Category Archives: 4 shoes

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

One sentence plot summary: A Mexican family move to Delaware after their daughter has an accident that leaves her with brain damage, and they find a community in this foreign country. 

Do you ever feel you’ve had a run of reading things that were… just okay? Well thank goodness for The Book of Unknown Americans for breaking my rut of pleasant mediocrity. 

Maribel’s parents reluctantly leave their lovely Mexican home behind in hope of accessing the special education they hope will help their daughter after an accident that leaves her with brain damage. They end up living in a depressing apartment block in Delaware where Maribel’s father braves a depressing job while Maribel’s mother Alma tries to make a life for them all. 

The book is primarily about this family’s story, but interwoven is the story of the other immigrant families living in the apartments. The narrative, which is beautifully done, moves between Maribel’s family members and, as Maribel makes a friend of Mayor, those of his family across the hall. Their voices are charming and compelling and real. Every so often a short chapter flits to another apartment dweller, building up a sensitive, nuanced, happy and sad and very human picture of how each individual ended up converging in that Delaware building that they’ve all unexpectedly found themselves calling home. It’s smart and reflective. 

Don’t relax, because worse things happen than you might expect. But the message of the book seems to be that life isn’t about blame, recriminations, or dwelling on the might-have-beens and what-ifs. And ultimately, that’s an uplifting, hopeful thought. This book is very well done. 

Rating: 4/5

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

One sentence synopsis: Pastor Peter leaves his beloved wife at home (where unbeknownst to them, the apocalypse is approaching) to travel to a far-off planet, where he relishes his job ministering to the ‘Jesus lovers’, a Christianity-devoted alien race.

This seems to be the inadvertent month of ‘If you liked this book, try “. Last year I adored The Sparrow, and its sequel Children of God by Maria Doria Russell on the same sort of topic. It was utterly compulsive, inventive, heartbreaking and redeeming. I haven’t cared more about characters or a plot for ages. When I realised she wrote a sequel, I dropped interest in everything but reading it.

For me, though Strange New Things was very good, it couldn’t compete with Russell’s wonderful worlds. While some say the Book of Strange New Things ending was ambiguous (I don’t agree), I wouldn’t rush to read a sequel.

I very much enjoyed Faber’s construction of a space station and its quirky inhabitants in an alien land. I liked his alien species, with their weird communication style and enthusiasm for Christianity (thanks to a previous pastor). I was fascinated by Peter’s experience of trying to care about what was happening to his wife back on Earth, and increasingly struggling. The characters and plot were interesting, though I couldn’t really understand why Peter had actually signed up, and agreed to leave his wife behind, or believe why he’d been so specifically chosen to do so. The passages from the Bible that some have criticised in the book as excessive seemed to me pretty appropriate within the context. I even shed a tear at one point, when we learn something sad about the alien species.

And yet, I wasn’t bewitched like I was with The Sparrow. This time, I could put the book down and do something else without feeling at all resentful. This book is well done and worth reading. But if you’re only going to read one book this year about a Christian Missionary going to a far-off planet to bring the word of God to the locals, your first call should really be The Sparrow.

Rating: 4/5 shoes

A batch of holiday reading: We Are Water, His Dark Materials trilogy, TransAtlantic, and The Dispossessed

I recently returned from a delightful trip to Costa Rica. In between all the hiking and rafting and tubing and cocktail drinking, I was of course reading. And now I return, faced with an intimidating prospect of six book reviews. So, dear reader, I shall cheat. Behold, some short reviews of  the books I read during my 11 day vacation!

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

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One sentence plot: Told from the perspective of several characters, this is a study of families, abuse, marriage, and how to be happy – plus art, gay and race subplots.

One sentence review: This took me inexplicably long to get through, considering it was compelling, funny, interesting, distressing, intriguing, engaging, and clever – all the good stuff I’ve grown to expect from Wally Lamb, and it was indeed good.

The verdict: 4/5

His Dark Materials Trilogy – The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

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One sentence plot: An epic coming of age/fight of good against evil where the boundaries blur as young Lyra moves between parallel universes in a race to save the world.

