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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

House of Sand and Fog

This book makes you rethink the merit of your values; the manner in which we see fit to gain an inch in our favor, or take advantage of an opportunity; the flip side of the coin when we're doing what is seemingly in our best interest, and fail to see how our actions might affect other parties.

Kathy owns a house which she inherited (along with her brother) from her father upon his passing away. She lives there with her husband. They are both recovering drug addicts. At some point he leaves her. Through a mix-up, the bank moves forth on some unanswered tax fraud charges and evicts Kathy, only to auction off her house on the following day. These charges were unwarranted but Kathy, after initially responding with an affidavit stating their innocence in the claims, trashed all the correspondence from the bank that followed. Enter Behrani, an exiled Iranian Colonel who has toiled as a garbage collector and convenience store clerk since arriving in the U.S. after fleeing Iran during the Islamic Revolution. He has been seeking just this opportunity and manages to purchase Kathy's property for about a quarter of its legitimate price. From his point of view, this is his chance to quit his subhuman jobs and go back to the style of living he and his family grew accustomed to while working for the Shah in Iran.

The story grips you from the start. The manner in which events line up to create the worst of all possible outcomes for Kathy and a dream come true for Behrani does not defy logic. It is all far too plausible, and consequently that much more frightening. Things progress, judgments fail and the actions that follow exceed the parameters of acceptable behavior. Chaos ensues, and the results are far from pretty.

Dubus manages to skip around from one character to another, switching the narrating duties back and forth. Everybody's voice reads distinctive and real. It is an admirable work of literature.

I recommend this book to anybody who enjoys a good drama. It is a rewarding read.

Read from October 06 to 20, 2013


Monday, August 19, 2013


I've never thought highly of sequels, and this book certainly lived down to that tacit outlook. But I have to admit that I still maintained a cautiously high expectation when I chose to read Seeing, having been written by Saramago, currently on my Top Ten list of favorite authors. The pedigree of the author kept me reading to the end, hoping for some redeeming value to the long hours spent getting through this (hours I'll never get back), but I've been left with precious little positive to say.
This novel takes place in the unspecified capital of an unspecified Western country (Lisbon, Portugal), four years after the end of the blind plague, an event that Saramago so masterfully documented for us in the extraordinary Blindness. The problem afflicting this nation now is directed toward the government. An overwhelming majority of the population has seen fit to cast a "blank" vote during elections, and the officials in office find little recourse with which to fight back. This takes us through one unrealistic situation to another, where those in power seek to find ways to dispel phantom conspiracies by casting suspicion upon others.
As he did before in Blindness, the author manages to get through the entire book without mentioning anyone by name. People are most commonly referred to by their title or civil status (wife of, and such). I found that technique worked well in the former novel, but poorly in this one. He seemed to be dragging it out as much as possible; seeing how far he could take things. It felt like he was trying too hard.
But the biggest shortcoming this book has is its lack of story. There is simply nothing of interest going on. The people opted to cast blank votes. Great. So what? There is a sense that the blank voting is taking place due to apathy, but we never get to see that side of the coin, Only the government's take. This just drags on aimlessly until an ending is forcefully concocted and the book mercifully concludes.
The bottom line is that this was an unnecessary book, particularly for such an accomplished writer. I believe his name would have been better served had he not written it and I would have been better served not having read it.

Read from August 01 to 12, 2013


Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

This is a very entertaining book. In my twenties, this is likely the novel I would have liked to write. The breakneck speed at which Eggers' ideas appear on the pages before you is a little startling at first, but his thoughts and themes are expressed and examined with great clarity and plain language, making the book easy to follow.

From the beginning the theme of this novel is loss; "heartbreaking" loss, as it were. This theme sets the mood for the entire story. But Eggers lets the tale evolve into something more substantial, never allowing his loss to overwhelm him, or even bring him down. The theme eventually transitions into the overcoming of bad luck and negative situations, and the manner in which an extraordinary vision of life and the world we live in go hand in hand with youth and pretentiousness. Eggers' whimsical writing keeps the experience amusing and his self deprecating humor makes the material more lighthearted than it otherwise might be.

Only those who are capable of laughing at themselves will be able to enjoy this book. I certainly did. Everyone should.

Read from July 24 to August 05, 2013

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini is a master storyteller of enormous proportions, as those of us who've read any of his past novels already know. He spins a well crafted yarn that draws the reader in with ease, gently dropping one heart breaking tale after another, then leaving us with empty anticipation for neat, happy resolutions that never appear. And the Mountains Echoed does not disappoint. It reads pleasantly and with little effort, like honey dripping from a jar. Anybody looking for a long, enjoyable book that will keep them eager to read the next page will find this tome to be a solid choice.

