Review: The Story of a Brief Marriage

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Review for “The Story of a Brief Marriage” by Anuk Arudpragasam (to be published on 6 September 2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Set over a 24 hour period in a refugee camp during the Sri Lankan Civil War, “The Story of a Brief Marriage” focuses on Dinesh, a young man who has lost most of his family in the ensuing conflict. He volunteers his time in a makeshift hospital, tending to people’s injuries and sleeping in the surrounding jungle at night to avoid the all-too familiar shelling attacks that occur each day. Very early in the novel he is approached by the father of a young woman who offers his daughter in marriage to Dinesh to ensure her safety. Dinesh accepts, and together they manage to find a sense of intimacy despite the surrounding violence.

There’s very little dialogue in this book. It’s mostly descriptions, and the writing here is exquisite in its detail of the most mundane of activities: bathing, taking a shit, cutting hair, trimming one’s nails. It’s also fairly unrelenting in its descriptions of bleakness: people being blown to bits by shrapnel, losing limbs, etc.

Despite the horrors of this book I was oddly drawn into it for the same reason. Not because the subject matter was pleasant, and certainly not because I was waiting to find out how it would end (the title already tells us that). I was drawn into this book because it’s a very human story that deserved telling, two people forming a marital bond in the face of hell on earth is ultimately a celebration of the human spirit.

[Note: Thanks to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]

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Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

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Review for “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” by Bryn Greenwood (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I can’t get behind this book. Sorry.

It starts off somewhat promising: a young girl named Wavy and her little brother growing up in an abusive household with their shitty, meth-addicted parents who casually neglect them in search of their next fix. Wavy bounces between several family members and foster homes until she meets Kellen, a tattooed biker with a shady past who works in her father’s “business,” cooking and manufacturing methamphetamine. Kellen begins to look out and care for Wavy and her brother, and they eventually form a relationship.

This book spans about 15 years in Wavy’s life. There are a lot of different perspectives from those directly and indirectly involved with the main characters (teachers, relatives, etc) and a lot of variation between first and third person narratives–some I liked, others not so much. The writing was ok, but it lacked conciseness, making it feel it was way longer than its 353 pages. There was a quite a bit of drag in this novel for that reason, so I started skimming after the halfway point. Bleh.

Lemme also say this for those who don’t know: this is a love story. A love story that happens to take place between a little girl and, in this case, a grown man. They ‘fall in love’ when Wavy is about 8, and Kellen is in his 20’s. There are cringe-worthy sexual scenes that do take place when Wavy is a kid, and for that reason I should state that this is probably not a book for everyone. Ultimately, it’s not the book for me either. I won’t psychoanalyze the author’s reason for writing this, but I just felt the relationship dynamic was too weird for me to even begin to appreciate.

[Note: This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher as a free digital copy in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Guapa

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Review for “Guapa” by Saleem Haddad (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ever since I saw this book on a Buzzfeed “Books to Read in 2016” list earlier this year, I knew I had to get a hold of this. Despite having read many Middle Eastern lit books before, I have to admit that much of this region of the world is still a mystery to me–the people, their customs, ideology, and of course, their Islamic religion–and my curiosity always calls me back to this setting to find out more. When I learned that this book had a gay character, I knew I had struck gold here with a unique character in a unique, often misunderstood setting.

Guapa follows twenty-four hours in the life of Rasa, a young, twenty-something gay man in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. He lives with his domineering grandmother and works for a small company that provides language translation services to Westerners. At the beginning of this story, Rasa’s grandmother catches him in bed with his lover, Taymour, and Rasa flees the apartment he shares with her in shame. From a series of flashbacks and present-day storytelling, we learn about the numerous conflicts Rasa deals with: his mother’s abandonment when he was a child, his father’s death, his time in America and the beginnings of his political activism, various social upheavals in his home country. We also get a glimpse into his relationship with Maj, a politically aware drag queen who performs at a local underground gay bar. The story also examines Rasa’s coming to terms with his own sexuality at a young age, and finally, his relationship with Taymour.

This story is split into three parts. The first part deals with Rasa’s present, the second part goes back to his past. There was some momentum lost with the second part and a lot of boring details, although the upper hand was quickly gained again in the third and last section. I won’t tell you what the third part consists of (it’s too spoiler-y), other than to say that it brought the entire book into perspective.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you have an interest in how marginalized characters discover their identity in the face of cultural taboos. Not bad for a first time author. At all.

Review: Into the Forest

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Review for “Into the Forest” by Jean Hegland (1998)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book. I haven’t seen the movie yet with Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page, but I know I’ll have to, because this one is full of Win, folks.

Into the Forest is the story of two teenaged sisters, Nell and Eva, who live in a house with their parents on a large plot of land deep in the redwood forests of California. They are several miles from their nearest neighbor, and 30 miles from the closest town. The sisters live an idyllic, sheltered existence–both are home schooled and allowed to explore the forest as they please. Eva practices ballet dancing, while Nell retreats into a world of books, hoping to get into Harvard.

Eventually, things begin to change. The power goes out, along with family’s phone and all other methods of communication. Gas and food become scarce. Stores and banks close. Mail delivery stops. People in town begin dying of illnesses, and antibiotics are ineffective. There are rumors of war and riots in the larger cities, and rumors, rumors of danger everywhere. The exact reason for society’s collapse is never completely explained, but the story arc of what’s happening around this family is certainly compelling, as I found myself over and over thinking: wow, this really could happen. Although we’re told these events are taking place in a ‘not so distant future,’ I couldn’t shake the feeling like all of this could happen tomorrow, and all it would take is a large-scale power grid collapse. It’s the perfect post-apocalyptic scenario, but with a non post-apocalyptic feel. Now the nerd in me would have enjoyed a little more info about the means to the world’s end, but this family was already isolated before all the bad stuff happened anyway. With this, you skip a lot of the post-apocalyptic hubbub and get more of a family drama, along with the brilliantly complicated relationship of these two sisters.

Some time after the outage, both of the girls’ parents die and the sisters are left to fend for themselves in their forest home. This section of the book is what made it 4 instead of 5 stars for me. There are a lot of technical details about plants and animals and gardening that honestly did not hold my attention, and I found myself skipping page after page. I completely understand the author’s need to make the story believable, as well as set up the narrative of how the girls survived with limited resources…but multiple paragraphs on squash harvesting and how to hunt and skin a wild boar? Umm, no thanks. But if I’m ever stuck in a redwood forest with nothing to eat, I’ll reach for this book…

Overall, I love how lyrical this book was. I never lost the imagery of a lush, green forest with huge trees and two girls going at it alone. The story is told by Nell through a journal and there are no chapter breaks, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t bothered by the open ending either. There was one scene that was kinda icky, but I’ll let it go for now. Hopefully it won’t be in the movie. Hopefully.

If you’re going to see the movie, please read this book. If you’re not going to see the movie, read this book anyway. Now if you’ll excuse me while I binge watch episodes of Doomsday Preppers…