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
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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Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Friday, October 26, 2012
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, 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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Posted by RA Desk at 3:46 PM
Friday, October 19, 2012
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
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)
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
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 Garden of Evening Mists by Twan Eng Tan
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (not currently available)
The Umbrella by Will Self (due out 1/2013)
The Carl Sandburg Literary Prize
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
Posted by RA Desk at 11:04 AM
Friday, October 12, 2012
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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Friday, October 5, 2012
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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