My reading continues at a pretty alarming rate; I am reading regular books, but have also taken to listening to several audiobooks to fit in some more knitting time. Some of my favorite moments lately have involved sitting at my table, knitting in hand, and the audiobook transporting me far away – both in space and in time… other favorite moments are with book in hand, curled up in my living room chair…
In the interest of making this a readable post (and to keep your attention!) this is only a review of the recent FICTION books that I have read in recent weeks. These reviews are the same review that I posted over on the Goodreads website, in case you are following me over there. (I love that site!) I plan to write more about my non-fiction books in an upcoming post.
- Waiting: A Novel by Ha Jin
A very poignant story set in Communist China from the 1960s-1980s. The main character, Lin, has an arranged marriage to simple and sweet Shuyu. She is extremely generous and a very hard worker, but the educated Lin is ashamed of her illiterate peasant status, and never brings her to the city where he is works as an army hospital doctor. Lin is a very passive character, and so incredibly rational, that he never lets emotions come to the surface… a nurse in the hospital, Manna, sets her sights on Lin, and over a period of years – eighteen years! – Lin and Manna carry on a non-sexual affair. He promises Manna every summer that he will divorce Shuyu on his visit home in order to marry her, but always comes back still married for one reason or another.
… the patience of Shuyu and Manna form the central themes of the book, while the rationality of Lin is the third part of the theme.
The style of writing is so simple – reminiscent of some of Hemingway’s work. After speaking with a co-worker about this book a few days later, she drew a parallel to the American novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I read the book in high school so it was not so fresh in my mind, but I did remember that the basic plot was similar to this one.
Simple sentence constructions, and no inner monologues for the characters and no in-depth descriptions of the surroundings. It was refreshing, in a way, to read such a minimalist approach. I really appreciated the glimpse of the psyche of the Chinese mind and how the propaganda of the Party was SO prevalent in every act and deed.
- In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith
I so enjoyed books 1-5 of this series (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Collection), so I decided to catch up on the series after a few years absence. I enjoy the audiobooks narrated by Lisette Lecat immensely, and put them all on hold at my library.
This was a delightful book to come back to – there were many things that happened in this volume of the series. I so enjoy how Mma Ramotswe can make the best out of situations – even ones that are so painful for her, and how the books are eternally optimistic. I so enjoy the simplicity of discussing pumpkins for ten minutes, and the mechanics of the little white van. Botswana sounds like such a wonderful place.
- The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
After reading several good reviews, likening this work to Dickens or Mark Twain, I picked it up at the library. The orphanage, the hopeful young protagonist with a propensity towards petty theft, the handsome rake claiming to be a relation, the “con” jobs… it really was an amalgamation of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and Huckleberry Finn. The young and hopeful orphan is Ren, who only has one hand, and the handsome conniving rake is Benjamin Nab. After an “adoption” from the orphanage under the pretenses of a long-lost uncle, they team up with another con man and travel around New England swindling and conning (the best scene for me was when they make an “elixir for misbehaving boys” and sell it at a town fair that essentially makes the kids high and strung out on opium) before settling in to their new occupation of “resurrection men” – grave robbers for the local doctor’s cadaver supply.
It was an entertaining read. I suppose I was expecting more from it, but it was enjoyable all the same.
- The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
Five stars because this was one of the most unique books I have ever come across… the story itself is a first-person narrative by T.S. Spivet (Tecumseh Sparrow, the first name passed down four generations), a 12-year-old cartographer and illustrator. The story begins just before T.S. receives a phone call from the Smithsonian that he has been awarded the very prestigious Baird fellowship as “America’s Illustrator”, in residence at the Smithsonian. Being 12-years old, and too ashamed to mention this, he decides to set off on a cross-country hobo journey “riding the rails”. He lucks out when he finds a train car carrying Winnebagos, and he lives inside of one of them for several days. The journey across the country allows him to reflect even further on his fractured home life, and the recent tragedy of his brother’s accidental death. By the time he reaches his destination, the story is nearing the end, and even through his wünderkind genius, you see that T.S. is still a child, and really just longs for his family and his home.
The story itself garners about 3 out of five stars for me – much of the journal entries about his family history were completely unnecessary and superfluous, and I skipped over large sections; however, it was the illustrations and the book design, and the humor and emotions woven throughout that topped this rating to 5 stars for me. That, and I have never seen anything this unique. That alone deserves the highest marks. Nearly every single page of the 300+ page novel has intricate and detailed illustrations and maps, drawn by T.S., that correspond in one way or another, to the overall story. Some are ridiculously funny – one of my favorites was the drawing and measurements of the angle of his little brother’s fist pumps, and some are so advanced – demographic maps, sound waves, etc. The illustrations and maps make this book a true gem.
- The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Listened to the audiobook – not sure whether that had a true effect on my rating, although the narrator’s voice annoyed me at times…
The story had an interesting premise, but quickly devolved into banalities and stereotypes: grad student down on her luck in life and in relationships, discovers a family secret dating back 300 years, meets a guy, dramatic events unfold… it just seemed like there was nothing new and exciting here. Connie, the protagonist, seems to have a real chip on her shoulder regarding some people and groups… some of the things she said and did seemed immature, unethical, and generally unlikable.
On a personal note: for goodness sake, the whole notion of archivists and librarians as being annoyed by patrons and “shushing” all the time is SO overdone. Did this book really have to add to it with each archivist or librarian the protagonist met? Sure, I am sensitive to that as an archivist myself, but come on.
Not sure about the time of this story either – it was never clear why the modern side of the story took place in 1991. Was it to nearly coincide with the anniversary of the Salem witch trials in 1692? If so, that was never expressed. The date seemed random, and there were a few times when I thought to myself, “was that around in `91?”
However, I kept on listening, somewhat curious how it was all going to end up. Part 2 was better than Part 1, but I was left shaking my head on this one. There are better accounts and novels about the witch trials and/or colonial New England.
…more book reviews to come… I can’t help myself. I think it is the schoolgirl mentality with my summer reading lists. I am at my most rabid reading rate during the sweltering summer days! (and if you happen to be so very curious, you can check in with my multiple daily updates over on Goodreads!) By the way: anyone have a Kindle or a Sony Reader? I am intrigued and would love to know more… let me know in the comments