reading. Narrated by June, the novel tells the story of the aftermath of her uncle Finn's death in 1987 from AIDS. The novel's title is taken from the title of the portrait that Finn completes of June and her sister, Gretl, right before he dies. It is a haunting story: dealing with the death of a loved one is not easy, nor is it meant to be. June's family all deals with Finn's death in different ways, yet June feels the most impacted. Until she meets Toby. I do not want to spoil anything for you, simply urge you to read this novel. It is an emotional story. But its not emotional in the sense that it presents its readers with death to force a reaction.
That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you won't care if you die tomorrow.
It is emotional in the way the novel is crafted; the feelings of the characters slowly overtake you, and the multiple story lines (conflict within the family, within june, with toby) and love stories, in a sense, are resolved in an unexpected manner. Also, this was a somewhat of a historical novel. Set in 1987, during the AIDS epidemic, the reader is transported back in time seamlessly. As the library journal describes Brunt's novel, "it is both a painful reminder of the ill-informed responses to a once little-known disease and a delightful romp through an earlier decade." Through June and her family, the reader has a lens to understand the difficulties of the time period. Thanks to my mom for this recommendation. Rating: ★★★★★


This Is How You Lose Her

A stunning third novel, Junot Díaz followed Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This is How You Lose Her is a collection of stories about the "haunting, impossible power of love." It is a remarkable collection, even though it is "billed as a collection of love stories" but "for all that, four of the nine stories are named for lovers and eight of the nine revolve around relationships gone sour, Díaz is most affecting when he’s writing about...the endless difficulty of loving oneself." (NYT Book Review) The stories are intertwined: they revolve around the protagonist, Yunior. The majority of the stories are about infidelity. As one review puts it, "Junot Díaz’s short story collection is so sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working-class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison." While I didn't fall in love with the narrator (I don't think he was created for the readers to love), the writing, imagery and everything about the collection was almost alive. My favorite story was Invierno, about right after Yunior, his brother (Rafa), and his mother had just immigrated from the Dominican Republic:
That night I dreamed of home, that we'd never left. I woke up, my throat aching, hot with fever. I washed my face in the sink, then sat down next to our window, my brother asleep, and watched the pebbles of ice falling and freezing into a shell over the cars and the snow and the pavement. Learning to sleep in new places was an ability you were supposed to lose as you grew older, but I never had it. 
I highly recommend reading this 9-story collection when you can. Rating: ★★★★★



Another Dartmouth-related book, but completely different from Tattoos on the Heart. Hiroshima tells the story of what happened on August 6th, 1945: the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. This past term, I took a class entitled Cold War & American Life. In one of our lectures ("Creating a Nuclear World"), we learned that with the publication of Hersey's Hiroshima, the atomic bomb attacks were humanized. Hersey traces the experience of the bombings through six residents of the city. Neither sentimental nor exploitative, it rapidly became a bestseller. Published in the New Yorker on August 31, 1946, it sold out in a few hours (x). Time magazine called Hersey's account "the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II." (x) The book is divided into five sections that follow the six protagonists: "A Noiseless Flash," "The Fire," "Details are Being Investigated," "Panic Grass and Feverfew," and "The Aftermath." On the whole, the American public was ignorant about the human consequences of the bomb; Hiroshima played a role in changing this and it "awakened Americans to the horrors of atomic warfare." (x) Hersey took the role of a removed narrator and there was little criticism of the policies that led to the bombing or the American government's reaction. However, this lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Hersey was sent to Hiroshima with the purpose of writing about the bombing itself. He drew inspiration from the format of the The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, telling one interviewer:
 The book is about five people who were killed when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon in Peru gave way, and how they had happened to find their way to that moment of fate together. That seemed to me to be a possible way of dealing with this very complex story of Hiroshima; to take a number of people—half a dozen, as it turned out in the end—whose paths crossed each other and came to this moment of shared disaster.
 He goes on to say that "Wilders's was a much more ornate and meandering style...my choice was to be deliberately quiet in the piece" so as to simply present readers with the facts and allow them to connect to the protagonists directly. Hiroshima is important to read because we only learn from our history; Hersey believes memory has kept the world safe. By understanding the impact of the bomb, there is less support to use it again. Rating: ★★★★

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Amazon categorizes Tattoos on the Heart under Christian Living, Self Help, Spiritual Growth, and Sociology: a complete change of pace from the books I normally read. Do not let the categories deter you (even though this would not have been a book I would have picked up on my own). I was recently accepted into a program at my school called Tucker Leaders in Community. The Tucker Foundation's goal is to combine service, spirituality and social justice by offering a wide variety of service opportunities in the Upper Valley Community in New Hampshire and Vermont and hosting multi-faith programs and working to support and further "the moral and spiritual work" of Dartmouth College. Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded of Homeboy Industries ("Los Angeles' most successful effort to engage young men and women outside of the gang life" x) wrote a memoir entitled Tattoos on the Heart, a series of stories about the "homies" who Boyle has worked with. It's not simply about a memoir by a priest who works with gangs; it is so much more. Father Greg, simply referred to as "G" by those he worked with, is a famous figure (just look at the LA Times' coverage of him): he makes approximately two hundred speaking appearances per year (he's coming to talk at Dartmouth in January) and has received numerous humanitarian awards (including the California Peace Prize). The memoir is anecdote-heavy, as one would expect, but his relationship to God and understandings of teachings are also touched upon. He has very personal relationships with those homies and homegirls he interacts with, writing "Kinship– not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not 'a man for others'; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that." Los Angeles County claims 1,100 gangs with nearly 86,000 members: they "come to Homeboy when they are ready to hang up their gloves." (source). And it is an inspiring, yet saddening, book. The optimistic tone is surprising; Father Gregory has buried over 160 young people from gang-related violence at the time of publishing (side note, all proceeds from the book go to supporting Homeboy Industries). He believes in the power of jobs, not jails. Father Gregory writes in the introduction that "this book does not concern itself with solving the gang problem...it hopes only to put a human face on the gang member, but to recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables." Definitely a book to read if you have the chance. Rating: ★★★★★



