Jacobs takes a year to live strictly adhering to the bible. He doesn’t know bubkes when he begins and figures he’ll start reading Genesis and do whatever the bible says he should as he moves from chapter to chapter. His book contains a series of short, humorous anecdotes whose collective weight provide profound insight into the value of religious observance and the dangers of fundamentalism.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks *** (of 4)
The plot is contrived and straight as ruler and the characters are one dimensional, but the book is still a great read. Like Brooks’ People of the Book Year of Wonders covers a piece of history I knew nothing about. She presents her exceptional powers as a researcher in a totally palatable manner. Year of Wonders gives us the lives of a small English town in 1166 just as bubonic plague arrives. We squirm not so much because half the towns people die, but because the impact on the survivors — the elderly, orphans, widows without means of support — is so psychologically devastating. I read the whole book thinking about how Native Americans must have suffered as whole villages succumbed to European diseases. February 2009.
The White Tiger by Arivan Adiga ** (of 4)
Hard to imagine why this book won the 2008 Booker Prize, England’s Pulitzer. The protagonist is a low-caste Indian who makes good, but most of the book is supposed to be an antidote to the lyrical prose of British writers who focused on genteelity and upper-crustism in India. But after forty pages of filth, corruption, poverty, and disease we get the point. After 140 pages, enough already. Read A Fine Balance, instead. That book covers much of the same despair and hope, but is a written by a future Nobel Prize winner. October 2008.
What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers **** (of 4)
It’s hard to comprehend how anyone survives what Valentino had to in escaping Arab militiamen in southern Sudan and comes away only with excrutiating headaches. Moreover, Eggers is brilliant in retelling Valentino’s story as a novel that treads the line between despair and hope, being neither too depressing, nor too optimistic. I’m told that Valentino (who came to Allegheny for a semester) and Eggers went with the novel because the true story is even more difficult than what is printed here and because so many people were involved that the two of them figured it was easier to combine a few stories rather than ask readers to keep a surfeit of characters straight. Like a novel it’s a page turner, but in the back of every reader’s mind is the knowledge that the story of thousands of young boys walking for weeks across Sudan’s deserts chased by lions, bandits, militiamen, and hunger is all to true. July 2007.
A second rate book by a first rate author. Jin read everything he could find on the fate of Chinese prisoners of war during the Korean conflict then invents a chinese protagonist capable of speaking English to serve as the author’s mouthpiece. But Jin ends up with a book that lacks immediacy or urgency. Instead, War Trash feels like a forced piece of fiction with implausible connectors to get the protagonist from one scene to the next so Jin can fictionalize, thinly, true events. I suppose it’s news to discover Chinese POWs weren’t treated well, but Jin doesn’t even succeed in making war feel like hell in this book. Better off reading Waiting, or better still, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. April 2006.
A love triangle compromised by the Cultural Revolution in China told in exquisite detail. While I was reading I could smell manure in the fields, hear insects pollinating flowers, taste freshly steamed sweet breads, and agonize with a man and two women all of whom deserved better relationships than they were forced to live with. Reviewed January 2005
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri *** (of 4)
Compelling in the way of an auto crash. I could not look away, but I definitely felt worse for having partaken. Like her Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri delivers a compendium of short stories about the first and second generation lives of college-educated New England Bengalis. Only thing is by her accounting their lives consist nearly entirely of remorse, despair, despondence, regret, cancer, alcohol , duplicity, and disloyalty. March 2009.
The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey * (of 4)
An Irish western outlaw in 1870s Australia. I think the book won some famous prize. I found it unreadable, predictable drek. Recommended by Terri Laufer
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini *** (of 4)
A bottomless well of hopelessness, despair and background warfare in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion of the 80s through the American invasion post 9/11. Seen through the eyes of two women who lose nearly everything they can imagine either blown to bits around them or whose common husband senselessly beats them. And yet. Hosseini’s crystaline writing and, in my case, Atossi Leoni’s heart wrenching reading simultaneously suffocated and repelled me. I wanted to stop the pain, but could not turn away; instead I lay awake for nights praying for salvation for Leilo and Miryam, two women who endured. December 2007
The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra ** (of 4)
A poetically written account of life under the Taliban extremists of Kabul Afghanistan. It’s written by an Algerian, not an Afghani, with a self-described vendetta against extremist Muslims. The story wrings true enough compared to news reports, but is utterly depressing. All four main characters, two men, two women, go crazy and die horrible deaths at the hands of the Taliban. November, 2004.