Review: “The Dinner” by Herman Koch

15797938[From the publisher] A summer’s evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the delicate scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of politeness – the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But the empty words hide a terrible conflict and, with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened… Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. Together, the boys have committed a horrifying act, caught on camera, and their grainy images have been beamed into living rooms across the nation; despite a police manhunt, the boys remain unidentified – by everyone except their parents. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children and, as civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

The characters Koch has created in this book are perfect. By that, I mean each one is carefully crafted and developed, people I could identify in real life if they existed. The book is designed in sections, each one pertaining to a course of the meal. The protagonist is relatable and hilarious in his distaste for his brother and the restaurant in which he finds himself. Despite this, I’m not sure that I liked anyone in this book. They are all morally questionable, though that’s really the whole point of the book – what would you do to keep things the way they always have been?

TL;DR: This is one of those books you’re going to want to discuss with someone else. Really enjoyable and thought-provoking.

4 stars

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Review: “In Search of King Solomon’s Mines” by Tahir Shah

536355While browsing a shop in Jerusalem, Shah comes across a hand-drawn map that the shop owner claims could guide him to the legendary gold mines of King Solomon. Dubious map in hand, Shah sets out on a quest to Ethiopia.

In the capital, Addis Ababa, Shah collects two locals to help him – an educated, devout Christian with a rare love of his country’s history, and a sketchy and reckless Somali driver. Together the three explore the corners of Ethiopia, withstanding humor and hardship the whole way.

Not only is this book a hilarious, exciting adventure; it’s also a fantastic insight into the customs and folklore of the Ethiopian people. While Shah takes a sometimes arrogant and off-putting tone when speaking about the local people, overall this just adds to the humor and depth of the book.

TL;DR: I’m not sure who wouldn’t love this book. It’s witty, exciting, and informative all at once. Also, the Kindle edition is only $2.09. No excuses to not read it.

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Review: “A True Novel” by Minae Mizumura

17621103It’s no secret that I love Japanese literature. There’s something about it that takes over my mind as I’m reading and creates an addiction. It began when I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. That wasn’t so long ago, but it’s become one of my favorite genres. This book I’ve just finished, A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, solidified it even more.

A True Novel is a story within a story within another story. It revolves around one mysterious man with a tragic history. The book begins in New York with the narrator relating how she came to meet this man, Taro Azuma, and how she never quite stopped thinking about him, although their acquaintance was brief. By coincidence or by fate, she is approached by a young man who knows much more than she ever did about Taro, and he relates to her the story that was given to him back in Japan.

For the first time in ages I found a book that keeps me awake at night; when I found myself closing my eyes and drifting off, I’d reach again for the book thinking, “Just a few more pages!” It reminded me of my time in high school, walking the hallways between classes with my head down and a book open because I wanted to spend every free moment reading it. When I picked it up from the library, I didn’t realize that I only had Book I of a two-volume novel. When I saw that Book II wasn’t immediately available from the library, I jumped on Amazon and ordered by own copy of the set. It came two days later – just in time for me to finish the first book.

The first thing you’ll hear about A True Novel from Goodreads or Amazon is that it’s a remaking of Wuthering Heights. If you decide to read the book, forget about that. It has nothing to do with this story. A True Novel stands on its own. So while the book is part metafiction, part reimagining, it’s really an engrossing story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

TL;DR: If you read no other fiction this year, read this one. I mean it.

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Review: “American Crucifixion” by Alex Beam

18210814The full title of the book describes it all – American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church is a compelling account of the years, months, days and hours leading up the murder of the founder and leader of the Mormon church, as well as the events that occurred immediately after.

Beam really did his homework while preparing to write this book. He spent time with countless scholars in the LDS church, historians in the church archives and from BYU. The book is rich with details about the inner workings of the church under the leadership of Joseph Smith. Beam shows how Smith’s “revelation” of plural marriage led to deep divisions in the church and was the primary fuel of anti-Mormon fervor in Illinois and beyond.

Those who know little to nothing about the LDS church need not fear; the book briefly explains the “revelations” of Joseph Smith and how he came to found the church and recruit members. For those who already have some knowledge of the church, the book is a valuable and enlightening addition.

