Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 26, 2019.
Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 4.5

69-year old leading Cambridge economist Professor Chandra is a shoe-in for the Nobel prize in Economics — except that he doesn’t get it. Divorced, distant from his three children, and frustrated with the new tenor of academic life, this “non event” coupled with a silent heart attack sends him off on an unintended, Siddhartha-like quest for personal enlightenment (naturally starting with a sabbatical at UC Bella Vista in Southern California).

His journey takes him to unlikely places — both physical and emotional. He is tricked into attending a weekend workshop at Esalen; he visits his ex-wife and new, annoying husband in Boulder in order to see his troubled daughter Jasmine; he searches for a way to reach his middle daughter Radha — an angry Marxist who hasn’t spoken to her conservative father in over two years; and visits his son Sunil’s highly successful Hong Kong-based “School for Mindful Business” (based on principles completely antithetical to his own). He learns that he is human and not infallible and finds himself more OK with that than he would have expected.

Excellent and insightful writing — wry and witty with deliciously pithy and often hysterical articulations of his evolving viewpoints. Lots of interesting commentary about psychology, economics, spirituality, achievement and the personal search for meaning and happiness.  I appreciate that while he learns more about himself, his priorities, and his relationships, he does not relinquish his intellectual interests or accomplishments.

Some great lines:

Brief but scathing summary of the identity politics Radha adheres to:
“‘West’ … ‘bourgeois’ … ‘capitalist’ … these words would fly from her lips like tiny swastikas, her knuckles turning white, her jaw clenched, her eyes hard as Siberian pickaxes as she sentenced most of the world to the gulag for their crimes against ideology.”

“An Indian Miss Havisham with an Emeritus Professorship and a takeaway menu.”

“… but he couldn’t help believing meditation was best suited to those with less mind to be mindful of: sociologists, for example, or geologists”

“Humans were like those snowflakes against the window, buffeted by winds no one understood.”

“Chandra accepted the phone as if he’d been handed a small but quite genuine lump of plutonium.”

“They seem to come pre-offended, forsaking any analytical content in favor of emotion and outrage.”

“But the undergraduates were even worse than in Cambridge: arrogant, unhygenic, and brazen, convinced that lazy platitudes and fallacious arguments would earn them nothing but praise if delivered with sufficient conviction.”

“King’s was Chandra’s least favorite college. It was the intellectual equivalent of a Disney princess, fluttering its eyelashes at tourists who didn’t know any better.”

“It was what Chandra loathed most about liberals — their shameless self-righteousness, as if the species’ failings were always someone else’s fault, while anything they did, murder and arson included, were heroic acts in the service of liberty and justice.”

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on March 5, 2019.
Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters 4.5/5

A fun, fast-paced, whodunit where real life begins to resemble the sinister stories taught in Clare Cassidy’s Gothic literature course. Clare specializes in RM Holland, author of the classic: The Stranger. However, when her best friend and colleague turns up dead, with a line from the story by her body, things start to get chilling. Unsure of whom she can trust, Clare turns to her diary — only to find that someone else is writing in it as well …

The first person narrative alternates between Clare, her 15-year old daughter, Georgia, and Harbinder Kaur — the 35-year old, highly suspicious, Sikh, lesbian detective assigned to the case. Plenty of plot twists, good character development, and lots of fun literary references since much of the action takes place in the English department! Most of the action takes place in a small town on the Sussex Coast, but some beautiful scenes in Ullapool, Scotland as well.

A standalone mystery offering from Elly Griffiths, author of the Ruth Galloway series.

The News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 3.5

A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before. She is not a willing passenger: she has no memory of her original parents and has been thoroughly “Indianized”. She speaks only Kiowa and can’t bear crowds, western clothing, or being indoors.

The time is 1870 — shortly after the end of the Civil War. Texas appears almost lawless with tensions running high between those supporting different candidates and all the men with any law enforcement experience sent away. Kidd reads the news in order to bring the exotic into people’s lives — he avoids controversial topics and prefers to “escort” his audience’s mind “into the lands of the imagination — far places, crisp ice mountains, falling chimney pots, tropical volcanoes.” The news items he reads, and many of the characters he runs into, are historic: Britt Johnson, the Horrell brothers, the Cinncinnati red stockings (the first professional baseball team), Ada Kepley (the first female law graduate), a new bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn …

It’s a long distance from where he picks up the girl to where she is to be delivered. On the way are multiple opportunities to describe landscape, daily details (broom making machine, meat grinders, US soldiers guarding any assembly), thieves and outlaws, and people trying to muster the courage to be good in a world gone haywire. While the girl grows to trust the Captain, the Captain becomes less happy about what she will face upon delivery. Everything we know about the girl we know from Captain Kidd’s perspective. He is the only person in the story who appears to be able to empathize with her and he does it beautifully. With his age and experience, he is better able to express her experience than she is herself.

A short, fast, read that feels more like catchy journalism than a typical novel (the detail gives it a sense of veracity not often found in historical fiction). Good writing! A few sample lines:

“Captain Kidd could not make himself back down, it was not a thing for which he had any aptitude, nor had he ever, and it was far too late in life to change.”

“Captain Kidd looked up and enviously considered the chickens — so daft, so stupid, so uninformed.”

”He could almost hear the jointed sound as one vertebrae settled on another.”

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on March 19, 2019 .

Writing: 4 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4

An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066. We follow her along a tortuous path from Iowa to an internment camp in Texas to an unwilling repatriation to Germany in the last year of the war (she doesn’t even speak German). Each step provides a slap-in-the-face kind of opportunity to learn how labels change the way we perceive and treat others.

