Sunday, June 16, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

I completely swore off my no purchasing of new hardcover books promise to get my hands on a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s new novel.  Of course, I have been a huge fan of The Kite Runner – teaching it for the last 6 years or so of AP English – and its sister novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Of course, when your expectations are that high, you run the risk of being disappointed.  As soon as I finished the lovely, spell-binding opening parable, a presumed bedtime story told by a father to his son and daughter, Abdullah and Pari, I knew the author’s poetic style would still hold me in rapture.  I read the whole book in a few days, and hesitated to see it end, although the first half of the book is the best, by far.  Each chapter reads like a novella.  I found it hard to put a chapter down once I started, partly because the chapters jump so drastically in time and setting – Afghanistan, San Francisco, Paris and Greece.  Although the brother and sister of the opening chapter knit the whole book together, there are almost too many peripheral characters and I sometimes had a difficult time remembering who was who or how they figured into the whole.  Without criticizing the mechanics of the novel, which were sometimes clunkier than Hosseini’s previous two, I would highlight the positives.  This book has little of the violence and heart-break of the other novels.  Yes – it is sad and I had tears in my eyes more than once, but this is a redemptive sibling story.  It is about loss and separation – and of course the ravishing effects of war.  But is isn’t the gut wrenching sort of story that was Amir’s or Mariam and Laila’s.  The book encompasses a long stretch of time, generations of tragedy and recovery, and in the end, it sang of hope.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Upon finishing Reconstructing Amelia, I described it in a text message to a teacher friend as a crazy trash can of a novel that most high school students would probably love.  Kimberly McCreight includes one of everything it takes to make a page turner – a possible suicide, some mean girls, a neglectful parent, a bit of lesbian love, a creepy teacher, a jealous best friend, a secret sisterhood and some lurid text messages.  The novel alternates between third person chapters in the present that focus on Kate, the mother, and first person past tense chapters narrated by her 15 year old daughter, Amelia, who has presumably jumped from the roof of her New York private school.  Through emails, blog posts, and investigations, Amelia’s life and death is reconstructed.

I have to admit, I plowed through this novel.  It held my interest even as I shook my head at its unlikely twists and turns.  It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, to which it has been compared, along with Jodi Picoult and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which I have not read.  I know many teenage girls that would call this a perfect beach read.  For my adult friends – by all means, read it if you still miss lunchroom drama.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

Rudyard Kipling’s How the Leopard Got its Spots is one of many pieces of literature that The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards alludes to. Perhaps the most telling allusion is the line from an Emily Dickinson poem – “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”, since Jansma’s book is a series of slanted tales told by a highly unreliable narrator. The fact that you never really even know this narrator’s name enhances the colorful telling of the chapters that read more like individual interconnected tales than a novel. The narrator makes it clear in the opening chapter that he is a writer, and piques the reader’s interest by announcing “I’ve lost every book I’ve ever written.” His life story – from childhood to adulthood – is told through episodic adventures that take him all over the planet. Europe, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Iceland. For a while, he assumes the identity of Professor Wallace and teaches Methods and Practices of New Journalism in Dubai. This entertaining chapter includes a portion of one of Wallace’s supposed lectures on truth in journalism which announcing that, “Ours is a new generation of plagiarists. Armed with Wikipedia and Google, we can manufacture our own truths”. Throughout the novel he maintains a rivalry with Julian, who is also an author, and a romantic quest for Evelyn, who eventually becomes a princess.

At one point, the narrator muses, “Somewhere, once, I read that the only mind a writer can’t see into is the mind of a better writer.” Jansma is clearly a reader’s writer. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a reader’s theme park of a novel. Holden Caulfield narrating The Princess Bride. Scattered throughout are literary references, doppelgängers and leopard sightings – real and imaginary. I enjoyed this book largely because Jansma fuels my faith in the value of literary fiction.