Five 30-Second Summer Book Reviews

Seeing as the summer is drawing to a close (and I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while), I thought I’d summarize my thoughts on a few of the books I read this summer — and hopefully give some of my recommendations to add to your August reading lists. These were all great reads for me (I don’t say that lightly, by the way), and I highly recommend all of them, although the subject matter and writing styles differ a lot between the books. Anyway, let me know what you think, especially if you’ve read any of these yourself!


1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Admittedly, the fact that I read this on the beach in Italy probably makes it seem a lot better than it is. However, Tom Rachman’s debut novel is pretty wonderful, and I would read it again in a heartbeat (that is, if I didn’t already have a hundred books in my “read this now” queue). Tracking the lives of individuals involved with an English-language newspaper in Rome (from readers to publishers to copy editors), Rachman weaves a stunning narrative that doesn’t quite come together until the very end…which, of course, is what makes it so perfect. Each chapter reads like a little insight into the life of each individual, and explores their personal struggles as well as their relationship to the newspaper. Rachman is gifted at painting vivid, realistic, and raw characters, and even though each chapter is relatively short, his writing (which is very clear, by the way) packs a punch, as he pulls out distinct details from each character’s life. Bit by bit, the reader is also fed the story of how all these lives intertwine — both intentionally and unintentionally — which kept me hooked until the very end. Perfect beach reading, very fresh and original, and overall just fantastic writing.


2. The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik, a novelist and writer for The New Yorker, is one of my hands-down favorite authors, and he particularly excels with his memoirs. I read one of his other memoirs, Paris to the Moon, a year or so ago, and fell in love with his writing style — it’s sharp, witty, intelligent, and yet decidedly unpretentious. The Table Comes First is less of a memoir than Paris to the Moon, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Although it’s a 300-page volume on one seemingly simple topic, food, there is never a dull moment in Gopnik’s writing. Incredibly cultured, his wealth of knowledge shines through as he weaves together food’s history, philosophy, and its criticisms alongside personal experiences on the topic. It’s really a brilliant read, and I highly recommend this for all a) foodies, and b) francophiles.


3. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

If you’re looking for a good briefer on the history of Islam and the Middle East, look no further. (Okay, I know most of you probably weren’t looking for this. That being said, it’s totally relevant to the world today, and will seriously enhance your understanding of current events. So go read it!) Ansary’s book is widely regarded as one of the best histories of Islam out there, and his writing style is simple and understandable — this is not some stuffy book intended only for academics. What I love about Ansary’s writing is his humor, ability to synthesize, and that he doesn’t assume his readers have any prior knowledge of the topic. It reads like an engaging historical narrative, so if you’re into non-fiction/history, this is a good pick!


4. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Rushdie. It’s still banned in many parts of the world and can be controversial in many respects (the book is partly a re-telling of the life of Mohammed, and Rushdie includes narrative elements which run contrary to the Muslim faith), but that’s part of what makes it an interesting read — it’s equal parts entertaining and relevant to our understanding of society today. I’ll admit, though, this is a tough book to understand without a lot of background knowledge of religion (and not just Islam), as well as historical events. I would recommend reading some sort of analysis to better grasp the major themes. This reading guide is a good start (and doesn’t give away the plot — just use it as you go from chapter to chapter). However, it is still an entertaining narrative, and Rushdie is a phenomenal writer — so I’d recommend this for anyone that really appreciates more complex literary styles and long, intense novels (think Beloved).


5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This is a classic. I’ve been reading The Alchemist every summer for the past six years — I’m currently on my seventh reading. Regardless of whether you’ve read it before, it’s always a great addition to your reading list, and I find that I learn something new every time I pick it up. It’s not so much that the book has changed as it is that my life and perspective shift from reading to reading — so that something new stands out to me each time. That being said, the novel (very short, by the way — you could read it in a few hours) is packed with wisdom, reading more like a fable than anything else. It tracks the life of a former shepherd, Santiago, who abandons his flock in search of his “Personal Legend” — looking for buried treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. It’s a timeless book about following your dreams (yes, I know this sounds cheesy), but all of us could use a reminder like this once in a while. A great book for self-reflection, and perfect for pretty much any time, ever.

{Images: The Imperfectionists; The Table Comes First; Destiny Disrupted; The Satanic Verses; The Alchemist}

Book Review: “The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson

I was required to read The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson for college, and finished in just two days. Equal parts hilarious and touching, this novel has a great amount of depth and soul, with fully developed characters and an incredibly original plot line. Although a bit offbeat, I would highly recommend this book to anyone — it’s easy to read, but the prose is excellent and the story not one to be missed.

The novel, which alternates between past and present, centers around the Fang family — parents Camille and Caleb, and their two children, Annie (Child “A”) and Buster (Child “B”). Camille and Caleb are performance artists who seek to create chaos and, in effect, something that they call beauty. At one point in the novel, Caleb muses to himself:

“The act is not the art,” he told himself. “The reaction is the art.” (page 166)

Many of the public acts they commit are incredibly bizarre, only stirring up trouble and undoubtedly disturbing the people around them, whose spontaneous reactions the Fang art depends on (one such example: the book opens with a scene in which Camille attempts to steal a ludicrous amount of jelly beans from a candy store, with the intent of getting caught). In the flashbacks throughout the book, Caleb and Camille use their children as props in their pieces, often forcing them into strange and often dangerous situations all in the name of art.

