Tag Archives: review

THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ by Anne Enright

EnrightI really enjoyed The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright. I haven’t read her earlier book The Gathering, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, but I picked up The Forgotten Waltz at BEA – in part because I loved the cover and in part because I liked the premise. It’s about Gina, a woman in her 30s in Dublin, who has left her husband for Sean, a man that she has been having an affair with. The book is mostly a reflection back on how she got involved with Sean, their imperfect relationship, and his imperfect daughter.

I liked the writing in The Forgotten Waltz. The story is not told in a linear fashion, but moves from the past to the present and back to the past in a circuitous but not unnatural way. Gina and Sean’s love is messy – he is full of flaws and her life after ending up with him is in many ways difficult and lonely. But Gina loves Sean – this is clear throughout the book – and their situation is ultimately realistic. No Hollywood endings here.

I liked that Gina was flawed – selfish and impulsive, and I liked that I didn’t always know where the book was going.

Enright used the backdrop of the collapse of the financial markets to inflict a general malaise on the characters, which also heightens the sense of imprisonment that many of them feel. This is a gloomy book in many ways, but the writing really redeemed it for me.

I just looked at reviews of The Forgotten Waltz on Goodreads and was surprised to see how mixed they are. Like me, some people fell in love with the writing and really liked the book. Others took issue with Gina’s choices and need to rationalize, or didn’t care about the outcome.

For me, this was a very satisfying read. I am going to look into The Gathering as well.

2010 in Reading: A Retrospective

Well, it's Monday, December 27. I may finish the last two books I am reading before December 31, but I thought I would post my 2010 year-end post today regardless.

2010 was the year I decided to stop avoiding books that everyone else loved. I also picked up a few doorstoppers whose girth had intimidated me in the past. I've read 33 books so far, a number that is so dwarfed by every book blogger I know that I am embarrassed to put it out there. But that's my number.

I revisited a number of authors I have enjoyed in the past (Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Haigh, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jhumpa Lahiri and Carolyn Parkhurst). I tried out some new-to-me authors (Francine Prose, Emma Donoghue, Laura Moriarty). I doubled up in 2010 on Lori Lanssens. I read some debut novels (Girl in Translation, Based Upon Availability). I read some of the books that other people have been insisting for years were must-reads (American Wife, Middlesex, The Kite Runner). I got caught up in the book blogger phenomena that were The Help and Room and The Postmistress. I definitely went backlist in 2010 – more than new releases. I discovered audiobooks – 6 of the 33 books were on audio. I read 5 books by men and the rest by women. (Hmmm.)

I think I can best describe 2010 as the year of reading deliberately. I thought even longer and harder about each next read before jumping in, and paid more attention to what other people thought of books before making the decision to start them. That deliberation paid off – there were very few disappointments among the 33.

In the end, these were the standouts:

  • Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
  • Lionel Shriver, So Much For That
  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
  • Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife
  • Emma Donoghue, Room

Honorable mentions to Girl in Translation (Jean Kwok), When Madeline Was Young (Jane Hamilton), and Baker Towers (Jennifer Haigh).

Overall, it was a great year in reading. It was a very busy year at work, so the 33, in the end, isn't too bad for a slow reader like me.

What were your favorite reads of 2010?

TRESPASS by Valerie Martin


Back in October, I wrote about a book called Trespass by Valerie Martin.

I read it, and highly recommend it. It’s an intense, sad, upsetting book, but well worth it. It’s also one of those books that is so engaging that I found myself irritated at anyone who interrupted me while I was reading it, including the poor woman giving me a pedicure who only wanted to know what shape I wanted for my toes.

The story opens as Chloe, a middle-aged book illustrator living outside New York City, is meeting her son Toby’s Croatian girlfriend Salome for the first time. She immediately dislikes Salome, believing that she is trying to trap her son into a relationship, marriage, maybe a green card. At the same time, Chloe is also dealing with a roving poacher on her land, who hunts rabbits and fires rifle shots that leave her deeply unsettled.

