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BOOK REVIEW: The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe

March25

Rosamond has recently passed away and her niece Gill faces the task of organizing her funeral and emptying her cluttered cottage. After the funeral, Rosamond’s doctor recounts finding Rosamond upright in her chair, surrounded by photo albums and clutching a tape recorder’s microphone. When Gill arrives at the cottage, she finds four cassettes along with a message “Gill – these are for Imogen. If you cannot find her, listen to them yourself.”

When extensive searching fails to locate Imogen (Gill’s second cousin who is blind), Gill decides to listen to the tapes with her daughters. Rosamond has selected 20 photos to describe to Imogen and in doing so, recounts her story of escaping the Blitz in Shropshire, the resulting close friendship developed with her cousin Beatrix, and the tragic family secrets hidden for decades.

Jonathan Coe’s eighth novel is a significant departure from his well-known works of sociopolitical satire. Instead of biting wit, The Rain Before It Falls is a quiet, melancholy story of three generations of women in a Shropshire family. The emotional bankruptcy and violence of Beatrix’s childhood carries forward, infecting her daughter Thea, her blood-sister Rosamond and eventually Imogen. The path of the story feels pre-ordained, violence and emotional reserve beget the same, and Imogen’s birth seems inevitable from that of her mother.

While Coe paints a bleak, minimalist story, the emotional landscape is intense. Rosamond’s goal is to provide Imogen with a sense of her own history, which may have been kept from her by her adopted family. At the same time, she is sharing the forces that shaped her into a maiden aunt, substitute mother and ill-fated lover. For while Beatrix and her mother waver between indifference and violence, Rosamond is filled with repressed love waiting to escape and find an outlet.

In the end, The Rain Before It Falls is a morality tale of daughters doomed to repeat the same tragic mistakes as their mothers. While Coe explores waters unfamiliar to some of his readers, his exceptional skill keeps them engaged until all thoughts of political satire fade and his quiet message becomes audible.

ISBN10: 0307388166
ISBN13: 9780307388162

Trade Paperback
256 pages
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: March 10, 2009
Audio Extract Read by Jonathan Coe

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BOOK REVIEW: Feline Plague by Maja Novak

March24

“You were blind and deaf in that cage made up of your problems, the bars of your distress blocked your eyes, and you didn’t see me at all.”

Communism has just fallen and Slovenia begun the exploration of Western lifestyles. Ira, a strange young woman who barely speaks, has been hired by the Lady to help manage The Ark, the flagship store of Empire, a chain of high-end pet stores. A strange cast of characters soon enter this strange fairytale world: Erzulie, the blind window dresser; Felipe, Ira’s best friend from childhood; and Greta and Marga, twins so identical they are perceived as one. This Ark; however, instead of saving the world ultimately delivers the plague that decimates Slovenia.

The Feline Plague, Maya Novak’s first novel to be translated into English, introduces this gifted writer to the world. A modernist writer who plays deftly with the traditions of magical realism, provides commentary on political situations within her rapidly altering homeland. As Robert Buckeye explains in his introduction, Novak argues that her country’s “quick embrace of cowboy capitalism initially threatened to destroy Slovenia” and this message, savagely presented in The Feline Plague is one her countrymen didn’t wish to hear during capitalism’s early heydays.

Presenting an unpopular message is never easy, and to do so when your country has just taken its first steps out of Communism’s shadow is tantamount to playing Chicken Little. Novak, determined that her message is one which Slovenia needs to hear, wraps it in mythology (Ira is the goddess of anger and Erzulie the voodoo goddess of love and beauty) and common symbolism (Noah’s Ark). She presents her fable to the world as entertainment, trusting her message will seep into reader’s subconscious and help slam the brakes on an out-of-control system.

Ira brings about her country’s downfall by importing unvaccinated cats, turning the Ark from the world’s saviour into its harbinger of doom. The Lady, instead of making pets the new “must-have” accessory and building up earthly treasures for herself, introduces a snake into the Garden of Eden. The Feline Plague is such a powerful message because it resonates in the heart of readers far beyond the borders of Slovenia.

