Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin

November 8, 2013 by



In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann explores life in New York City in the 1970s through a series of loosely intertwined narratives. The book opens with an event well-known to those from NYC–the day in 1974 that a man strung a tightrope between the two World Trade Center towers and walked between them. As the book progresses, McCann jumps around to the lives of various people, many of whom witnessed the tightrope display. The characters are varied, including immigrants, socialites, hookers,  young artists, mothers mourning their sons killed in Vietnam, and many more. McCann certainly puts much of the grittiness of NYC during that period on full display, but he also gives fair treatment to the city’s charms, draws, and upper class. In the end, I loved the book not only for its detailed portrayal of a great American city but also for its commentary on the messiness of peoples’ lives.


Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

November 8, 2013 by


Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve is an intellectual narrative about the rediscovery in the 15th century of a Latin work that was almost lost, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Poggio, a 15th century book hunter, found the manuscript tucked away and crumbling in a dusty library, but upon its reintroduction into the literary world, it came to have an astonishing transformative effect. Greenblatt tells this story, which might normally be restricted to a dry academic work, with all the flourishes of a modern story teller. It’s not a book for everyone, but for those interested in the history of ideas and the history of the book itself in Europe, it’s a fun and informative read.


Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland

October 12, 2013 by


I picked-up Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, The Lowland, after reading an excerpt of the book published in the New Yorker under the title “Brotherly Love.” “Brotherly Love” was good, and The Lowland is even better. The plot follows two brothers from their childhood, when they were nearly inseparable, through into their adult years, which turn out as different as two peoples’ lives can be. The book is set in both Calcutta and the United States. It addresses question of political and familial loyalties, the challenges of immigrating (and of staying behind), and the difficulty of finding love.

For me, the weakest parts of the book were those concerning the Naxalite Movement. It’s a fascinating moment in Indian history, but Lahiri hardly does it justice, and it’s also hard to see why it’s necessary narratively to continue returning to this movement. Where Lahiri shines is in her heart-breaking explorations of relationships, particularly those that fall apart.

Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

September 3, 2013 by


I’m a fan of Mohsin Hamid’s previous two novels (particularly his first, Moth Smoke) and also enjoyed his third (admittedly oddly-named) book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The book begins as a “self-help” work that goes on to narrate the story of the never-named protagonist in the second person. It’s an effective strategy to draw one in, and it quickly fades to the background in any case as you follow the story of a boy born into a poor South Asian family and his rise through the social ranks as an adult.

The book may follow a seemingly clear rags-to-riches plot, but just below the surface is also a compelling love story that threads throughout the book and, in some ways, characterizes the man’s entire life. The book is short and readable but also invokes a wide range of themes. Questions of destiny and hard work, love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, surface repeatedly throughout the novel and are dealt with in complex, insightful ways.

Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: A Novel

September 3, 2013 by


The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, and it’s a spot-on coming-of-age story for our times. The main protagonist is Nathaniel P., a young writer who experiences his first taste of professional success but is still unable to maintain his desired type of personal relationship with a woman. Nathaniel P. is a thoroughly unsympathetic character. He is self-absorbed, shallow, fits a certain Brooklyn stereotype perfectly, and can be downright cruel. But he represents a significant trend in modern relationships, which is what captured my attention in this novel. Walman also offers cutting insight into the common behaviors of women who find themselves paired with such men. Without passing judgment, she offers an unmitigated look at the vicious cycles that can lead relationships to their dismal ends or, in some cases, to depressing stability.

In addition to its more serious, and often downer moments, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. also offers plenty of comic relief. The depictions of Brooklyn hipsters are hilariously correct, and Nathaniel’s inner monologues will make you laugh, even as the next line will often make you cringe. Overall a highly readable work on relationships and some of their modern (and perhaps timeless?) challenges.

