The People in the Trees

My first thought upon finishing Hanya Yanagihara's novel The People in the Trees was "wow, I can't believe that happened so recently, I wonder if he's still alive." My second thought was "Emily, don't be dumb, this was fictional." And there lies the power of Yanagihara's twisted tale of Dr. A. Norton Pernia, a pseudo-scientific Humbert Humbert. The People in the Trees draws an automatic comparison to Vladmir Nabokov's Lolita because both are narrated by jailed elderly men for crimes of pedophilia. The People in the Trees tackles other issues than the crime for which Norton is jailed. However, my gut reaction wasn't too far off. Based on a true story (!! which I have just discovered) of Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who "won a Nobel Prize [in 1976] for identifying a fatal disease in a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. By the time of his death in 2008, Gajdusek had achieved another kind of notoriety, having been imprisoned for sexually abusing one of the dozens of native children he had adopted" (x). The main plot of Yangihara's novel revolves around a search for a "lost tribe" on the remote (fictional) island of Ivu'ivu. Norton is a young doctor on the expedition; and they discover (this is not a spoiler, don't worry) a group of "feral forest dwellers....who defy normal life expectancy while growing progressively more senile" (inside cover). Norton later learns that their seeming immortality is due to the consumption of a large turtle native to the island, the opa'ivu'eke. There is no happy ending to the novel. As the NYT book review writes, "Provocative and bleak, “The People in the Trees” might leave readers conflicted. It is exhaustingly inventive and almost defiant in its refusal to offer redemption or solace — but that is arguably one of its virtues. This is perhaps less a novel to love than to admire for its sheer audacity." An engrossing, albeit tad disturbing, read. Much like Lolita. Rating:★★★★


Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow's stunning biography of America's first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit broadway musical Hamilton. The story goes is that Lin-Manuel picked up Chernow's biography while on vacation, and started reading it, and immediately came to the conclusion that Alexander Hamilton "embodies hip-hop." Chernow writes,
Hamilton's crowded years as treasury secretary scarcely exhaust the epic story of his short life, which was stuffed with high drama. From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton's life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up. He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding. 
I am currently in Nevis on my vacation with my family, a fitting backdrop to tackle the life of the tiny island's most famous inhabitant. Alexander Hamilton wrote his way out of poverty with a poem about a hurricane, entered King's College at age 17, became an outspoken voice in the American revolution, a chief aide of General George Washington, and the creator of America's financial systems. As the first song in Hamilton begins,
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
 Ron Chernow tackles this in an impressive 731 pages. I was impressed by the adept mix of Hamilton's papers and anecdotes surrounding Hamilton; Chernow expertly weaved everything about Hamilton's public and private life to create an intensely compelling portrait of Hamilton. He leaves nothing out; everything from his sex scandal (his affair with Maria Reynolds) to his feuds with the other founding fathers (notably Thomas Jefferson) to the strength of his wife (Eliza Hamilton) gets its due in the book. As Chernow writes in the prologue,
Few figures in American history have aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton... he has tended to lack the glittering multivolumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders... In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did. Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive... 
Chernow does Hamilton's life justice.... and will deepen your already existing obsession with the Hamilton musical or inspire it. Want to know more? Some good reads & videos: this GQ interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, this profile on the show in Vogue, the 60 minutes segment on Hamilton, and this interview with Ron Chernow, and of course, listen to the soundtrack. (Thanks, mom, for taking me to the show and getting me the biography for the holidays). Rating: ★★★★★


Khirbet Khizeh

Recently translated into English (in 2008), this was published just two months after the 1948 war. The story centers on an Israeli soldier's experience on one day on duty in a fictionalArab village of Khirbet Khizeh. The plot itself is unsurprising (a soldier dealing with what they're carrying out) and moves along at a pretty slow pace (taking time to describe the landscape) but the day over which the story takes place, the "narrow focus gives the book its extraordinary emotional force." (X) What I found most interesting about the novel is the protagonist's grappling with the contradictions and issues of exile:
A single day of discomfort and then our people would strike root here for many years. Like a tree planted by streams of water. Yes. On the other hand, what of the wicked.... But they were already there on the trucks, and soon they'd be nothing more than a page that had been finished and turned. Certainly, wasn't it our right? Hadn't we conquered it today?
I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn't they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue... our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out-- that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jew being killed. Europe. We were the masters now. 
There's no resolution. There still isn't any resolution to deal with the right of return and refugees from the '48 war. There still isn't any consensus on whether or not Israel was justified. Even though Khirbet Khizeh is a fictional village, the author is writing from his personal experience. The book is still on school reading lists in Israel, and Khirbet Khizeh's "haunting lyrical style and charged view of the landscape are in many ways as startling as [its] wrenchingly honest view of modern Israel's founding." A short read and definitely worth it. Rating: ★★★★(★)


