Friday, August 29, 2008

An Infamous Army: A Novel of Wellington, Waterloo, Love and War by Georgette Heyer - 492 pages

Book CoverAn Infamous Army is the story of General Wellington's successful routing of Napoleon Bonaparte in the battle of Waterloo. As Napoleon's troops make their way towards Brussels, General Wellington is having trouble obtaining solid and trained soldiers and enough ammunition and artillery to fight the battle successfully. Beloved by his forces, Wellington must direct and marshal the tactical forces over the countryside in order to overtake the French forces. In addition to those problems, he is working with various other military leaders and troops not under his command, and the effort to create a unified front is one of the major problems in this battle. The mood in Brussels, however, is one of excitement and merriment, as many of the English gentry are visiting Brussels, and fete's and dinners are the order of the day. Of the party going set, the most illustrious is the Lady Barbara Childe. Barbara, a young widow, is flamboyantly fashionable and out to take the city by storm. Both glamorous and ostentatious, Lady Barbara has her pick of men among the crowd, and is never without an admirer. Her bold behavior and extravagant flirting keep her name constantly on the lips of those around her. But Lady Barbara is not prepared for her unexpected feelings for Colonel Charles Audley, whom she meets at a party. Audley too is quite smitten with Barbara, and instantly proposes marriage, a situation which shocks and stuns their social set. Can Barabara put away her coquettish ways for Audley and make herself a true and devoted wife? As these questions loom, Napoleon advances, and the battle begins in all it's bloody glory. When all is said and done, many will be lost and injured, and all must look to the future in their newly changed circumstances, including Audley and Lady Barbara.

Normally, I love historical fiction. I enjoy the enlightenment of discovering little known details surrounding historical events, and the glimpse into the lives of characters who have changed the course of history, even when they are slightly embellished. However, this book was not very enjoyable. The amount of detail, while impressive, was overwhelming. Some of the military tactical information and battle scenes seemed to go on forever, and the jump back to the events surrounding Barbara and Audley seemed too few and far between. I also disliked the minutia of the details. For example, there was a lot of information on the various colors and styles of the uniforms of the soldiers, which divisions had been deployed, and who was leading them. It was almost like reading a roster of names... very dry and lackluster. While I appreciate the amount of research that went into this account of Waterloo, it was very uninteresting and leaden. Perhaps if one were reading this as a history book, it would have been different, but I believe that the inclusion of the story of Barbara and Audley failed at the attempt to elevate this book into the realms of historical fiction. They seemed an afterthought, something pushed in to give the story some flavor to a rather dull military procedural. The book's tone was one of instruction, and rather than being interesting, it was instead informative.

I also disliked Lady Barbara. I don't believe that in order to be a complex character you have to be cruel, but that's exactly what Lady Barbara was. She was very spoiled and recalcitrant, always pushing the boundaries of propriety just because she liked to make a spectacle of herself. Many times in the book she admitted to being an intolerable vixen, yet she shrugged it off and claimed that her behavior was something she enjoyed and would continue. If she had not made other's so uncomfortable and ill at ease I could have accepted that. However, she seemed to enjoy playing one man off another and disappointing her friends and family. In one scene she specifically begins to take interest in a man in order to take revenge on his wife for a small social slight. I found this to be repulsive and ill-bred. It was almost unbelievable that Colonel Audley felt so strongly for her, because he was the most gentlemanly and kind person in the book. I found them to be a bad match, and an implausible one as well. Barbara spent the book flitting off from one flirtation to the next, dropping each one as her interest waned. I did not believe that her behavior would change after circumstances were altered. She seemed flighty and her serious emotions were not believable, and I had no patience for her or her antics by the end of the book. I lost a little respect for Audley's character for being so blind to her shenanigans, and felt this portion of the book to be highly vexing.

