A roundup of brief reviews of books I read in July. An American Marriage is worthy of the praise it’s received this year and A Terrible Country is an interesting take on live in Putin’s Russia.
An American Marriage: This bold novel takes on marriage, racial injustice and the American dream in a story of a relationship stressed to the breaking point. (5/5 stars)
A Terrible Country: A compassionate story of a down-on-his-luck American intellectual who goes to Moscow to take care of his ailing grandmother. (5/5 stars)
Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life: A guide to improving perception to better understand the world around us. (4/5 stars)
Little Fires Everywhere: This novel examines wealth, privilege and race in a picture-perfect Cleveland suburb. (4/5 stars)
The Ghost Brigades: A solid second entry on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, focuses on a special forces clone created to help stop an attack on humanity. (4/5 stars)
Something in the Water: A couple honeymooning in Bora Bora discovers something while out scuba diving and make a series of dangerous choices in this summer thriller that is slow to start and full of predictable twists. (3/5 stars)
Number One Chinese Restaurant: Family and coworker tensions flare up after a disaster strikes a suburban Chinese restaurant in this novel dominated by subplots. (3/5 stars)
Here is my list of the best new books from the first half of 2018. I’ve listed them in the order I would most recommend them to someone. But if you’re inclined, read them all.
The Sun Does Shine: In 1985 Anthony Ray Hinton is sent to Alabama’s death row for two murders he didn’t commit. This is his story. But it’s not a blow-by-blow account of the injustices done to him, it’s an extraordinary story of rising above hate and stoically serving as a source of light to those around him on death row. Read full review.
Robin: This intimate biography of Robin Williams tells the story of the meteoric rise, frenetic life and the sad final days of the comedian. Read full review.
An American Marriage: A beautifully written love story of a young couple dealing with the trauma brought on by a terrible injustice.
The Mars Room: This is a brutal, yet empathetic novels examines a life gone sideways, following a young mother given two life sentences in prison. Read full review.
Calypso: David Sedaris deftly handles a variety of topics including middle age, shopping, gay marriage, language and family tragedy in this achingly funny book. Read full review.
A Terrible Country: A compassionate story of a man who travels to Russia to take care of his ailing grandmother and tries to find fellowship among Moscow’s inhabitants. Read full review.
The Which Way Tree: Set on the Texas frontier during the Civil War, this quick read weaves a story of violence, survival and frontier justice. Read full review.
Feast Days: This eloquent novel by Ian MacKenzie follows an expatriate couple and examines the social norms of Brazil. Read full review.
Andrei Kaplan is coming off of a failed relationship, low on cash and struggling to find an academic job when his brother asks him to do a favor. Kaplan accepts and heads to Russia where he will take care of his ailing grandmother in her Stalin-era, Moscow apartment.
From the start Kaplan finds it difficult to navigate Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where prices are rising and even meager entertainments are out of the reach of his limited budget. But he dutifully looks out for his grandmother and sets out to find fellowship, first on the hockey rink and later among a group of revolutionary leftists who test his beliefs.
Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country (Digital galley, Viking) is a compassionate story that centers on the relationship of Kaplan and his grandmother, who is suffering from dementia. At times humorous, the novel offers a peek at the competing forces building a new Russia and humanizes the characters who inhabit modern Moscow.
The characters of Number One Chinese Restaurant all inhabit a planet orbiting the Beijing Duck House. A fire at the suburban Washington, D.C restaurant upends the equilibrium and tensions between family and coworkers come to the surface.
At the center of the novel by Lillian LI are two brothers with different philosophies of life and what it means to be restaurateurs. Thrown into the mix are long-serving restaurant staff and a mobster “uncle” who seems to be pulling strings behind the scenes.
Unfortunately Number One Chinese Restaurant (Digital galley, Henry Holt & Co.) is a book dominated by subplots. The family tensions make for interesting stories, but without a gripping, dominant plot line it was unfortunately not a compelling read.
A round up of brief reviews of books I read in June. David Lynch’s biography Room to Dream and Stephen King’s The Outsider are new to bookstores and worth reading.
The Sun Also Rises: Hemingway’s first novel and one of his best works follows American and British expats traveling from Paris to the bullfights of Pamplona. (5/5 stars.)
Room to Dream: A peek behind the camera to see what drives the visionary director and artist who has delivered a number of memorable films that enthrall and confuse viewers..(4/5 stars.) Read my full review.
The Outsider: What starts as a murder mystery morphs into a familiar Stephen King creep-fest with a bogeyman channeling Pennywise from It. (4/5 stars.)
Angela’s Ashes: I’m late to the game, but Frank McCourt’s memoir of growing up poor in Ireland is as moving as everyone says it is. (4/5 stars.)
A Geek In Japan: A fun, heavily illustrated and informative guide to the unique Japanese culture. (4/5 stars.)
