Monday, September 29, 2008

Curtis Sittenfeld/PREP

Sometime in the 90s, a smartypants from the midwest who wants more than her public high school has to offer secures herself a scholarship to an elite boarding school in Massachusetts that is peopled mainly by the children of extreme privelege. There, Lee finds herself an underachiever and an outsider, quite unlike the person she was at home. Lee chronicles her four years at Ault, her misery, loneliness, failure, abortive friendships and romantic relationships, and estrangements from her family and the people who once loved her, all the price of the top-notch education she's supposedly getting.

I realize now that Angelle reviewed this book almost a year ago. Her review, although brief, captures many of my sentiments. PREP, while not at all poorly written, is not such a literary gem that it wasn't too long by half, and I found myself impatient and dying to start skimming only a quarter of the way through.

As Angelle cited in her review, the book is told in vignettes. Over four years, many plot lines and characters are introduced, but almost everything is in passing. Although this is not unlike the real high school experience (remember how your best friend freshman year is just the girl who sits next to you but whom you never talk to by junior year? Yeah, I guess it really is pretty on target), it is a little difficult to sustain interest over an entire 450-page novel when there is little to no continuity among characters or plot. In fact, one of the only continuous elements in the book is Lee's cringeworthy behavior.

Despite what I've said so far, PREP wasn't a terrible read. The real trouble (after the lack of continuity) was that there was no redemption or any uplifting aspect too it--I kept find myself waiting for Lee to finally claim a victory over her snotty classmates or at least over her own self-defeatism, but alas, the day never came. Perhaps this can be ascribed to Sittenfeld's accurate capturing of how horrible it is to be in high school. Unfortunately, it just fell too close to the bone, and without any forgiveness. The book literally caused me discomfort.

I am, nevertheless, curious about AMERICAN WIFE, her follow-up. Anyone read it?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

A debut writer. A nominee for the Booker prize.The book takes a very simple plot and weaves into it, the complexities that surround modern India.

India is credited with having the economic boom of the century but little does the outside world realize that this economic surge hasn't reached out to the larger part of India's population. The rigid structures of society still prevail. Caste is part of breakfast, communalism is part of lunch and the idea of living as segregated communities is served over dinner.

The white tiger builds upon these structures. The story starts off as a letter that Balram writes to the Chinese supremo. His narrative is supposed to be the voice of the real India. The India that the prime minister would showcase is the icing on a rotten cake.

The white tiger is a story of Balram, currently a rich enterpreuner who hails from an underprivileged caste and an economically backward part of India. His ability to be a cut above the rest of the folks in his village earns him the title of the white tiger. The vision of his endangered self looms uneasily over his every action as he tries to break free from the chains rooted to the social structure of the country.

Aravind Adiga's use of dark comedy couldn't be more ideal. There are no heroes in this book. No good or bad, ethical or unethical. There is only the force of circumstance.

Its a pretty short book and it has enough elements in it to keep you glued at least until the first half. It flounders for a little while before picking up pace and ending in a very O. Henryish fashion.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Richard Russo/STRAIGHT MAN

Richard Russo is my favorite author. And I confess I only read books I enjoy (I cannot bring myself to finish reading a book I may consider a flotsam of syllables.) So I will tell you right now my next several reviews will be glowing reviews of Russo books.

Straight Man is a terrific read for anyone who is going through a mid-life crisis. Also for anyone who likes to laugh and cry at the same time.

The story is character-driven. It is told in first person, present tense (my favorite POV), and takes place over the course of a week. It is about Henry Deveraux Jr.

Henry is a professor in a small, nowhere town in Pennsylvania. He's the classic wise guy, and makes fun of himself and everyone around him. He hates his job, his students, and his coworkers. Well, maybe 'hates' is too strong a word. But the funny part is that most everyone likes him. Those who don't are trying to reform him.

It begins with Henry as a child wanting a dog. When the parents finally relent and get him a dog, it's more like a statue of a dog. It's so old it hardly moves. Except to take a few steps, then die. This is the parable for his life and for the week that this story is based on. Henry is about to lose his nothing job, is afraid he might have prostate cancer, and worries his wife might be having an affair. All of it told in dry, sardonic humor.

I laughed so hard, so many times. I love Russo's characters. They have real flaws and are true to life. My only complaint (and this is small) is that I feel his relationship with his wife is underdeveloped in this book. While his relationships are all at arms length, I wanted to see what would happen to Henry, the character, in an intimate relationship.

Straight Man. Go read it now. Then email me and we'll talk. I love this author.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ursula Vernon/NURK

Okay, here's a quick-brushstroke summary:

Cute little shrew named Nurk goes on a journey in the footsteps of his adventuring grandmother, sailing downriver in a boat made of a snail's shell. En route, he encounters the kingdom of the dragonflies, talking fish, frightening mushrooms, a mole the size of an asteroid, and many other obstacles. He becomes a hero, perhaps even one his grandmother would be proud of. Delightful drawings throughout.