Evelyn Waugh was called by Time "one of the century's great masters of English prose" and three of his novels, including Scoop, have made Modern Library's 100 list. Scoop tells the story of William Boot, who is mistakenly sent to Ishmaelia (a fictional African republic) to cover the war there. Waugh's novel is a satire of sensationalist journalism and the ridiculous lengths to get a story. Scoop is based on Waugh's own experiences as a journalist; he travelled to Abyssinia, Ethiopia where he served as a foreign correspondent of an English daily paper. As he writes in the introduction, "I had no talent for this work but I joyfully studied the eccentricities and excesses of my colleagues." Consequently, Ishmaelia's geographical position is identical to Abyssinia and the description of journalists parallel what he saw in 1935 when he went to Ethiopia. The end of the book contains letters Waugh wrote to his wife and friends during his time in Abyssinia. One such describes his distaste for what was happening:
Nothing could be less romantic than my circumstances at present. There are something like 50 press people in the town, photographers etc. All told. There is no news and no possibility of getting any and my idiot editor keeps cabling me to know exactly what arrangements I am making for cabling news in the event of the destruction of all means of communication.
As you can tell, many events in Scoop are based on Waugh's actual experiences as a war reporter. I don't believe Waugh has respect for journalists; in his eyes, he believes the best jobs at reporting are done by people who are not journalists by profession. As one colleague explains to Scoop's protagonist, Boot, "News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it." Waugh's satirical take on the profession is a humorous and easy read, definitely one of the better ones to get through as I work my way through Modern Library's Choices (see what I've read so far here). Hope everyone is enjoying their winter reading! Rating: ★★★★★


The Light Between Oceans

I picked this book up on a whim the other day because the cover intrigued me. However, once I began reading, I was completely enthralled. Stedman's debut novel, The Light Between Oceans tells the tale of Tom Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock (a fictional island) off the coast of Australia, at the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Great Southern Ocean. The title refers to these two oceans, and the entire book is shaped by duality. The island on which Tom tends to the lighthouse is named after Janus, the Roman god of two faces. As Stedman says in an interview, "The theme of duality runs right through the book...It reminds the reader that there’s always more than one way of looking at things." She chose to set the story on the lighthouse because (as the NYT book review quotes):
There is something that appeals to the human psyche about lighthouses because of their isolation...The story throws up the role of isolation on morality — when you don’t see the impact of your actions. Perhaps it’s easier to fool yourself when you cannot see the face of those who are affected by what you do.
The story itself touches is very "morally complex" (as one review puts it): you want to support the characters but their decisions do not always fall in simple categories of "right" and "wrong". Without giving away any plot spoilers, Tom and Isabelle (his wife) find a baby washed up on shore and are torn about keeping her or notifying the authorities. This conflict drives the book, and the reader is ultimately left with mixed feelings of satisfaction at the ending but sadness definitely lingers. Definitely a good way to start off my winter reading list. Rating: ★★★★


Winter Reading

Hi all! I have just finished my first term at Dartmouth College, and I am now home for winter break. I realize I haven't kept up with the blog over fall term (college is busy!) but I hope to start back up with a list of 8 books I hope to read this break (Modern Library Classics are marked with 100).
  1. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman: the tragic story of Tom and Isabel who care for a baby that washes up on the shore of the lighthouse off the coast of Australia, POST
  2. Scoop by Evenlyn Waugh (100): a satire about what one does in the pursuit of news and sensationalist journalism, POST
  3. Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle: the memoir of a Jesuit priest working in the gang capital of the world (mandatory reading for a program I am a part of at school, Tucker Leaders in Community), POST
  4. Hiroshima by John Hersey: what happened the day the atom bomb was dropped, POST
  5. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz: nine stories about Yunior about how "the half-life of love is forever," POST
  6. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (100): the tale of an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1938. (simply can't get through it, will re-try at a later date...)
  7. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: the "moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends," POST
  8. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, POST
Happy Holidays!


