Wednesday, May 30, 2012

LAST MAN IN TOWER by Aravind Adiga

Mr. Shah, a real estate developer, has made a generous cash offer to the residents of the Vishram Towers in Mumbai.  He will also help them get resettled elsewhere so that he can raze their deteriorating buildings and replace them with new, sparkling, higher-end highrises.  However, not everyone is thrilled.  Masterji, an aging schoolteacher, has memories of his wife and daughter in his home that he stubbornly refuses to abandon.  Mrs. Pinto's eyesight is so poor that she fears she will be unable to adapt to a new place.  The others, however, are excited by the prospect of being able to send money to loved ones or hire a nurse for a disabled child.  What ensues is a power struggle, and Masterji in particular proves to be a master at standing his ground.  Plus, he only grows more intransigent as his neighbors pull all sorts of shenanigans to persuade him to change his mind.  Mr. Shah, who certainly has powers of persuasion of another ilk, is reluctant to damage his fairly admirable reputation.  He realizes, too, that the other residents want Masterji to go along with the change as much, if not more, than Shah himself does.  This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get ahead, and Masterji is clearly standing in their way.  Meanwhile, Shah has issues of his own, with an ambitious girlfriend and a teenage son who is constantly in trouble with the law for graffiti and vandalism.  While Shah is bent on urban renewal, his son is defacing the same type of buildings that Shah is putting up.  I think this book is supposed to be about greed, but I think the author missed his mark.  I sided solidly with the other residents in their quest for a better life, until things started getting out of hand.  Even then, I shared their desperation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

THE TIGER'S WIFE by Tea Obreht

The pace of this book is so tortoise-like that I must have dozed through an early section that described the relationship between Fra Antun and his fisherman father Barba Ivan, and so I had to reread this section to understand the ending.  Our primary narrator is Natalia, a young doctor in war-torn Easter Europe.  She and her friend Nora are bringing medicine to an orphanage.  Natalia's grandfather, whose home she grew up in, has just died, ostensibly on his way to see Natalia.  The grandfather also narrates some sections, as Natalia remembers his stories of encounters with a deathless man.  The book meanders among the histories of several people, including an apothecary, a blacksmith, and the blacksmith's young deaf-mute wife, who comes to be known as "the tiger's wife."  There is, in fact, an escaped tiger, wandering the village and its surrounding forests, who becomes perhaps a pet or protector of the blacksmith's wife.  The main storyline is reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby, when the deaf-mute woman appears to be pregnant, after her husband has vanished, prompting the townspeople to speculate that the baby is half-tiger.  The outcome of the pregnancy was baffling to me, probably as a result of my snoozing through another critical passage, and totally anti-climactic.  Plus, the main storyline becomes increasingly harder to decipher, as more and more personal histories are added to the mix.  This novel is overrated.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

I love being able to gush about a book.  This one has an exotic location, menacing situations, a reluctant heroine, and an elusive nemesis.  Marina Singh is a lab researcher for a pharmaceutical company.  The CEO, her lover, whom she continues to refer to as Mr. Fox, has just come to her office bearing a letter from Brazil.  Marina's colleague, Anders Eckman, has been in the Amazon for several months trying to convince Dr. Annick Swenson to divulge the status of her research or come home.  Swenson is arrogant and uncooperative and appears to be content to spend company money ad infinitum with no accountability for what she may or may not have accomplished thus far.  The aforementioned letter from Swenson perfunctorily states that Eckman is dead.  Eckman's widow and Mr. Fox persuade Marina, a former student of Swenson's, to travel to Brazil to find out what is going on.  Thus begins Marina's big adventure, beginning with the seemingly impossible task of finding Swenson via a Bohemian couple in Manaus, who have been charged with protecting Swenson's privacy.  Marina appears at first to be thoroughly inept, especially when it comes to keeping up with her belongings.  As the story unfolds, though, we realize that her talents and gumption serve her well in a hostile and unfamiliar environment.  Reviewers have compared this book to Heart of Darkness, a novel which I didn't like at all.  I found this to be more in the vein of David Grann's The Lost City of Z, a nonfiction book about a journalist, also unsuited to the jungle, who travels into the wild to find a long lost explorer.  Patchett's novel brims with complicated relationships, all of which involve Marina, who both fears and admires Swenson, whose lofty attitude is initially condescending.  Ultimately, though, Swenson, along with Mr. Fox, Mrs. Eckman, and a deaf boy named Easter all come to lean on Marina for their salvation.  How she bears up under such crushing responsibility is the stuff of a thoroughly entertaining story.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