ISBN: 1556437641
ISBN13: 9781556437649

Trade Paperback
248 Pages
Publisher: North Atlantic Books
Publication Date: March 10, 2009

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BOOK REVIEW: The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

February24

“It is book of delight — a love song of the imagination sung by a young man for a young woman who has lost her memory.” – Jesse Ball describing The Way Through Doors (from The Elegant Variation)

Selah Morse, a recent recruit to the Seventh Ministry, is walking past when a young woman is hit by a speeding taxi. He rushes her to the hospital where he discovers that in addition to having lost her memory, she is without identification. An unexplainable urge possesses him and when asked by the doctor, he poses as her boyfriend. Charged with keeping her awake for the next 18 hours, and assisting her in recovering her memory, Selah passes the night telling her stories.

If you’ve read Samedi the Deafness, Jesse Ball’s first novel, then you are already familiar with the convoluted narrative methodologies he employs. The basic plot of The Way Through Doors merely provides a narrative framework for his wordplay. One reviewer, describing Ball’s fiction, stated his “stories are nested within each other, tumbling and turning inside and out like a narrative mobius strip.”

The Way Through Doors is most often described by reviewers as “Russian nesting dolls,” stories nestled within stories. Ball’s convoluted tales continually twist back upon themselves, causing readers to question the veracity of statements made by Selah. Each rendition of a story alters slightly with subsequent retellings, slowly leading readers to the conclusion that Selah is an unreliable narrator.

As a reader, one generally either likes or loathes contemporary, experimental fiction. Those who like straight, narrative lines and emotional arcs find this type of fiction messy and unsettling. There is little here to anchor the reader: Selah begins a story and then one of the characters will begin to relate another, perhaps one featuring Selah and Mora as characters.

In a novel where nothing is as it seems and readers continually search for narrative certainty, the writer’s ability is critical. It is incumbent upon the author to create prose that sings, carrying the readers along in its wake through sections devoid of all frames of reference. Ball handles words like a master and his delight in language oozes from the page.

As Ball says in the quote at the beginning of this review, The Way Through Doors is a “love song of the imagination sung by a young man for a young woman who has lost her memory.” Yet I would argue that it is a love song of the imagination sung by Ball of his love for stories, expressing his love for stories. The way he views narrative is expressed most most clearly by one of his characters in this quote: “Events are continuous, not broken, and they never move on. Stories tell themselves one to another, over and over, never ceasing, and we skip here and there…”

Interview with Jesse Ball about The Way Through DoorsBookSlut

A list of the music Ball listened to while writing The Way Through DoorsBook Notes

ISBN10: 0307387461
ISBN13: 9780307387462

Trade Paperback
240 Pages
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: February 10, 2009

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BOOK REVIEW: Family Planning by Karan Mahajan

January5

In a country where family planning has been the norm since the late 70s, Rakesh Ahuga’s family stands out. Rakesh, the Minister of Urban Planning, has 13 children and another is on the way. The chaos of his home (“the house was the riots of 1947”) is rivaled only by the bedlam of the Indian civil service, a corrupt and often illogical system that Rakesh navigates by frequently resigning (last count was 67 times) to get things done his way.

Recent events have pushed the Ahuja household to the breaking point. Matriarch Sangita is mourning the death of her favourite soap star. Eldest son Arjun stumbled upon his parents having sex in the nursery and is “completely shattered.” His infatuation with Aarti, a fellow student, provides a much needed distraction but in order to carry out his plan to capture her attention, he must navigate sibling politics within “a team of jihadis so bored they’d declared holy war on one another” and face years of sibling servitude.

As the women of India go into mourning over the soup star’s death and a nation-wide strike is threatened, the country’s political turmoil heats up and rebellion looms at work and home. Rakesh and Arjun must come to terms with themselves, each other and long-hidden secrets.

Family Planning, the debut novel by Karan Mahajan, is a finely wrought tragicomedy described by several reviewers as “madcap.” Dialogue spirals out of control, (especially the jargon of Arjun and his friends) leaving readers with only an impression of meaning rather than true understanding. We may not understand every word and illusion in Family Planning, but we are left with a feeling of authenticity, of having glimpsed a true slice of family life in New Delhi. Readers looking for a coherent, straightforward narrative may wish to look elsewhere for their next read; in doing so however, they will miss a truly delightful send-up of modern Indian life.

