Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (isn’t that cover great?!) is the second book I’ve read this year in which a translator of books goes searching for someone who is missing. The first was Idra Novey’s elegantly written book Ways to Disappear which I read and reviewed back in January.
In A Separation, we follow Kitamura’s narrator as she travels to Greece, to a conflagration-charred landscape, to track down her unresponsive, unfaithful husband at the behest of her mother-in-law. We learn that she and the husband are separated, have been for months, but have kept the dissolve of their marriage a secret. The smoking Greek landscape, an apt setting, offers a visual representation of a marriage gone up in flames.
Kitamura’s translator, like Novey’s, searches for answers and understanding while “translating” her experience, communicating amidst an unfamiliar language, intuiting emotions of grief and longing, and reading into foreign interactions and expressions to glean meaning.
Here, the narrator straddles an awkward divide, she seemingly cares for her estranged husband because of the past they share, but is emotionally vague, neither saddened nor relieved, angry nor scared. “She,” never given a name or a description in the book, is a passive character whose cool remove heightens the sense of foreboding, feeds the estrangement, and structures the tension at the center of the plot.
Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others was highly recommended by a local bookseller I know, and the blurbs sing Chiang’s praises. Junot Diaz calls the stories “shining, haunting, mind-blowing.”
The thing that stood out about this collection was Chiang himself. He clearly put so much work into researching and crafting each story. Whether writing about problematic mathematical theory, or building the linguistic foundation of an alien language, or imagining the Tower of Babel winding up to the sky and cracking the realm of heaven, Chiang’s expansive mind is on display. And it’s impressive.
I liked these stories. The way that Chiang pairs humanity with far-reaching ideas lends the ideas an accessibility, however there is a remove, an almost clinical coldness to the storytelling which left me emotionally disengaged from the stories themselves.
My favorite of the lot was “Story of Your Life,” in which a woman recounts to her child, “you,” how learning an alien language changes her understanding of life and time. Sound familiar? It was made into, with many changes, the movie Arrival.
Some books just don’t need to be published.
Joan Didion’s newest, South and West, is one of those books. I like Joan Didion, but this small book reads like an afterthought, an unnecessary side note to her other wonderful works.
Comprised of fragments from previously unpublished notebooks, “South” is a laundry list of observations, anecdotes, and conversations formed on a road trip Didion took through the South (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) in 1970. Didion’s notes do evoke the South, the heaviness of the air, deep porches, water moccasins, and the echoes of slavery are everywhere, but the section feels incohesive and incomplete.
The book weighs heavily on the South; “West” is just a few pages tacked on before the end of the book. These notes are even more fractured, jumping from memory to observation without much reason or deeper meaning.
Deb Olin Unferth’s stories read like the layers of an onion, with each sentence the narrative is built up and peeled back, meaning is revealed, the story is changed, keeps changing, until the reader gets to the funky, quirky core. A nugget of surprise lingers at the center, waiting to be discovered, embedded to shock.
Highlights of the collection: A struggling adjunct teacher longing to tell her sad breakup tale to students invites them to share the worst thing that’s happened to them with unexpected results in “Voltaire Night.” A perpetually wandering, confidentially clueless couple gets led into the jungle at gunpoint in “Stay Where You Are.” In “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” an unremarkable teacher with unremarkable students tries to find self worth and purpose.
Amid these standout stories were a number of shorter pieces. The back cover calls these “intoxicating,” but they didn’t resonate or have the same impact for me as the longer stories.
I love Graywolf Press. I discovered Wait Till You See Me Dance on their Instagram feed; and Graywolf just kills it, consistently publishing awesome books, including: Citizen, The Argonauts, LOOK, The Empathy Exams, and 300 Arguments and Ongoingness, to name a few.
The stories in Kanishk Thardoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars are steeped in history. Many read like fables, told by voices or by characters who carry the past, their people, their language, their lives, forward with strength and fortitude. Thadoor is a classic story-teller, his writing is lyrical, assured, tender.
