wrap-up: books read in February 2017

 

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House of Names by Colm Tóibín ★★★ + review

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn ★★★★

All The Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood ★★ + review on goodreads

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote ★★★613zgihvtbl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh ★★★ + review

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez ★★★ + review

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee ★★★★★ + review

Translations by Brian Friel ★★★★★ + review

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie ★★★★★

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare ★★★★★ + review

The Crucible by Arthur Miller ★★★★

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All in all, a pretty good month!  I’m not going to do a monthly TBR on this blog because what I decide to read next changes on a whim, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have my monthly books all in one place.  Here are the highlights of my first wrap-up:

Best: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Runner up: Translations by Brian Friel
Worst: All The Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

I can’t believe I read four 5 star books in a row.  As much as I love reading I tend to err on the side of critical, so the fact that I only ended up with one 2-star book this month is pretty impressive.

Have you guys read any of these books?  What was your favorite read from February?

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book (play script) review: An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare

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An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare

published in 2012

★★★★★

Scholars for centuries have debated whether Homer’s Iliad is a pro- or anti-war epic. And it’s a great discussion, because even though war is undeniably the thematic center of the work, glory and grief are both explored so fully that there’s always going to be this unresolved ambiguity. Meanwhile Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s theatrical adaptation An Iliad firmly takes a side and runs with it.

An Iliad is a one-man show, in which our narrator, ‘The Poet,’ tells the story of the Trojan War, focusing on the conflict between Achilles and Hector. Abbreviated with admirable succinctness, all major events that occur in the human realm in The Iliad are at least touched upon. But more than a simple retelling, Peterson and O’Hare take a story with a famously epic scope, and bring it down to a scale that we as a contemporary audience can engage with, imbuing it with intimate and tactile details which I imagine are only augmented while viewing it in its intended theatrical setting.

You could argue that there’s a certain lack of subtlety in an anti-war polemic that takes up four entire pages relaying a list of every known major conflict in recorded history. But it’s the immediacy of hearing (or reading) these words – the suffocating rhythm of the list and its fearlessness that really drives home the tension and horror and tragedy which exist both at the heart of the epic and at the heart of Peterson and O’Hare’s vision. Wrought with inevitability as our weary narrator tells the story he’s so familiar with, An Iliad is a piercing examination and condemnation of the horrors of war, and man’s tendency toward conflict. A thought-provoking, faithful adaptation which honors the original story and embraces the unique conventions of its medium.

+ link to review on goodreads

book review: Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

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Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

US pub date: February 21, 2017

★★★☆☆

Macabre and often grotesque, Things We Lost in the Fire is a short story collection that puts a literary spin on the horror genre, in which Mariana Enríquez’s beautiful prose compels you to explore the darkest corners of contemporary Argentine society. In a collection that ranges from ghost stories to psychological horror, at times the distinction between these two horror sub-genres isn’t entirely clear-cut. To what extent is this horror real, and to what extent is it a psychological manifestation? This collection is characterized by a sort of toxic obsessiveness, and Enríquez never shies away from showing the most horrible and cruel aspects of human nature. Each story is fueled by a tense urgency that pulls you in and leaves you wanting more – but this was part of the problem, for me.

There’s a sort of dissatisfying ambiguity to each of these narratives, and I found myself constantly wishing Enriquez would go a bit further. The open endings work at times, and add to the uneasy atmosphere (Adela’s House and The Inn are good examples), but at other times the ambiguity serves only to frustrate. I was sure I would end up giving this collection 4 stars at first, waiting for that one story that would wow me and justify the high rating, but I kept finding story after story to suffer from that feeling of incompleteness.

Favorites were: The Intoxicated Years, The Inn, An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt, and Adela’s House. Least favorites were: Under the Black Water, Things We Lost in the Fire, Spiderweb, and Green Red Orange.

Ultimately: recommended to horror fans who (1) aren’t easily triggered – there is some seriously disturbing stuff in these pages – and (2) don’t mind ambiguous endings. Enríquez’s strength is the unsettling atmosphere that she so expertly evokes; this collection is really for readers who are willing to enjoy the journey rather than spend the whole time looking for answers.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you Netgalley, Hogarth Press, and Mariana Enríquez.

