Book Notes from the Underground

Wish You Were Here book jacket Wish You Were Here
by Graham Swift
ISBN: 9780307700124
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Learning that his long-absent brother has been killed in combat in Iraq, Jack Luxton, a proprietor of a seaside caravan park, shares a poignant journey with his wife to reclaim his brother's remains and confront painful memories.

 

Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation book jacket Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation
by Tom Bissell
ISBN: 9781936365760
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"A whip-smart, occasionally pugnacious collection of essays on culture from a wide-ranging critic.... In "Writing about Writing about Writing," he demolishes the rhetoric of how-to writing guides, slapping the genre for its disingenuously upbeat declarations.... Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight Macdonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance or celebrated historian Robert Kaplan, whom he damns as an "incompetent thinker and a miserable writer." Bissell's more common tone, though, is that of the exasperated critic weary of conventional thinking, and he bookends the collection with pieces that drive that point home: "Unflowered Aloes" debunks the idea that literary greatness will always be discovered, and the closing interview with Jim Harrison is a lament for a dying working-class literary culture.... Stellar cultural writing--Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations." Kirkus Reviews

 

Hhhh; translated from the French book jacket HHhH/Laurent Binet; translated from the French
by Laurent Binet translated by Sam Taylor
ISBN: 9780374169916
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"Taking its title from the German for "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich," Binet's tour de force debut tells two stories: primarily that of the daring mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the prominent Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia known as "The Butcher" and "The Man with the Iron Heart" (a nickname of Hitler's creation) among other epithets. It is also, however, the metafictional tale of Binet's struggles with shaping the story. The novel's 257 short chapters allow for these two strands to advance and entwine in gripping and revealing ways.... Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. A perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel" Publishers Weekly

 

When Women Were Birds: Fifty Four Variations on Voice book jacket When Women Were Birds: Fifty Four Variations on Voice
by Terry Tempest Williams
ISBN: 0374288976
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At 54, Williams... grapple[s] with her mother's death at age 54 in a meditative memoir in 54 parts, each an inquiry into a mysterious and haunting legacy: "My mother left me her journals, and all her journals were blank." As Williams performs elegant variations on the meanings of voice and silence, she remembers four generations of women in her Mormon family, especially her smart, bird-loving grandmother, and pays homage to other mentors, including conservationist Mardy Murie and Green Belt Movement leader Wangari Maathai. She considers her writerly beginnings, shares with bracing candor insights into her marriage, and, most mystically, recounts watershed moments of terror, revelation, and conviction during which birds make startling appearances. Williams is transcendent in her piercing, musical, elegiac, and loving reflections on women's lives and wilderness, light and shadow, words expressed and words unspoken and invisible." Booklist Reviews

 

Waiting for Sunrise: a Novel book jacket Waiting for Sunrise: a Novel
by William Boyd
ISBN: 9780061876769
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As WWI erupts, and his folly leads to his forcible recruitment into a dangerous spy-hunting mission, Lysander soon distrusts everyone, including his mother, and discovers that his acting skills give him a crucial edge. Boyd's delectably mercurial characters, astute use of this complex historical milieu and the dawn of psychoanalysis, superbly torqued plot, and exceptionally evocative language that is, by turns, lush and tensile, witty and wrenching coalesce into a long, dark night of the soul that has his resurgent, ultimately transformed hero waiting for sunrise. Sunrise and clarity." Booklist Reviews

 

The Elizabethians book jacket The Elizabethians
by A.N. Wilson
ISBN: 9780374147440
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A panoramic account of the Elizabethan age evaluates the contributions of such figures as Francis Drake, William Cecil and William Shakespeare while exploring definitive events--from Britain's declaration of religious liberty to the establishment of British imperial power.

 

Traveler of the Century; translated from the Spanish book jacket Traveler of the Century; translated from the Spanish
by Nick Caistor and Lorenzo Garcia
ISBN: 9780374119393
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"In Wandernburg, halfway between Berlin and Leipzig, a young traveler and translator named Hans finds himself strangely captivated by the town's enigmatic geography and a kindly cave-dwelling organ-grinder. Invited to share his views on politics and literature at a weekly salon, he meets the irrepressible Sophie, who is his intellectual equal and soul mate but who also happens to be engaged to a local nobleman.... Imaginatively grafting twenty-first-century literary sensibilities onto solid nineteenth-century roots, Neuman's first novel to appear in English is a rare and delightful masterpiece: a touching love story with big things to say about Europe, the emancipation of women, and the craft of literary translation. A novel of ideas with a poet's soul." Booklist Reviews

 

