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Saturday I met with my book club to discuss, Fever by Mary Beth Keane. Fever takes the reader to the turn of the twentieth century in New York. There we follow the life of Mary Mallon, alias Typhoid Mary. She was a carrier of typhoid although she was never sick with it. It was believed that she transmitted typhoid to victims through her cooking.
Now when I first read what this book was about I was immediately sold on reading it. I had heard of Typhoid Mary but I couldn’t remember if it was at school or somewhere else. So, I figured I’d learn more about Mary Mallon and more about typhoid. Needless to say, I got a two-dimensional Mary Mallon and a highly developed story about immigrant life in New York. If anything, the later was the best and only true historical part of the book in my opinion. The descriptions of what immigrants were living at that time were vivid, informative, and contained some historical events. The first half of the book is a repetition of how Mary doesn’t accept what’s she’s been told about how she transmits typhoid. Other than that nothing happens. Most of what is written in the book about Mary’s character and the people she meets isn’t true and that’s where I can’t see how the book is marketed as a historical fiction. The reader doesn’t even get any scientific explanations about typhoid or details on the doctor’s research either. Among all of this the character of Mary Mallon is not really dealt with. Her character is brash and unlikable, coupled with the story being told in third person throughout ninety percent of book, which doesn’t help the reader to be the least bit sympathetic to her cause.
Allegedly, there is no concrete information on Mary Mallon, except one letter which was written to her lawyer. Despite this the author couldn’t seem to develop Mary Mallon’s character other than in repetition and in situations that were highly unbelievable for the time. As a matter of fact, not much of what the author tried to get us to believe about Mary had been written well enough for us to really believe her. Keane had over developed the story and left Mary Mallon as a blank cardboard cut out. The two just didn’t link correctly. Thank goodness it was a fast enough read and the style engaging enough, despite repetition of the word shit and grand. This is a clear case of an author using a real person to centralize and market her story but in fact the story isn’t really about Mary Mallon. Undoubtedly, the best part of the book is the second half. It comes together a lot better than the first half, however I’ve only given Fever two stars over on Goodreads because it doesn’t correspond to what is expected of it.
Mary Beth Keane was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award with her first novel, The Walking People. Fever, was best book of 2013 by NPR Books, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Keane was chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Program in 2011. “The 5 Under 35 program honors five young fiction writers selected by past National Book Award Winners and Finalists, or previous 5 Under 35 Honorees. The program has introduced the next generation of writers, including Téa Obreht, Karen Russell, and Justin Torres.” (nationalbook.org)
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After finishing The Memory of Love late last Friday night, I was truly sad to see page 445 arrive. It seemed to come so quickly for me. I started reading on Wednesday and read non-stop anytime I was free through to Friday. I could have just been pushed by time since I was discussing it with my book club on Saturday, but actually I just didn’t want to do anything else besides read this book. I really didn’t want that passionate story of memory to end.
The Memory of Love is a story that takes place in the West African country of Sierra Leone. The main characters are Kai a brilliant surgeon, Elias an aging academic, and Adrian a British psychologist. It’s through the relationships of these three men that we follow their personal stories and memories along with the tragic incidents from Sierra Leone’s troubled political past and growth. The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information is one of the essential themes of the story. The past can be so tragic that one’s only means of survival is to bury that tragedy deep within and push the little that is left of oneself forward.
“The memories come at unguarded moments, when he cannot sleep. In the past, at the height of it, he had attended to people whose limbs had been severed. Working with a Scottish pain expert years later, he treated some of those patients again. They complained of feeling pain in the lost limbs, the aching ghost of a hewn hand or foot. It was a trick of the mind,……the nerves continued to transmit signals between the brain and the ghost limb. The pain is real, yes but it is a memory of pain.” (The Memory of Love, p.184)
This book isn’t plot driven. It has no real beginning, middle, or end. It’s life. It’s survival. This book will teach you about Sierra Leone’s history and culture. The first one hundred pages left me a little frustrated because Forna was giving me information, but not as I was anticipating it. I soon stopped trying to will the book into what I wanted and began to accept and appreciate the story Forna was trying to tell me. Beautifully written and always with phrases that are exact and perfect for each situation, there are lessons to be learned through out the novel.
