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.
Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe, 1977-Japan, 1979-English translation (179 pgs)
It begins with an un-summoned ambulance in the middle of the night. They insist on taking away their patient, although she insists there’s nothing wrong and it must be a mistake. When her husband tries to track her down in the morning, she has disappeared into a bizarre labyrinthine underground hospital. The man is soon subsumed by the convoluted bureaucracy of the hospital, where every employee is also a patient and no one ever seems to get cured. Soon the man’s search ceases to matter. He ends up not even noticing that he’s not seeking his wife anymore, or really heading much of anywhere. It’s as if he’s fallen down the rabbit hole into something resembling a David Lynch film.
Compelling, but I’m not sure I liked it- during or after. I kept feeling like I was missing something, like if I understood the Japanese cultural landscape of the 1970s there would be a deeper metaphor contained in the book that I just didn’t catch.
Obedience by Will Lavender 2008 (287 pgs)
Students in a Logic and Reasoning class are asked to solve a hypothetical kidnapping before it becomes murder. The plot begins simply, but soon builds to a puzzle of cunning intricacy. Supposedly fictional characters start intruding on real life, and there are hints of a decade-old real murder nearby that bears striking similarity to the fictional case. Soon, three of the students (along with the reader) start to question what is real and whether there will soon be another murder. A great puzzle book that left kept me in a state of brain-buzz on a par with a good sudoku or crossword puzzle.
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.
The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare 1993- English ed. (205 pgs/read 58)
A low-level clerk in a overly bureaucratic nation sorts and analyses the citizens’ dreams. Interesting premise, but a bit too overly-veiled and metaphorical for me.
Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey 2008 (183 pgs/read 41)
A ruler’s personal chef, barber, and portrait painter are imprisoned during a political coup. It never really took off.
The Swimmer by Zsuzsu Bank 2005-English ed. (278 pgs/read 94)
A spacious, introspective novel set in 1950s Hungary. Kata and her younger brother Isti find their lives unalterably changed when their mother abandons the family with no notice. Their father promptly sells the family home and leads them into a rootless existence, traveling from distant relative to distant relative. This is one of those books I’d love to return to. But after chipping away at it for six months, I had to let it go.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer 1961 (255 pgs/read 55)
I thought I’d read this as a child, but it didn’t seem in the least familiar. And worse, it wasn’t anywhere as compelling as the childhood books I did love.
The River Wife by Jonis Agee 2007 (393 pgs/read 142)
A young pregnant bride, whose husband is often absent on mysterious business, fills her empty nights reading the journals of her husband’s Missouri ancestors. Fairly interesting at first, especially the woman’s survival after an earthquake leaves her trapped in the family cabin as the river rises nearby. But I lost interest about the point where her baby gets eaten by wild dogs & she suddenly starts up an affair with John James Audubon.
The Outlander by Gil Adamson 2008 (389 pgs/read 20)
On the run, a woman tries to elude her in-laws who blame her for her husband’s murder. Failed to grab me.
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.
I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman 1997 (206 pgs)
What is it that makes up the human experience? Are we defined by our family, our possessions, our personal history, a life lived with purpose, who we are in relation to others? The narrator, a survivor of an unknown apocalypse has less than that. She lives a solitary life focused entirely on mere survival. And yet she strives, she desires, she learns for the enjoyment of pure knowledge regardless of its usefulness or applicability. She is in short, entirely human.
Previously reviewed here.