Tuesday, September 01, 2009
summer reading, part 2: unaccustomed earth, the girl with the dragon tattoo, and march
Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri
(333 pages, 2008 - paperback)

Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies) is a writer of meticulously crafted, melancholic stories of Bengali Indians in America. Many of her characters are second generation Bengalis, so it comes as little surprise that identity, exile, acceptance, culture and family are common themes. In that way, Unaccustomed Earth - a collection of five short stories and one novella told in three parts - doesn't really break new ground. The stories focus on the family lives of first and second generation immigrants living in the East Coast, many of whom - despite their PhDs from Ivy League universities - struggle to understand themselves and those closest to them. They are precise, beautiful, and written with an expert hand; however, very similar to her previous work. If you have not yet read Lahiri (and you should) then Unaccustomed Earth is a wonderful place to begin, but for those already familiar, don't expect anything particularly innovative here. I'm curious what would happen if she'd stretch her wings to write about something other than Bengalis...

My Grade: A-
(590 pages, 2008 - translated copy, paperback)

I adore a good murder mystery, and the late Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - though not perfect - is a pretty good addition to the genre. Investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist finds himself accused and convicted of libel after pushing a little too hard against a too powerful tycoon. Shamed and stripped of his journalistic powers, he accepts a job investigating the forty-year-old mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger, niece of one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in Sweden. Harriet's disappearance is a play on a classic locked-room mystery - she disappeared off a island that, due to a major auto accident on a bridge, was sealed off from the mainland. An intense search ensued, yet no body or clues surfaced, the case went cold, and was Harriet was all but forgotten. That is, of course, until Henrik Vanger hires Blomkvist to look at the case with a new set of eyes. What follows is a nasty little mystery full of twists, turns, and and heaping helping of misogyny.

Larsson originally titled this book "Men Who Hate Women," which is a terrible title for a book, however apt for the story he tells. With the exception of one or two characters, the men in this novel are hateful and violent, and several of them are just plain sadistic. The violence depicted in this book is enough to make many readers squirmy; however, I eat episodes of American Justice for breakfast, so that's not my big complaint. My criticism is that, although the middle of this novel was totally gripping, the beginning was tedious and the ending lazy. That said, trust that I will soonly be reading the hell out of The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second book in this trilogy. Larsson's writing may not be perfect, but he hooked me. He hooked me good.

My Grade: B-


March, by Geraldine Brooks
(280 pages, 2005 - paperback)

I must have been nine or ten-years-old when 'Santa' left me a copy of Little Women under the Christmas tree. It was love at first read, and I can't think of a book I've loved as well or read as often. And I know I'm not alone here, ladies. Little Women is one of the most beloved books in American literature, so writing its sequel is an incredibly risky endeavor. I can think of so many ways that March could have failed, but instead Brooks managed to not only capture Alcott's magic, but add depth and dimension to her classic novel. Perhaps it's because Brooks - rather than focusing on the March children - decided to tell an entirely new version of the story by focusing on the family's patriarch instead.

March is the story of Mr. March, an ardent abolitionist who volunteers himself as a chaplain in the Union army at the "ripe old age" of 43. March's source material offers very little of Mr. March's Civil War experience other than a few upbeat letters written before an illness forced him to prematurely return home. Brooks takes these vague details and uses them to create a masterful piece of historical fiction. Unlike the version in Alcott's original, this Mr. March is flawed, vulnerable and fully fleshed-out. And unlike many Civil War stories, Brooks's characters are a far cry from their Uncle Tom's Cabin-esque stereotypes. I normally shy away from historical fiction, but March breathes life into what can be a dense and stale genre. March won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, and it absolutely deserved it. I cannot recommend this novel enough.

My Grade: A

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1 Comments:

I LOVED Little Women! (Plus, a movie with Christian Bale as Laurie? Yes, please!) I'm going to have to add March to my pile. Thanks for the suggestion!

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