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Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Things Fall ApartThere Was a CountryHow the Leopard Got His ClawsThe renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.

 

Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.

Todd

 
 

The Precious Ordinary

The Precious Ordinary

posted by:
March 8, 2013 - 8:01am

BenedictionArtist Grant Wood’s work evokes the essence of the Midwestern United States, especially as depicted in his iconic painting American Gothic. Wood’s equivalent in the literary world must surely be Kent Haruf, who conjures up the same quiet and steadfast spirit in his novels of small town living. In his newest book, Benediction, Haruf once again uses the fictional setting of rural Holt, Colorado.

 

Old “Dad” Lewis is dying. A fixture in Holt, he has owned the downtown hardware store since he was a young man, and has been married to Mary for just as long. Mary and Dad notify their middle-aged daughter Lorraine of her father’s terminal illness, and Lorraine returns to her childhood home to help and support her mother as they care for Dad in his final weeks. As Dad deteriorates, Lorraine and Mary must figure out a new footing for their own relationship as well as determine how Dad’s death will figure on their future. The descriptions of the matter-of-fact yet tender care Mary provides for Dad as he becomes increasingly incapacitated are a beautiful testament to the deep love between the couple.

 

Haruf has two themes running through Benediction. Not surprisingly, one involves Dad’s reflections on his past, with an emphasis on choices made by Dad in pivotal circumstances. Dad ruminates on wayward son Frank who broke contact with his parents years ago; the widow of a former hardware store employee discovered by Dad to be embezzling funds; and Dad’s own hardscrabble parents who never met their grandchildren. At the same time, Haruf highlights different kinds of love found in daily life, including platonic love between friends, erotic love stemming from passion, and unconditional love between man and God. As a disgraced preacher in the story explains, it is the ordinary life of good people which is most precious and Haruf illustrates this tenet perfectly with his spare prose.

Lori

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Hope Adrift

Hope Adrift

posted by:
March 4, 2013 - 8:55am

White Dog Fell from the SkyAcross the border it is a different world. Cruelty is not harnessed. A man’s limit is not tested. The line between life and death is not drawn in black and white. For medical student Isaac Muthethe, the brutality of apartheid is never so evident as when he escapes from its grasp in Eleanor Morse’s observant and beautifully crafted new novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky.

 

Forced to leave his family, Isaac is smuggled into Botswana after witnessing the brutal murder of a friend in South Africa. His only chance of survival was to flee the secret police. In the Naledi shantytown where he finds himself, Isaac encounters a mysterious white dog. The dog’s refusal to abandon him comes to symbolize hope amidst grief and suffering. While walking house to house in search of a job Isaac meets Alice Mendelssohn. The well-educated American woman, whose husband works for the government, does not care that Isaac is black and she is white. Isaac becomes her gardener. As their lives entangle, each travels a path toward their own heartbreak. For Alice, it is her crumbling marriage and regret at not fulfilling her own dreams. For Isaac, it is the knowledge that with each step he is shedding his old life and the family he left behind. When Isaac meets and briefly stays with an old classmate who works for a violent anti-apartheid group, it is an association that will nearly destroy him and changes the lives of Alice and Isaac forever. 

   

Morse, who lived in Botswana for several years in the 1970s, juxtaposes the political and racial turmoil of the period with an African landscape that is as alluring as it is austere.  Teeming with evocative observations about the country’s conservation practices, people and culture, Morse's multi-themed narrative leaves readers to ponder the price of betrayal and the capacity for friendship. Readers of Abraham Verghese, Edwidge Danticat, and Khaled Hosseini may find much to like here.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Love Unexpectedly

Love Unexpectedly

posted by:
March 1, 2013 - 9:01am

Me Before YouBritish writer Jojo Moyes’s latest novel, Me Before You, is a beautifully crafted story about a 26 year-old woman who leads a monotonous life in a small town in England. After losing the job she’s had for six years, Louisa Clark, better known as Lou, begins the difficult task of looking for employment. Not knowing what she wants to do with the rest of her life and frustrated with her job prospects, Lou eventually applies for a position as a caregiver. Despite her lack of experience, she is offered the job because of her upbeat and quirky personality.

Enter Will Traynor, a former high-powered executive, who became a quadriplegic following a severe accident. Will has been forced to give up his adventurous lifestyle, and to rely completely on others, which has sent him into a deep depression. His mother hires Lou in hopes that she can make him reverse the decision that his life is no longer worth living. Their relationship begins shakily; however, as they grow to know each other better, Lou finds ways to reach out to Will and to help him find some things to enjoy in his world as it is. Meanwhile, Will teaches Lou to live her life more fully, and to try new things.

