Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Atlas of Unknowns

Atlas of Unknowns, by Tania James, is the story of two sisters linked by a tragic past.  When Linno was 7 and her sister Anju was 3, they lost their mother (Gracie) in a mysterious drowning accident.  The girls are then raised in Kerala, India by their eccentric father and religious grandmother.  Like the author, the family practices Christianity.

As in most families, the sisters are very different.  Anju yearns to go to the United States, believing whole-heartedly in the American dream. She wins a scholarship to a private school in Manhattan and seizes the opportunity to better herself.  Linno remains behind, using her artistic skills to earn money for her family.  She is highly independent and refuses to marry a man she does not love.

The story weaves back and forth through present and past, Kerala and Manhattan. In Manhattan, we meet 2 secondary characters, Bird and Mrs. Solanki, who represent opposite poles of the American success story.  Bird was once a beautiful and talented actress in India where she met the young Gracie, an aspiring actress. Bird was smitten by Gracie--a secret, simmering love that lasted well after her death. When Bird emigrated to New York, Gracie sought to escape her abusive father and married the kind and generous Melvin.  Anju and Linnu were the offspring of that marriage.

Neither Gracie nor Bird led gratifying lives.  Gracie longed for a career in the theater and fantasized the life she thinks Bird is living. In reality, Bird is just scraping together mere sustenance working in a Manhattan beauty salon.When we meet her, she is an elderly and faded beauty, still secretly pining for Gracie.  When she spots a notice in an Indian newspaper announcing Anju's scholarship along with her picture, memories of Gracie flood her memory.  She decides to help Gracie's daughter in this unfamiliar new land.

By contrast, Mrs. Solanki is host of a popular television talk show that sounds a bit like The View.  She is wealthy, successful and happily married.  It is she who sponsors the scholarship that Anju wins.  Having an Indian girl come live with her while continuing her education is Mrs. Solanki's way of expressing gratitude for her success.

The plot of the book revolves around Anju's act of deceit and her expulsion from the New York school.  Rather than come home, she runs away, ultimately living with Bird.  Meanwhile in India, the family is heartsick with worry.  Linno is especially distraught. When she and her new employer open an online card company, she is determined to save enough money to apply for a visa and come to Manhattan.  Against all odds, she hopes to find Anju.

Atlas of Unknowns (2009) is the first published work by Tania James.  Although the plot of the book is a bit convoluted, the characters are well-drawn.  If you are a fan of Indian literature, and if you enjoyed Ms. James new collection of short stories, Aerogrammes, this book is certainly worth reading.  Here, as in Aerogrammes, the author poignantly depicts the losses suffered when leaving one's homeland.  She also portrays family in all its quirkiness.  Above all, she takes a hard look at the complicated love of two sisters and the illusions inherent in "the American Dream."

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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Scent of a Scandal

Here is the premise of this book: a true crime story about orchids. I had to read this book. In the family orchidacae there are approximately 25,000 to 30,000 different species. There are approximately 100,000 hybrid versions of these flowers. The industry is worth an estimated $44 billion per year with an extensive black market trade despite world wide trade tariffs. I will admit I do not know much about these flowers, but  I think they are a very pretty flower. Apparently some people believe they are more than just a beautiful flower and are obsessed with them to the point of committing criminal acts.

Outside of Sarasota, Florida is a small botanic garden known as the Marie Selby Botanic Garden. Not one of the larger botanic gardens in the world, it had carved out a niche for itself as a orchid specialist garden. The garden included research facilities for the study and propagation of orchids, although this was not its only stated mission. The garden was started in 1971 when Marie Selby died and left her house and $2,000,000 for maintenance of the house as a botanical garden. A local doctor who was on the board pushed for the emphasis on orchids as they were his favorite flowers. In 2002, the garden was being run by a woman named Meg Lowman. She had a botany PhD., and her real interest was research in the rain forest canopy. She had no experience running a garden but was apparently a whiz at soliciting donations. The scientists on staff did not agree with her style and wanted to change the focus even though the garden was flourishing.