I couldn’t find much information about Beam himself, but from what I gather he is not Mormon himself. With that in mind, it’s impressive how he was able to write a balanced piece about a church that has seen so much controversy. Any bias you may hear in this review is purely from my own opinions that I had before reading the book. So extra kudos to Beam for being objective! My only complaint is that the jacket feels like sandpaper and I recoiled the first time I touched it, so hopefully you don’t mind reading your book without the jacket!

TL;DR: A really great read for anyone interested in the history of the LDS church!

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Review: “Countdown” by Alan Weisman

countdownHow long can the Earth continue to support our current population growth? In Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth, Weisman sets out to answer this question. He does so by visiting more than 20 countries to see what difficulties they face due to overpopulation and what measures, if any, they’re taking to solve the problem.

From Israel to England, China to Iran, we see people and countries that are effectively facing their problems or making the problem worse in the name of national security or religion. Weisman does a fantastic job of presenting facts in a compelling and digestible manner. There were several moments in the book where I lost all hope for humanity – the stubbornness and greed of human beings is astounding. But then the author counters the bleak picture with one of hope, in the form of a country or community that is making real progress in limiting their population and improving the living conditions of their people.  As Gandhi said, “There is enough for everyone’s need – but not for everyone’s greed.”

The task of convincing a population to limit their number of children is daunting, but from reading Weisman’s book I’m able to understand what’s working and what’s not. It seems to me that the best plan of action is to hastily increase the number of young girls receiving a quality education in under-developed countries. Educated girls grow into educated woman who wait to have children and understand the benefits of a smaller family. Nobody loses in this scenario.

Verdict:

I rarely give a book a 5 of 5 stars, but this one is definitely deserving. Please, give it a try.

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Review: “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami

sputnikThe narrator of this story, who we only ever see referred to as K, tells the story of his best friend Sumire, a rough 22-year-old girl with a passion for writing and reading. At the beginning of the story, Sumire falls in love with Miu, an elegant and sophisticated women 17 years older than she.

Meanwhile, K is in love with Sumire, and despite knowing nothing will come of it, he continues to answer her 3 a.m. phone calls. When Sumire leaves for an extended stay in Europe with Miu without telling him, K is not resentful. And when he receives yet another 3 a.m. phone call, this time from Miu asking him to come immediately to a small island in Greece because Sumire is in trouble, he does not hesitate.

This is my eighth Murakami novel, and while it’s not my favorite (Norwegian Wood still claims that spot), it comes in a close second. There are few prominent characters, but they’re all well put-together and entirely likable. The book is small (the paperback is 229 pages), but concise with a satisfying pace.

In the past I’ve enjoyed Murakami less than I could have because of how surreal his books can be, which is why I enjoyed Norwegian Wood so much. But in this one, the fantasy aspects don’t come in until the last third of the book, and are relatively subtle (at least compared to 1Q84 or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)As a result, it was great reading for me.

Verdict:

One of the best of the year so far! Recommended for those who want to try something a little bit different, but don’t want to invest in a long read.

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Review: “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese

stoneThis is the story of Marion Stone, born in Ethiopia from the illicit union between an Indian nun and a British surgeon. On the night he and his brother Shiva were born, his mother died and his father disappeared. The boys are raised by two other doctors for the hospital in which the boys were born. Marion recounts his experience growing up in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, and the sometimes complicated bond between him and his twin brother. As Marion grows older and the country becomes embroiled in a revolution, his life becomes more and more entangled with the warfare and may eventually lead him to his estranged father.

I’ve found little Ethiopia literature, though I don’t know why. I’m grateful for this novel, as it is a gem. Although fiction, it provides a great window into a volatile period in African history that few Westerners know much, if anything, about. The characters are well-crafted and believable, and the writing flows easily. Verghese creates a picture of Addis Ababa and the devastation it took due to the revolution, a picture more vivid than any history book could create.

Verdict: 

Highly recommended for those interested in a little-known culture and history. One of the best books I’ve so far this year!

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