Review: Unmarriageable

UnmarriageableSoniah Kamal, Unmarriageable

This retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan tells the story of the five Binat sisters, whose mother is desperate for them to marry well and thus raise their family’s social status. But the second sister, Alysba Binat, is a staunch feminist who would rather keep her career and independence than submit to a husband. When the entire family is invited to a lavish society wedding, Alys’s older sister Jena catches the eye of “Bungles” Bingla, a rich and handsome bachelor. But Bungles’s friend, the even richer and more handsome Valentine Darsee, is not so impressed with Alys. His dismissive behavior infuriates her, and she promptly writes him off as unmarriageable. But as Alys gets to know Darsee better, all while trying to balance familial and cultural expectations with her own desires, she slowly revises her first impression of him.

This novel is a very faithful and competent retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and I enjoyed experiencing the familiar story in a completely new-to-me setting. But I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book. It occasionally touches on British colonialism and how it affected—and continues to affect—Pakistani culture; one character even talks explicitly about how English literature is still seen as superior to native literature; and yet this very novel puts Pakistani characters into an English narrative. And rather than subverting or critiquing that narrative, the novel follows the plot of P&P almost exactly. Maybe the point is that Austen’s novels address universal human concerns, which I’m certainly not going to argue with, but it makes the premise of this book a little less interesting, in my opinion. Also, I was annoyed that Alys is an English teacher, intimately familiar with the works of Jane Austen, yet she somehow doesn’t realize that she’s living out the plot of P&P. That said, I actually did enjoy this book, and I think it’s one of the better retellings out there. . . . I just wanted a little bit more from it.

Review: Crosstalk

crosstalkConnie Willis, Crosstalk

In a near-future society, people are looking for ever more efficient ways to communicate and connect with each other. A new experimental procedure, the EED, allows couples to feel each other’s emotions and thus (theoretically) strengthen their relationship. Briddey Flannigan is thrilled when her boyfriend Trent asks her to get an EED with him, but her nosy family doesn’t like the idea, nor does her reclusive colleague C.B. Nevertheless, Briddey goes ahead with the procedure, only to discover that something has gone terribly wrong — she’s now connected to C.B., not Trent. Moreover, she doesn’t just sense his emotions; she seems to be able to read his mind. Now, with C.B.’s help, Briddey must figure out why this connection occurred and learn how to break it, before the negative effects of their telepathic connection cause irreversible damage.

I’m huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high expectations for this book, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed! This novel has just as much humor and romance as her other light novels, with an added dash of commentary on the negative aspects of incessant communication. I really enjoyed the little asides about past scientific research into telepathy, as well as the speculation that famous historical figures who heard voices (most notably Joan of Arc) might actually have been telepathic. I do think the plot had a few too many twists and turns at the end; the book’s length could have been trimmed somewhat. But I was having such a ball following Briddey and C.B.’s story that I barely noticed at the time! To be fair, the book does have its flaws, which I think the NPR review covers quite well — I can definitely see the reviewer’s point. But I still loved the book, and I would definitely recommend it to Willis fans! Newcomers to her work might want to start with To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book (although the latter is much darker) instead.

Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Review: War and Peace

War and PeaceLeo Tolstoy, War and Peace (trans. Anthony Briggs)

“Set against the sweeping panoply of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, War and Peace — presented here in the first new English translation in forty years — is often considered the greatest novel ever written. At its center are Pierre Bezukhov, searching for meaning in his life; cynical Prince Andrei, ennobled by wartime suffering; and Natasha Rostov, whose impulsiveness threatens to destroy her happiness. As Tolstoy follows the changing fortunes of his characters, he crafts a view of humanity that is both epic and intimate and that continues to define fiction at its most resplendent.” (Summary from Amazon.)

It took me more than three months to read this book, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I feel a bit presumptuous in criticizing such a well-known classic, but certain parts of the novel worked for me much more than others. There’s a lot of social comedy in this book, which I loved! And I find the Napoleonic era fascinating, although I’ve only been exposed to it from a British point of view, so it was interesting to see that conflict from a Russian perspective. However, there are reasons most people never finish this book, and those reasons are: the overly long, mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of battles; philosophical digressions; and tirades about the right and wrong way to study history. I do think this book is worth reading once, but I’m glad I don’t ever have to read it again!

I also want to note that I liked the Briggs translation; it’s not as word-for-word accurate as the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is rumored to be, but I suspect it’s more readable. Instead of footnoting the long French passages, Briggs just translates them directly into English, although he does note when certain characters are speaking French. I actually preferred this, but some readers may not. Also, the Briggs translation is pretty aggressively British; for example, some of the lower-class soldiers have Cockney accents! Again, I didn’t mind this, but I can see how others might. All in all, I’d recommend this translation for casual readers but maybe not for serious scholars.

