David Ebershoff weaves together two riveting timelines concerning American polygamy in The 19th Wife. In a set of fictionalized historical documents which cover the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Ebershoff gives voice to Ann Eliza Young, a real historical figure who exposed and denounced polygamy as she divorced the Prophet Brigham Young. (She wrote a memoir called Wife No. 19 but that is not what is included in this novel.) Contemporary polygamy is seen through the eyes of Jordan Scott, a young gay son excommunicated from the Firsts—a polygamist group who broke away from LDS—returning to help his mother (also a wife #19) charged with the murder of his father. Both are equally compelling but distinct accounts demonstrating the harm that plural marriage inflicts on all involved. Mystery and historical fiction rolled into one, The 19th Wife is a satisfying read that inspires the reader to think about faith, religious freedom, love, and the limits of acceptance.
The Abstinence Teacher was probably chosen for its attention-getting potential rather than actual reflection of the story. Ruth, presumably the title character, assumes the role reluctantly as the Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church gaining power in the idyllic All-American suburb of Stonewood Heights, publicly challenges her Human Sexuality curriculum which is informed by her "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power" philosophy. She has a confrontation with her daughter's soccer coach Tim, a recovering drug addict saved by faith and his Tabernacle community. While Tom Perrotta brings up some serious themes such as the proper role of religion in public life and education, his hyper-detailed descriptive prose doesn't turn this dramatic potential into a strong narrative arc. Instead, we hover over the elaborate development of these two characters, seemingly at odds, but having more in common than simply being divorced and middle-aged. There's a lot of internal conflict, but not a lot of tension between characters, and lots of loose ends go unresolved. Like a stay at a good hotel chain, The Abstinence Teacher was comfortable, tasteful, but slightly predictable and bland.
Absurdistan is an apt title for Gary Shteyngart's second novel--a deeply satirical work populated by absurd characters in unlikely situations. It takes several chapters to get over the wtf factor upon meeting the morbidly obese Jewish antihero Misha Vainberg, an alumus of Accidental College and Big Apple living, now trapped in his native St. Petersburg because INS officials deny him a return visa after his father, the 1,238th richest oligarch in Russia, killed a businessman from Oklahoma. Longing for the West, Misha leaves St. Petersburg after his father's murder in search of a EU passport by way of a corrupt diplomat in the fictional oil-rich Caspian nation of Absurdistan. Once there, Misha becomes embroiled in the civil war between the ethnic Swani and Sevos...
This book grows on you...like a barnacle. Misha's characterization is well done, as he grapples with his dead parents and stepping into his fathers shoes. If you are familiar with the Russian Jewish psyche and New York City, you might enjoy this satirical portrayal. However, Shteybgart is over-the-top with his aggressive self-conscious "I'm writing to be funny" and cue-the-audience's attention to issues modus operandi. It isn't so much social commentary rather than demanding points for bringing up the right references. In the end, I learned to like Misha--"a sophisticate and a melancholic"--after following his narration through so much absurdity, but Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemens Union ranks higher on my list of alternate reality geopolitical fare.
The age-old question of whether a man and a woman can just be friends gets a deliciously whimsical twist in Shannon Hales second novel. In a follow-up to Austenland, this fantasy what-if story asks: what if hes Felix Callahan, handsome British actor with a French supermodel wife? What if shes Becky Jack, happily married Mormon housewife, mother of four, and a fan of Felixs work? Such title characters usually dont meet in real life, but when Shannon Hale asks for this suspension of disbelief, she delivers a beautiful, poignant story of love and friendship in return.
The blurb might lead you to believe it will be an escapist housewife meets her celebrity crush storyline. Instead, the fact that Felix and Becky strike up an instant friendship is as believable as the easy dialogue between them is witty. Beckys character resembles her famous zucchini bread good and wholesome, but with spunk and fiber and holds the story together. You dont begrudge that she was the lucky one who got to meet and become best mates with a celebrity heartthrob instead of yourself because you can see what about Becky captured Felixs liver (they refer to each other as such since their respective spouses represent their hearts). Rather, you grow to care about Becky and her family as she and husband Mike wrestle with the question of whether a platonic mixed gender friendship is possible.
