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.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach 2008 (319 pgs)
Roach writes the best kind of science- compulsively compelling and delightfully accessible. In her third book, she delves into the history and current state of sex research. With short sections ranging from artificial insemination of farm animals to the study of rats in polyester pants (really!). Extremely informative, occasionally shocking, often hilarious, and always entertaining, Roach knows how to present science in a way that keeps you coming back for more.
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney 2007 (273 pgs)
Enjoyable travelogue of a woman’s frustrated efforts to row solo from Aswan to Luxor. She wants to experience the Nile they way ordinary people have for milennia: by self-powered rowboat. It’s an interesting shift in focus; she’s not preoccupied with the architecture and historical sites. She’s looking to connect with the everyday people who make their livings within reach of the Nile as well as make her own connection to the river. Along her journey, she ruminates on the epic force of this life-enabling river throughout history and touches on historical travellers experiences, which makes for an interesting read.
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.
The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani (377 pgs) 2007
Left destitute when her father dies suddenly, a young girl and her mother in 17th-century Persia struggle to survive without income. With no dowry, the girl has little hope of a marriage that could support them and they are forced to seek refuge with distant relatives. They journey from the rural farm town they’ve known all their lives to the bustling city of Isfahan, home to the Shah and his court.
The girl is awed by the city, its architecture, and its inhabitants. But she is most inthralled by the amazing carpets created by her uncle and others in the Shah’s employ who have elevated it to an art form. She enters a kind of sheltered apprenticeship with her uncle, devouring his teachings and spending her limited free time creating carpets of her own.
But her position is a precarious one, dependent upon her relatives’ continued goodwill. When they pressure her to accept a temporary marriage contract, she reluctantly agrees. Struggling with her conflicting emotions and the secrecy, she finds herself awakening to her own passions and her own power.
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.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney 2007 (371 pgs)
A murder mystery (and snowshoe-speed chase) set in the frozen landscape of 1860s fur-driven Northern Territory. When Mrs Ross finds a neighboring trapper murdered, she also discovers that her teenage son has disappeared and his running footsteps lead away to the desolate north where they seem to be following other tracks. When representatives of the Hudson Bay Company (the central authority of the area) set out to bring him back, Mrs Ross enlists an escaped murder suspect as her guide and follows them. Told in rotating perspectives of the chased and the chasing, the book weaves like the tracks they follow through the snow- the clues are faint and fleeting, buried in layers of secrets and hidden motivations.