Our 2015 book choices
Through April 23, 2014, 22 CRPCA members chose 12 books from this list as our 2015 book selections. See the results in our May 2014 newsletter.
Alvarez, Julia: In the Name of Salomé (2000)
Review: © Library Journal: When Camila was three, her mother, Salomé Urena, the Dominican Republic’s “National Poetess,” died. For years, the youngster wrestled with the loss, holding fast to the dream that her mother would someday reappear, a mysterious, larger-than-life stranger. Meanwhile, her aunt Ramona struggled to help the child understand Salomé’s demise, teaching her a special, if sacrilegious, incantation to soften what had happened: “In the name of the Father, the Son and my Mother, Salomé.” Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) has written a brilliantly layered novel that is grounded in 100 years of Latin American history. As Salomé’s story intertwines with Camila’s, we are made privy to politics both personal and international. Passionate and unpredictable, the book quietly lambastes colonialism and imperialism. At the same time, feminist themes emerge, from the enduring agony of motherless daughters to the integration of lesbians into progressive movements. Well wrought and powerful–if at times structurally confusing–this is a novel to be passed from friend to friend, from madre to hija.
Betancourt, Ingrid: Even Silence Has An End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle (2010)
Synopsis: Ingrid Betancourt tells the story of her captivity in the Colombian jungle, sharing teachings of resilience, resistance, and faith. Born in Bogotá, raised in France, Betancourt at age 32 gave up a life of comfort and safety to return to Colombia to become a political leader in a country that was being slowly destroyed by terrorism, violence, fear, and hopelessness. In 2002, while a candidate in the Colombian presidential elections, she was abducted by the FARC. She spent the next six and a half years in the depths of the jungle as their prisoner. Chained day and night for much of her captivity, she succeeded in getting away several times, always to be recaptured. The facts of her story are astounding, but it is Betancourt’s indomitable spirit that drives this very special account, bringing life, nuance, and profundity to the narrative.
Boo, Katherine: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity* (2012)
* Winner of 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction
Review: © Booklist: While the distance between rich and poor is growing in the U.S., the gap between the haves and have-nots in India is staggering to behold. This first book by a New Yorker staff writer (and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Washington Post) jolts the reader’s consciousness with the opposing realities of poverty and wealth in a searing visit to the Annawaldi settlement, a flimflam slum that has recently sprung up in the western suburbs of the gigantic city of Mumbai, perched tentatively along the modern highway leading to the airport and almost within a stone’s throw of new, luxurious hotels. We first meet Abdul, whose daily grind is to collect trash and sell it; in doing so, he has “lifted his large family above subsistence.” Boo takes us all around the community, introducing us to a slew of disadvantaged individuals who, nevertheless, draw on their inner strength to not only face the dreary day but also ponder a day to come that will, perhaps, be a little brighter. Sympathetic yet objective and eloquently rendered.
Bulawayo, NoViolet: We Need New Names (2013)
Review: © Booklist: In Bulawayo’s engaging and often disturbing semiautobiographical first novel, 10-year-old Darling describes, with childlike candor and a penetrating grasp of language, first, her life in Zimbabwe during its so-called Lost Decade and then her life as a teenager in present-day America. What is at once delightful and disturbing is the fact that young Darling and her friends are so resilient amidst chaos. Darling must cope with absentee parents gone to who-knows-where, seeking jobs and a better life; abusive adults; and murdering bands of self-appointed police in a country gone horribly wrong. Yet she evinces a sense of chauvinism regarding her corrupt homeland when she joins her aunt in America. There she discovers a country that has fallen into a different kind of chaos, primarily economic. She and her new family struggle while America fails to live up to her hopes. Ultimately what lingers is Bulawayo’s poignant insights into how a person decides what to embrace and what to surrender when adapting to a new culture in a new land.
