Friday, July 6, 2007

June Book Reviews

June 2007 was an excellent month, as I read two five-star novels and a four-star novel that I thought might be a two, along with two good non-fiction books--a humorous memoir and a scathing analysis of the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Only one book failed to meet or exceed my expectations. I finished one other book (Cormac McCarthy's "The Road") in the early morning of July 1, so I'll start with it next month.

"Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides

The best book I read in June 2007 (and probably for awhile before that), which is saying something as I started the month with Khaled Hosseini's brilliant "A Thousand Splendid Suns", is "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides gets as close to the spirit and creativity of John Irving's classic "The World According to Garp", one of my favorite novels of all time, as I've read in the intervening 30 years. The narrator and central character, Calliope Stephanides (or "Cal" as we first meet him), is a hermaphrodite, raised as a girl, but living and writing as a 41-year old man as the book starts. Cal proceeds to tell his current story, but mostly his backstory, including the ancestry whose genes mixed to create his condition. Out of this we get European history (ethnic Greeks being purged from Turkey in the 1920's (which is also covered very well in Louis deBerniere's "Birds Without Wings")); the Europe to U.S. immigration experience; Detroit cultural history, both inner city and suburban, from the rise of the auto industry to the riots of 1967 (with a surprising guest appearance by the Nation of Islam); a detailed scientific exploration--physiological, psychological and cultural--of hermaphroditism, and a whizbang finish that comes at you from at least two directions.

Some books I read slowly because they are boring or difficult. I read "Middlesex" slowly to savor every chapter: to enjoy Eugenides's deft handling of both the voice of a male narrator telling a story through the eyes of the female he once was; and as the living embodiment of his/her family history, knowing things (or making them up, as he admits) about his family that he couldn't learn directly or even indirectly. His colorful language and phrasing made reading an engaging and delightful experience. It's clear that he loves to write and to entertain, inform and enlighten his reader. Somehow it all works, in a literary tour-de-force that makes me wish that its author doesn't wait nine years to publish his next book. Highly recommended to all lovers of literary fiction.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

In "A Thousand Splendid Suns", Khaled Hosseini has written a worthy, perhaps superior, followup to his debut phenomenon "The Kite Runner." The story of all Afghan women is lovingly told from the perspectives of two: Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy theater owner in a small Afghan city, and Laila, a 14-year old girl who enters Mariam's life via tragic circumstances. Hosseini takes the story through the many forms of rule that have held forth in Afghanistan over the last 40 years, creating a combination of personal history and cultural history, and showing how events triggered in far-off places (both physically and emotionally) can wreak havoc on individual lives. Attitudes by Afghani men about women, held in whatever political climate, also wreak havoc on women and children. Men come off pretty badly in the book as husbands and fathers, with one exception. Having been prepared by "The Kite Runner", I wasn't quite as surprised by the events of this book, but I was no less touched by them. Very highly recommended for all readers.

"The Defection of A.J. Lewinter" by Robert Littell

I picked up Robert Littell's first book after enjoying his opus, "The Company" and another short book, "The Debriefing". "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter" was another enjoyable story in the "who's fooling whom" tradition of defectors. Lewinter is an obscure American scientist who apparently defects with critical knowledge about ICBM’s (intercontinental ballistic missiles). There are some excellent passages about how the CIA evaluates the sincerity of defectors, and the ending is in keeping with the theme of the book. My copy suffered from a repeated typographical error with a character name that was ultimately meaningless, but was confusing for awhile given how characters often change names in spy stories. Rather than a perfect distillation of Littell’s work, "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter" seemed more like the first novel that it was; work to be expanded and improved upon on the way to "The Company". Recommended to fans of Cold War stories, but I’d suggest that those with a wide range of reading interests proceed directly to "The Company", unless you'd like a shorter dose.

"Tara Road" by Maeve Binchy

I struggled with the first 200 pages of "Tara Road", Irish author Maeve Binchy’s story of life in Dublin and Connecticut, which seemed more like an extended article on real estate and interior decorating in upper middle class Ireland than a novel. Just in time, some serious husbandly philandering puts Irish protagonist Ria in Connecticut and her Connecticut counterpart Marilyn, as the two women trade houses for a summer.

At this time, the intrigue among the characters improves, and we get a look at the comparative cultures (at least in Binchy’s eyes) of Ireland and New England, both of which heighten my interest in the story. At the same time, Binchy makes the point that while some demons of human nature are universal, each person must discover and deal with them in their own way, even to the point of pretending they don’t exist.

In summary, "Tara Road" was much more than the boilerplate romantic novel I expected when I picked it up; an easy and eventually enjoyable read that I’d recommend to readers seeking an engaging story without encountering a serious literary challenge.

"The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" by Bill Bryson

Men like me who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s will love the humorous memoir, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid", by the amiable Bill Bryson. Bryson spent his boyhood in Des Moines, Iowa, where his father was an underappreciated sportswriter and his mother supervised the family burns unit, otherwise known as the kitchen. The title refers to Bryson’s superhero alter ego, whose costume is cobbled together from various playsets and discarded toys, and whose powers are focused on vaporizing those who annoy him. Having grown up near similarly cold and snowy Syracuse, NY about three years behind Bryson, I could really identify with stories about the classroom coat closet, nuclear war drills (as if hiding under the desk was really going to help), and the activities of a bunch of kids in a neighborhood in an era with no computers, no malls, few to no planned activities and only three TV channels. Readers like me will get many smiles, laughs and memories from "Thunderbolt". Others will still enjoy Bryson’s breezy style and comfortable humor.

"Come Hell or High Water" by Michael Eric Dyson

Hurricane Katrina was an event in which almost no one came away looking very good (OK, maybe Max Mayfield, the forecasting chief at the National Hurricane Center), and Michael Eric Dyson takes every level of government, particularly the federal government, to task, in this short but powerful book, "Come Hell or High Water". About every five pages, you'll find yourself gasping "No!" and "They couldn't have done that!" but they did, exacerbating the suffering of the poor and forgotten, particularly in New Orleans. Dyson lost me somewhat near the end with a fairly complicated theological discussion of the event and its aftermath. I don't think he endorses floodwater theology, the idea that God punishes the wicked with natural disasters, but I couldn't quite make out his point in this section ('s Editorial Review has done a decent job on this point). Overall, I recommend this book to those with interest in natural disasters and in the role of race in public policy. Based on Mike Tidwell's study of Katrina and global warming, "The Ravaging Tide", these are issues that everyone should be engaged in. My wife says "Breach of Faith," written by the New Orleans reporter who wrote Amazon's editorial review is an even better book.


"Elizabliss" said...

Great reviews!
Have you read "Reading Lolita in Tehran"?

dadlak said...

Thanks for your compliment. Yes, I read that book a few years ago and enjoyed it. Hosseini's new book is somewhat reminiscent--a woman's perspective on life in an Islamic country, although I've read that both books are colored by the fact that their authors spent much of their lives in the West.