Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Map Of Betrayal by Ha Jin

Looking for closure, American Lilian Shang travels to China to find the family her father Gary left behind as he rose to prominence, becoming a high-level mole embedded in the CIA -- a valuable officer in the Chinese espionage apparatus. Narrating a story that alternates between Lillian’s path to discovery and Gary Shang’s complicated map of betrayal, Ha Jin’s melancholic novel is a moving meditation on the fluid definition of allegiance and home. Seemingly based on the life of real-life Chinese spy, Larry Chin, Jin’s prose sometimes cuts too close to the bone. Yet its lessons are universal and heartbreaking.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

There’s all kinds of deception -- marital and otherwise -- going on behind the curtain in this bizarre and profoundly disquieting novel. Featuring a female narrator you just can’t wrap your head around, this gorgeously written debut raises large questions about the future of the environmentalism movement, about love and marriage all in less than 200 pages. Just like the wallcreeper in the book’s title, there’s brilliant catches of sheer dazzle wrapped in an otherwise homely package. Nell Zink upends many a traditional writing rule and the result is a story that is weird, frustrating but riveting just the same.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Birth Of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched A Revolution by Jonathan Eig

What combination of factors lead to the most popular form of birth control, so popular it came to be called, simply, The Pill? This brilliantly narrated and exhaustively researched nonfiction account lays bare the willpower, drive, brainpower and sheer persuasion that went into the tool that would change women’s lives forever. The reader is presented a heady mix of players each of whom brought something special whether it be research abilities, money, or marketing power to the table. In doing so, they changed the course of history. The key word in “birth control,” Eig reminds us, is “control.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation At the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

It was no fun being a surgical patient in the 1800s. For that matter, being a surgeon was no picnic either. Anesthesia came on the scene only later in the century, worse, there was hardly any light by which to operate. Yet one surgeon, Thomas Dent Mutter, changed the field of surgery in remarkable ways. Best known for his contributions to the field of plastic surgery, Mutter would treat people whom everyone else considered as mere “monsters.” Aptowicz’s impressive, well-researched biography reveals that what a surgeon needs most in his toolkit is one that Mutter had in ample doses: empathy.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

De Potter's Grand Tour by Joanna Scott

The world of steamships and travel comes alive in Joanna Scott’s evocative new novel. Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Elseghem may or may not be descended from royalty, but that’s beside the point. The bottom line is that many believed his life story to the point where he could establish a successful business guiding clients on De Potter’s World Tours. But Armand’s deceptions catch up with him and when he disappears, it’s up to his wife, Aimee, to piece the puzzle together. A superb tale not just of one charlatan’s exploits but of a collective gullibility that made them bankable.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg

The horizon is hazy, the future uncertain, for the characters in this stunning debut short story collection. Monsters both literal (one story features a search for the Loch Ness creature) and metaphorical (self-doubt, disillusionment) stalk these pages. van den Berg has a remarkable ear for empathy for people at the very fringes of society who are desperately trying to find some ballast in their lives, a way out of the mist. Life’s purpose, van den Berg reminds us, can be elusive and hard to tease out. Find Me, her debut novel will be releasing in February 2015. I can’t wait. 

Read my review of Isle of Youth, van den Berg's follow-up to Water Leaves Us.

Thank you to Dzanc Books for a copy of the book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Imagine a spiral wishing well. Drop a coin and watch it get sucked in. This is exactly what reading TBC feels like. You get drawn in, tossed about and emerge breathless. Spanning centuries, mixing genres, revisiting familiar characters (including the inimitable Hugo Lamb), Mitchell is in full form here. Even if the novel includes an epic battle scene that feels like a drawn out Bollywood movie at times, you can’t help but be wowed by the absolute brilliance of the writing. Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. Some books, like TBC, just swallow you up, heart and soul.