A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

I loved this book — far more than I expected to. It’s an intimate story about the intra- and inter-personal dynamics of an Indian-American, Muslim family living in Northern California. It opens at the wedding of the eldest daughter to a man she has picked for herself. In attendance, her brother is clearly estranged from the family. From there the narrative is subsumed by a sea of unordered memory snapshots that help establish how the family arrived at this place. I liked the collection of non-linear memories — far from being confusing, it felt the way memories of life always feel — holistic and relevant to the current thought or moment.

The prose is beautiful and the self awareness of the characters and relationships between them are complex, subtle, and both well observed and absorbing. While I’m not religious and generally don’t enjoy reading religious novels (and really have very little exposure to the Muslim religion in particular), I found the descriptions of the role of Islam in each of their lives to be pure poetry. I appreciated the thoughtful descriptions of the different characters’ choices with respect to their religion — what restrictions they perceived, what remained important to them, and how their choices changed the relationships they had with each other and the community. The multi-perspective insights were incredibly valuable to me.

The deep connection I felt to the characters and the poignancy of their thoughts and actions brought me to tears several times. The novel was an honest portrait of an actual family — it’s rare that a set of characters feels this real to me. If this continues to be the quality of book from SJP for Hogarth (this is the first book from that imprint), I will be a huge and loyal fan 🙂

One note: For some reason, the opening pages of this book just didn’t do it for me. I kept starting it and putting it back down. There was nothing wrong or poorly done with the opening, it simply didn’t grab my interest. If you have the same initial reaction, please keep reading! It doesn’t take long before you’ll be swept in.

Some great quotes:

“It was a strange time in their lives: the children like paper boats they were releasing into the water and watching float away.”

“Asfoos was the word in Urdu. There was no equivalent in English. It was a specific kind of regret — not wishing he had acted differently, but a helpless sadness at the situation as it was, a sense that it could not have been a different way.”

“It was an absurd expectation placed on women: that they agree to marriage without appearing as though they wanted it. That they at least display innocence.”

“Loving Amira was not just loving a young woman. It was loving a whole world. She was of the same world he had been born into but had only ever felt himself outside of, and sitting by her was the closest he came to feeling harmony with his own home.”

“Right and wrong, halal and haram — it was her father’s only way of experiencing the world.”

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

When 10-year old Clover Blue witnesses his first live birth in his Northern California commune, he begins to wonder which of the sister-mothers he actually came from. But there is an odd hush around that subject, in this otherwise open, loving, and caring community.

Ranging from 1974 through 1978, the book follows Blue’s quest to understand who he really is. Blue is a wonderful character and the detailed depiction of communal life and those who chose it are inspiring. The author manages to paint a full picture of real people who have consciously formed a family in a spiritual environment and yet who have also made mistakes with serious impact. I love the balanced way she has shown what might happen in such circumstances — with an objective tone which simultaneously portrays the beauty of the people, their relationships, and their way of life as well as the struggles, frailty, and hypocrisies.

I loved reading this book — particularly for the characters and the fact that it embodied all the best things I remember from that era (Blue is four years younger than I was during the time period). The commune members have their own backstories and their relationships within the commune parallel the evolution of the commune itself. The story unfolds beautifully with ongoing reflection. The commune is clothing optional and the kids are home schooled — with each of the “Elders” imparting their own wisdom. The local library serves as a fantastic resource. The essay Blue is assigned to write about people watching TV is priceless (he has to go to the local clinic to observe this as there is no television at the commune). One of the Elders sums up all of the great religions with: “Great prophets like Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha pretty much said the same thing… Be kind. Respect life. Pay attention. And focus on the here and now, not the promise of something better in the afterlife.” So simple.

The start is a little slow — I initially found the writing a little clunky and almost stopped reading — but fairly soon I was completely caught up in the characters and their surroundings and forgot I was reading at all (my measure of a good book!).

Highly recommended!

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Fiction)

Writing: 5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A completely absorbing book. The kind of great writing that lets you forget that you’re reading at all as you become completely immersed in the world described. Part mystery — part family drama, all playing out in a landscape that is real, but unlike any that most of us know — the remote Australian Outback.

Cameron Bright has been found dead of exposure and dehydration a mere nine km from his car packed (as usual) with enough survival gear to carry him through any outback mishap. Cameron runs Burley Downs — the largest station in the region at 3500 sq km. His older brother Nathan runs the adjacent homestead — a three hour drive away. As Nathan and the rest of the family struggle to find out what happened to Cameron, they also must contend with the difficult environment and with all the broken spaces between them — none of which is ever discussed in this culture where extreme quiet is the norm.

