Category Archives: foreign experience

song sung blue

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway 2008 (235 pgs)

During the siege of Sarajevo, a man watches from his window as 22 of his friends and neighbors are killed by a single shell while waiting in line for bread. He quietly puts on his tux, picks up his cello, and plays in the wreckage for 22 days. From there, the narrative shifts between three other survivors in the war zone, one of them a sniper charged with keeping the cellist alive during his “concerts.” A moving novel without veering towards maudlin or sappy. It’s a haunting look at how hope sustains people during war and how sometimes survival means creating your own hope.


we didn’t start the fire

When You Are Engulfed In Flames  by David Sedaris 2008 (323 pgs)

In Sedaris’s newest collection of essays, even the dust jacket is funny. In fact, get it just for that. Sedaris touches on why you should never take your parents to an art gallery, the perils of talking to your neighbors, the angst of being the worst student in your language class, and how quiting smoking can kill you, among other topics.

days of future passed

The Brief History of the Dead  by Kevin Brockmeier 2006 (252 pgs)

A global illness is wiping out humanity. Isolated in Antarctica, a single survivor remains. As she tracks across the brutal landscape, Laura Byrd plumbs the depths of her memories to distract herself from the harsh conditions. In an afterlife city, the longtime residents begin to notice the population changing drastically. As the pandemic takes hold, the recently departed funnel into a city, and even more rapidly disappear, until mere thousand are left from billions. For the inhabitants can only dwell there for as long as they live in the memory of the living.  

In this haunting (or shall we say haunted?) narrative, Brockmeier illustrates the power of memory and the connections we form throughout our lives. Both portions of the story are separately compelling and it’s fun to see how they connect.  And I always appreciate a book that doesn’t tie everything up in a pat little fluffy bow- but rather leaves the ending open to interpretation and imagined possibilities.


horse of a different color

Jaran  by Kate Elliott (The Jaran#1) 1992 (494 pgs)

Tess is full of doubts and intent on evading the heavy expectations that result from her position as sister and heir to the only human duke in an alien empire. When she heads for a vacation on a backwater planet in her brother’s domain, she instead stumbles upon a group of aliens violating territorial agreements by setting out on an expedition across the forbidden zone. On instinct she follows them, determined to aid her brother and his planned human rebellion.

She finds herself alone among the Jaran, a warlike equestrian nomadic society that rules the plains. There she works to earn the acceptance and respect of the tribe while trying to discover the aliens’ true purpose.

Great fantasy series I like to re-read every once in a while. The world is richly developed with fascinating characters and plot.

stuck in the middle with you

The ones I gave up on:

Can a Robot Be Human?: 33 Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles  by Peter Cave 2007 (192/read 130ish)

Somewhat interesting, but written in an overly twee style that I could only take in short doses.

Fieldwork  by Mischa Berlinski (320 pgs/read 40) 2007

Love this book, but I’ll have to get it again later. So little time, so few renewals.

The Soul Thief  by Charles Baxter (210 pgs/read 95) 2008

Reads like an art school cocktail party. In a good way. The prose is sophisticated and intellectual without being pretentious. It’s the perfect style for this tale of the entanglements of graduate students searching for connection, while one tries to steal the other’s identity.

Solitaire  by Kelley Eskridge (353/read 213) 2002

Mmm, comfort book. One of my fav books, about a woman sentenced to solitary confinement in a virtual cell in her own mind (which is the point I started this time round). I love the evolution of her character and how being completely alone forces her to face herself.

Unaccustomed Earth  by Jhumpa Lahiri (333/read 45ish) 2008

Short story collection from an excellent author who winningly captures the dichotomous nature of the emigrant experience.

The Third Domain: The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology  by Tim Friend (296/read 35) 2007

Archaea are microbes older than bacteria that are being discovered thriving in the most extreme environments- from volcanic vents to streams deep within icebergs. It’s a fascinating topic, but the meandering writing failed to grab me.


early to bedouin, early to rise

The Moonlit Cage  by Linda Holeman (487 pgs) 2006

As a strong, willful, inquisitive young woman in mid-19th century Afghanistan, Darya finds that traditional village life chafes. She has a hard time reconciling herself to such a narrow existence and feels there must be something more to life. When a tribeswoman levels a curse of barrenness on Darya that leaves her an outcast in her own village, she’s forced into marriage in a nomadic Bedouin tribe from whom she must conceal her curse. And thus begins her search for belonging.

I liked 2/3 of this book, Darya’s early life was interesting with fully described characters and the setting well captured. But when Darya heads to England, it turned odd, losing the flavor that had made it compelling.

time will tell

People of the Book  by Geraldine Brooks 2008 (372 pgs)

A riveting novel that explores the way that objects connect people through time. In the wartorn mid-1990s the Sarajevo Haggadah, a precious 500-year-old religious text, has resurfaced. A restorer is rushed in to evaluate its condition and make any necessary repairs. The years of wear and the small pieces of debris she finds are clues that tell the history of the text’s survival if only she can connect them. Brooks uses these clues to jump progressively further back in time to tell the stories of various people tied to the historic text. Each vignette is so richly drawn that they could easily be stand-alone novellas; when used to tell the single tale of the life of the Haggadah itself, the novel forms an intricate latticework of history that is much more than the sum of its parts.