It’s difficult to define exactly what makes this book so special – it’s like the difficulty in defining what exactly “umami” is, which is something not only discussed in the book but plays a role in the story as well.
It’s a novel which mainly takes place in Mexico City. It follows the intertwined lives of the different people who live in “Belldrop Mews” (I had to look up the term “mews”!). It’s written from the point of view of several characters, some of whom are children. Their “voices” are so real, that I now miss them a bit – as if they were people I had met.
While all the neighbors are dealing with grief, this is not a “depressing” book. There are very sad moments along with ones of wonder and amusement.
More importantly, I found the combination of “voices” relating the same events, particularly the children’s voices, to be a powerful storytelling method in this context. The children questioned, wondered at, or even directly challenged the adults’ way of handling grief, and highlighted the many layers and aspects of how life moves forward after a tragedy.
And yes, there is hope, and new beginnings in this book. Slow changes for the better that start small but mean a lot (no fairy godmothers here…).
I recommend that you don’t read too much about the book in advance – it’s best to understand things as they are presented.
I really enjoy reading books by Donoghue but this is the one I enjoyed the least.
Don’t get me wrong, it IS a good book but I’m not particularly fond of the “whodunnit” format, particularly in a historical drama. The constant moving between time frames (the murder is right at the beginning of the book, it’s not a spoiler!) bothered me somewhat. When reading Donoghue I’m used to really getting to know the character and the period before such a dramatic event. Judging by the reviews online most people were not bothered by this at all!
This book, with its many musical references, might have been more enjoyable as an audiobook – they tend to sing such things when possible, Reading the afterword helped me realize the significance of the references and their relevance to the period and to the plot. I admit that I needed the explanations.
In fact, the afterword helped me appreciate the book more, as the author explains which historical facts were available to her about the two main characters’ lives (and deaths) and how she used them to create the story. I was fascinated by that part!
The book takes place in 1876 in San Francisco – a lot it takes place in Chinatown. The author’s depictions of the shameful way the Chinese immigrants were treated tied in with the information I learned from two other books I’ve recently read, “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu and “Disappearing Moon Cafe” by Sky Lee (this is set in Vancouver but covers a lot of the same ground as the other two).
There are still many books by Donaghue I haven’t read – I’m looking forward to reading them!
In these times of living with a pandemic, everywhere that isn’t right next door seems far away.
Nonetheless, when I read these books I felt that they were set particularly far away, either geographically, historically, or in a magical realm.
The Night Circus by Morgenstern
A story set inside a magical, very magical, circus. Lovely descriptions, a love story, suspense, good triumphs evil. I enjoyed it, but I think it would have been even better if it had been a bit shorter.
The Convenience Store Woman by Murata
The story is set inside a Japanese Convenience store, which seems to be quite different from convenience stores I have encountered. I never imagined salespeople being instructed to shout their polite responses to customers!
While I understand that the book is presenting a critique of pressure to conform in Japanese society (at the workplace, the pressure to get married and “fit in”), to me the book is set inside the mind of a woman with “autism spectrum disorder”.
I kept wanting to say to people in the book: “Leave her alone! She has worked at this store for so many years because a predictable environment with clear-cut ways to behave in every situation feels comfortable and safe to her!”
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
I almost didn’t read this book as I’m not much a fan of “swashbuckling adventure” – you know, the horseriding bandits with the heart of gold who save the day? But it was a short audiobook, an intriguing setting with a great reader and I’m glad I did.
It is set in Khazaria (Southwest Russia today) and takes place around AD 950. It was a period where Judaism was more widely spread, including some of the warring factions in the region. Our two tough, dangerous, brave, and generous “bandits” are Jewish, a fact which was important to the author, as Chabon himself expands on in a very interesting endnote to the audiobook.
Aquarium by Ya’ara Shehori
Place markers of any kind are hardly mentioned in this book – the story could have taken place anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere. It was written in Hebrew and but readers of the English translation could place the story in their town just as easily.
It’s a story of girls brought up in isolation and what happens after they are no longer secluded from the world.
It’s a story of a Deaf family trying to escape the intervention of the “hearing world”, but ends up denying reality. Such denials come with a heavy price.