Forna writes the three male characters with absolute realism. Not at any moment did I feel a feminine voice ringing through. I would have to say that this is a book about men, since the female characters were minor and not very vocal. Their roles were to bring the male characters’ stories full circle. Reading about the habits of the people in Sierra Leone was enlightening, as was unfortunately hearing about the atrocities that happened to its people.
Aminatta Forna is a Scottish-born British writer, raised between the UK and Sierra Leone. The Devil that Danced on the Water, a memoir, was her first published book in 2003. It discusses the imprisonment and later death of her father due to his political involvement. Her first fiction novel is called Ancestors Stones and was published in 2006 and won her the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2007. The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and others. I’m looking forward to reading The Devil that Danced on the Water and Ancestors Stones.
Book Club reactions:
Everybody raved about it. Some also complained about the first 100 pages being difficult because they couldn’t figure out who was speaking (story is told from multiple points of view and switches from first to third person frequently) nor could they figure out where the story was taking place specifically. They marveled over Forna’s capacity to describe situations and places, as well as her poignant writing. We also discussed at length her background and how Forna feels as comfortable in the UK as she does in Sierra Leone. We all came to the conclusion that showed considerably in The Memory of Love because of the authentic descriptions of Sierra Leone but also of Adrian Lockheart and his reactions to things he saw there and descriptions of his family back home in England. We all agreed we were interested in reading more of her books, specifically The Devil that Danced on the Water.
If you’ve read Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone you’ll probably be interested in reading The Memory of Love.
It’s the future and our world has turned into a giant social media mess. From +800 statuses, to +1500 credit ratings, to communicating with äppäräts, teening, and staying young. Gary Shteyngart creates an hysterically frightening in-your-face plastic world that is nothing more than society today exaggerated. From the first pages of the novel we meet Lenny Abramov, a 39-year-old who works in the Post-Human Services Division of Staatling-Wapachung Corporation. This corporation is trying to make it possible to live forever, young, and seemingly at all costs. It’s through Lenny’s diary where we learn everything about him including what’s happening, who his friends are, what he’s feeling and doing. Lenny is verging on “old”, suffering from male patterned baldness, has too much LDL cholesterol, and to top all of that off reads smelly books. We are introduced to his first thoughts and those are on a certain Eunice Park, who as he puts it “will sustain me through forever” (Super Sad True Love Story, p. 2) Eunice is a 24-year “young”, sexy Korean girl who has no real prospects on life other than finding hot guys and spending her father’s money on online shopping. She’s trying to pass the LSAT but really wants to work in retail. Super Sad True Love Story is told in a succession of diary entries, emails, text messages, and some face-to-face episodes. Henceforth, the reader is plunged into this futuristic world, do or die. The unsuspecting meeting of Lenny and Eunice is Shteyngart’s commencement to critiquing today’s society’s relationship with social media and our relentless obsessional, rapport with being young and never ageing. Their love story is central to the novel but the real story is all that is surrounding them. Shteyngart has developed a world in which he can critique, American society (immigrant and racial stereotypes), social media and its contagious world growth, however he puts so much into the world building that the characters of Lenny and Eunice appear flat and not defined enough. By page 100 I didn’t care about either of them. Shteyngart’s writing style is very staccato. Each page is filled with so much information that sometimes I had to reread some of the passages to make sure I understood everything. There are myriads of eccentric characters and situations that happen that are crucial to understanding the plot of the book. You will be surprised by Shteyngart’s creativity with words and sometimes you will smirk. Knowing and understanding pop culture and intellectual culture will help in getting the jokes. If you’re squeamish about sex, abstain. The references could be considered very vulgar. I read the book in 3 days and at the end I was exhausted. Super Sad True Love Story is 329 pages but by 200 you just want it to end, especially since the ending is predictable! The overt use of racial stereotypes as a writing technique annoyed me enormously. I feel using stereotypes just reinforces them and unreservedly does not make them go away. On the whole, I would have liked this book a lot more if it would have been shorter. In spite all the bad and exasperating, I’m glad I picked it up so that I could see what all the love for this book was about. Not so sure I’ll pick up Shteyngart’s other novel, Absurdistan, because it sounds similar to this one humour wise,(gets old when 200+ pages) but I might pick up Little Failure so that I can see where he’s coming from with his writing. I gave this 2 stars over on Goodreads, but that’s probably 2,5 stars to be exact. If you read this one or any of Shteyngart’s other books, did you like it? Would you read any of his other books? If so, which ones? Love hearing from you guys!
