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.