Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

More than 10 years ago, a chef shone a spotlight to the restaurant industry and the revelations confirmed most gourmands’ worst suspicions: never order fish on a Monday (it has probably been sitting around for a while) and almost every dish that comes out of a restaurant kitchen is topped with butter. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was a piercing look at the underbelly of our finest (and not-so-fine) restaurants and Bourdain’s tone made the book that much more appetizing.

Jacob Tomsky, a hospitality professional who was let go after becoming not-so-hospitable, promises a similar look at the hotel industry in his memoir, Heads in Beds. The phrase captures the primary driver for every hotel out there: to have a head in every bed so as to maximize profits. Tomsky, who early on realized he was not suited for most other professions started at the very lowest rung -- as a valet driver in a luxury hotel in New Orleans. Slowly he made his way to front desk -- “the brain center of the hotel” and over the course of his career in New Orleans felt like he had seen much of what goes on behind the scenes.

Tomsky eventually moved to New York, a city which he says really toughened him up. Here too he works at the Bellevue, even if he once believed that work at a different hotel would be “the same shit, a different toilet.” And, as luck would have it, the “shit” is the same -- hassled travelers, people who won’t tip, who won’t stop yammering on their cell phones when at the desk, people who insist on asking for an upgrade -- the list of customers who seem to get on Tomsky’s nerves is endless. It’s no wonder that in the end, he has stopped caring and eventually has to enroll in an anger-management therapy course.

The book has some interesting insights into the workings of the industry but Tomsky’s tone, mostly dismissive of everyone who comes in his way (and doesn’t remember to tip), makes his memoir a little too rough to take. He hates guests who bring their own pillows, “the AAA bastards who hand out the diamond ratings” and by the way, if you booked your hotel through Expedia, you can just about give up right now. There’s a difference between hard-edged and mean and Heads in Beds often devolves into the latter.

There are some genuine tips here that one could use well  and you can definitely tell that Tomsky cares deeply about his co-workers but a lot of the book feels like a release for the grudges he holds against various people including management at Bellevue. The book concludes with interesting tips about what not to say to the front desk employees; and lies that the same employees invariably get away with.

“You can’t pay your rent with thank-yous,” Tomsky reminds the reader. What counts is: “Money. Cash on the desk. First time in New York City? Who cares! Anniversary? You’re boring me...”

Yes, you guessed it, people. The biggest takeaway from Heads in Beds is that the one thing that always opens doors, is, surprise! -- money.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

The Ireland that is the setting for Paul Murray’s delightful novel Skippy Dies, is not the one crippled by debt and threatening to bring down the Euro. Instead, the novel is set in the not-so-distant past when the roaring Celtic Tiger was a prominent player on the world economic stage. Skippy Dies is set in an Ireland where the “past is considered dead weight—at best something to reel in tourists, at worst an embarrassment, an albatross, a raving, incontinent old relative that refuses to die.”

The rest of the review is here.

Review: My Little Red Book by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

No matter where she lives in the world, a girl greets her first period with a mixture of dismay, joy, relief and apprehension. Even if it is an essential rite of passage for all women, the event is often shrouded in embarrassment and talk about periods is shared in hushed whispers. Until now. An amazingly simple idea—essays about first periods from a variety of women—forms the basis of My Little Red Book edited by young Rachel Kauder Nalebuff who will soon start her undergraduate studies at Yale.

The rest of the review is here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes

The family that runs much of the action and is cobbled together in A.M. Homes’s new novel, May We Be Forgiven, sounds like one from television’s Modern Family. “Dad” is Harry, an uncle who has custody of his niece and nephew; an orphaned Hispanic boy is tossed into the mix, and an elderly couple fills in as grandparents. The central event that throws all these people together is an accident: it is shortly after Thanksgiving when George (Harry’s younger brother and a successful television executive) kills a husband and wife in a car accident. It turns out that George has come apart and he is sent to a series of mental facilities to recuperate. Brother Harry is given charge of the two children, Nathaniel (Nate) and Ashley. Torn by guilt, Nate insists that they also adopt Ricardo, the boy who was orphaned as a result of the accident.

The rest of the review is here.

Thank you to the publishers for a copy made available through NetGalley.

Review: Daughters of the Revolution by Carolyn Cooke

Carolyn Cooke is a master of the short story form—she won the O. Henry Award for her collection, The Bostons. Cooke’s debut novel, Daughters of the Revolution, is also set in New England in the late 60’s, in a town called Cape Wilde.