The Hare with Amber Eyes was the sixth book read in my book club this school year. When I voted for it I thought the book was going to be about something completely different. On the onset I was a bit put off and disappointed. I really wanted to know more about netsuke. Netsuke are small Japanese figurines made of wood and ivory that were used to close the obi on Japanese traditional garments. They represented animals, people, and mythical characters. I believed the story was about netsuke, but they were nothing more that a vehicle for Edmund De Waal to explore his fascinating Jewish family. When Edmund De Waal received the large collection of netsuke as an inheritance from his great-uncle Iggie who was living in Japan, he felt compelled to research his extraordinary family.
The story begins in Odessa, Russia and we as readers follow the family as it grows and expands and travels throughout Europe. There are fascinating tales and detailed descriptions of various family members throughout the 350 pages. Now I have to be honest I had some problems with various sections of this book. I found some parts extremely slow and dry. I really had to keep my eyes open. I managed to read the book in about 4 days but was struggling to find that special thing that was going to grip me to the story. I was afraid to put it down to long.
As I soldiered on, around about page 200-225 something clicked and I started to find the story more interesting. The writing lightened up and De Waal’s writing style seemed to develop into a more detached tone that was more acceptable to me. His constant interjections into the story bothered me a bit earlier in the story, even though I enjoyed his erudite and sometimes humoristic commentary.
Discussing this book on Saturday with my book club proved very enlightening. Firstly I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a little boring at times. I’d read many reviews where it seemed everyone loved it. I kept wondering if there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t alone. A few people hadn’t finished it. They still had the last stretch of 100 pages. The parts that I preferred.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is one of those books that you either love or hate, even though I’ve fallen smack in the middle (liked it). I gave it 3 stars because it is such an incredible family history. The book is a mixture of history, art history, and family saga. Those are definitely ingredients for an engrossing story. It’s the fourth non-fiction I’ve read this year and for me that’s a lot, since I have a specific preference for literary fiction. In spite of not loving The Hare with Amber Eyes immensely, I’m still happy to have read it and learned some new things through others’ eyes. Not through the hare’s eyes though since it wasn’t about him or the netsuke. I wonder why they chose that title. We discussed that on Saturday and we weren’t so sure. I and a few others felt the title was slightly misleading and then someone said it continues a certain mystery something hidden that’s lurking to be discovered. The netsuke are there through it all. They survive through all the good times, tragedy, and will continue to exist, going from generation to generation.
Below is a link to the video I watched after finishing the book. As I listened to De Waal I regretted that I hadn’t picked The Hare with Amber Eyes up on audiobook. Suddenly his work came to life for me, as I listened to him read parts of the book, along side the giant pictures on-screen. The pictures that just appeared to be too small and dark in the book.
Ladies Coupé is the story of Akhila and six other women that she meets on the train. Akhila is searching for the answer to the question ‘Can she live alone?’ Traditionally in Indian culture women are supposed to get married and if that doesn’t happen their only other alternative is to live with family. Akhila has been the breadwinner of her family since the death of her father when she was in her early twenties. She worked providing financial support to her mother, younger brothers and sister as they grew up. All the while Akhila was forsaking her life to respect her duties to her family. One day gets an idea into her head to live alone but doesn’t know if it’s really possible for her. or for in other woman for the matter So she invents a work trip to get away to reflect on her future as maybe a woman living alone.
Once she arrives in the train, six different women enter the car. They are different ages and are living completely different lives and social statuses. Each one recounts openly the story of their lives. Meanwhile Akhila is using this time to reflect on her dilemma. Ladies Coupé is a succession of stories of women starting life fresh, wide-eyed and energetic but are slowly but surely faced with the harsh realities of being a woman in modern-day India. Each story is personalised, saddening, and sometimes disturbing. They almost all ring with a sense of frightening reality.