C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

September 3, 2013 by


I recently finished C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The works are (in order): Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra, and That Hideous Strength–originally published in the 1930s-40s. The three books share some key plot threads and characters, most notably Ransom who is a wise, do-good professor. However, they can also easily be read on their own. Generally speaking, the novels get worse as one goes along in the series. I would recommend the first book, feel lukewarm about the second, and I would warn against the final book.

The first two novels display considerable creativity, particularly in depicting the landscapes and lifeforms of other planets. Out of the Silent Planet is the best book in this regard, set on Mars and featuring some highly imaginary creatures. The description of the space flight from Earth is also interesting and well-done, as is his discussion of language and the nature of communication. Perelandra, which unfolds on Venus, offers compelling descriptions of radically foreign vegetation and even the nature of land itself. However, even in Perelandra, Lewis’s heavy-handed theological vision begins to be oppressive.

In many of Lewis’s works, his Christian messages enhance and guide the story. But in Perelandra and even more so in That Hideous Strength, Lewis pushes theology at the expense of plot. The result is an uninteresting and occasionally totally unclear and unexplained set of events–you get the Christian metaphors, but you don’t really understand what the novel part is all about.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

August 5, 2013 by


I began Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on a whim. I found myself with nothing to read and no time to upload a new book to my kindle before a transatlantic flight took off. My husband had intended to read the book, hence why it happened to already be on my kindle.

The story is a bit heavy-handed. The US government has been overthrown by a group of Christian extremists, who have set up a society allegedly built on strict biblical principles. The story is told from the point of view of one of the “handmaids,” a class of women who offer reproductive services in childless households. The book explores questions of social status, gender, religion, and human nature, but I didn’t find any particular insights in the work. All in all, I wasn’t particularly impressed.

I won’t spoil it, but the most interesting part is probably the ending, which was rather brief and begged the question of why more time wasn’t devoted to this larger framework.

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles

June 18, 2013 by


Madeline Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles, offers a fresh take on the story of Homer’s Iliad by focusing on the relationship between Achilles, the epic’s hero, and Patroclus, his lover. More broadly the book transforms an ancient martial epic into a modern novel by looking at the internal lives of the characters and their feelings towards one another. In addition to love, Miller also addresses questions connected with war, honor, and pride. Miller claims that she worked on the novel for ten years, and I would say that the result is well-worth the effort. The Song of Achilles is not only a great retelling of a classic, but moreover a work in its own right that will stick with you long after you finish the book.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

June 18, 2013 by


David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is perhaps better known for its film version now, but I assure you: the book is far better. The work consists of six interconnected stories that span from the nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future. The stories themselves are each interesting, particularly those set before the current time. Personally I found the few vignettes set in the imagined future the least compelling, perhaps because they struck me as almost caricatures of a possible future. Together, the six tales explore key questions about human nature. Similar challenges and moral questions arise in all the narratives. The issues play out in different ways depending on the precise circumstances, but the larger concern with how people relate to one another link the stories together. Overall, the book lives up to its hype and rewards readers who enjoy trying to see the connecting threads between not-fully-distinct tales.

Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident

April 14, 2013 by

121.Ned Beauman-The Teleportation Accident

Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident is original and hilarious, although slightly rambling at times. The book is set across a few different places, including Berlin, Paris, and Los Angeles largely (although not exclusively) during the 1930s. Egon Loeser, the main protagonist, comes across as a little squeak of a man, self-absorbed to an absurdity, unable to get laid, and prone to finding the worst friends. Despite the vague backdrop of the Nazi rise to power, the book is ultimately light-hearted and enjoyable.

I enjoyed the main storyline and many of the individual scenes had me almost rolling on the floor. Where I thought Beauman went wrong was in some of his more tangential bits and jumping around in time. The ending in particular didn’t seem to fit the rest of the book. Bumbling along is part of the story, but I think a slightly tighter narrative at points would have served his purposes better. Nonetheless, I give the author major points for creativity and imagination in bringing out the bizarre eccentricities of people, no matter their historical circumstances.