In this collection the stories revolve around movement, of civilization, of refugees, of territories and borders, of affections, of language. In “The Mirrors of Iskandar” Alexander the Great moves across countries, conquering land, people, the sea, writing history. In “Swimmer Among the Stars” the narrator, the last speaker of a forgotten language, moves between ideas and words, the past and the present, giving voice to lost stories. In “Tale of the Teahouse” inhabitants of a city live, love, eat, and speculate as Gengis Kahn moves closer and closer to their walls, marching towards destruction.
My favorite story in the bunch was “Elephant at Sea” in which an elephant is shipped from India to Morocco, a gift to a princess. Tharoor perfectly captures the poignant relationship between the elephant and the mahout, the elephant’s joyful love of the sea, and the touching absurdity of their voyage.
As I turned page 623 to the last paragraphs of V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light, I’ll admit that I got sad in my heart… sad to say goodbye to this wonderful series (this is the third of a trilogy, I wrote about books 1 and 2 here and here) and these great characters, sad to leave this magical world.
As a bookseller I snobbishly ignored the whole fantasy/sci-fi section in favor of literary fiction (hey, I was in my 20’s, I thought fiction was more, I don’t know, important); In the past year I’ve been delving into the fantasy genre more and more. And here’s the thing about fantasy (based on the books I’ve read thus far): They’re FUN. Remember reading for fun? Not for school, or book club, not for what reading a certain book says about you as a reader. For fun, because the book makes you happy.
This series made me happy. Highly entertaining, delightfully transporting, these books are the perfect escape. I don’t know about you, but at the current moment, escaping into a book, into a world woven with magic and mystery, sounds pretty awesome just about all the damn time.
The release of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid couldn’t be more timely. It follows two characters, Saeed and Nadia, as the unnamed city they live in is torn apart by violence and occupied by militants. They flee, becoming two refugees among many seeking asylum, a place to live, food to eat, a space to call their own.
The current refugee crisis echoes loudly through Exit West, as Hamid’s characters encounter folks willing to help them on their journey, and “nativists,” those people who want the refugees out of their neighborhoods, out of their country. Conflict arises. Loyalties are tested.
Hamid has crafted – and I use crafted purposefully here as Hamid’s writing craft is truly that of a master – a beautifully written story. Set in a world that is at once very recognizable, and vaguely futuristic, refugees escape through door portals, drones are a constant overhead, surveillance is everywhere, and known cities and places – London, Mykonos, Marin Country – are slightly changed, both familiar and strange.
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s childhood friend became a mother she asked the author for advice on how to raise her daughter to be a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s response.
A quick read, Adichie’s letter offers up fifteen suggestions, including teaching her to love books, imbuing her with self-reliance, informing her about systems of oppression, talking to her about sex, and encouraging her to question language and to reject “likeability.”
I will read anything Adichie writes. Her writing is consistently smart and accessible, powerful and timely. And this is no exception.
I agree with my friend Guinevere who wrote in her review on goodreads: “While it is written as a letter of advice for raising a baby girl, every word was valuable to me as the parent of a young boy … it is equally important to raise boys to be feminists.” YES. This is not just a book for parents of girls. In order to create a more gender equal world for our children, parents also need to be raising boys who are informed, who call out inequality when they see it, who challenge gender roles, and who don’t belittle, take advantage of, or oppress the girls/women around them. The fight for equality cannot be fought by women and girls alone.
I expected to fly through The Magicians. The premise sounded so entertaining: A smart but lonely teenager discovers he’s a magician when he stumbles upon, auditions, and gets accepted into magician school where there’s no shortage of teenage intrigue, sexual tension, and MAGIC. Sounds fun, right?
I didn’t love it. And I didn’t fly through it.
About halfway through the book I found myself wanting the experience of reading it to be over, to know the ending and be done with it. Partly because of the selfish cluelessness of the main character, I just couldn’t muster the interest to care about what happened to him and his magician friends in the end. Meh.