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies book jacket An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies
by Tyler Cowen
ISBN: 9780525952664
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"Part In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and part Roadfood, this is a culinary coming-out party for Cowen.... This latest book combines economic and environmental messages, all written in a highly entertaining and informative style - often with a counterintuitive twist.... [We] get tips on how to obtain good Chinese food from local, not-so-authentic places; which strip malls are likely to have the best restaurants (who knew they were in strip malls to begin with?); using Google to turn up unexpected restaurant gems; and why places filled with fun, laughing, drinking people often don't have good food. An entire chapter is devoted to barbecue, and another provides specific suggestions for eating well in numerous countries. A fun and informative book that environmentalists, economists, and (most of all) foodies will enjoy." Library Journal

 

Almost Never; translated from the Spanish book jacket Almost Never; translated from the Spanish
by Katherine Silver
ISBN: 9781555976095
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"In 1945, agronomist Demetrio lives a simple, dull life in Oaxaca.... In an attempt to spice things up, Demetrio goes to a bordello where he meets Mireya, a gorgeous prostitute with whom he's soon spending every spare moment, and Sada holds nothing back in describing their raucous couplings. The lovers are forced apart when Demetrio accompanies his infirm mother to a wedding in Sacramento, Calif., where he meets the equally beautiful Renata, Mireya's virginal inverse..... Mireya, sensing something amiss, begins urging Demetrio to rescue her from the bordello. When events come to a head, Demetrio must choose between love and lust, though neither object of his affection is exactly who she seems. Sada creates a fascinatingly eccentric cast of characters and manipulates them with skill." Publishers Weekly

 

Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down book jacket Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down
by Rosecrans Baldwin
ISBN: 9780374146689
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An account of a Francophile's haphazard relocation to Paris in spite of his lack of French fluency describes how the region considerably differed from his expectations and the ways in which he tapped his American optimism to overcome cultural challenges. "A charming, hilarious account of la vie Parisienne as experienced by an observant young American..... There were lots of parties, and work at the ad agency apparently consisted mostly of jetting around meeting celebrities for the Louis Vuitton account. Baldwin, a witty and polished writer, never pretends to be doing more than taking snapshots, but his vivid impressions of Paris and its people (expats included) are most engaging. Great fun and surprisingly touching." Kirkus Reviews

 

I am an Executioner: Love Stories book jacket I am an Executioner: Love Stories
by Rajesh Parameswaran
ISBN: 9780307595928
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"A thoughtful zoo tiger is only trying to express love when he inadvertently goes on a killing spree. The thin line between freedom and imprisonment is traced to provocative effect in a story told by a captured elephant, though the footnotes written by her alleged translator, a curious sort of elephant man obsessed with suicide, take over her narrative. Venturing into Kafka and Borges territory, Parameswaran writes pristine, even serene prose that flows in disquieting counterpoint to the grotesqueness of most of his tales, with one sterling exception, a heartbreaking, Chekhovian story about an aging art director helplessly in love with the wife of a world-famous filmmaker. A potent, haunting, darkly sublime, and complexly compassionate debut collection" Booklist Reviews

 

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China book jacket Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
by Paul French
ISBN: 9780143121008
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"In January 1937, the mutilated body of Pamela Werner was found on the outskirts of old Peking (Beijing). After an unsuccessful investigation into the slaughter of this 19-year-old English expatriate, the case was eventually closed and forgotten as World War II escalated in China. Now French reopens the cold case and attempts to bring some justice to Pamela's memory in this skillfully told true-crime thriller.... Treating his subjects with expertise and compassion, French creates a riveting portrait of the complicated tensions that existed during wartime in a city on the brink of destruction. As he slowly unravels the clues, he reveals a crime more shocking than anyone had ever imagined." Library Journal

 

The Lifeboat: a novel book jacket The Lifeboat: a novel
by Charlotte Rogan
ISBN: 9780316185905
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"Set at the beginning of WWI, Rogan's debut follows 22-year-old Grace Winter, a newlywed, newly minted heiress who survives a harrowing three weeks at sea following the sinking of her ocean liner and the disappearance of her husband, Henry. Safe at home in the U.S., Grace and two other survivors are put on trial for their actions aboard the under-built, overloaded lifeboat. At sea, as food and water ran out, and passengers realized that some among them would die, questions of sacrifice and duty arose. Rogan interweaves the trial with a harrowing day-by-day story of Grace's time aboard the lifeboat, and circles around society's ideas about what it means to be human, what responsibilities we have to each other, and whether we can be blamed for choices made in order to survive. Grace is a complex and calculating heroine.... Her actions on the boat are far from faultless, and her memory of them spotty.... A complex and engrossing psychological drama." Publishers Weekly

 