The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Nights

The stories of King Arthur and the knights of the round table have permeated popular culture. John Steinbeck, the acclaimed American author of novels such as Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, decided to retell Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur (full text of the novel at that link). In his introduction, Steinbeck writes how Malory's novel was the book that began his passion for reading emerged, "my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have had against the oppressor and for the oppressed came from this secret book. It did not outrage my sensibilities as nearly all children's books did." (2) The novel is the retelling of Malory's work with Steinbeck's commentary (via letters to his agent and editor) included at the end of the novel. The only point where Steinbeck writes something that isn't a direct adaptation (not sure if that's the correct term for what this book is) is under the title THE NOBLE TALE OF SIR LANCELOT OF THE LAKE there's a note (And noble it is. - J. S.) That tale ends the novel, he ended suddenly for reasons unknown. The last letter (July 8, 1965) in the book says:
I go struggling along with the matter of Arthur....I am going to protect myself by not showing it to anybody so that after I get a stretch of it done, if it seems bad, I can simply destroy it. But right now I don't think its bad. Strange and different, but not bad. (402)
I definitely didn't think it was bad. Filled with some of the "best prose [he] has ever written" (words taken from a letter to his editor written six years prior), it is a rich telling of the stories of King Arthur. The magic lies in the stories, yes. But also in these letters in the end that offer a look into Steinbeck's process. As he describes in a letter (March 27, 1959),
Malory wrote the stories for and to his time. Any man hearing him knew every word and every reference. There was nothing obscure, he wrote the clear and common speech of his time and country. But that has changed — the words and references are no longer common property, for a new language has come into being. Malory did not write the stories. He simply wrote them for his time and his time understood them. (359)
So Steinbeck wrote them for his time. There are so many lines I bookmarked as I was reading; too many to share. I encourage you to read this, learn the stories of King Arthur and his knights, and enjoy. Rating: ★★★★


The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Yesterday night, after finishing Tales from 1,001 Nights, I picked up Mohsin Hamid's tour-de-force, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I just didn't put it down. Reading for about two, three hours, I was enthralled by the story of Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who is the top of his class at Princeton and gets a job at an elite valuation firm: "I was, in my own eyes, a veritable James Bond--only younger, darker, and possibly better paid." (64) The entire novel is told in monologue form, with Changez talking to an American at a café in Lahore. His tale begins at Princeton, but the true heart of the story (what made him who he is today) starts with a smile. He goes on a business trip to Manila in September 2001. He watches the towers fall on his hotel television. “I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” (72) His listener's "disgust is evident" but he goes on to explain himself:
But at that moment, by thoughts were not with the victims of the attack...no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. Ah, I see I am only compounding your displeasure. I understand, of course; it is hateful to hear another person gloat over one's country's misfortune...
And so his true tale begins. He thought he loved America, his new job. But that smile, that pleasure, changed everything. At that time, he was in a semi-relationship with a classmate from Princeton, Erica, who was enveloped in nostalgia of her deceased boyfriend, Chris. America, Changez believed, was "giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia" and he detested it: he believed America was a country that looked forward, but now it had a "determination to look back" (115). He was confused by what "your fellow countrymen longed for...a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty?" all he knew was that he no longer considered himself an American, and was unsure if this new era "contained a part written for someone" like him.
This isn't simply a novel about the competing identities of a Pakistani man in America: it also details his struggles with class in America and Pakistan, and how he ultimately choses one country over the other, even though he belongs in both. Since he is telling this tale to a mystery American (is he CIA? is he just a curious tourist? is he even an American? the ending is extremely open-ended and I don't know what I want to think about what happened) but as the NYT Book Review writes, the interruptions "do lend his tale an Arabian Nights-style urgency: the end of the story may mean the death of the teller." Which is so interesting that I read his story right after finishing the One Thousand and One Nights and there were many parallels, it seemed a natural continuation; as if this story may have been one of those simply set in the modern era. When you have the change, I urge you to read this novel. Its clear storytelling and smart prose are definitely a treat. Rating: ★★★★★


Tales from 1,001 Nights

First off, wow. These stories pulled me in and didn't let go. Sadly, I didn't get the full edition of The Thousand and One Nights (it would probably take me too long), simply the edition that has "the finest and most famous of the 1,001 Nights" taken from "the most ambitious and thorough translation into English of the Arabian Nights." The tales that make up the collection (which are representative of the full novel) are some of the most powerful stories in fiction's history, inspiring writers from the likes of Dickens to Joyce to Rushdie. The frame story of the tales is that Shahrazad has married King Shahryar, who has vowed that he will execute a new bride everyday. For 1,001 nights, she tells her husband a story every night, stopping at dawn with a cliffhanger, forcing the King to keep her alive for another day. A few years back, I received 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and one of the entries details The Thousand and One Nights. The review of the book is extremely well written:
...the storytelling that Shahrazad invents, in order to stay alive, is a kind of storytelling that is not able to end, that never reaches a climax. Rather, the stories are inhabited by a kind of insatiable desire, an open unfishedness that keeps us reading and panting, eager for more, just as King Shahryar listens and pants...[the tales'] exotic, charged texture, derives from this desirousness, this endless trembling on the point both of climax, and of death.
In my edition, many series of nights were compiled. I'm actually writing this review before finishing all the stories (I only have like three left)- they're all so intricate and detailed that I feel obligated to spend as much time as possible devouring them. For the rest of the summer, as I work on my reading list, I will finish up these tales. So far, I've read most of them; including the frame story at the beginning, some lesser-known ones ("The Fisherman and the 'Ifrit" and "The Porter and the Three Ladies")as well as ones that have permeated popular culture today ("The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves Killed by a Slave Girl," "Sinbad the Sailor," and "The Story of Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp"). They were all resoundingly unique, and some even fall under the fairy tale category, as Robert Irwin (British historian & novelist) writes in the introduction:
"A fairytale...is but a story that relies on the fantastic to induce wonder...[yet] there are also plenty of stories in which the fantastic and the supernatural do not feature - stories about cunning adulterers, learned slave girls, pious hermits, master criminals, benevolent or despotic rulers and so on." There is also insertion of poetry into the stories, with the characters in the tales quoting famous Arab poets to express their emotion, such as the porter who proclaims his trustworthiness by declaring:
Only the trustworthy can keep a secret,
And it is with the good that secrets are concealed.
With me they are kept locked inside a room
Whose keys are lost and whose door has been sealed.
My favorite story was Ali Baba; I had heard of the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was one I had heard of, but I had no idea what it was about. It is actually the story of a brilliant slave girl who saves her master (Ali Baba) from death at the hand of forty thieves (whose lair he accidentally stumbled upon). Stories like this one are why I loved this novel/collection of stories so much, and I highly encourage everyone to read it. Rating: ★★★★★


