Saturday, July 14, 2012

Review: "The Invisible Bridge" by Julie Orringer

For someone who has very little interest in any kind of period novel, let alone one that is set around the events of the Holocaust, which is a subject that has been picked to the bone marrow over the years in books and movies, I am surprised at how much I like Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge. This massive book is anything but a retread of familiar themes that you might find in any fictional story surrounding the Holocaust. While it does not really create anything new from such a familiar setting, but it is just so readable that it never gets boring and it immediately sucks you into this grand world of Europe in the 1930’s even if you have no interest in that time period and have seen it characterized so many times before. The story revolves around Andreas; an aspiring architect who has earned a scholarship to study at a prestigious school in Paris called the Ecole Speciale. He comes from a working class family in a small town in Hungary called Konyar, where his family owns a lumber company. Before he can go to Paris, he has a run-in with a woman and her old mother that leads him to the job of delivering a letter to the woman’s son, who is also and art student. He does so, not realizing that the implications of this letter will lead him on a path toward finding the love of his live in the form of Claire, a woman ten years older than him who teaches ballet in her apartment. We see the ups and downs of this relationship in the forefront to the many things that happen among their large groups of friends as well as the tumultuous political climate of Europe as it leads toward WWII. We finally see the two get together and marry, only for their romance and life, as they know to be interrupted brutally by the onslaught of the coming Holocaust. As I said, this book is rarely anything but mesmerizing as we see the build-up and eventual destruction of the things that Andreas loved at the hands of circumstances. A theme that is strong throughout this book is the idea of luck being just as an important key to survival than the will to live. Not all of the people that Andreas meets on his way throughout the brutal labor camps that we see in the last half of the book are bad, although most of them are. Sometimes he comes across a kind soul amongst the savages who is able to give him some kind of chance to live and salvage what he loves from the rubble, only to be once again brutally whisked away toward an unknown future and away from his family, leading to a bittersweet ending with only a few loved ones surviving the horrors they were forced into. Ultimately a hopeful book highlighting the ways in which chance and coincidence can shape our lives for worse and better, this is the perfect book to get lost in during the summer.
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review: "Emerald City" by Jennifer Egan

Out of all the collections I have read this year, this one, Emerald City by Jennifer Egan, has to be the least impressive. And since it comes from a writer as amazing as Egan, who has shown recently to be a powerhouse writer more than deserving of her title as a literary celebrity makes this all the more disappointing. Egan’s last two novels The Keep and A Visit from the Goon Squad were simply astounding in the way she turns storytelling on its head and is able to make the story more rich and interesting. The Keep combined a gothic setting and thriller-like elements in a way that left me spellbound, and A Visit from the Goon Squad used linked narratives to make a story that was as entertaining as it was high art. But this collection, despite how amateur it is, really goes to show you how a writer grows as he or she gets older. Her novel Look at Me, which she wrote before The Keep, also does this. Not only has she grown in talent but in subject matter as well. Nowadays, she is no longer obsessed with modeling, which dominates a good portion of these stories and all of Look at Me despite her coming off as a Bret Easton Ellis too scared to go too far. While none of these stories are any good, some do show her obvious path too greatness, but only on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. A few sentences are good and the setups to some of these stories would be awesome in the hands of an older, wiser Egan. But I cannot really recommend any of these stories, which are forgettable at best, bad at their worst. Her rise in popularity may cause a curious few to read a few of these stories, but I feel they might be disappointed.
Rating: 3/5

Review: "The Passion" by Jeanette Winterson

After reading The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, I don’t really have many strong feelings about it. I think it is well written but boring at parts, but not so boring that the message it conveys comes out clearly. But I did not really care about what it had to say that much. It is an anti-war novel that does not try to bring anything new, interesting or spectacular to a genre of novel whose library is almost as big as the one with all the holocaust novels. I can’t bag on the book for that, but I will not be giving it any unearned praise despite it simply being out of my area of interest. I have been surprised sometimes by historical novels (I am reading one right now that is quite good), but this one is kind of the reason I shy away from those kinds of books. We begin in the late 18th century in the middle of Napoleon’s conquest as we meet his faithful cook of eight years Henri, who has been with the general through good and bad times and has made many friends throughout his journey through Europe. We then meet Villanelle, a web-footed daughter of a Venetian boatman who works at a casino and carries on an affair with a woman (Winterson her self is gay, and it is a recurring theme throughout her novels). These two meet when Henri and a few friends become disillusioned with the war and desert. Henri and Villanelle fall in love, only to go down a dark path of murder that leads to an ending that was confusing and too melodramatic. It is a short novel at that is not all bad, but what was good really didn’t interest me very much. If you like historical fiction with a twist, I guess you will like this.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Me and You" by Niccolo Ammaniti

