Book Reviews: Literature & Fiction
Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden
Read by Tracy & Natalie 2007
Tracy & Natalie recommend as a beautiful story
A debut novel by Arthur Golden which looks at Japan's geisha underworld. The story is narrated by Chiyo and describes her life as a geisha where beauty and virginity (mizuage) are prized possessions that are sold to the highest (and hopefully nicest) bidder. This is not a luxurious lifestyle, it is one built on illusion. Chiyo is sold by her penniless family as a servant into a geisha house where she is trained to be a geisha. Golden describes the Kyoto district with its teahouses, temples and alleys with beautiful styling. The book slowly unfolds as Chiyo's training encompasses dance, music, the tea ceremony and an intensive array of artistry which is all done with poise and perfection with the ultimate goal of seducing a wealthy patron who can support the geisha. However, World War II forces some of the geisha houses to close and Sayuri who has limited funds must reinvent herself to survive. This book opened the doors to a closed world that seems to have become more of a tourist trade these days. Although I doubt whether it was an easy lifestyle but one made of hard work and desperation. The book is helped by Golden's understanding and love of Japanese art and language.
The book was made into a movie, which I must admit I haven't seen as I am wary of movie adaptations as they are rarely as good as the book. Natalie has seen it and although there are some differences to the novel, it is not too bad.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Read by Tracy 2007
Tracy recommends for an interesting read about the infighting in academia, but was disappointed overall
On Beauty is Zadie Smith's third novel and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction and was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Set at Wellington College in America the novel follows two families. The Besleys, led by English born Howard Besley, who is a lecturer in art history, his black wife Kiki and their three children. Howard and Kiki had a stable marriage until Howard's affair was uncovered and things begin to unravel for them. The other family is led by Montgomery Kipps, a black right-wing academic from Trinidad, his wife Carlene and their daughter. Both Howard and Montgomery are scholars of Rembrandt, although Montgomery is far more successful which constantly annoys Howard. Montgomery is offered a guest lectureship at Wellington which appalls Howard and his son Jerome, who had had a brief engagement with Montgomery's daughter Victoria the previous summer.
Howard does his best to campaign against Montgomery. However Kiki strikes up a friendship with Carlene over Caribbean art. There is an underlying story in refugees, illegal immigrants and unethical purchases of Caribbean art, but that is superficial to the main storyline. For what it is and could be the book is quite long and overly written, although it does have some moments of beauty, particularly in the relationship between Carlene and Kiki. I was not a fan of Howard's character, he just does not understand what is going on around him and is so absorbed in his fight with Montgomery to the detriment to his family. It isn't boring, but is not up to par with Smith's previous novels, which I was a great fan of.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this as an interesting concept for a book but ultimately a boring execution
Eddie is a war veteran who works in a local amusement park, fixing rides. On his 83rd birthday a tragic accident kills him and Eddie enters the afterlife where he meets 5 people who explain his life to him. These people may be known to him or complete strangers, but each of them have been connected in some way to Eddie on Earth. From childhood to soldier to old age, Eddie's life is explained to him and he ultimately learns the reason for his existence. I thought this was a very cool concept to write a book about and was interested to see how it would all play out. Unfortunately, I just don't think it lived up to expectation, as the 5 people's stories were neither interesting nor particularly mind-blowing. This final reason for Eddie's life just seemed a little forced.
Mitch Albom has a website where you can learn more about his books (Have a Littel Faith, Tuesdays with Morrie, For One More Day), their inspiration, read excerpts, watch related videos and more.