Cleave, Chris: Little Bee (2009)
Review: © Booklist: Little Bee, smart and stoic, knows two people in England, Andrew and Sarah, journalists she chanced upon on a Nigerian beach after fleeing a massacre in her village, one grisly outbreak in an off-the-radar oil war. After sneaking into England and escaping a rural “immigration removal” center, she arrives at Andrew and Sarah’s London suburb home only to find that the violence that haunts her has also poisoned them. In an unnerving blend of dread, wit, and beauty, Cleave slowly and arrestingly excavates the full extent of the horror that binds Little Bee and Sarah together. A columnist for the Guardian, Cleave earned fame and notoriety when his first book, Incendiary, a tale about a terrorist attack on London, was published on the very day London was bombed in July 2005. His second ensnaring, eviscerating novel charms the reader with ravishing descriptions, sly humor, and the poignant improvisations of Sarah’s Batman-costumed young son, then launches devastating attacks in the form of Little Bee’s elegantly phrased insights into the massive failure of compassion in the world of refugees. Cleave is a nerves-of-steel storyteller of stealthy power, and this is a novel as resplendent and menacing as life itself.
Cooper, Helene: The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood (2008)
Review: © Booklist: Cooper, a descendant of the founding families who developed Liberia in the 1800s, was part of the mixed-race elite. Her ambitious, quirky extended family is caught off guard when one of the numerous uprisings by the downtrodden against the privileged turns into a dangerous coup in 1980. Her uncle was killed, her mother raped, and her father wounded before the family fled into exile in the U.S., leaving behind adopted sister Eunice. Cooper and her sister adjust to life in the U.S., grappling with ignorance of Africa, their lower socioeconomic status, and the typical confusion of adolescence, all the while trying to stay in touch with Eunice. Cooper’s intelligence, ambition, and wanderlust lead to a career in journalism as a foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, although she assiduously avoided Liberia. But when she was nearly killed covering the war in Iraq, Cooper realized she needed to go home to face Liberia and to find Eunice. Cooper’s memoir is an absorbing look at the complexities of politics in Liberia and the compelling pull of family ties.
Danticat, Edwidge: Breath, Eyes, Memory (1998)
Review: © Choice: Danticat’s first published novel moves back and forth between the author’s two homes, Haiti and the US, touching on the characters’ complex relationships to both places. The central protagonist must come to terms not only with her place in a long line of strong women, but also with the violence inflicted on them by strangers and by their own mothers. The “test,” used by generations of Haitian mothers to ascertain their daughters’ virginity, is revealed as a violation which cripples women’s spirits and suppresses their sexuality. It also, inevitably, distorts mother/daughter relationships. The style of the novel is lyrical and often arresting, the narrative fast paced. The information it contains about Haiti, while incidental, is substantial. The characters are convincing and sympathetic. The sexual violation theme does, however, seem heavy-handed at times. The main character, Sophie, and her mother, for instance, have fewer dimensions than one might wish. In all, this is a very readable, moving story.
Delijani, Sahar: Children of the Jacaranda Tree (2013)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Born in 1983 in an Iranian prison, Delijani delivers a fictionalized account of her harrowing origins. This debut novel opens with blindfolded and handcuffed pregnant dissident Azar’s water breaking in the back of a van. During labor in the prison, Azar encounters both sympathetic doctors and iron-fisted interrogators. Her struggle to keep her story straight; limit stress to her baby, Neda; and get word to her family that she’s alive is heartbreakingly heroic. During the chaotic birth, Delijani rapidly shifts between locations and conditions, creating confusion and a maelstrom of imagery. After this strong opening in Evin Prison, Delijani turns from the powerful immediacy of Azar’s fight to the struggle outside, touching on the bleak sadness of four prisoners’ families over three repetitious sections. While the dissidents undergo random and brutal interrogations, their children are punished daily by the absence of their parents, and fear twists and deforms relationships, making the whole world a prison. At the book’s end, Neda reappears as an adult in Italy, contemplating her situation within a global context. A contrivance connects her to the Arab Spring through the son of a Revolutionary Guard, leaving it unclear if she’ll be able to fully transcend her bloody history.