The epicenter of much of the action, even if it might not seem so at first, is the Goode School—a prep school for boys. Principal Goddard Byrd, known simply as “God,” is absolutely against allowing co-education in his school. “Over my dead body” is his constant refrain when asked about it.

The rest of the review is here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

NW might be set in (northwest) London, but its central question, about the pathway to success, is one that is increasingly the subject of public discourse across the pond. How much does place play into the people we become? Does race matter? How complex is the web of socio-economic factors that one must negotiate to achieve success in life? What does success even mean? These are the complex questions that the talented Zadie Smith looks to explore in NW.

The setting is one that Smith, who grew up in the area, knows like the back of her hand. It is one that Smith has visited before to great success in her previous novels, especially in her spectacular debut, White Teeth. The neighborhood is itself a living breathing character in the book: “Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent.”

The rest of the review is here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

Visit the website for the National Park Service and you will find that the Elwha River Restoration project is a key one for the Olympic National Park in Washington state. “Elwha River Restoration will restore the river to its natural free-flowing state, allowing all five species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish to once again reach habitat and spawning grounds,” the project literature explains.

It is with this kernel of truth that writer Jonathan Evison spins a grand tale in his new novel, West of Here. The novel essentially looks at environmental decisions made during the late 1800s, when the American frontier moved rapidly west, and land grabs were in full swing—and the consequences of those same decisions more than a hundred years on.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: O: A Presidential Novel by Anonymous

It was during the 2008 presidential race that author Christopher Buckley’s delightful novel, Supreme Courtship, was released. Presciently, in the book, he had pitted two characters against each other: a senator who had run for president, served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, and who “just couldn’t shut up,” against a “glasses-wearing, gun-toting television hottie.” Months after the novel was conceived, Governor Sarah Palin turned out to be a nominee for Vice President running against then Senator Joe Biden. It truly was a case of life imitating fiction, Buckely later recalled in an interview. “I am announcing my retirement from satire,” he joked.

This “anything can happen here, it’s Washington” attitude also permeates a much buzzed about new novel, O, by a Washington insider who prefers to remain anonymous.

The rest of the review is here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review: The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

It was more than one hundred years ago that H. G. Wells penned the science fiction classic, The Invisible Man, which subsequently paved new paths in the horror genre. The idea of a mad scientist who makes himself invisible and becomes mentally deranged as a result, is one that has taken root in popular culture ever since.

In his genre-bending new novel, Chuck Klosterman borrows the essential elements from Wells’ classic with some modifications. For one thing, he fixes the science. There has been some discussion that a truly invisible man would have been blind whereas Wells’ lead character, Griffin, clearly was not. So Klosterman’s protagonist, referred to simply as Y_, is not invisible — he is the visible man. But Y_ , much like Griffin, has an ability to make himself invisible to others.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

From the looks of it you could never tell that the beautiful Torres-Thompson home in fancy Laguna Rancho Estates, is on the cusp of unraveling. But look closely and you can see the edges of the tropical garden coming undone, the lawn not done just right; and these are merely the symptoms of greater troubles. For the couple Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson the country’s financial crisis has come knocking, even in their ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood.

The rest of the review is here.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: The Heart Broke In by James Meek

The Malaria Vaccine

In The Heart Broke In, Rebecca Shepherd, one of the main characters, is a scientist who discovers a potential vaccine for malaria that is 50% effective. In 2011, such a vaccine was announced to the public much to the delight of the world health community. While vaccines for other common diseases such as polio and measles have much greater efficacy, the 50% reduction is still considered a milestone in a disease that has been hard to manage and that has been with humanity for more than 500,000 years.

Malaria is caused by a single-celled parasite from the genus Plasmodium. Four d

ifferent kinds bring about malaria in humans, each with a slightly different set of symptoms. Efforts to control the disease have in the past included spraying with DDT, a toxic insecticide that kills mosquitoes, the vector for the parasite. DDT-resistant mosquitoes are now everywhere and the most reliable defense against malaria until recently has been the regular use of mosquito nets. The Nothing But Nets campaign is a global grassroots campaign that works to educate people about the reliability and efficacy of mosquito nets.

The Bill and Melinda Gates, which has been known to fund large chunks of malaria research through grants made to the non-profit PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, made the complete eradication of malaria a priority. It has been argued that this goal is esoteric and might be near impossible to achieve. Funding for the malaria vaccine research was underwritten by the foundation and by Glaxo Smith Kline which has said that it will work on producing the vaccine at the lowest possible costs so it will be accessible to the most needy. 

