Wednesday, January 26, 2011

David Benioff, CITY OF THIEVES

I reread this last night. It stands up to a second reading. Don't be thrown by the fact that the protagonist of the story--a young Russian, age fifteen, in 1940s Leningrad--has the last name Beniov and that the story begins with a frame narrative (purportedly) about David Benioff interviewing his grandfather. It's pure fiction. But Benioff wrote the screenplay for KITE RUNNER years ago, and this book reads like a movie--fast-paced and intensely visual. It's the story of two men--the young Beniov and Kolya, a brash, lewd, sly Cossack--who are granted a reprieve for their respective crimes (looting a dead German paratrooper and desertion) and sent by a high-ranking Russian officer to find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. In Leningrad people are eating rats and there are no eggs, so the men leave, crossing German enemy lines. No more or I'll spoil it. Nearly everyone I've given the book to liked it, including all the members of my book club, my husband, and my former English teacher. (That's rare.)


My sister went to Bhutan a few years ago and read this book on the plane on the way over--because it was one of the few books she could find written about Bhutan, a small country squeezed between India and Tibet. (It is closed to most tourists, but it is typical for my sister that she knew someone who knew someone in the royal family and was allowed in.) It's a treasure of a memoir, of the "woman immersed and transformed by another culture" ilk, and I found it more satisfying than EAT PRAY LOVE. Zeppa, a young Canadian woman, abandons her thoughts of entering a Ph.D. program to teach English in Bhutan for two years. She spends her first five months in a tiny rural village with sporadic running water, and her remaining time at a university, where she falls in love with one of her students and converts to Buddhism. It's by turns hilarious and poignant and thoughtful.
The best part of my sister's story about this book is that one night she and her friend found themselves in a bar in Bhutan. My sister had a long conversation with one man--extremely good looking, articulate--and finally asked if he's married. He replied, "I was ... I married my English professor .... but my wife and I are divorced, and she moved back to Canada." My sister stared. "Were you married to Jamie Zeppa?" "Yes." (This, too, is the sort of thing that happens to my sister.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Laura Hillenbrand, UNBROKEN

Holy cow, this one is heartbreaking. Hillenbrand brings the same sort of energy, the same strong plot arc as she drew for SEABISCUIT, to the life of Louie Zamperini, one-time Olympic runner, bombardier on a B-24 in WWII, and survivor of Japanese POW camps. When his plane goes down in the Pacific, he and two other men float for 47 days on a poorly equipped liferaft, with sharks circling. Then he's taken to one horrifyingly inhumane Japanese camp after another, persecuted by a sadist called "the Bird." At times, I had to skip paragraphs and go back to them after I read ahead to find out how he survived. By page 200, I was jumping ahead to the end of the book. Ultimately, it's a story of courage and forgiveness, of letting go the desire for revenge that, left to itself, can bind us to our pasts. But be prepared to stay up half the night reading it. Or wake up in the middle of the night needing to finish it. Yes, it's 4:30 a.m. in Arizona.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Elizabeth Strout, AMY AND ISABELLE

Brilliant and terrifying. In a claustrophobically small mill town (I found myself thinking of Richard Russo), 16-year-old Amy's math teacher begins to molest her, and her mother Isabelle has no idea. Estranged from other people in town (and from her daughter) by what she imagines to be her own dark secrets, Isabelle only finds out because her boss comes upon Amy and Mr. Robertson in his car. Ultimately, the novel is somewhat redemptive--Isabelle finds her place by sharing the truth; but Amy is already almost gone. I'd compare the emotional intensity and the skill of the writing to that of LITTLE BEE.
By the way, has anyone out there read Chris Cleave's newest?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Very enjoyable, as with all Smith's work ... I've realized the reason I like him is he's a bit akin to Jane Austen ... and this book has some of her impulse ... with her "three or four families in a country village" in England. This (Smith's) novel is a small window, with a few characters, to provide a view of what life in the country was like during WWII, when foxes were making their way into henhouses against all efforts to stymie them with slats of wood, and when a Polish airman refuge might really be a German, but he played the flute beautifully. The one peculiarity with this book, and it's not a gripe, really, is that the first 253 pages carefully and delicately represents a short period of time--five or six years, during which La leaves London, moves to the country, plants her vegetables, begins her orchestra, and the war ends. Then in the remaining 40 pages, La goes from 34 years old in 1945 to 50 years old in 1961, with the only consistency being the two times she sees Feliks (the Polish refugee with whom she'd fallen in love). But the book charms.