The House of Mirth / The Age of Innocence

The first book on my Summer Reading List, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth was a tad difficult to get into. Once I got adjusted to the characters (specifically the novel's tragic hero, Lily Bart, "the beautiful, much-desired [woman]" from New York City's Gilded Age), it became slightly less difficult to read. Alas, I had to read it (my aforementioned goal of completing Modern Library's Choices list) so I forced myself to keep going. It didn't turn out too bad. Definitely not something I would casually pick up to read; but it was definitely an accomplishment once I finished. A look at high class society; "a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man’s heaven; and at present it was turning its illuminated face to Lily," the book highlights the struggle to get married and fit in. This novel can be considered under the genere of the novel of manners. As the wikipedia page describes,  this type of novel "deals with aspects of behavior, language, customs and values characteristic of a particular class of people in a specific historical context...[it] often shows a conflict between individual aspirations or desires and the accepted social codes of behaviour." In the House of Mirth, this can be seen in Lily's desire to be married yet continuously messing up when she gets near to the engagement. This takes a tragic turn which I won't spoil for you, but the ending definitely takes you by surprise. This doesn't leap out to recommend to you, but if you have the chance, it's a worthwhile read. Rating: ★★★
Before my summer reading began, I read a few books that I didn't have the chance to review on here. One of those was another Wharton novel: her Pulitzer-Prize winning The Age of Innocence. I enjoyed this much more than The House of Mirth; the story was engaging and enthralling. Similar to The House of Mirth, it was a novel of manners. It focuses on the story of Newland Archer, who gets engaged to May Welland (a "perfect match"). Yet, Newland is drawn to divorcee Countess Ellen Olenska. Newland is torn, stability versus unknown, comfort versus passion: "He did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!" Undoubtedly deserving of its classic renown, I recommend reading this over The House of Mirth if you had to pick one Wharton novel to read this year. Rating: ★★★★


Summer Reading 2013

Summer Reading 2013. As I did last year (Summer Reading 2012), I'm going to share ten books I plan on reading this summer (time permitting). As I read them, I will update this post with links to my reviews. As I've stated in some posts before, I've been working on Modern Library's Classics List (posts tagged with Modern Library's Choices identify those books I've already read and reviewed). I realize this list isn't complete of all the classics, but my grandfather gave it to me (with the one's he'd read) before he passed, so I have a goal of eventually finishing it as a tribute to him. Posts with a (100) represent this list. Anyway, here it is...summer reading! 
  1. House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (100): the tragic story of Lily Bart of New York City's social elite during America's Gilded Age. POST
  2. Tales from 1,001 Nights by Anonymous: to postpone her execution, Shahrazad tells stories of adventure, love, riches, and wonder; these stories have inspired writers across the centuries. POST
  3. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: the tale of a young Pakistani-American whose life is changed irrevocably after the September 11 attacks. POST
  4. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (100): the tale of an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1938. (postponed for now)
  5. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinback: A retelling of Malory's beloved Arthurian stories POST
  6. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (100): tells of the clash of cultures in British India after the turn of the century 
  7. Unbroken by Laura Hillbrand: the story of Lt. Louis Zamperini in WWII whose bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean then is faced with the dangers of a failing raft, the ocean, starvation and the enemy.
  8. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (100): A tale of capitalist exploitation and rebellion, "set amid the mist-shrouded mountains of a fictional South American republic"   
  9. Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser: a literary portrait of France's most iconic queen
  10. Dispatches by Michael Herr: written on the front lines of Vietnam, an immediate classic of war reporting. 
I tried to cover all the bases, from non-fiction to ancient story collections to classics to contemporary fiction and historical retellings.
Happy Summer! 


