Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is a quick, dark, and calculated novel about family and politics. Set in Bolivia after WWII, and based on real historical figures, the narrative follows the German Ertl family, father Hans and two of his daughters, on an expedition into the Amazon, and beyond.
The Ertl family provides Hasbún with great fodder for his story. In Germany, Hans Ertl had worked with Leni Riefenstahl as a Nazi propaganda cinematographer. After WWII, he fled the country with his family, relocating in Bolivia where he made expedition documentaries, and eventually became a farmer. His daughter, Monika Ertl, became a guerrilla fighter after joining up with the remnants of Che Guevara’s army.
While there is a precise elegance to Hasbún’s writing, and the history of the Ertl family is intriguing, the novel, composed of vignettes told from various perspectives, felt limited and disjointed, and lacked an emotional nucleus.
Available November 2017
The End We Start From begins with the birth of a child called Z, born in a storm-flooded near-future London to a woman and R, her partner. Z is both the end of the alphabet and a beginning; a child born to a new generation, one that will come of age in a dystopian UK where transience is necessary and survival is key.
Megan Hunter’s brief and lyrical first novel beautifully explores themes of motherhood, survival, death and renewal, and home, while layering in all-too-real environmental terror and post-apocalyptic realism. It’s minimal and poetic. A strong debut.
Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, my book club’s pick for August, is a fantastic read full of adventure, suspense, and heart.
Hawley, a complicated father and a dangerous man, and his young daughter Loo return to the town where Loo’s mother grew up. After years on the run they set down roots and stir up old emotions.
Constellations, literal and metaphorical, run though Tinti’s narrative: Loo looks to the stars for stability and her path, Hawley’s old criminal network is a constellation both intricate and menacing, and Hawley’s body is a map baring a constellation of bullet scars.
Available August 1, 2017
New People, the new novel by Caucasia author Danzy Senna, tackles complex issues of race, class, and identity with astute humor.
The story follows the racially mixed couple Maria and Khalil, living in late 1990’s Brooklyn, and featured in a documentary about “New People,” racially diverse couples whose identities are not easily defined. Outwardly they are the perfect couple, but when Maria starts obsessing over a black poet her world becomes increasingly complicated.
Maria is an unlikable character whose choices were so cringe-worthy that Senna’s witty and thoughtful writing about blackness and the making of identity were ultimately and unfortunately overshadowed by her character’s bizarre narrative arc.
Diksha Basu’s debut novel The Windfall is light and funny, a quick read after my last book, The Name of the Wind.
Set in Delhi and New York, the story follows the newly rich Mr. and Mrs. Jha as they move from the housing complex where they’ve lived for years in East Delhi to the exclusive part of the city where everyone belongs to the Luxury Recreation Club and the neighbors constantly attempt to one-up each other. We’re also privy to the failings of their son who is secretly dating a white woman while at university in America, and their lonely widowed neighbor, the beautiful Mrs. Ray, as she searches for companionship.
Basu is a great writer of dialogue. The conversations between the characters are hilarious and sometimes cringe-worthy, and cleverly reveal the desires, expectations, fears, and inadequacies of the characters themselves.
#50!! And just like that I’m halfway to my goal to read 100 books by the end of the year…
One of the things I appreciated about Berkeley-based Thi Bui’s gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, is that she opens her book with an intense birth. She is in labor with her son, and, by way of her lovely illustrations, we are in the moment with her. I couldn’t help but find a parallel between the “birth” of the book, the creative impulse, and Bui’s labor, the creation of life; the book opens, she opens, the story unfolds, a life is brought forth.
The Best We Could Do is a story of life and survival, of family and identity. Bui tells the story of growing up between two cultures, the story of her parents – where they grew up in Vietnam, how they met, the dreams of their youths, the realities of adulthood. It is the story of a country and a people torn apart, by colonization, by the Vietnam War. It is the story of refugees. It is powerful and memorable, a fascinating and evocative read.
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, the sweet sting of memory, of aging.
“How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?”
Looking for a great Mother’s Day gift? Buy this.
Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is a fast, plot-driven novel with a quasi-interesting main character, Frances Conway. Frances, born in Minnesota, positioned as bookish and smart, is made to go to secretarial school by her immigrant parents instead of finishing high school, runs away to Chicago with her best friend Rosalie, moves to San Francisco, and eventually ends up in the Galapagos Islands in the lead-up to WWII married to a handsome and complicated spy.
As intriguing as that storyline sounds, I wasn’t charmed by Frances and this was a hard book to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed aspects of this story; Amend is a strong writer who creates a real sense of place within her narrative. Most notable were the sections in which Frances lives rough on one of the Galapagos Islands. These sections were vivid and rich, a pleasure to read.
On the other hand the novel is disjointed and full of holes. As a reader I couldn’t reconcile that the author glazed over 30 years of the Frances’ life in a few paragraphs, taking her from just under 20 to 50 in one page with a literary not much happened in those years shrug. Really? Also, the female friendship aspect of the story, Frances’ friendship with Rosalie, felt forced and flat. Frances, for all her experiences, remains fairly naive and boring despite her early bookish years, and I couldn’t quite understand what glue held their friendship together for so long.
Han Kang’s Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian, is a dark, illuminating, and at times grotesque book about objectification and the body.
Broken up into three sections, each with a different narrative perspective, the story tracks the repercussions of one woman’s choice to become a vegetarian.
It’s a quick read; I read it in one sitting on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii last week. Did I love it? No. There were times I had to skip over sentences because the descriptions made me slightly nauseous.
However, I appreciated Kang’s seamless writing, the 3-section structure with disparate voices, and what the book reveals about how we/society view women’s bodies and food. Kang’s vegetarian is positioned as an object, and because we are seeing her through the eyes of her husband/her brother-in-law/her sister she is an object to the reader as well, of disgust, of desire and lust, of creation, of fear and perversion, she is an object to control, to feed, to persuade, to manipulate. And we are complicit.
A powerful read overall.