Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The iridescent flashes of color on the Jamaican black-billed streamertail hummingbird might well mirror the luminous prose in Marlon James’ epic novel. There are many more than seven killings here and the novel is anything but brief, but this is a heartbreaking story crafted like a kaleidoscope. Each new chapter delivers a new perspective from a different angle or voice and place. While the Jamaican patois that is sprinkled liberally through the narrative might be difficult to understand at times, this is a story epic in every way that counts: vision, setting, ambition, voice. A singularly astounding achievement.

Us by David Nicholls

The three members of the Petersen family are alone even when together. Trying to salvage a troubled marriage, Doug convinces Connie to take one last European family vacation before their son moves on to college. As things spiral out of control, the story shines light on the everyday joys and slights that shape a marriage. Most parents will empathize with Doug’s struggles to make peace with his increasingly distant son. Even if the story sags in the middle before amping up again, this is a moving story about life’s relationships and how the best intentions can often turn devastatingly awry.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cities of Empire: The British Colonies And the Creation Of the Urban World by Tristram Hunt

We already know that the footprint of the British empire is vast and impressive but zoom out from a bird’s eye view and travel the globe, and the scale of the project is enough to take your breath away. Spanning the centuries from the eighteenth century in Boston (and those pesky Puritans) to the twentieth century back home in Liverpool, Tristram Hunt systematically details not just the early beginnings of empire in each city but also charts how Britain’s very definition of the word changed over time. A fascinating read not just for history buffs but for every global citizen.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu by Dan Jurasky

The relationship between crackers, ice cream and “sound symbolism,” what constitutes the “grammar” of a meal, these are the many breezy offerings served up. Since linguistics is closely tied with history, we travel the world to see the commonality between fish and chips and sikbaj, and ketchup and fish sauce. While the topics selected seem to be a tad arbitrary and the tasty morsels leave us longing for more, this is a delicious romp. Eat it in all one big bite or even better, as one of the many fun old recipes included here would instruct, “lette it boyle” slowly.

The Secret Place by Tana French

St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school in Dublin, is an ecosystem unto itself. The outside world almost never intrudes. All until Chris Harper, a student at a neighboring boys’ institution, is found murdered on Kilda’s grounds. Convinced she knows who did it, one of the girls leaves a note on the school’s anonymous board. I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM, the note says. Tana French’s brilliant and cerebral mystery is also a stellar exploration of complicated teen dynamics and friendships; the years when the focus is relentlessly on the now and tomorrow is forever held at bay no matter the costs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Family might be the nurturing building blocks of a home (and of society), but it can also play host to a whole range of hostile emotions. The Ghoshes celebrate with laughter and happiness but are also consumed by baser emotions such as envy and even hatred toward fellow family members. When young Supratik questions a lifestyle that is oblivious to the depravity of many, he realizes that even doing good is not easily accomplished. While Lives could have used more editing, it is weighty in all the right ways, especially in its unvarnished portrait of the underbelly of class politics.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Map Of Betrayal by Ha Jin

Looking for closure, American Lilian Shang travels to China to find the family her father Gary left behind as he rose to prominence, becoming a high-level mole embedded in the CIA -- a valuable officer in the Chinese espionage apparatus. Narrating a story that alternates between Lillian’s path to discovery and Gary Shang’s complicated map of betrayal, Ha Jin’s melancholic novel is a moving meditation on the fluid definition of allegiance and home. Seemingly based on the life of real-life Chinese spy, Larry Chin, Jin’s prose sometimes cuts too close to the bone. Yet its lessons are universal and heartbreaking.