The Snow Tourist

Do you live (or have you lived) in a place where winters are filled with snow? Do you like to ski? Have you ever enjoyed a snowday? Do you think snow is magical? If you have answered yes to any of those questions... Charlie English's lovely The Snow Tourist may be for you. The Snow Tourists takes its author (a London-based writer for the Guardian) around the world searching to understand snow. He begins in Northern Canada in Iqaluit, Qikiqtarjuaq (the "iceberg capital" of the world and continues around the world over the course of two winters. I liked the narrative style of the book because it was part travel writing, part historical story. I learned so much about snow (like about the first guy that photographed snow in Jericho, Vermont) to the origins and growth of skiing as a sport and a pastime. English does a great job of interweaving his experiences in the place; as the guardian review correctly points out, "his humble, gentle tone is what makes the book so refreshing, so different is it to the slew of recent travel books in which even the smallest event is hammed up for comic or dramatic effect. Here, combined with an audacious lack of incident, is a deliciously calm pace, a seriousness and honesty that couldn't be further from the silly quests we've grown accustomed to." I loved that the book ended with a little "A Snow Handbook," detailing facts and instructions and quotes related to snow ("how avalanches occur" to "10 glacier facts" to snippets of Japanese poetry related to snow). While this book was not political at all, it was a soft reminder of the loss of snow and the impacts of global warming; English write, "Wherever I travelled, I had asked the people I met the same questions about the changes they saw in the snowfall: had they observed less, and what effect would it have on them?" (230)  This was a perfect travel book and wonderful for all who feel something towards snow. Rating: ★★★★


One Night, Markovitch

A translated work of Israeli fiction by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch was not the story of one night but of many. I decided to purchase the book because front of the book had a quote describing the story as a "fable for the twenty-first century" and the back of the book described the contents as the story of "two men -- Yaacov Markovitch, perennially unlucky in love, and Zeev Feinberg, virile owner of a lustrous moustache -- are crossing the sea to marry women they have never met." Additionally, the book had been published by Pushkin Press (a publishing house I have come to associate with Stefan Zweig), so I bought the book without really knowing the story.
Much to my surprise, I start reading and learned that this is a tale of the Irgun, the Jewish terrorist/freedom fighter organization that I have been spending the entire term studying.... Halfway through the first page:
"It required an enormous effort to keep looking at the barrenness of Yaacov Markovitch's face. People do not enjoy making enormous efforts, and so they only rarely looked at his face for any length of time. This had its advantages, and the unit commander was aware of them. He looked at Yaacov Markovitch's face for exactly the amount of time he needed, then dropped his gaze. You will smuggle weapons, the unit commander said. With that face, no one will notice. And he was right. Yaacov Maarkovitch probably smuggled more weapons than any other member of the Irgun, and never came close to being caught... 
And at this point, I let out an audible gasp because I thought I was just reading this vaguely romantic novel but no! I had stumbled into a novel about the material I had spent the entire term with!! Anyway, once I got past this initial surprise I settled into the story very quickly -- and it was a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a friendship shaped by the politics of the land. It dealt with a range of issues (the jewish divorce, gett, where only the man can grant a divorce, surprisingly played a central plot) but it did not delve too deeply into anything rooted in the real history; the characters were colored by their situations, but this was a story about Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg. Rating: ★★★★★