Although I didn't enjoy this book very much, I can see that it has its importance. Looking at it from a historical perspective, it is quite an accomplishment. The stellar research and the author's ability to keep all the specific information clear and well paced might be more appreciated by some who are fond of military history. Had the story been less focused on the battle and more focused on the periphery I would have enjoyed it more, and been better able to recommend it. As it was, this book was not really to my taste.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Matchmaker of Périgord: A Novel - by Julia Stuart - 320 pages

Book CoverGuillaume Ladoucette is a barber with no customers. Since the arrival in town of a new barber (whose specialty in male hair design is called "the pine cone"), Guillaume's business has been in a slump. Despite his tremendous ability to cut and style hair and his great capacity to sell hairpieces and faux sideburns, the only customers that still visit his shop are balding. With almost no customers to grace his shop, he decides to remake himself as the small province's matchmaker, with hilarious results. The town, whose residents number only 32, are having their own problems when, after a water restriction imposed by the council, they are forced to bathe in a communal shower in the center of the square. Then there is the feud between Guillaume's mother and Madame Moreau, both women using comestibles as ammunition; and the return of Émilie Fraisse, Guillaume's long-pined-for love, who has purchased an ancient chateau complete with copious bat droppings. We also meet other unusual inhabitants of the town, such as Yves Lévèque, the town dentist, whose inability to find love is rivaled only by his pickyness; Stéphane Jollis, the culinarily competitive baker; and Sandrine Fournier, the assistant ambulant fishmonger and mushroom poisoner. With Guillaume's new profession comes problems that only a small town can have. The pickings are slim, and everyone is so acquainted with one another that they don't see love matches among themselves, making the matchmakers job all the harder. But work isn't his only problem, for after finding out that Émilie Fraisse is back in town, his heart is in a whirlwind and he must decide whether to confess his secret adoration of many years to her, or to remain silent and lose his chance at love. Add one chicken that can only be described as a hooligan, and you have the delightful and curiously entertaining story of The Matchmaker of Périgord.

I absolutely loved this book. It was quirky and unique and very cleverly comic. I loved the small touches that the author used to give it flavor, such as using the first and last names of all the characters at all times, and the reiteration of plot points throughout the story. This was a very verbose story, but I found that I didn't mind the packed pages at all. The author has a wonderful way of generously using her words with the effect that the townspeople and their situations came alive. The plot was deliciously fleshed out but not convoluted, and the humor was more cerebral than slapstick. At times I was astonished at the level of detail that went into this story, and though it is a comedic book, it is also a very literary one. This is not a book that you can let your mind wander over; it requires some attention to keep the myriad characters straight, but it was not a bothersome task at all. Though some of the plot elements were a little far-fetched, I found I was won over by the inventiveness of the story. The description of the foodstuffs in this book were wonderful as well. Some of the things that were eaten I had never heard of being consumable before, and although I wouldn't want to taste some of them, reading about them was a treat. In particular, the sections regarding the picnic basket competitions between Guillaume and Stéphane were surprising and fantastical, and I found myself wanting to share them with whoever would listen. Another great touch was the characterizations in this book, all of which were very developed and multi-layered. Each of the complex characters had their own back story, quirks, and particular behaviors. It was a very eclectic mix of people and situations, and it must have been a huge job to juggle so many elements in one story, but it came off seamlessly.

Though my experience with comic novels is not very broad, I know what I like, and I know what works. This book succeeded in both categories. It was not laugh out loud funny, but rather the kind of book that you read with a continual smile on your face. This is the perfect book to curl up and unwind with. The humor is not biting or sarcastic, or filled with jokes at another's expense. If you are looking for something outlandish or offbeat, this is the book for you.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Aberrations by Penelope Przekop - 336 pgs

