March 3, 2015

February Reading Recap

I finished four books last month:

BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett: Somewhere in South America, an international group of dignitaries assemble at a private birthday party. A world-famous soprano has been hired to sing, and as her performance ends, terrorists invade the house and take the party hostage. The story charts the ordeal that follows, deftly portraying what happens when disparate people are forced together by unusual circumstances.

This is an absorbing, beautifully written novel. Patchett uses a well-deployed omniscient narration to get inside the heads of the many characters. Some are major players we return to often, others are less prominent, but no matter who takes focus, the depiction is insightful and specific. The novel is character-driven, but with a situation that presents constant tension and drama. And despite the tension, there is a surprising amount of humor in the ways characters react and events unfold.

I was impressed by both the story and the writing style. I particularly liked the handling of communication and translation among the international cast of characters, who are limited in their interactions by the different languages they speak. Opera fans will also find the story of special interest, though the musical references were lost on me. I'll definitely be seeking out more of Patchett's work.

THE FEMALE MAN is a 1975 classic from the feminist science fiction writer Joanna Russ, who has been selected as the honored ghost at this year's FOGcon.

In the story, characters from multiple timelines meet up and learn about each other's worlds. Joanna comes from the familiar version of the 1970s and declares herself a "female man" because being a man is the only path she sees to earning equality and respect. Jeannine lives in the same time period, but in a less progressive alternate history where World War II never took place to bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression and eventually lead to advances in women's rights. Janet arrives from a far future in which men no longer exist.

The format of the novel is unconventional, with frequent narrative shifts that are often deliberately disorienting and occasionally surreal. This makes for a challenging read, and I was left feeling that there was much about the story I didn't understand. My overall experience was mixed: Many of the ideas and sections of the book appealed to me, while others bored or confused me.

I'm eager to discuss this book at FOGcon, because I've heard from many readers that they love it, and I'm interested in those perspectives. And personal reactions aside, this novel and author both made an impact on science fiction, and I'm glad for the introduction to Russ and her work.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins: As Rachel rides the train into London each morning and returns to the suburbs in the evening, she looks out the window and into the houses beside the track. One house, at a place where the train stops at a signal, is a particular favorite. She admires the happy couple often visible on their terrace and imagines the details of their perfect marriage. One day, she spots something alarming at their house, and this sets off a chain of disturbing events.

Information is carefully dispensed at the beginning of the novel to change the reader's perspective on what's unfolding. One thing we learn early on is that Rachel is an alcoholic who often forgets what she's done while drunk. That makes her an intriguing unreliable narrator for this well-plotted mystery. The book is a compelling, twisty read that kept me guessing.

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS by Cristina Henríquez takes place in an apartment building in Delaware occupied by immigrants from throughout Latin America. Alma arrives from Mexico with her husband and teenage daughter, Maribel. The family has left behind a comfortable life to come to the United States with few possessions and little English because they hope for a better life for Maribel, who needs special care as the result of an accident. Among their new neighbors is Mayor, a teenage boy who's lived in the building since he was small, when his family moved from Panama. Mayor is bullied at school and unpopular with girls, so when he meets the beautiful Maribel, he's eager to get to know her. She appreciates that he doesn't treat her like she's different, and a deep friendship begins. But Alma's biggest fear is that more harm will befall her daughter, and she applies severe restrictions that result in unexpected damage.

I was initially drawn in to the story and enjoyed getting to know the various characters. However, the novel didn't live up to its potential. I found that just as the story was really getting interesting, the developing plots were brought to an abrupt end. While this had a certain dramatic point, it left me unsatisfied. At other points as well, I thought there were missed opportunities and plot events that could have been further explored.

Alma and Mayor serve as the novel's main narrators, a choice that offers interesting contrasts but also creates some limitations. Short intervening chapters are from the perspective of other building residents, who each relate their life story and their reasons for immigrating. While it's great to see underrepresented groups given a voice in fiction, I found these sections often too didactic, and I wanted to see these characters play more of a role in the main plot.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford offers 4 tips for handling multiple perspectives in a third person narrative: "If you're going to break perspective within a scene, think of it as keeping a 'camera' in place.... Remove the main character, but keep the narrative going with the other characters who remain. Don't suddenly shift deeply into someone else's thoughts and feelings, but it's okay to linger a bit and show something the anchoring character shouldn't be able to see."


Annie Wenz said...

Thanks SO MUCH for your wonderful reviews Lisa! Keep them coming!

Unknown said...

I agree w/ bel canto - and the unnknonwn americans - I didn't finish it! My favorites in 2015 are "Etta and Otto and Russell and James" and "Funny Girl" (that one's NIck Hornby)

Lisa Eckstein said...

Annie: Thanks! You can check out my past reviews by visiting the "recommendations" tag.

Lisa: I've been interested in reading Funny Girl, and Etta etc sounds quite interesting. Thanks for the recs!

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