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie's latest novel is stories within stories -- layered like A Thousand and One Nights, where the title derives inspiration from (2 years, 8 months, 28 nights = 1,001 nights) -- and entrancing from the first page. It is set in the distant future, with the collective narrator ("we") laying out the story for the reader in the first few pages, writing that this story will be
"the tale of many other jinn, male and female, flying and slithering, good, bad, and uninterested in morality; and of the time of crisis, the time-out-of-joint which we call the time of the strangenesses, which lasted for two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights, which is to say, one thousand nights and one night more. And yes, we have lived another thousand years since those days, but we are all forever changed by that time. Whether for better or for worse, that is for our future to decide..."
I decided to include that entire quote because it gives a sense of the style of the book and the fantastical nature of it all (jinn are genies in Arabic folklore) (you may be familiar with the concept of the jinn from Aladdin, which Rushdie references "if there was one story of the jinn that everyone knew it was the tale of the jinni of the lamp who built Aladdin a palace..."). It tells the story of the "strangeness" and I like how it was narrated from some point in the far future. The only thing I didn't like about the story was that it tried to do too much -- I would've much preferred a focus on Geronimo (the main-ish character), or a general focus on those who were affected by the "strangeness." Also, at times, as the NYT book review points out, the story is a "breathless mash-up of wormholes, mythical creatures, current affairs and disquisitions on philosophy and theology." If he had focused on two of these things -- mythical creatures and current affairs -- the book itself would have a tighter focus. However, it was still highly enjoyable to read and I loved the interweaving of stories, just like its namesake. (Also check out Midnight's Children & the Satanic Verses, two other novels by Rushdie that were absolutely wonderful (links go to my old reviews). Rating: ★★★★


If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

I think I can safely say that Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller was the weirdest book I have ever read. It's a story about a reader trying to read a book called If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. There are twenty-two chapters, and every odd chapter is about you, the reader, and your process of reading and every even chapter is the start of another book. The book begins like this, to give you a taste of Calvino's style:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room...
And it takes some time getting used to; second person narration is always strange. Calvino ruminates on books and reading ("but how to establish the exact moment in which a story begins?") and readers vs. editors and the whole story itself was... It is #69 on the list of the Telegraph's 100 novels you should read, described as "international book fraud is exposed in this playful postmodernist puzzle." Interspersed with the story of the Reader trying to find a complete edition of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller are ten different genres of story. Each of these excerpts offers a different look into the opinions of the Reader (not you, the reader, but the Reader (the protagonist of the story) - confusing!) I think the best way for me to end this review is to copy a review of an Amazon customer -
Read chapter 1. Finished chapter 1. Began chapter 2. Scratched my head. Finished chapter 2. Began chapter 3. Began laughing at the game Calvino was playing with me. And wondering what he was going to do to me next. I would never have guessed all the different roads I would go down as I read this book. You'll fall in love. You'll pull your hair out. You'll throw the book across the room. And then you'll go pick it up again. Any attempts to describe this book any better than this will either not be well-understood or will ruin the effect of discovering it for yourself. If you are prepared to put aside your standard concepts of literary narrative and explore a new experiment, this book is definitely for you.
Definitely worth the read. Rating: ★★★★


Fates and Furies

Wow. I read this entire novel on the train home from the Lake District, and I was gobsmacked. That seems like the only appropriate word for my reactions on Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies. I borrowed the book from my library on my kindle on a whim, without really reading a synopsis or any reviews. I just thought the title looked interesting and it was marked a finalist for the 2015 national book award (this list also steered me in the right direction with Adam Johnson's Fortune Smiles). Another advantage to reading this book on my kindle was that I was entirely shocked when I thought I reached the end of the novel and clicked on progress to learn I was only halfway through. Fates and Furies is the story of Fate through the eyes of the husband, Lotto, and Fury through the eyes of the wife, Mathile. When I reached the end of Lotto's narration, I thought the story had ended... oh, was I wrong (this is not spoiling anything, have no fear). There was a lot I loved about this novel, but I think my favorite was the bracketed asides of the narrator, who gives an omnipresent perspective. For example, Chapter 2 begins (again, I promise I won't spoil you):
 A unity, marriage, made of discrete parts. Lotto was loud and full of light; Mathilde, quiet, watchful. Easy to believe that his was the better half, the one that set the tone. It’s true that everything he’d lived so far had steadily built toward Mathilde. That if his life had not prepared him for the moment she walked in, there would have been no them. The drizzle thickened to drops. They hurried across the last stretch of beach. [Suspend them there, in the mind’s eye: skinny, young, coming through dark toward warmth, flying over the cold sand and stone. We will return to them. For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from. He is the shining one.]
In an interview, Groff speaks of these bracketed asides and how she originally intended the novel to be split into two. The asides were what linked them together and allowed some glimpse into the "truth" of what was happening. The NYT Book review writes, "If you approach Fates and Furies without great expectations, you’re much likelier to appreciate it for the bumpy but alluring effort that it is, and even for its touch of evil." The story is this mix of raw emotion and suspense and wives of playwrights and Greek tragedy/comedy and I don't quite have the words to describe it and I also don't want to tell you more because I think you should be absorbed in the story on your own [go read it without googling the plot]. Rating: ★★★★★