With vivid characters, deft pacing, tight prose, and breathtaking descriptions of the landscape and way of life it represents, you won’t be able to put this one down. I carried the hardcover in my carry-on simply because I couldn’t bear not to finish the last 40 pages… My first Jane Harper, but definitely not the last.

A few of the great lines…

“He hugged her back. The movement had the rusty edge of underuse.”

“The kid lived in a city. He couldn’t cope with quiet like the rest of them.”

“It was funny how high and bright the red flags flew in hindsight.”

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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

A captivating book weaving together themes of family, opportunity, and morality as a Cameroonian immigrant family tries to find their American Dream in New York City.

Jende Jonga has just landed a plum job as chauffer to Clark Edwards, a senior exec at Lehman Brothers. His wife Neni helps Clark’s wife Cindy at home while pursuing her dream of becoming a pharmacist by taking classes at the local college. All appears to be going well, but it is 2008 and Lehman Brothers is heading for a fall. At the same time, the Jonga’s immigration tangle is becoming ever more labyrinthian.

Told in alternating chapters from Jende and Neni’s perspective, the author paints a thorough picture of an immigrant family and their motivations and interactions with a new world. The interplay between the Jongas and the Edwardses is a fascinating combination of the meeting of cultures and of specific individuals within the culture. Lots of reflection and insight into behavior which is what I look for. I love the way this book brings to light how ethical behavior is defined by individuals depending on their situation and personal priorities.

I don’t want to give away the ending — suffice it to say there is a lot of potential discussion topics for any good book club! The American Dream — the importance of family — the role of women — the morality of a given situation.

Great for fans of Exit, West.

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Special Credit for beautiful math concepts: 5/5

A thoughtful and unusual memoir-style novel describing the personal journey of a female mathematician as she simultaneously navigates a male dominated field and slowly uncovers the truth of her family history. Katherine is a young, bi-racial Asian American growing up in New Umbria, Michigan in the early 1950s where her prodigious mathematical talent housed in a female body is not encouraged by early academic institutions (like 3rd grade!)

The novel merges her love affair with mathematics with the difficulties of pursuing an academic career in a male-dominated field and her personal quest for the roots of her family whose tangled branches reach into both Nazi Germany and the Japanese invasion of China. Told from the perspective of our first-person narrator speaking from the end of her career, the book is a combination of articulate description and mature reflection that adds great insight to every step without detracting from the innocence of the experience.

My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of math from her perspective. They are beautifully written accounts of both the concepts themselves and the personal process of discovery, determination, and excitement that Katherine feels. I’ve included some of my favorite lines below. The author manages to take complex mathematical subjects and both reduces them to simple concepts and makes them beautiful, even to a non-mathematician. This is spectacularly done (IMHO).

Little biographical vignettes of female mathematicians throughout history are sprinkled liberally through the text. These include Hypatia (~350 – 415), Emily Noether (1882 – 1935), Maria Meyer (she of “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize” fame), Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850 – 1891), and Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) in a kind of “sister companion” to Bell’s Men of Mathematics. I loved the way the author discussed both the historical and present (late 60s) barriers to entry women faced without ranting or complaining —simply noting the contributions and the kinds of determination the women had to have.

The themes of guilt, culpability, and oppression are explored throughout the book. What is the culpability of the German mathematicians in Goettingen (formerly the “Mecca of Mathematics”) who thrived during the war years by keeping their heads down as their more distinguished colleagues were conscripted, deported to camps, or escaped the country? What guilt should adhere to a man who allowed misattributed credit for an achievement to stand because those who knew better were gone? What fault attaches to the oblivious man who genuinely wants to “support” a young, female, protege by a means which ends up completely undermining her main claim to esteem? With no heavy-handed agenda or obvious answers, these thoughtful questions percolate throughout the book.

I loved the mathematics and personal process portions of this book. Katherine is an older, professionally successful mathematician as she recounts her experiences making it full of reflection and insight. While she professes no regrets, she freely admits that she could have handled things differently — rather than put all the blame on the barriers and mistakes of others, she understands that she bears responsibility for the outcome as well. I personally didn’t enjoy the parts of the book devoted to her family discovery — they were more in a Joy Luck Club style that recounted the stories as the narrator might hear of them from others but without the reflection and insightful commentary that the narrator was able to apply to her own experiences. While I think these stories and the slow unraveling of the mystery of her origins will appeal to many, for me they were secondary to her personal quest for a meaningful life.

Some great lines:
The very first line of the book: “There is nothing as intriguing as a locked door. Which is why in 1900 when David Hilbert presented the first of his twenty-three unsolved mathematics problems in his address to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, he changed the course of scientific inquiry, and thereby the course of the world.”

“As we all know, the closest distance between two points is a straight line, but sometimes the closest distance between two ideas is a long and winding path.”