One sentence review: This is a suspenseful, complex and intelligent adventure, with compelling, multidimensional characters, and lots to say about the institution of religion, in a beautifully, imaginatively, believably drawn set of worlds, full of their own customs, joys and terrors.

The verdict: The Golden Compass gets 5/5, The Subtle Knife gets 4/5 and the Amber Spyglass gets 3/5. If this is your sort of thing, beware of finishing the first book without ensuring the next one is close at hand…

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

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One sentence plot: A series of intergenerational, interlinked stories spanning from the first TransAtlantic flight, between the US and Ireland, that depict various personal and sociopolitical elements of the US-Ireland relationship over 150 years.

One sentence review: McCann is trying to recreate the luminous Let The Great World Spin but the same device that worked so well for that book is awkward and self-conscious here, sometimes giving moments of beauty and delight, but often feeling labored and a bit irritating – though I really liked the history of the first TransAtlantic flight…

The verdict: 3/5

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin

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One sentence plot: A utopia/dystopia sci fi book set between the two societies of a capitalist world and its anarchist/feminist/communist moon, through the eyes of a brilliant scientist who loves his own world, but faces disillusionment when he looks for science to rise above politics.

One sentence review: This is a rather clever and thought provoking story of two beautifully drawn societies, embodying some really interesting ideas about politics and power, while providing intricate, fascinating detail of life in each society, with an interesting, suspenseful plot and a main character who provides a good lens through which to view it all.

The verdict: 4/5 stars

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

One-sentence plot
A recounting of John Brown’s abolitionist activities, as seen over the years through the dispassionate eyes of a fictional young slave he freed.

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The review
I cannot remember a more fascinating book discussion than when I sat down to discuss The Good Lord Bird at my book club last week and found out I hadn’t understood it at all. I like book clubs because they introduce me to literature I never would have come across otherwise, and force me to persist when I’m not keen on something. I think it expands my mind as a reader. And I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen The Good Lord Bird of my own volition. But I read it. I enjoyed the story of young Henry/ Henrietta, a boy who is ‘freed’ from his slave owner by John Brown, mistaken for a girl, and absorbed into John Brown’s band of renegade abolitionists as they storm around Kansas haplessly getting into battles, and eventually attempt a grand raid. I read it. I found the story reasonably interesting. I thought the characters a little bland, the story a little slow, the writing quite good. I enjoyed it but wouldn’t have rushed to recommend it. Then I got to book club and someone’s first comment was that it was a hilarious and edgy satire. And I was completely dumbfounded.

Now according to the Americans in my book club, all the Americans reading this blog are probably very familiar with this story and its protagonists. And so, when reading it, they would find this bold, irreverent new depiction of John Brown, Frederick Douglas et al, very funny and almost scandalous. As someone without more than a basic grounding in American history (and honestly, I’d never heard of John Brown or the others), all of this side of the book went right over my head (and the heads of other non-Americans in the group). Rarely have I been so oblivious to the intention of the author. I had to entirely recast my opinion of the book, as it was clearly a lot more clever and complex than I had given it credit for. As my fellow book clubbers explained the context, and American feeling and standard depictions of these beloved historical characters and events, I started to get it. And yes, it does indeed seem to be a clever and witty, almost risqué piece of work. Even though I personally didn’t laugh once and had no idea of its controversial approach.

I wonder – can a book like this be considered generally excellent, even if its main intention only stands up in the context of readers familiar with the details of American history and its cultural depictions, and is lost on more general readers? Or is it marred by provincial conceit? I don’t know. It’s interesting that I was going to give the book 4/5 before I found out about the satire element. That says something about the book’s ability to stand alone without the history. So the 4/5 rating shall stand, with the caveat that I didn’t really get it – but even so, it was engaging and largely well written. If you don’t know your American abolitionist history though, you might want to think twice about this one…

The verdict: 4/5

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One sentence plot
Ifemelu comes of age first in Nigeria, then again in America, where she starts blogging about her experiences and observations of race in America from the perspective of the ‘Non-American Black’.

