Monthly Archives: August 2008

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of stories by the author of The Namesake(a great book) and reprises the theme of conflicts between immigrant parents and their children. I used to love short stories and I now find them frustrating: after getting attached to the characters it’s hard to let go and not wonder what happened to them after the story ends. My favorite in this book may be the first one which centers on a dutiful but conflicted Indian daughter (married to a non-Indian, like most characters in the book) who feels she must invite her widowed father to stay with her, does not want to, and is puzzled to see that he does not want it either. Enjoy the description of his relationship with his three-year old grandson, including how he encourages him to plant a garden alongside his .

There’s not much happiness in the stories as characters that are otherwise successful feel the need to hide and manipulate their romantic attachments to make them acceptable to their families. If they could only relax and be themselves!

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The Lake, the River and the Other Lake by Steve Amick

The Lake, the River and the Other Lake starts as a simple story of the residents of a small town by a lake in Michigan and their relationships and conflicts with the affluent summer people who push up the price of real estate and make too much noise with their jet skis. It soon blossoms into several interrelated stories of teenage angst, the uneasy race relations with agricultural migrants and other foreigners, and the under-age lustings and travails of a widowed minister.

There’s a strong and welcome whiff of Lake Wobegon althought the stories are more extreme and occasionally overly outrageous. I did not much care for the widowed minister but the farmer who ends up welcoming his son’s Mexican wife into the family and the female assistant-sheriff who covers up for the locals’ war agains the summer people stayed with me. A great book to nurse your nostalgia about the waning summer.

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My Summer of Southern Discomfort by Stephanie Gayle

Here’s an easy book with enough (mild) action to keep going, not too much to think about so you can take a break as needed, and a reasonably interesting heroin (although she was dumb enough to sleep with her boss – I guess we needed a reason for her to move to Macon, Georgia.)  Natalie Goldberg, having been betrayed by her lover-boss, moves to a small town to work in the DA’s office and encounters a lovely neighbor, a murderer (whose case she must prosecute and is no direct danger to her), a battered woman who needs help, moral dilemmas, and coworkers who can’t quite figure her out. Happy ending guaranteed.

My Summer of Southern Discomfort would be a good beach book, a notch above the usual chick lit.

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Of Men and their Mothers by Mameve Medwed

Do we really need another novel about mother-in-laws? Sure, if it’s as funny like Of Men and their Mothers. The tale is thin, the characters not exactly developed, but Maisie Grey’s life, including her outrageous mother-in-law, her loser ex-husband, and her sexually precocious (but sweet) son is entertaining. Never mind the inconsistencies (why would she want her son’s girlfriend to call her Mrs Pollock since she excised the Pollock from her name post divorce?), never mind the overdone characters. Just read and have a good time.

Scary author’s picture on the jacket cover. You’ve been warned.

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Girls Gone Mild by Wendy Shalit

It’s probably unfair to write a review of a book from which I only read 45 pages, but I could not go any further. It’s not that I disagreed with the topic of Girls Gone Mild (the destructive influence on girls of an hypersexual culture.) It’s not that I disagreed that Bratz dolls are inappropriate. It’s not that I disagreed that Abercrombie and Fitch ads are obscene. It’s not that I disagreed that mothers who push their daughters to have sex early are crazy…. Wait a minute! I don’t know any mothers like that. I also doubt that high-school sex-ed teachers are making fun of kids who have not had sex.

Girls Gone Mild reads like one of those women magazine articles about dreaded diseases: see, it happened once so it could happen to you and you’d better watch out. How about some common sense instead of scare tactics? It is possible to avoid buying thongs for 7-year olds. It is also possible to raise daughters who don’t measure their success through their sexual conquests. Get real!

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A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burrows

If you like Augusten Burrows you will like A Wolf at the Table, which is the story of his alcoholic father, the story of his insane mother having been told in Running with Scissors. (His family is amazingly dysfunctional — it’s a miracle he pulled through, although read Dry to see what he had to go through before finding his way.) Burrows manages to tell the sad tale with a lot of humor and also kindness for his father despite his many faults.

Hug your kids tonight.

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The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is the story of a Shanghai woman whose adult life starts by starring in a beauty pageant and ends in poverty. It’s always difficult to appreciate translated work. This novel mixes lyrical descriptions (not my cup of tea, admittedly) with stilted considerations on how women must submit to men (not my cup of tea either, even given the period) and with a trite story of how choosing or being chosen for money is not the key to happiness — to an end result of boredom but strangely affecting interest in what happens to the heroin.

It must be better in Chinese.

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The Lure of the Bush by Arthur Upfield

The Lure of the Bush has a lot going for it: a detective with the magnificent name of Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony for short), an elaborate mystery a la Sherlock Holmes, in which we know pretty much from the start what happened (well, almost) but need the whole book to confirm it, and the exotic background of the Australian bush, complete with kukabooras and billabongs (not the surfing clothes.) So what’s the problem? Every few pages there’s a negative reference to the aborigenes’ choice of clothing, sexual mores, limited language abilities, and more. What started as a grating annoyance had me hopping mad by the end of the book.

I happened to read The Lure of the Bush immediately after Freshwater Road and I was very sorry to find that racism travels well…

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Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas

Freshwater Road is a debut novel by an African-American actress that tells of a college woman who journeys to Mississippi during Freedom Summer to help in the voter registration efforts and who encounters dire poverty, including the lack of indoor plumbing, a fact she details at length, as well as a level of racism that’s difficult to fathom from our comfortable present. Celeste battles dirt, ignorance, and above all the evil of the Klan and the ordinary evil of ordinary people.

The book is carefully written and avoids easy conclusions and victories but it does not achieve greatness. There are too many details about Celeste’s ironing and not enough about her thoughts beyond the inconvenience of the outhouse. Also many of the African-American locals (not to mention the whites) are one-dimensional. The best part of the book is the character of her presumed father, once a gambler and now an established bar owner, and his anguish at not knowing the whereabouts of his “little” girl. What a great dad.

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The Palace Council by Stephen Carter

If you like conspiracies you’ll like The Palace Council. I don’t, and as much as I’ve enjoyed other Stephen Carter’s books (New England White and especiallyThe Emperor of Ocean Park), and as much as I got attached to the hero of this book, Eddie Wesley, I found the 500+ pages a bit tedious. I could not get myself to care that much about the council, who the 20 members and their heirs could be, or why they wear strange jewelery. I also found it very difficult to accept the half-historical, half-fiction political background of the novel. And do close friends really keep secrets from each other for decades? Finally, the formulaic suspensful last sentence of most chapters gets tedious after the while.

That being said, I really wanted to know what would happen to Eddie and I did finish the 528 pages. No more conspiracy theories for the next book, please.

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