Desai, Kiran: The Inheritance of Loss* (2006)
* Winner of 2006 Man Booker Prize
Review: © Publishers Weekly: This stunning second novel from Desai (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard) is set in mid-1980s India, on the cusp of the Nepalese movement for an independent state. Jemubhai Popatlal, a retired Cambridge-educated judge, lives in Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, with his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, and his cook. The makeshift family’s neighbors include a coterie of Anglophiles who might be savvy readers of V.S. Naipaul but who are, perhaps, less aware of how fragile their own social standing is—at least until a surge of unrest disturbs the region. Jemubhai, with his hunting rifles and English biscuits, becomes an obvious target. Besides threatening their very lives, the revolution also stymies the fledgling romance between 16-year-old Sai and her Nepalese tutor, Gyan. The cook’s son, Biju, meanwhile, lives miserably as an illegal alien in New York. All of these characters struggle with their cultural identity and the forces of modernization while trying to maintain their emotional connection to one another. In this alternately comical and contemplative novel, Desai deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating the pain of exile, the ambiguities of post-colonialism and the blinding desire for a “better life,” when one person’s wealth means another’s poverty.
Ebadi, Shirin*: Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope (2006)
* Winner of 2003 Nobel Peace Prize
Review: © Booklist: Most Americans date troubles with Iran to the 1979 overthrow of the shah and the 444-day U.S. embassy hostage drama. Iranians date the friction back to 1953, when the U.S. orchestrated a coup that removed beloved Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Ebadi recalls that period as the beginning of shifting politics that would erode basic freedoms and notions of human rights in Iran. Raised to believe in gender equality, Ebadi became a judge but was demoted to secretary when the Islamic Revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini demanded subservience of women. Ebadi estimates that five million Iranians, feeling oppressed by the revolution, left the country, draining valuable resources and leaving bitterly separated families. Ebadi lost her profession, her friends, and her country but was determined to stay and speak out against oppression. She eventually returned to public life as a human-rights lawyer taking on the defense of women, children, and dissidents. Ebadi offers a very personal account of her life and her fight for human rights in Iran.
Eggers, Dave: What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalized memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalization. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other “Lost Boys,” beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers’s limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity-of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.
Fadiman, Anne: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (2012)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: When two divergent cultures collide, unbridgeable gaps of language, religion, social customs may remain between them. This poignant account by Fadiman, editor of the American Scholar, of the clash between a Hmong family and the American medical community reveals that among the gaps yawns the attitude toward medicine and healing. The story focuses on Lia Lee, whose family immigrated to Merced, Calif., from Laos in 1980. At three months of age, Lia was diagnosed with what American doctors called epilepsy, and what her family called quag dab peg or, “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” Fadiman traces the treatments for Lia’s illness, observing the sharp differences between Eastern and Western healing methods. Whereas the doctors prescribed Depakene and Valium to control her seizures, Lia’s family believed that her soul was lost but could be found by sacrificing animals and hiring shamans to intervene. While some of Lia’s doctors attempted to understand the Hmong beliefs, many interpreted the cultural difference as ignorance on the part of Lia’s parents. Fadiman shows how the American ideal of assimilation was challenged by a headstrong Hmong ethnicity. She discloses the unilateralness of Western medicine, and divulges its potential failings. In Lia’s case, the two cultures never melded and, after a massive seizure, she was declared brain dead. This book is a moving cautionary tale about the importance of practicing “cross-cultural medicine,” and of acknowledging, without condemning, differences in medical attitudes of various cultures.
Fuller, Alexandra: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (2003)
Review: © Booklist: Fuller, nicknamed “Bobo,” grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the civil war, and she watched her parents fight against the local Africans to keep their farm. Fuller writes from a child’s point of view, masking neither her family’s prejudices nor their passions. Fuller’s father, Tim, is a determined and strong man, married to Nicola, who is gradually cracking under the pressure of the civil war and also of the deaths of her children. The Fullers lost three children; only Alexandra and her older sister, Vanessa, survived. The losses take their toll on Nicola, who turns to alcohol to combat her overwhelming depression. After the white colonialists lose the civil war, the Fullers’ farm is taken away, and they move to Malawi, where Bobo begins to get a sense of the life of an average African. But the overbearing Malawian government motivates the Fullers to move on, and they finally settle in Zambia. Fuller is a gifted writer, capable of bringing a sense of immediacy to her writing and crafting descriptions so vibrant the reader cannot only picture the stifling hot African afternoon but almost feel it as well. Writing a memoir powerful in its frank straightforwardness, Fuller neither apologizes for nor champions her family’s views and actions. Instead, she gives us an honest, moving portrait of one family struggling to survive tumultuous times.