Book CoverAberrations tells the captivating story of 21 year old narcoleptic Angel Duet, whose struggle to find her identity and past lead her through mind and heart altering experiences. Though Angel tries to lead a normal existence by going to college and holding a job, the disorder she suffers from causes her to lapse into a sleep-like paralysis and sends her consciousness floating into a dreamworld. When her father's girlfriend Carla begins to rearrange a series of cloud photographs that are the only legacy Angel's mother left behind, questions surface about the life and death of Angel's mother Betty Lou. Though her father has lovingly raised her all her life, he is emotionally closed and secretive about Betty Lou, leaving Angel desperate to discover any scrap of information about her life by whatever means necessary. Angel's search for "Mother" will lead her to many places and people, and leave her ferreting out the many secrets and emotional truths she will find along the way. In addition to her narcolepsy and her search for her mother, Angel is involved in a tangled love affair with a married man. When Angel befriends Tim, Kimmy, and Scarlett, people that can only be described as social outcasts, she initially hides her narcolepsy from them but soon realizes that they have secrets of their own. Soon Angel is involved in a world of drugs, sex and violence, through these experiences she must learn to find herself, and ultimately find the truth of "Mother" as it exists for her.

This was a very gritty book. Emotionally, it pulled no punches and most of the situations faced by the main character were portrayed very bluntly. This was, I think, a distinction in the writing,the ability to make the characters feelings vivid and visceral to the reader. The passages in this book rang with a straightforwardness of language and emotion; none of the characters were coy with their emotions or outbursts, preferring rather to lay all their cards out on the table and deal with unpleasantness head on. I liked this straightforward technique because I felt it heightened the story's impact on the reader. The growth of the main character was also handled well. Angel seemed to mature right in front of my eyes, her complacency and confusion given over to understanding in the final sections of the book. I found her character to be very believable as well. It was frightening to read about her experiences and the turmoil the disease razed in her life. She struggled with emotions that I felt were accurate reflections of what a person with a neurological disorder would have, such as having trouble forming and maintaining relationships and difficulty relating her position in society. Although her anger towards the end of the book saddened me, I thought it truly representative of a person who was somewhat disconnected from the full impact of reality and struggled with it as it was presented to her. Another aspect of this book was the concept of the secrets that we all possess, and how they affect our lives. Each character had a secret; some divulged them without much prodding while others kept them close throughout the novel. The inclusion of so many secrets in this book led me to think about the realities that exist for us as humans, hiding unappealing facets of our lives in order to be accepted and loved. From the secrets that destroy us to the secrets that set us free, each are beautifully represented in this book.

The one problem I found in this book was the use of southern dialect in the characters' speech. I found it a bit jarring and bothersome to read. I think the intended effect was to lend credibility to the fact that these were southern characters, but I would have preferred it had the author left this out. I found that it limited the power of the language throughout the book and created an incongruous result.

Overall this was a wonderfully written book. Some of the passages had the beauty of poetry, and the elegance and economy of the language really lent a lot to the greatness of this work. It was impossible not to sympathize with Angel, and even in her defiant moments she was a full and engaging character. The supporting characters were well developed as well. I would definitely recommend this book to someone who is interested in a character driven drama with eloquent plot twists.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwarz - 244 pgs

Book CoverSo Long at the Fair is the story of pivotal day in the Life of Jon and Ginny. The couple are high school sweethearts who found their connection due to a devastating accident and have been married for several years. Ginny is a lovable pack rat whose gardening business is beginning to flourish, while Jon is a typical type-A advertising executive, driven and focused on Freddi, a woman outside of their marriage. The novel frames an intense day when Jon must decide whether to abandon his fledgling affair, or to continue it and leave Ginny behind. Sprinkled throughout this story is the story of Bud and Marie, Jon's parents, whose actions are told in flashback. Bud and Marie's actions have had repercussions that have impacted Jon and Ginny's life, and brought them where they are today. As the couple spends the day separated by an argument, both examine the relationship and and remember the events that ultimately brought them together. In between we learn of Freddi's attempts to dissuade a persistent admirer who doesn't seem to know when to let go, and Ginny's decision to do business with a man who has a shadowy connection to her past.