In My Father’s Country: An Afgan Woman Defies Her Fate book jacket In My Father’s Country: An Afgan Woman Defies Her Fate
by Saima Wahab
ISBN: 0307884945
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Describes how years after her father was taken away from her family by the KGB, the Afghanistani author relocated to her uncle's home in America, where she pursued an education and worked as an interpreter before becoming a cultural adviser for the U.S. Army. "As one of the military's few speakers of Pashtu - a complex and heavily-coded language - Wahab became a spokesperson for her culture, educating her colleagues and helping them to establish relationships with her fellow Pashtun people. In vibrant but understated prose, Wahab vividly portrays a misunderstood culture, as well as the tense life on military bases where everyone must wear body armor and carry a weapon. While fighting to build a bridge of understanding between her "native and adoptive nations," Wahab admirably wages a more universal war - for gender equality, human rights, and peace." Publishers Weekly

 

August and Then Some: a Novel book jacket August and Then Some: a Novel
by David Prete
ISBN: 0393057992
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In the heat of August, Jake Terri Savage (“JT”), his little sister Danielle, and his bone-headed best friend, Nokey (nicknamed after “gnocchi”), try to steal JT’s father’s beloved 1965 Shelby Cobra. Their reasons are noble; the consequences,devastating. "An intense, tragic story about a young man's struggle to take control of his life. The language in this first-person account fits his upbringing: Without all the F-words the book would be a couple of pages shorter. But the dialogue crackles like a plastic bottle underfoot while the pace never slows. A disturbing novel offering a mixture of hope and despair, vileness and nobility" Kirkus Reviews

 

Oblivion: A Memoir, book jacket Oblivion: A Memoir
by Héctor Abad
ISBN: 9780374223977
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A tribute to the author's martyr father, who was murdered by paramilitaries for criticizing the Colombian regime, profiles the political and social upheavals that marked Latin America in the 1980s and describes his father's views on democracy and tolerance. "The author creates enormous dramatic irony in his text: We know from the beginning that his father will be murdered, so Abad imbues every moment with an aching pathos. The translators have preserved his facile and sophisticated uses of the language. One 205-word sentence, for example, unspools with absolute clarity. Sometimes the detail is grim and wrenching--a sewer pipe clogged with tapeworms, his poor dying sister's physical decline, his father's bullet-riddled corpse.... Is there a father alive who would not weep at such an artful, tender tribute?" Kirkus Reviews

 

The Coldest Night,book jacket The Coldest Night
by Robert Olmstead
ISBN: 9781616200435
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A combination of war novel and love story, this work follows Henry, a young man in 1950 West Virginia, as he falls for a wealthy young woman and runs away with her to New Orleans. When their affair is violently interrupted by her family, Henry enlists in the marines. The Korean War is raging, and Henry experiences an epic battle, gruesome wounds, and unforgettable horrors. "It's extremes that rivet us in Olmstead's searing seventh novel: the heaven of first love; the hell of the battlefield... In New Orleans we ached because we feared what was happening had to end; in Korea we ache because we fear it never will. Olmstead's extraordinary language gives us new eyes. An exceptionally fine study of love, war and the double-edged role of memory, which can both sustain and destroy. Prize-winning material" Kirkus Reviews

 

The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir, book jacket The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir
by Wenguang Huang
ISBN: 9781594488290
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Traces a Communist Chinese family's contentious 15-year struggle to honor a grandmother's dying wish to be buried in spite of a national ban of traditional Chinese practices, an effort that pitted family members against one another and risked their capture by authorities. "Throughout the 16 years leading up to her death, the family often became embroiled in bitter battles over how they would inter the grandmother, who demanded a traditional Chinese burial next to her husband, whose grave was far from the family home. The one family member who suffered the most was the author's father, who passed away a year before his mother. A "filial son," he had made his mother's obsession his own, to the point where it "sucked him dry until there was nothing left but his own corpse." A trenchantly observed story that depicts the clash of traditional and modern Chinese culture with a powerful combination of sensitivity and mordant irony." Kirkus Reviews

 

Narcopolis, book jacket Narcopolis
by Jeet Thayil
ISBN: 9781594203305
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"A vibrantly squalid yet glamorous Bombay of the 1970s emerges as the main character in poet Thayil's debut novel. An unnamed narrator wanders through the sweltering Indian underworld of opium dens with odd characters like the intellectually ravenous eunuch, Dimple; and Newton Xavier, a renowned visiting poet and painter. Offbeat character portraits and compelling philosophical discussions form the bulk of the book. The narrator eventually recedes from the story, but returns 25 years later to bookend the novel.... When the narrator moves back in 2004, though heroin has superseded opium as the drug of choice... he finds that Bombay has become Mumbai, an international metropolis. Thayil's precision and economy distill what could be a sprawling and uneven saga into an elegant tapestry of beautifully observed characters and their complex lives." Publishers Weekly

 