Paul Auster, SUNSET PARK

Very good. A group of four troubled people, squatting in a Brooklyn house. As is usual with Auster, the characters are round, flawed, psychologically coherent. Miles, one of the four, and the figure at the center of the novel, has run away from his life for seven years, after he shoved his brother into the street, in the middle of a fight, and a car came around the corner, just at the wrong moment. Interesting that Jennifer Donnelly uses the same trope--accidental responsibility for a younger sibling's death--to pitch her heroine into the same trajectory of loss and recovery. Except with Auster's novel, the ending is bizarrely without closure. Just as Miles seems to get it together, he loses it again. And maybe that's the point.

Monday, January 10, 2011


OK, I am a wuss. I wince when I bump myself, say, on the corner of the desk. From now on, I will think, at least I am not shivering in 200 mile-an-hour winds, crouched behind a rock wall, eating freeze-dried spaghetti and suffering from oxygen deprivation. A friend (with whom I hiked the Grand Canyon) passed me this book, partly because the author used to teach at my daughter's school; it turns out he went to my husband's high school, too. The author is blind, and he has climbed some of the world's toughest mountains, including Everest. It's a great story, a good read; he tells his story with plenty of humor, and also some pointed and wry insights about how the world treats, and what the world believes about, blind people.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cassandra Clare, CLOCKWORK ANGEL

YA, and angels instead of vampires, set in late Victorian London (OK, I'm a sucker for all those historical details). Page-turner for those who liked Twilight series.


Usually I love anything David Liss writes ... and I've recommended his books, particularly THE WHISKEY REBELS, to many friends. But this one ... was it just the holidays? Is that why I couldn't quite slip into his world, because I was too busy in my own? Not sure. But I didn't enjoy this one nearly as much as some of his others. It felt to me ... almost as if he weren't very interested in the fate of Mr. Weaver anymore. Plenty of twists and turns to the plot, though, and as usual, his historical setting feels very rich.

Tatiana de Rosnay, SARAH'S KEY

Like HOTEL, this book takes as its topic another powerful moment in history--the night when French police conspired with Nazi Germany to round up hundreds of Jews and put the on busses into the Velodrom d'Hiver, an enclosure in Paris, where there was no sanitation, next to no food or water, and many died ... and from thence, to Auschwitz. Told in a double-narrative (we're seeing so many these days) between Sarah (1940s) and Mlle. Jarmond (2000s). The personal story at the core of the narrative concerns young Sarah, who, instead of bringing her little brother along when she and her mother and father were dragged out of their apartment, locked the boy into a secret cabinet, promising to return. He died there. Years later (again, the parallels with HOTEL!) an American-French journalist, Jarmond, discovers that her husband is renovating that apartment, bequeathed to him by his father. She is determined to find out what happened to Sarah's family and discovers that Sarah went to America and passed herself off as non-Jewish and French. This is a remarkable story. But I found myself bothered by the romance/baby plotline ... her husband is having an affair with an old flame, a midlife crisis, and Jarmond becomes pregnant; her life-and-death decision about whether to keep the baby (her husband doesn't want, and will divorce her over) is, I think, somehow supposed to parallel and add depth to her decision about whether to pursue the story of Sarah, which her father-in-law is dreading (because he was there at the apartment the day Sarah came back, opened the compartment with her key, and found her brother dead). There are some wonderful sections, especially in the Sarah parts; but the ending (SPOILER ALERT) in which Jarmond ends up marrying Sarah's son feels too tidy to me.


God knows this is a powerful topic: the camps into which Japanese Americans in Seattle (and other areas) were thrown in the early 1940s. Plotwise, this is a love story about a Chinese twelve-year-old boy (Henry) who meets and falls in love with a Japanese girl (Keiko), partly because they are the only two scholarship kids, working in the kitchen, at their school in 1942. Years later, in 1986, he sees the Panama Hotel being excavated ... and realizes that this is where many Japanese stowed their personal valuables and treasures that they could not bring with them into the camps. The most painful and touching moments for me were between Henry and his miserable, angry father, who lives half his mental life back in China, fighting with Chiang Kai-Shek against the Japanese. When Henry becomes friends with Keiko, and visits her in the camp, his father disowns him; even on his deathbed, his father doesn't forgive him, and instead confesses to keeping Keiko's letters from ever reaching Henry--"I did it for you". But I found Henry's dialogues with his son Marty awkward ... at times Henry sounds like he can barely speak English -- "My son is graduating soma como lode" (p. 38). But at others, Henry speaks with absolute fluency--because his parents refused to let him speak any Chinese from the time he was 12. Sometimes, the 12-year-olds seem precocious ... Keiko says, "Henry, this isn't about us. I mean it is, but they don't define you by the button you wear. They define you by what you do, by what your actions say about you ... They see you as a person." And I'm not sure the phrase "street cred" was around in 1986. Maybe? But it's a touching story, and while it's focalized through Henry, the third-person narrator lends an eerie distance that keeps me a bit uneasy through the whole book ... reminded me that I cannot know this experience, not really; there are some people who knew it firsthand. I can only ever be at a distance.