At first, I was concerned about some aspects of the behaviors of some of the Deaf characters and wondered how well the author had researched the subject of Deafness. But all anomalies were explained and made complete sense later on in the book. I was amused to see that the author studied Sign Language with a former student of mine!
It isn’t an easy read. There are whole passages trying to be poetic or philosophical and too drawn out in my taste. I found some parts tiresome and rather boring.
The Pier Falls – by Haddon
Each story is set somewhere else – the first one is set in Britain while the next one takes you straight into Greek Mythology.
While the writing is excellent and gripping, I did not finish the book. Besides my habitual difficulties in reading short story collections by the same author (the basic style is too similar), the stories all seemed to be about people in hopeless situations facing horrible outcomes. There’s only so much of that I can take, even if it is well written.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
A clever, engrossing book that takes familiar fairy tale tropes (particularly Rumplestilskin) and gives them a completely new twist.
A feminist twist.
With lots of other messages.
A book supposedly set in “fantasy land” but it sounds a great deal like places I know of from history lessons (or genealogy research!). To me, it seems to be set in Lithuania, or the vicinity of, with forests lurking with danger, poor hamlets with fraught relations between the peasants and the Jews, the noblemen in the city killing each other for power, and more…
Strong women who come together, ignoring class and religion, save the day.
That’s not a spoiler – there’s much to read here (it’s a bit too long, I admit)!
When was the last time you stopped reading a book after a few pages just so you could savor the beauty of the writing?
Well, this is the book to make you stop and pay attention to “the how” as well as the “what”. They must be teaching the opening chapter of “Deacon King Kong” in creative writing classes. What a way to introduce the characters and the setting!
The setting is a public housing project in Brooklyn N.Y in 1969 with a variety of characters living/operating there.
The pace is fast, there is a well-balanced combination of humor, drama, romance, and serious commentary on society and race in the United States.
The number of books in this post is easy to count – three.
The number of lies told… that’s a different story. What purpose do these lies serve?
Oddly enough, the one book that promises you close encounters with liars is the only one in which I believe you are supposed to focus on the so-called lies and not look beyond them.
I’m not completely sure as I could not bring myself to finish“THE LIAR’S DICTIONARY” by Eley Williams, even though I read more than half of it.
The book focuses on bogus definitions inserted into dictionaries to combat plagiarism, known as Mountweazels, There IS a plot, two socially awkward lexicographers in different time periods (one lying about having a speech impediment), one inserting invented words, another trying to discover them years later, and a bomb…
Basically, the book is supposed to be for people who delight in words. It’s supposed to be clever.
The question is how many soliloquies on words, their synonyms, their place in a sentence, and the aptness (or lack of it) for expressing the right meaning, can you stand on a single page?
I DO enjoy language and words, but I felt lost and bored. Too much cleverness for me, I’m afraid.
Perhaps it will work for you.
The opening sentence of “My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg, is:
“When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.”
The book is presented as a memoir, so for most of the book, I thought I was encountering exactly the sort of “lies” one would expect from a “coming of age” story. The author takes us back to the world of his childhood, in 1950s Boston and introduces us to his family, their business partners, friends, and neighbors. All immigrants, most came over before the war, sharing a common “otherness” – Jewish, Italian, Polish, and Irish immigrants. As the young Hirshberg grows, he uncovers more and more truths about his family history, spanning three generations and his own identity.
I discovered this book accidentally and jumped to conclusion that it was a memoir, as portrayed. I was reading it as one. I knew that the major events depicted, such as JFK’s election campaigns, raising money for children affected by Polio at baseball games, neighbors going off to fight in the Korean War certainly happened.
But the book is a novel.
In fact, during the last section, the narrator “discusses” with the reader the question of how much of his tale is true, and what is the nature of truth in matters such as family history. Does it matter if events happened in one way or another?
It’s not the author’s fault that I spent time trying to look up the island he writes about…
While some passages are too long and repetitive, overall I enjoyed reading the book and found it interesting.
The major lie told in “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro, is told to a daughter by her mother, not to a son.
And here the sun plays a role in the story, it is both life-giving and the one who lets you see reality clearly.
Klara, who is an Artificial Friend, tells the story.
I won’t tell you any more about it. When reading a book by Ishiguro It’s best not to know anything about the book in advance. Let the author drip in the information, uncover the secrets and expose the reality of the life he is depicting in his own unique way.