SISTER by Rosamund Lupton

This literary mystery has more murder suspects than a game of Clue.  Still, the police insist that Tess's death was a suicide.  In the meantime, her sister Beatrice puts herself in harm's way, as she becomes obsessed with identifying Tess's killer.  Beatrice loses credibility with the police when she finds that too many of Tess's male acquaintances had a motive for doing her in.  First, there's her married lover and tutor, who tried to squelch the scandal of Tess's pregnancy.  Then there's the son of a prominent politician who had a huge, unhealthy crush on Tess and stalked her with his camera.  Finally, there's the shady medical trial of an in utero gene therapy that was supposed to cure Tess's unborn child of cystic fibrosis, but the baby was stillborn, due to an unrelated issue.  A need to expunge her own guilt, as well as a thirst for justice, drives Beatrice's quest.  Beatrice finds that she has not been the model sister and daughter that she thought herself to be, and now it is too late to make amends with Tess.  Tess, however, was a free spirit who, if she were alive, would tell Beatrice that there is nothing to forgive.  Tess gave completely of herself, while expecting nothing in return.  This book succeeds on a literary level because of its treatment of the bond between the two sisters that persists even after one has died.  However, I don't have a sister, and for me, the twists and turns and wide array of villains, one of whom must be the murderer, were what kept me reading.

Monday, May 7, 2012


Catlin has just qualified for the Brazilian equestrian team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and is about to marry Schuyler, the man of her dreams.  To cap this storybook existence, she and Schuyler both come from ridiculously wealthy families in Brazil.  However, Catlin and Schuyler each have a black sheep brother involved in the drug trade, who have the ability to turn paradise into a living hell in the blink of an eye.  The nightmare that ensues is gripping, and the author does a superb job of pointing up the corruption and violence that apparently usurp the Brazilian criminal justice system.  The irony is that because of their wealth, Catlin's family feels immune to the danger, while in reality their wealth makes them a target for extortion.  The title refers to a torture device, and I must say that the section in which the author describes its use is horrifically disturbing.  This book is a very fast read and would have been even faster if I had not been so distracted and annoyed by the myriad typos and the intrusion of apostrophes in plurals throughout the book.  The author is desperately in need of a good editor, so that her mistakes do not detract from the message she is trying to deliver. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy

No one does desolation like Cormac McCarthy, and this book has it in spades.  If you think No Country for Old Men was violent, notch it up about 1000%, and you'll have Blood Meridian.  It's as if the author was trying to outdo himself with each successive chapter.  I'm not sure why this book has received so many accolades, because I certainly did not enjoy or admire it.  It has some elements of Heart of Darkness, and it's the Wild West at it worst—savage, gruesome, and just plain evil.  It's based on truth and conveys very emphatically how addictive violence can be.  The writing is Faulkneresque in its loftiness, which contrasts sharply with the baseness of the subject matter.  However, form does match content in that it's difficult to ascertain who's doing what in the midst of all the bloodshed and mayhem.  The two main characters are the kid and the judge, who are studies in contrast, both part of an army of men who have been offered a reward for Apache scalps.  Need I say more.  They far exceed their charter, however, so that they become more despicable than their victims.  The kid certainly loses his innocence but doesn't seem to be particularly appalled by the slaughter, while the judge is one scary character, justifying it all as part of the ultimate game of war.  Each chapter is headed by a bulleted list of events, which was helpful.  I bookmarked the beginning of the chapter so that I could go back to it at the end and reread the recap.