How would YOU position such a book in the marketplace?

The publisher, Harcourt Children's Books, responds to that question: it's for ages 9-12.

Only, er, not. Or rather: not quite -- not without qualification.

Why? Mainly because Nurk (subtitle: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew) sprang from the mind and brush of Ursula Vernon, creator of the webcomic called Digger. If you've seen any of those comic strips (or the books created therefrom, or just about any of Vernon's artwork, for that matter), you know what to expect: small furry creatures, yes; cute? oh my, yes!

And yet...

...and yet, Vernon does have something of a twisted sense of humor. Consider, for example, an excerpt from the first couple pages. At this point, you've just read a brief, lyrical passage about the tree in which Nurk lives and the stream which flows by it, a passage which itself stops just this side of precious. And then you continue on:
More than anything, Nurk wanted to be like his grandmother Surka the warrior shrew. Surka had been a fighter, a dishwasher, and a pirate queen, and he was very proud to be related to her. Her portrait hung in the front hallway, and it was the first thing anyone ever saw when they entered his house. (Since the portrait showed her brandishing a severed head, this was a bit of a shock for first-time visitors...)
The "dishwasher" in the middle of the grandmother's resume will be the first snag for a careful reader's attention. And then there's the severed head, of course, references to which will appear throughout the book, beginning with the very next paragraph. These are the first signs the story -- the shrew, and the reader -- might be in the hands of a children's-book author with a fondness for anarchy.

A little later, Nurk is admonished by a hummingbird mail carrier. It seems a letter which he has just delivered to Nurk might or might not actually be to Nurk. (The address is smudged and not quite legible.) The hummingbird reminds Nurk that if he opens "a letter intended for someone else, you've committed theft and mail fraud and misrepresentation and swindling a public employee and using a false name and maybe even treason."

This passage presents several problems for any reader expecting Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. The syntax and diction, for instance, rather push the limit of what might be considered classic style for pastoral children's literature. (As anyone who's read anything by Vernon can attest, she is every bit as much a writer as an artist.) And the introduction of treason at the end of the list verges on (gasp!) political satire, which some parents might not consider appropriate for the 9-12 age group.

When you dive into Nurk, then, you should forget all about Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh and Frog and Toad and the rest. Those aren't in Nurk's category -- its family, really. You want to know the real genetic relative? The Shrek movies.

Which is to say: Nurk stubbornly declines to talk down to kids. Furthermore, it offers subversive rewards to adults, packaged in an exciting adventure story for the kiddies. It would be, really, a waste if only kiddies were to read it: the ideal audience is a child and a parent taking turns reading the story aloud. At least, as long as the parent braces himself for many questions along the lines of, "Why did you laugh just then, Daddy?" If you're not the sort of parent comfortable with such questions, you might want to reconsider Nurk.

Nurk faces the mushroomsBut before making up your mind for good, please consider too the drawings accompanying the text. These (except for the cover) are all in black-and-white, and on average you'll find one full-page illustration per each of the dozen chapters. (A sample is at the right; click on it for a larger view.)

Note the way this fairly simple picture captures the shrew's-eye view of the world -- a world in which mushrooms loom like Sequoias. Note the way that with a few strokes of a pen, Vernon has captured the trepidation of the creature about to enter this dark forest: his head tilted back, his mouth shrunken to a pinpoint, his forepaws held up at chest height. You can almost hear the "gulp." (And don't forget to notice the perfectly scaled little backpack, either -- a detail that another author/artist might have left out altogether, or exaggerated up or down.)

Between the text and the art, what you've got in Nurk is an adventure for sophisticated kids and their parents -- anyone, really, who can face big ideas, occasional big words or sentences, and yet (while swallowing a "gulp!" of their own) still soldier on.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I'm not usually a big thriller/romantic suspense reader but I'm trying to expand my horizons, and I expanded them into Lisa Gardner's THE KILLING HOUR. I'm glad I did. This is apparently a sequel to THE NEXT ACCIDENT, but I didn't have any trouble following along without having read that book.

Five years ago, pairs of women in Georgia were kidnapped, usually after leaving a bar. One would be killed right away and dumped in a public location. On her body would be clues (leaves, rocks, etc.) to lead investigators to the other woman: who'd been left in the blinding sun with only a bottle of water. At first the police didn't realize the items on the first bodies were clues, but eventually they did, and the second woman of the fourth pair kidnapped was rescued. The killer had murdered seven women, and the crime spree stopped.

When it starts again, the new body is dumped in an FBI training camp in Virginia, which naturally stirs up a lot of attention. Agent-in-training Kimberly Quincy finds the body, and winds up working with a Georgian investigator, Mac McCormack, to find the second woman before she dies.

