Saturday, February 28, 2015

Americanah (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

This book is wonderful, even better than I was anticipating, and in hindsight I agree with the outrage that this was omitted from the 2013 Tournament of Books shortlist.

It is at heart a love story, the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love in Nigeria, then move to America and London respectively, where their stories diverge and then start to, maybe, come together again. Ifemelu starts a blog about race from the perspective of a "Non-American Black," which allows Adichie to include discussions of privilege and race that I think would make this a valuable text to teach in college classes.

This makes it sound like it's "homework" reading, but it's totally not. Ifemelu is a wonderful character, and so are the rest of her friends and family that populate the novel (particularly her nephew Dike). She is observant, witty, flawed, smart, and sharply drawn, and she is easy to like and root for.

Ifem's outsider's view of America brings this country (and its relationship to race, and the experience of progressive liberals, and the Barack Obama phenomenon) all into sharper focus. I love the portrayal of Lagos too, which makes such an interesting counterpoint to the way it's portrayed in Graceland. This comes across as a far more well-rounded view of the country and I felt like it expanded my understanding of Nigeria.

But ultimately the observations on race and the specificity of place are a backdrop to a compelling, unpredictable, very human story told extremely well. Very highly recommended.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Bone Clocks (by David Mitchell)

Another six-part masterpiece by David Mitchell, and in my opinion it's a return to form after Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which underwhelmed me somewhat. 

This time each of the sections moves chronologically forward in time, and each connects to our heroine, the sympathetic Holly Sykes. The point of view shifts to other people in Holly's life, including two somewhat narcissistic, Frobisher-esque characters Hugo Lamb and Crispin Hershey. (The central character is a woman, and there is some gender fludity later in the book, but there's a lot here that feels very blokey. Just an observation.) Mitchell also introduces some metaphysical elements in part one that don't truly pay off until 400 pages later, but definitely make Bone Clocks feel connected to a larger whole.

I've read a couple of reviews now (the New Yorker review being one) arguing that the metaphysical themes ultimately overshadow and render moot the human elements of the novel. After sleeping on it, I disagree with that assessment. Sure, the humans are treated in a sense as unwitting pawns in a great cosmic struggle. But what the Horologists are fighting for is humanity.  And it's the character of Holly Sykes, above all, that grounds this struggle and reminds us why humans are worth fighting for. The final scene, and our investment in the very human characters in that scene, belies this entire argument.

This is a contender in the 2015 Tournament of Books, and I'm excited to see how it does, though my gut tells me it's not going to win, I could certainly be wrong. I don't think it overtakes Cloud Atlas in my own personal pantheon (in contrast to Cloud Atlas, with its stark shifts in voice and genre, Bone Clocks feels all of a piece)  but it's still classic Mitchell, and it's a wonderful novel.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

50 Shades of Grey (by E.L. James)

Again, the "romcom" category is the only category I have to put this in, although the romance is debatable and the comedy is inadvertent!

I mean it's terrible, of course it's terrible, we all know it's terrible. It also cost me three bucks and I read it on an airplane at a time when I needed brainless ridiculous fluff. They don't even really get to any of the BDSM stuff in this entire book! I mean come on, that's the whole point here.

So I downloaded the second one.

Labels: ,

Dept. of Speculation (by Jenny Offill)

What a wonderful little gem of a book. This reads like a prose poem, but also tells an extremely compelling story.

“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

I mean, right? It's spare, it's incisive, it captures parenthood perfectly and feels incredibly true. It's a slim novel that packs an amazing punch. Read it. You won't regret it.

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Biggest Twitch (by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller)

Another birding book! I was inspired to pick this one up when I heard about Noah Stryker's current attempt to break Ruth and Alan's record record. Noah is trying to get 5000 species of birds worldwide in this year (he's already over 700) and Alan and Ruth got 4000 plus to beat the previous record, and wrote a memoir about the experience.

Ruth and Alan take turns writing alternating chapters of their visits all over the world, with a wry British sense of humor and wonderful descriptions of many of their sightings. There are even pages of color photos of some of the most notable birds and moments. Unlike Kingbird Highway, this is probably only a must-read if you're a birder, but it's an extremely fun, well-written, and exciting birding memoir.

And now I need to go to Australia and see all the birds. All. The. Birds.

Labels: ,

Wise Blood (by Flannery O’Connor)

Wow, what a book. It's like a characteristic O'Connor short story writ large, with its Southern gothic themes, its complex take on religious faith and grace, its impeccable dialogue and descriptions, its unsympathetic characters, and its dark humor.

Wise Blood had its origins in a series of O'Connor's short stories, and this sometimes shows--certain chapters read like standalone vignettes and it's a bit choppy. But that's only a minor issue when a novel has this much depth -- it was amazing discussion fodder for our League of Unreliable Narrators book club.

Labels: ,