The present-day plot focuses on Annie and Buster who, now adults, have to deal with the irreparable consequences of a childhood of forced participation in their parents’ art projects. Annie is a fairly established actress with a bad publicity streak and Buster, a struggling writer. After several unfortunate turns of events, Annie and Buster find themselves living again with the parents they haven’t spoken to in years. At this point, the novel changes pace — losing some of its earlier hilarity as the reader becomes more invested in the lives of its characters. Annie and Buster must confront their past again, and observe how their parents’ art has evolved since losing “A and B.”

There are many unexpected twists and turns in this novel, all of which reveal something deeper about the characters. Wilson has deftly crafted a story that is truly brought to life by its protagonists — a story which is entertaining and engaging on the surface, but also one which delves into moral issues underneath. It is soulful, witty, and packed with originality, while at the same time managing to be incredibly thought-provoking. This is a can’t-miss novel with a lot of heart, and I would recommend it to anyone.

{Source: Image from}

From the Shelves | “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk

Snow, a novel by contemporary Turkish author and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, is widely regarded as a great work of literature.  The story is told simultaneously from two angles: that of the protagonist, a poet named Ka, and the wider political context of the cultural change in Turkey following the rise of Ataturk. I suppose it must be noted here that I find this novel particularly fascinating because I also find Middle Eastern and Turkish history incredibly intriguing. However, you do not need to be a historian to read this book: ultimately, it is a work that focuses on the life of its protagonist and does not dwell on any sort of political or historical context. Anyone who loves a compelling and beautiful story will enjoy this novel — the setting of dramatic cultural change in Turkey is only a bonus for those of us who happen to be interested in it.

Of course, the history is central to the plot, but all is explained. In summary, the book takes place in a small city in Turkey called Kars. Ka, the poet-protagonist, visits the border city from his home in Germany, with the intention of doing journalistic work on the recent plight of the “head scarf girls” — a group of school girls who, rebelling against Ataturk’s westernizing policies, have continued the tradition of wearing head coverings. However, Ka also has another intention: to win the love of Ipek, the girl from his childhood whom he hopes to marry and take back to Germany with him. (Her younger sister, coincidentally, is the leader of the head scarf girls.) The majority of the novel takes place within a few days, as a blizzard descends on Kars and no one can get in or out. Violence escalates in the small city as the head scarf drama unfolds and multiple religious and secular groups clash. It is important to note here, I believe, that this by no measure reads like a thriller: instead, it is a poignant account of Ka’s few days in Kars, the poems that he writes there, his relationship with Ipek, and his reluctant role in the violence that begins to unfold.

Without giving anything away, it must be said that this is a tragic story. Ka’s character is not a perfect one: he is flawed, like any human being, which makes him so much more compelling. His time in Kars revolves around the poems he is able to write in the city, which flow from his pen more easily than they have in many years. These poems, he decides, represent different facets of his conscience (reason, imagination, memory), but ultimately they lead to little conclusion in terms of self-discovery. This is a complex novel, and one that can be confusing to read, but the language is beautiful and the plot is mesmerizing if you allow yourself to get into it. Snow is not a light and fun read, but it is a wonderful piece of literature (it almost reads like a meditation) that I would highly recommend to anyone.

As Margaret Atwood aptly writes in her introduction to the novel:

Pamuk gives us what all novelists give us at their best: the truth. Not the truth of statistics, but the truth of human experience at a particular place, in a particular time. And as with all great literature, you feel at moments not that you are examining him, but that he is examining you.

… Just some food for thought.

Have you read Snow, or any of Pamuk’s other works? What were your thoughts? If not, do you plan on reading any of them?

{Image: CoverSpy.}

From the Shelves | “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a dark and extremely dense book — the first few times I spent reading it, I felt as though I were inching through the pages. (I read the Norton Critical Edition, which contains about 77 pages of the actual text, and it took me about 4 hours to read less than 30 of those pages.) At first, I’ll admit that I couldn’t stand it. It was difficult to read and it’s not exactly one of the fast-paced thrillers we’re used to reading today. But after reading it twice and analyzing it through discussions, I slowly grew to like it. There is literally so much material packed into this book that you have no choice but to read it carefully so as not to miss details (and, even then, you’ll miss a ton — I’m certain I did). But it is worth it. Because, in the end, you will have read such a thought-provoking work of literature that your head will be spinning with ideas and questions that seem to branch off in endless directions.

The book, published in 1902, is set aboard a ship on the Thames river, where several seamen sit watching as the dusk fades, waiting for the tide. Marlow, one of the men on the ship, spends much of the novel recounting his time spent in the Congo during the illicit ivory trade. He spends much of his venture there searching for the infamous Kurtz, the chief of one of the ivory trading company’s inner stations buried deep in the jungle. Marlow describes his experience as unsettling and illusory, but he ultimately shows an ambivalent devotion to Kurtz, claiming that he must remain loyal to “the nightmare of his choice.”