The killer has a point of view in the story (always identified as 'the man'), as do Kimberly, Mac, and the second woman, Tina. There are a few other point of view characters as well, from time to time, and I did feel the cast was a bit larger than it needed to be.

The evidence left on the new body is considerably harder to interpret than the earlier evidence, and Kimberly and Mac find a variety of experts to interpret it. I didn't find this overdone, but it was close to the edge. A reference to "they show this being easy on those TV crime shows but it's just not" made me laugh, though.

There is a romantic subplot between Kimberly and Mac, and I could so have done without it. It didn't ring true to me, I didn't feel either of the characters would genuinely have been interested in each other, and it didn't have any impact on how the story unfolded. Fortunately, it was short.

By far the best parts of the story belonged to Tina. The killer dumps her in a hole somewhere, and her struggles to survive and not to let herself give up made my heart race every time.

Several main characters have had very traumatic pasts, and Gardner does a nice job of gradually revealing these, to the degree we need to know them, without being annoying by constantly teasing us by mentioning the past and not explaining it.

I did identify the killer before the investigation did, but only just. An earlier casual mention of something odd someone did had me on the wrong track for probably half the book, which was fun.

For what I'd expected to be a scary book, I wasn't scared. I am a grade-A chicken (I had to hide my eyes for part of "I, Robot", for crying out loud!) and I didn't find this book frightening. Sad, in that someone would use these innocent women to make a point (a point that was never 100% clear in my mind), but not frightening.

Still, I read it in one sitting, and I would read more by Lisa Gardner.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies

A while ago, I watched and loved "The Namesake," a film about an immigrant family from India making their way in the United States. Recently I decided to check out a work from the author who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, Jhumpa Lahiri. I didn't read The Namesake, but rather Lahiri's debut book, Interpreter of Maladies. Published nearly a decade ago, it's a collection of nine short stories chronicling the experiences and ordeals of Indian and Indian American characters making sense of their lives in the world (and in many cases, worlds) they inhabit.

The stories touch upon topics as varied as intercultural misunderstandings, politics, precarious marriages and relationships, the adjustment to life in a strange and faraway land, and the gaps that develop between first and second generation immigrants. The collection will undoubtedly speak to individuals who are familiar with or who possess an Indian heritage, but a remarkable aspect of Lahiri's short story collection is the universal quality in its storytelling and characters. Interpreter of Maladies details the struggles and triumphs of truly all immigrants and their families, making this not only an important work of Indian American literature, but immigrant literature in its own right.

Lahiri's eloquent, graceful prose makes the pages of this 200-page work turn quite quickly. In the collection's leadoff story, "A Temporary Matter," it takes a weeklong electrical outage for a married Indian couple to reveal themselves to one another, growing closer and rekindling their former passion (or do they?) The title story of Interpreter of Maladies finds a multilingual medical interpreter and tour guide who's unable to find the words to express either the ailings in his guest's heart or those of his own. Lahiri ends her book on a touching, reaffirming note with the two closing stories, both of which I consider among my personal favorites from this work. The first is "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," which deals with the solidarity of a group of women who refuse to give up on a sickly, younger woman many people have written off as cursed, crazy, and undesirable. The final storyis the nostalgia-tinged, even heartwarming "The Third and Final Continent," whose narrator recounts his first experiences upon coming to the United States and his unlikely relationship with his elderly landlady. The plot of this story, particularly as it concludes, reminds me a little of "The Namesake," and we can see a common thread running through the author's work.

There's a certain finesse with which Lahiri writes. Many of the stories' most delectable moments come in the words unspoken, the things left unsaid, and the actions not taken. Judging by its overwhelmingly positive critical reviews and the fact it earned its author a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000, Interpreter of Maladies will most likely be a collection that readers will savor in their literary journeys.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An "Almost Single" perspective by Advaita Kala

Almost Single by Advaita Kala is an Indianised version of Bridget Jones Diary - complete with addicted to drinks and ciggies, and grandma panty-adorned female protoganist. Most of the story is cliched - a divorcee, a sexy-clever girlfriend, gay companions, a handsome man, high society women, a typical mamma, an irritating boss, extra-marital affairs, blind dates, pub and disc life, lecherous men,, peppered with Indian festivals, nosy neighbors, vegetable purchases, saints and sadhvi's, horoscopes and matrimonial websites - everything and anything that is a part of a woman (a single woman's) mundane existence.

So, why read this book, if we know it all, and have been there and done that! Well, there are two reasons to read this book - 1. For the humor in the writing, and 2. For a sense of empathy for those who are single, and of sympathy from those who were once upon a time single. Its typical Indian Bollywood fare, this book ... and there are no prizes for guessing the end of this book! One thing evident about this book is that it is for a niche audience - the metrosexual, payging guest young junta of the urbane setup in India. For a debut novel, its a good attempt and for what I have read on the author's blog there is another book in the offing.

Its a quick, bus-ride or bed-time read. Read an excerpt.