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The Review
Americanah is a fascinating book in all sorts of ways, though somehow I feel, as a white British person, not absolutely qualified to review it. Or at least, I’d love to incorporate the perspectives of people of various races living in America and Nigeria. This is a book with a lot to say about race, identity and racism, specifically the difference in experience between African Americans and ‘Non-American Blacks’, told through the eyes (and occasional blogs) of our charming protagonist, Ifemelu and to a lesser extent, her high school sweetheart, Obinze. I lack the expertise or personal experience to comment on the accuracy of how it’s presented here, but I’ve never personally seen the subject addressed so thoughtfully. This book is a wonderful combination of delightful characters with lovely narrative voices, a compelling plot, and presents a very interesting insight into some of the nuances of race, culture, and lifestyle in America and Nigeria.

The book jumps around in chronology, but essentially Ifemelu and Obinze grow up happily in Nigeria, with a fascination for America and the UK. With political unrest and university faculty strikes impeding their lives, Ifemelu moves to the US to complete her education, Obinze to the UK afterwards. The book is mostly about the cultural differences they experience, and how they relate to white Americans, African Americans, African expats (including their own family members) and African people who lived abroad and returned to the countries of their birth. And how these are tied up with class and personal identity. This is a complex subject and the author does a beautiful job of weaving it into a charming narrative that isn’t preachy or lecture-y but it still interesting and very informative. I loved both Ifmelu and Obinze as characters. They are perceptive, witty, likable, multi-dimensional and speak their minds. I also really enjoyed the supporting cast of stereotypes and those who contravene them. And I found both the race/social commentary and the descriptions of life in these different places to be fascinating. I know I’m going on about all the worthy issues, but they don’t overwhelm the plot, which skips along and had me hooked. I didn’t really want to go out while reading this book.

So why am I not giving Americanah a perfect 5 rating? Because it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. Somehow about three quarters of the way through (just about where Ifemelu moves back to Nigeria), the author seems to get distracted with all the social/race commentary and forgets that this isn’t Ifemelu’s observational blog – it’s a novel, a format that comes with certain plot expectations. So what I had grown to trust as a brilliant story sort of lost its momentum and trickled to the end in a dull-ish anticlimax. It left me feeling dissatisfied and disappointed that the author had diminished her sparkling protagonist into a pedestrian love interest. I like a good love story but it felt like Ifemelu somehow was more than just that, that she deserved more from her author.

But despite the ending, this is a book that feels important, and I loved reading it.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

One sentence plot

Previously conventional Nixon scholar Harold Silver has a brief affair with his brother’s wife that ends with her being murdered, his brother (the murderer) in a psychiatric hospital, and Harold divorced, unemployed, and making a life looking after his brother’s house, children, and assorted waifs and strays, set in a slightly psychedelic 21st century zeitgeist.

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The review

I had no preconceptions when I picked up this book, which had been recommended to me. I hadn’t seen all the reviews deeming the story not believable, the characters unlikeable, the subplots excessive, the theme bleak… I’m not even sure I read the blurb carefully. And, not poisoned by anticipation, I found myself tumbling into what I found to be a really compelling, enjoyable, and ultimately uplifting read. Which I seem to find quite difficult to describe in review.

In one sense, this is a conventional tale of a man who is personally and professionally lost. Going through trauma, he finds out what’s important, learns to let go, learns to live, and finds himself in the process. But May We Be Forgiven is about more than that. It is a magnified, distorted version of that story, with quirky, unlikely-sounding events and decisions and reactions. And I loved these unlikely-sounding elements. Suspending belief wasn’t an issue. I never sat thinking ‘clearly he can’t adopt these pensioners!’ or ‘the son really ‘owns’ a village in Africa named after him?’ or ‘the government probably wouldn’t address terrorism quite like that’. I just went with it, and I was rewarded by a story that intrigued, compelled, cavorted, entertained, and wrung out quite a bit of sympathy from me for these bizarre characters and their quirky subplots and unusual experiences.

I don’t subscribe to the characters being unlikable, as other reviewers have said. Our protagonist is a dry, ‘normal’ sort of man with a brother who is successful, rich… and nonspecifically unpleasant. Both wives are fairly colorless. In fact, as I write that, I realize it feels like most of the characters in this book start out fairly colorless. They are then colored by their experiences in the book until they are bright and messy and interesting and almost attractive, in their own way.