Malaria mosquito picture from CDC. Photography credit: James Gathany 

The review can be found here.

Review: My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakapoulous

One of Zeke Pappas’s biggest heroes is Joseph Cornell, an artist who created “assemblages”—most of Cornell’s work were glass-fronted boxes filled with a stunning variety of found objects. Zeke loves Cornell because he “devoted his life to the collecting the unhappy scraps left behind by others and trying to distill them and make sense of them. Cornell’s work to me is about our abandonment of joy, about our reckless inability to hold on to something meaningful. This is an attempt to find meaning—no, to find magic—in our collective dross, in the castoff and the forgotten,” Zeke says during one of his annual visits to the Cornell boxes collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

On May 21, 2011, many Christians waited for an event, the Rapture, which was to physically transport them to their savior, Jesus Christ. Spurred on by a minister in California, Harold Camping, many were disappointed when the event they were confident was to happen, just never came to pass.
In his new book, author Tom Perrotta explores the what-ifs of what eventually turned out to be a non-event. What if an event like the Rapture did happen? What happens to the people who get left behind, the Leftovers? If Perrotta’s vision were to come true, most of the people who get left behind resort to their own special brand of religious fanaticism.

Perrotta’s latest novel, The Leftovers, is set in the fictional bedroom community of Mapleton with the mayor Kevin Garvey, pretty much taking center stage. The book picks up a couple of years after millions of people suddenly disappear one fall morning and the leftovers are still struggling to cope with this devastating loss. This seismic event is somewhat dissimilar from the Rapture in that the people who disappear include many non-Christians and non-believers.

The rest of the review is here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that their last name is Fang. For Caleb and Camille are truly parasites—sucking the blood out of their children, while using them primarily in the service of their art. “Kids kill art,” the elder Fangs’ mentor once told them. Determined to prove him wrong, Caleb and Camille incorporate Annie and Buster, their two children, into their art—even referring to them as Child A and Child B, mere props in the various performance art sketches they carry out.

The resultant harm Caleb and Camille inflict on their children is venomous and destructive and the amazing thing about this debut novel is that the full extent of it all creeps up on the reader insidiously.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: Elegies for the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen

The premise—we are shaped by our interactions with others—sounds like something from a school summer writing assignment and is almost too bland to be worked with. But if truly great writing creates marvels from almost nothing, then Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Brokenhearted is one such wonder.

At the outset, it should be made clear that despite its title, this novel is far from depressing. The narrator, Mary Murphy, remembers her coming of age in small-town America in a family full of misfits. Through elegies narrated in the second person to five different people, Mary tells us the story of her life.

The rest of the review is here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Around ten years ago, a young Nigerian immigrant, 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, was beaten by boys barely older than him in Peckham, a district in South London. Damilola later bled to death. The incident sparked outrage in the United Kingdom and was subsequently pointed to as proof that the country’s youth had gone terribly astray.

The same incident seems to have also inspired a debut novel, Pigeon English, with 11-year-old Harri Opoku filling in for the voice of Damilola Taylor. As the book opens, Harri has recently emigrated from Ghana to London with his older sister and his mother. Dad and younger sister and the rest of the family are still in the native country and Harri is often brought back to his home country through extended phone calls exchanged between the two sides.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: We the Animals by Justin Torres

We The Animals in this wonderful debut novel refers to three brothers, close in age, growing up in upstate New York. They are the Three Musketeers bound strongly together not just because of geographical isolation but because of cultural separateness too. The brothers are born to a white mother and a Puerto Rican father—they are half-breeds confused about their identity and constrained by desperate and mind-numbing poverty.

This wild and ferocious debut is narrated by the youngest of the three, now grown, looking back on his childhood. It’s a coming-of-age story told in lyrical sentences that are exquisitely crafted. And while there are many moments of beauty in here, there are also ones of searing violence.

The rest of the review is here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: Just my Type by Simon Garfield

If you think that fonts are not a big deal - that Calibri is just the same as Arial - consider this: it was 2009 when something went awry at the popular Swedish furniture company, IKEA. Sure the company still sold furniture and home accessories with interesting names such as Björken and Säter; the sleek cafeterias still dispensed the sinfully delicious Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce. What had gone horribly wrong in the eyes of many, however, was that IKEA had lost its soul. The 2010 store catalog used Verdana as its typeface dumping IKEA's old faithful, Futura. The font switcheroo sparked uproar in the design industry, and the company was seen as abandoning its particular brand of design chic in favor of something more drab and well, homogeneous.