With so much of the story being consumed by Marlow’s tale, it is important to remember that he is not the narrator of the novel — indeed, one of the nameless seamen aboard the ship is in truth telling the story. Which brings us to one of the key nuances of Heart of Darkness that makes it such a complex novel: the different layers of storytelling within the book itself, and the different ways in which our opinion of the situation at hand is manipulated by the interpretation of the storyteller. In many cases, this is Marlow, who, as we see throughout the book, is not the most perceptive, nor dispassionate, translator of events. At the beginning of the book (page 5 in the Norton Critical Edition), Marlow is described by the narrator of the novel as finding the true meaning of an episode “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” This makes the book much harder to analyze and understand thoroughly because the reader cannot completely trust the primary storyteller.

The 1979 film Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness. Although the setting and context of the story are different (the movie is set during the Vietnam War), the details and ideas that really define the book — racism, loyalties and motivations, individual perceptions of events, restraints, etc. — are what make the movie so similar. If you haven’t watched the film yet, I would highly recommend reading the book before seeing it, as it will make the experience of watching it so much better.

There is so much to say about this classic! I really enjoyed reading it and I would suggest reading it at the same time as a friend, so you can discuss it together. This is one of those reads that really benefits from thoughtful analysis, and you need to be alert to pick up on important details and themes. It is well worth the read, I promise — just be aware that it is difficult to get through the beginning, but once you acclimate to Conrad’s dense writing style, it becomes easier to understand. Happy reading!

{Source: Image via}

From the Shelves | “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder

In August, I posted 10 of my all-time favorite reads (which you should check out if you’re looking for a good book!), including Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains. This book, Strength in What Remains, from the same Pulitzer-prize winning author, has definitely taken its place of honor on my virtual bookshelf. Not to say that Mountains Beyond Mountains isn’t an incredible work, but I felt that I connected more with Deo (the protagonist at the center of Strength in What Remains) and his plight.

In the book, Deo comes to the United States from Burundi after having endured a civil war and a genocide. I found his story especially interesting because it dealt a lot with the Rwandan genocide (of 1994) which also took its toll on the bordering country of Burundi. This was an issue that I admit I had not previously been aware of, and I’m glad that Kidder has brought this to the public’s attention. However, in the book, Kidder cites scholar Peter Uvin to make an important distinction between the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi. While the Rwandan genocide was orchestrated and launched by a Hutu government against the powerless minority Tutsi in a violent eruption of ethnic tension, the Burundian genocide/civil war was indeed a war, between a Tutsi government and Hutu rebels — a war in which both sides had equal power (page 199). To quote the text:

In Rwanda, ordinary people killed mainly out of prejudice. In Burundi, it was mainly out of fear. These were different catastrophes, Uvin insists, not to be conflated. But they had essential ingredients in common: “Social exclusion and the ethnicization of politics … are the two central elements to violent conflict in Burundi and Rwanda that, like electrons, spin around a core of massive poverty and institutional weakness.” — Strength in What Remains, pages 199-200

Aside from the background story of the conflicts in Burundi and Rwanda, Deo’s story is truly inspirational. Strength in What Remains holds all the same qualities we’ve come to expect from Kidder from reading Mountains Beyond Mountains — resilience, hope, humanity. Being his latest book, I thought that it was much better organized than Mountains and I liked the way the chapters were broken up by time and place so the reader could create a timeline for the story in their mind. The story flowed better, in my opinion, Deo’s life, not his work, took center stage. Only the last section of the book details the story of the clinic he went back to build in Burundi, although I’m sure Kidder could have focused on that alone if he wanted to. But he didn’t, and it makes Deo’s story so much more fascinating because it’s not so much about what he does and how that defines him (like in the case of Paul Farmer and Mountains), but about his struggles that provide insight into the universal human spirit — something everyone can connect with, whether Burundi’s civil war interests them or not.

In all honesty, Strength in What Remains just had something special in it for me that Mountains Beyond Mountains couldn’t quite capture. It felt so much more personal and real, and while reading it I felt as if I was learning along with Deo, rather than being lectured to. But without comparing the two works, Strength holds its own as an incredible book. Kidder’s writing, as always, is clean and straightforward: easy to read, yet still intelligent and poetic. I’m a big fan of his prose — it blends detail and simplicity perfectly, without cutting too much out or loading the text with unnecessary description.

Recently, I had the honor of attending a lecture by Tracy Kidder. I thought he was an excellent speaker and I very much enjoyed his presentation, which mainly focused on Strength in What Remains. When I got in line to get my book signed, however, he wasn’t very engaging — maybe this is just the impression I got from him, but it’s funny how meeting the author can give you a new perspective on his work. I really do enjoy his books, though, and I’m going to try my best to read the rest of them without bias.

{Source: Image via}

P.S. Sorry I haven’t been posting much lately – I will try and post a bit more when I have free time and return all your lovely comments!