Until I Find You by John Irving
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this as an interesting and rumoured semi-autobiographical read
This is the story of Jack, an actor, who from the age of 4, having travelled to the Netherlands with his mother, has been on a quest to find his father. This quest takes him all over the world, and he always arrives too late, with his father a prolific womaniser and famous organist having fled the country. What he leaves behind though is the story of another tattoo he has had added to his body and through meetings with tattoo artists, Jack traces the path his father has taken. Amongst all this is the story of Jack's life, particularly his coming of age, with his babysitter, his older best friend Emma, and the girls he is forced to go to school with. We see Jack's life in Hollywood where he becomes a famous actor (and Emma becomes a famous writer) and his unusual rise to the top, including all the crazy people he meets along the way. Following the death of his mother, Jack again sets out on his quest to find his father and finally discover the real reason he abandoned him. The book has a lot going on and I actually found it quite hard to get into at first. I was soon hooked however and it is amazing the number of crazy things Jack encounters throughout his life. I did think the ending was a little rushed though, almost as if the author realised what a long book it already was and just wanted to wrap things up. An interesting story about relationships, truth and tattoo addiction!
About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Read by Tracy in 2007
Tracy recommends as a funny read and a lighthearted movie
Will Lightman is 36. He is hip, cool, unmarried and lives on the royalties from his fathers christmas song. He has no responsibilities, but breaks his day up into chunks to ensure that he is always busy. On his quest for meaningless relationships he uncovered "SPAT" (Single Parents Alone Together) where he portrays himself as a single father to find available (and hence grateful) mothers. It is through SPAT that Will meets Marcus. Marcus is 12 and "strange" or what I would call individual and a bit of a loner, in part due to his mother's ideals. Marcus is the antithesus of Will and they strangely find a method of communication which changes both their lives, for the better.
Check our Nick Hornby's Website.
A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this as interesting but not entirely satisfying
I randomly picked this up in the bookstore and was intrigued by the blurb on the back. It is a slightly out there plot involving a place called The City that is inhabited by people who have died on Earth, but are yet to pass over as they are still remembered by someone who is living. They cannot move on until they are completely forgotten. On Earth, there is a woman who is living but trapped on an Antarctic research station, where she has no radio, limited supplies and failing power. With no other choice she sets out to try and find help, not realising that everywhere else on Earth people are dying, such that she is soon to be the last person alive on Earth. As a consequence more and more people are also leaving The City. The story is told from both views, those in The City and those on Earth and I thought it was a really interesting concept to create a book on. However, I felt a little let down by the ending, which I thought was actually a little dead!
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, the children's novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. His new novel, The Illumination, is forthcoming in February 2011. His work has been translated into fifteen languages, and he has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, McSweeney's, Zoetrope, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has received the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. Recently he was named one of Granta magazine's Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised. Kevin has an Author Profile with Random House where you can sign up for author alerts.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Read by Tracy 2007
Tracy recommends as an good read to make you appreciate the things around you
Winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize, this is, or attempts to be an intricate novel, stretching from India to New York and encompassing the middle and lowest castes. Initially set in the Himalayas, the story follows Sai who lives with her grandfather, a retired judge, in a large crumbling house, middle class but poor. She becomes involved with Gyan, her Nepalese maths tutor. However, Gyan soon becomes obsessed with a Nepalese insurgency group who target Sai's grandfather and steals their belongings. After this opening scene where Sai's grandfather is forced to be subservient to the intrudors, the story then follows Gyan, Sai, her grandfather plus their cook and her son, Biju and how their lives intertwine.
Biju moves to the US, but his attempts to make a life are parodied by the grandfather's experience in England during the 1940's. They are both unable to fit in and become second-class citizens, both exploited by employers and racially abused by others. The other side to the story is the growing love affair between Sai and Gyan. This eventually sours when Gyan becomes further embroiled in the Nepalese insurgency and feels that Sai is boring without any convictions. For me the stories were disjointed and lacked connectivity, there were so many areas I wanted to become involved in. However, sometimes I was whisked away to a life that I have been lucky to have never forced to live. Desai has an interesting writing style and I believe will become better over time and can't wait for her next novel.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this as tough to get into at first, but worth sticking with
This story follows a young recently married (arranged) Indian couple as they move from India to Boston such that Ashoke can finish his engineering degree at MIT. Ashoke embraces American life, but his wife Ashima feels isolated and lost, desperately missing her family. This is made worse after the birth of their son, as she struggles to cope with daily life. Gradually they settle in, becoming friends with their neighbours and ultimately moving to a new suburb and establishing a life in America. The title of the book refers to the first born son. Tradition says that the great-grandmother will decide the son's name, while the parents will give him a "pet name" which only they will use. Somehow the paperwork with the great-grandmothers choice never arrives, so the family continue to use the pet name, derived from a Russian author that Ashoke believes saved his life when he was in a train accident many years ago. The story largely focuses on Gogol, the son and his attempts to fit into American life, while still keeping his Indian parents happy. His confusion over his names and his choice to switch between them are brought about by the death of his father and it is interesting to watch his transition from an American to an Indian way of life. I found the book a little hard to get into at first, but gradually grew to like it. I thought the ending was quite sudden though and felt disappointed by its abruptness.