In his entertaining and informative book, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield makes the case for typeface variety so eloquently that you begin to see the point of the IKEA font debacle.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

They say inspiration strikes in the unlikeliest of places. Years ago, author Nell Freudenberger met a young Bangladeshi woman on a flight. As it turns out, this new immigrant, who would later become Freudenberger's friend, was traveling to the United States to marry an American man she had only met online. Years later, this real-life story became the basis for Freudenberger's short story "An Arranged Marriage," published in The New Yorker. With her friend's permission, that same story has come to form the heart of Freudenberger's second novel, The Newlyweds.

The rest of the review is here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A DR Original, Junot Diaz, Rocks Boston

Minutes before joining the snaking line outside Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, my husband and I tucked into soft corn tacos and guacamole and even an elote at Boston’s awesome Dorado restaurant. The 500-some people waiting in line were the lucky ones with tickets to a reading by my all-time favorite author, Junot Diaz.

Diaz joked around that Brookline Booksmith was one of many fine bookstores in the Boston area (he will do another reading for Harvard bookstore next week). “This city has many dealers,” he joked.

While Diaz did do a couple of readings from his latest book, This is  How You Lose Her, he seemed to prefer answering questions from the audience and hearing about their experiences. His responses to all questions were as warm, thoughtful and kinetic as his fantastic prose is.

Diaz on being an immigrant: " Immigration sucks, man! Imagine coming from a place where you fit in, to one where you just stand out, to where it feels like there is this huge lesion on your face. It’s especially hard on kids. You can probably hear these kids’ collective shriek somewhere."

Diaz on his most transformative reading moment: “I came from a house where there was only one book and I come from a Catholic house so you all know what that one book is. Then moving to New Jersey, I remember the first time I was taken to my school library. The fact that there was more than just one book and that I could actually check them out, it just blew my mind, man. I had to learn English first but I remember that was just amazing. Even now, I have to go into a library if I see one.” (It was right around this point that I was moved to tears - you had to have been there!)

Diaz remembered first being transported by an Arthur Conan Doyle book. He loved learning English by looking at Richard Scarry picture books. “There was this *bleeping rabbit or whatever doing this strange stuff, it was cool, man!”

Diaz on being an artist: “When I was 17 I never knew I could dream my own dreams. I just was living my mother’s dream or my family’s dream. I was like really good, gifted and talented kid -- give me a test and I would just *bleeping upset your bell curve, man. It was only when I went to college that people would say “I want to be an artist” and it hit me.”

Diaz on the writing process: “In the morning I have to write before I speak. If I talk to someone, those thoughts that were going around in my head, that space you need to write, is lost.”

Diaz’s biggest piece of advice: “Don’t live someone else’s dream. Live your own.”

Yes, we waited for two hours in the signing line. It was so worth it just to shake his hand and talk to him.

If you have never read Junot Diaz and don’t know where to start, the beginning is just as fine a place as any other. Pick up Drown, pronto. And then let Oscar Wao blow you away. Finally pick up his latest. You won’t be disappointed.

Elote picture courtesy of

Review: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Junot Díaz is the real deal. His debut collection of short stories, Drown (1996), introduced Yunior - a whip-smart, street-savvy DR (Dominican Republic) original - to American literature, and since then Díaz has never looked back. His debut novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), won Díaz the Pulitzer Prize, and now the incredibly talented author is back with another collection of stories, This is How You Lose Her.

As the title implies, the unifying themes underlying these stories are of heartbreak and broken relationships. Yunior is back as the central character and, while older, he doesn't seem to be any wiser.

The rest of the review can be found here.

Review: The Collective by Don Lee

Don Lee's struggles as a Korean American author seem to mirror those of other "hyphenated Americans," trying to break free of molds often defined by stereotypes of their nationalities. In an age where "post-racial" has become a buzzword, why does it still seem important for authors of certain stripes to strictly color within the lines? Should an author of mixed heritage write only about the immigrant experience?

To answer these questions, or at least to begin a discussion, Lee features the lives of three Asian American artists in his novel The Collective.

The rest of the review can be found here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratter

 It might be hard to wrap one's mind around the concept of genocide, but it sure is important to do so. After all, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. The massive purge that occurred during a very short window of time - between 1975 and 1979, just after the Cambodian Civil War - had all the signs of a genocide: millions were killed because they looked different or didn't conform to predetermined ideas of what the "ideal Cambodian" should be like. Seven-year-old Raami Ayuravann, the narrator of the moving novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, belongs to the royal class and is living her life in relative luxury in Phnom Penh, when the Khmer Rouge captures the city in 1975.

