Saturday, April 11, 2015

Rain: A Natural And Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Even if you’re the kind who can’t take soggy weather, you’ll love Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. A whole host of intriguing topics — rainmakers, the earthy perfume of rain, the mechanics of rain — and more are captured under that cheerful brolly. Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett travels the world over (from the wettest place in the world, Cheerapunji, in India, to an umbrella store in London) to deliver stories dripping with personality. Her enthusiasm for her subject translates brilliantly on to the page. For lovers of social science, the perfect shelter to dive into on a rainy day.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

“The Gravedigger,” a majestic Indian elephant, looms large in this devastating novel set in south India. By granting anthropomorphic qualities to the tusker, James dives headlong into the problem of poaching, exploring all angles  — animal, man, violator, protector and even a neutral third-party, a film crew of two. With an impressive economy of words and a searching exploration of the costs of doing the right thing, James delivers a nuanced view of one of humanity’s most pressing environmental problems. The African elephant on the cover (instead of an Asian one) is the only misstep in this otherwise brilliant novel.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

Yasha and Frances are young adults from Brooklyn each bruised in a specific way, trying to find peace in the northern reaches of Norway, the land of the midnight sun. Frances ties herself to an art project in Lofoten, miles north of the Arctic circle, while family obligations deliver Yasha there. The novel’s quirky tone and offbeat characters belie its weighty message — about finding kindness in unlikely places and learning the art of making peace with one’s past. There’s no escaping it, sure, but you don’t have to get smothered under its weight either. A wise and promising debut.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Ngyuen

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” explains the unreliable narrator of this intense and piercing debut about the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Above all, the protagonist is haunted by ghosts, his mixed Eurasian heritage forever marking him as an outsider both to the Vietnamese and the Americans. The Sympathizer brilliantly tracks the machinations of the shattered freedom movement as members try to remake their country anew. It’s an arresting and mesmerizing tale, written in gorgeous language, that lends a fresh perspective to one of the defining wars of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

Defying his genes, Radar Radmanovic, son of a Serbian electrician and a white New Jersey woman, is born black. What does his identity have to do with a group of performance artists who set up their pieces in global war zones? Plenty as it turns out. The bloated novel dazzles in its period pieces but is sometimes, quite literally, at sea. The immensely gifted Larsen aims high, but the central conceit about the definition of art is hard to buy into. Nevertheless Radar is mesmerizing enough to keep you hooked for most of its nearly 700 pages. No easy feat.

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

East meets West in Amit Chaudhuri’s latest, set in ‘80s London. Ananda Sen is a young graduate student of poetry hoping for small measures of success, depending on his much older uncle Ranagamama, who has parked himself in a rent-stabilized bedsit for years, for companionship. Unfolding over the course of one Sunday afternoon, the story, in typical Chaudhuri style, is not packed with external events, focusing instead on the trials of displacement and non-conformity in a strange land. Uncle and nephew’s endless reflections occasionally feel too self-absorbed; nevertheless Chaudhuri’s gorgeous writing and insightful observations ultimately deliver a soulful novel.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

As the Second World War played out, the small country of Estonia saw multiple occupations by the Germans and the Soviets. Amid these rapidly shifting geopolitical realities, allegiances were difficult to forge but not so for the duplicitous Edgar Parts. Parts will stop short at almost nothing to plant himself on the winning team and Oksanen’s high-voltage prose, translated seamlessly from Finnish by Lola Rogers, unravels his cat-and-mouse games to stunning effect. The overlapping betrayals by multiple parties and shifting time settings can get confusing, but the story is a triumphant portrayal of the will to survive at any cost.