This book had a strange effect on me. I found the tenuous construction of the plot to be very difficult to keep track of. Many times it was confusing as to when in the specific time period action was taking place, or who the characters were in relation to one another. This was particularly so in the flashback portions of the book. The modern sections were more easily construed, but those sections had their difficulties as well. In particular, the way the back story was woven together was a little annoying. Instead of getting the full story at one time, the author chose to distribute the information in several bits, alternating between Jon and Ginny. Many of the secondary characters seemed to be underdeveloped and hazy as well, and I found most of the characters in this book to be very unlikable, especially Freddi. She seemed to have quite an attitude of self-importance, and her personality teetered between smugness and insecurity for most of the book. The male characters too were unsatisfying, as I found them to be unfeeling and somewhat uncommunicative. The only character that I felt any affinity for was Ginny; she seemed to be more expressive and her motives were more realistic. It is possible that the instances of infidelity were what turned me off in this book, but I rather think it was the way the situation was portrayed and the callousness of the characters that bothered me. Despite all this, I found that the story moved along with a great amount of force and direction, and I was compelled to keep reading. The author did a good job of maintaining the tension and urgency of the story despite the structural and character flaws. The ending was somewhat of a slow deflation of the story, and I think in some ways it worked, but in others it ways was anticlimactic. I am of two minds about the ending of this book because it gives the reader the opportunity to draw their own conclusions as to what happens next, but at the same time, after following the events leading up to the moment, it seems a bit of a cop-out for the resolution to be withheld.

All in all I found this book to be one I liked very much, and at the same time not at all. There was a lot going on structurally that I felt could have been done more evenly and efficiently, but at the same time there was a great driving force behind the narrative that kept me focused on the important elements of the story. I found that immediately after finishing the book I felt cold towards it, yet after a few days of thinking and digesting it, I liked it more. I would recommend this book with one caveat: this book needs to be appreciated as a whole, because the individual parts can be dissatisfying on their own.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Forbidden Daughter by Shobhan Bantwal - 336 pgs

Book CoverWhen Isha Tilak discovers that she is carrying a girl child in her womb, she fears the repercussions from her in-laws. Traditionally in India, the eldest male child and his family live with his parents, and must adhere to their rules and demands. Though her husband Nikhil is supportive about the pregnancy, he also knows that his parents will not bear this discovery gracefully. The couple, who already have one daughter, soon begin to feel the pressure as Nikhil's parents want them to abort the fetus. Isha is aware of the practice of selective abortion, yet never believes it will touch her life. The practice, clothed in secrecy, is suggested to the them by the older couple, who believe that only male children will continue the family legacy and carry the family name into the next generation. Like many Indians, they look on female babies as bad luck and useless mouths to feed. When the family's doctor asks Isha and Nikhil if they wish to abort the child, they vehemently refuse. Then Nikhil is killed under strange circumstances, leaving Isha to fight alone against her family's demands. With the pressure of the forced abortion mounting daily, Isha must find a way to give birth to the daughter that Nikhil will never see. Into this mix comes an unexpected stranger who can not only save Isha, but also help her get to the root of her husband's death, and might even give her a new start at life. Along the way, Isha discovers a shocking secret that will put those who she cares about in serious danger, and she must fight for the courage to expose a ruthless duo of men trying to protect their clandestine activities.

Until reading this book, I had no idea of the magnitude of selective abortion in India. The author does a wonderful job of relating this problem in her story, while still being able to create a rich tale that encompasses duty, forgiveness and love. Though the characters in this story are somewhat modern Indians, they still harbor the more traditional Indian ideals, using the advanced technology such as ultrasound to further their gender goals. I found the entire process of gender specific abortion hard to swallow, and cheered Isha on in her attempts to make her family understand the societal implications as well as the moral significance of their actions. I admired Isha's character as a strong and intelligent woman who never yields to the outside pressure of her family. Her struggle for independence after Nikhil's death takes her character through a series of complex and difficult emotions. The love she has for her children is the unyielding root of this story, and many times she made some very hard choices in order to keep them safe and secure. This story had the additional component of a love story that was unexpected and welcome. While Isha struggled to remain faithful to her husband's memory, she could not ignore the romantic feelings that were brewing inside of her, and continued to act admirably. Although I liked the character of Isha, I found her in-laws to be despicable. They were controlling and domineering and made life for Isha and the children extremely difficult. They both were very negative people who seemed to only care for their narrow-minded beliefs, and went to absurd lengths to attain their goals. It was eye-opening to discover that some women in India have to live in such rigid and oppressive home situations.

