Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

How to Read the Air was reviewed as one of several recommended summer “road trip” novels, but I remember becoming interested in Dinaw Mengestu back when he was chosen by the New Yorker in 2010 as one of the 20 Under 40 authors to read. This is no ordinary road trip novel and Mengestu is an extraordinary storyteller. The book traces two trips – one taken by Ethiopian immigrants Yosef and Mariam to Nashville and one taken by their adult son, Josef who is anxious to retrace his parents’s tragic travel so that he might learn what truth it can shed on his own his own trouble marriage. Alternating between chapters set in the past and the present, the reader is gradually given a glimpse of the strife of acclimation – to a new land, a new language, a new job, a new relationship, and even the promise of a new life. Lush with contemplative passages about how to read the signs of life, I found myself wanting to take the journey of this novel slow.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

Hardly a spoiler, Noa P. Singleton is awaiting her execution for the murder she committed ten years earlier as this crime novel opens.  In sections labeled Six Months Before Execution, Five Months Before Execution, and so on, the circumstances leading up to Noa’s incarceration are revealed.  Her crime has suddenly become of interest to a young lawyer who, working with the mother of her victim, thinks he can build a case to prevent her execution.  Her victim’s mother has aligned herself with an organization called MAD, Mothers Against Death.  Little by little the reader learns about Noa’s past and her tortured relationship all of the individuals involved in her case.  Little by little, this reader tired of her as a protagonist and was secretly hoping the ending would match the title – Sorry!

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I have stuck with Meg Wolitzer through several novels, although I did not care for her last one, The Uncoupling.  But my AP grading comrade and trusted reading friend, Paris, recommended it recently, so I dove in.  The novel is a sweeping book covering four decades in 468 pages, and it deals with large issues of life - friendship and family, marriage and fidelity, money and success.  It opens with a scene that suggested I was entering a Wes Anderson-style-Moonrise-Kingdom of a novel, set in a summer arts camp in Massachusetts called Spirit-in-the-Woods, where lifelong friendships are forged during an eight week season in a humid tepee full of teens who deem themselves, The Interestings.  Here protagonist Julie Jacobson becomes Jules, a far more interesting name, and meets Ash and Goodman Wolf, Ethan Figman and Jonah Bay - four characters whose lives will knit and unravel in the decades to come, against the backdrop of Vietnam, the sexual revolution, AIDS, off-shore manufacturing, 9/11 and TED talks.  I ended up liking the book very much in the way that I enjoy Jonathan Franzen or Tom Perrota who grapple with essential questions in their fiction.  The essential question of this book seems to be "What does it take to live an interesting life?"  The answer is summed up near the end of the book, when Ethan Figman, creator of a highly successful network cartoon, claims, "Everyone basically has one aria to sing over their entire life."   The book reminded me of my guarded wariness for the futures of all of the "interesting" teenagers I taught over the years - kids right out of the fictitious camp bible The Drama of the Gifted Child - who graduated from high school certain they were destined for greatness.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Lion is In by Delia Ephron


The cover of this novel says it all.  Delia Ephron is out to entertain in this interrupted road trip novel.  Tracee, Lana and Rita are all running away from something.  Tracee is a kleptomaniac in a stolen wedding gown; Lana is an alcoholic with a keen eye for trouble; and Rita, who the two others pick up hitchhiking, is escaping a harsh minister husband.  Their car crashes just in front of The Lion, a tired bar that houses a jukebox, a few regular customers and a real lion in a cage.  Short chapters, crazy convergences, lion tricks and colorful characters make this a perfect summer chick read.

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

I am a huge Isabel Allende fan and have read almost everything she has ever written, including essays and interviews.  Back in the days when Borders was in town, I once hastily pre-ordered a copy of one her books, and when it arrived, it was in Spanish.  The English edition wasn’t even available yet.  My love affair began with House of Spirits, a book full of magical realism.  Finally, after a few historical novels, Allende is back to story telling in the style of House of Spirits.
Maya is a nineteen year old in a heap of contemporary trouble.  She has been raised in Berkeley, California by her grandparents and hasn’t been herself since the death of her Popo.  Drugs, porn, violence, and a string of the wrong friends propel her grandmother to send Maya far, far away – to the remote Chilean island of Chiloe.  There her grandmother’s friend, Manuel Arias, an introvert more than twice Maya’s age, has promised to oversee Maya’s removal from society.  No internet, no contact with her past – only notebooks to record her past and recovery.  Told as first person journal entries, the story of Maya’s troubled past is revealed, along Allende’s most complete assessment of Chilean political history.  Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende was killed in the bloody aftermath of the military coup that created a harsh military dictatorship, lead by General Augusto Pinochet.  This history is interwoven with revelations of character relationships near the novel’s end.
This may not be Allende’s best, but the book is dedicated to the “teenagers of my tribe” and is best read as a cautionary tale.  In recent interviews, Allende has shared just how autobiographic some of the events in this novel really are.   Two of her husband’s adult children have died of drug related causes.  Maya may be a mess in the beginning, as the Spanish cover of the novel clearly shows, but she pulls through with determination.