First off: I’m baaaack! I returned from my 5-week, 10-country European adventure late Tuesday night! (I’ll talk more about it tomorrow…drama, drama, drama!) Before I left, I read books from almost all the countries I visited. I posted a few reviews while I was over there, and then stopped. It ended up being a case of either having great WiFi connection but being too exhausted to write, or having lots of time and energy to write but having zero WiFi! Now that I’m back, I’ll be writing those reviews and spreading them out over the coming weeks.
Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni
Publisher/Year: Europa Editions, 2006
What it is: Margherita is a teenager living a peaceful and relatively happy life with her eccentric family in Italy. The family lives within their means in a modest suburban home and tries to recycle whatever they can. This all changes when a wealthy family moves in next door, building an eyesore of a modern home that Margherita’s family dubs “The Cube.” Life as Margherita knows it is suddenly over.
Why I read it: It looked like a happy, lighthearted book. The author is also popular in Italy.
What I thought: I knew this book was a satire, but I wasn’t expecting it to turn out even remotely the way it did. The first few chapters fell in line with my initial preconception of the book: lighthearted, funny, charming. Then the book started taking a very strange turn. By the end, I was just like, “what in the world am I reading?” Margherita’s neighbors can be taken as stand-ins for stereotypical Americans: abrasive, self-absorbed, obsessed with having the newest and best of everything without giving a damn about what anyone else needs or wants. It gets darker than that: Margherita’s neighbors end up revealing anti-immigrant, anti-poor people, pro-guns, pro-using tech to spy on people sentiments. And okay…if you’re trying to go over-the-top with dark satire and need to paint a negative America/American “type,” there’s definitely some basis for all those stereotypes. Fine. But the book went completely off the rails for me with its conspiracy theories and inexplicably bad plot twists. I kind of hated it (but I still love the cover).
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
Publisher/Year: Riverhead Books, 2014
What it is: In Chang-rae Lee’s dystopian America, the world has split into a bunch of colonies where only the wealthiest have it easy in areas known as charters. Outside the walls of the urban work colonies is a violent, ungoverned no-man’s land where people travel and live at their own risk. Fan is a Chinese fish-tank diver working in B-Mor, what was once Baltimore. When her lover mysteriously disappears, she leaves B-Mor and heads into the treacherous Open Counties to look for him.
Why I read it: It was one of the most talked about and highly anticipated releases this year.
What I thought: So here’s the thing: this was my first Chang-rae Lee book (nope, still haven’t read Native Speaker). I can see why the book got lots of great buzz and why people love Lee’s work. His writing is undeniably beautiful and haunting. There were parts of this book that I completely lost myself in, but there were also lots of times where I thought the book dragged on. It’s an atmospheric book; there are surreal, quietly unnerving plot twists told through the eyes of the narrators (a faceless, nameless group from B-Mor reimagining Fan’s story). Sometimes it worked for me, sometimes it didn’t.
Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish author who was sent to Auschwitz and Dachau from 1943-1945. When he was twenty-one, his fiancee was arrested by Nazis at a friend’s apartment, and when Borowski went to look for her, he was ultimately sent to the concentration camps as well (both were part of underground activities in Warsaw). After his release, he searched for his fiancee and found her living in Sweden. Meanwhile, he was working as a writer and journalist. He eventually did marry his fiancee, but in 1952 at the age of 28, just three days after his wife gave birth, he committed suicide (there had been two previous attempts).
According to the book’s introduction by Jan Kott, writers/survivors at the time were expected to write either martyrologies or Communist works that were ideological and clearly showed right and wrong. Borowski was determined to document all that he had witnessed at Auschwitz and Dachau so that history would not be forgotten. However, his writings shocked a lot of people with their subject matter because of the perspectives they revealed. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a collection of concentration camp stories released a couple of years following Borowski’s release.
Greetings from Olso! I’ve been here less than 24 hours, but it’s been love at first sight for me!
While looking for Norwegian authors for this vacation-related reading project of mine, I came across Sigrid Undset and discovered that 1) she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, and 2) a lot of her books are set in the Middle Ages and feature strong female characters. That, of course, sold me! I settled on Gunnar’s Daughter, her first historical novel, mostly because of its settings and the fact tat it was short enough to read before my trip. I’m glad I did, because it ended up being one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
The book is set mostly in 11th century Iceland and Norway. Ljot and his uncle Veterlide are Vikings who sail over to Norway. They become guests of one of the most powerful landowners there, and twenty-year- old Ljot immediately falls in love with the landowner’s spoiled teenage daughter, Vigdis Gunnarsdottir. Because of her beauty and position of privilege, she has had many suitors, but she keeps rejecting everyone. Her father allows this, as he leaves the choice of suitor up to her.
Greetings from Reykjavik! For the next month, I’ll be blogging from Europe!
Infused with magical realism, the superstitions from centuries past, and grim Icelandic history, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is a book that defies categorization. Beginning in 1635, the book that follows the life of Jónas Palmason the Learned. Palmason is a self-taught healer and poet who treated women’s illnesses in his youth and was ultimately exiled from Iceland at the age of 61 for committing alleged heresies.
The book describes the time after the Catholic Reformation; people are still holding onto their old beliefs and superstitions, but ideologies are slowly shifting towards Christianity. Jónas loves learning for the sake of learning, but while he was a peculiar child, he is an outcast as an adult. By default, his wife Sigga must suffer alongside him; she, too, was ahead of her time and knew all about science and math as a child, knowledge she was told to keep to herself (Sigga was great; I actually would have loved to hear more about her in the wake of the book’s turn of events). The two made a perfect couple, but life in the remote Snjafjoll coast is harsh, and their sorrows are compounded by the deaths of their children.
Spoilers & trigger warning after the jump.
Beatrice Prior lives in a dystopian Chicago that has been split into five factions based on different virtues: Abnegation, which focuses on selflessness; Erudite, which focuses on intelligence; Dauntless, which focuses on bravery; Candor, which focuses on honesty; and Amity, which focuses on peacefulness. Children are raised within their parents’ factions, and every year, all sixteen-year-olds go through a special test to see which faction they belong to. They then have a choosing ceremony to pick which faction they’d like to be in, regardless of their test results. Most stay with their families, but all go through a trial period; if they don’t make it, they’re kicked out and become factionless, doomed to a life of homelessness and poverty.
Beatrice and her brother are both participating in the choosing ceremony this year. They’re Abnegation, and their parents work in government. At the moment, Abnegation is at odds with Erudite; Erudite has been spreading rumors about Abnegation in an attempt to take more control of the government. It’s more important than ever for Abnegation to stick together. Beatrice has always felt like she never fully fit in with Abnegation, but the thought of changing factions and leaving her family forever pains her. Her test she and her brother take the day before the ceremony are supposed to make everything clear, but they only confuse her even more.