A key insight that Katherine tells her students: “It isn’t always the dazzling talent who ends up doing the great work. Sometimes people grow into their work, sometimes people burn out, and you never know who will stumble on the right problem at the right time.”

“How it was possible to fall into the space that someone left behind, and be crushed inside, like air falling back into itself with in a clap of thunder.”

“I found the promise of transcendent purity, a deeper order that never failed, I would believe in that, and let go of everything that couldn’t be counted on. Like my mother. Like family. Like home. By the time fall came around and it was time to go to university, in my mind, I was already gone.”

“They were lovely, I thought, in what they suggested — a visual representation of an idea, an ordering of a thought.”

“Analysis is considered the study of limits, but before it was called that, it was called the study of the infinite. I felt for the first time that I was looking at mathematics as it was meant to be done: here was a book that wasn’t meant just to instruct, but to open a door.”

“What I found most exhilarating was figuring out how to make the mathematical tools that explained the logic underpinning natural phenomena.”

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 18th, 2019.

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Captivating novel about the lifespan of an antique (circa 1905) upright Blüthner piano and the two women whose lives are inextricably bound to it across place, time, and culture. Katya grows up in Leningrad. She inherits the piano at a young age from the blind pianist in the building with the note: “Even a blind man could see the music beating in your heart.” She devotes her life to music and the Blüthner until she is ripped from everything that she loves by her husband’s unilateral decision to leave Russia for a better life in the U.S. (~1980). Life is not easy for Soviet Jews in that time period (well, any time period in Russia, really).

Clara is a mechanic. Born to academic parents in Santa Monica, she loses everything in a fire when she is twelve. Only the Blüthner piano that her father gave her a week before he died is saved, having been in the shop for repairs at the time. She is insistently self-reliant, having learned long ago the heartbreaking loss when someone you depended on disappears abruptly. She grows up with an Aunt and Uncle in Bakersfield, and while she never develops any musical skills, the Blüthner is her prized possession. When a professional photographer offers to rent her piano for a series of desert shots in Death Valley, she is reluctant, but persuaded by the large sum on offer. She impulsively follows the piano on its journey and ends up discovering more than she ever imagined about her own history and approach to living.

Told through alternating narratives, the story is intricate and riveting. I loved the descriptions of music and the myriad ways it affected different people. Katya’s favorite piece, and one which threads through both narratives, is Scriabin’s Prelude #14 in E flat minor. Clara’s father’s attempt at characterization: “It’s poetry and color and imagination. In any of the languages I know, I can’t find the right words for it.” The depictions of Death Valley and the piano-centered photographic essay process make for both an inspiring travelogue and a photography primer for the uninformed (that would be me) — worth the price of admission all on its own.

As one narrative proceeds from bittersweet to utterly heartbreaking, the other narrative flows towards understanding, growth, and release. A full and satisfying read full of characters with depth for whom we cannot help but have great empathy.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (Lit Fiction)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on July 9, 2019.

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Pleasure reading: 5/5

Fun book with a capital F!

Nina Lee Hill is introduced to us as the “spinster of this parish and heroine both of her own life and the book you’re holding in your hand.” The parish in question is Knights — an independent bookstore in Larchmont Village (a quaint neighborhood in central Los Angeles) and her place of employment. She is a delightfully interesting character — an anxiety-ridden Millenial with a super-active brain who thinks of books as “medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things.” A surprise bequest from a father she didn’t know she had coupled with an obnoxious but attractive trivia competitor form the scaffolding of the simultaneously modern and Edwardian plot of this ultra-literary, romp through a central LA I never knew existed.

Funny, intelligent, and clever writing coupled with an array of engaging and quirky characters make this book what it is. Great dialog and banter and even … grammar jokes! The literary references range from Harry Potter to Chinua Achebe, Dickens and Austen to SF biggies Gaiman and Stephenson, Star Wars to Flowers for Algernon. I even discovered some new “classics” — a rare occurrence for me. Part Eleanor Oliphant, part Jane Austen, a great, fun, read that will leave you gasping on the floor from too much lol-ing.

Delightful Quotes:
“Grilled cheese in any form was her spirit animal.”

“Nina might battle crippling anxiety once or twice a week, but she also worked in retail, and rudeness is the special sauce on the burger that is the Los Angeles shopping public.”

After sputtering the phrase “Cool Beans” at the object of her affection … “At this her brain threw up its metaphorical hands and curled upon its stem like a pissed off hen.”

Quotes about Los Angeles:
“Whenever Nina was stuck there, which was rarely, because she would rather have filled her ears with flaming dog turds than go to the West side…”

“Sartre said hell was other people, but that was only because the 405 hadn’t been built yet.” <— my favorite!

New (to me) words / concepts:
– bullet journaling – https://bulletjournal.com/
– vampiring other people’s feelings
– quisling – a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.