This was a book that was hard to pin down to any specific genre. It was by turns a drama, a love story, and, atypically a thriller. I found the various styles in the book moved very fluidly and the story seemed well rounded. It was an interesting view into the social climate of today's India, and the societal pressure that many women are faced with to produce male offspring. In a note appending the book, the author goes into detail regarding the staggering number of selective abortions performed in the past two decades. This book, in addition to being a well developed story, was also a way for the author to make a social statement about this illegal and immoral practice. I believe she achieved both beautifully.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to West by Helen Tse - 279 pgs

Book CoverIn Sweet Mandarin, Helen Tse gives us the intelligent multi-generational saga of three enterprising and resourceful Chinese women who faced incredible odds to make their dreams and fortunes come to fruition. The story begins with Lily, Helen's grandmother, in a rural village in China. Facing incredible poverty and with a family to provide for, Lilly's father, Leung, has the initiative to break away from his traditional role as a farmer and strikes out to create his own business, which soon begins to prosper. Moving his family from the destitute village to the more bustling city of Hong Kong, Lily and her family seem to be moving upwards. Then an unspeakable tragedy occurs, leaving the family penniless and at the mercy of inhospitable relatives. Lily realizes the situation she and her family face and searches for employment as a housemaid to the affluent British expatriates in China. Soon Lily immigrates to Britain and restarts her life as a small business owner, the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant. Through the struggles of operating the business and raising her children alone, Tse acquaints us with this remarkably strong woman who must face overwhelming trials in order to give herself and her children a better life. The story continues through the tale of Mabel, Lily's daughter, who is raised mostly in Britain, working long hours from childhood at her mother's restaurant counter. Eventually, Mabel takes up the family business and creates her own Chinese restaurant with her husband Eric. Interspersed with these two women's stories is the story of Helen, Mabel's daughter. Helen begins her career as lawyer but ultimately finds her happiness in opening her own Chinese restaurant, Sweet Mandarin, from which the title of the book is based. In elegant prose, the three women's stories are woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of a bold and valiant family of women who never let their struggles get the best of them.

Of the stories in this book, Lily's was featured most heavily. We see the whole picture of her life, from her humbling situation as a child to her rise as a beloved housemaid, the triumphs and ordeals are painted with compelling energy. I was particularly struck by her forced involvement in the Japanese occupation of China in the 1940's, and her eventual departure from China, where she left her family while she built a new life for them. Though sometimes reserved in her expressions of love for her children, her outward resolve to give them a more hopeful future was inspiring. Sometimes it seemed as though she was a tough nut to crack, but in reality, had she not had the boldness to act as she did, her family might not have survived some of the situations that they faced. Some parts of Lily's story were more difficult to digest, for Lily was not always the admirable woman that some would wish she would be. The situations regarding the loss of her first restaurant were upsetting, but I appreciated the author's candor in addressing the fact that her grandmother was just as human as the rest of us, with flaws that any of us could have had. Much less was revealed about Mabel and Helen, and I choose to see this book as Helen's tribute to the sacrifice and success of her grandmother Lily. The legacy that she built for her family sustained them and drew them closer together as a group.

One of the wonderful things in this book was the description of various foods that were a hallmark to the family's home and restaurants. The intricacies of Lily's Curry recipe, and the depiction of Mabel's Claypot Chicken were indeed mouthwatering. I also liked the way the narrative shifted between the stories of the three women. It made the story less choppy and episodic, while still describing the aspects of all three's lives. The author did a very good job of painting the political and societal aspects of China from the 1920's to today, including the focus on why male children are particularly valued above female children in that part of the world. As I was reading, I really felt I understood the sacrifices and joy of the main characters, which is a true measure of success in any book.