ISBN10: 006153725X
ISBN13: 9780061537257

Trade Paperback
288 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: November 18, 2008

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BOOK REVIEW: Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany

December4

In post-9/11 Chicago, several Egyptian exchange students study histology at the University of Illinois Medical School. Nagi, who would much rather be a poet, is involved with a Jewish-American girl. Shymaa, a veiled PhD candidate from rural Egypt, has just arrived and finds her traditional upbringing challenged by American society. Tariq, the son of a general, finds himself inexplicably drawn to Shymaa, who he believes socially beneath him. Watching and reporting on their movements is Danana, head of the Egyptian Students’ Union but also a spy for his government’s secret police. As the students prepare for a visit by the Egyptian President, little do they realize how their lives, and those of their professors, will be affected.

Like the famous Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany writes social realism and believes “the role of literature is its human message.” He writes about subjects taboo in Arabic literature – homosexuality, female sexuality, and abortion. His book Chicago is fiction, although it draws upon the two years Al Aswany spent there while earning his dentistry degree from the University of Illinois. Al Aswany’s impressions of American life are presented to readers through the eyes of Arabic students. Rather than using a mirror to show America and Egypt their ills, Al Aswany allows his story to unfold slowly, presenting his social commentary through the actions and behaviour of his characters rather than by pontificating.

Chicago is undoubtedly a political novel, tackling issues of dictatorship, Islamic extremism, human dignity, and corruption and no where is that more evident than in the officious president of the Egyptian Student Union in America. Danana is a loud, obnoxious bully and, in a book crammed full of characters, has a presence that stands out from the rest. Whether it is his mercurial nature or his delight in exposing students’ secrets, Danana fascinates and repels. Chicago is a fascinating novel that falls flat only in Al Aswany’s Americans, which are stereotypical and one-dimensional caricatures.

Whether newly arrived like Shymaa or deeply emeshed in America like Dr. Ra’fat Thabit, everyone maintains a conflicted relationship with their homeland making Chicago, in the end, a novel about identity.

ISBN10: 0061452564
ISBN13: 9780061452567

Hardcover
352 Pages
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: October 7, 2008
Translated from Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab

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BOOK REVIEW: Church of the Dog by Kaya McLaren

November11

Mara O’Shaunnessy, ever-so-slightly magical, is a free spirit who sees people’s auras, heals through touch and communicates with her grandmother nightly in her dreams. So when her mundane fiancée charges her $10.00 for a ride to the hospital, Mara breaks their engagement, packs up and moves to rural Oregon where she accepts a position teaching art. Soon after her arrival in town, Mara buys a hog at a livestock auction to save it from slaughter but now needs a place to live that takes pigs. Town residents direct her to Edith and Earl McRae who may be willing to offer both her and the hog lodging in exchange for work on their farm.

Edith and Earl have been married for fifty years but sadness still clings to them like a cloud. They lost their only child in a tragic car accident many years earlier and their grandson Daniel left the farm as early as possible to spend his days fishing in the arctic. The arrival of Mara on the farm precipitates many changes and as Earl faces an ending, Mara helps the family find joy in the here and now.

Church of the Dog, Kaya McLaren debut novel, is an intensely personal novel. Told alternately from the points of view of Mara, Edith, Earl, and Daniel, Church of the Dog feels as though you’re reading personal diaries and this viewpoint provides intriguing insights into each character’s thoughts, emotions and motivations. In some novels, varying narrators results in a confusing and disjointed read; however, McLaren has engendered her characters with strong, distinctive voices that lead her readers along her chosen path.

Readers will respond to McLaren’s novel in one of two ways: either becoming deeply invested in each of the characters and the spiritual questions McLaren raises; or by thinking it’s all too flaky and treacly, quickly giving up. Readers who connect with Church of the Dog will find a quiet, inspirational meditation on the nature of love and friendship.