+ link to review on goodreads

top 5 wednesday: Books to Get You Out of a Reading Slump

I’m still getting into the swing of this blogging thing, so I thought it’d be fun to do some Top 5 Wednesday posts on occasion.  I probably won’t keep up with this every single week, but I’ll do it when the prompts seem particularly interesting.  This week’s prompt is: books to get you out of a reading slump.  So without further ado:

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: It seemed appropriate to start here, since I urged a friend of mine to read this book a few months ago, and she said, and I quote, “this book got me out of my reading slump.”  How’s that for a testimonial?  Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s brilliant debut novel about a girl whose sudden and unexpected death shocks and disarms a close-knit Asian-American family in 1970s Ohio.  It’s not a book about shocking plot twists, and the mystery itself (though you do eventually get answers) takes a backseat to the compelling family dynamic.  It may not sound like the most exciting book ever written, but trust me, this is an impossible to put down page-turner, which leaves you guessing and wanting more.  Plus, with its short page count, this is the perfect place to start for anyone looking for an immersive reading experience without the intimidating length.

29981261The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison: This is a thoroughly disturbing story about a man who imprisons women and brands them each with an individual butterfly tattoo, housing them in his “garden” until they turn 21, at which time he kills them.  When the Garden is finally discovered, FBI agents interview one of the survivors, Maya, and it turns out there’s even more to this story than meets the eye.  It’s dark, twisted, fucked up, and above all else, addicting as hell.  I remember I was meant to be reading a couple of other things the weekend I picked this up, but I ended up ignoring those in favor of this compulsively readable book.  If you’re a fan of mysteries and/or psychological horror, this is a must-read.  (Trigger warning for rape – nothing too graphic, but it’s rather omnipresent in the background throughout the story.)

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The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman: Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History with its murder-meets-academia premise, but a bit lighter on the elitism.  Which isn’t a dig – TSH is one of my favorite books.  But I’m opting for the possibly easier to digest Lake of Dead Languages instead for this particular Top 5 – TSH is more of a slow burn, whereas TLODL sucks you in immediately with its fast pace and intricately crafted mystery.  Set at a private girl’s high school in upstate New York, we follow the story of Jane, whose own time at the high school 20 years ago ended in the tragic suicide of her two roommates.  Now Jane has returned to Heart Lake to teach Latin, but when pages of Jane’s journal which has been missing for 20 years begin to turn up, she finds herself at the center of two parallel mysteries, involving both her own past and her current students.  This is the perfect book for fans of the unique academic thriller genre, who want a story that’s fast paced, memorable, layered, and addicting.

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Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart: A short and sweet book about girls kicking ass, set in 1914 New Jersey and based on a true story.  When the self-reliant Constance Kopp and her sisters begin to get harassed by a local gang, they take matters into their own hands, resisting help from the male figures in their lives an opting instead to protect themselves.  While it’s mostly a light and fluffy read, it still packs quite an emotional punch with its endearing and vivid characters, fast moving chapters, and intriguing plot.  Recommended for readers in search of feminism, escapism, or some combination of the two.  It’s a delightful story that sucks you in immediately.

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The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson: This isn’t your average teen angst book.  Set at a high school in an upscale California suburb and focusing on the lives of a wide array of students, Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel breathes new life into the teenage drama narrative.  TMDPOE toes the line between the adult fiction and YA genres – I was unsure how to classify this book when I added it on goodreads, but really, does it matter?  As an adult reader, I never felt condescended to; rather, there’s an honesty and an urgency to this narrative which consistently treats all of its teen protagonists with respect.  Both a thrilling page-turner and an incisive commentary on wealth and privilege, this is a tour de force debut novel that I read in one sitting.

Have you guys read any of these books?  Comment and let me know what you thought!

book review: Running by Cara Hoffman

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Running by Cara Hoffman

US pub date: February 21, 2017

★★★☆☆

Running is a strange and ambitious whirlwind of a novel. It tells the story of Bridey Sullivan, a young American woman living on the streets of Athens, who takes up with Jasper and Milo, a British couple living and working in the hotel Olympos. The three work as ‘runners,’ essentially hustling tourists into staying at their run-down hotel in exchange for commission and a place to stay.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel and now, having finished it, I’m not really sure what I got from it. I’m sort of confused and very conflicted.

The best part of this book was the atmosphere. The red light district of 1980s Athens comes to life on the page. Evocative and lyrical, Hoffman’s prose complements the insular setting and draws the reader into this world of crime and addiction. The characters, flawed and compelling, all make a strong impression. This is a book about the indelible impressions that relationships leave over time, a motif explored particularly well by the scope of Hoffman’s narrative.

Now, onto the bad. I’m not sure what logic (if any?) Running‘s timeline follows. It’s certainly no logic that I recognize. I was constantly confused about when Bridey’s narration was taking place, and while I understand that this uncertainty was most likely intentional on the author’s part, it really detracted from my ability to get invested in this narrative. Additionally, the switches from Bridey’s first-person POV to Milo’s third-person are jarring. Maybe it’s a matter of opinion, but I personally dislike when first and third person are used in a novel together.