East of Eden

One of Steinback's two great novels (the other clearly being the one most commonly known by high school students country-wide, The Grapes of Wrath) is East of Eden, a look at good and evil. It is a beautifully written, retelling of sorts of the Cain & Abel story from the Book of Genesis. The title is derived from the last line of the story of Cain & Abel, "And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden." (Genesis 4:16). Steinback also alludes to Cain & Abel in the names of his main characters - Charles & Adam, Caleb & Aron, Cathy & Abra.  While the novel is based on this very old story, it uses this story as a lens through which to look at the Hamilton and Trask Families at the turn of the 20th century. Throughout East of Eden, Steinback focuses on the concept of "timshel," a Hebrew word which translates into thou mayest, which demonstrates the innate choice man has in between good and evil. As Lee, a secondary (yet extremely important) character in the novel describes,
...But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
The first half of the novel tells three seemingly unconnected stories of Adam Trask (and his brother, Charles), the Hamilton family (living in the Salinas Valley in California), and Cathy Ames (a cruel, cold girl). These stories all interweave (I won't spoil it for you), and culminate in the story of Cal & Aron. Cain is described in the Bible as a "worker of the ground" and Abel as a "keeper of sheep" (Genesis 4:2); Caleb invests in bean crops and Aron studies to become a priest (in Psalm 23, the term "Shepherd" is used for God, therefore priests can be referred to as shepherds). (If you want to spoil yourself, click here for more parallels between the Book of Genesis and East of Eden)
However biblical this review is getting, Cain & Able's story isn't the truly focus of the novel. The theme of good and evil permeates throughout. As the narrator tells the readers, "I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us...Humans are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too - in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have..." His novel attempts to capture the essence of this story, just as Cain & Abel do in the Bible. While it is a 600-page novel, I was immediately drawn in and I could not stop reading. I finished the book in little over a week, and while it may look intimidating, time simply flies when you're reading it. I highly encourage you to read this when you have the chance Rating: ★★★★★


Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

Part two of two of a series on Rajiv Chandrasekaran (read part one here). This novel differs from Chandrasekaran's first one in that it focuses more on the military/civilian conflict of America's intervention, not the complete civilian failures. "Meticulously reported, hugely revealing, Little America is an unprecedented examination of a failing war—and an eye-opening look at the complex relationship between America and Afghanistan." (source) It is how America has failed to understand Afghanistan, and never will. Chandrasekaran was a correspondent for the Washington Post, and from 2009 to 2011, he reported on the war in Afghanistan, traveling extensively throughout its the southern provinces (Helmand and Kandahar) to reveal the impact of President Obama’s decision to double U.S. force levels. President Obama ordered the increase in American troops in 2009:
And that's why, shortly after taking office, I approved a longstanding request for more troops. After consultations with our allies, I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan and the extremist safe havens in Pakistan. I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian efforts.
(Read his full speech here) The so-called "surge" was largely seen as a failure, and Chandrasekaran's book helps his readers to understand this. As in Imperial Life in the Emerald City, he doesn't outright comment on America's policy, and lets his readers make his own opinions. Yet, as the NYT Book Review writes, "No doubt most readers of this book will come away with the conclusion that our principal enemy in all this is ourselves." In the last chapter, Chandrasekaran wavers and he lets out a stream of complaints about America in Afghanistan. Yet, he doesn't offer another viable alternative, besides going long, not big: a policy which Americans were clearly against. Afghanis, too, didn't support the increase in troops: “We were not happy about the arrival of the surge troops, and we are not sad that they left,” said Mohammad Naim Lalai Amirzai, an Afghan Parliament member from Kandahar. “As the American surge ends, the Taliban surge will begin.” (from a NYT article, Troop ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan Ends With Mixed Results) That is a serious question: once America officially leaves, will the Taliban take over? Should America have tried harder to fix its flawed policies? These questions linger after you finish the superbly written book. I urge you to read it if you want to understand what happened in Afghanistan since 2009. Again, thanks to my dad for recommending it. Rating: ★★★★★


Imperial Life in the Emerald City

This is part one of two (part two to be published soon here) on a series on author Rajiv Chandrasekaran. This novel  takes a critical look at the Green Zone, the base of civilian authority in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was a transitional authority in Iraq following America's invasion of Iraq. Chandrasekaran doesn't truly bring politics into his writing (he doesn't take a side on whether the U.S. should or shouldn't have invaded Iraq), yet the nature of this non-fiction account is a look at the colossal failure of the civilian authority in Iraq. You can't help but sense his opinion on the mistakes they were making, one after the other. It is truly eye opening. As the New York Times Book Review wrote, "The reality of Iraq is much more frightening than a bad acid trip, but the writing about this continuing fiasco has been cleareyed and sober, and all the more powerful for it." Chandrasekaran outlines the ineptitude and arrogance of those in charge, and the removed reality of life inside the Green Zone. The Green Zone was a total bubble, cut off from wartime realities, "where the task of reconstructing a devastated nation competed with the distractions of a Little America...Most Iraqis were barred from entering the Emerald City for fear they would blow it up." (X) Read an excerpt here to get a sense of how the book plays out; many short stories about the CPA, those who worked in it, Iraqis who tried to bring change, etc. Preluding every chapter or two is a scene of life in the Green Zone. One such scene, XI, tells the story of a young CPA staffer who typed up a joke on his computer about life in the Green Zone, sent it to a few of his friends, and by the end of the week every CPA staffer had scene it. The joke is: "Why did the Iraqi chicken cross the road?"with answers from the CPA, Halliburton (oil company), Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (extremely influential religious leader), U.S. Army Military Police, Peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters), Al-Jazeera, CIA, and Translators. The joke-CPA response was: "The fact that the chicken crossed the road shows that decision-making authority has switched to the chicken in advance of the scheduled June 30th transition of power. From now on, the chicken is responsible for its own decisions." (282). Overall, the book gives you a clear picture of what went wrong in Iraq and lets you form your own opinions on what the United States should have done. Thanks to my dad for making me read this. Rating: ★★★★★



