Review: “Lucky Us” by Amy Bloom

bloomLeft on her father’s porch at the age of twelve, Eva suddenly finds herself living in the shadow of her half-sister, Iris, though the two love each other dearly. Eva follows Iris to 1940s Hollywood as Iris pursues her dream of being a star. When things there go awry, the girls travel across the country to New York, to start new lives. Iris’ beauty and talent continues to overshadow Eva, who only wishes for the family she was never allowed. There is joy and success, but also loss and heartbreak for both girls.

I was really excited to read this book. It has already gotten a lot of praise, and  Amy Bloom has gotten a lot of recognition for her past books. Also, I’ll admit that I probably first judged it by its cover, which is pretty cool. But it turns out that this book was just bland. There were one or two interesting characters, but in general I found the cast difficult to like. The two main characters, in particular, were impossible to sympathize with. What’s more, the plot was uninspired.

TL;DR: I’m not sure what Bloom was going for in this book, but she didn’t achieve it. Unless you’re a die-hard Amy Bloom fan, I’d skip this one.

2 stars

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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: “I’ll Be Right There” by Kyung-Sook Shin

shinWhen Jung Yoon suddenly receives a phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years, she finds herself thrust back into her college years filled with conflict and loss. She recounts her mother’s long illness, and the anger she felt when her mother pushed her out of the house to live with her cousin, claiming it was better for the young girl. This is the story of Yoon’s childhood and how it connects with who she became in college, where she met two fascinating people who became her close friends, despite the darkness of their past. The entire story is set during South Korea’s contentious student protests and government suppression of the 1980s. I’ll Be Right There is a beautiful book, even if it’s heavy. There is a lot of heartbreak and loss, but there are lessons to be learned here. The book is inspiring and heartfelt, and I wish it had lasted longer than it did. Shin is a wonderful writer, with a style similar to Haruki Murakami in the sense that they both have great insight into human nature and are wonderful at describing the complex relationships between people. As far as I can tell, this is only the second book of hers to be translated into English, which is a shame. But I’ll be sure to check out the other one, Please Look After Mom, which I hear is also heavy.

TL:DR: I’ll Be Right There crosses cultural borders to speak to anyone willing to listen. While heavy, it’s steeped in references to great literature and music, and overall is just very well put together. This is sure to be one of the best-known works of South Korean literature in translation. Available now from Other Press.

4 stars

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Review: “Chasing the Sun” by Natalia Sylvester

sunFrom New Harvest:

Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?

Set in Lima, Peru, in a time of civil and political unrest, this evocative page-turner is a perfect marriage of domestic drama and suspense.

I took interest in this book because I have a certain affinity for all things Peru. It’s my favorite country and it has a fascinating modern history, which this story is a snapshot of.

Sylvester has a talent for character development, giving the reader a sense of closeness to the protagonist as the story progresses. I felt Andres’ hope when he thinks his wife may soon be home, and his devastation when those hopes are dashed.

The one character I most disliked, ironically enough, is Andres’ wife, Marabela. She had little sympathy or understanding for how hard her husband worked to bring her home or the agony he endured while she was gone.

This could be a natural reaction on my part, though, since the majority of the book is told from Andres’ perspective. Also, I can’t pretend to know how it would feel to be kidnapped and held indefinitely, not knowing what’s going on at home. Sylvester’s bio suggests that someone in her family was kidnapped when she was young, and so she obviously has a better understanding of how someone may feel in that situation.

TL;DR: Overall, a well-developed and interesting read. Especially good for those with an interest in recent Peruvian history.

Chasing the Sun is available today from New Harvest.

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Review: “Shanghai Baby” by Wei Hui

600526Set in the centuries-old port city of Shanghai, the novel follows the days, and nights, of the irrepressibly carnal Coco, who waits tables in a café when she meets her first lover, a sensitive Chinese artist. Defying her parents, Coco moves in with her boyfriend and enters a frenzied, orgasmic world of drugs and hedonism. But, helpless to stop her gentle lover’s descent into addiction, Coco becomes attracted to a boisterous Westerner, a rich German businessman with a penchant for S/M and seduction. Now, with an entourage of friends ranging from a streetwise madame to a rebellious filmmaker, Coco’s forays into in the territory of love and lust cross the borders between two cultures — awakening her guilt and fears of discovery, yet stimulating her emerging sexual self. Searing a blistering image into the reader’s imagination, Shanghai Baby provides an alternative travelogue into the back streets of a city and the hard-core escapades of today’s liberated youth. Wei Hui’s provocative portrayal of men, women, and cultural transition is an astonishing and brave exposure of the unacknowledged new China, breaking through official rhetoric to show the inroads of the West and a people determined to burst free. [From the publisher]

