August 26, 2013
“If it is necessary sometimes to lie to others, it is always despicable to lie to oneself.”
The Painted Veil
By W. Somerset Maugham
Having been raised by a high school English teacher, from time to time (ahem) I would receive book recommendations. Strongly emphasized book recommendations, around the dinner table, in the car, on the beach, wherever. Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge was one of them, and after a few decades, I got around to reading it. Truth? My father was right, it is fabulous. And so it was with high hopes that I approached The Painted Veil, and my hopes were exceeded, and then some.
Quick plot outline: Set in 1920s in England, Hong Kong and the Chinese countryside, young “society” woman marries a quiet doctor out of convenience, wife cheats on doctor with a charming, married scoundrel, doctor discovers affair and whisks wife away to China to be by his side as works in the midst of cholera epidemic. Once there, shorn of social and material distractions, the doctor’s wife begins to realize things about herself and her husband she most likely would not have otherwise. Although written in 1925, the observations Maugham brings to the reader as his characters grow (or don’t grow) are timeless; he has much to say about the nature of lust versus love, and finding peace in one's soul. Plus, the story is an economical page-turner.
For an alternate, yet equally profound ending, check out the cinematically gorgeous film by the same name. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton give poignant performances as ill-fated spouses Kitty and Walter, and though different than the book, you won’t feel cheated. See our catalog to locate or place a hold on the book and/or the film.
A story of human sorrow and joy set in war-devastated Chechnya
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By Anthony Marra
There are certain books which demand a period of respectful reflection and absorption following their conclusions. Anthony Marra’s debut novel is one of these books. The novel is set in Chechnya, a country about which many Americans have little knowledge. What this book does so wonderfully is capture the history of the Chechen Wars in an intimate, human way. An eight-year-old girl named Havaa watches Russian Federal soldiers take her father and set fire to her home. Akhmed, the girl’s neighbor, risks his own life to ensure her safety. Terrible and wonderful coincidences tie the book’s cast of characters together. While the novel is filled with aching tragedy, it also contains moments of “spinning joy”.
What first dragged me into this book was the author’s use of language. Marra never says anything in an ordinary way. Poetic without pretension, the author’s style lends this amazing story a bit of magic. Just as important, Marra’s luminescent language does not distract from the plot, which is complex and engaging. I found myself taking my time and savoring the first 300 or so pages of this book until the denouement when I began frantically flipping pages to learn the fates of the characters I’d come to know.
If you enjoy the work of Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss or Khaled Hosseini, you’ll love this book.
Click here to locate or place it on hold today.
A time travel tale that transcends Children's Lit label
When You Reach Me
By Rebecca Stead
My 6th grade self would have loved this book, a 2009 Newbery medalist. In it, 12-year old Miranda copes with the loss of a friendship while also finding out that time travel is possible. An homage to and interrogation of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, this novel has a more sustained and complicated understanding of time travel which it uses to create a mystery in an otherwise nostalgic look at 1970s Manhattan.
Despite its eminent readability, it’s a smart book that can easily take several readings. I appreciate that Miranda is a flawed human who is not always self-aware and who has some difficulty grasping concepts with which I, as a reader, also struggled. If you’ve already read it, try Stead’s more recent novel, Liar and Spy (2012) or Holly Black’s Doll Bones (2013). If you, like me, are not in its target demographic, you might enjoy the movie Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) for its similarly quirky, at times bittersweet, take on time travel.
An engrossing addition to the canon of immigrant literature
By Chimanda Ngozi Adichie
If you liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake or Ha Jin’s A Free Life, you will probably enjoy following the separate but equally circuitous journeys of high school sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze chronicled in Americanah. Told in a highly readable narrative, the two lovers seek to escape political and cultural obstacles blocking their path to economic success in their native Nigeria by emigrating to the United States and England, respectively. A love story spread out over a decade or two, award-wInning author Adichie does an admirable job of drawing the reader in through recognizable descriptions of modern life, such as Facebook, email and texting behavior.
As well as presenting a captivating story, Americanah has a lot to say about racism in this country, and a few others. For the majority of the novel, Adichie uses Ifemelu to move the plot forward via her perspective (first as a “non-American black person”, and then later as an “americanah”, a person who returns home after living abroad), as she eventually makes her living as a blogger. It is her observations about race relations in the United States, hairstyles, dating, and life in Nigeria, “a country with no race”, that provide this work’s heft.
Overall, a thought-provoking read conveyed through straightforward language, pitch-perfect dialogue, and an epic tale that is believable. To find out for yourself, click here.