The story of a teenager named Elvis trying to make a life for himself outside the slum of Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria, GraceLand is a captivating (albeit choppy) story. Chris Abani is a Nigerian writer who was arrested in 1985 at the age of 18, "in connection with a politically dangerous novel" (x) that he wrote at 16. "The Nigerian government suggested that the plot of his first novel...had laid the blueprint for a political coup. He was held for six months, during which time he was beaten daily. In 1987 he was arrested again. This time he was sent to Kiri-Kiri, a maximum security prison in Lagos, where he was held for a year. During his incarceration he was tortured." (x) Torture comes up towards the end of GraceLand, forming some of the more vivid scenes of the novel. The account of torture is described so it fills all your senses, and it remains with you even after you finish the novel. Yet, as the NYT Book Review points out, "there's not enough room left afterward for the shock waves to dissipate -- it's hard to believe in Elvis's recovery, or the subsequent events." Elvis's story was interesting enough, but it was interspersed with excerpts from his mother's journal - of random recipes of Nigerian foods and tidbits of history about the Nigerian people which made the novel seem quite disjointed. Every other chapter was a flashback to Elvis's youth, which did get tiresome at times. Overall, the story of Elvis in Nigeria in 1983 was an interesting one - but it dragged out parts of the story that were uneventful and rushed the important parts. "This book works brilliantly in two ways. As a convincing and unpatronizing record of life in a poor Nigerian slum, and as a frighteningly honest insight into a world skewed by casual violence, it's wonderful. What it isn't, quite, is a successful novel." (x) I liked reading it, but I wouldn't put it on the top of my list of recommendations. However, it did open my eyes to the life of those in Lagos, one of the biggest slums in the world. It lead me to some interesting research on the subject. To me, that is a hallmark of a successful read, if it inspires my curiosity or makes me think about something I haven't spent time on before. I couldn't decide if this book was a 4★ or 3★, so Rating:★★★(★)


Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra, the famous last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, comes quite vividly to life in Cleopatra: A Life, which tells the stunning and intriguing story of Cleopatra. Her life and death has been disputed greatly, and with the loss of records from the destruction of Alexandria's library, the sources of Cleopatra's life come only from those who destroyed her and Mark Antony. Stacy Schiff attempts to "strip away the accretions of myth that have built up around the Egyptian queen and plucks off the imaginative embroiderings of Shakespeare, Shaw and Elizabeth Taylor." (X) The book is captivating and spins Cleopatra in a new light: a "shrewd strategist" and an "ingenious negotiator," a woman who has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons...
The sources may be flawed, but they are the only sources we have. There is no universal agreement on the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether sha and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, how she died. (8)
 I knew very little about Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire before I began this novel. Upon finishing, I feel like I have a very solid grasp of Cleopatra's life (and of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony). I did not know that Cleopatra killed her siblings to secure her throne, or that she was the wealthiest woman in the world at one point in history. I didn't know she associated with the godess Isis, the ideal mother and wife. She is a truly admirable woman, using her perceived weakness as a woman to her strength. The affairs of Cleopatra/Caeser and Cleopatra/Mark Antony are strongly interwoven throughout the novel, adding a layer of romantic intrigue, even though Schiff makes it clear "Cleopatra's life was neither as lurid nor as romantic as has been made out." (322) It is a historical novel that doesn't feel like one; you subconsciously realize as you're reading this is a true story of a magnificent women, but the book itself is "a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world." (x) A #1 National Bestseller, I urge you to read Cleopatra when you have the chance. You won't regret it, and you'll learn that Cleopatra is much more dynamic the femme fatale western literature and culture has made her to be. Rating: ★★★★★


A Room with a View

Written at the end of the Victorian Era and dawn of the Edwardian Era in England, E.M. Forester's A Room with a View comments on the new liberal and open-minding ideals were replacing old social norms. The protagonist is Lucy Honeychurch, on holiday in Italy with her straight-laced, snobbish, and narrow-minded aunt. A "classic exploration of passion, human nature and social convention," Forester's novel is both delightful and insightful.
But Lucy had developed since the spring. That is to say, she was now better able to stifle the emotions of which the conventions and the world disapprove...Love felt and returned, love which our bodies exact and our hearts have transfigured, love which is the most real thing that we shall ever meet, reappeared now as the world's enemy, and she must stifle it. (132)
Lucy struggles with identifying her emotions and defying the social constructs of the time period she's living in. It was wondrously written, letting the reader get lost in the worlds of Italy and England. It was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 1985, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy. Overall, Forester's classic novel was a short, easy read but an enlightening social commentary on England at the turn of the twentieth century. Rating: ★★★★