Goyal, Rajeev*: The Springs of Namje: A Ten-year Journey From the Villages of Nepal to the Halls of Congress (2012)
* RPCV Nepal (2001-2003)
Review: © Booklist: Goyal, the son of Indian immigrants, joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to teach English in the small village of Namje in eastern Nepal. In this very frank memoir of the hardships, failures, and successes, he recalls dealing with the discomforts of the caste system and learning that supposedly ignorant villagers had skills and knowledge helpful to developing their communities and nations. He is brutally honest about the unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts, such as building a water pump system to pull water up the mountain, a project that likely brought the villagers into contact with Maoist rebels. When his service ended, Goyal remained involved in issues of development, including boosting funding for the Peace Corps. He tells the story of his 10-year journey as attorney and activist, walking the halls of Congress, shaking hands and securing promises for more funding at a time of budget cutting, eventually securing an additional $60 million for the Peace Corps. An honest and inspiring look at the hard work and reward of development efforts.
Hosseini, Khaled: And the Mountains Echoed (2013)
Review: © Booklist: Saboor, a laborer, pulls his young daughter, Pari, and his son, Abdullah, across the desert in a red wagon, leaving their poor village of Shadbagh for Kabul, where his brother-in-law, Nabi, a chauffeur, will introduce them to a wealthy man and his beautiful, despairing poet wife. So begins the third captivating and affecting novel by the internationally best-selling author of The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). An immense, ancient oak stands in Shadbagh, emblematic of the complexly branching stories in Hosseini’s vital, profound, and spellbinding saga of family bonds and unlikely pairings forged by chance, choice, and necessity. We meet twin sisters, one beautiful, one plain; one an invalid, the other a caretaker. Two male cousins, one a charismatic wheeler-dealer; the other a cautious, introverted doctor. A disfigured girl of great valor and a boy destined to become a plastic surgeon. Kabul falls and struggles to rise. Shadbagh comes under the rule of a drug lord, and the novel’s many limbs reach to Paris, San Francisco, and a Greek island. A masterful and compassionate storyteller, Hosseini traces the traumas and scarring of tyranny, war, crime, lies, and illness in the intricately interconnected, heartbreaking, and extraordinary lives of his vibrantly realized characters to create a grand and encompassing tree of life.
Jiang, Rong: Wolf Totem (2005)
Review: © Library Journal: Deep in Inner Mongolia, at the time of the Great Leap Forward, Han Chinese scholar Chen waits for hours with his mentor, Old Man Bilgee, watching wolves as they prepare an attack. He’s already learned how closely the wolves and the nomads are linked-Tennger, god of the grasslands, has seen to it, and even Genghis Khan borrowed the wolves’ tricks. Suddenly, the wolves drive an enormous herd of gazelle into deep snow, where many of them literally drown. The wolves leave the carcasses preserved in the drifts, to be eaten later when food is scarce. Bilgee allows that they can take a few, but others, less attuned to the ways of the grasslands, take more. And so the wolves go hungry and manage a gruesome revenge. Thus commences a struggle that symbolizes not only the subjugation of nature by humans but the subjugation of Mongolia by China. The author, who writes under a pseudonym, volunteered along the border of Inner and Outer Mongolia in the 1960s and writes with piercing perception about native and wolf ways. The result is a naturalistic, gripping, and deeply affecting novel reminding us how badly we humans have managed our world.
Johnson, Adam: The Orphan Master’s Son* (2012)
* Winner of 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Review: © Booklist: Pak Jun Do lives with his father at a North Korean work camp for orphans. In a nation in which every citizen serves the state, orphans routinely get the most dangerous jobs. So it is for Jun Do, who becomes a tunnel soldier, trained to fight in complete darkness in the tunnels beneath the DMZ. But he is reassigned as a kidnapper, snatching Japanese citizens with special skills, such as a particular opera singer or sushi chef. Failure as a kidnapper could lead directly to the prison mines. But in Johnson’s fantastical, careening tale, Jun Do manages to impersonate Commander Ga, the country’s greatest military hero, rival of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and husband of Sun Moon, North Korea’s only movie star. Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief. As Jun Do, speaking as Ga, puts it, people have been trained to accept any reality presented to them. Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Descriptions of everyday privations and barbarities are matter of fact, and Jun Do’s love for Sun Moon reads like a fairy tale. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is a triumph on every level.