The Stranger in the Woods: A remarkable and revealing story of a man who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods for 27 years. (4/5 stars.)
Old Man’s War: In John Scalzi’s science fiction novel, the elderly are given a chance at rebirth as part of humanity’s interstellar fighting force. (4/5 stars.)
The Art of Map Illustration: Four artists share their techniques for mapmaking as well as samples of their work. While the book is full of beautiful maps, it seems more time is spent describing how to illustrate map embellishments such as trees and buildings. (3/5 stars.) Read my full review.
The inscrutable auteur David Lynch has delivered a number of memorable films that enthrall and confuse viewers. In Room to Dream we get to peek behind the camera to see what drives the visionary director and artist.
In this autobiographical work that’s a collaboration between Lynch and Kristine McKenna, the chapters alternate between interviews with more than 100 colleagues, friends and family and Lynch’s own recollections of events. The biography ranges from stories of his growing up in a small western town to the processes that went into creating such iconic works as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive.
Lynch was involved in even the smallest details of each of his works. He would often change directions on a whim if he felt it would serve the story and he was known to pull people from his production crew or even off of the street if he saw a roll for them in a film. Lynch’s colleagues universally laud him as one of the kindest and most giving directors to have worked with. A number of artists interviewed for the book credit Lynch as having given them the chance that kick started their careers.
Other than Dune, Lynch has avoided projects that could be consider big-budget Hollywood movies. Room to Dream (Random House, digital galley) is a refreshing look at someone who has pursued a singular vision and is willing to say “no” when his goals don’t align with financial backers.
Four artists share their techniques for mapmaking as well as samples of their work in The Art of Map Illustration. The book is full of beautiful illustrations by each of the artists, who employ a variety of media including pen, ink, watercolor and digital.
There are a number of map-making tips spread throughout the book, but it seems more time is spent describing how to illustrate map embellishments such as trees and buildings. Each of the artists share an almost whimsical style (as seen on the cover) with cartoonish illustrations and that probably accounts for the number of pages devoted to creating and placing those decorative details.
If the style suits you, the The Art of Map Illustration (Quarto Publishing Group, digital galley) is full of samples and would be a good book to reference for inspiration. Although the artists use a variety of media, the book feels a little repetitive because of the similar illustration styles.
David Itzkoff’s compassionate biography of Robin Williams stands out among the books I read in May. David Sedaris’ wickedly humorous collection of essays is also worth picking up.
Robin: This intimate biography of Robin Williams tells the story of the meteoric rise, frenetic life and the sad final days of the comedian.(5/5 stars.) Read my full review.
Calypso: David Sedaris deftly handles a variety of topics including middle age, shopping, gay marriage, language and family tragedy in this achingly funny book. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.
The Shepherd’s Hut: A crisp story of survival, friendship and the search for peace in a brutal Australian landscape. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.
Fear the Sky: A covert team of scientists and soldiers work to undermine the advance team of an alien armada on the way to Earth in this fast-paced sci-fi novel. (4/5 stars.)
The Paris Wife: Historical fiction written from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Good for Hemingway fans, but so-so pacing. (4/5 stars.)
The Little Paris Bookshop: This love story following a bookseller calling himself the literary apothecary was a little pretentious for my taste. (3/5 stars.)
Warlight: In the aftermath of WWII 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of a mysterious man they nickname The Moth and his possibly criminal cohorts. An opaque novel that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. (2/5 stars.) Read my full review.
Jaxie Claxton lives a miserable life in rural Australia, stuck with a savage father he hates. Then one day a violent accident leaves him with no choice but to pack what he can carry and strike out on foot as a fugitive.
Walking across barren western Australia with a rifle and a water jug, he eventually runs into a fellow outcast living in a shepherd’s hut. In this remote and deadly landscape Claxton forms an uncomfortable bond with this man, who has his own secrets to keep and on whom he becomes dependent.
The Shepherd’s Hut (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) by Tim Winton is a short and crisp story of survival, friendship and the search for peace in a brutal world. Winton’s masterful use of language, peppered with Australian colloquialisms, made this novel a pleasure to read.
David Sedaris has mastered the ability to be dark, charming and funny at the same time. His latest collection of essays, Calypso, revolves around gatherings at his North Carolina beach house, the Sea Section. Sedaris deftly handles a variety of topics including middle age, shopping, gay marriage, language and family tragedy.
It’s hard to go more than a couple of pages without belting out a laugh at some outrageous situation in which Sedaris has gotten involved. And he is capable of being shocking, as with a recurring tale that involves a homely snapping turtle and a tumor Sedaris needs removed
Sedaris’ unique powers of observation and his intimate descriptions of human interactions are absorbing. This is among his best books and fans will want to get hold of a copy. Anyone new to Sedaris’ writing will find Calypso (Little, Brown and Company, digital galley) a fine introduction to his achingly funny stories.