This book was an involving story spanning many years and situations. I very much enjoyed the peek into a story that I think many would enjoy. There are many books about China and it's culture, but this book is unique, not only in the story it tells, but in the spirited strength of it's characters. Great book. I have included a link to a television interview with the author, who talks about the inspiration for this book and gives more information.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali by Kris Holloway - 212 pgs

Book CoverMonique and the Mango Rains is the moving account of Kris Holloway's experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, assisting Monique Dembele, the area's local midwife and medical worker. In the crippling poverty of Mali, Monique and Kris work to help Mali's women and children in times of medical distress. From the birthing of babies to relationship counseling, fending off disease and infection to nutrition education, Monique labors ceaselessly and tirelessly. Her work builds a reputation far and wide that draws women from distant villages seeking her expert help. Kris, while adapting to her harsh environment, becomes more than just an assistant to Monique, experiencing with her the joy of her work and her relationships with the local women. She shares the anguish and disappointment of Monique's life outside the clinic and the close bond of her host family in Africa, becoming a friend to this inspiring woman. As Monique and Kris work to bring education and information to the women, they must broach sensitive topics like birth-control, AIDS, and abolishment of female circumcision. These topics, foreign to the local women, directly affect the survival of the community, and they work tirelessly to educate and inform the women while still dealing with the malnutrition, illness, and injury that besiege them every day.

The candid portrayal of life in the small village was very informative and interesting. I learned a great deal about the regions politics, the African society, and the general day to day existence of the small provincial village. The backbreaking work that the community must endure to prepare for the seasonal rains that fortify their village was explained in rich detail, making the story of the community's struggle for their survival come alive to the reader. Every hand is needed to plant and harvest the life giving crops that will sustain the villagers in the dry season. Monique's inexhaustible commitment to her patients and to her family was awe-inspiring. Her work to repair the birthing house, her bi-weekly weighing of babies, and her educational instruction to mothers for the care of their children was invaluable to the women of her community. Monique's story, though inspirational, was also fraught with sadness. The relationship between her and her husband, who she only calls le gars (the guy) is upsetting and one-sided. While Monique provides the money, care and stability, her husband takes and takes from her, never realizing the treasure that he is entrusted with. Monique works long and trying hours at the clinic, barely scraping by financially, with her young son tied to her back. Though at times the story was sad, there were real moments of joy and laughter throughout this book, from the triumphant birth of twins in an area where a double birth is almost unheard of, to Monique's musings on an airplane ride, I found myself smiling and laughing with Kris and Monique. Monique and Kris's friendship continued even after Kris's time in the peace corps ended, and straddled two different continents and many years.

This was a remarkable story of a remarkable woman. It encompassed the difficulties, differences and uniqueness of African culture that goes unnoticed by most Americans. I found Monique to be a fascinating woman who gave her heart and soul to the people who relied on her for their daily survival. This book was written in part to document the work that Kris did at Monique's side, but more than this, it was written as a homage to her great friend Monique. Monique truly touched Kris's life, and upon reading this book, I found she touched mine as well. Wonderful book, highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Months and Seasons by Christopher Meeks - 170 pgs

Book CoverMonths and Seasons, the second short story collection from Christoper Meeks, is a exceptionally entertaining and thought provoking offering from a gifted writer. The stories are often curious and clever, while hiding unexpected pockets of wisdom and philosophy. Through the use of an inventive method of storytelling, we meet people who struggle with the realities of existence in an often confusing world, trying to put the semblance of order to events that, for them, defy explanation. Here are curmudgeons and uptight husbands, grieving fathers and deceptive lovers, characters that could be people you know, enmeshed in the conflicts of the everyday. Many of the stories have clever asides dealing with controversial subjects like war, the economy, and violence. Though some of the stories are playful and comical, others deal with more frightening and murky subjects like mental illness and impending death. From the wildly absurd to the quiet fears we all harbor, the emotional range in this collection is impressive.