In 2002 the Redland International Orchid Festival was held outside of Miami. It is the largest orchid show in the world. One of the vendors had a plant from Peru for sale that was being hawked for $10,000. The scientists were very interested. After the show one of the scientists received a picture of an orchid he had never seen before. He realized it had been at the show, was a new species and assumed someone else had started to classify the plant. The way the taxonomy works with orchids is that once the name is cataloged and then published the name sticks. In 2002 the American Orchid Society had just 23 approved taxonomists available. 7 of them worked at Selby.

In order to classify a plant you must have the plant. In order to get the plant out of the country of origin, the plant must have a name. And the plant must have a permit to be both exported and imported. This is all governed by international law. Sometimes it is also covered by the FDA , the US Customs Service and the USDA. Everyone can have their say. Rarely is anyone ever prosecuted for smuggling an orchid. Usually the plant is confiscated and sent to a garden to be warehoused while someone, somewhere decides what to do with it. Not so in this case.

The taxonomy for the orchid was done at Selby and published. The garden thinks everything is in order but soon comes to realize that this is not the case. There are no permits for this orchid,  even though the man who brought the orchid into the US said her had the proper permits. The US attorney gets involved as does the government of Peru, who not only wants its orchid back but wants to change the name so it reflects the country of origin.  The investigation starts and the lawsuits begin.

I found this book fascinating. Not the dry legal case it sounds like, the book is filled with myriad characters - some savory; some not so much. There is so much information packed into this book about international treaties, the US attorney's office and just plain odd characters I could not put the book down. A short read, this book will be an interesting way to start the growing season.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I really enjoyed reading this book, but I wish the author had used a pseudonym instead of her real name! Yes, she is the author of the fabulous Harry Potter novels, but don’t expect this to be Harry Potter for adults. There are no magic spells, transforming staircases or fantasy characters to be found in The Casual Vacancy, and the book doesn’t need those elements.

The Casual Vacancy, set in contemporary Pagford, England, opens with the death of local councilman Barry Fairbrother. The reader is introduced to several of Fairbrother’s friends, and through their eyes, we learn about the controversy regarding who is going to fill the now empty council seat. At issue is an undesirable neighborhood called “The Fields”, substandard housing hastily thrown up which houses, in the eyes of Pagford residents, undesirable people. Fairbrother was in favor of keeping The Fields as a part of Pagford, but his opponents want it, as well as a drug rehab facility, annexed to a nearby town instead.

Not surprisingly, the author is very skilled at drawing characters who you feel that you know. She is especially adept at portraying the teenaged children of the townspeople, and their relationships with each other and their parents. These high school kids have some real life problems, which the author does not gloss over.

There are dark elements in the book, particularly surrounding the character Krystal and her family who live in The Fields. Issues of drug use and neglect surface in Krystal’s story line, but they are realistically portrayed. J.K. Rowling has set up a foundation to help disadvantaged children, and I suspect she is writing about what she knows here.

I enjoyed getting to know the townspeople of Pagford. Typical realistic novel components such as politics, romance, sex, and suspense are all there and well done.

I urge you to take a chance on this change of pace from this highly regarded author.

But again, don’t expect it to be Harry Potter.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

The Columbus Affair

Tom Sagan was an award winning journalist.  He had covered stories from all the world's hot spots and was always in demand, until he was accused of fabricating a story and his career ended in disgrace.  Eeking out a living ghost writing, he is suicidal and his surviving family has shunned him.   That all abruptly changes when he receives a picture of his estranged daughter (Alle)  bound and gagged.  He is told to cooperate in finding some information or his daughter will die.

Alle is a history scholar concentrating on post Columbus America.  She has become friends with Zachariah Simon, a billionaire interested in Jewish causes and possessing the money to fund them.  His current search is for the temple treasure from the second Jewish temple.  He is looking for, the golden table of Divine Presence, the silver trumpets and the seven branched menorah.  The man called the "Levite" knows where the items are.  Sagan's father wass a part of this group and was the last Levite. Alle has told Simon she buried her grandfather with several documents. Simon wants to exhume  the body to see what was buried with him - he believes it is the route to the lost treasure.  Simon is the one who gave Sagan the picture of Alle.

The story moves from Jamacia to Europe and back again.  Simon believes that Columbus was really a "converso"  ( a Jew who converted to escape the Inquisition) and smuggled the items to the new world on his ships. It is a fact that he took a Hebrew translator with him on his voyages. There are clues that support Simon's theory but he can't find the actual treasure.  Simon's thugs are following Alle and Sagan as they follow the leads they piece together from the documents found in the coffin.  Sagan's problem is that he doesn't know whom to trust - everyone has betrayed him.

