Monday, October 20, 2008

Review--Kira Salak's "The White Mary"

Kira Salak's "The White Mary" is a gripping first novel about one woman's journey to the end of the earth--otherwise known as Paupa New Guinea--and back. Salak's heroine, Marika, goes to PNG looking for the famous war reporter Robert Lewis. A war reporter herself, Marika goes into the jungle expecting an adventure, but instead undergoes a near death experience that changes her life. The novel flashes back and forth between Marika's time in PNG and her life in Boston before her trip, slowly exposing the heroine's demons to the reader. When Marika is forced to face who she really is in the depths of the jungle, the reader is pulled along through her emotional journey. 

I think Salak's novel is so gripping because the author herself is a war reporter, and many of Marika and Lewis' experiences are based on things the author experienced. When she describes the jungles of PNG or the African plains, you feel like you are really there. This realism does warrant a warning though--some passages of Salak's novel are graphically violent, so sensitive readers should beware. 

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a story about a strong woman, or a story of a woman finding herself. This is very much a modern "Heart of Darkness" so be ready!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nominated for the National Book Award--Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba

Although I originally published this review before I launched Ratskellar Reads, I am republishing it now since 'Telex' has just been nominated for the National Book Award!  I loved 'Telex from Cuba'--it was probably my favorite book this summer--so I'm rooting for it hard!

Rachel Kushner's "Telex From Cuba" is an excellent first novel, probably the best one I have read this year. The novel creates a vivid view of pre-Castro Cuba--a country full of life, color, and dark secrets.

Despite the description on the book flap, "Telex" is really an ensemble tale, covering the six years before Castro's Revolution in Cuba through the eyes of a group of Americans that are in Cuba working for American companies. The novel's storytellers are mostly women and children, whose collective naivety of the strings holding up their comfortable lives in a tropical paradise brings an interesting perspective to the story. As the story progresses all of the characters become more aware of the oppressive conditions that make their lives possible, and of the rebel cause that exists beyond their picturesque doorstep.

Although the novel jumps around a lot between characters and their distinctive narrative voices, it does not feel choppy. Kushner does an excellent job of timing the increasing awareness of her characters along with the progression of the rebellion so that both crescendo at the same time, creating an excellent pace and intensity in the novel. Even though as the reader you know how the revolution and the story will ultimately end, Kushner's narrative style keeps you engaged throughout.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a compelling read, or anyone with an interest in Castro's Revolution or Cuban history. The book certainly made me more interested in several of its central subjects--the United Fruit Company, Castro's Revolution, US Government involvement in Cuba--and gave me a new perspective on the consequences of Cold War politics and American Imperialism.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Frozen Pancakes and Fake Eyelashes" Review

G. Pearl Mak's "Frozen Pancakes and Fake Lashes" is fairly standard chick lit fair. A woman who has everything (in this case a lawyer about to make partner at a big LA firm, with a fancy car, a rich best friend, and a gorgeous husband) suddenly has a wrench thrown into her best laid plans--she gets pregnant. Chaos ensues as she adjusts to being a new mother and finally makes a life changing decision to balance her new family and work responsibilities.

The problem with "Frozen Pancakes" is not this rather typical and predictable chick lit plotline, but rather the execution. All of Mak's characters, including her heroine Angela, are flat. There is no character development in this book AT ALL, so its hard to get emotionally involved at the critical points in the story. In addition, good chick lit relies on smart, witty dialogue to portray its formulaic story in a new way. Mak's dialogue is not smart or witty--which makes it hard to believe that the heroine is a top young lawyer--and it's hard to take a book seriously where all the characters keep saying "tee-hee" or "ha-ha".

Although the plot is predictable, "Frozen Pancakes" wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either. If you're looking for good chick lit, there are better options out there.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

My First Review--Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife"

Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife" is a wonderful read about an ordinary woman who finds herself married to the President of the United States. The book tells the story of Alice Lindgren, a small town girl who grows up to become a librarian before falling hard for wealthy jokester Charlie Blackwell. Alice stands by Charlie as he struggles with alcoholism, then buys a baseball team, before becoming governor of Wisconsin, then President. Throughout Alice questions whether she made the right choice in marrying Charlie--a conservative, born again Christian--whose political ideas clash with her own liberal opinions. If you've been thinking that this story sounds familiar, that's because Sittenfeld's Alice is a close double for Laura Bush. The similarities between these two women, as well as the author's professed "love" for Laura, cannot be ignored as you read this novel, and its hard not to let your opinion of Laura cloud Alice. But Sittenfeld's portrayal of her narrator is so sympathetic, you find yourself really liking this woman, even if you do wish she would push back a little harder against her husband and his family as they continually steamroll her. I found this book extremely readable, and the first three sections in particular read very quickly. Although the final section of the book, which takes place in 2007, felt a little rushed and forced, it provided a nice conclusion to the contradictions of Alice's life. I would recommend this book to any woman--friends and foes of the current administration alike. Just remember, this isn't actually Laura Bush--just a stylized view of what she could be.

Welcome to Ratskellar Reads!

Welcome to Ratskellar Reads, a book blog about what's being read at the Ratskellar.

What is the Ratskellar exactly? Well, it's our humble home in Baltimore, Maryland.  Me, my other half, and our two cats, Ariadne and Chelsea.  I'm an avid reader, and I want to share my book insights with the world.  So enjoy.