Moyes draws readers in with the novel’s sense of intimacy, as most of the book is told from Lou’s unique perspective as Will’s caregiver. However, scenes with the extended cast of characters, Lou’s family for example, offer levity. Me Before You raises many philosophical issues, while also being a funny, heartbreaking, and unconventional love story.

Laura

 
 

Modern Macabre

Modern Macabre

posted by:
February 25, 2013 - 9:15am

RevengeThe Beautiful IndifferenceTwo new collections of thrilling and even horrific tales are waiting to send shivers down the spine. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa is a twisted series of interlocking short stories which tighten as you delve deeper into its pages. A beauty sorting dirty lab coats, a curator of a torture museum whose collection consists solely of used items, a reporter covering a dolphin-themed resort--the unlikely connections between these and other seemingly isolated characters are dexterously exposed in escalating tension.

 

Each desperate life has an unrelenting passion, from the man skilled in the art of designing specialty bags who receives an unusual request from a lounge singer, to the woman patiently waiting for a pair of perfect strawberry cupcakes in an unattended bakery. Although each tale is an enthralling standalone, it also subtly reveals the indirect truths of its companion stories. Throughout the book, aggrieved lives gradually become both the architect and the victim of emotions like jealousy, grief, and infatuation. Eerie scenes such as a garden of carrots shaped like hands, a street covered with ripe tomatoes, and an abandoned post office filled with kiwis create a world that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. Stephen Snyder’s exquisite new translation of Ogawa’s 1998 Japanese work, Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, is fragile yet cuts like a knife.

 

Another mesmerizing collection comes from British novelist Sarah Hall with The Beautiful Indifference: Stories, which explores the grace and the agony of the modern woman. In “Butcher’s Perfume”, a young English girl befriends the schoolyard bully, Mary Slessors, and becomes enthralled with her mysterious family of horse trainers. In the “Agency”, a woman is referred by an acquaintance to an unusual business that provides a tempting yet undefinable service. These stories are engrossing and sensual, investigating the rich complexities of the female psyche in a way that only Hall can.

 

Sarah Jane

 
 

Touched by the Bizarre

Touched by the Bizarre

posted by:
February 22, 2013 - 8:01am

The Miniature Wife and Other StoriesHow do you think you would respond in the face of something truly strange?  With horror? With amusement? With speed, by running as fast as possible in the other direction? Or would you adapt, until what once was so strange is now just a new way of being?  In his collection of wonderfully imaginative short stories, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, Manuel Gonzales and his very human characters take the latter course, exploring the incredible malleability of the human psyche. 

 

In tales ranging from just a few pages to nearly thirty, bizarre, often frightening, and occasionally gruesome events and people make appearances. A musical genius is physically crippled by his gift to the point that he must develop a way to speak through his ears to communicate. A zombie adept at hiding from discovery convinces himself to give into his homicidal urges because of a secret workplace crush. And in the title story, a scientist accidentally miniaturizes his wife and must then deal with the increasingly violent consequences to his marriage and his life. Often mysteries are unearthed, but never completely explained. Gonzales focuses on the internal dialogues of his characters, who respond to the weirdness around them with painfully human emotions and according to familiar--often petty and selfish--motivations.

 

At times tender, disturbing, amusing, and eerie, The Miniature Wife is perfect for cold, wild, stormy nights filled with hints of thunder and an air of possibility. Fans of gothic literature, the paranormal, and the short story format will devour this compilation of oddities and enigmas.

 

 

Rachael

 
 

Mind Games at Mealtime

Mind Games at Mealtime

posted by:
February 21, 2013 - 9:01am

The DinnerThe bonds of family are strong, built out of intense love, and sometimes equally intense resentment and hatred. The Dinner by Herman Koch is less a meal than a psychological dissection of a family. The entire novel takes place during the course of an evening meal between two well-to-do brothers and their wives. Each member of the dinner party is trying to control the others and the unnamed “situation” with their children. Various scenarios play out in the minds of the diners, each more shocking and brutal than the last, as they attempt to sway the group toward the best solution. Best for whom remains to be seen.

 

Dutch author Koch takes a look inside a seemingly harmless gathering and answers the question “What are you really thinking?” Relationships—Parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother—all are put under the microscope with satirical wit and brutal honesty. Already an international best-seller, The Dinner has received advance praise from like-minded psychological thriller writers such as Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and S. J. Watson (Before I Go to Sleep). Come to The Dinner and ask yourself, which way does your moral compass point?

