Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Clasp by Sloane Crosley

Life’s larger purpose hinges not on grand plans but on the small “clasps” that hold things together and add function. The story at the heart of Sloane Crosley’s razor-sharp debut novel connects a set of college friends as they navigate a “quarter-life crisis,” and two stunning necklaces across time periods and continents. Weaving touches of philosophy and ample doses of Guy de Maupassant expertly into a suspenseful narrative structured like a treasure hunt, Crosley subtly warns us about the relevance of the famous French author’s epitaph — I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing — to our lives.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean

That spaceflight sendoff on the cover is now a thing of the past as the American space program has been slowly dismantled and is now a shadow of its former glory days. As she asks the question: “What does it mean that we won’t be going into space anymore,” space junkie Margaret Lazarus Dean counts down the last days of the shuttle program and describes them with bittersweet emotions. The somewhat narrow perspective, limited to fellow enthusiasts at Cape Canaveral, leaves you wanting more at times, yet Dean’s enthusiasm — mixed in with equal part outrage — ultimately shines through.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

This Is How It Really Sounds by Stuart Archer Cohen

What if you had a chance to rewrite your life? What would you choose to keep, to throw out? The path not taken is a theme often explored in fiction but Stuart Archer Cohen gives it a spanking new update for our times through the lives of three men, all named Pete Harrington. If sometimes the moral of the story comes across as too pat, Cohen makes it up by layering the plot with plenty of high-voltage action and atmosphere. Despite an occasional discordant note, readers will enjoy unlocking the interlocking chambers of this Chinese puzzle box of a novel.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

The conforming doll-house characters face dark veins of humor as debut author Lauren Acampora illustrates how vanilla suburbs stamp out individuality in favor of homogeneity in her nuanced collection of stories. Even as a few characters try to wrestle out of the upper middle class’s suffocating chokehold, stagnation is a way of life inside the carefully trimmed hedges and white picket fences. Sneak peeks at paranoid and controlling characters trying to hold on to a different way of life reveal the menace that lurks just beneath the surface of middle-class respectability. A searing indictment of the Great American suburban experiment.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Rain: A Natural And Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Even if you’re the kind who can’t take soggy weather, you’ll love Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. A whole host of intriguing topics — rainmakers, the earthy perfume of rain, the mechanics of rain — and more are captured under that cheerful brolly. Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett travels the world over (from the wettest place in the world, Cheerapunji, in India, to an umbrella store in London) to deliver stories dripping with personality. Her enthusiasm for her subject translates brilliantly on to the page. For lovers of social science, the perfect shelter to dive into on a rainy day.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

“The Gravedigger,” a majestic Indian elephant, looms large in this devastating novel set in south India. By granting anthropomorphic qualities to the tusker, James dives headlong into the problem of poaching, exploring all angles  — animal, man, violator, protector and even a neutral third-party, a film crew of two. With an impressive economy of words and a searching exploration of the costs of doing the right thing, James delivers a nuanced view of one of humanity’s most pressing environmental problems. The African elephant on the cover (instead of an Asian one) is the only misstep in this otherwise brilliant novel.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

Yasha and Frances are young adults from Brooklyn each bruised in a specific way, trying to find peace in the northern reaches of Norway, the land of the midnight sun. Frances ties herself to an art project in Lofoten, miles north of the Arctic circle, while family obligations deliver Yasha there. The novel’s quirky tone and offbeat characters belie its weighty message — about finding kindness in unlikely places and learning the art of making peace with one’s past. There’s no escaping it, sure, but you don’t have to get smothered under its weight either. A wise and promising debut.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Ngyuen

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” explains the unreliable narrator of this intense and piercing debut about the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Above all, the protagonist is haunted by ghosts, his mixed Eurasian heritage forever marking him as an outsider both to the Vietnamese and the Americans. The Sympathizer brilliantly tracks the machinations of the shattered freedom movement as members try to remake their country anew. It’s an arresting and mesmerizing tale, written in gorgeous language, that lends a fresh perspective to one of the defining wars of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

Defying his genes, Radar Radmanovic, son of a Serbian electrician and a white New Jersey woman, is born black. What does his identity have to do with a group of performance artists who set up their pieces in global war zones? Plenty as it turns out. The bloated novel dazzles in its period pieces but is sometimes, quite literally, at sea. The immensely gifted Larsen aims high, but the central conceit about the definition of art is hard to buy into. Nevertheless Radar is mesmerizing enough to keep you hooked for most of its nearly 700 pages. No easy feat.

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

East meets West in Amit Chaudhuri’s latest, set in ‘80s London. Ananda Sen is a young graduate student of poetry hoping for small measures of success, depending on his much older uncle Ranagamama, who has parked himself in a rent-stabilized bedsit for years, for companionship. Unfolding over the course of one Sunday afternoon, the story, in typical Chaudhuri style, is not packed with external events, focusing instead on the trials of displacement and non-conformity in a strange land. Uncle and nephew’s endless reflections occasionally feel too self-absorbed; nevertheless Chaudhuri’s gorgeous writing and insightful observations ultimately deliver a soulful novel.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

As the Second World War played out, the small country of Estonia saw multiple occupations by the Germans and the Soviets. Amid these rapidly shifting geopolitical realities, allegiances were difficult to forge but not so for the duplicitous Edgar Parts. Parts will stop short at almost nothing to plant himself on the winning team and Oksanen’s high-voltage prose, translated seamlessly from Finnish by Lola Rogers, unravels his cat-and-mouse games to stunning effect. The overlapping betrayals by multiple parties and shifting time settings can get confusing, but the story is a triumphant portrayal of the will to survive at any cost.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Black River by S. M. Hulse

The rugged Montana countryside serves as a perfect backdrop for this emotionally wrenching story about a prodigal son holding on to vestiges of faith in the wake of devastating tragedy. Wes Carver has a troubled past that is seared into him -- quite literally. Early on he loses the anchor in his life, his wife Claire. Worse, he must wrestle with the concept of forgiveness. At times Wes and his son Dennis veer too close to the strong and silent stereotype but the relationships that form the crux of this debut are beautifully rendered and a joy to watch evolve.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland And the Transformation Of Rural China

In the vast tundra of Manchuria, in China’s Northeast, farming is still very much a part of the landscape, the biting winters affording just enough of a window for harvesting rice. The small town of Wasteland is where Frances, the author’s wife is from, and it is where Meyer spends a year chronicling not just the farming season but the impending irreversible changes soon to come knocking. This is a breathless and lively tour of Manchuria’s history and China’s evolving agrarian policies told through the eyes of a veteran investigative reporter. A side of the Asian behemoth not often seen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Man Of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

Blikkiesdorp, might be Cape Town’s “asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want,” but for Somali refugee, Asad Abdullahi, Tin Can Town is a step up compared to the hell he has been through. Just eight when violence in Mogadishu split his family asunder, the young and enterprising Asad moved from city to city, country to country, forever pursuing a dream of stability. This is a brilliantly reported story of hope against overwhelming odds, and survival in the bleakest circumstances. It brings home the refugee’s plight like no news bite can. A must-read.

Thanks to Knopf for an ARC.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? by Andrew Lawler

The chicken’s footprint might be tiny but its impression on humanity remains large. Science reporter Andrew Lawler expertly traces its movement from early domestication and the jungles of south Asia, to today’s production of billions of pounds of broiler meat for world consumption. Even if at times it seems as if Lawler packs way too much information into its pages, this is an engaging look at man’s big bird and its impact on almost every aspect of our lives: religious, cultural, medicinal and more. Think the dog is man’s best friend? Well, the chicken really makes a more compelling case.