The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A really unique book, The Shadow of the Wind is a wonderfully complex novel that is simultaneously mysterious, funny, romantic, thrilling, political and suspenseful.  Set in Barcelona in 1945, the main story is about Daniel, a young man whose book-dealer father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he finds a mysterious book entitled “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julian Carax.  Daniel soon finds himself immersed in the book and the author’s own story, especially when he discovers that a strange figure has been systematically tracking down and destroying copies of all works by Carax.  Daniel is determined to protect his own copy and discover who the strange figure is and why the books are being destroyed.

Meanwhile, Daniel’s own life is becoming a drama of its own.  Multiple characters enter the story, some in relation to Carax, others not, but each has his or her own history to be told as Daniel encounters them, resulting in a novel that is deliciously super-saturated with plot (including surprises and shocking revelations) and a fantastic collection of characters (evil villains, REALLY evil villains, tragic heroes, comic heroes, scapegoats and madmen).

The most omnipresent character in the novel was the city of Barcelona itself.  The author specifically described areas of the city where the action took place and in the back of the trade paperback version there is a walking tour of the city, pinpointing locations of places mentioned in the story.  So close to the end of the Spanish Civil War, the city had a very distinct personality.  The mood was unsure and pessimistic, and the setting very gothic, ensorcelled in Spanish mysticism.

The writing in this novel is some of the most enjoyably lyrical I have read.  The author shows a real passion and enjoyment of language that he shares with the reader.  The book is a translation from the original Spanish novel and I think the translation must be excellent, since the writing shines, and the book is rich with both wit and humor.

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Published in: on August 22, 2010 at 6:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

A beautifully written memoir, Brother, I’m Dying is the story of two Haitian brothers who, living thousands of miles apart, share a great love for one another and use that love to cultivate their exceptionally compassionate and supportive family, despite the distance and a number of difficult challenges. 

The book is written by Edwidge Danticat, who was born in Haiti in 1969.  When she was just two years old, her father, Andre, left Haiti for New York City to find work and make a place for his family.  Her mother joined him two years later, leaving Edwidge and her younger brother with Andre’s older brother (her Uncle Joseph) and his wife and family.  During her twelve years of childhood in Haiti, Edwidge came to know Uncle Joseph as her second father.  At age twelve, Edwidge’s parents came back to Haiti with their two youngest children, whom Edwidge and her brother had never met.  They all returned to New York together.  Despite the distance, the two halves of the family remained close, and their concern and care for each other are remarkable qualities missing from many family dynamics today.  I wonder if their closeness was a characteristic of Haitian culture or of this particular family.

While the book is largely about her family and the relationship between her father and uncle, Danticat also discusses the relationship between Haiti and the United States.  She incorporates within her story certain facts from 20th century history as they affected her family, especially regarding political unrest in Haiti and the involvement of the United States.  As an Haitian-American the author seems conflicted by the changing relationship between the two countries.  She mentions both negative and positive effects of U.S. agencies in Haiti and exposes some shockingly brutal facts regarding the treatment of Haitian immigrants in the United States.  These facts are always revealed clearly and without sensationalism which I feel greatly increases her credibility.

Because the characters are presented by someone who loves them, the reader can’t help but feel love for them, too.  It’s easy to cry and laugh with them, be dismayed by bad news, happy during long-awaited reunions and heartbroken during injustice and tragedy.  While most of the stories in the book are written from verbal recollections she gathered from members of her family, I found the scenes written from her own experiences particularly compelling.

Danticat has written one other work of non-fiction, After the Dance:  A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti and four books of fiction:  The Dew Breaker, The Farming of Bones, Krik? Krak!, and Breath, Eyes, Memory.