What to Read on a Plane

Hello! Thought I would do five short reviews of some good reads for travel (ideally a plane ride, but a train ride is also wonderful). Send me your current favorite books, because I have a lot of travel upcoming... Without further ado, here are five books I've read in the past year or two (spanning many genres) that are perfect for those long waits in an airport or for when you can't sleep on a redeye or when your train is barreling through some countryside:
  1. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari (nonfiction, humor, essays): described as a "hilarious, thoughtful, and in-depth exploration of the pleasures and perils of modern romance," comedian Aziz Ansari (of Parks & Recreation fame, his new TV show Master of None was actually released today on Netflix) decides to combine surprisingly extensive research (it was co-written with a social scientist) with funny anecdotes to look at dating in the modern age. 
  2. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (fantasy, magic): tells the story of a world below London, following the life of an ordinary man who falls through the cracks. A fun fantasy story that has become a "touchstone of urban fantasy" and keeps you intrigued start to finish.
  3. A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn (fiction, realistic-ish, Jew-ish): three stories intertwine across centuries, all focused on memory. I don't want to spoil anything, but the story opens with "what happens to days that disappear?" and follows a software developer's application that records everything in your life, a professor who travels to Cairo in the 1800s, and parts of the story of Maimonides. Sounds super disjointed but wonderfully woven together. 
  4. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (crime, thriller, mystery): the first in a series about private investigator Cormoran Strike who investigates the suicide of a supermodel. Fun fact: Galbraith is the pseudonym for famed Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling. Riveting and I didn't see the plot twist coming at all...A solid crime novel. 
  5. Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro (short stories-ish): novel divided into what felt like short stories, but really snippets of the protagonist's life. Centers on a theme of "womanhood" (the title gives that away) and was a really interesting look into a teenage girl growing up and trying to make sense of her place in the world, of her body, her sexuality, and her life. 
Happy travels & happy reading & if you're ever in London, check out Daunt Books (a travel bookstore where books are organized by geography and its absolutely lovely)! 


The Captain's Daughter

Alexander Pushkin's historical novel, The Captain's Daughter, caught my eye in the sale section of the bookstore I was wandering through yesterday. I remembered Pushkin from a comparative literature course I had taken ("Short Fiction: Russia & the West," we read Pushkin's "Queen of Spades", which you should go read if you haven't) and figured for £3, it was worth the purchase of what the back of the book described as "a fairy tale and a thrilling historical novel." And over the course of three hours, I was totally engrossed into the story of Pyotr Grinyov. Pushkin based the story on the real rebellion of Pugachev (also known as the Cossack rebellion). Ultimately, I read The Captain's Daughter as a love story more than a commentary on the historical happenings. One of my favorite parts of the book were the small epigraphs before each chapter, attributed as "popular saying" or "song" or from popular authors of time. The epigraph at the start of the novel says "take care of your honor when you are young." Throughout the story, Pyotr is honest, courageous, and giving. You have faith that things will work out in his favor (just like you know James Bond is always going to turn out okay). The poem prefacing Chapter 9 ("Parting") reads
Meeting you, sweetheart,
Made my heart whole;
Leaving you, sweetheart,
Is the loss of my soul.
 -- Kheraskov
A silly little love poem poem kind of represents what I loved so much about this story - it was embedded with so much culture and history of the time. While it was definitely an fantastical version of history (the commentary describes how the Pugachev of the story is a the Pugachev of folk legend), the descriptions of various characters  made it accessible. The Empress is described as a stranger at first: "she looked about forty years old. Her plump, rosy face was calm and dignified; her slight smile and light blue eyes had an ineffable charm..." Definitely a great work of Russian fiction, and a lovely, short read if you're looking for a historical escape. Rating:★★★★★


A Tale for the Time Being

"A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be."
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, was one of the most entrancing books I've read this year. It tells the tale of 16-year-old Nao and Ruth (who shares a lot of characteristics in common with the author) and how Ruth finds Nao's book washed up on the shore of her remote western Canadian island. It focuses heavily on disaster and suicide and I won't spoil anything for you besides that I'm tagging this "buddhism," "climate change," "Japan," "Canada" and "family..." I don't really know how to process the story. Visceral and graphic and poetic and mysterious... I can't put my finger on what made Ozeki's story work so well. One review writes that the story is "a fascinating multigenerational tapestry of long ago, recent past, and present" and "the writing resonates with an immediacy and rawness that is believable and touching." (review) "Rawness" is definitely an appropriate word to describe the story. A Tale for the Time Being was reality rooted in a framework of Japanese history and climate change fears, but also intertwined with myth and religion and ideas about consciousness and living in the now. I can't really explain the plotline, besides encouraging to read it for yourself. The New York Times Books Review puts it more succinctly than I can: "Many of the elements of Nao’s story — schoolgirl bullying, unemployed suicidal “salarymen,” kamikaze pilots — are among a Western reader’s most familiar images of Japan, but in Nao’s telling, refracted through Ruth’s musings, they become fresh and immediate, occasionally searingly painful." The dual stories of Nao and Ruth worked so wonderfully well and the ending left me wanting so much more... Rating: ★★★★★ 