Raami is forced to dislocate to the countryside along with her family, and under extreme conditions, the family fights to survive together. Forcing everyone to conform to an agrarian lifestyle, the Khmer Rouge displaces millions of Cambodians like Raami's family, moving them to the countryside and having everyone perform hard labor for the most meager of rations. As we follow the novel's narrative, we slowly find out who will eventually remain safe in the "shadow of the banyan tree."

The rest of the review can be found here.

Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon knows how to do narrative sweep; he knows how to write an epic. The author is skilled at knitting the various elements of a story together with material borrowed from a larger setting or theme. He achieved this to spectacular effect in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - where the story of two teen boys growing up in 1930s New York City was set against the larger world of comic books. The dazzling novel earned Chabon a Pulitzer and many loyal fans.

Even if Chabon did produce other entertaining reads in between, it is his latest, Telegraph Avenue, that attempts to recreate the narrative sweep and large-hearted vision of Kavalier. The essential premise at the heart of this 450-page tome is pretty basic: business enterprises, no matter how noble their history, cannot survive the tidal forces of capitalism on the basis of good intentions alone.

The rest of the review can be found here.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero


Does poetry alone provide enough sustenance to feed the soul? Of what value is a life spent creating beautiful art without a true companion to share it with or someone to pass it on to? Fundamental existential questions may concern most of us at some time or other, but these questions haunt the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's last days. Set in the waning era of the Allende socialist experiment, The Neruda Case has the Nobel Laureate's ghost looming large on every page. 

The rest of the review is here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

Sometimes, you can take the man out of the cult but you can’t take the cult out of the man. Such is the fate that meets poor Amir Ali in Victorian-era England. Having been brought up in the shadows of the ancient Indian “thuggee” cult, Amir Ali decides he has to escape his fate and moves to the Indian city of Patna from a small town in Bihar state, Phansa. Once in Patna, Amir’s path intersects that of a British dabbler in the sciences, Captain Meadows. With Meadows, Amir Ali travels to England at a time when phrenological science is all the rage.

Feeding the growing popularity of phrenology, the study of skulls, is a whole set of scientists, some with views more extreme than the others. It is only a matter of time before mere grave-robbing to get at prized “specimens” is not enough--now these phrenologists must hire killers to get at the more unusual “things” as the skulls are called. So begins a series of gruesome and macabre murders in London piloted by one particular phrenologist, Lord Batterstone.

In an ironic twist, the extreme wing of the phrenologists use their science to “prove” that entire races such as Africans and Asians are predisposed to violence. The “thuggee” cult born in India, where the religious cult members were also assassins, serves to underscore this point. The finger of suspicion eventually points at Amir Ali. He meets all the qualifiers -- he is Oriental, has thuggee blood in him, and a weirdly shaped skull to boot. He is bound to be the murderer. He is not. A whole host of colorful characters who are Amir’s friends, eventually help clear his name.

Tabish Khair, the book’s author, teaches in Denmark and has said that the inspiration for the book came from a book about thugs he found in his grandfather’s library. Indeed the book is told through a number of voices and one such is a teen boy going through his grandmother’s old library in Phansa village in Bihar. The book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, works best when it describes both the “thuggee” cult (even is this part reads a little textbookish in style) and the London of Victorian times. Khair does a fantastic job populating the book with a whole host of colorful characters. He also builds the creepy atmosphere of the city lit by gaslights and eternally covered by fog: “Night descends on London once again. Descends? No, It rises slowly, in the overlooked nooks and crannies of this teeming metropolis. First, it crawls like a spider between the cobblestones. Then it spills like ink on the ground, between the buildings, from the walls, under the bridges. It grows out of the corners.”

Where The Thing About Thugs doesn’t quite work is in making the case for how justice was finally meted out. The resolution to the murders depends on one coincidence which seems like quite a stretch. Khair also tries hard to shed light on the rampant racism targeted at Orientals and the “other” and his efforts largely work even if they get a bit repetitive towards the end of the book.

While The Thing About Thugs doesn’t coalesce into a strong novel, it is a good trip to Victorian England and a “science” not many of us know about. It might be worth reading for these reasons alone.

