Friday, April 18, 2014

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon

The fallout from Chernobyl was devastating and searing of course but Darragh McKeon’s piercing debut shows us that lingering clouds of disaffection loomed large over all of Russia affecting its citizens in complex ways. Yevgeni, a struggling piano student coming of age in Moscow’s ghettos; his principled aunt Maria; and her ex-husband, Grigory, a doctor summoned to the “battlefront” -- this is a small subset of characters whose lives are irrevocably changed by the accident. But the moving novel shows that the disaster only made clear the writing that was already on the wall: Twilight was descending on the empire.

Friday, April 11, 2014

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

Debut novelist Zia Haider Rahman is quite the polymath and it shows. Touching on a dizzying range of topics from salamanders to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Rahman sometimes seems too caught up in emphasizing his own brilliance at the expense of story. He is at his best when shining light on the nuances of race, class and the dangerousness of the best intentions gone awry in Afghanistan. As that limited field of vision on the cover effectively demonstrates, frame of reference matters especially since winning hearts and minds is never an easy task. An impressive debut from a writer worth watching.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtis, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone

Practically everyone knows about the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk. After that epic accomplishment, it was not just a variety of airplanes that soared, it was also the ambitions of many Birdmen who got into the exploding field of aviation. Occupying center stage were the brothers and Glenn Curtiss. The two sides’ protracted court battles over their craft, framed by U.S. patent law, shows what gets lost in such tussles. Even if the narrative stalls often, and you wonder if there is a piece of research that Lawrence Goldstone hasn’t crammed into Birdmen, it is compelling reading.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

I’ll admit that I didn’t know a thing about poker before I picked up this book -- and I can’t say I retain much after. The point is this: Who cares? It’s Colson Whitehead we’re talking about. He could talk about fantasy football and I would still read it. Full of Whitehead’s trademark humor and perceptive life lessons, The Noble Hustle is a winner. As trite as it might sound, you realize that poker really is a metaphor for life -- you play the hand you’re dealt. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Thank you to the publishers for the ARC.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

That “grumpy old sod” on the cover is a Man Called Ove. He’s mourning the death of his wife, hates all his neighbors (especially those who don’t drive Saabs), and is constantly bemoaning the state of contemporary society. Ove tries killing himself when fate repeatedly intervenes -- especially in the form of a young multiracial family across the street. The plot is repetitive and lurches for a good half of the book, and the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. Yet this book reminds me of the new hit song, "Happy." It’s cloying, it’s syrupy but one can’t help enjoying the ride anyway.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Harriet (Harry) Burden knows what it is like to play second fiddle to a man -- first her father and then her ex-husband, art dealer Felix Lord. An accomplished artist in her own right, Burden is convinced that the only way to gain recognition in the male-dominated art world is to show her work under the guise of three male artists. But what happens when the “unmasking” doesn’t go as planned -- when the quest for validation collides against more crass impulses like greed? Delving into issues of feminism, status, perception, this is one heck of a fiercely intelligent read.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

"Writing Books Under the Pine Trees," the gorgeous landscape painting that graces the cover of this lyrical novel, is by Wang Meng, a Chinese painter during the Yuan dynasty. The story is a fictionalized account of the political upheavals in the country seen through Wang’s eyes. An eye-opening "travelogue" as intricately detailed as any landscape painting, The Ten Thousand Things beautifully weaves weighty issues such as religion, philosophy and art. John Spurling’s superb novel might be set in fourteenth-century China but the principal question it addresses -- what happens when duty and passion collide -- remains as relevant as ever.