The writing is riveting, it’s a difficult book to put down.
As always, it’s a thought-provoking read. Sometimes it takes an AI to make you think about humanity, life, and love.
Autumn is such a strange book. It’s the first of four ( one for each season ) and I haven’t made up my mind if I would like to continue reading. Smith writes really well. However, while some parts are interesting and even “deliver a punch”, some simply are not.
“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig
Another “mixed-feelings book”. Haig knows how to write in a very engaging way and the book is clever, but it also feels like an Aesop’s fable on steroids. The book is ON A MISSION to deliver a message (DON’T COMMIT SUICIDE) and it’s very clear where the plot is going. While I fully support the message, the first part in which the main character is introduced is so depressing that I wondered if a truly depressed person should read the book… Thankfully, not my call.
Have you seen Louis Valez? by Catherine Ryan Hide
While this book is also a book with a very strong moral/message (BE KIND!), I really enjoyed reading it. I believe it’s considered a “young adult” book. It’s completely engrossing and heart-warming, which it seems I needed a dose of. I was impressed that in various places where the author could have taken the story to “full kitch/schmaltz” mode, she didn’t. Nonetheless, very much a “feel-good read”.
Disappearing Moon Cafe by Sky Lee
I discovered this book on LIBBY. It is about several generations of women and their community of Chinese immigrants to Vancouver, Canada. It spans a period from the early days of railroad building to the present day. I enjoyed most of the book as there is a nice mix of history and family drama, but I found the last third of the book to be too “soap -opera-ish” for my taste.
Little Fish by Casey Plett
This is another book discovered on Libby. Back to Canada, Winnipeg this time. A story of Wendy’s life as a transgender woman in the present along with revelations about her devout Mennonite grandfather’s past who may have secretly identified as a transgender himself. The writing is engaging, yet it is often a difficult read as there are painfully sad parts. Also, some parts were too graphic for my taste. I found myself rooting for Wendy as there is hope for a better future.
“Designing Your Life” by Burnett and Evans
Once again, I encountered this book on Libby. Since this past year of teaching with a pandemic has not been “fun”, I entertained some fantasies about other possible careers. While the first chapter of the book is shamelessly self-promotional, there is a lot of focus on “second careers” and important questions to ask yourself. I actually found it rather helpful in banishing thoughts of leaving the teaching profession.
“Naomi’s Kindergarten” by Ishai Sarid
I read this book in Hebrew. I see that the author has had several of his books translated into English, so this may be coming your way soon. It’s a good book, very powerful. Sarid writes very realistically, I almost feel as if I had met the characters. There is a lot of sadness and injustice in the book, but there is kindness and hope too. I recommend it!
“Days in a Storm” by Michal Shalev
Another book which I read in Hebrew. This author has also had books translated into English – make sure not to confuse her with the famous author Meir Shalev!
It’s a clever story about intertwined lives, combining World War Two, Ultra-Orthodox, Espionage, and more. While I enjoyed reading the book, it could have been much better. Instead of having certain parts of recollections of the characters sounding like they were reading data off WIKIPEDIA, why not have one of the other characters actually give this information as part of their conversation, after officially looking the data up? All the characters have cell phones!
What an unusual and powerful book. I’m still thinking about it weeks (and several other books) later.
I never imagined that a book written with so many understatements brief acerbic sentences, along with generous use of the “F” word, would convey so much in such an engrossing way from page one.
Unlike some reviewers I encountered online, I believe that the central idea of the book is not really about the relationship between the two main characters, Benson and Mike. The book highlights how much working out your own identity and your relationship with your parents / your parents’ perspective, is needed in order to form your own long-term, stable relationships.
The book begins with an unusual situation that draws you right in – I just wanted to know more! The morning immediately after Mike, (a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant in Houston) brings his mother (who just arrived from Tokyo) home, he flies to Japan to look for his estranged father who is dying. This means that Mike has left his stunned mother and his lover Benson ( a Black daycare teacher with a knack for reaching out to “troubled” kids) alone together in their small Houston apt…
This is a VERY special book – absolutely fascinating.
I’ve read other books by Pamuk and found them interesting but this one is “an experience”.