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, book jacket The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain
by Paul Preston
ISBN: 9780393064766
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Describes the atrocities committed during the reign of General Francisco Franco, who executed tens of thousands of "non-persons" and abused women and children under a belief system comprised of eugenics, terror, domination, and mind control. "Preston concentrates on the systematic spread of terror and repression by forces of the right in specific areas of Spain; they moved from town to town, hunting out "reds," often with the enthusiastic collaboration of the local landowning class. (During this time the poet Federico García Lorca was dragged out and shot.) The right-wing uprising particularly targeted leftist women, who had enjoyed new status and rights under the Republic. Using techniques of terror perfected against the Moroccan population, Franco and his hardened Africanistas moved to subjugate Madrid by slaughter, dismemberment and rape. Preston focuses on the staggering toll of the violence and the Francoist spin that stretches well into the present without proper reckoning. A rigorous, scrupulously researched study." Kirkus Reviews

 

Unterzakhn, book jacket Unterzakhn
by Leela Corman
ISBN: 9780805242591
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"This historically informed and aesthetically compelling story follows twins Esther and Fanya as they grow from little girls on New York's Hester Street to womanhood.... Fanya becomes first the "doctor's" apprentice and ultimately her protégée as an abortionist and reproductive-rights activist. Esther, meanwhile, works for a woman who runs a local bordello. Across the years, the sisters share night-time conversations that show how each has acquired different knowledge-sets as well as value systems. Heavily inked cartoons beautifully depict period details and the Hester Street gossips as times evolve and show how the two sisters' similarities change into stark differences in appearance as they age." Booklist Reviews

 

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, book jacket The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
by Victor Cha
ISBN: 9780061998508
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"From the former director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, an eye-opening view of the closed, repressive dictatorship of North Korea.... For Cha, the key that unlocked the regime's secrets was its nostalgia for the good old days of the 1950s and '60s, when China and the Soviet Union were bolstering North Korean industry and military, while the South was still an agrarian backwater... and while the South was grappling with American ambivalence toward its leaders, the North under Kim Il-sung embraced the ideology of juche, or self-reliance, and the cult of the Great Leader. As a result, writes Cha, the North Koreans are simply too oppressed to revolt—not to mention the devastating effects from "Olympic envy" of trying to catch up to Seoul's 1988 hosting, and the terrible famine of the mid '90s. The author looks closely at the Kim family, the terrible economic decisions that plunged the country into poverty, the shocking gulag system, its paranoid nuclear proliferation program and the tenuous relations with South Korea. A useful, pertinent work for understanding the human story behind the headlines." Kirkus Reviews

 

The Red Book , book jacket The Red Book
by Deborah Copaken Kogan
ISBN: 9781401340827
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"Four former roommates reconnect for a life-altering 20-year class reunion weekend (Harvard '89).... Married Clover is tempted to rekindle her college flame with her first love. Mia rails against motherhood and yearns for her erstwhile acting career. Addison, the perfect wife, is also a closeted lesbian. And journalist Jane, who still pines for her late husband, wonders whether to have a child with her unfaithful lover. Ultimately, each must reread her bio from the titular Red Book, the collection of minimemoirs published quinquennially by Harvard, and rewrite herself so the next entry will reflect the life she really wants. While the women's privileged status could have made them inaccessible, Kogan has crafted a cast of characters who are relevant, authentic, and very human." Library Journal

 

A wedding in Haiti, book jacket A Wedding in Haiti
by Julia Alvarez
ISBN: 1616201304
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"Alvarez and her husband own a coffee farm in her native Dominican Republic and first met the hardworking Piti, a Haitian immigrant, when he was just a teenager.... Alvarez's maternal instincts went into overdrive as she struck up first a friendship and then a working relationship with [him]. That's how she found herself on the way to his wedding in Haiti in August 2009.... Alvarez found herself greatly moved by the spirit of a people who live in one of the poorest countries in the world. Revisiting Haiti in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, so that Piti and his wife can check on their families, she sees firsthand the skills needed for survival: "endurance, how to save by sharing, how to make a pact with hope when you find yourself in hell." Her unaffected prose and her warm and caring voice make this intimate introduction to a troubled country one many readers will savor." Booklist Reviews

 

The Cove, book jacket The Cove
by Ron Rash
ISBN: 9780061804199
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"Rash (Serena) knits his newest rustic yarn in North Carolina during WWI.... Laurel Shelton lives with her wounded war veteran brother in an isolated cabin. While out doing laundry by the creek one day, Laurel discovers Walter Smith, an illiterate, mute flutist en route to New York City, who has been incapacitated by hornet stings. As she nurses the mysterious Walter back to health, Laurel begins to fall in love.... However, local Army recruiter Chauncey Feith..., [a] rabid anti-German agitator..., begins to suspect that Walter is not who he claims to be.Driven by fear, patriotism, and bloodlust, Chauncey progresses from arrogant drunk to a craven yet dangerous force. The gripping plot, gothic atmosphere, and striking descriptions, in particular of the dismal cove, make this a top-notch story of an unusual place and its fated and fearful denizens." Publishers Weekly