As the book goes on, the stories and characters widen and become more complex. Martin introduces Toby’s historian father, Salome’s immigrant father and brother, and ultimately, her presumed dead mother Jelena, who somehow survived the horror of the Serbian-Croatian genocide.

Trespass is aptly named. Xenophobia runs strongly through the book, manifesting itself in emotions ranging from discomfort and suspicion to hatred.  The book opens as the U.S. invades Iraq –ironically, I finished it on the war’s fifth anniversary — compounding the theme of violence and invasion. Yet the trespasses are personal and emotional as well – such as Salome’s unwelcome entry into Chloe’s family, the poacher on the land, Salome’s angry, violent brother.

I received a review copy of this book, and tucked in with it was a article from Bookpage. In it, Martin is quoted: “I was conscious early on that the book was about both the fear and the attraction of foreignness, which I think Americans feel particularly…. The notion of people who live in the light, and those who come from the dark is so important to that book, and I liked the idea that Americans live in realms of light and live in fear of the intrusion of the realms of darkness.”

The story of Jelena’s horrific survival of the genocide is haunting. And what I found most compelling from Martin’s story was the conclusion that sometimes experiences like living through a war or losing a parent or child so indelibly mark us that we never recover, never return to the people we were before.  The tragedy of war is its inescapable legacy of damage.

No, this isn’t a light book. But it is very readable and compelling and I had trouble putting it down. Martin’s gift as a writer was summed up perfectly by Booklist: “Martin is a coolly dispassionate storyteller with a narrative voice that is at once inviting and disquieting.” I completely agree – her style is spare, which ultimately draws the reader in rather than alienating.

I have some issues with the ending – as I often do – but I don’t want to give anything away so I will keep those thoughts to myself.

Highly recommended.

MISS AMERICAN PIE by Margaret Sartor

I put Miss American Pie by Margaret Sartor on my “Now Reading” list in June 2007 and read the first half of the book, then put it down. I decided over the weekend to put it out of its misery, so I skimmed the last 100 or so pages. Its misery is now over.

Miss American Pie is a collection of excerpts from a diary that the author kept during her teenage years growing up in rural Louisiana. When I bought it, I thought it would be an inside look at the coming of age of a girl in the 70s, as well as an interesting slice of Americana.

Instead, I found Miss American Pie to be an incredibly boring, self-absorbed, and uncompelling group of diary entries that mostly talk about which boy the author likes and why she doesn’t like her hair. Yes, she talks about her relationship with God and the church, and there are some glimpses into her parents’ relationship that I suppose were worthwhile. But my god, this book was boring. I just didn’t care. There may be some high school relationships that are worth reading about, 25 years later, but these were particularly shallow and irrelevant. Even the epilogue, in which she talks many years later about the boy who was, at the time, the “love of her life,” was boring.

I went onto Amazon and saw a bunch of 5-star reviews of this book – I just don’t get it. Maybe I completely missed the boat here, but I found this book to be a major disappointment and would not recommend it to anyone.

Here is one Amazon review that saw it my way:

Miss American Pie is a dull, dull, dull read. The forward is promising and I thought Sartor’s teenage musings would be profound or intriguing or at the least interesting but it’s not. Sartor is a spoiled rich kid whose father is a doctor and mother is an artist. She has several horses, equally well off friends and an obviously successful future ahead of her.

Her diary entries, if you can call them that, average two to three sentences at the most. Entries range from “May 20: I feel really bad,” to “February 6: BAD headache today,” to “April 1: Stella is unhappy at her job”. She mopes around because she thinks she’s ugly or because her best friend likes a guy she likes or because her hair is frizzy. There isn’t anything of substance to make this a worthwhile read or shed some new light on adolescence. I understand it’s a diary of a teenage girl but it’s still boring.