Without the need for explicit descriptions of the growing attraction, it was entirely believable to me that Harold is tempted into an affair with his brother’s put-upon wife, and how this unleashed a series of disastrous events for Harold et al. With the brother in various quirky mental institutions, Harold essentially abandons his old life and acquires a family who are random and dysfunctional… and yet start to function. Similarly his sexual encounters are random and dysfunctional… but somehow start to function too. And an obsolete job which is random and dysfunctional… and yet – you get the picture.

To me, this book is about outgrowing the 20th century: conventionality is so last century; ordinariness is overrated. Here in the 21st century, the book seems to posit, anything goes, anything can happen, and just going with it without the filter of what is expected of people and situations doesn’t have to end badly. At the end of the day, it seems to boil down to the impact and importance of making connections with people, even if they’re not the people convention deems you ‘ought’ to have these connections with. I thought the book was funny and sad and optimistic. I really enjoyed reading it. And I’m still thinking about it.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

One sentence plot
As the space age begins, the top fighter jet pilots across the US struggle over whether and how to evolve into astronauts.

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The Review
Yesterday my wife and I cycled 9 miles in the scorching heat to the lovely Silver Spring AFI cinema to see The Right Stuff. I was intrigued to see how this multi-Oscar-winning film had dealt with the book on which it was based.

The Right Stuff is the third of Tom Wolfe’s books and I still don’t know what to make of him. If Bonfire of the Vanities was perhaps the portrait of a city in time, and I am Charlotte Simmonds the portrait of a woman in place, The Right Stuff is the portrait of a genre of person in history.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read an ostensibly fiction book that is about a genre of person rather than about individuals. The book follows what I’m led to believe is a reasonbly accurate account of the US side of the space race, and that story in itself is fascinating.

The star of the story is the genre of men who go by the monicker of ‘fighter jock’ – the creme de la creme of military pilots, and by definition the posessors that elusive, indefinable quality, the ‘right stuff’. It’s that ‘right stuff’ that propels them to achieve feats of superhuman courage and skill in the air, and to be impossibly cool about it. And Wolfe, who clearly thinks these guys are amazing, writes brilliantly about how they are created and how they operate.

I also enjoyed the secondary star of the book – the genre of wives of the men who posess the ‘right stuff’ and who spend their lives living on miserable military bases, hoping their husbands won’t die (a reasonable preoccupation – he often will, it seems), and that they will one day reap the rewards of their stressful lives.

I loved the idea of evolution of the astronaut as the glitzy celebrity pilot (despite the lack of real need of any more skill than a chimp) while behind the scenes, rocket jet pilots with the ‘right stuff’ are doing things that are harder, cooler, and yet unrecognized by Life Magazine – and slowly going from the coolest guys in town to so last season as NASA catches the collective imagination. I liked the juxtaposition of the pilots trying to be cool, to embody the ‘right stuff’ while at the same time being told they are superfluous and being goaded into celebrity soundbites. With the triumph of glitz over grit, is the ‘right stuff’ extinct, or has it just evolved, I wonder.

It’s not the typical sort of book I would enjoy. But the whole thing is interesting and exciting and wry and entertaining, and educational, and very human. And I hope that it is indeed historically accurate as the drama and detail of those early space flights are now etched in my memory, thanks to Wolfe.

And did the film do the book justice? I think that given the challenges of a book driven not by individual characters but by a philosophy and a historical context, it did an excellent, compelling job. But somehow, it missed that quality of the genre of character – it didn’t depict the very nuances of the “right stuff” that the book made me appreciate so brilliantly. The film was great on its own merit, but for me, it’s the unusual, quirky book that makes me care most.

I cycled home from the cinema, zooming down Beech Drive like a fighter jock trying to break the sound barrier. But I probably hit 10mph and braked responsibly at the junction. I certainly do not have the ‘right stuff’ – but I really enjoyed the insight into the lives of people who do. I wonder which Wolfe book to try next?

The Verdict: 4/5 shoes