September 25, 2010

A Short History of Women :: Kate Walbert

Title: A Short History of Women
Author: Kate Walbert
Read: NYC
Format: Trade paperback

Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women is a multigenerational story that begins in 1914 with a British woman, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, who starves herself in the name of women's suffrage. The legacy of her sacrifice informs the lives and identities of the generations of daughters and granddaughters that come after her, both in the UK and America. All told, it's a beautiful, stirring story.

In the telling, though, it was a tiny bit uneven at times. Specifically, Walbert jumps around both in time (throughout the 20th century) and in voice (through the voices of Dorothy Townsend's descendants). This can be a moving device when wielded properly, but it falls a little short here, for me anyway. Personally, I just found certain stories/contexts more interesting than others and it made reading through less affecting segments seem chore-like at times. Not to say that any parts were weak, they certainly weren't; more that certain plot lines were especially wrenching.

Add it to your pile of to reads, I'd say. But it doesn't have to sit at the top.

Beautiful writing, great characters.
4 out of 5 stars.

September 24, 2010

This is Where I Leave You :: Jonathan Tropper

Title: This is Where I Leave You [anything goes book club selection, TG]
Author: Jonathan Tropper
Read: NYC
Format: kindle

This September, the book club decided to go the contemporary fiction route with Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You.

At the beginning of the novel, the recently separated (and cuckolded) Judd Foxman learns his father has died. He heads to his childhood home to sit shiva with his child psychologist mother and neurotic adult siblings. Over the course of his days at home, secrets, grudges, and grief (over his lost father and his lost youth) are explored. It kind of sounds insufferable, but Tropper's sharp wit and at-times beautiful writing steer the novel clear out of maudlin waters (for the most part). Even when he's being angsty and poignant (the novel is ostensibly about death and aging, after all), Tropper's easy humor makes those pills go down pretty smoothly.

I read this book during a very difficult time. The one year anniversary of my brother's death was looming and the reality of mourning and grief was as real as the building anxiety as the exact date drew closer. I cried a lot while reading as I was genuinely moved by the honesty in the characters' sadness and in the different ways it manifested.

I also found the relationships between the adult siblings really interesting. Over the years I've thought a lot about how adulthood reshapes the way we interact with our siblings when your (or at least my) understanding of them as people was born in a long-ago-far-away place. A lot of the way Judd is both a part of his family and apart from his family is so familiar to me. As is the fact that that there's really nothing like tragedy to wrench you out of that in-between place and make you realize you simply have to make choices about the way you want your relationships to be and then go with it.

This write up really doesn't do any justice to how light and funny the book really is. It's a fast read and, in my opinion, worthwhile. But, I can't promise that if I had read this book 14 months ago I would have had the same experience.

Sad and provoking. Also funny and sweet.
4 out of 5 stars.

September 18, 2010

Little Bee :: Chris Cleave

Title: Little Bee
Author: Chris Cleave
Read: NYC
Format: Trade paperback

Little Bee is about a young Nigerian refugee who makes her way to the United Kingdom and tracks down a young couple with whom she shared a traumatic experience on a beach in Nigeria. In its telling, the story is told in alternating voices: that of Little Bee herself and Sarah (the wife in the aforementioned British couple - her husband has recently died).

Now, here's the thing with this book. I liked it well enough while I was reading it. I wanted to know what happened to Little Bee and the British couple in Nigeria. I also wanted to know what would happen to them now that she is squirreled away with Sarah in England (illegally). But something sat funny with me while I was reading, despite the fact that I was actually engaged.

Once I finished and knew what was what, I became more aware of what was nagging at me. It was a couple of things:

1) Sarah did not seem to be too torn up over her husband's death; I found this unbelievable regardless of the circumstances/challenges of their marriage
2) I got a little of that exoticism that I disliked in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in the voice of Little Bee
3) I don't like when men write women in first person; I think at best it is natural (very rare), at worst it is offensive
4) So much build up (intriguing histories to be uncovered, intriguing futures to be planned), but it all falls kind of flat upon resolution

I don't want to dog on Little Bee completely. I enjoyed reading it. I just wasn't super thrilled with it once it was all over.

A quick, engrossing read, but not without some (annoying) flaws.
3 out of 5 stars

September 10, 2010

The Case of the Missing Servant :: Tarquin Hall

Title: The Case of the Missing Servant
Author: Tarquin Hall
Read: NYC
Format: Trade paperback

Vish Puri is a rotund Punjabi private detective with an overblown sense of his own ability and an incessant hankering for fried treats. In this first installment of his adventures, he has to solve the mystery of his own attempted murder, find a missing servant (of course), and investigate the character of a wealthy client's future son-in-law. With the aid of his mother, a team of crack assistants, and, indeed, his own ability he manages to get to the bottom of everything. Though it takes a minute to get used to, the telling is charming and fun to watch unfold.

I obviously enjoyed Hall's series debut even though it wasn't particularly innovative insofar as the mysteries are concerned. But it was light and Puri is truly a lovable new character (even if he is, apparently, Poirot-ish). What I find interesting in my own reaction is that even though a white, British man writes this Indian tale (set in Delhi), it doesn't bother me. Not in the way McCall Smith's Ladies Detective Agency series troubled me. Maybe because the voice that Hall is inhabiting is a man and therefore the difference is smaller and easier to overlook. Or maybe it's because Hall doesn't exoticize his protagonists culture in the same way that McCall Smith does. Somehow, I feel like it's more respectful. I could totally be projecting that, th0ugh.

Anyway, I really enjoyed The Case of the Missing Servant for what it is: a light, charming, fun read. And while I didn't run out to buy the second installment (now still in hard cover), I expect it's just a matter of time.

Fun, colorful, charming.
4 out of 5 stars