The novel takes place in several places: Afghanistan, Greece, France and the United States. It also skips back and forth in time some, but the author is kind enough to point out the current year in each chapter's heading. Hosseini paints beautiful images wherever he takes us, and the details in the settings alone make this book worth the read. Every scene has its own ambience, with specific sounds and scents that conjure lovely or dismal stages. It takes very little imagination on the reader's part to feel and see his descriptions, they're so vivid and well thought out.

In an apparent effort to stray from the less than flattering image Afghanistan currently enjoys in the West, Hosseini mostly steers clear from talk of the Taliban He speaks very little of terrorism in general, for that matter. Yet a good portion of the novel takes place in post September 11 Afghanistan. The result is a less skewed view of a volatile region than the one we tend to get in the media, which is a refreshing change.

Despite all the violence that is taking place there, most Afghans continue to live their lives one day at a time, doing what they need to get by. It's fairly easy to lose sight of that when you're merely peeking in from the outside.

I enjoyed reading this book and I highly recommend it to others.

Read from July 21 to 24, 2013

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek

This book will challenge your perception of how a novel must read. Jelinek's style is uncommon and thus hard to digest in the way we've been conditioned. But her point seems to come across.

The story contains the tales of two young ladies in the Austrian Alps: Brigitte and Paula. They have similar backgrounds; working class families, destined to struggle throughout their lives with menial jobs for unskilled laborers, and subject to society's double standard regarding men and women's sexual activities. Both girls take differing approaches to getting a man, though both ultimately seek the same thing: security.

There is quite a bit of male bashing going on. In fact, all men in this book are self centered oafs, looking for nothing in life beyond their personal satisfaction. But the women portrayed here are not much better, as they lie and scheme and go to extreme lengths to get their men.

I wouldn't completely exclude a certain degree of cynicism on Jelinek's part, but most of her portrayal rings true, even though hers is a culture that differs from mine and I'm definitely no expert in the social habits of Austrian villagers. There are universal truths in the basic premise of the human species' male/female interaction that can be found even in the remotest parts of the world. There is one dominant and one subservient gender in most households, although we may kid ourselves into believing that in our home power is distributed evenly. The balance is usually upset to one side or the other. In less cosmopolitan settings, the physically stronger party will most often take the dominant role.

As cumbersome as Jelinek's writing can be - she uses no capitals (not even for proper names), there is much repetition for the sake of stressing a point, her basic grammatical structure deviates from what we've come to expect, and the narrative is overflowing with negativity - this book reads in a fairly easy manner and is not entirely unpleasant. That and my admiration for her craftiness should explain my willingness to rate Women as Lovers four stars.

Not a book for everyone, but most should give it a try.

Read from June 11 to 21, 2013

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Monday, June 10, 2013

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

History surrounds us, always taking form. Rarely are we those who take a part in its making; most us are nothing more than unwitting witnesses to events that will later be determined to have been meaningful.

In TransAtlantic, Colum McCann ties the tales of multiple historical figures with fictional everyday people, those that came and went leaving a less indelible footprint. The story takes place on two continents, Europe and North America, and spans a good many years. The narrative begins in 2012, moves to 1919, onto 1845, then moves back and forth some more. There is no seeming reason for the particular disarray of the chronological order, but with the passing of the pages we are gradually shown the connections between the characters, and with them, perhaps, the author's purpose for jumping around erratically in time.

Slices of the daily toil and routines abound throughout. It's as if McCann hopes to contrast the mundane details that our lives are made of, between those who've accomplished great things and those of us who've only just passed through life. To a certain degree, it is while those little moments happen that both paths cross, and the distinctive humanity displayed by the great ones during those menial tasks is what leaves the strongest impression upon those with fates of lesser historical impact.

There are moments of sheer beauty in this book, when you force yourself to read slower, that you might savor each passing reference and description a little more. His characters, even the non-fictional ones, are fully fleshed out and carefully drawn to show us every dimension of their beings, blemishes and all. It is an extraordinary achievement. The novel pushes you to turn each coming page, to keep reading until you're done. I highly recommend this book. McCann is spinning gold with his writing.

Read from June 05 to 10, 2013

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Robert's Rules of Writing by Robert Masello

Loved it. Every writer, or prospective writer, should take a glance at it. Mr. Masello puts a lot of emphasis on dispelling writing myths and taboos in favor of clear and precise advice that will allow you to move past most of the issues modern fiction writers face at some time or another. The book reads easily and is laid out in a very simple format: each rule is its own chapter. You don't have to follow it in any particular order. Just open it up at any given page and read that rule. They're all written with clarity and injected with amusing anecdotes, so you'll have a hard time finding anything boring in there. I borrowed this copy from the library, but I'm thinking of purchasing my own just to have one to browse over when the mood strikes me or when I feel stuck during a writing project.

Read from May 15 to June 04, 2013

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