If a diary is to be published, it should be dynamic, intriguing, shedding new light on the protagonist or a particular situation or a period of time. Miss American Pie fails on all counts.

I couldn’t agree more. I just don’t understand how this book got published or why so many people seem to like it.

If there’s anyone reading who has also read this book, please weigh in! If you liked it, tell me why. I’d love to know.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST by Mohsin Hamid


My friend Nancy L. gave me The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid for my birthday late last year. I hadn’t heard of it, but was intrigued when I read the dust jacket, and stuck it at the top of my to-be-read pile. I finished it yesterday and am glad I read it.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of Changez, a young Pakistani man who attends Princeton on financial aid, graduates at the top of his class, and joins an elite Wall Street valuation firm.  During his first few months in New York, he experiences the exhilaration of living in the city, making a lot of money, and working hard: basically, living as an American — or, at a minimum, a New Yorker — in outlook and lifestyle.

Two events fundamentally change his life: 9/11, and the mental deterioration of Erica, a Princeton classmate with whom Changez has fallen in love.

9/11 changes both the course and the tone of the book. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but generally, 9/11 causes Changez to re-examine his relationship with and his view of America. He returns to Pakistan for a visit on the eve of threatened hostilities with India, which he attributes in large part to America’s invasion of Afghanistan and the example it set of a more powerful country invading another without provocation.  He returns briefly to his job and his life in NY, but his world view is irrevocably altered, and he soon returns to Pakistan for good.

The story is told as a monolgue, spoken by Changez to an American he meets at a cafe in Lahore. His tone is unfailingly polite and formal, but as the book progresses, his anger and anti-American sentiment becomes more and more pronounced. This passage came up toward the end, as he relayed to his dining companion his feelings about post-9/11 America:

It seemed to me then — and to be honest, sir, seems to me still — that America was engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own indifference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.  Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.

The meal with the American, as well as the American’s uneasiness and paranoia about his surroundings, add a layer of tension and discomfort to the telling of Changez’s story.

The second plot – that of Changez’s doomed love for the fragile Erica – is, in my opinion, less interesting.  While it helps explain Changez’s increasing despondency and disconnection from American society, I found her a little tiresome. I read a review that says that Erica is supposed to be America (hence her name), which I found interesting, but I am not sure that theory holds.

This book is short, engaging, and incredibly well-written. It is also thought-provoking, as it turns the mirror on America and forces the reader to take in a pretty unflattering portrait of our nation. There are a ton of reviews of this book in the blogosphere – if you want to read some more, just do a search in Google Blogs. I will, however, pass along a link to this interview with Mohsin Hamid on NPR’s Fresh Air and this interview on Amazon.com. I thought they were particuarly worthwhile.

Highly recommend this book. If you’ve read it (Nancy…?), please weigh in.

KARMA AND OTHER STUDIES by Rishi Reddi

For you short story fans out there, here’s a review of a new collection called Karma and Other Stories, by Rishi Reddi, which I read about in this week’s Mostly Fiction newsletter.

ReddiMost of the stories are set in the suburbs of Boston, with the exceptions of one in Kansas and another in India. However, there is no cultural overload, just small but solid images of the values of the Indian culture, their importance to the elders and the willingness of younger generations to compromise and change those traditions to adjust to the American way. Each tale is uniquely woven and easy to read, yet their themes are interconnected.
            
In “Devadasi,” Uma is a 16-year-old budding beauty, struggling with how she should handle her physical and mental transformation into a young woman. On a family trip to India, she’s torn between how tradition would want her to behave and the expectations of her American boyfriend back home. Through the guidance of her wise dance instructor, Guru-ji, she gathers some insight on how to make these choices.

Lakshmi is a submissive and obedient housewife and mother. Now that her children are grown, she’s restless with living her traditional Indian life in Modern America. In “Lakshmi and the Librarian,” she befriends the local librarian, Elias Filian, who appreciates her friendship and attention, unlike her husband who seems to be taking her for granted. After flirting with the danger of a possible affair, she sees the safety and comfort in the simple life she’s chosen.