The Last Resistance

A collection of essays examining "Zionist identity and imagination," Jaqueline Rose's book The Last Resistance was an interesting read. I can't say I loved it (the emphasis on Freud went a little over my head), as the guardian review said it wasn't "an easy read. Rose's critique, weaving back and forth between Freud and Zweig, Grossman and Jabotinsky, is a dense tapestry of literature and psychoanalysis that seeks to define the nature of her race and her religion, then strip away the contortions of Zionism." Regardless of the density of the material, I found some of her insights to be extremely intriguing. Her musings on evil and suicide bombings were particularly interesting. The world's first suicide terrorists were probably two militant Jewish revolutionary groups against the Romans, the Zealots and the Sicarii (126).
Suicide bombing is most often considered as a peculiarly monstrous, indeed inhuman, aberration that cannot - or indeed must not - be understood... suicide bombing is in itself an act of passionate identification - you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace. As Israel becomes a fortress state, and the Palestinians are shut into their enclaves, with less and less possibility of contact between the two sides, suicide bombing might be, tragically, the closest they can get. (127). 
While I think Rose spends too much time on Freud in the first few chapters, when she delves into the comparisons between Palestinians and Israelis, it gets extremely interesting. I don't know if I would recommend the book as a whole, some of her essays are definitely worth the read. Try "Failed State" in London Review of Books (On David Grossman). Rating: ★★★


The Lady in Gold

The story begins “never had a little old Jewish lady in Los Angeles called Austria so much trouble.” Telling the tale of Maria Altmann’s quest to have Gustav Klimt’s paintings of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer returned from Austria, Anne Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is an enthralling and enlightening read (thanks to my mom & grandma for the recommendation). O’Connor begins with Klimt and the Jewish bourgeoisie at the turn of the century. Stefan Zweig wrote “whoever wished to put through something in Vienna” or “sought appreciation as well as an audience was dependent on the Jewish bourgeoisie.” She details the response to Klimt’s paintings – a “rare acknowledgement of female sexual desire.” Parallel to understanding the world of Klimt and Adele (and their hinted-at relationship), O’Connor describes Hitler’s relationship with the art world. Not only is the book an examination of Maria’s quest for the paintings of Adele, but of the Nazi looting of art and of post-war Austria’s refusal to acknowledge many origins of their masterpieces. “The Austrian Gallery had amassed an excellent Klimt collection during the war, and they did not intend to give it back.” O’Connor is clearly sympathetic to Maria’s case, but nonetheless presents a fully fleshed-out story. Adele is “frozen in Vienna’s golden moment” but represents the dual question of what defines cultural property (“when patrimony is the arm of genocide”) and what is the value of artwork that evokes the “theft of six million lives?” Definitely worth a read – especially after seeing Klimt’s work displayed at the Belvedere. Rating: ★★★★


Off the Map

Subtitled “Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us About the World,” Alastair Bonnett’s Off the Map (sold in America under the title Unruly Places) was a fascinating collection of places that do not exist within the realm of traditional maps. As the back of the book describes, the book “takes us to the ends of the earth" and "shows us that topophilia, the love of place, is a fundamental part of what it is to be human.” I found it fascinating, full of fun facts and insights into human connection to place. Because the book was a collection of places, here are two examples in order to give a sense of what the book was like:
  1. Arne: a village in the English Channel evacuated in 1942, and where a decoy factory was built. As I learned, “decoys were widely employed throughout England during the war” (22) meant to divert bombers from cities. By June 1944, decoy sites around England were attacked on 730 occasions. After the war, Arne was permanently abandoned. 
  2.  Mount Athos: in the section on “Places of Exception,” about places that exist within other places (i.e. embassies), I found Mount Athos the most fascinating. It is a 50-km long peninsula that extents into the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece, with twenty Greek Orthodox monasteries built into the mountain. Women are banned from Athos – female humans and female animals. Mount Athos is an example about the “deep sense of anxiety about the presence of women” (190) that exist within world religions. 
 Bonnett does a fantastic job of taking the reader across the world, into places known and unknown. It was a book of “floating islands, dead cities, and hidden kingdoms.” There are forty-seven places explained within the book, demarcated into seven sections: Lost Spaces, Hidden Geographies, No Man’s Lands, Dead Cities, Spaces of Exception, Enclaves & Breakaway Nations, Floating Islands, and Ephemeral Places. As one review describes, "A conversational, thoroughly researched, and very engaging armchair tour of what might be seen as a parallel planet to the one we live in every day—one in which nothing is ordinary...Alastair Bonnett is a most excellent traveling companion." Perfect for travel, or no travel at all. If you’re looking for a fascinating look into place, or just an escape from wherever you are, pick up this book. Rating: ★★★★


