Wednesday, July 1, 2015

June 2015 Book Reviews

The Dinner by Herman Koch.  I didn’t like this book.  Two couples meet for dinner at a restaurant, and at first the “plot,” such as it is, goes course by course.  That is, the book is broken into sections, such as “aperitif”, “salad”, etc.  But although this remains the format, it doesn’t really stick to this structure, as we start getting flashbacks from the narrator, which end up being longer than the dinner parts.  What I liked is that you start out thinking one thing about the narrator – he seems a stand-up guy, if a little curmudgeonly – but it gradually becomes obvious that he is at best a sociopath.  So this was sort of “fun”, although I don’t think it was particularly well done.  The whole book seemed rushed to me, like Koch had the idea and gave himself a set time to execute it.  The version I read was translated from the Dutch, though, so perhaps in its original language it was a better book?  I found it sloppy.

A House In The Sky by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett.  This is an excellent book, albeit not for the faint at heart.  It’s the memoirs of Amanda Lindhout (written with NY Times writer Sara Corbett), who was kidnapped and held prisoner in Somalia for 15 months.  They very wisely begin with Lindhout’s childhood in Calgary, and how when things were difficult she would readNational Geographic magazines and dream of traveling to other places.  And in her twenties, she did just that, working as a high-end waitress in Calgary for four or five months, and then traveling the world for seven or eight months.  She eventually wanted to figure out a way that she could make travel pay, and tried to become an international journalist and photographer.  Since she didn’t have the usual established credentials, she first went to Baghdad and got a job working for an Iranian television station there.  She traveled to Somalia in 2008 with an ex-boyfriend, the Australian Nigel Brennan, despite the fact that it was very dangerous to do so.  She had a security team, but she and Nigel were still kidnapped by kidnappers who thought they were taking twoNational Geographic photographers who were there at the same time.  Anyway, the first 40% of the book is Amanda Lindhout’s travels, and the remaining 60% is about her kidnapping and the horrors she experiences there.  And what happens to her is very, very horrible – she and Brennan nominally convert to Islam, in the hope this will keep them from being killed, but it doesn’t keep them from being separated, and Lindhout from being repeatedly gang-raped and tortured.  Perhaps oddly enough, it’s still a very hopeful and inspiring book.  Lindhout is much better than I would be at seeing how her captors were controlled by their own horrible circumstances.  It is fascinating and very well-written.

The Furies by Natalie Haynes.  I enjoyed this novel well enough but wasn’t hugely impressed by it.  It’s Haynes’s first novel though, and I think I came to it via blog recommendation.  Basically the chapters are in two voices – the main voice is Alex Morris, a young drama teacher and director who has returned to Edinburgh, where she went to university, to teach drama/counsel at a school for troubled youth.  She was an up-and-coming director in London, when her fiancé was murdered on the street.  Her old drama teacher gets her the Edinburgh job, and as you would expect, it is sort of an “in trying to heal the kids, the kids heal her” kind of story.  However, the other chapters are the diary of one of her students, who becomes obsessed with the death of Alex’s fiancé.  And eventually the trajectories of the two characters collide.  The writing was okay – not wonderful, but not bad either.  I get a little cranky about non-linear story-telling when I feel it is being used as a crutch, and occasionally this novel came off that way.  There’s something to be said for telling a story from back to front and I think it is often easy –and unnecessary – to start with a tiny snippet of something horrible to come and then spiral back from that.  Grumble grumble.  An enjoyable aspect of the novel was that she teaches Greek tragedies to her students and some of the scenes in which the kids (not intellectuals, per se) begin to understand and relate to the actions in the plays were entertaining.