Indeed the story progresses so seamlessly that you might not even notice the time pass as the Jack children grow up and the Becky-Felix friendship is tested by trials to both partners. Theres a lot of fun and tears along the way, but without revealing the answer to the original question, let me just say the story affirms the readers awe in the power of soul mates. Although Shannon Hale might want to establish herself as excellent author of fantasy chick lit, she does so through her talent in writing about grounded characters just authentically living life in The Actor and the Housewife.
Affinity, second in line behind Sarah Water's debut novel Tipping the Velvet, continues the same lesbian-Victorian England theme, with gothic splashes added in with exploration of the Spiritualist movement. The narrative is carried by the two protagonists across two different timelines. We are allowed to read the secret diary of Margaret Prior, who takes up a role as a Lady Visitor at Millbank Prison (where the Tate Gallery now stands) as part of her recovery from a suicide attempt. She becomes progressively drawn to Selina Dawes, a young spirit-medium charged with fraud and assault after a séance gone bad, who shares the events leading up to her imprisonment. Less overtly sexual than Tipping the Velvet, Affinity is much more subdued in tone. The first three parts forming much of the background of Margaret's home life and prison life seem dreary and go slowly, but towards a clever and suspenseful climax. As usual, Waters's prose transports us to the period, showing how the role of women is quite stifled. In summary, a good historical novel with gothic and lesbian overtones.
All She was Worth is a mystery set in early 1990s Japan. Homna is a Tokyo detective on medical leave who is asked by a relative to find his fiancée. This informal missing-persons case quickly morphs into a more complicated mystery which has Homna sifting out clues in multiple cities. This story is a good introduction to another culture and a platform for anti-consumerism commentary, but the translation is a bit uneven. For example, there are strange colloquialisms and phrases like "God only knows" in a predominantly non-monotheistic society. Nonetheless, I was gripped by the story until I realized there weren't enough pages left to provide a full explanation.
Part erotica, part diatribe against misogynistic customs, The Almond is the story of Badra, a young Muslim woman who flees an unsatisfying arranged marriage in her hometown for Tangiers. In this northern Moroccan city she initially lives with her Aunt Selma, who is divorced from her uncle, and ultimately becomes involved with cardiologist-socialite Driss in a long, consuming affair. Although it was Driss who awakens sexual pleasure and love in Badra, she recalls her earlier attempts to understand and experience adult things in her pre-Tangiers existence in long, italicized flashbacks. The story becomes more and more ungrounded in every day life as Badra gets older. It's a bit graphic at times, and I found its dreamy, self-centered prose slightly unsatisfying.
American Fujiis a delightful novel that's part Japanese cultural guide, part fictionalized autobiography, part mystery, and part commentary on the state of American health care. American expat Gaby Stanton, inflicted with a 'shameful' chronic condition, stays in Japan for the health insurance coverage, working as a salesperson in a fantasy funeral company after having inexplicably lost her professorship at Shizuoka University. A forged invoice from her new company--"Gone with the Wind"--brings Alex Thorn into her life. Psychologist Alex Thorn comes to Japan on a book tour, but mainly to uncover the circumstances of his exchange student son Cody's death one year ago. With Gaby playing guide, both Alex and the reader get some perspective on the sometimes comical, quirky differences between American and Japanese culture. An entertaining cast of Japanese and gaijin characters populate their suspenseful efforts to get to the truth about Cody's death. Were the yakuza (Japanese mafia) involved? Ultimately, it's also a heartfelt novel about acceptance, and a fitting tribute to the time Sara Backer spent in Japan as a visiting English professor at Shizuoka University.
I enjoyed American Gods even though fantasy is not a usual genre for me. Shadow is about to be released from prison, but the wife and quiet life he looked forward to is upended by her sudden death in a car accident. Starting with his plane ride back from prison, there's a falling-through-the-rabbit-hole feel to his new adventures. Gaiman's prose is inspired, keeping the reader motivated to follow along with Shadow in what can be interpreted as a deeply allegorical tale. An American mythology, even. Instead of a slew of unanswered questions, I left with an appreciation of Gaiman's craft.