Review: Girl Waits with Gun

Girl Waits with GunAmy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun

Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

For some reason, I had a couple of erroneous expectations coming into this book. I thought it was a Western and pictured Constance Kopp as a sort of hotheaded, guns-blazing, Annie Oakley figure. In fact, the book is set in New Jersey, and Constance is definitely not the aggressive cowgirl I had imagined. She is certainly a strong woman, but her strength isn’t demonstrated by violence. Rather, she is strong in her sense of justice and in her determination not to be browbeaten by the factory owner just because he is rich and male. I really admired Constance and enjoyed her relationship with her sisters; it’s obvious that they get on each others nerves occasionally, but it’s equally obvious that they are very close. I also liked the book’s historical setting and how it showcased (in a non-preachy way) some of the difficulties women faced in the early 20th century. The “family secret” referenced in the summary was fairly easy to guess, but I didn’t mind it because it’s really not the focus of the novel. The book’s ending seems to leave room for a sequel, and I would definitely read one if it ever materializes!

Review: Embassytown

EmbassytownChina Miéville, Embassytown

In a futuristic world on a faraway planet, Avice Benner Cho lives in the main colonists’ city of Embassytown. The planet’s natives, whom the colonists refer to as Hosts, have a unique system of language involving two simultaneously spoken voices that makes communication with them largely impossible; while the humans can understand the Hosts, the Hosts can’t understand most humans at all. The only people even remotely able to speak to the Hosts are the Ambassadors, identical twins who have been specifically engineered for the purpose. So when a new Ambassador arrives on the planet, and they’re not identical twins at all, everyone is shocked by the sheer impossibility of it. And when this Ambassador speaks to the Hosts, even more astonishing — and dangerous — consequences ensue. Avice, though not an Ambassador, has a special relationship to the Host language because she is one of its living similes. Can she find a way to mitigate the disasters caused by the new Ambassador?

If you’re confused by my summary of this book, don’t worry — I was confused for about the first half of the novel! Miéville creates an extremely intricate world full of technobabble and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining things; rather, the reader is thrust directly into the world and left to sink or swim. I usually don’t mind this technique, since lengthy world-building exposition can be tedious. But because the world is so complicated, it took me a while to figure out which things were important to the story and which were just window dressing. Additionally, the book jumps between two different time periods, which confused me at first. But once I figured out where the story was going and how the past and present narratives fit together, I became much more invested. People who are interested in linguistics will be fascinated by Avice’s eventual solution to communicating with the Hosts. The book also touches on issues of colonialism: although the humans aren’t overtly oppressors, there is a shadowy empire in the background to remind us that there might be hidden agendas at play. Overall, this is not the most accessible book to a casual reader, but those who persevere will be rewarded.

Review: No Longer at Ease

No Longer at EaseChinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease

This novel, published in 1960, follows the fortunes of Obi Okonkwo, a young Nigerian man who was educated in England and has now returned to work in the Nigerian civil service. In the first chapter, it is revealed that Obi is on trial for accepting a bribe; subsequent chapters go back in time to explain how this situation came about. When Obi first comes back from England, he is idealistic and relatively innocent. When he sees the widespread bribery and corruption in the Nigerian government, he is disgusted and indignantly refuses the first bribe offered to him. However, he soon finds himself caught between several conflicting responsibilities. A group of prominent members of his hometown financed his education, and he is obligated to pay back the money they invested in him. His impoverished family also needs money, especially when his mother falls ill. And all of Nigerian society expects him to maintain a certain standard of living now that he has a profitable government job. Obi’s predicament mirrors the problems of Nigeria as a whole, as it struggles to achieve independence and find its own identity.

I had to read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart several times in school, and while I started out disliking it, I eventually warmed up to it. This book is a sequel of sorts, as Obi is the grandson of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart, and some of the same themes are present. Both books deal with the interaction of European and Nigerian culture in a very nuanced way, showing both the positive and negative consequences of such interaction. And in both books, the protagonist is caught in an untenable position between the old ways and the new. Obi is a Nigerian through and through, but his English education makes him something of an alien among his own people. He deplores the Nigerian custom of bribing government officials but recognizes the role the British ruling class has played in this corruption. The novel is ultimately about Nigeria’s identity crisis as well as Obi’s, as the country moves toward independence. The novel’s ending leaves the question open: how can Nigeria move forward from the negative aspects of its past while still retaining what is good?