Kidjo, Angélique, with Rachel Wenrick: Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music (2014)
Review: © Library Journal: Kidjo’s memoir brims with the same joy, exuberance, and wisdom exhibited in her music while adding depth and insight into her art and life and the triumph of making connections through music. She grew up in Benin (West Africa), with a family full of songs and love. In order to continue to create her music, Kidjo fled a dictatorship and moved to France, where she struggled to support herself and against the “coolness toward African immigrants.” She studied music, got married, and built on her interest in human rights. Through many collaborations-with Carlos Santana, Ziggy Marley, and Branford Marsalis, to name only a few-across cultures, styles, and countries, she details how she combines the music of Africa with music from the diaspora, extracted through slavery, constructing unique combinations and blending modern and traditional, roots and technology, jazz, and more with drums and complex rhythms at the center. She outlines how she has used her notoriety, as well as her predilection to speak her mind, to visit and advocate for women and children through UNICEF and her own foundation.
Lessing, Doris*: The Grass is Singing (1950)
* Winner of 2007 Nobel Literature Prize
Synopsis: Set in Southern Rhodesia under white rule, Doris Lessing’s first novel is at once a riveting chronicle of human disintegration, a beautifully understated social critique, and a brilliant depiction of the quiet horror of one woman’s struggle against a ruthless fate. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm works its slow poison. Mary’s despair progresses until the fateful arrival of Moses, an enigmatic, virile black servant. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses–master and slave–are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion, until their psychic tension explodes with devastating consequences.
Mandela, Nelson*: Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995)
* Winner of 1993 Nobel Peace Prize
Review: © Library Journal: This is an articulate, moving account of Mandela’s life from his “country childhood” following his birth on July 18, 1918 to his inauguration as president of South Africa on May 10, 1994. Mandela traces the growth of his understanding of the oppression of the blacks of South Africa; his conviction that there was no alternative to armed struggle; his developing belief that all people, black and white, must be free for true freedom; and the effect that his commitment to overthrowing apartheid had on his family, who “paid a terrible price.” Over a third of Mandela’s memoir tells of his 27 years in prison, an account that could stand alone as a prison narrative. He ends his book with the conclusion that his “long walk” for freedom has just begun: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Meisler, Stanley: When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years (2011)
Review: © Booklist: Few government programs enjoy the reputation of the Peace Corps, a political afterthought by President Kennedy that became one of the more enduring legacies of his administration. Succeeding administrations have had testy relations with the Peace Corps. Johnson railed against volunteers’ opposition to his invasion of the Dominican Republic, and Reagan tried to use the program to advance his agenda in Central America. Since its 1961 inception, the Peace Corps has had to manage its mission to advance peace and provide development assistance, from teaching to building wells, against political onslaughts within the U.S. and host nations even as it managed its image as symbol of American idealism rather than tool of the CIA. Meisler, a deputy director during its early years, offers informed perspective from the turbulent years of the Vietnam War, when many volunteers were conflicted about their government, to the future direction of the Peace Corps. Drawing on his experience and interviews with former volunteers, he presents the fascinating characters, locales, and political background noise from a near-universally admired program’s 50-year history.
Mengustu, Dinaw: All Our Names (2014)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Immigrant stories are often about self-invention, but in his latest novel, in which an African escaping to America cannot leave his past behind, McArthur Fellow Mengestu (How to Read the Air) portrays the intersection of cultures experienced by the immigrant with unsettling perception. Each of the two narrators-one speaking from the past in Africa, one in present-day America-has a relationship with a young man named Isaac, and the two take turns describing these relationships. The African narrator, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, recounts how he leaves his rural village to subsist on the margins of a university in a city that he simply calls “the Capital.” There, he finds a friend in the magnetic Isaac, a young revolutionary who draws him into an antigovernment insurgency. The second narrator is Helen, a Midwestern social worker, who takes under her wing and into her heart an African refugee named Isaac, knowing little about his situation and nothing of his history. The action is set after the first flush of African independence, as democratic self-rule proves elusive, while in America racial and social divides persist. In Africa, Isaac, the revolutionary, endures beatings and torture before confronting his own side’s penchant for violence. In America, Helen and the man she calls Isaac face their own intractable obstacles. Mengestu evokes contrasting landscapes but focuses on his characters-Isaac, the saddened visionary; Isaac, the secretive refugee; Helen, the sympathetic lover-who are all caught in a cycle of connection and disruption, engagement and abandonment, hope and disillusion.