Published in: on August 1, 2010 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I finished this book about three weeks ago, and it’s taken me nearly that long to figure out what I thought about it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I did, in fact, like it, but not for the reasons I anticipated when I started the book.  Actually, immediately after finishing the book I decided that I didn’t like it much and that it was sort of a flop.  I think the reason for that initial reaction is that I had misled myself regarding the author’s intention and tone before starting it.  And because of that, I want to give anyone else who may pick up this book a heads up so that they can either relax and enjoy it for what it is or decide not to read it at all.

So here’s the heads up:  Despite the fact that in the first chapter of this book a 14-year old girl is brutally raped and murdered and the murderer gets off scott-free, this is not a thrilling crime drama.  The book is written from the point of view of the victim, Susie Salmon, as she watches things unfold from heaven.  She watches her murderer, Mr. Harvey, dispose of her body.  She watches the events in her neighborhood as her family discovers her missing and follows the investigation that goes nowhere.  But most of the book is Susie watching her family and friends recover from her death and move on with their own lives in the months and years to follow. 

Susie describes heaven as a pleasant place where anything she wants appears almost before she can think of it.  But what Susie wants most of all is what she can’t have, and that is to be back among the living and those she loves.  And that’s where the book really shows its mettle:  Amidst Susie’s incredible longing she takes notice of the beautiful details of the living.  She remembers moments of her life that she took for granted, and she sees the people in her life more clearly than before.  Her observations are even-toned and rarely judgmental, even when watching her mother break down and leave her family.  Eventually, Susie seems to find peace within herself and her message to the reader is to enjoy life, notice its details, both beautiful and unpleasant and to be grateful for the experience.

The book has been made into a movie, which I have not seen yet, but plan to.  From the previews it appears that it may take on a slightly more supernatural spin, maybe more of a thriller.  Come to think of it, that may be why I thought the book would be different than it was.

“The Lonely Bones” is a few years old now, and since it came out in 2002, Sebold has written a second novel, “The Almost Moon” which has had mixed reviews.

Published in: on June 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Stitches by David Small

Wow.  This was an amazing experience of a book.  I haven’t read many graphic novels (do comic books count?) so I’m not really sure if it was this book in particular that I found so compelling or the medium itself.  I would be interested to know the opinion of someone who has read a lot of graphic material.  (The word “graphic” in this context doesn’t mean “explicit,” it only refers to the method of storytelling using frames of artwork to tell the story with minimal prose.  I offer the explanation despite the risk of being overly-didactic because it was only recently that I figured it out myself.)

The artistic style of David Small immediately set the tone of the book as dark, gothic and significantly creepy.  The memoir is the story of his boyhood growing up in the 1950s in the suburbs of Detroit.  Small’s mother was an angry, repressed woman and his entire family including his father and older brother lived in a world of angry silence, never knowing how the others were feeling or what they were thinking. 

His father was a doctor; specifically a radiologist, and at that time, the science of radiology was still fairly new.  David underwent “therapy” for his sickly sinuses by having his father zap him with ridiculous amounts of radiation in their basement.  Consequently, when David was in his early teens he developed a growth on his neck and after various tests was admitted to the hospital for what he was told was routine surgery.  He woke up with his neck “stitched up like a boot” and unable to talk since half of his vocal cords had been removed.  David only found out later that it had been cancer.

The novel’s art puts the reader in the mind of David as a little boy and later as a teenager.  It is really interesting to see the world as he remembers seeing it, the eyes of all adults hidden by their glasses giving everyone an alien and closed appearance, which is exactly how the author must have felt in a house of no words or affection.  Amplifying the intensity of silence was when he lost his own voice and the pictures become even more internalized, as dream sequences.

If you pick up this book, I suggest reading it all in one sitting if possible.  It probably won’t take more than 20-30 minutes and the result is an intensity of visually driven emotion that compliments the story.  You can always go back later to look at the graphics in detail and appreciate the intricacies.

Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first novel in the Millenium Trilogy written by Stieg Larsson, published after his death in 2004.  Larsson was a Swedish journalist, photographer and political activist.  His fiction writing was mostly a hobby done after he got home from work in the evenings.  It appears that originally Larsson intended for the series to contain ten books and along with the three completed manuscripts found, there was also an unfinished fourth manuscript as well as synopses for the fifth and sixth books.  The books were immediate successes in Sweden and after the first was translated, he was posthumously named International Author of the Year in 2008.

I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries but this one was recommended to me and I really enjoyed it.  It took a day or two to get into it, but after the first couple chapters I was hooked and couldn’t put it down.  The whodunnit is essentially a “closed room” murder mystery, meaning that all the people who may have participated in the crime were contained within an area resulting in a definite list of suspects.  In the book the murder took place on an island while the only bridge to and from the island was closed off because of a traffic accident.  The aging patriarch of the wealthy Vanger family that inhabits the island becomes obsessed with the disappearance of his teenage cousin.  He is convinced she was murdered by someone on the island, possibly a family member, on that day in 1966 and that the murderer has been tormenting him for the past 35 years by sending him a pressed, framed flower every year on his birthday.  Vanger hires a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, to help him try to put the pieces together.  But Blomkvist has his own problems.  He has recently been convicted of libel and is facing public humiliation and a jail sentence.  Lisbeth Salander, a reclusive punk computer hacker prodigy with a personal vendetta also finds her way onto the case and together they uncover secrets and corruption decades old.

The novel is exceptionally good because the clues and details are meticulously arranged so that the reader can theorize along with the investigators.  The suspects are all complex characters who have been intricately developed and woven into the story.  The solution to the puzzle is neither glaringly obvious nor too far-fetched.  It was extremely well-written and I’m looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.  The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire is currently available and the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest has been translated into English and is due to be released in the U.S. in May.  Kudos to the translator, Reg Keeland, too.  Other than the tongue-twister names of Swedish towns and streets the translation was really smooth.

Published in: on April 25, 2010 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson & Martin Dugard

I had high hopes for this book.  A nonfiction account of one of history’s most intriguing characters written by one of the most popular authors of crime and suspense fiction…it seemed like a sure thing.  Unfortunately, I’ve rarely been so disappointed in a book.

There are three nonfiction stories being told simultaneously in the book.  First, Patterson writes about his excitement while planning and researching the subject with co-author Martin Dugard.  Second is the story of Howard Carter, the British Egyptologist who discovered the 3,000 year-old, long-lost tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 after years of searching.  Third is the story of King Tut himself and the events leading up to his supposed murder when he was only 19 years old. 

All three storylines are interesting and woven together well.  But the problem I had with the book is one that often comes up for me when reading books by authors like Patterson or Baldacci, whose prolificacy sometimes seems to come at the expense of quality writing.  In other words, I really feel like he phoned this one in.  The language was simple, the text was printed in large font and most chapters were about a page and a half long occasionally even breaking up conversations, which was very disruptive.  It felt a little like reading a report written by a middle schooler who was trying to use fluff-up tricks to make the report long enough.  And unfortunately, I can’t even recommend it for young readers, because while the reading level is certainly juvenile enough, the book contains one episode of violent sexuality that keeps it firmly on the adult shelf.

Also, I’m not sure exactly why this book is considered nonfiction rather than historic fiction.  Patterson makes sure to explain that he is meticulous about his research and includes known facts and generally accepted suppositions whenever possible, but the Tut portion of the story reads so much like fiction, including events and conversations that are impossible to know for certain that I think it should be considered fiction.

If you want a quick lesson on King Tut or Howard Carter I’d suggest skipping this book and just hitting wikipedia for the same facts and a lot less fluff.

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 12:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that I would give an A+, but I enthusiastically and without any reservation can give Olive Kitteridge that grade.  It is an exceptional, award-winning book that I would recommend for even the most critical reader.