The Secret Agent

Arguably one of Joseph Conrad's finest novels, The Secret Agent (published 1907)  was inspired by the possibly first terrorist international incident in Great Britain, anarchist Martial Bourdin's 1894 death while apparently attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian anarchist, believed in order to gather a larger following, “We must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.” (source). Conrad took this story to a whole new level, adding saboteurs, violence and mystery to thicken the plot. "Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution." (34) The role of terrorism & anarchy is important in the novel. Conrad lets the reader understand the bombing before the main characters, therefore letting the readers have a greater sense of what was happening, even as he leaves us hanging on many unanswered questions (How is Winnie going to react? Is Verloc truly responsible?) Starting off slowly, the novel slowly built tension and intrigue, and Winnie (as eloquently described, "She was death itself - the companion of life."(235)) developed into my favorite character in the novel. As the New York Times book review from 1907 writes, "the story is a sombre one. There is death in it, despair, revenge...and there are Anarchists, human but freakish, each after his kind..." This novel was written during the first great terrorist wave (perpetrated by anarchists, with casualties including an assassination of an American President). As the NYT hailed The Secret Agent in 2005 as "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism," it strikes me as extremely to this new age of terrorism we're living in. In the aftermath of 9/11, The Secret Agent became one of the three most quoted pieces of literature in the American media. As a Slate article discusses, the media wasn't getting it wrong. They were taking the book at face value - comparing al Qaeda terrorists to the anarchists who blew up the Observatory - when, in reality, it's the book itself that's demonstrating the principles of terrorism:
Conrad specifically compares his book to a work of terrorism—in a preface to The Secret Agent, he apologizes for its grim violence, then says, "I have not intended to commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind." The idea Conrad sets out to blow up in the novel is modernism's sin of thinking abstractly about moral and human affairs...The anarchists think this way; the police do, too; and so do the government officials. Conrad dismisses them all. The only person who does not think this way is the secret agent's wife, Winnie Verloc.
(Again, reasons why Winnie is my favorite - she was the one true anarchist in the novel, very surprisingly so for reasons I won't disclose due to plot spoilers!) Stick with the novel if you chose to read it; beginning slowly, it introduces characters one by one and gives the reader a clear portrait of England in the 1890s before bringing the novel to the important action. Once the bombing occurs, the plot doesn't stop. It's thrilling and exciting and a lens through which we can view terrorism today. Rating: ★★★★★


Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling's hilarious collection of essays was so good I started reading it this afternoon and didn't stop until I had finished it. Split into six sections detailing Kaling's childhood, post-college life, hollywood, romance, appearance, and her legacy, her unique and honest voice shines through. Not only is she absolutely laugh-out-loud funny, she is as a refreshingly grounded celebrity and positive role model. I loved her section on best friends, a list of "Best Friend Rights and Responsibilities":
But you can't get mad if I can't keep track. Robby? Don't we hate him? No, we love him. Okay, okay. Sorry.
As one review states, "By the end of this book, you will want Mindy Kaling to be your best friend, and you will want her parents to adopt you." (x) Her autobiography/memoir/insight on the tv industry makes you fall in love with her completely. Her style of writing is forthright and honest. She also has a very large twitter following (currently 2.1 million followers and rising), which is another way for her to comment on her life/what she finds interesting. For example, right before Beyoncé's halftime show at the most recent superbowl:
The New York Times ran a profile on Kaling when her book was published in 2011. In it, she was quoted as saying "You know the whole thing where if it takes a long time to write a poem, then you probably shouldn’t be writing poetry? With Tweets, if you’re sitting around for more than 45 seconds, it’s probably not the medium for you." Her twitter is outrageously hilarious, just as her essays are. But, obviously, her essays touch on much deeper subjects than her tweets (such as body image). The book isn't really a memoir, it's more like a letter to a friend. A current bestseller, I would definitely recommend this light, easy read. And, for the record, Mindy, I would love to hang out with you. Rating:★★★★★


The Satanic Verses

One of the most controversial novels ever published during the modern era, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is a masterpiece. Set in a modern world filled with "mayhem and miracles," the novel tells three stories; the main one is the tale of Gibreel and Saladin, two Indians who miraculously survive a terrorist bombing of a London-bound plane. Magically, Gibreel takes on the personality of the Archangel Gibreel and Saladin of the devil.
One man's breath was sweetened, while another's, by an equal and opposite mystery, was soured. What did they expect? Falling like that out of the sky: did they imagine that there would be no side-effects? Higher Powers had taken an interest, it should have been obvious to them both... (137)
After their fail, they struggle to get their lives back together and deal with what they now embodied: good and evil. The second story re-tells some stories of the Prophet Muhammad, based partly on historical fact (Ibn Ishaq's biography of Muhammed, The Life of Muhammad) and on Rushdie's imagination. It is partly recounted through Gibreel's eyes in the city of Jahilia (Mecca) about the founding of Islam- when Muhammad had his conversations with the archangel Gibreel about the will of Allah. As history goes, the people of Mecca were not open to conversion - Rushdie writes, "There is a god here called Allah (means simply, the god). Ask the Jahilians and they'll acknowledge that this fellow has some sort of overall authority, but he isn't very popular: an all-rounder in an age of specialist statues." (101) Here, you can see the satire and humor that permeates most of the novel. Rushdie has stated that The third story is about Ayesha, an Indian peasant girl who claims that archangel Gibreel has directed her to lead her village on pilgrimage to Mecca by foot, claiming they will be able to walk through the Arabian Sea.
It was really difficult for me to get into the novel in the beginning. Part I is the lives of Gibreel and Saladin before they were on the plane, and I was very confused by what was going on. But once you get through Part I, the story picks up.
Question: What is the opposite of faith?
Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself is a kind of belief.
Doubt. (9)
There has been criticism that Rushdie wrote the novel intending to stir controversy, and an international incident did erupt over the novel. The controversy was in relation to story #2, the title The Satanic Verses "refers to an incident in the life of Mohammed, recorded by two early Arab historians (al-Waqidi, A.D. 747-823, and at-Tabari, A.D. c. 839-923), discredited by later commentators on the Koran, but taken up in Western accounts as the 'lapse of Mohammed' or his 'compromise with idolatry.'" (xAyatollah Khomeini, a Shia Muslim leader, issued a fatwā calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. Rushdie had to live under armed guard until it was rescinded. Nonetheless, it is still an impressive, beautifully written (albeit complex) novel. Rating: ★★★★★


Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys rose to fame with her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. At 16, Rhys left Dominica and moved to England. When Rhys read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre as a young girl (see my post on Jane Eyre here), she began to imagine the Caribbean upbringing of Rochester's infamous Creole wife, Bertha Mason. Years later, Rhys decided to "try to write her a life." And Wide Sargasso Sea resulted, telling the story of Antoinette Cosway (later Bertha Mason) and her madness.  "The result is one of literature's most famous prequels, a novel that seeks to humanize the racially pejorative characterization of a West Indian madwoman." (x) The novel highlights themes of racism, the oppression of slavery, and the link between enslavement and madness. As Rochester begins to question his hasty marriage to Antoinette, he becomes more abusive and paranoid towards her. In turn, Antoinette sinks into further despair. One of my favorite quotes of the novel is when Rochester is writing about his motivations for leaving the Caribbean;
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.  
In Jane Eyre, the reader doesn't understand why Rochester has locked his wife in the attic, or how that situation came to be. Rhys gives them a backstory that is wonderful in itself. It isn't simply a retelling of Jane Eyre - it is a masterpiece in itself. Even if you haven't read Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea is still a powerful novel that I recommend. Rating: ★★★★

Jane Eyre

I read Jane Eyre by Charolette Bronë last year for English class. I'm just deciding to write about it now because I recently finished Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys' novel (post to be published shortly here) that was written a century later as a prequel to Jane Eyre. But more on that coming up. Jane Eyre is a classic story that everyone must read at some point in their lives. I must admit, at the beginning I found the novel dreadfully boring. But once I pushed myself to get into Jane's story, I became mesmerized with Jane. In the readers’ eyes, Jane grows from a bitter and emotional orphan girl to a student learning about morality, from a love-struck woman who accepts a marriage proposal against her principle to a woman who makes a choice to live her life based on her morals, and finally, to a perfect balance of all her experiences and the wife of Mr. Rochester. Her choices aren’t only made consciously by her, but are impacted by her location. With each decision, Jane becomes a stronger person, yet she never looses who she was in the past. She serves as a role model for generations of young women attempting to become independent. The novel serves a critique of Victorian assumptions about gender and social class, became one of the most successful novels of its time. It has also been adapted into a movie version multiple times, and I have seen the 2011 adaptation which I recommend. The story, as I mentioned before, takes some time to get into, but once you do, you can't stop reading. A thrilling mystery and romance, this is a classic you definitely should read. Rating:★★★★★


The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Shanji Boianjiu's debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is breathtaking. If follows the lives of Yael, Avishag, and Lea, three Israeli girls who grew up together in a small Israeli village by the Lebanese border. It tells their stories before they are drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, during their service, and their lives afterwards. An honest look at female soldiers in Israel, Boianjiu wrote the novel in English, not Hebrew (her native language). Boianjiu grew up in Israel in a border town, like the three girls in her novel, and served in the IDF, as all Israeli citizens do. But instead of traveling the world for a year after her service was up, she went on to study at Harvard. In an interview with the New York Times, she said "Writing in English forced me to think carefully about every word I used. The words did not belong to me, so I had to work harder to make them belong in my stories." (Read the full interview here) The viewpoints shift between Yael, Avishag and Lea. Their stories grip you and don't let you go. Boianjiu was the youngest "5 Under 35"of 2011, a major accomplishment for a new novelist. An excerpt of the novel was featured in the New Yorker in June - read it here. What I loved so much about the novel is that it isn't a war novel in the traditional sense. It gives you a real look at the lives of female soldiers in Israel, and war is on the peripheral (Gilad Shalit's kidnapping, 2006 Lebanon War, among others). While the story isn't autobiographical, "her characters experience many things that she did not (many of them borderline fantastical), but one gets the feeling that their boredom and anguish are very much her own." (Interview with Tablet Magazine) She wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in September, when the law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews — known as Haredim — from mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces expired. She wrote about her experience with Haredim when she was a soldier whose "job was to teach combat soldiers how to use their personal weapons." She had to deal with ultra-religious soldiers whose religious doctrine "prevented them from seeing a woman touch a weapon." However, didn't write her novel to make a political statement. It is more simply the stories of these women in the army, and how it impacted them. When the NYT interviewer asked her, "Did you want the book to say anything in particular about the larger political situation?" She responded,
I did not set out to promote any political agenda when I wrote this book. But the truth is I think my work does inevitably have something to say about the current political situation, and the sad thing is I don’t think the people who view my work only through a narrow political prism will get to learn what that is.
Its a very beautifully written story. Definitely jarring at times, but only because it takes place in a world so removed from my own. (Update: in a related note...just today, Jan 24th, the Pentagon removed a combat ban on women in the U.S. military) A hallmark of a great book for me is feeling like I am there. I am a part of the story. And I undoubtedly felt this way while reading The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. Rating: ★★★★★