Sam

 
 

For the Love of Google

For the Love of Google

posted by:
February 21, 2013 - 8:01am

Mr. Panumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreA riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma:  Mr. Churchill’s quote applies neatly to author Robin Sloan’s debut novel, the charming Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Originally published as a short story in 2009, Sloan says “it gathered a following and ultimately grew” into his first book. Imagine a story about an ancient and secret society, one which involves puzzles, complicated codes, handmade typeface, and the quest for immortality. Now imagine a thriller which involves computer-hacking geeks, advanced cyber-technology, trademarked font, and big business. Finally, try to imagine a book combining these disparate elements and the fascinating result will be Mr. Penumbra.

 

Clay Jannon is a twenty-something laid-off web designer living in San Francisco. Financially desperate circumstances and newspaper help-wanted ads land him a job as the night clerk in Ajax Penumbra’s store. While Clay is able to satisfy the job requirement of scaling a ladder three stories high to retrieve books from the skyscraper-like shelves, he quickly develops a problem following another workplace rule: he is never to look inside the books. Before long, Clay cracks open a forbidden spine and falls into a world of codex vitae, Festina Lente, and a members-only chained library, all  while hanging out with the Googlers at their compound-like workplace campus, harnessing the on-line research superpower of Hadoop, and tapping into a digital database of museum inventories worldwide.

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both engaging and clever. Sloan splices together old-fashioned intrigue and modern computerized marvels using a mix of real and imagined constructs. Ultimately though, the true Holy Grails and miracles which Sloan is offering in this story may turn out to be the power of friendship and the amazing technological wonders of our times.

Lori

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Military Girls

Military Girls

posted by:
January 11, 2013 - 9:15am

The People of Forever are Not AfraidHigh school friends Avishag, Lea and Yael do what typical teen girls do—they gossip about friends, giggle over boys, and daydream about their adult lives to come. But in Israel, soldiers can come from anywhere, even the “caravan classrooms” of small villages, and the girls quickly find themselves serving in the Israeli Defense Force. Shani Boianjiu tells a unique coming-of-age story in her debut novel, The People of Forever are Not Afraid.

 

The girls are trained in different areas of military expertise-Lea in the military police at a checkpoint, Yael as a marksmen trainer and Avishag as a member of the only female combat unit. While it sounds dangerous and exciting, in reality the girls are bored most of the time as they watch foreigners and refugees sneak across the borders and steal everything not nailed down. They still talk, gossip, and occasionally flirt with other soldiers, but they also grow increasingly numb to the violence that surrounds them. At the novel’s center is the trio’s loss of innocence, but more profound and disturbing is the question-do they even remember that they once had it?

 

Shani Boianjiu, the youngest winner of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” earned rave reviews for People. Drawing on her own experiences in the IDF, she has created a novel that is literary yet accessible, and readers will quickly be drawn in by the early, fast action. Boianjiu’s writing is just like her characters-nuanced yet fragmented, disturbing but smart, violent and gritty. While this story is about teens, the strong language and violence make it more appropriate for mature teens and adults.

 

Sam

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Such is Life

Such is Life

posted by:
January 4, 2013 - 9:15am

It's Fine By MeIt was not a ghost thirteen-year-old Audun Sletten saw that day on top of the hill at the end of his newspaper rounds. It was his estranged father, who regrettably appeared to be back in town. For the troubled teenager it was just one more reminder of a gnawing past best forgotten and of a future, tentative and urgently beckoning. In Per Petterson's recently translated novel, It's Fine by Me, the Norwegian author revisits the cold, stark landscape of his previous novels with this quiet, coming of age story. Set in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, a story is told of a family chafed by family dysfunction and a young person's toiling for what is important.

 

Audun and his family have not had it easy. Escaping an explosive husband, his mother has started a new life for Audun and his siblings in a working class section of Oslo. On the first day at his new school he meets Arvid, an unlikely friend who is something of a political idealist and also loves books. In their growing friendship, Audun opens up about his past and his plans for the future. He wants to be a writer. Over the next five years, Audun sees his life change, his family slowly falling apart. His tough guy persona, fashioned after his favorite literary heroes, helps him cope when his own defenses are down.

 

Petterson, the author of the award winning Out Stealing Horses, reveals Audun's story at a leisurely pace. Alternating between a defining past and a present that are at times raw and emotionally charged, it is prose that also gives up streaks of hope. Readers familiar with J. D. Salinger's classic, Catcher in the Rye, will recognize in Petterson's protagonist the rebellion and alienation of youth and the unpredictable journey that awaits.

Cynthia