Why Not Me?

Mindy Kaling has published a second collection of essays (a follow up Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, my blog post about that one here) which was better than the first. I read it while waiting to board my flight (thanks to the generous amount of time I had at the airport, also shoutout to my other blog emburack.blogspot.com that has really just been given out to family as of now, follow me on there to hear about some adventures I'm having abroad). I was engrossed not only by Mindy's humor but her perspectives on various things like ambition, women in the workplace, body image, boyfriends... etc. As she writes in her introduction, "The truth is, it’s hard to get people to like you, but it’s even harder to keep people liking you. You’d have to bring in Skittles every single day. The result of my not caring so much about what I say allows me to care more about how I say it. I think it makes my writing more personal and more enjoyable." She is full of nuggets of wisdom. She also had a chapter on sorority life at Dartmouth, and she was a member of my house (Sigma Delta, a local sorority) for a term. The house has changed considerably since her experiences in the late 90s, but it was neat to see her experiences with a place that I consider such a large part of my college experience. Another favorite section of her book was the short chapter entitled "A Perfectly Reasonable Request," where she outlines her ideal boyfriend:
What I'm asking for is not that much. I just want a boyfriend who is sweet and trustworthy. That’s it. He doesn’t need to have a perfect body or look like George Clooney. I want a guy who wants to curl up on a Friday night and watch Netflix. He can even pick the show. I mean, ideally, it’s serialized and female-driven, and maybe not that boring political one. But honestly, I don’t care. It’s not important.
As one review describes, the book "takes readers through parts of Kaling's life with the same energy and fearlessness that mark her comedy." I thought it was a super enjoyable and insightful read that I would highly recommend. Rating: ★★★★★


The Magician's Land

"That was one thing about books: once you read them they couldn't be unread." The third book in Lev Grossman's stunning "Magicians trilogy" were as engrossing (if not more) than the first in the series, The Magicians (read about my thoughts on that one, from August 2011 oh boy). The story is simple. The protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a twenty-something who has been educated at a college for magicians and is now king of a magical land that he once believed to be fictional. Saving the world shenanigans ensue. But the emotional punch that the stories pack is so much more than the story. The third book in the trilogy begins with an epigraph excerpted from C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle: "Further up and further in!" and the story begins: "The letter had said to meet in a bookstore..." And further in to the story the readers go. Lev Grossman has combined Chronicles of Narnia with the darker sides of Harry Potter and Donna Tart's The Secret History to create his Magicians trilogy.
It captures Quentin finding himself (as cliché as that is) through something as absurd as magic and it makes it feel real. The Magician King, the second book in the series, alternates POVs with Quentin and Julia, and Julia's story tells of depression and what you have to give up to get what you want. What you have to go through, what depths you allow yourself to sink, before you achieve your goals. The Magician's Land, as the NYT book review writes (and I wholeheartedly agree with): "The Magician’s Land is the strongest book in Grossman’s series. It not only offers a satisfying conclusion to Quentin Coldwater’s quests, earthly and otherwise, but also considers complex questions about identity and selfhood as profound as they are entertaining." The minutia of the magic gets a little tedious at times, but the story is quick-paced and enjoyable. The characters grow over the series and Quentin turns way more likeable and supporting characters get fleshed-out backstories. The series is also being turned into a TV show premiering in 2016, so if you want to stay ahead of the pop-culture curve, read on! I'll end with a great quote from the third book, after Quentin stumbles into a bookstore: "It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home." Rating: ★★★★★


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: ★★★★★


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.
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:
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: ★★★★(★)


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 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: ★★★★★