Namu, Yang Erche, and Christine Mathieu: Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World (2003)
Review: © Booklist: Namu grew up in Moso country in south China, in a community where people usually live their entire lives in the same village they are born in. In Moso society, women own the houses and are heads of the households. Their adult children take lovers and have children of their own, but they do not leave their mother’s house–except for Namu’s mother, Latso, who, after almost joining a group of Chinese Communists, instead settled in a nearby village and took a series of lovers. Namu, her third child, was as willful as her mother. As a teen, Namu left home to tour with a musical troupe. Namu and her troupe won contests all over China, but when she returned to Moso country again, she found her village too small and once again made plans to leave–this time without her mother’s approval. A fascinating look at a unique culture and a determined, ambitious young woman. (Coauthor Mathieu’s afterword provides more insight into Moso culture from an anthropological standpoint.)
Newby, Eric: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958)
Review: © The Independent: Genial godfather of modern British travel writing, Eric Newby taught a generation of adventurers how to blend the light touch with the long view. This classic trek from 1958 sees him blunder through the Near East and into Afghanistan, through a rugged land of dangers and marvels where “we shoot people without permission” (plus ça change). In a gloriously improbable finale, he runs into Wilfred Thesiger himself. The epic voyager meets his lighter-hearted heir – but Newby, for all his comic gifts, never loses for one dusty mountain mile his own “capacity for wonderment.”
Obreht, Téa: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)
Review: © Bookbrowse: The Tiger’s Wife is, on the surface, a tale of one woman’s search for the truth behind her beloved grandfather’s death, but the implications of this search are fundamental to the way we make sense of life and death. Obreht’s delicate unfolding of Natalia’s grandfather’s past presents a multi-dimensional view of a man Natalia believed she knew. From the reader’s view, these different perspectives are suspended but never resolved, so that we are left with the final, breathless conclusion that they could all be true. The tantalizing notion that the fantastic and unbelievable can co-exist with the mundane has long fueled religion, fiction, and folklore. Obreht teases out the human impulse to create stories, to contrive wonder in the face of temporality, and the result is extraordinary.
Pamuk, Orhan*: The Museum of Innocence (2009)
* Winner of 2006 Nobel Literature Prize
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s latest is a soaring, detailed and laborious mausoleum of love. During Istanbul’s tumultuous 1970s, Kemal Bey, 30-year-old son of an upper-class family, walks readers through a lengthy catalogue of trivial objects, which, though seeming mundane, hold memories of his life’s most intimate, irretrievable moments. The main focus of Kemal’s peculiar collection of earrings, ticket stubs and drinking glasses is beloved Fusun, his onetime paramour and longtime unrequited love. An 18-year-old virginal beauty, modest shopgirl and “poor distant relation,” Fusun enters Kemal’s successful life just as he is engaged to Sibel, a “very special, very charming, very lovely girl.” Though levelheaded Sibel provides Kemal compassionate relief from their social strata’s rising tensions, it is the fleeting moments with fiery, childlike Fusun that grant conflicted Kemal his “deepest peace.” The poignant truth behind Kemal’s obsession is that his “museum” provides a closeness with Fusun he’ll never regain. Though its incantatory middle suffers from too many indistinguishable quotidian encounters, this is a masterful work.
Parkin, Gayle: Baking Cakes in Kigali (2009)
Review: © Booklist: In a land where human tragedy is wrought in epic proportions due to AIDS, famine, and genocide, one woman has a gift for fighting hardship one cake at a time. An emigrant to the Rwandan city of Kigali, the sublimely named Angel Tungaraza creates luscious gourmet cakes for neighbors and friends, diplomats and villagers who have learned the value of celebrating life’s joys. A menopausal matron, Angel has lost both her adult children to disease and its violent adjuncts, and is now raising her five grandchildren. Such personal experience with her country’s catastrophes makes Angel the ideal confidante, a skill she puts to charming and clever use as she empathetically elicits each customer’s history with the subtle skill of a trained counselor. Client by client, cake by cake, Angel whips up the perfect blend of honor and hope, reflection and thanksgiving. A native of Zambia and consultant on AIDS and gender education, debut novelist Parkin delivers a buoyant, astute, and sensitively pragmatic portrait of contemporary African challenges.