Once again Steve Berry has written a book filled with poor good guys, rich bad guys, political intrigue, lost religious treasures and double crosses ad family problems.  The story moves at a torrid pace even though it is constantly shifting between threads.  Not to worry though, it all comes together in the end.  This book is a good choice for a fall read.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Award Winning Fiction!

There are a number of award winning fiction lists newly available. If a book is not currently available then please let us put a hold on it for you.
The National Book Award (short list)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Man Booker Prize (short list)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel **winner**
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (not currently available)
The Umbrella by Will Self (due out 1/2013)

The Carl Sandburg Literary Prize
Don DeLillo for Underworld and The Angel Esmeralda
Nami Mun for Miles From Nowhere

The PEN/Faulkner Award
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Orange Prize for Fiction
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Commonwealth Literary Prize
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Newlyweds

Nell Freudenberger's new book, The Newlyweds, is yet another mark of her literary achievements. Freudenberger is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and the Pen/Malamud Award.  She first came on the scene at the age of 26, when one of her short stories was published in The New Yorker. She has since been named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40."

Like Lucky Girls, her 2003 collection of short stories, The Newlyweds deals with the immigrant experience, complete with the expectations and realities of living in the U.S.  The narrative centers on the marriage of a 20-something young Bangladeshi woman, Amina, and her somewhat older American husband, George.  Amina and George first meet on an online dating site. Both are looking for a foreign match--Amina, in order to bring her near-destitute parents to America and George because he has not met an American woman to his liking.  The couple engages in a year-long correspondence, culminating in George's visit to Bangladesh and subsequent proposal.

As the story unfolds, we are introduced to Amina's extended family and former love-interest, Nasir--a man she gave up to marry George.  Similarly, we learn more about George, a decent but rather lack-luster engineer whose previous romances have ended in failure. In marrying, they both embark on a difficult cross-cultural relationship. Amina's closeness and feelings of responsibility to her parents baffle George.  He wants to start a family but strongly disagrees with Amina concerning the issue of her parents living with them. Ultimately, Amina wants George to sponsor her parents' immigration to the United States.

Freudenberger takes us through four years of their marriage, culminating in Amina's citizenship.  At that point, Amina and George are living in separate bedrooms because George has been deceitful about his past.  This seems to be a turning point for them both:  George realizes he loves and needs Amina and Amina has now become independent-minded, more educated and more mature.  Her various jobs have given her a sense of some financial independence.  Her current job--at Starbucks--provides her with benefits now needed when George loses his own job. This event puts their relationship on a different footing.

When Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back to Rochester, New York, the author paints a picture of that country that is quite harrowing.  The disparities between rich and poor, village and city life, and the complexities of family relationships are starkly drawn.  Equally shocking is a close look at a justice system that allows men to disfigure women with acid.  It is not surprising that Amina has wanted to leave her homeland and everything connected with it since she was a girl.

In an interview for the New York Times Book Review Podcast (April 29, 2012), Freudenberger discusses the real-life story that was an inspiration for the novel.  On a trip to Rochester, New York to visit to her grandmother, the author meets a young, Bangladeshi woman and an American man.   They are her seat-mates. Thus begins a friendship and collaboration between the author and the woman that spans five years and culminates in this novel. The Newlyweds is based on stories accrued during those years of their correspondence and Freudenberger's subsequent visit to Bangladesh.

The Newlyweds has an engaging plot and offers a realistic depiction of life as a new immigrant. Whether you like books about relationships or tales of foreign lands, you are sure to enjoy this new work by a promising young writer.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Third Gate

A woman is brought into an emergency room after being in a car accident.  Ethan Rush, one of the doctors on call continues to work on the woman even after the other doctors want to declare her dead.  He has an interest in keeping her alive - she is his wife.  He eventually revives her 14 minutes after her brain has stopped functioning.  He discovers that she now possesses extraordinary ESP powers.  Fast forward 3 years.

