Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Synopsis:

12611253Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

Review:

Epistolary novels are my weakness and this one is exceptionally good. The range of mediums, as well as writers and recipients, gives us a deep look into people’s heads. And what interesting heads! Semple does a great job giving each character a distinct voice and making the whole thing funny to boot.

Starting feels a little bit like wading into the weeds but things come together quickly. Even after the narrative settled down Semple kept me on my toes by bringing up something I didn’t know and letting it hang. It gnawed quietly on a corner of my brain for 10, 20, or 50 pages before a subtle explanation was dropped. More than once I found myself smiling and nodding in recognition, “ohhh, that thing!” Now and then there was a reference I did get, letting me feel smart for a second.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette lives and breathes the axiom “show, don’t tell”. I don’t want to spoil you, so let’s just say that a powerpoint presentation is given in front of a large crowd. The speaker’s clicker breaks two slides in, though, and he has to resort to explaining everything. It’s perfect because it allows the transcript to be a full record while also showing the character’s poise under pressure. Add in a live blogger’s comments and it’s masterful.

The only fault I can find in the entire novel is a slightly slow part near the end, but it’s so minor it’s barely worth mentioning. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a fun, engaging read just about anyone can enjoy.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

24399756On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes.

But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

Review:

I’ve made the mistake of not writing this review right away so particulars have flown out of my brain, gah. Check out Doing Dewey’s review for a more proper look but let me give you my overall impression – wow.

Leovy’s writing is outstanding and is just as amazing on audiobook as I imagine it is on the page. She weaves background and context into the story of a single murder so that we understand not just what happened in one case, but in South Central LA over the course of decades.

The only thing that gives me pause is there is a whiff of white savior narrative going on, though Leovy does her best to squash the impression. And looking at Goodreads there isn’t a single person of color (as gleaned from avatars) in the top page of reviews, which makes me wonder what I’m missing. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is going on my TBR to make sure I get another perspective.

Even so, this book – part police procedural, part court drama, part whodunit – is narrative nonfiction at its best.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Synopsis:

14891The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Review:

Oh man, I loved this book. It is quiet and wonderful, following the life of Francie, a poor girl in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her story is both individual and universal, as all good stories should be.

Continue reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith”

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.

Review:

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #1)

Synopsis:

91661Long retired, Sherlock Holmes quietly pursues his study of honeybee behavior on the Sussex Downs. He never imagines he would encounter anyone whose intellect matched his own, much less an audacious teenage girl with a penchant for detection. Miss Mary Russell becomes Holmes’ pupil and quickly hones her talent for deduction, disguises and danger. But when an elusive villain enters the picture, their partnership is put to a real test.

Review:

There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be an apprentice.

While studying abroad I studied language and culture, of course, but I also took a ceramics class. The studio quickly became the center of my world. I would come in during free periods to trim pots and spent most Saturdays alongside Sensei, learning how to make bigger and more intricate things while talking about every subject under the sun.

Watching Sensei at the wheel was both inspiring and utterly humbling. He made bowls rise out clay as easily as he breathed, then thoughtfully added an imperfection that only accentuated the flawlessness of his craft. The two of us spent many an hour debating, musing, laughing, and working silently side by side.

When the end of my year arrived I may have begged the University to let Sensei hire an assistant. Someone to help him do all the menial work around the studio in exchange for a bed in the dorm and a chance to be close to his mastery. “Assistant” as far as the school was concerned, but “apprentice” to me. Needless to say the University would have none of it and after a tearful goodbye (on my part, not Sensei’s) I returned to my normal life, albeit with a sense of longing for what could have been.

…but what does that have to do with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice? Continue reading “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #1)”

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

31843383San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself.

Review (short version):

Guaranteed to be one of my top books of the year, if not number one.  I actually made myself put it down after a chapter or two each night so I wouldn’t finish too quickly.  Part of the joy is going in blind and I suggest you do the same, so if the blurb interests you go read it.  Now-ish. :)

Review (long version):

I’m going to say as much as I can while giving away as little as possible.  Characters live and breathe in a city that does the same.  The plot is wonderfully paced within an intriguing structure and the writing is as beautiful as it is unobtrusive.

Our heroines live the best life they can despite the homophobia and racism and other miasmas that hang over San Francisco in 1940.  They struggle, but they are not defined by that struggle.  They aren’t damaged or any less themselves.  These women do what they can, do what they must, and above all, persist.

I know I haven’t done the book justice so… go.  Read it.  An enthusiastic, wholehearted recommend.

Thanks to Tor and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Why God Is a Woman by Nin Andrews

Synopsis:

25607518Why God Is a Woman is a collection of poems written about a magical island where women rule and men are the second sex. It is also the story of a boy who, exiled from the island because he could not abide by its sexist laws, looks back with both nostalgia and bitterness and wonders: Why does God have to be a woman? Celebrated prose poet Nin Andrews creates a world both fantastic and familiar where all the myths, logic, and institutions support the dominance of women.

Review:

Jen Campbell defines prose poetry perfectly: instead of watching the movie of a novel it’s like wandering through an art gallery, pausing before each painting to soak up its beauty.  The poems are indeed beautiful, but also so much more – in turns deep and funny and skewering.

What am I doing here? he asked God.  And Why am I so small compared to the sky, so hairless and weak compared to the rest of the animals, so mortal and lost compared to You?  Night after night man raged against God, until at last She grew tired of listening to him.  And so God created orgasms.  After every orgasm, man fell into a sleep, deeper than the sleep of stones.  And God at last was able to gain some peace of mind.  But that was when woman began to complain.