Originally published in 2000 by a now defunct press, this edition of Church of the Dog was revised by author and reprinted by Penguin Books.

ISBN10: 0143113429
ISBN13: 9780143113423

Trade Paperback
225 Pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: June 2008
Author’s Website: kayamclaren.com

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BOOK REVIEW: Contagion by Patrick M. Garry

November10

Thirty-eight year old Walt Honerman is drifting through life in Billings, Montana. Still reeling from the death of his girlfriend decades earlier, Walt exists in this small town for Friday night movies with his uncle and the rest of the seniors at the local nursing home. His placid life ends when his uncle dies and Walt is bound by the promise he made, to drive cross-country for a baseball game. Joining him on the journey are Moira Kelly, a young woman who befriended Walt’s uncle, and 76-year-old Izzy Dunleavy who wishes to return to his hometown of Crawfish Bay.

On the journey east Izzy entertains his companions with tales of the grand resort he ran in Crawfish Bay but the veracity of his stories are quickly called into question when Izzy is arrested on embezzlement charges shortly after their arrival. Moira insists on remaining by Izzy’s side to prove his innocence and Walt reluctantly stays as well, increasingly being drawn into Moira’s elaborate schemes.

Contagion, the lastest novel from law professor Patrick M. Garry, follows the template of the hero’s journey (or monomyth); a hero ventures forth from the every day into world where the hero must face tasks and trials, either alone or with assistance. Like many prototypical heroes, Walt initially refuses the call to adventure (traveling east) but is soon overwhelmed with pressure by his uncle’s friends and ventures forth into the unknown joined by Izzy and Moira. By refusing the call, Walt moves from hero to a victim in need of rescue and cedes the journey’s direction to Izzy. The arrest of Izzy, and the resulting mess which must be untangled, is Walt’s road of trials and Izzy becomes the father-figure with whom Walt must reconcile.

While the first half of the novel where Garry sets the stage for Walt’s journey is slow and occasionally begins to drag, the second half quickly kicks into high gear driven by Moira’s determination and Jake’s personality (a young man Walt and Moria meet at Crawfish Bay) which carry readers along in their wake.

In many ways, all of the main characters in Contagion are on journeys, each trying to find their way to a home. Walt must overcome his fears, guilt and start living again and Izzy has to cease living in a dream and accept responsibility for his history. Neither has much connection to reality and their detachment makes it difficult for readers to connect with their characters; however, the strong secondary characters provide enough depth to keep readers turning pages.

ISBN10: 1592992803
ISBN13: 9781592992805

Trade Paperback
272 Pages
Publisher: Inkwater Press
Publication Date: May 2007

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boat by Nam Le

August21

Nam Le took the literary world by storm with the publication of his debut collection of short stories The Boat. Collecting together seven stories that present disparate views on the world, The Boat presents Le’s versatility with narrative voice and subject matter.

The opening story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is the most self-conscious and potentially autobiographical of the stories, featuring a young writer named Nam who is working Iowa Writer’s Workshop master’s when his father comes to visit. Urged to mine his personal story for material, Nam writes his father’s story prompting a conflict between the two, and contemplation on the nature of truth and memory. As a reader, this is the story which felt most contrived which may have been Le’s intention. It reads like a writing exercise from the very program he writes about and has none of the emotional depth of the six other stories. The critics raved about this story and its ties to the other stories (a character in “Love and Honor…” suggests to the fiction Nam Le: “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”). Le covers several of these topics in later stories: Colombian assassins in “Cartagena,” Hiroshima orphans in “Hiroshima” and New York painters in “Meeting Elise.”

The strongest story in my opinion is “Tehran Calling.” In a few short pages, Le produces many fully realized characters that all have incredibly distinct voices. The sense of menace experienced by Sarah during her visit to Tehran leaks from the page and affects the reader’s mood and pace of reading. I became jumpy while reading and the feeling of unease remained even when I returned to the story a second reading. The characters are sympathetic yet repulsive at the same time, a difficult feat for any writer and astonishing in one as young as Le.

Nam Le shows his muscle in The Boat and it will be interesting to watch how he matures as a writer. From the promise shown here, he is without doubt a writer with great promise.

