Monday, January 25, 2016

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

The Little Giant of Aberdeen CountyThe Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is a beautifully written novel about a subject that has been covered very often, but one that she handles in an interesting and unique way. It's about people coming to terms with who they are and living their lives to the fullest. The little giant, Truly Plaice, is one of those people. The book is written from her point of view, so we get to understand her issues more than the problems of the others. But there are also a gay man who has an authoritarian father, a young man who has always been mocked for being tiny, and Truly's sister Serena Jane who has to deal with the complications of physical beauty. Each one of these characters needs to find her or his way in the world, just like Truly.

The plot rambles a bit and I have to agree with the criticism I read in a few other reviews, that there is an unusual standard of good vs evil throughout the novel. But Tiffany Baker's prose is so wonderful that those objections seem small. Here is an example:

On a different day, perhaps, when the air wasn't hot as a crucible, when there was a little lick of breeze, I might have relented, but the kitchen was close, and all I could feel was my own sweat, welling up so fast, it threatened to choke me. I was sick of life, sick of the cicadas shrilling all through the night, sick of the twists of vines crawling over all the fences when they would only drop their leaves in a few weeks and die. I closed my eyes. “Go,” I seethed, and waited till I heard the back door close as softly as a sigh.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

View all my reviews

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

The MoviegoerThe Moviegoer by Walker Percy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was about ten percent into The Moviegoer when I began to wonder why I was reading it. Something was driving me forward, but at that point I couldn't tell what it was.

What I look for in most novels are strong characters, interesting relationships, and complex plots. I wasn't finding those in this book. The Moviegoer is written from the point of view of Binx Bolling, a stockbroker who lives in New Orleans. His character is drawn in depth. He is a confused man who internalizes everything he sees. He is looking for the meaning of life (his search), but in the process it seems as if he's looking through a haze. The other characters in the novel speak and take actions, but their thoughts are distorted through his perspective. There were often cases where a minor character would be mentioned and I felt as if I should have known this person. When I searched the various names (I was reading on a Kindle) I discovered there these characters had been mentioned rarely, if ever, in the parts I had read. Binx Bolling knew them, so it wasn't important that the reader did.

Once I understood that this book was all about Binx, I could appreciate what I was reading. It made me think, which is the most important thing a novel can do. At the end of the copy I was reading there is a short piece entitled A Biography of Walker Percy by Judy Kahn. Here's a quote from her writing:

His handling of major existential themes such as alienation, loss of faith, and search for meaning, expressed through the characters of Binx Bolling and Kate Cuter, left no doubt that he was a writer of great philosophical depth.

I would have left Kate Cuter out of that sentence, but other than that I think Kahn does a fabulous job of defining what this book is about. I suggest reading the biography before reading the novel. If I had done that I think I would have been a better reader.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The beginning of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is laced with obscenities and repeated use of the “N” word. The language is appropriate for the characters and gives the novel a great tension, but I mention it because if you listen to the audio version you should choose the time and place carefully. Junot Diaz also has a tendency in the beginning to repeat himself as he describes how nerdy Oscar Wao was and as he explains the fuku (curse) that affected him throughout his life. It took me some time to get used Diaz's writing, but once I did, I loved it and thought this was a fabulous book.

The story is mainly about Oscar, who is the overweight, nerdy son of Beli, a single Dominican woman now living in America. He lives in Paterson, NJ and attends Don Bosco high school, a catholic prep school. The novel also covers Beli's life and the life of Lola, Oscar's sister. The book is set in New Jersey and in The Dominican Republic.

Here are some, but not all, of the reasons I loved this book:

1. The characters are real and intriguing. I could feel their emotions and understand the way they thought. Beli has issues with the way she raises her children, but her background explains why. Her character, like all the others, is true to itself.
2. The language is intense and brutal while describing people who live in brutal situations. As I mentioned previously there is tension in the writing, a tension that reflects the lives of the characters perfectly.
3. The book shows life in the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator who ruled for thirty years with a ruthless secret police whose reach extended beyond the borders of that nation, even into America.
4. I liked the inclusion of a curse over the family and the respect given that belief.
5. Spanish words and phrases are used throughout. I'm not bilingual, but I had no trouble understanding what was going on because the context was carefully constructed. The words gave the story authenticity.
6. The problems faced by the characters range from ones most readers can identify with, such as adolescent desire, to brutal, terrifying predicaments, such as torture, most readers will never see. The author weaves back and forth between these issues with equal emphasis.
7. Also, I enjoy books that are set in northern New Jersey, because I grew up there. It's one of the reasons I loved American Pastoral by Philip Roth.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Saved By the Bang by Marina Julia Neary

Saved by the BangSaved by the Bang by Marina Julie Neary
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

M. J. Neary refers to her novel Saved By the Bang as a dystopian novel. But that word implies an imaginary setting. This novel takes place in a time and place that was all too real and it is Neary's detailed portrayal of this fascinating setting that pushes her novel to five star quality. This is Belarus during the Gorbachev years and the time of the Chernobyl meltdown. The “Bang” in the title is clearly the explosion in the nuclear power plant, but it also seems to refer to the breakup of the Soviet Union. The author's home town is thirty miles from Chernobyl. I don't know if she was there during the disaster, but she certainly understands the mood and reactions of the citizens who were.

“Just across the Ukrainian border, in Pripyat. There was a power surge, and the core exploded. They were testing some cooling feature.” Nicholas paused, realizing he could not regurgitate the exact terminology. “I don't know what exactly happened there. Nobody has the facts straight, but it doesn't look good. Fires broke out. Radiation is leaking everywhere. Raw radiation,penetrating the soil, the air, the water. People are fleeing–the ones who know what's happening. It's the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind.”


The general atmosphere was of mirth rather than of alarm. It felt as if the city was going on a spur of the moment field trip to Kiev. An explosion? Way cool. Radiation? Far out. A spontaneous change of scenery, a random chance to escape the drudgery of the daily routine.

The plot follows the lives of professional singers and musicians at the Gomel Music Academy in Belarus. These are talented, but also privileged people. Antonia Olenski is a pianist who accompanies Nicholas Nichenko, one of the best tenors in the academy. Her husband, Joseph Olenski is a well known baritone who sings folk-rock as well as classical. They have a daughter, Maryana, who is a less than successful gymnast and gets picked on a lot.

There are affairs and near affairs among the characters, but what is most interesting are the feelings the characters have that relate to the setting. There are reactions to unique aspects of living in Belarus, such as disdain for people who speak Russian rather than Belarusian or contempt for the care received in local hospitals and the treatment of disabled veterans. There are descriptions of historically important places that are relatively unknown to American readers such as Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania. And, of course, there are the varied reactions of the characters to the explosion and its aftermath.

This would be a excellent read for anyone interested in eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

View all my reviews