June 6, 2017

May Reading Recap

I read another batch of recently released novels in May, all with very different subject matters and styles:

NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME by Rakesh Satyal: Harit lives an isolated life that's only become lonelier since the death of his sister. He spends his days selling men's accessories at a department store and his evenings in a ritual of wearing his sister's clothes to soothe his grieving mother. Though Harit's family immigrated to Cleveland from India a decade ago, he's found little friendship or community until his pushy coworker insists they go for a drink together. Elsewhere in Cleveland, Ranjana appears to have a model immigrant life Harit would envy: comfort with American culture and strong ties to the local Indian community, a lasting marriage, and a son starting at Princeton. But Ranjana's reality is that she fears her husband is having an affair and she struggles under the expectations of gossiping acquaintances. Ranjana is happiest when she's writing fiction, a passion she has to hide from her family and friends, especially since her genre is paranormal romance.

Harit and Ranjana, along with the other characters inhabiting this wonderful novel, are complete and complex people who I adored getting to know. By the time their stories merged, I was thrilled to watch my two new friends meet and befriend each other. While this novel is focused primarily on the characters' emotions and relationships, Satyal has also developed a strong plot for his characters to move through, full of events that constantly surprised me. The one piece of the story that engaged me less was the thread following Ranjana's son at college, which felt like it belonged in a different novel.

This is a fantastic story of people longing for types of connection they can't understand or express. It does a beautiful job of exploring the messiness of real life through unexpected developments and characters who aren't what others imagined. I highly recommend this novel. I also recommend Satyal's Hamilton-themed book trailer, which is unrelated to the story's content but quite delightful.

WOMAN NO. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Lady hires a live-in nanny for her toddler after separating from her husband. The new nanny, who goes by the name S, is eager to move into the backyard cottage to get away from her mom, and Lady sympathizes due to a difficult history with her own toxic mother. The childcare arrangement is supposed to give Lady time to work on her book, a memoir about raising her older son, an 18-year-old who has never spoken. While Lady sorts through memories of his early days, S works on a project of her own.

This novel revolves around the two women's secret motivations, so information about their pasts and presents is doled out gradually, and I won't give more away. It's not a mystery story, and there's no shocking twist, but certain elements borrow from that genre. I enjoyed how the narrative unfurled, and while I did feel some of the revelations fell short of their intended impact, I was always eager to keep reading.

These characters are intriguing from the start, driven by unpredictable fears and desires. Small details of their lives and interactions make the story real and frequently funny. I think this is the first novel I've read where the characters use Twitter, and Lepucki has done an excellent job of integrating it naturally into the story. There's a whole compelling, unsettling world inside WOMAN NO. 17, populated by people who are fascinating to visit, but I'm glad I don't have to live there.

SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfar: Jakub Procházka is the first Czech astronaut, launched by his country's space program to study the cloud of cosmic dust that's formed between the Earth and Venus. During the first months of the eight-month solo journey, Jakub's weekly video calls with his wife break up the lonely days he spends reflecting on his childhood during the fall of Communism. When his wife refuses to show up for a call, Jakub loses focus on the mission, and perhaps his grasp on reality. He starts talking to the giant alien spider lurking around the spaceship, who wants to probe further into Jakub's memories of his life on earth.

The space portions of this novel shift from wacky alien hijinks to harrowing danger, all of which I found entertaining, especially when I didn't worry too much about the science. These adventures are broken up, sometimes frustratingly so, by flashbacks to Jakub's childhood and relationship with his wife. Jakub's past, and how it relates to his country's changing politics, is a compelling story on its own, and it greatly increased my knowledge of Czech history. The interaction between the two pieces of the novel was occasionally clunky, but I liked them both enough to appreciate the book as a whole.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alexandra Alter at The New York Times investigates how The Martian got a classroom-friendly makeover: "Apart from the four-letter words, 'The Martian' is a science teacher's dream text. It's a gripping survival story that hinges on the hero's ability to solve a series of complex problems, using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy and math, in order to stay alive on a hostile planet. (The Washington Post called the novel 'an advertisement for the importance of STEM education.') After getting dozens of inquiries from teachers, Mr. Weir, who describes himself as 'a lifelong space nerd,' asked his publisher, Crown, if they could release a cleaned-up edition of the book." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

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