January books read include:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo which is nonfiction about life in a slum of Mumbai, India. The author follows the story of a few key residents in the slum whose lives intersect. I've never read a contemporary book about India that was "light hearted", and this one is decidedly not light hearted. But the author does a great job of translating the people into characters that the reader comes to care about. This book won a number of well deserved awards in 2012.
Astray by Emma Donaghue: This is a collection of short stories that were created by the author inspired by various historical articles she came across. They share a theme of people who have gone on a different path from those around them: emigrated, fled, changed identities, etc.
It is an interesting collection and each story is followed by a note from the author about the article which inspired the story. At times it felt like reading series of the author's warm up exercises.
We Sinners by Hanna Plyvainen is a collection of stories about the Finnish-American Rovaniemi family, located in the upper Midwest, mostly Michigan. The family of 11, 2 parents and 9 children, are members of the Laestadian Church, a conservative fundamentalist faith. In fact Warren, the father, becomes the minister of their congregation in the first chapter of the book.
After the first chapter, which deals mostly with the parents, their beliefs and parenting style (though style is too flattering a word), each following chapter deals with the various children in a coming of age format. Each child struggles with the social limitations and constrained behavior required of them by conservative church doctrine. Some leave the church, some do not, but all are equally haunted by the experience of growing up in a family where the church was placed above all else. It is interesting that none of the children simply drift away from their religious upbringing. This is a black and white faith, with no room for shades of gray in belief.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond: This title has been around for awhile and I've always intended to read it...Well really, I listened to it while weaving. The author goes through the variety of environmental, geological, physiological, and sociological reasons for the emergent dominance of western culture over time. It is very interesting. I can't believe I never thought about the importance of latitude on the development of civilization and the difference in latitude span between the Americas vs. Europe and Western Asia before. I do plan to read his other two books, Collapse and The World Until Yesterday, just not right away.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This is a piece of fantasy fiction about an out of work graphic artist/web designer who gets a night shift job at a bookstore that is open 24 hours per day. It turns out that this is not just any book store, but a literary cult which has been going on since the printing press was developed. The book started out interesting to me, then took a sharp turn toward the puerile: a millionaire friend whose fortune is made by digitally imaging breasts...and not in the mammogram way; too many references to Harry Potter (aspirational perhaps?); and overt google worship. These are the things that ended up ruining this book for me. I was hoping for something more along the lines of The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern (which I loved!)...but alas, Penumbra's story fell short.
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje is a coming of age story of young Mynah (nickname for Michael) as he sets sail for England from Ceylon in 1954 at the age of 11. On the ship he meets up with two other boys of similar age and destination. The three of them set about exploring the encapsulated adult world on the ship, Oronsay. This 21 day journey is pivotal in the life of Michael, affecting his perceptions of the world and choices he makes in adult life. There are parts of the book where Michael's narrative veers into what happened in his adult life that remind me of Julian Barnes' Sense of an Ending. But unlike SOE, there is humor, wonder, and adventure in the antics of the three pre-teen boys aboard the ship. It's a great coming of age story populated with a cast of characters who are somewhat cartoonishly exaggerated by the viewpoint of an 11 year old boy. This makes the story that much more endearing. The awe and mystery of a storm at sea, going through the Suez Canal, and stops at Aden and Port Said are experiences lovingly communicated through the narrative. This author of The English Patient has a way of writing that just
draws me into the envelope of the world he is describing. It's not for
everyone, but I love it.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (author of Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, and Abide With Me...and I've read and enjoyed every one of them.) This is an advance readers copy from the Early Readers Program of Library Thing. The story takes place between Manhattan and Maine and primarily involves the three Burgess siblings. Jim and Bob both live in Manhattan and both are lawyers. And that is where the similarities between them end. Jim is the eldest in the family and is a power house lawyer having won a case that recieved national attention. Bob has withdrawn from trial work and does mostly appeals and pro-Bono cases. Their sister (and Bob's twin), Susan is a divorcee living in the family's hometown in rural Maine, and works as an optometrist in the mall. Over the past decade, the small Maine town has become the home of many refugees from the ongoing wars in Somalia. The Burgess Boys are called back home to Maine when Susan's socially inept 19 yr. old son, Zack, rolls a pig's head into a Somali mosque. The event threatens to be come a national incident. The author has an unerring talent for writing down the nuances of relationship between people, both in narrative and dialogue. She is draws the reader's attention to the subtle events that tip a situation from a static to dynamic to chaotic state. And yet, there is always that old New England reticence in her writing.
And that, my friend, makes for 7 books in January. Looking forward to the February stack!