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us offers a comprehensive look at the American religious landscape from mid-20th century onwards. Putnam and Campbell base most of the chapters on the statistical analysis of their Faith Matters surveys from 2006 and 2007 as well as other broad nation-wide surveys. Intending to reach a lay audience without a statistical background, their writing becomes long-winded at times to preserve precision and provide alternate ways to phrase the findings. Each chapter has an introduction, graphs that are fully explained in the text, and a summarizing conclusion. Luckily, "Vignettes" chapters describing various congregations of different faiths provide a break from the quantitative analysis. Nonetheless, I was impressed with some astute insights by the neutral authors. I learned a lot about the diverse and devout nature of Americans, and was particularly interested in how religion and partisan politics became correlated. Definitely a recommended read for anyone interested in religion in America.
The map on the cover was what drove me to this volume of alternative American history in an independent bookstore in St Louis. Having recently moved from one time zone to another, the idea that America is broken up into distinct regional cultures that do not necessarily correspond to state borders didn't come as a surprise. This book provides an interesting lens through which to view the development of the United States and the current political climate. In the latter part of the book the more objective historian voice gives way to opinionated analysis of the values of the essentially "blue" and "red" allied nations and how they vie for control of the country.
Philipp Meyer did a great job setting up the scene and characters readers can get behind in American Rust, but once he sets them in motion, the momentum peters out. In Rust Belt America, Issac and Poe encounter trouble in an abandoned steel mill that threatens to unravel their lives. However, once this central conflict is presented, the two young men and other characters in this small-town drama go off into their own internal conflicts. All the voices sound distinct, but towards the end the story doesn't come together, just as formerly prosperous steel towns in rural Pennsylvania never recovered. This book on the list of 1001 books you should read before you die offers a stark view of an American postindustrial dystopia.
Amsterdam is a quick, well-executed morality tale. Of the Ian McEwan novels I've read, this reminds me more of On Chesil Beach than Atonement. Both feature writing which flow easily from describing a given character's state of mind and his surrounding circumstances, like a gifted cinematographer effortlessly panning out to wide angle shots from intimate close ups. McEwan excels at describing his flawed characters with a detached air. Clive and Vernon are good friends, despite both being ex-lovers of Molly Lane, who passes away suddenly and gracelessly from a rapidly debilitating disease. So touched by death, the pair make a pact which, as the story unfolds, leads to a climax in the title city. A brilliant tale of morality, sacrifice, ambition, and revenge, my only complaint is this Booker prize winner from 1998 is all too short.
It's a little-known fact that 59,000 American women volunteered to be US Army nurses during World War II. And if I perish is a poignant attempt to make that history known. The authors, Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee, got so many replies to a request made in conjunction with the National Salute to Women Veterans of World War II celebrating its 50th anniversary they found enough material to write several books. The authors did an excellent job incorporating the stories of specific nurses whom they interviewed further with the larger picture of battles fought in the North African and European campaigns. (Another book, All this hell focuses on American nurses who became Japanese POWs.) I really enjoyed learning about military medicine, the role of women in frontline hospitals, and World War II in general through this book.
Set earlier in the Shadow of the Wind universe, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game is another treat. Written in the same style, lyrical and at times cynically humorous, this prequel is the story of David Martín, a talented writer of humble beginnings who writes sensationalist thrillers for his livelihood instead of true literature from his soul. He is courted by a mysterious French publisher to write an ultimate novel with an offer he can't refuse, only to have the shadows from the past having him question the intentions of his new boss. Against the backdrop of Barcelona, the labyrinthine plot winds through crumbling old houses (including the tower house David inhabits), the Sempere and Sons bookshop, and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, with another cast of interesting characters. However, things are not explained to the same satisfying degree at the end in this novel about books and the people who love them.
Provocative title aside, I found that Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide consisted mainly of her private musing over American gender relations. The New York Times Op-ed columnist covers familiar ground including dating rituals and expectations, pop evolutionary psychobiology, Viagra, Botox, Anita Hill, and Hilary Clinton, with some Washington and elite journalistic name-dropping thrown in. One is either going to appreciate her acerbic wit (more likely if you share her liberal views) or find her biased and overgeneralizing. The book is very easy and quick to read, but I thought it lacked an overall coherent argument. Loved the dust jacket artwork, though.