Review: The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya

First, a quick background about Indian (specifically Bengali) cinema: The great Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, was from the state of West Bengal and is one of Bengal’s most revered sons and cultural icons. It stands to reason that years after Ray’s death, the incredibly talented Rahul Bhattacharya (a fellow Bengali) would use Ray’s famous bildungsroman, Pather Panchali, as the inspiration for his debut novel.

At its most basic essence, Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care is also a bildungsroman—it traces the growth and coming of age of its protagonist in a country far away from home, Guyana. The protagonist in the novel seems to be modeled after Bhattacharya himself. Like Bhattacharya, the protagonist is a cricket reporter who decides to take an extended yearlong vacation in Guyana. Gooroo, as the protagonist is referred to by others, has “a one year visa—to reinvent one’s living, to escape the deadness of the life one was accustomed to…to be hungry for the world one saw.”

The rest of this review is here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

It’s been four years since one of the country’s deadliest natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina, hit New Orleans, yet the stories of those affected have been making their way out only slowly. Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is one such. Here too, as in his brilliant What is the What, Eggers does an expert job narrating non-fiction and making the story come alive.

By all indications, the Zeitouns—Kathy and Abdulrahman—were a successful couple in New Orleans. They owned a construction and painting business and had a vibrant family with four girls. Abdulrahman, a Syrian American who had spent a lifetime wandering the seas, settled in New Orleans in 1994 and married Kathy, a convert to Islam.

The rest of the review is here.

Review: Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe by Jenny Hollowell

For the longest time, growing up in rural Virginia, Birdie Baker is convinced she is destined to follow the path set forth by her devout Christian parents. Like them, as a Jehovah’s Witness, she will spread the word of the Lord, marry, settle down and wrap it up. But the sense of unease that plagues her even after she is married to a church-going man named Judah, is worsened when she runs into her high school drama teacher at the grocery store. “What are you still doing here?” he asks, “I figured the next time I saw you it would be in a movie.” Eventually, leave Virgina she does. Birdie pools all her savings toward a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles.

The rest of this review is here.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Office Girl by Joe Meno

Young adult angst. Talk of the world coming to an end. Office Girl, the fantastic new novel by author Joe Meno, reminds us that indeed we have been there and done that. Yet some stories never grow old.

Set in 1999 as Y2K looms large and President Clinton’s impeachment trials play out in the background, Office Girl takes place in a wintry Chicago. Odile is the office girl in the title, just coming out of a romance with a married man. She is trying to make sense of her life having dropped out of art school and flitting from one boring office job to the other. Eventually she lands a night sales job at a Muzak company selling office music to doctors’ offices. Here she runs into Jack Blevins, a 25-year-old who is just beginning the divorce process after his wife, Elise, leaves him and moves to Germany. Office Girl is essentially a love story—it is about Jack’s and Odile’s wary yet loving moves back into some kind of tentative relationship.

The rest of the review is here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: The Red House by Mark Haddon

The loss of a parent is bad enough but that same life-altering event is the driving force behind a family reunion set in the Welsh countryside in the picturesque town of Hay-on-Wye. Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his sister Angela and her family to his vacation home. Angela and Richard have just buried their last parent, their mother, and emotions remain raw. For the past few years, it has been Angela who has been taking care of the dying mother even if Richard foots the bills for a nursing home. Even without these specific animosities, Richard and Angela don’t exactly share a harmonious sibling relationship. The families they have made with spouses and kids, therefore, remain strangers to each other.

As they get together for a week, both sets of families--Richard’s and Angela’s--are hoping to get to know each other a little better. Richard has a fairly new marriage to Louisa and is still unsure as to how to parent his teen stepdaughter, Melissa. All is not roses in Richard’s professional life either. He has a potential malpractice case on his hands and worry about the case spills over into his personal life as well. Over on the other side, Angela and her husband, Dominic, have reached a stasis in their marriage and are simply being “co-parents” to their children--teens Tim and Daisy (who has recently found God) and little Ben. Also, Angela continues to struggle with the loss of a child, Karen, nearly 18 years ago.

Over the course of the week, some ordinary and not-so-ordinary things happen that bring quiet revelations along with them. At the end of the week, the families have been altered in a strangely satisfying way and have learned to make peace with each other.

There are many family insights here but in the end, the story overall remains unresolved. Some family “secrets” even come across as mere cliches, made worse by everyone’s else’s predictable reactions to them.

Haddon has talent to waste and could have brought the family dynamics into sharper focus and crafted a more finely tuned story out of The Red House. There’s a very “been there, done that” kind of empathy that The Red House generates. After all, practically every one of us can relate to at least one aspect of the story. Yet since the story doesn’t really coalesce into a whole or come to any kind of closure, you begin to wonder at the point of it all. If we really wanted to just let family idiosyncrasies all hang loose, wouldn’t we simply revisit our annual Thanksgiving dinners?