I fell in love with the city of Shanghai when I lived there for a year. In fact, I have a deep interest in most things Chinese. Unfortunately, a lot of traditional Chinese literature bores me to tears. Until recently the most common form of literature was family epics, which do little for me. I chose to read Shanghai Baby because it breaks that tradition, not to mention it caused a commotion in China because of its racy content.

Shanghai Baby has received a lot of pitiful reviews, and I can understand why. It really is scarcely-concealed erotica and laowei worship (the author really seems to love the Western world). The predominant message of the protagonist is, “It’s such a burden being beautiful and desired.” Despite that, there’s a complexity of emotion in the book that is absent in other Chinese literature. It could possibly be described as what the Japanese call an I novel; a novel that is essentially the story of the author’s life, yet remains fiction. I value the new breed of Chinese literature that is more than a family epic; it’s modern Chinese giving a portrait of modern China.

TL;DR: I’m conflicted about this book, but would recommend it to those interested in modern China.

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Review: “The Hired Man” by Aminatta Forna

17237713From the publisher:

“Gost is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers. The summer sun burns. The winter brings freezing winds. Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open, and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived. A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house, they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer, painstakingly restore it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.”

It’s been a long time since a book so engrossed me that I was kept up past my bedtime to read it. But with The Hired Man, it was effortless. What I liked was the small cast of characters, which allowed each to be richly developed and complicated.

The story alternates between the present and Duro’s past, telling the story of friendships gone wrong and illicit love that developed at precisely the wrong time.

TL;DR: It’s not an elaborate story, but it is beautiful and emotional (I almost cried, and I almost never cry during a book). It would be a great addition to a summer reading list for those who don’t want to read trash!

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Review: “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

1072932Burmese Days is the story of an average Englishman who has spent the past fifteen years living as a policeman in Burma. Contrary to his countrymen also living in Burma, Flory is mostly accepting of the native people, even interested in them. He is bored with the ceaseless, banal chatter that goes on in the Club (restricted to white men), and distressed at the rate in which his youth is fading. When a beautiful young English girl arrives in the village to stay with her aunt and uncle, Flory realizes that his days of loneliness and boredom may have come to an end.

This book is essentially about racism, and few authors can make blatant racism so humorous at times. Orwell writes about each side of the equation (Englishmen and natives) wanting to keep the other in their place – Flory’s servant is uncomfortable with his master acting differently from the other white men. One of the white men tells the Club butler not to speak such flawless English.

426px-OrwellBurmaPassport

Orwell during his time in Burma.

Though fiction, the book serves as a sort of autobiography chronicling Orwell’s own experience as part of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma during the 1920s.

One of my favorite scenes in the novel features the protagonist’s love interest, Elizabeth, speaking with her aunt. Elizabeth had only recently come to Burma after living in Paris for two years. Her aunt begins by asking how she could have left Paris unmarried, and Elizabeth replies:

‘I’m afraid I didn’t meet many men, Aunt. Only foreigners. We had to live so quietly. And I was working,’ she added, thinking this rather a disgraceful admission.

‘Of course, of course,’ sighed Mrs Lackersteen. ‘One hears the same thing on every side. Lovely girls having to work for their living. It is such a shame! I think it’s so terribly selfish, don’t you, the way these men remain unmarried while there are so many poor girls looking for husbands?’ Elizabeth not answering this, Mrs Lackersteen added with another sigh, ‘I’m sure if I were a young girl I’d marry anybody, literally anybody!’

These two paragraphs exemplify precisely what I loved about this novel. The characters are mostly awful, racist people, as well as being rather ignorant and simple. But Orwell so ingeniously mocks these characteristics that I can’t help but love the entire book.

As readers of Orwell staples Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four will be familiar with, the ending is not at all a happy one, so that’s something to take into consideration when deciding whether to read it.

TL;DR: Burmese Days is forgotten these days in the overwhelming presence of Orwell’s classics. But I do recommend it for being funny, engaging, and all-too truthful.

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