Wait for Me by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire.  I am very fond of reading about the Mitfords, as is my sister, Martha, and am happy to read any Mitford tidbit she might pass along.  If you too are a Mitford dabbler, then these memoirs, written by the youngest, Debo, who went on to become the Duchess of Devonshire, will not disappoint.  Several of her famous siblings were teenagers by the time Debo was born, but she was raised spending all her time with “Decca”, aka Jessica Mitford.  She seems to have been a lot calmer than the majority of Mitfords as well; she was athletic and enjoyed the outdoor sports of the English well-to-do, and then married Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the family, who became the Duke of Devonshire when his older brother (who was married to Kick Kennedy) died in the war.  DD, as she calls herself, has written a lot of memoirs before this one, and so this is a bit rambling in nature.  She vaguely follows a chronological timeline, but seems to be concentrating on things that were perhaps overlooked in previous books.  She writes in depth of how they turned Chatsworth and all the other properties into estates that were able to open to the public and thus pay for themselves, while also still remaining private residences.  I enjoyed reading it slowly, a chapter here and a chapter there, despite the fact that I do not share DD’s politics, to put it mildly.  (For example, she mourned the ending of the traditional fox hunt in England, and campaigned to keep it going).  Ah well!  Still an interesting read.

Euphoria by Lily King.  This is a wonderful book and a way-too-short read!  It is the story an English anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, tells about meeting and working with two other anthropologists, Nell and Fen (based on Margaret Mead and her companion) in the Territory of New Guinea in the 1930’s.  Nell and Fen are passing through having left their study of the Mumpanyo tribe early, and Bankson, lonely and feeling an immediate rapport, both professionally and emotionally with Nell, convinces them to study the Tam, a people who live a few hours up-river from the Kiona, who Bankson himself is living with.  Nell, who has written a best-selling book, is an anthropology prodigy, and Bankson is awed by her methods and drive.  He also immediately sees the tension between her and her husband, Fen, and the problems between them are gradually revealed to the reader, as Nell and Bankson grow close.  Throughout the narrative we also get to read a quick diary Nell has written about her study with the Tam and her interactions with Bankson.  It’s one of those novels where even though the setting is not the “usual”, the reader is immediately drawn into the midst of it and happy to figure things out as the novel progresses.  It’s a really tight, compelling and heartbreaking novel that you will not be able to put down.  Lovely!

Early Warning by Jane Smiley.  This is the second book in her trilogy, and goes from 1953 to 1986, with each chapter a year.  It is still following the same family – the Langdons, from Iowa – but now there are grandchildren and thus a much wider cast of characters.  I liked the book, but didn’t love it.  Partly I think it’s that as a reader, you are spread too thin – you don’t spend enough time with a character to care that much about them.  It seems more interesting a book to me as a portrait of the times and how the people change with the decades; I just wish that the people were more likeable.  She does seem to make each character a type more than an individual.  For example, one woman is an alcoholic who in the sixties gets caught up in going to Freudian therapy daily; one teenager is susceptible and dissatisfied and ends up in the Jonestown cult; etc.  Again it is more that she is using the characters to demonstrate a trend and she doesn’t always do so artfully enough.  I’ll read the third when it comes out and will be happy to do so – I did look forward to my nightly chapter from this book.  It’s just I was a little underwhelmed on the whole.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton.  This is a book that was on my kindle and whose provenance was forgotten by me.  I think a blog I read recommended it, but at any rate, I started it “blind,” not knowing anything about it or the author.  And it’s been a fun train read; as such, I recommend it.  It goes back in time between 1941 in wartime London, and 2011.  The main characters are a mother, Dorothy Smitham, who in 2011 is dying, and her daughter, Laurel, who in 1961 witnessed her mother kill an intruder.  Laurel, an Oscar-winning character actress, has a vague memory (she was 16 at the time) that the man said her mother’s name when he first saw her; she decides at long last to try to find out whether her mother knew the man and what the story is behind it all.  So we go from 1941 when Dorothy is 19 and living in London and working in a munitions factory to Laurel’s sleuthing in 2011.  As I said before:  it’s fun.  Dorothy gets herself into a muddle, and Morton does a good job at slowly unfolding all that is going on, without resorting to gimmick.  She takes her time – it’s a meaty book in a good way.  There are perhaps a bit too many coincidences at the end, but it’s a very enjoyable read.

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