An intimate new biography of Robin Williams tells the story of the meteoric rise, frenetic life and the sad final days of the comedian. In Robin, New York Times writer David Itzkoff gives us a look at the creativity that fueled Williams’ seemingly spontaneous and endless comedic riffs. But he also tells of Williams’ substance abuse, repeated infidelities, failed marriages and a manic anxiety over the quality of his performances.
Itkoff recounts stories of Williams’ childhood, failed attempts at college, training at Juilliard and his early years on stand up comedy stages where he stood out among his peers. Robin (Henry Holt & Company, digital galley) is well-researched and full of stories from family, friends and fellow comedians that cover both the highlights and the low lights of Williams’ long career.
The story of Williams health decline and death is handled compassionately as Itzkoff tells of the depression, paranoia and confusion that Williams suffered from as a result of Lewy Bodies Dementia. And although Itkoff tries to give us a full measure of the man, even Williams’ closest friends acknowledge he never revealed all of himself to anyone. In Robin we may get the best look possible at comedic genius whose performances we know so well.
In the aftermath of WWII 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of a mysterious man they nickname The Moth and his possibly criminal cohorts. Warlight follows Nathaniel’s adventures with this eccentric lot and his efforts to discover why his mother seemingly abandoned him.
This coming of age story is unfortunately a disjointed and at times confusing novel. During most of the book we’re told his mother was involved with a secret government agency and that Nathaniel has heard stories about her war service. But these are only vague references for such a key plot point and we never get to hear those stories or discover their source.
Warlight (Knopf, digital galley) was written by Michael Onjaaatje, who also wrote The English Patient, which was turned into a movie. His latest effort, however, is an opaque and enigmatic book that leaves too many questions unanswered.
The original, and surreal, Spaceman of Bohemia is highly recommended. The Mars Room and I am, I am, I am area also among my favorites from April.
Spaceman of Bohemia: Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka leaves his wife behind and heads on a mission to Venus where he befriends a possibly-real, alien spider. (5/5 stars.)
The Mars Room: A bad history with an obsessive strip club visitor leads a young mother to an unfortunate encounter and two life sentences in prison. This is a brutal, yet empathetic look at a life gone sideways. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.
I am, I am, I am: A remarkable and captivating memoir that recounts author Maggie O’Farrell’s 17 near-death experiences. (5/5 stars.)
The Immortalists: A family drama that follows the lives of four siblings who, as children, are told by a spiritualist the day they will die. (4/5 stars.)
Gateway to the Moon: Mary Morris’ latest novel combines a coming of age story with historical fiction to explore ideas of identity and how history echoes across time. Set in a remote New Mexico town founded by crypto-Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.
Final Girls: The “final girls” are a loose-knit trio of girls who were all lone survivors of mass murder. Now one of them is dead and the other two form a troubled bond in this psychological thriller. (4/5 stars.)
The Stars Are Fire: As Grace Holland reconciles the fact that she is in a loveless marriage, a fire breaks out in rural Maine and her husband disappears, and is assumed dead, while fighting it. Her chance at a new life is severely derailed after her husband returns disfigured. (3/5 stars.)
Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Mars Room is a heartbreaking and unsparing look at a life gone sideways. From a young age Romy Hall became acclimatized to life on the street in San Francisco and seemed like someone who could navigate the fine line between survival and self-destruction. But a bad history with an obsessive strip club visitor leads the young mother to an unfortunate encounter and two life sentences in prison.
Separated from and unable to get in contact with her son, Hall tries to reconcile her new life with her old. Kushner draws a vivid picture of a woman growing up only knowing poverty and getting caught up in a system that has little regard for her plight.
The Mars Room (Scribner, digital galley) alternates between the present and Hall’s earlier life. While at times brutal, the novel offer an empathetic look at prison life and the rich cast of characters who reside there.
Mary Morris’ latest novel, Gateway to the Moon, combines a coming of age story with historical fiction to explore ideas of identity and how history echoes across time. The remote New Mexico community of Entrada de la Luna is rooted in the history of the Spanish inquisition and converesos, or crypto-Jews, who fled from persecution. But the residents have lost touch with their past and don’t remember why they maintain certain rituals, such as shunning pork and lighting candles on Friday.
Gateway to the Moon (Doubleday Books, digital galley) primarily follows Miguel, a poor high school student who discovers some unexpected similarities between his own life and that of the transplanted Jewish family for whom he babysits. The novel alternates between Miguel and his forebearers, who made their way to Entrada along with Spanish explorers.
This unique novel works hard to wed the contemporary with the historical and for the most part succeeds. But the story of Miguel and his relationship with those around him is most captivating. The interludes into the past are brief, fill in the backstory and tie in nicely with a personal discovery Miguel makes at the end of the book.