Patchett, Ann: State of Wonder (2011)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Patchett (Bel Canto) is a master storyteller who has an entertaining habit of dropping ordinary people into extraordinary and exotic circumstances to see what they’re made of. In this expansive page-turner, Marina Singh, a big pharma researcher, is sent by her married boss/lover to the deepest, darkest corner of the Amazon to investigate the death of her colleague, Anders Eckman, who had been dispatched to check on the progress of the incommunicado Dr. Annick Swenson, a rogue scientist on the cusp of developing a fertility drug that could rock the medical profession (and reap enormous profits). After arriving in Manaus, Marina travels into her own heart of darkness, finding Dr. Swenson’s camp among the Lakashi, a gentle but enigmatic tribe whose women go on bearing children until the end of their lives. As Marina settles in, she goes native, losing everything she had held on to so dearly in her prescribed Midwestern life, shedding clothing, technology, old loves, and modern medicine in order to find herself. Patchett’s fluid prose dissolves in the suspense of this out-there adventure, a juggernaut of a trip to the crossroads of science, ethics, and commerce that readers will hate to see end.
Paton, Alan: Cry, The Beloved Country (1948)
Synopsis: The most famous and important novel in South Africa’s history, and an immediate worldwide bestseller when it was published in 1948, Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty. The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, “We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.” Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
Roy, Arundhati: The God of Small Things* (1997)
* Winner of 1997 Man Booker Prize
Review: © Publishers Weekly: With sensuous prose, a dreamlike style infused with breathtakingly beautiful images and keen insight into human nature, Roy’s debut novel charts fresh territory in the genre of magical, prismatic literature. Set in Kerala, India, during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the age-old caste system, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, the cousin of the novel’s protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. In a circuitous and suspenseful narrative, Roy reveals the family tensions that led to the twins’ behavior on the fateful night that Sophie drowned. Beneath the drama of a family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history–all of which come together in a slip of fate, after which a family is irreparably shattered. Roy captures the children’s candid observations but clouded understanding of adults’ complex emotional lives. Rahel notices that “at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” Plangent with a sad wisdom, the children’s view is never oversimplified, and the adult characters reveal their frailties–and in one case, a repulsively evil power–in subtle and complex ways. While Roy’s powers of description are formidable, she sometimes succumbs to overwriting, forcing every minute detail to symbolize something bigger, and the pace of the story slows. But these lapses are few, and her powers coalesce magnificently in the book’s second half. Roy’s clarity of vision is remarkable, her voice original, her story beautifully constructed and masterfully told.
Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children* (1980)
* Winner of 1981 Man Booker Prize, and of Booker of Bookers in 1993, and of Best of the Bookers in 2008
Teaser: Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.
Russell, Mary Doria: Dreamers of the Day (2008)
Review: © Booklist: On the heels of a family tragedy precipitated by the influenza epidemic of 1919, middle-aged spinster schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin inherits enough money to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Traveling to Egypt, she settles in at the Semiramis Hotel, where she meets and becomes involved with a number of members of the Cairo Peace Conference, including T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell. As these luminaries begin to carve up the Middle East, the unassuming Agnes wins the confidence of the conference attendees and attracts the attention of a dashing German spy. Narrated by Agnes from beyond the grave—a twist that is not revealed until the end of the book—this atmospheric entrée into a bygone time and place provides a first-person peek into the international political machinations that forged the contemporary Arab world.
See, Lisa: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005)
Review: © Library Journal: Foot binding; nu shu, a secret language used exclusively by the women of Hunan Province for 1000 years; and laotong, the arranged friendship between little girls meant to last a lifetime, provide the framework for See’s (Dragon Bones) riveting look at a little-known chapter in 19th-century Chinese history. In 1903, 80-year-old Lily looks back on her life, which was anchored by her laotong relationship with the beautiful Snow Flower. As little girls, the two communicated in nu shu, writing of their mutual devotion on a fan they passed between each other over the years. Raised according to the traditional restrictions of the times, they lived most of their lives confined to the upstairs women’s chamber in their homes, enduring the relentless societal insistence that women are worthless except for their value in producing sons. The laotong bonds of Lily and Snow Flower endure through family tragedies, a typhoid-fever epidemic, and the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64, but it is a misunderstood message in nu shu, the language that held them together for decades, that ultimately tears them apart. See’s meticulous research and exquisite language deliver a story that is haunting, powerful, and, at times, almost too painful to bear.