An Artist of the Floating World is a profound, meditative novel. Like most of Japanese-British writer Kazuo Ishiguru's writing, it features an unreliable first-person narrator reflecting on his past experience. Masuji Ono is a retired painter of some renown in immediately postwar Japan who must confront his past in his country's imperialist movement as his youngest daughter enters marriage negotiations. His potential role is slowly revealed in meandering flashbacks, usually accompanied by "I'm not sure if that's exactly how it happened" provisos. The title refers to the pleasure-seeking urban lifestyle (ukiyo) which was his former teacher's subject of choice, but may also be a symbol of how values and circumstances change. I also enjoyed reading about different opinions in Japanese society which is often portrayed as monolithic. A subtle, elegant, and typically Ishiguru work.
BTW: This is Ishiguro's second novel, not the first as some reviews claim. His debut novel was A Pale View of Hills in 1982.
The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient is a nuanced but somewhat jumbled work examining how Westerners view Asia. Sheridan Prasso, a journalist once based in Asia, contends that the West, through a distorted lens, sees the Orient as a weaker but exotic, sensual and decadent place. The first part of the book is a heavily researched investigation into how that lens was constructed. She documents the first East-West interactions and how they became the basis of continually reinforced prejudices. She also devotes separate chapters to how Hollywood portrays Asian women and men from early 20th century until today.
The second part of the book, "Ten People, Ten Colors," consists of first-hand research involving talking to and following around Asian women. Prasso visits a geisha--the one who inspired Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha but ultimately suing him for misrepresentation--as well as prostitutes, female politicians, Cathay stewardesses, among others in Southeast and East Asia. Here the text is more about the condition of women in Asia, and not the stereotypes thereof. The Indian subcontinent is not a focus of this work.
Ultimately, I think the author's message is that being consumers of an Asian Mystique is ultimately deleterious to Westerners, as well as Asians. However, some of this message is diluted since most of the book concerns itself with documenting its existence. The Asian Mystique does an admirable job of not showing this as an unidirectional imposition of stereotypes; Asians sometimes play into and perpetuate this facade too.
Although it won the Lambda Literary Award, to say At Swim Two Boys is merely a gay coming-of-age story set in Ireland during WWI would be too simplistic. It's a long tale of love, country, and war intertwined; the Irish fight for independence is a major force explored in the almost 500 pages. Unfortunately for me I don't know much about Irish history and the dialogue was hard to get into at first, but I wanted to finish this story with Jim and Doyler, two teenaged boys with an honest, passionate love for each other, at its center. It took more than 10 weeks to do so, but I'm glad the list of 1001 books you read before you die led me to this work.
In her debut novel for adults, Shannon Hale pays homage to Jane Austen in Austenland, an exclusive fantasy retreat where Regency England awaits wealthy Austen-obsessed female guests. Jane, a New York graphic designer "not yet four and thirty" doesn't quite fit in with this set, but was bequeathed an "Experience" by a wealthy great-aunt who uncovers her obsession with Mr. Darcy, especially as played by Colin Firth in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. Could this be poisoning her relationships with modern-day men, and if so, would three weeks in Austenland be the cure?
The devoted Austen fan would relish Jane's immersion (therapy?) in Austenland, where she meets eligible Regency-era gentlemen as Jane Erstwhile, an escapist playground where it's hard to parse what is real and what is pretend for the client's paying pleasure. Those unfamiliar with Austen might have an occasional reference pass overhead, but the novel still serves up a delicious light sample of chick lit. Yet at times I wished there was more meat to Jane's character. While the reader learns more about her relationship history through italicized flashbacks at the beginning of the chapters that take place "on site," Jane begins as a rather one-dimensional girl, defined by her Darcy obsession, not necessarily the heroine for whom one would wholeheartedly root for a happy ending. Could a fear of physical intimacy be the root cause of both her failed relationships and Darcy obsession? If not for the Austen tie-in, Jane would need to be more psychological defined for the book to sustain interest. But as such, it was an enjoyable light read.