The book opens when Elise is 81. She is coming to terms with an Alzheimers diagnosis and more than anything wants to find Mariko — the friend she made in the internment camp many years prior. As an aside, I fell in love with this book because of the way Elise anthropomorphizes her disease:

“What I feel is that I’ve been saddled with a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own. I can’t get rid of her, the doctor assured me, and I can’t outwit her. I’ve named my diagnosis Agnes after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport — Agnes Finster — who was forever taking things that didn’t belong to her out of lockers.”

Each of the four parts of the book starts with a scene from elderly Elise’s life as she gets closer to finding Mariko. The rest of the book details her journey: Davenport, Iowa after her father’s arrest (part 1), the largely Japanese internment camp (part 2), Germany during the last year of the war (part 3), and finally, her path to and life in California (part 4).

It’s an utterly gripping story — very difficult to put down. Elise’s voice is real and thoroughly human as she struggles to find her place in the world and understand why people behave the way they do. She struggles with finding a place she can call home. The narrative clearly articulates how war affects everyday people who want no part in it and yet are given little choice. I found the historic details to be largely accurate (although I did wonder about a few small details).

Surprising plot twists! Great for both adults and young adults.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 background: 5/5

A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The writing style is spare and humorous, comprised of short 1-3 page segments bundled into two large “parts.” Tidbits of chemistry, science, Chinese history, culture, and parenting are brought in as elements of the crucible which forged her personality. We never learn her name — the narrative is all 1st person — and only one character — the man she lives with — is given a name (Eric). Everyone else is referred to by label: the best friend, the lab mate, the dog, her mother, her father, the math student, the husband (of the best friend), and the Chinese roommate.

While some of the characters (her emotionless, overbearing, push to succeed parents for example) might appear to be stereotypes, they are completely personalized in backstories told through her memories. They appear quite real. One day our narrator sees a flyer in the park written by someone named “Peggy” that says: “The way you talk to your human children becomes their inner voice.” She rails at this: “Who is Peggy? I ask the other dog owners. And does she have a PhD to back up such claims?” I love this short scene because clearly her upbringing has been condensed into the inner voice that constantly plagues her.

I had a hard time reading this at first — I found the narrator to be self-absorbed and that is not a characteristic I favor in my book-friends. I felt sorry for the boyfriend who had no flaws, was very good to her, and who proposed marriage in chapter one. However, as I continued reading, it became clear that she was literally unable to cope with the life she was living and was going through the necessary steps to create a life that she could live — and voila — the story!

Very well-written, entertaining, and insightful.

The Return by Hisham Matar

A beautifully written memoir by a man whose life has been steeped in exile. The narrative follows his 2012 return to Libya — the first time he has set foot in the country since his family fled in 1979 when he was eight. Living primarily in England, he has been constantly trying to find out what happened to his father, Jaballa Matar, who “disappeared” in 1990 at the height of Qaddafi’s reign of terror. Flashbacks to childhood, his father’s disappearance, and the persistent and largely unfulfilled quest for information comprise most of the text. Various family artifacts and conversations introduce even more history — his grandfather’s arrest and escape in the time of Mussolini, short stories written by his father as a young man, and interviews with those who had memories of his father in prison.

This is a memoir, not an objective work; however it is steeped in the history of the region. The personal is an overlay on the political and social history of Libya from the Italian invasion of 1911 through the present. I found it very helpful to jot down a timeline of events as they are delivered when relevant to his thinking / discovery / memory, rather than in any chronological order. The personal reflection is profound — he grows up almost entirely away from the place and people he calls home, in the shadow of an absent father who is either hero or traitor depending on who is doing the talking. His prose is vivid, but not overly emotionalized. The description of the politics and bureaucracy involved in even trying to find out whether or not his father is still alive is stunning — in the literal sense of the word.

Pulitzer Prize winner! Definitely worth reading.

Some quotes:
“There is no country where the oppressed and the oppressor are so intertwined as in Libya.”

“That slightly stifled gait all political prisoners have. As though oppression were toxic sediment that lingered in the muscles.”

“They were a gift sent back through time, opening a window onto the interior landscape of the young man who was to become my father.”

“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure.”

Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

Thanks to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Oct. 30, 2018.
Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A gripping, and ultimately uplifting, tale highlighting a piece of American immigrant history. The date is 1923 and Mei Ling is an 18-year old girl in Guangdong Province whose family fortune has suffered “the triple devastation of war, famine, and disease.” With little warning, she finds herself a “paper wife” — married to a stranger (and mother to a two-year old named Bo) under the false name of his recently deceased wife in order to enter America. Her true identity is buried under a second layer — her elder sister was the intended bride, but a last minute illness forced the substitution. Mei Ling must keep this quiet as her husband is expecting a timid Rabbit wife and is instead receiving a fierce Dragon.

The story follows Mei Ling through her wedding, the trip in steerage to San Francisco, her new family, including a six-year old orphan named Siew whom she meets on the boat, and immigration through Angel Island. Beautiful and detailed descriptions of San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns, the people she meets, the lives they lead, and the way different people try to succeed in the new country. I love that each of the characters (even the unpleasant ones) has real depth — the author did not resort to stereotypes in this fictionalized account of a Chinese immigrant experience. The story takes some surprising turns as Mei Ling the Dragon takes steps to maintain harmony and protect her family.

As a way of setting the context, the book’s epigraph comprises a single disturbing quote from then President Rutherford B. Hayes: “I am satisfied the present Chinese labor invasion (it is not in any proper sense immigration — women and children do not come) is pernicious and should be discouraged. Our experience in dealing with the weaker races — the negroes and the Indians, for example — is not encouraging.” Ugh.