In this world men are said to be descended from angels, and grow wings once they reach puberty.  They sprout from their backs leaving embarrassing trails of blood, and the men use absorbent pads to hide their shame.  Women are said to have risen from the sea and are the elite, the politicians, any one that holds any scrap of power.  By turning gender roles on their head Andrews does more than merely satirize, she shows that binary gender norms are by their nature arbitrary and absurd.

If you need a little more convincing check out Jen’s review on youtube but if not – go. Read.  It’s amazing.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman

Synopsis:

25067884Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.

Review:

This book is a gem – it’s easy to see why it won the Best Translated Book Award. Short but deep, in turns slangy and lyrical, I’m already looking forward to rereading it.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful and light, perfectly fitting for whatever situation the main character finds herself in.  And deep!  So many layers.

    The stadium loomed before them. So, what do they use that for?

    They play, said the old man.  Every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are.  He stopped, raised his cane and fanned the air.  One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn’t get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.

    Do you like it?

    Tsk, me, I’m just passing through.

  • Makina is awesome.  Understated, street-wise awesome.
  • The translation by Lisa Dillman is wonderful and her note at the end is enlightening.  Translators are the closest to any text, maybe even closer than the authors themselves, because they process it in two different languages.  Her insights are wonderful and had me hankering to reread the book immediately to appreciate aspects I didn’t pick up the first time through.

The not-so-good:

  • This is the only the first book of Herrera’s to be translated into English.  I’m eagerly awaiting the second, soon to be published by the same press.

All in all I utterly love this book.  It didn’t rattle around in my head for as long as some others but it will reward rereading for years to come.

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)

Synopsis:

9780778313533_smp.inddNotorious Nora Sutherlin is famous for her delicious works of erotica, each one more popular with readers than the last. But her latest manuscript is different—more serious, more personal—and she’s sure it’ll be her breakout book… if it ever sees the light of day.

Zachary Easton holds Nora’s fate in his well-manicured hands. The demanding British editor agrees to handle the book on one condition: he wants complete control. Nora must rewrite the entire novel to his exacting standards—in six weeks—or it’s no deal.

Nora’s grueling writing sessions with Zach are draining… and shockingly arousing. And a dangerous former lover has her wondering which is more torturous—staying away from him… or returning to his bed?

Nora thought she knew everything about being pushed to your limits. But in a world where passion is pain, nothing is ever that simple.

Review:

Warning: this is not a romance novel. There is no happy ending and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Continue reading “The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)”

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer

Synopsis:

26633749For more than a decade, the “Complete Review” has been an essential site for readers interested in learning about new books in translation and developments in global literature. Expanding upon the site’s content, this wide-ranging yet user-friendly resource is the perfect guide for English-language readers eager to explore fiction from around the world. Profiling hundreds of titles and authors from 1945 to today, with an emphasis on fiction published in the past two decades, this reference provides a fascinating portal into the styles, trends, and genres of the world’s literatures, from Scandinavian crime thrillers and cutting-edge works in China to Latin American narco-fiction and award-winning French novels.

Review:

Orthorfer has read the world so you don’t have to.

No, wait, that’s not true.  He’s read the world so he can guide you through each region and country, pointing out the most important and interesting literary landmarks.  He’s a master at it, making The Complete Review Guide readable both in chunks as mood dictates or straight through, as I devoured it.

However you decide to read be sure to start with the introduction.  It lays out why there is so little translated literature in the US, the state of world literature today, and what to look out for when picking up a translation.  I knew to be wary of a book that doesn’t have the translator’s name featured on the cover but Orthofer adds,

A red flag to look out for is the translation copyright in the name of the publisher, rather than that of the translator, which indicates that the translation was a work for hire, thus giving the translator no rights regarding the presentation of the text.

That’s scary, especially as he goes on to talk about how translations are edited and sections, or even half the text, may be cut.  Good to know.

Once you’ve read the intro dip in to whatever region or country captures your fancy.  Each starts with an overview of the literary scene, both domestic and translated, and how events have shaped it over time.  I found it fascinating that  globalization can lead to originally English language books entering a country, stifling the native language writers already there.

The most important authors get several paragraphs outlining their life and their titles available in English.  Other authors get a few sentences each about their most influential or representative works.  Orthofer comes across as a wise guide, pointing you towards the best while not being afraid to warn about a clunker.  And he has a way of making a book irresistible in a single sentence:

Jang Eun-Lin’s (b.1976) No One Writes Back (2009, English 2013) is a well-crafted and moving road novel that slowly reveals itself to be more than it initially seems.

Sold!

I especially appreciate the effort he makes to include writers outside of the mainstream.  If a country has a lot of expat authors writing in English he makes sure to include some that have been translated from native languages.  Women are woefully underrepresented in translations in general but he points out many, both those concentrating on the female experience and not.  Most of the books are literary fiction but crime, mystery, science fiction, and other genres get some well-deserved love.

Orthofer hints at novels that aren’t translated yet but may be in the future, combining hope and a plea to the universe to make the translation of such worthy fiction happen. And the reference section is a gold mine of websites and books about literature in translation.  My feed reader became more interesting overnight.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is an easy recommendation to anyone that’s trying to diversify their reading.  But I’d also recommend to people that are in a reading rut, have an interest in a particular part of the world, or simply want to try something different.  Going on a trip to Spain?  Want to read something from Brazil in time for the Olympics?  Orthofer has you covered.  This book instantly earned a spot on my reference shelf and I look forward to revisiting it in the years ahead.

Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.