Despite having a different translator than his first three books published in English, I am glad to say that Me and You by Italy’s Niccolo Ammaniti is just as good as I’m Not Scared, granted it is a much smaller story, where the implications are not nearly as brutal or terrifying as kidnapping, but what this book as that that one does not is a keen sense of sentiment. It stills bears the hallmarks of what I liked in I’m Not Scared, such as the threats that the adults posed, the feelings of helplessness that children have in the face of adults who don’t always have the good sense adults should, and writing about all this in a way that moves things along like the best of thrillers so it is never boring. By tightening and shortening the scope of I’m Not Scared, which itself was just barely 200 pages, Ammaniti is able to make the story more personal and relatable and, for the most part, easier to read in a single sitting. We meet Lorenzo Cuni, a fourteen-year-old loser with no friends to speak of, as he lies to his mom about a ski trip he is supposed to be taking with a group of popular kids at school. He forces his mom to drop him off before they get to the train station, and from there, Lorenzo sneaks back to his parents apartment complex where he will spend the week in the basement cellar where he will not have to hide his true self. We learn through a couple of brief flashback sequences that Lorenzo has the makings of a sociopath who is able to blend into society seamlessly, but is sadden by those around him who are normal. While enjoying his solitude in the cellar, his adult half-sister shows up, with deeper problems of her own, looking for his parents, only to force herself upon his weeklong sojourn in the basement. Slowly they come to like each other, and make a promise that leads to a truly heartbreaking ending. The shorter length allows for greater emotional depth, which creates a very poignant message about what it means to be different but to still want to be loved. We find out Lorenzo made up the lie about the trip because he really wanted to go, which creates a large amount of empathy for someone we hated in the opening pages. It represents a feeling we all have despite how we sometimes scoff at it. Alienation does hurt and we all want to be accepted by society at large. So this is really a solid coming of age tale, where the boy learns from his big sister how to care about others and how find your place in the world, despite her maybe not heeding her own advice. Mix in with these strong feelings this novel brings to the surface a few great moments of suspense and thrills, and you get a short, gem of a novel by one of the living master of the literary thriller.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Fame" by Daniel Kehlmann

Fame by Daniel Kehlmann is a wonderful little treat of a novel for anyone who likes puzzles that are easily navigable but still might not have a clear conclusion. Reading it I felt a bit nostalgic to when I first started reading heavily. Its story immediately took me back to the times when I read all of Paul Auster’s available works over the course of the summer. Like Auster, Kehlmann inverts the form of the novel, where stories and being told are sometimes part of something else much bigger than what you are reading, and you only find this out later on, which could be in a few pages or a few hundred pages. That is why I like these kinds of novels, which I really don’t know what the clinical term for them is, because they offer a new kind of experience from an author to author, book to book, or even a chapter by chapter basis, and they are the rare kind of books that can work well at any length, whether they are to read in one sitting or over the course of a holiday. This is a slim book, at 175 pages, and it is still able to have an impact of something that might be two or three times bigger. It is also a kind of book that tackles big subjects, but never in a heavy handed or didactic way. They have moral lessons, but revel in twists and turns that can leave you breathless. This one in particular is a novel in nine short vignettes that revolve around the celebrity Ralf Tanner, whose cell phone number ends up being given to Ebling, a lowly computer tech, who is at first annoyed by the calls meant for Ralf, but slowly begins to take them and dictate Ralf’s life, causing a chain reaction throughout the lives of seemingly unconnected people. A writer misses a conference due to his increasingly erratic behavior witnessed by his new mistress; the person who replaces him ends up lost and derelict in the town she was staying due to some really harsh twists of fate. Ralf himself is able to walk away from his life when an impersonator of his starts taking his jobs, and someone keeps arguing with the writer who is telling their story and controlling their life. It all adds to an ending that is may be irritating in its ambiguity, but still stunning in its execution. It was an ending that again reminded me of the shorter novels of Paul Auster, such as Oracle Night and Man in the Dark. It is just really cool to read something like this, that never talks down to its reader or intentionally tries to give them headaches, but challenges them to connect the dots throughout the separate but veiled connections made between characters and events. You may not make all the connections or catch all the tiny details, but I am willing to bet you won’t have more fun piecing together a puzzle than you did reading this.
Rating: 5/5