I enjoyed the more serious stories, as they showed tremendous insight into the way that people rationalize and cope with tragedies beyond their usual scope. One story that dealt with a set of characters who were plagued with doubts about their health had a palpable layer of tension running through it, and left me uncomfortably eager to see who would escape tragedy. All at once I was breathing a sigh of relief, while at the same time realizing that there was more uncertainty to come. Another, that dealt with a man whose mind was slowly unraveling, was genuinely chilling in it's conclusion. It was easy to see the downward spiral of madness in the character, who seemed so benign in the beginning. My favorite story was the bittersweet tale called Breaking Water. It was heartbreaking, and I found that the author is just as talented at writing from a woman's perspective as a man's. One of the stories was decidedly offbeat, reaching a finale that could be interpreted in several different ways, from laughable incredulity to a more somber revelation.

As a collection of stories, I found this book to be well balanced and gratifying. There was a pleasant mix of humor and seriousness that seemed to encompass a huge variety of emotions, from fear and suffering to acceptance and glee. At the very end of the book, the author included the first chapter of his work in progress, a novel written in short story form that follows a young man throughout his complicated life. I found this chapter to be very well rounded, and the main character to be someone who I would like to get to know better. There was a fullness to this story I really enjoyed, and I will be looking forward to reading this novel when it comes out. I had not read the first collection of Meeks' short stories, called The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, but I was pleasantly surprised by this book, and am now quite curious about that book as well. All in all, an interesting read. Bonus points for the insanely cute cover.

Monday, August 4, 2008

One More Year by Sana Krasikov - 196 pgs

Book CoverOne More Year, a collection of short stories, deals mainly with the experiences of Russian immigrants to America. The stories follow men and women, young and old, as they adjust to the disappointments and realities of leaving Russia for America. Some of the stories deal with returning to a Russia that has transformed while they were gone, some are set in Russia. The vivid language and stark detail that the author used made the characters' situations come alive, and made the stories themselves very revealing and diverting. The circumstances her characters find themselves in are distinctive and well wrought, but the world her characters inhabit isn't a pretty place. It is a more gritty and unyielding world than most of us are acquainted with, populated with people who are selfish and self-serving. There was a dark energy surrounding these tales that was hard to displace, and as I read, looking for hope, I was scarcely rewarded with it.

As a whole, the characters in this book didn't engender any sympathy. They were cynical and sullen people not content with the situations of their life, always more apt to complain than to change. Her characters tended to lament and gravitate towards dejection. Many of the characters were in relationships where monogamy played no part, and this was dealt with in a very indifferent fashion. The flagrant infidelity in these stories was tiresome. One story in particular, about a woman who is competing with another woman to be first in her partner's life, had a gruesome and disturbing conclusion that seemed oddly out of place . Another aspect that stood out as a hallmark of the collection was a lack of family cohesiveness. Many were guarded and disconnected from their relations, and mistrust and secretiveness dominated these relationships. Americans were often portrayed as people who frequently stole and ransomed passports and working documents, or were great snobbish bores, occupying opulent surroundings where the focal characters slaved away for them. Most of the marriages were marriages of convenience, lacking any affection or goodwill between partners. The author seems to have a very disenchanted and dismal view of the life of the modern day Russian in America. It's not an unbelievable set of circumstances that these characters have encountered, this struggle for a foothold on a new life, but the idea that among all these stories, there are none of hope or optimism, leads me to regard them as somewhat improbable. I have never encountered a more jaded group of characters.

This book was deeply dispiriting. As I read, it seemed too much to hope for that something would go right for these people, and then it became a situation where I was reading, expecting the calamity page after page. The author's statement seems to be that life for the average Russian citizen who decides to take a chance on a better future is bleak and unrewarding. She shows exceptional talent in the ability to render these stories and situations, yet the whole endeavor made me sad and frustrated.
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