As a disclaimer for this next complaint, I just want to clarify that I am not the sort of reader who requires every facet of a story to be wrapped up in a neat bow. I actually enjoy ambiguous endings more often than not. But I need to feel like that ambiguity serves a purpose other than frustrating the reader, and I didn’t really get that here. This isn’t just a case of ‘do not expect answers’ – it goes further and we get into the murky territory of ‘do not even be sure which questions you’re supposed to be asking of this book.’

The bottom line is that Running needed more. There is so much potential here. A story which promises to be filled to the brim with excitement ends up being rather anemic, and I’m personally left with too many questions to have found this a particularly rewarding reading experience.

If you want a book that’s as thought-provoking as it is sultry and atmospheric, look no further. If you want a comprehensive story that examines its themes to their full potential and leaves no stone unturned, skip this one. The problem is, I’m not sure which category I fall into. A tentative 3 stars.  And bonus points for the insanely gorgeous cover.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thanks Netgalley, Simon & Schuster, and Cara Hoffman.

+ link to review on goodreads

book (play script) review: Translations by Brian Friel

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Translations by Brian Friel

published in 1980

★★★★★

 

Translations, set in a fictional Donegal village in 1833, is a play about a 19th century Ordnance Survey wherein a mass Anglicization of Irish-Gaelic place names occurred. This cartography project sets the context for Friel’s narrative, a story which, for its many layers, is ultimately a bold examination of the function of language.

The characters in the play, a group of students who attend a local hedge school, speak only Irish. In actuality the actors on stage are speaking English, and when English-speaking soldiers arrive, the audience is meant to infer that the two parties are unable to communicate. The multilingual Irish schoolmaster and his two sons exist at this intersection of language and culture, and the liberties they take in translating back and forth remind us that translation isn’t a wholly linguistic effort: it’s a complex process in which meanings become twisted and manipulated.

Though the students speak very little English, they fluently read Latin and Ancient Greek, this integration of dead languages paralleling the probable future of Gaelic. It also provides a delicate subversion of the traditional colonial narrative which hinges on the conqueror imparting culture upon the ‘barbarians’ – in Friel’s play, the Irish are the educated, the multilingual, the classicists. The function of English then becomes one of eradication rather than enlightenment.

In examining Ireland’s complex socio-linguistic history, Translations is a fascinating look at colonization, English imperialism, and the function of language as a tool that’s at once manipulative, restrictive, and liberating. Although this is a play whose themes are perhaps more interesting than the story itself, the characters are all endearing, and the plot, though slow-moving, keeps you engaged through its conclusion. A challenging, erudite, and moving work. I’d love the chance to see this performed live some day.

Written in 1980, this play was the first production by the Field Day Theatre Company, a collaboration between Friel and Irish actor Stephen Rea.  It was also adapted as a radio play for BBC Radio 4 in 2010.

+ link to review on goodreads

book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

US pub date: February 7, 2017

★★★★★

 

A beautiful book from start to finish. Gentle, elegant, and deeply moving, this one will stay with me for a long time.

Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family through multiple generations, spanning nearly a hundred years and multiple locations. The novel begins against the backdrop of the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and as the story progresses, it explores the unique discrimination faced by Koreans living in Japan in the twentieth century.

Our story commences with Sunja, a young woman from a small Korean town who finds herself pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and seemingly out of options. When a traveling minister, a kind-hearted but sickly man, agrees to take her to Japan and marry her, the wheels of the story are set into motion, as we follow Sunja, her husband Isak, and the life they manage to create together while facing constant adversity.

This is a quiet book whose thematic richness is all the more powerful for the subtlety with which it is rendered. Questions of home, nationality, and cultural identity permeate this nearly 500 page narrative, manifesting and reinforcing themselves in the lives of characters across generations, but Min Jin Lee rather expertly leaves the reader to draw our own conclusions. Lee resists any temptation to simplify the complicated Japanese-Korean relationship, as the ambitiously sweeping narrative manages to paint a comprehensive picture of the Korean immigrant experience. Historical elements are integrated seamlessly into our story of the fictional Baek family, continuously edifying but never overwhelming the reader. While Lee’s careful narrative doesn’t dilute the intricacy of the topics which she showcases, it’s still a rather accessible introduction for readers who may not be familiar with the complex socio-political history of these two countries.

Lee’s writing is light and elegant, and for such a long novel the pace rarely falters. While it may not be a story filled to the brim with action, it keeps you turning pages, mourning and grieving and celebrating with these characters who feel as close as family by the end. I raced through this in a couple of days and now feel sad that it’s over.

Above all else a nuanced exploration of cultural identity, Pachinko is an incredible achievement. I cannot recommend this highly enough to fans of family sagas, historical fiction, fiction set in East Asia, or really any reader who just wants a good story.

+ link to review on goodreads