Tayler, Jeffrey*: Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel (2005)
* RPCV Morocco (1988-1990)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: This engrossing narration of crossing the Sahel–the Saharan borderlands of Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Mali–by tortuous and frequently hair-raising local conveyances finds a barren, wind-scoured region, wracked by hunger, tribal conflict, animosity between Muslims and Christians and–a particular bane of wayfarers at border crossings–an infuriatingly corrupt and high-handed bureaucracy. Journalist Tayler (Glory in a Camel’s Eye) is guilt-stricken by the appalling poverty and enchanted with a Tuareg tribal sword dance (“This is how people were meant to live… shouting their joy into the wild night sky!”), but he generally avoids being overwhelmed by either the region’s problems or its exotic charms. Indeed, his critical perspective makes him an often cantankerous presence. Fluent in Arabic and French, he is drawn into debates about religion and politics (President Bush’s words and deeds are a favorite topic among Sahelian Muslims), skeptically cross-examines folklore about tourist spots, argues vehemently.with local defenders and Western relativists alike.against the persistent customs of slavery and female circumcision, and faces down bribe-hungry customs officials. Appreciative of the generosity and patience of the region’s long-suffering inhabitants, he also sees their cultures as bogged down by dogma and fatalism. Vividly written and trenchantly observed, Tayler’s account opens an everyday window on a world that the West normally confronts only in crisis.
Tzemach Lemmon, Gayle: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe (2011)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In 2005, Lemmon went to Afghanistan on assignment for the Financial Times to write about women entrepreneurs. When she met a dressmaker named Kamila Sediqi, Lemmon (once a producer for This Week with George Stephanopolos) knew she had her story. It’s an exciting, engrossing one that reads like a novel, complete with moments of tension and triumph, plus well-researched detail on daily life in Kabul under Taliban rule. When that regime descended in 1996, it brought fear, violence, and restrictions: women must stay home, may not work, and must wear the chadri-a cloak, also known as a burqa, that covers the face and body-in public. After Sediqi’s parents left the city to avoid being pressed into service, or worse, by the Taliban, it fell to her to support the family. Her story is at once familiar (she came up with an idea, procured clients, hired student workers, and learned as she went) and wholly different (she couldn’t go anywhere without a male escort, had to use an assumed name with customers due to the threat of being found out and punished, and could fit in work on the sewing machine only when there was electricity). It’s a fascinating story that touches on family, gender, business, and politics and offers inspiration through the resourceful, determined woman at its heart.
Vásquez, Juan Gabriel: The Sound of Things Falling (2013)
Review: © Publishers Weekly: “That story is to blame,” declares a character in Colombian author Vasquez’s latest novel (after The Secret History of Costaguana). Indeed, this book is an exploration of the ways in which stories profoundly impact lives. Around 1996, when murder and bloody mayhem fueled by the drug trade were commonplace in Bogota, the young law professor Antonio Yammara befriends enigmatic stranger Ricardo Laverde. One night, assassins on motorbikes open fire on the two, killing Laverde and seriously wounding Yammara. Conflicted and at a loss to understand the damage Laverde has wrought, Yammara looks into his life story. Yammara suffers from crippling psychic and physical wounds as a result of the shooting, and his investigation takes him to Laverde’s shabby Bogota apartment, where he receives a gruesome clue from the grieving landlady. Yammara eventually finds Laverde’s daughter Maya, a beekeeper who lives in the Colombian countryside. She shows Yammara photos and letters she’s collected about the father she never knew. Together they lose themselves in stories of Laverde’s childhood; of Maya’s American mother, Elaine Fritts; and of Elaine and Laverde’s love affair. Vásquez allows the story to become Elaine’s, and as the puzzle of Laverde is pieced together, Yammara comes to realize just how thoroughly the stories of these other people are part of his own.