Review: Mrs. Ames

Mrs. AmesE.F. Benson, Mrs. Ames

This novel is a precisely drawn satire of life in an English village in the early 20th century. Mrs. Ames has been the leader of society in Riseborough for many years, due partly to her commanding presence and partly to her distant familial connection with a nobleman. The other residents of Riseborough both admire and resent her for her position, and many of the local gossips would be glad to see her fail in some way. So when a (relatively speaking) new arrival, Mrs. Evans, begins to set herself up as Mrs. Ames’ social rival, the entire town waits with bated breath to see whether their queen will be dethroned. Meanwhile, both Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Evans dimly begin to realize that their lives are unfulfilling, but their search for deeper meaning takes them down drastically different paths, one of which may lead to scandal and heartbreak.

I expected this book to be nothing more than a light, witty comedy of manners — which it is, but it also took a more serious turn than I anticipated. The various social machinations of the ladies of Riseborough are very funny; there’s a particularly wonderful scene in which Mrs. Evans hosts a masquerade ball and several ladies (tragically, yet hilariously) show up wearing the same costume. But for me, the more compelling story was Mrs. Ames’ slow realization that her dreary, respectable life isn’t making her happy. It’s only when she begins to identify with a cause greater than herself that she actually finds contentment — even at the moment when all her respectability and social standing is taken away. So oddly enough, this comedy of manners turns into a coming-of-age story, and I found it a surprisingly thought-provoking read.

Review: The Taliban Cricket Club

Taliban Cricket Club, TheTimeri N. Murari, The Taliban Cricket Club

The heroine of this novel is Rukhsana, an intelligent, independent young woman fighting for survival under the Taliban regime in Kabul. A former journalist, Rukhsana is no longer allowed to work, but she still manages to publish stories in foreign newspapers by using a pseudonym. When she is summoned to appear before a Taliban minister, she fears she’s been discovered; but to her surprise, the minister simply announces that Afghanistan will be holding a cricket tournament in three weeks, and the winning team will be leaving the country to compete with other teams around the world. Rukhsana seizes this opportunity to escape by convincing her brother and other male relatives to form a cricket team. Women are not allowed to play, but Rukhsana is familiar with the game from her time as a university student in Delhi. Will she be able to coach her team to victory and freedom, or will her rebellion have dire consequences for herself and her family?

This is a book I should have loved, and I’m a little confused about why it didn’t quite work for me. The premise is certainly compelling, and I was very interested in learning about daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. But while the picture Murari paints is certainly bleak, I didn’t connect to it on an emontional level; I believed the book’s depiction of a lives full of fear and oppression, but I didn’t feel it. The book frequently mentions that Rukhsana and her family are in grave danger, but we hardly ever see that danger firsthand, so the suspense doesn’t really build. I also think Rukhsana’s conflict is a bit too superficial or simplistic…she views the burka as a prison and hates the Taliban with every fiber of her being. Now, I’m not defending the Taliban, but I think having a little moral ambiguity in some of the characters would have made this a stronger novel. I did enjoy the contrast between the world of cricket, with its notions of order and fair play, and the world of war-torn Kabul. But overall, I was hoping to connect with this book more than I did.

Review: By Love Possessed

By Love PossessedLorna Goodison, By Love Possessed: Stories

As the title suggests, this collection of short stories is loosely focused on the theme of love, but not just romantic love: there are stories of friendships, parent-child relationships, and love requited and unrequited (mostly the latter). The stories are also pictures of life in Jamaica, chronicling the country’s postcolonial poverty, class warfare, desperation, and ambition. But while the setting is clearly and specifically delineated, the stories in this book also explore universal themes. In “The Helpweight,”a successful woman meets her ex-husband again after he has been in England for many years, but she is shocked when he asks for a favor. In “Shilling,” a teenage girl daydreams about her crush, but when he finally notices her, the reality is far different from her fantasies. And in “The Big Shot,” a man who has worked all his life to escape the grinding poverty of his childhood is suddenly confronted with his past.

I think this is the first book I have ever read by a Caribbean author, so it was an entirely new experience for me. I loved the fact that these stories paint such a vivid picture of life in Jamaica, from the weather to the food to the patterns of speech. Several of the stories are written in dialect, and the characters’ speech patterns vary depending on their level of education. While some of the phrases and spellings were unfamiliar to me, I really felt immersed in the world of these stories. Goodison is also a beautiful writer; she has a talent for conveying a lot of information without ever explicitly saying it. I found the endings of the stories especially impressive because they provide just enough closure without tying everything up too neatly. As with most short story collections, some were better than others, but I can’t think of any that I really disliked. (My favorites are the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph.) I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in Jamaican or Caribbean literature!