Be warned that it’s a “slow read”. Oddly enough this is not because the plot advances very slowly (though I admit, the book could have been a bit shorter…) but rather due to the fact that there are so many important details and an abundance of characters. The reader needs to stop and take it all in!
Mind you – characters are not limited to human beings in this book. I never imagined a coin or a drawing could be so alive!
The story takes place in 1591, in the Ottoman Empire. While it is a “whodunnit” murder mystery, the book vividly presents the tension between East & West as expressed through the role of art and artists. The complexity of finding the balance between artistic freedom and religion, of the desire to create vs the need to do things as they have always been done, how art reflects the relationship between God and humans.
One of my favorite parts was the presentation of what dreams are good for and how to use them!
Pamuk doesn’t glorify the past – life expectancy in those days sounds short and violent…
In short – read this book when you have time to savor each detail and let it take you on its journey.
One of our sons recommended I read this book after we both read “The 10 Thousand Doors of January” by Harrow. He liked McGuire’s book better.
I myself have mixed feelings about both books.
This book has doorways that lead to other worlds but the story takes place in this world. A world where teenagers who have spent time in other worlds and desperately want to return there, are stuck, unable to find the right portal again. Their parents, who don’t know what to do with them, have sent them to a special boarding school, where they meet each other.
At first, I was quite enthusiastic about this book as the reading flows and the movement between present-day reality and the descriptions of truly interesting “other worlds” was quite engaging. The names of the worlds were of interest as well (compared to some of the names in Harrow’s book). The angst of being a teenager and the struggle to find your place in the world is certainly portrayed cleverly.
However, the book then morphed into two things which I’m less fond of, and left me with no desire to continue reading the series:
a – a “whodunnit” crime mystery
b- a classic boarding school tale of a small band of kids or teens who form a group, supposedly the oddballs of the school but always end up saving the day…
Nevertheless, the book is worth reading and I’m not sorry to have read it. In addition, it is always a pleasure to share book experiences with family members.
“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer
This showed up on my LIBBY account as an available audiobook just when I needed a book to listen to.
All I knew about “Less” in advance was that it had won a Pulitzer Prize. I must admit that at first I went and checked again that it really had won the prize, as it took me some time to figure out what was going on in this book. My first impressions were that there didn’t seem to be a plot at all!
But once I realized that “Less” is also about “doorways” and “coming of age” (except this time the age to contend with is turning 50!) I started enjoying myself, particularly as the audiobook reader was so good at presenting the colorful characters that appear in the book.
Arthur Less is about to turn 50 and the man he loves has invited him to his wedding with another man. Each stage of his comic journey (not laugh aloud comic but full of misadventures and comic characters) around the world (his excuse for not attending the wedding), he basically sheds layers of his fears, beliefs, and insecurity while moving toward a new stage in life.
Just so you know (without it being an actual spoiler):
There is a very real, actual (an ancient, thick) door the writer goes through at the climax of this story, so “doorways” are not just metaphorical in this book.
“Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu
It is fortunate that I had this book as an audiobook (once again, courtesy of Libby!) as the talented reader helped me deal with this book. It was somewhat of a struggle for me.
On one hand, this is clearly a clever book. It is told as if you are watching a “police/crime” T.V show being filmed in the fictional “The Golden Palace” Restaurant in Chinatown, getting the “behind the scenes” story as viewed by the protagonist, who is usually known as “generic Asian Man”. By using this show, the author hammers home a message of discrimination against Asian people in the United States in general and its reflection in Hollywood. You are made to understand every nuance of the term “Generic Asian” – not only are the individual people not visible, but people from so many different places and cultures are also lumped together as if they were one – “Asian”.
As someone who is interested in genealogy and immigrants, I found the personal histories of the people very interesting. While I had known a bit about immigrants from China to the West Coast, I was not aware of all the discriminatory LAWS that existed in the USA. Another thing you don’t learn in school perhaps.
On the other hand, I’m not particularly interested in Hollywood, and aspirations of “making it” in Hollywood. I found bits difficult to get through and had fleeting thoughts of not finishing the book despite it being a comparatively short book. I felt that the message was already clear enough.
But then I would have missed the ending.
An ending that is worth reading.
Once again, I thank a library for getting me to read books outside of my “comfort zone”.
Teaching English as a FOREIGN language to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students