Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Vacationers


            Writing a review on Emma Straub’s 2014 novel, The Vacationers, reminds me of the 30 Rock episode where Liz Lemon struggles to compliment Jenna’s performances in questionable productions.
            What can I say? The Vacationers has a pretty, pleasant cover.

            Whatever you do, don’t protest with “but…it’s a perfect *summer read*!” As if reading this book during the month of July will blind you from its total lack of depth and entertainment. Lighthearted, sure. Zero substance, no thanks.

            Straub’s novel follows the Post family on their vacation to Mallorca, Spain, accompanied by the son’s girlfriend and a gay couple who are long-time family friends. All of the relationships are somehow strained: generational differences lead to distance, infidelity causes rifts, and poor decisions run amuck. The crew uses an international trip as a fresh start for all, but they must tend to each other’s wounds before they can heal.

            While my summation might sound refreshing, the book beats the drum of mundanity. There aren’t any twists and the most dramatic scene involves an overdue sucker punch. The description on the back of the book had me thinking that someone gets murdered. False advertising—the only thing killed was my attention span.

            The novel leaves me with a feeling of loss: While Straub isn’t telling a good story, it’s clear that she has serious prose-potential, and she’s comfortable in her writer-skin. She just so happens to excel at executing a predictable, plodding plot.

            IRL, Straub works closely with the Center for Fiction, which is a magical Manhattan library/bookstore/writer space that I loved enough at first sight to actually submit a Yelp review. She’s cool and quirky, and she rocks the super pale + whitish-blonde hair + bold red lipstick look. Again, she slays the book cover, but bitterly disappoints when it comes to the novel itself.

           There are so many wonderful books in the world that fit the cheery, easy-read category without boring you to death. Read those, not this. The Vacationers receives 2 out of 5 camel humps—spared from a doomed one-humper by Straub’s occasional wit.

*Straub, Emma. The Vacationers. New York: Riverhead books, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Thousand Splendid Suns

            A Thousand Splendid Suns sounds like a buoyant title that belongs on a “Top Ten Beach Reads” listicle. I pity the middle-aged woman who naively opens this up while lounging by the sea drinking a Starbucks unicorn Frappuccino.

            Never mind. She’s made her bed, let her lie in it.

            This 2007 novel by Khaled Hosseini comes four years after his bestselling debut into the literary world via The Kite Runner. Hosseini is a licensed physician who practiced medicine until he realized his hands could wield a scalpel and write brilliant prose.

            A Thousand Splendid Suns is similar to The Kite Runner, in that both novels are set in Afghanistan during the tumultuous regime changes of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Each addresses how political calamity affected Afghanistan’s youth. The two novels differ in terms of gender, with A Thousand Splendid Suns focusing mainly on the females.

            What I love most about Hosseini’s writing is his ability to deliver nuance when it comes to characters’ relationships with their war-torn homeland. Of course, it’s easy for Americans in the 21st century to think why don’t they just get the hell out of their terrible situation? Hosseini reminds us that Afghans have physical, emotional, and economic ties to their country, just like Americans have a deep affinity to Chili’s. Maybe that’s just me. 

            On the other hand, his characters aren't very complex. The novel follows two women—Mariam and Laila—separated by a generation. We see their lives as separate individuals until they’re inevitably and pitiably thrust together. I admire the two women’s resilience, and I appreciate that Hosseini intentionally set out to document the female voice; however, all of the characters he covers fall into neat little categories labeled “good” or “bad”. As a result, there is a flatness to the plot and an anticipation of what will occur when a specific character is present in a scene.

            Perhaps because of the limitations of female agency in the country, there aren't many opportunities for women to do evil. For example, when the Taliban takes over, they inflict a series of rules. A large portion of the mandates are written explicitly for women, including but not limited to:

“You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten” (Hosseini, 278).

            If you’re forced indoors, required to wear inhibitive garb, and suppressed intellectually, there aren't many uoutlets for acting “bad”. Nonetheless, my observation stands.

            Additionally, as a reader, I constantly expect something terrible to happen. His novel contains a series of inherent spoilers, because every time things start to go well-ish, you know it’s about to all come crumbling down. This isn’t a flaw per say, considering the subject has to be bleak given the setting. If events don't go south, I’d probably complain like a brat that the book is unrealistic. Still, these are all factors to be aware of when considering your next book (or beach-read).
            While some Goodreads reviewers warn about the graphicness of the novel, I personally think that Hosseini did an expert balancing act—he depicts enough gore and viciousness to convey the severity of the characters’ plights, but he doesn’t attack us ruthlessly or unnecessarily. Additionally, the bouts of brutality don’t exist to glorify violence—they serve a broader purpose in the novel. As Laila observes, “every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet…people find a way to survive, to go on” (Hosseini, 395).

            Overall, I would let Hosseini write to me and operate on me. With this novel, he proves himself once again as an author who can masterfully communicate a horrible truth about historic events via a fictional pathway. A Thousand Splendid Suns receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. New York: Riverhead books, 2007. Print.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

All the Light We Cannot See

            You know how old people wistfully tell you to look for the light at the end of the tunnel during a hardship? Reading All the Light We Cannot See has me thinking that the light at the tunnel is for sure a high-speed train gearing up for a head-on collision. Anthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is aptly packed with a great deal of darkness, and I may or may not have cried a little at the end.

            At 530 pages, his work is also not light in the physical sense.  While the longevity isn’t always appreciated (I much prefer the latter half of the book to the former), it is necessary in order to accomplish Doerr’s goals. It’s clear he wants to present multiple perspectives on a historical travesty—even if it means inducing readers to empathize with a Nazi................

            Specifically, he uses a parallel structure to compare the lives of two European children during World War II.  The first, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is a blind Parisian who must flee her childhood home and take refuge with extended family in another French town occupied by the Nazis. Fun fact: it’s not easy to leave everything you’ve ever known when you literally can’t see a single thing. The second, Werner Pfennig, is a precocious German orphan whose science skills land him in a select Nazi military school. There, he is brainwashed by nationalism and fear, yet intrigued by the power of his intellectual gifts for “the cause”.

            The two main characters’ paths unknowingly intertwine throughout the novel, and Doerr underscores the connection by hopping around from person to person and from year to year. Here’s where I pause. It’s difficult enough to simultaneously resonate with two different people in two different places with two different sets of problems. Whiplash me back and forth from 1940 to 1944 to 1942, etc., and you’ve lost me. When I’m reading something super sad, I need an enduring sense of place. Interestingly, the overly-jumpy-factor ruined another Pulitzer Prize winner for me—A Visit from the Good Squad. Is that the secret ingredient?

            When you’re able to look over the novel’s questionable rhythm, there are plenty of gems. Literally, there is a gem known as the Sea of Flames, which allegedly gives its owner immortality at the expense of everyone around him/her.  Some characters covet the diamond, and the location of the stone lends to a consistent mysterious tone throughout the novel. Figuratively, Doerr gifts us his beautiful prose. Perhaps due to the fact that one of his main characters is blind, Doerr uses some stellar imagery to describe the haunting images of war-torn countries filled with children deprived of their innocence.

            Overall, his work is moving but perhaps not award winning given the helter-skelter style. All the Light We Cannot See walks away with three out of five camel humps.

*Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2014 Print.