Yet, in one sense, Haddon probably does have a point: Our family dinners do not come to a resolution either, do they? Just like in The Red House, an occasional grievance is aired and we move on, trying to make the best of every new day. After all, as Haddon asks, “Later, when parents fall from grace and become ordinary messed-up human beings and turn slowly from carers into people who must be cared for in their turn, who then will share those growing frustrations and pore over the million petty details of that long-shared soap opera carry that means nothing to others?” The answer, of course, is: we will. Haddon manages to show us that there is grace in our everyday failings. Is it enough to make The Red House a compelling read? Not quite. But it does make for a quick and breezy one.

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Perla by Carolina de Robertis

More than thirty years ago, as part of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” close to 30,000 dissidents and other like-minded people simply disappeared as part of a massive state-sponsored program. During this cruel obliteration, children, too, were abducted, and those born to the disappeared were adopted into new families--entire generations of people torn from each other forcibly. These “disappeared” or “desaparecidos” form the central focus of Caroline de Robertis’s new novel, Perla.

The rest of my review is here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: Canada by Richard Ford

Richard Ford's novel, Canada, is a book that reveals its spoilers early: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later," says Dell Parsons, the 60-something narrator of the story.

The rest of the review is at

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

The Lola Quartet by the immensely talented Emily St. John Mandel, might go down as one of the best captures of the malaise that attended the Great Recession of 2008. As St. John Mandel earlier novel, The Singer’s Gun, proved, she has a special talent for setting the mood and tone in a novel and she works that same magic here in a story that essentially is, above all else, the rootlessness of young adult life.

Gavin Sasaki is a young journalist in New York City at precisely the time when the newspaper industry is in deep decline. The axe has been falling on co-workers all around him and when he eventually gets found out for lies he has been systematically working into his stories, Gavin knows he too is on his last leg. Fired ingloriously from his job, Gavin’s last resort is to return to his hometown in Florida, where his sister Eilo is running a successful business negotiating the final sales of foreclosed homes.

Back in Florida, shortly after the sale of one such foreclosed home, Eilo happens to have taken a picture of a young girl who bears a striking resemblance to Gavin. This one picture brings back a whole host of memories for him. Gavin remembers his high school girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, and a rumor that she might have been pregnant before permanently moving away to be with her aunt in Georgia. Could this little girl whom Eilo spotted, then be his child? Armed with his journalist’s nose to sniff out a good story, Gavin is determined to find out. The problem is there are many in town who don’t share Gavin’s enthusiasm to ferret out the truth.

It turns out that Anna is in deep trouble having stolen a large sum of money from a drug dealer in Utah. She is on the run with help from a few of Gavin’s old high school friends. The chain of events that will eventually lead to murder all begins with one ill-timed photograph. Each person involved in the story reads that action differently and acts with the information he or she has. If there’s one problem in The Lola Quartet, it is that it gets hard to believe that so many men go to such extraordinary lengths to protect Anna. All in all though, the book is an incredibly taut sequence of events told breathlessly in the style that Emily St. John Mandel has effectively mastered. That The Lola Quartet also shines light on life’s early disillusionments is a bonus.

The Lola Quartet is also about the plod that attends daily life after high school, about dreams and dashed expectations. In one beautifully realized scene, a guitar hopeful from Gavin’s old high school worries he is not all that great and eventually just retreats back home to drugs and a mundane existence. “I miss everything about high school and I’m not the musician I thought I was, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, jazz has always been my life but now it’s slipping away from me and my talent isn’t going to be enough,” he worries. Any young adult who bumbles into college and life beyond, can totally relate to the cast of characters St. John Mandel sets out so beautifully in her new novel.

“The truth is we don’t all turn into the men we had hoped to become,” says a character in the book. As The Lola Quartet wonderfully shows, this much is certainly true. Of course things get even more dangerous when there is no clear plan sketched out--even for what you hope to become. As each one of the characters in The Lola Quartet realizes, when all one does is drift, the eventual stagnation that sets in can be stifling and merciless. 

Thank you to the publisher, Unbridled Books, for making a digital copy of the ARC available through Netgalley. Full Disclosure:  I follow the author on Twitter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford



Imagine the wonders of the kaleidoscope. While it is made up of many fractured, unruly and colorful segments, you can still hold it against the light, turn the wheel, and freeze one gorgeous pattern into place. These are precisely the kind of beautiful snapshots one is treated to while reading the fantastic new book by Francis Spufford, Red Plenty.  

