05 January 2011

Book Report

I’ve got several half-written, more substantive blog updates, but can’t seem to finish them off for posting. I’ve decided to shelve those for now and go with slightly lighter, less Liberian fare in order to actually get something up here for the first time in weeks.

I spent the holidays in central Europe with my mom, who very kindly showed up at the Vienna airport with a whole bag of warm things, on loan from my recently-spent-a-month-in-Kazakhstan sister. Austria, Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic all delivered on the implied promise of snow and general wintriness. The trip was great and the cold only made me cry once – outside a castle in Prague, where I was pretty sure I’d leave half my fingers behind.

Bundestag! (Currently closed to the public, but exciting nonetheless)

Winter sporting, not yet available in Monrovia.

I have many questions for the Catholic Church, but will never question its ability to create beautiful things
New Year's Eve, Czech Republic

I may post more photos and trip insights later, but today is time for a little book report on what I read on my winter vacation. I ended up making my way through (almost) three books, all of which I’d recommend. I realized only this morning that all three rely on alternating narrators in each chapter, an apparently trendy device, but each to very different effect. Without further ado, may I humbly recommend to you:

Little Bee (or, if you’re outside the US, The Other Hand, which I think is the much better title) by Chris Cleave. I got this book as a gift just before I left the US and had been saving it for a special break where I could really enjoy it. I foolishly thought that it would last me the whole trip. A flight and train ride later, it was done. Since I read nothing but The Economist that quickly, this should tell you something about how great it was. I’m not quite sure how to tell you what this book is about without telling you too much – even the dust jacket struggles with this – so I’ll just say that it’s about two women whose lives get mixed up together for better and for worse. I think my love for this book was about much more than the life-timing of it (though that was pretty remarkable as well), and will now faithfully read anything suggested by the brilliant friend who gifted it.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. I’d never heard of this book before stumbling across it in a very well-stocked English section in a Vienna bookstore, but then proceeded to see it all over Europe. I now know why it was everywhere. This may be the most straight-up addicting book I’ve read in years. I couldn’t wait for train rides or darkness to set in to curl back up with the book and its incredibly personable characters. The book is about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, but it’s also about a whole lot more. It’s the kind of book where you can see plot elements coming from a hundred pages away, but you don’t really care. Just read it. Trust me.

The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Since finishing the entire Garcia Marquez canon several years ago, I’ve picked up random books by other Latin American authors and nearly always put them down again, disappointed they weren’t more Garcia Marquez. Vargas Llosa was included on that list of close-but-no-cigar authors for a while, but I decided that the whole winning the Nobel Prize thing should maybe merit another look, or at least a different book. Plus, there weren’t that many English books in whatever bookstore I was visiting, so I decided to give this one a go. While I’ll still defend Garcia Marquez as the greatest Latin American author ever, this book has brought me around on Vargas Llosa. It’s not magical realism, but once you’re about quarter of the way in, there is a remarkable sense of time and place that’s pretty engrossing. Plot wise, it’s somewhere between Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The General in His Labyrinth. If you’re into the genre, you’ll like it. If you’re not yet, read A Hundred Years of Solitude instead.

I don’t know how many years it’s been since I’ve read so much fiction in a row, but in the hopes of sustaining this little fiction renaissance in my life, I grabbed several more books on my way home. Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer and Achmat Dangor are all along for the ride for the next few months. Updates as I make my way through them.

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