Jeremy Logan receives a phone call from Ethan, a friend from college.  It seems that Ethan has some work for Jeremy who is an enigmalogist.  Intrigued, Jeremy meets Ethan at the Center for Transmortality Studies (CTS).  Ethan left the practice of medicine after his wife's near death experience to join a think tank that studies near death experiences and how they change the survivors life.  Ethan informs Jeremy that he has a job for him that will involve some travel and research and work for a man named Porter Stone.  Stone is a treasure hunter of some reknown. Jeremy signs on and they head out to Egypt.

Stone believes he has found the real tomb of Narmer, the king that united upper and lower Egypt.  The tomb they have found is located in the Sudd and is protected by a curse. Stone wants Logan to investigate the curse and gain access to the tomb.  Rush's wife appears to be able to channel the spirit of Narmer  who keeps repeating the curse.  The Sudd is a swamp, about 200 miles wide and 250 miles long located in the South Sudan. it is almost not navigaible.  Stone's research facility is located in the Sudd.  Since they have foud some artifacts, strange things have been occuring at the facility.  Things related to the curse.

Lincoln Child has written another great book.  I love his books (especially the ones with Douglas Preston).  They have little twists through out them that keep you reading and they are just the slightest bit creepy. This one is on par with the rest.  The story moves nicely and the characters have just enough hidden issues that they are interesting. Perfect for a long summer weekend read.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel by Jess Walter

The cover of Beautiful Ruins has an old-fashioned Technicolor look that is the perfect complement to Jess Walter's exceedingly witty social satire, which spans five decades; two continents; humor, heartbreak, and a gamut of feelings in between.  

The book begins in 1962 in an Italian town called Porto Vergogna, whose only hotel is owned by the family of a young man named Pasquel. Pasquel wants to doll up his village to attract American tourists; up until now, his family’s hotel (with a name that translates to The Hotel Adequate View) has had only one guest from the U.S., an unknown writer named Alvis Bender, who has struggled in his annual visits to complete just a single chapter of his first book.

Pasquel soon has things on his mind other than making his village more tourist-friendly, because a stunning, blond, American actress named Dee Moray has checked into the hotel.  Moray has a small part in the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic Cleopatra, which is being filmed nearby. A fictionalized version of the latter, aided and abetted by a character named Michael Deane, takes on a key role later in the novel.

Skip ahead 50 years and Michael Deane and his assistant Claire Silver are working in Hollywood when Pasquel shows up, barely speaking English, determined to find Dee, and accompanied by a man named Shane who Deane assumes to be a translator.  Why does Pasquel want to find Dee now? Why does Deane jump on board so fast?  Is Shane really a translator? How does Claire fit in?  Did Alvis Bender finally finish his novel?  And will Pasquel ever meet Dee again?  Find out in this charming, escapist book, which transports readers back and forth in time, seamlessly weaving the funny, tragic, and tender stories of half a dozen characters.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Keeping the Castle

This small (in size) book may a perfect beach read for the summer or fireplace read for the fall.  A little irreverent homage to Jane Austen this book is just delightful!

Seventeen year old Althea must find a rich husband so she can save the family manse.  Located on a cliff on the North Sea the house is crumbling and threatening to fall into the sea.  Crawley Castle was built by Althea's grandfather who had no structural nor architectural sense but plenty of money.  The house has been in a constant state of repair since it was built.  Althea's mother  (Mrs. Winthrop) has survived 2 husbands.  Her first husband, Althea's father simply didn't have enough money but he had property. Mrs. Winthrop's second husband died shortly after the marriage leaving her with 2 evil, ugly step daughters and pregnant with a son. Winthrop also left all his money  (he had money but no property)  to his daughters leaving Mrs. Winthrop no money and the falling down house.  Hence Althea's situation.

There are simply not a lot of eligible men in Lesser Hoo.  Then  Lord Boring buys a local estate, fixes it up and moves to the country.  He arrives from London with his mother and friends, including his loathsome business manager, Mr. Fredricks.    Boring throws a ball and Althea decided to try and snag Lord Boring, but Fredricks has other ideas.  The story romps through the country ball, the near death experience of the Crawley castle heir, Alexander (4 years old), and various schemes to marry everyone off to someone with greater social position and or wealth.

Charming, delightful and an easy read.  Pour something cold and sit down and read this book!

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