Intuition by Allegra Goodman
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this as an ok book with a few annoying characters.
This is a look into the world of medical research. Set in a fictional institute in Boston, one of the hubs of real life medical research in the US, this was an interesting read for me given at the time I was also working in medical research in Boston. While a lot of the lab work was realistic and some of the characters related to real life personalities, the main storyline was just a bit boring. I found that it got quite bogged down and although it covered a very important issue, fudging your results to get the one you want, I didn't think the ending provided a real resolution. Although I could see parallels between some of characters in the book and real life people I have worked with or run into, I still couldn't relate to it. Most of characters were annoying and/or unlikeable, maybe I am in the wrong profession?! I am also lost as to what the book cover is about as I don't think it relates to the actual story at all?
The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Read by Natalie 2007 and Tracy in 2009
Natalie recommends this as an unconventional love story. Tracy recommends it for those wanting to put aside scientific reality.
I really love this book. Yes it does involve time travel and yes it does require you to suspend reality a little, but at its heart, it is a love story. Spanning decades and told from both Henry and Claire's perspective, it tells the story of their relationship and how they cope with Henry's ability to travel through time within his own life. At the beginning Claire is 6 when she first meets Henry, who is around 40, so she spends her whole life knowing about his disappearing act and waiting for the day they will meet in real life. Henry however, constantly struggles with his leaving, never sure where he will end up, how much to tell the Claire he meets then or the Claire he has waiting for him at home. I found the book funny, sad and heart breaking. Natalie
I on the other hand found this book to be totally frustrating and unbelievable. Did nobody notice that he kept disappearing? How can you have a relationship with someone that constantly drops into and out of your life - there is no ability to organise anything. Tracy
This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this as very sad with a final chapter you'll wish was never written
This is was my third Ian McEwan novel at the time and the first one that I actually liked. Really enjoyed his writing style this time and found the story and characters intriguing and worth reading. The story is set pre-World War II when a young girl (Briony) witnesses a romantic moment between her older sister Cecilia and the gardener Robbie. These two have long had an attraction, which neither has been able to act on. When they finally do, Briony misinterprets what she sees and in the space of one evening pretty much destroys their lives. I found Briony to be quite annoying, even when grown up, and must admit, did not enjoy the book as much when the focus was on her time as a nurse tending to wounded soldiers, I wanted to learn more about Robbie and Cecilia, as they struggled to get back to what they once started. The book gives you the illusion that this happens, and you feel happy that Briony knows she destroyed their lives and does in fact try to atone for it. It's not until the final chapter, which I really wish was never included, that you realise this is not the case at all. The ending is very very sad. This book won McEwan the 2001 National Book Critics' Circle Award. In a Barnes & Noble interview, McEwan explained how Atonement evolved as a novel - I'd also, for many years, been very drawn to the underlying idea of Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey in which a young woman's reading of gothic novels causes her to misunderstand everything around her. And I've often thought that I would rather like someone with imagination to cause some sort of havoc. Click here to read an interview in The Independent Newspaper with Ian McEwan.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
Read by Tracy 2007
Tracy recommends for a captivating look at intrinsic family relationships
A Fine Balance was a fantastic novel, so I was excited to get hold of Family Matters. For me, Mistry is able to describe the fine balance (no pun intended) on families. I am also a huge lover of Indian authors and having travelled to India several times over the last few years, love to put myself into the story. The patriarch of the family, Nariman Vakeel, lives with his stepdaughter (Coomy) and her family in Mumbai, but is suffering Parkinsons which is putting strain on Coomy who continually plots to remove her father from his apartment, so she can live there. An accident that has seen Nariman even more incapacitated enables the scheming Coomy to deliver Nariman to her step-sister (Roxana) who is Narimans favourite. Roxana lives with her family in a small apartment which was given to her by Nariman as part of her dowry.