The book is a collection of short stories about the members of a small town in Maine.  Olive Kitteridge is a retired math teacher and a long-time resident of the town.  Often stubborn, abrasive and contrary, Olive is a complicated, interesting character.  She resists changes in her familiar town and finds people around her to be irritating and perplexing.  A few of the stories focus on her, but the majority are about other personalities in the town, including people close to her, like her husband, Henry, and alienated son, Chris.  Others are about people completely unrelated, like Angela O’Meara, the aging piano player in the local cocktail lounge and Julie Harwood, a broken-hearted, jilted bride.  But each story connects to Olive in some way, effectively fastening the life of every member of Crosby, Maine to each other, however tenuously, with Olive serving as the narrative fulcrum.  The stories span a period of many years and as the town and people change, Olive recognizes changes within herself and even learns to be (a little) more understanding and compassionate.

I think the writing in this book is some of the very best I’ve read.  Elizabeth Strout has an absolutely amazing talent for writing descriptive, intuitive prose without it being at all cumbersome.  She is able to capture familiar, human moments within her characters so that the reader is able to recognize them as thoughts or experiences they’ve had themselves.  The result is that each character and experience, though completely new to the reader, are immediately familiar and identifiable.  She puts into words with enviable effortlessness those thoughts and feelings that make us all human.  The Random House Reader’s Circle trade paperback version of the book includes a really charming interview with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge that simultaneously demonstrates Strout’s gentle modesty for her work as well as her ability to write a character as irascible as Olive Kitteridge.

I honestly cannot think of a single negative thing to say about this book.  It was an absolute pleasure to read and I am definitely looking forward to reading Strout’s previous bestselling novels Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me.

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll

Remarkable Creatures is a collection of “epic adventures in the search for the origins of species.”  The book is made up of short non-fiction accounts of some of the most influential scientists and researchers from the early 1800s through present day who studied the history of the earth and those creatures that have lived upon it.  The title of the book seems not only to refer to the menagerie of species, both living and extinct, that were the focus of study, but also the singular men and women who studied them.

From the naturalist Humboldt who explored the wilderness of South America and Mexico for many years in the early 1800s collecting specimens and cataloging previously unknown plant and animal species, to Darwin whose own exploratory findings lead him to put forth his controversial hypotheses on the origin of species, Remarkable Creatures presents historic facts and theories while also creating an interesting narrative of the main characters and their adventures.

From Humboldt and Darwin, continuing chronologically, the book then moves into the era of paleontology.  With several new theories put forth in the mid and late 1800s, there were many scientists anxious to prove, disprove or offer their own hypotheses.  Each character is presented as the star of their own story, often starting from childhood.  My favorite of these adventurers was Roy Chapman Andrews, a fellow from Wisconsin who loved spending time outdoors as a child while growing up in the late 1800s and who desperately wanted to pursue a profession in natural history.  Even though he had never traveled farther than 90 miles from his home, on the day of his graduation from a nearby college he declared that he was going to New York  to try to get a job at the natural history museum.  Though he was told there were no positions available, Roy said that he would be happy to clean floors just so that he could be at the museum.  Slowly, he worked his way up, impressing the museum director and his co-workers, eventually leading to a number of field expeditions.  During World War I Roy secured an assignment as a spy, working under the cover of collecting zoological specimens in Asia.  After the war ended, Roy proposed a grand Mongolian expedition to the museum president, outlining all necessities and addressing the many logistical challenges.  The president was immediately captivated and Roy then went to visit a number of Wall Street tycoons for financing.  The expeditions that followed were tremendous successes, unearthing thousands of fossils and the first dinosaur eggs ever seen.  Roy was the image of a new breed of explorer-scientist, and with his ever-present hat and rifle, and infamous fear of snakes, it is no wonder that many assume he was the original influence in the creation of the character Indiana Jones.