Justice Shiva Ram Murthy would like all of his friends and family to think that he’s easily adjusted to living in Boston. What he simply cannot come to terms with is that, here in America, he’s not a renowned and respected judge, but just another Indian immigrant with an accent that’s difficult to understand. In this story, titled after the main character, we see Mr. Murthy twist a simple misunderstanding out of proportion demonstrating his frustrations with living in America.

In each of the seven expertly crafted tales, Rishi keeps us balanced on the fence, where we can clearly see both sides, and feel the push and pull from the green grass of both. She provides us with gentle truths and emotional debates that open our awareness, empathy and understanding of the fear that change can bring, along with its exciting possibilities. Her Westernized characters are light headed from their fresh existence in a new world, while the ones who cling to tradition are quietly stubborn and respectfully steadfast in their cultural beliefs. You can’t dislike any of them, which creates a great struggle for the reader, and a good reason to read on. In fact, we want to handle each of them with an intimate delicacy, and in the end we want them all to find a satisfactory compromise. We root for a respectful neutrality, an ability to agree to disagree. After all, don’t we each grow up trying to beat our own path in life, rebelling against all we’ve been taught, and believing what our own minds and hearts tell us is correct?

Indian blogger Jabberwock has a long, positive review of Karma and Other Stories, and concludes:

[N]one of these stories amount to pat generalisations about a community of people. Yes, they all deal with Indians living and adjusting in the US; in fact, one can particularise this further and observe that they are mostly about members of a Telugu community in relatively less cosmopolitan places in the US (so much so that some characters recur from one story to the next; the effect is like being at a cosy fireside chat where a narrator is telling us anecdotes from the lives of people we’ve seen in our neighborhood). But one can also step back, look at the larger picture and observe that these are believable human beings, facing different types of conflicts and responding in different ways.

Here is an interview with Rishi Reddi from Small Spiral Notebook, and here is a downloadable interview from Harper Perennial.

FLIGHT by Ginger Strand


Back in April 2007, I wrote a post about a book called Flight by Ginger Strand. I had read a review of it and was intrigued. Tonight, I finished it. It took me a long time to read it, not because it was a long book, but because I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

The book is about a nuclear family – mom, dad, two grown daughters – who converge on the parents’ home on the eve of the youngest daughter’s wedding. This is not a subtle book – each of the characters is in varying degrees of fleeing from a bad relationship, whether it’s a long marriage, a shorter one, or one that hasn’t even taken place yet – hence the title. Also, the father is an airline pilot, and 9/11 is supposed to be looming in the background, ostensibly causing the characters to reexamine their lives amidst the realization of its frailty.

It doesn’t sound so bad. But here’s why I didn’t like it. While I usually enjoy family dramas, I found this one suffocating. Strand’s best attributes as a writer, in my opinion, worked to her disadvatange here. Her eye for detail is pretty amazing – her ability to construct wholly believable scenes and convey the layers of family relationships through realistic dialogue and precisely drawn actions is very impressive. However, I felt like I was reading this book in real time – that I was actually living this 48-hour period along with this unhappy family. I wanted out. I wanted to go somewhere else and get away from them, to shed the burden of experiencing their lives. This is not a good quality in a novel.

I also didn’t like the characters. They are each frustrating and somewhat unlikeable. I just didn’t care if the youngest went through with her wedding or if the parents worked out their issues. That’s another fatal flaw for me – if I just don’t care what happens, I have a hard time getting through the book.

I could go on – some subplots that didn’t get enough attention or resolution, for example – but suffice it to say I just didn’t love this book. Strand is clearly a very talented writer – as I mentioned, her gift for detail and precision is remarkable – but the plot and characters on this one just didn’t do it for me. I read to escape, and this book felt like a prison.