As the population ages, we are all forced to realise that relatives need to be cared for and the issues surrounding who and how this happens. Obviously in India the close family connections would make looking after a dying parent is more of a way of life, the mundane family struggles still continue. Yezad (Roxana's husband) become increasingly moody and resentful of Nariman who now lives on their couch and his growing reliance on Roxana, whilst Coomy is happily ensconced in a large apartment. Eventually the story draws on inspiration about how much family's matter to us as individuals and captures the emotions of all the different generations and how they deal with the past and present. Family Matters is more focused than his previous novel, but the writing is so engrossing I thoroughly recommend it.
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this is ok reading, although I hated the ending
I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of Jodi Picoult, although this was the first book of hers I read. I think she just rehashes the same old formula, substituting one controversial issue for another with each book. There is always a major female character, who to be honest I find completely annoying. In this case, it is the mother. The book is about creating a genetically matched child in order to save the life of a sibling. That is exactly what Anna is, a perfect match for her older dying sister. Since birth she has undergone countless surgeries and procedures, despite the fact that she doesn't want to do it anymore, It's not that she doesn't love her sister and want to save her, she just doesn't want to be a guinea pig anymore, and who can blame her? Even the dying sister doesn't want to put her through it anymore. So she fights her family and with the help of a friendly lawyer and social worker (sexual tension and history between these two give a pointless side-story), she manages to stop them from putting her through anymore. Up to this point, I did enjoy the book, but then Jodi went and destroyed it with the ending, which just sucked. I can't believe what the author did to Anna after everything she went through. Clearly her family never really understood how she felt about it all. Having read other Picoult books since, I can see the same old formula and would not be rushing out to buy more. Although I haven't seen the movie version of this book, by all accounts it is quite good and the ending is completely different, the way it should have been.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Read by Tracy 2007
Tracy recommends for the overview of arranged marriages
Nazreen was thought to be stillborn, but survived her entry to the world in a small village in India. She lives with the mantra "as nothing can be changed, everything had to be borne". A fairly fatalistic view, but if you know nothing else, at least you know what to expect. As dictated by her parents she is married to an elderly man in England, where she does her duty in caring for him and providing him with children. However as her children age and rile against the society norms, Nazneen realises that there are other things in the world and gradually her opinions of tradition and pride. She eventually falls in love for the first time. Nazneen's life is the opposite of her sister, who was afforded a "love marriage" which turned out to be violent. This was a beautifully written book and I have re-read it several time.
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
Read by Natalie 2007
Natalie recommends this as boring, not sure what the hype is all about.
The Echo Maker won the National Book Award for fiction in 2006 and was shortlisted for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, but to be honest, I just don't understand why.
It is the story of Mark Schluter, a 27 year old who after an unexplained car accident (his truck flips out) ends up with severe brain damage and memory loss. His sister (Karin) reluctantly returns to the small town he lives in to nurse him back to health, despite the fact that he continues to think she is an imposter and there are no signs of him ever getting any better. Enter a famous cognitive neurologist and a nurse, slip in a bizarre affair and the story is just plain boring if you ask me. I couldn't relate or sympathise with any of the characters and I found it particularly annoying when the story was told from the point of view of the cranes, which passed through the town during their winter migration. Throw in a side story on environmentalism and I honestly had to force myself to finish reading this book. Sorry, I just don't get the hype.
Several of Powers's novels have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, including Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, The Gold Bug Variations, and Galatea 2.2. Operation Wandering Soul was a National Book Award finalist.