ISBN10: 030726808X
ISBN13: 9780307268082

Hardcover
288 Pages
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: May 2008
Author Website: www.namleonline.com

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BOOK REVIEW: The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

May21

Having recently lost her mother, eighteen-year-old Rosemary leaves her home in Tasmania and travels to New York City to start her life. Possessing little more than $300, her love of books and her mother’s ashes, she sets out to explore the city she’s dreamed of for years. During her wanderings, she stumbles upon the Arcade bookstore and in a moment of unusually forward behaviour, begs for a job.

Thus begins her life among the bookstore’s eccentric denizens: Mr. Pike, the gruff owner who refers to himself in the third person; Oscar, the emotionally unavailable nonfiction specialist; Arthur, the art specialist who loves nude photos; Walter, the albino store manager; and Pearl, the motherly pre-operative transsexual. As Rosemary finds her way around both New York City and the Arcade, she discovers new authors and a love of Herman Melville. When she unknowingly becomes involved in an internal power struggle over an unpublished Melville novel, her new life threatens to disintegrate and she is left to choose sides.

Billed as a literary mystery but more a coming of age story, Sheridan Hay’s debut novel The Secret of Lost Things is a loving tribute both to Herman Melville and discovering one’s place in the world. In an interview at Backstory, Hay admits that this novel contains many autobiographical details. Hay worked at the famed Strand bookstore when she first arrived in New York City from Australia and she met many old, strange booksellers in the city’s bookstores. While pursuing her MFA she became fascinated with Melville’s work and came across the story of the missing novel. “When I learned that he’d written a novel that was lost, The Isle of the Cross, and read his letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville insisted himself into my bookstore narrative.”

The Secret of Lost Things moves at a languid pace, appropriate as the action takes place inside the characters. In Hay’s novel, the search for the lost manuscript is secondary to the knowledge the search brings. Each character must lose something if they wish to gain something they perceive as being of greater value. Whether the bargains are good is left for readers to decide.

ISBN10: 030727733X
ISBN13: 9780307277336

Trade Paperback
354 Pages
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publication Date: March 11, 2008
Author Website: secretoflostthings.com

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BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

May16

In the late 1970s, Argentina’s Videla ‘junta’ carried out a campaign of violence against its population, a “National Reorganization Process” comprised of the illegal arrest, torture, killing or forced disappearance of thousands of people, primarily trade-unionists, students and activists. Set during this turbulent time, Nathan Englander’s first novel focuses on a poor Jewish couple, Kaddish and Lillian Pozan whose only son, Pato, becomes one of the approximately 30,000 people who were lost during this time.

A novel about community, identity and injustice, The Ministry of Special Cases illuminates not only a dark period in Argentina’s history, but also that of its Jewish population. Embarrassed by their members who were pimps and prostitutes, the larger Jewish community refused to allow them to be buried in the community graveyard, requiring that they be separated by a wall and thus able to be ignored by “good people.” Decades later, their children want to protect their “good name” and they hire Kaddish, the invisible Jew, to remove their ancestors from public record. As The Ministry of Special Cases opens, Kaddish is found chiseling away at a gravestone in a forgotten cemetery in Buenos Ares.

The juxtaposition of the secret “Jewish Reorganization,” with the turbulent family dynamics of the Pozans, the self-policing of identity by the Argentinean population, and the broader political reorganization, makes for a complex novel about community, identity and injustice. Like the Jews who hire him, Kaddish now finds himself eliminating Pato’s history as a student and free-thinker, by destroying his books.

Kaddish, a man who carves his own path in life, is often in conflict with his wife and son who see him as someone who can never get anything right. Lillian is exasperated by his futile efforts to make a living and the need to constantly save him while his son refuses to accept him. It is only when his son becomes ‘disappeared’ that Kaddish finally fulfills his potential, becoming the man Lillian had seen glimpses of when they dated. The irony for Lillian is that in losing her future, she gains a full partner in their marriage.

ISBN10: 0375704442
ISBN13: 9780375704444

Trade Paperback
352 Pages
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: April 1, 2008
Author Website: nathanenglander.com

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