As I was reading I found the chapters to be very long and sometimes difficult to read quickly. The chapters are full of information, names that aren’t so easy to remember either and it’s difficult to stop before the end of one. The story is told changing from third to first person frequently, making identifying with the characters a difficult task. Sometimes I wonder if it was just difficult to relate to them because of the cultural difference. There were times when I just wanted to fling my book across the room in frustration with what was happening to the women. I guess that could be considered a sort of relating to the characters. As I approached the end I was anxious to see how Anita Nair would tie this story up. Unfortunately she disappointed me because she didn’t have the courage to deal with the ending head on. She coped out and that was really what made me give it 3 stars over on Goodreads. As a reader, I needed a concrete ending to match the concrete stories of these women. Nevertheless, it was interesting to read and discovering a new female Indian author was enlightening.
Anita Nair is a popular Indian writer and has written several novels and children’s stories. Ladies Coupé, her second novel, has been translated into 21+ languages along with her first novel The Better Man, which was published in 2000. Ladies coupé was rated one of the top five books of the year 2002. Nair also wrote a collection of poems and a poetry workshop anthology through the British Council. Some of her other novels are Adventures of Nonu, the Skating Squirrel, Living Next door to Alise, Mistress, and Magical Indian Myths.
Entering the world of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was like going for a ride on that extremely high and swirling roller coaster ride at a theme park. As the roller coaster bumps, grinds, and plunges us to the depth of fear, we recuperate while wanting more. That’s the same intensity I felt while reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
So who is this Oscar character? Well he is a likeable, naive, obese, Latino nerd who’s looking for the purist love out there. He just wants to be loved and to love someone else. His exterior doesn’t help find it in the beginning of the story, but true love can’t be someone loving you for your body and good looks only, right? This is starting to sound like a fairytale, but it isn’t. It ‘s almost reality. Oscar spend his time playing video games, reading sic-fi and fantasy novels and writing them. It’s almost as if he delves into fantasy and sic-fi to forget his own reality. It’s like a sanctuary.
The novel centers mainly around Oscar, his sister and mother. These three characters are developed from adolescence to adulthood and this is an astounding character development because usually as readers we aren’t allowed to see so many characters develop to such a degree. In doing so, the reader is catapulted into the complex harsh reality of Oscar’s family. I say reality because the story is structured in that way. In spite of the novel being fiction, Diaz has the story be recounted by several narrators with one of the narrator’s telling the majority of the story. Not only that but the usage of footnotes through the story gives it an overall look of a non-fiction book. These footnotes give us a lot on the Dominican Republic history and is sometimes just funny. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is very similar to having sneaked a peak into someone’s diary. This may also explain the heavy usage of Spanish throughout the novel. This technique may put off the readers that aren’t Spanish speakers because understanding some scenes of the book are difficult if you don’t speak Spanish. However, for me personally not speaking Spanish, it didn’t bother me one bit. I just went with the flow. The Spanish parts just made me realise I was no longer in my world but in Oscar’s and that I was just going to have to contend with it. Everything in his world was colourful, intense, and genuine.
Besides the characters of Beli, Oscar’s mother and Lola, his sister, there are an array of other characters who revolve around them that give the story movement and layers. The settings added to this as well. We switch between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic and the juxtaposition of the two provides the reader with many cultural differences. The Dominican Republic is passionate, free, colourful, and dangerous. New Jersey is contained, regulated, almost predictable. The men in this book are detestable and either commit violent acts and/or treat women disrespectfully. Some may even say that Diaz’s male characters are mere stereotypes. I think these are men that represent maybe men from Diaz’s life or people he may have had contact with throughout his life. If he made them all nice he would have been accused of making unrealistic male characters for such a setting.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has a variety of themes and levels to it that it’s hard to believe it only has 335 pages. Some of the themes running through the novel are love, racism, superstition, sex, and foreignness among others, all wrapped up with a hint of magical realism. It’s almost a perfect book. Diaz took lots of risk structuring the book the way he did. It could have been a disaster adding so many different storytelling elements together but it was the perfect combination. So, if you’re looking for something different to read, a new sort of American novel, pick up The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s a worthwhile reading experience, will make you think about many things, and ill stay with you for a while. Moreover, Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008. Now if that doesn’t convince you to pick it up maybe this clip of Diaz talking about the book will.