The rest of the review is at Bookbrowse.

Review: By Blood by Ellen Ullman


One of life's many truths is that we're each the sum of our parts. It's not usually only nature or nurture that plays a role; it's both. Yet, what if you don't know one of the essential blocks of your character, you don't know who your parents are? It is this central question of identity that haunts a psychotherapy patient in Ellen Ullman's novel, By Blood.

The rest of my review is at Bookbrowse.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Review: From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarrry

Nearly five years ago, a British man of South Asian origin named Hemant Lakhani was arrested in an FBI sting operation, accused of selling arms that were to support Somali terrorist activities. At the time Lakhani argued that he was framed and his cause was taken up by prominent journalists including Amitava Kumar in his book, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm, a Tiny Bomb.” Despite an appeal, Lakhani was eventually convicted. Now, years later, a fictional character very similar to Lakhani, makes an appearance in Alex Gilvarray’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.

Ahmed Lakhani is in the import-export business living in New York City--except nobody knows exactly what he imports and exports. What matters is that he has enough money to throw around, a fact that is especially appealing to a young immigrant from the Philippines, Boyet Ruben Hernandez.

Boy is a recent graduate from the Fashion Institute of Makati (FIM) from his native country (the institute, one assumes, is a riff off of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology) and arrives wide-eyed to America’s warm embrace. The young grad knows he has to earn his keep in his adopted country; for now he lives off a meager stipend his doctor parents send him monthly, taking odd jobs for the fashion designer Vivienne Cho while working on a line he hopes can land him a breakthrough at Fashion Week in Bryant Park. “I understood the force I was up against” Boy says, “One needed friends much more than lovers and enemies. This city was cutthroat. This city, crossed with the exclusivity of the fashion industry, was a closed network on new talent. This city wasn’t hard on its newcomers--it was goddamn relentless.”

Boy somehow manages to make a small break through this “closed network”--his name gets mentioned in a fashion magazine as an up-and-coming designer. The two-line blurb is just barely enough to get him noticed but Boy works this to his advantage eventually getting ready to launch his line of women’s fashion, (B)oy.

At precisely the time when Boy is running out of money and when he needs to take his work to the next level, he runs into Ahmed Lakhani, a resident in his apartment building in Brooklyn. Lakhani, a Canadian Muslim, is smitten by Boy’s talent and slowly wheedles his way into Boy’s good graces. It’s uncomfortable--Boy can smell lies when he sees them and Lakhani is no angel, but when Lakhani offers to pump a huge sum of money into his fashion business as an angel investor, well, the temptation proves to be too fierce. Boy accepts, falling into a business relationship with Lakhani. “If, in my desperate state, I had to choose between finding the location of a deadly time bomb and saving my fashion label from complete demise, I would choose my label--my dream, my work, my livelihood,” Boy reasons. As most others would.

Trouble strikes when Lakhani is arrested in a few months on charges of supplying Somali terrorists with bomb-making materials. This is of course the Bush era of hyper-vigilance so the wide net that gets cast after Lakhani’s arrest also traps Boy who gets deported to Guantanamo.

The novel tells Boy’s story through segments set in New York alternating with the present time when he finds himself in “no man’s land.” Brief flashbacks to his childhood in the Philippines also populate these pages. Gilvarray expertly melds truth and facts (there are many footnotes that provide a sort of fact check to parts of the story) and the novel is an interesting experiment in how to tell a gripping story.

Boyet Hernandez comes across as a likeable everyday Joe who just happened to be caught up in a wider web beyond his wildest imagination. Nevertheless the early parts of the book set in New York seem out of place. We know what happened to Boy eventually yet the wry, la-di-da tone of the “fashion terrorist” seems out of pitch for what is to follow. Even as we read the parts set in Guantanamo one is never quite sure what to make of his experience because the light-hearted tone seems a little misplaced.

The last 100 pages or so are the best parts of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Here’s where the book turns darker, when the gravity of Boy’s situation hits in full force. In the end, this debut novel is a strong look at the darker side of the war on terror. It shows just how easy it is to get caught in it and just how hard it is to leave. Your heart goes out to Boy when he worries, “Maybe it’s like the Qur’an says: I was placed on this earth to be tried with afflictions.” 

Thanks to the publishers for a galley of the book through Netgalley.