The book tells the stories of many such interesting characters, including Luis and Walter Alvarez, a father and son team who determined that a meteor struck the earth roughly 65 million years ago causing widespread devastation, and the husband-wife team Louis and Mary Leakey who, in an attempt to find a humanoid “missing link” in Africa, uncovered fossils never before seen.  There are stories of the search and discovery of fossils linking dinosaurs and birds as well as the missing “fishapod” which served to form more links in the evolutionary chain.  The final chapters in the book focus on recent advancements in genetic aging techniques and where the field might go from this point.

The book is well composed; a lot of information presented concisely and without too much of a heavy scientific hand.  Written by a professor and scientist in the field of molecular biology and genetics, it is apparent that Carroll loves the subject matter.  If I have any criticism of the book it would be that on occasion he seemed to get overexcited about what he was writing and would throw in a bad pun or two and interrupt the flow, but overall a very interesting and informative history that can be enjoyed even by those of us without exceptionally scientific minds.

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is a collection of short stories set in Pakistan during the 1970s through the present.  The stories are tangentially related; the main character of one story may be mentioned in passing in the next story.  The result is that each story can stand on its own, but gradually a larger picture is formed.

The primary focus of the complete story is the disparity within the Pakistani feudal system and how it has both changed in recent times, but doggedly retained its grip on the country’s society despite a slow modernist transition.  Also addressed is the simultaneous power and impotence of the Pakistani female.  Because the book is broken into separate tales, the author is able to offer points of view from various members of society, from powerful landlords to poor serving girls and even introduces an American character later on in the book which offers a remarkable contrast and familiarity for western readers.

The book is beautifully written.  It is poetic and lyrical without being cumbersome.  There is a simple truthfulness in the style that made me immediately feel as if I were reading a fable; something old and filled with truthful wisdom.  His descriptions are elegant, but restrained, and portray a country and its people with quiet, beautiful realism.  Although the majority of these stories do not have typical happy endings, they are still a pleasure to read.  The author has a real knack for creating immediately sympathetic and believable characters.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders won the 2009 National Book Award.  This is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s first book, though his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope and The Best American Short Stories 2008.

Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

Chick book!

The blurb on the front of the trade paperback edition declares this novel is “Like Steel Magnolias set in Manhattan.”  As one might expect from a book earning such a description, there is a plethora of interesting, complex female characters leading complicated lives:  Georgia is a single mother, raising a pre-teen daughter and running a small knitting shop.  Anita is a matronly aging widow who is reluctantly falling in love again after 20 years.  Lucie is a struggling filmmaker who decides to become pregnant on her own despite financial insecurity.  KC is Georgia’s boisterous ex-boss who decides on a risky career change while in her 40s.  Darwin is a socially awkward graduate student who really just wants a friend, and Cat is Georgia’s traitorous ex-best friend from high school who makes a surprise re-entrance into Georgia’s life at an inopportune time.  Throw in a few peripheral male love interests and a heart-wrenching climax and the chick book recipe is complete!  This book is just begging to be made into a movie and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that negotiations are already underway.

The plot and characters in this book are adequate — mildly entertaining — interesting enough to keep reading but nothing extraordinary.  The thing that makes this book stand out is the knitting theme which serves as a frame for the plot.  The women in the novel are brought together by their interest in knitting and decide to meet every Friday night at Georgia’s shop for knitting help, homemade food and companionship.  The book itself is also brought together in segments prefaced by descriptions of knitting techniques and each process is analyzed in a way as to make it relevant to everyday life.  The most significant thing I took away from this book is a strong desire to learn how to knit!

The book is very reflective in nature, sometimes in the thoughts of one of the characters, at other times sentimental musings and observations of the narrator that occasionally felt like fluff.  There was one such passage though that really surprised me in its insightfulness regarding the friendship between a mother and her grown daughter.  I suspect that other readers may be inspired by some of the other reflections, depending on what is relevant in their own lives.

This is Kate Jacob’s first novel.  The Friday Night Knitting Club is available at noteBooks in trade paperback for $14.00.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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