The shortest month of the year did not slow me down at all. Five books plus one leftover from January.
Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
I forgot to include this in my January list. Probably because I had a hard time thinking of what to write about it.
Not that it’s a bad book. It won the freaking Pulitzer for crying out loud. But, rather, I always have trouble writing about short story collections. Even if there’s a common theme that runs through each selection, I always struggle to say something coherent about them.
In this case most of the stories are of people either living in India, or who have come to America from India. There are themes of identity, culture, and defining who you are and how you fit into the society you live in woven through each one of these beautifully written stories. But, beyond that, it’s hard for me to say much else.
Prince of Fire – Daniel Silva
Another entry in the Gabriel Allon, Israeli super spy/commando/assassin series. He’s finally done chasing old Nazis and is dealing with more current issues, now revolving around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it was in 2003–04. The usual twists and turns, lots of action, some interesting background on the history of that conflict, and, in the end, Allon saves the day.
Redeployment – Phil Klay
I’ve lost track of how many books I’ve read about the American wars of the post–9/11 era. Thus, it’s a bit hard to measure this one, a collection of short stories by a former Marine who served in Iraq, against the others. It is certainly as affecting as any of the other works. It tends toward the dark and haunting side, although there are moments of humor and examinations of the absurdities of modern war.
It is mostly, though, about the horrors of war. About how humans, or at least humans that are reasonably sane to start with, are not equipped to handle the stresses of killing and attempting to not get killed. No matter how strong they are when a deployment begins, if they survive they come home with damage that is not always visible to the outside world.
Most of the stories are very strong, but the initial piece, for which the collection is named, is devastating.
The Magicians – Lev Grossman
Two books this month from genres that I want to like but can’t always get into.
Here is a fantasy book disguised as something else. Or at least partially disguised.
Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant New York high school student who gets invited to a secret school for magicians. Not like a school for card tricks and balloon animal magicians, but rather spells and wizardry magicians.
The first two-thirds of the book are entertaining, if not anything special. In fact, I kept thinking it could be any book about spoiled kids who have gone away to college, not dissimilar from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
Then, however, things really take off. There is a stretch of about 100 pages or so that I absolutely flew through with sweaty palms and a pounding heart. That part comes when the books shifts into straight fantasy mode, with battles against strange beasts in another world.
This is the first of a series. Based on some things I’ve read about the later books, I don’t know that I’ll continue with it. Which is fine because this was a really good book all on its own.
Now I Know Who My Comrades Are – Emily Parker
A “Walk By” book. Meaning I knew nothing about it until I walked by it at the library and decided to pick it up.
Parker looks at how activists in China, Cuba, and Russia are using the Internet to get around government restrictions and attempt to change their societies. It felt especially timely as China is about to enact new restrictions on its citizens who use social media channels, Cuba could be on the verge of a new era of openness, and Russia drifts toward overt despotism.
Parker spent time in all three countries with the subjects of her profiles. She demonstrates exactly how the activists in each country work to get their messages out, how the government controls their output, and what the effects on the broader political culture are.
But it feels a little incomplete. She offers up these case studies and then leaves them alone. There is a brief epilogue, but not real examination of where things are headed, what needs to change in each country, and so on.
Wonder – R.J. Palacio
M. is reaching the point where I’m interested in books she is reading. Last year we both read The One And Only Ivan, which I liked but was written in a rather simple manner, clearly aimed at younger readers.
This, though, is aimed at all ages. And while it closes with a nice, happy ending geared toward children, nothing about the story is watered down.
It follows August, a boy with massive facial deformities who, after being home schooled for his entire life, is about to begin the fifth grade at a private school. Which, as you can imagine, is stressful on everyone.
There are some predictable twists and turns. Of course there are moments of heartbreak that turn into moments of triumph. But the writing is terrific, Palacio is constantly shifting the point-of-view which adds to the book’s impact, and the ultimate message is one that is good for everyone.
Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie
I had heard great things about this. But, as often is the case with deep sci-fi, I just could not get into it. I struggled through 40 pages and could not keep track of what race was from what galaxy, and the weird gender issues displayed by certain inhabitants of the host planet. So I took it back to the library and moved on to the next book.