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Category Archives: Fiction / Literature

Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Vaclav & LenaAfter reading quite a few glowing reviews of this debut novel, I decided I had to give it a shot.

The general synopsis is: two young immigrants from Russia who are in the same ESL class at school become, well, not ‘unlikely’ friends.  More like inevitable friends, once they are thrown together on a play date and go to Coney Island together.  Starting at the age of five, Lena becomes a fixture in Vaclav’s house, coming over every day after school and staying for dinner.  She is living with her aunt, who is a stripper/prostitute and fails to take basic care of her.  Rasia, Vaclav’s mother, takes Lena under wing and becomes her protector.

Then one day, just after Vaclav’s 10th birthday, Lena doesn’t come to school.  Lena disappears entirely, actually, for seven years.  In this time, Vaclav never forgets his friend and the magic show they had planned to perform together.  He says goodnight to her every night without fail, hoping that it will keep her safe, wherever she is.

The two are reunited after seven years and it serves to help them delve into the time before they met, the time they were apart, and any future they might have together.

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2 States: The Story of My Marriage by Chetan Bhagat

This is the first book I have read written by an Indian author for an Indian audience still living in India. Chetan Bhagat is quite a famous writer in India. Aside from selling many copies of his novels, two of them were made into Bollywood (Indian Hollywood) movies. One of those movies – 3 Idiots – had cross cultural success, with Indian-Americans going to theaters in droves to watch it. I would actually recommend it to non-Indian-American audiences as well. It is a wonderfully directed/written movie, the actors are good, and the songs are entertaining. Did I mention that all Bollywood movies have songs and dance routines? Yea, they do.

Anyway, back to the book. Me thinks this may be based on Chetan Bhagat’s life. I mean, aside from the title saying “the story of my marriage,” the characters bear a striking resemblance to people in his own life. Before I can really get into the story told in this novel, it is important to have an understanding of arranged marriages. And I don’t mean the superficial understanding that leads people to say stuff like, “How can you get married without loving somebody?” or “You’re letting someone else choose your life partner for you?” I’m not saying these aren’t valid questions. I just want to give you a fuller picture of the concept. At one end of the marriage spectrum is the historical context of two people getting together in matrimony. Marriage often served a political purpose. People exchanged heirs to maintain peaceful relationships with foreign powers or tribes. Many people are involved and the two people in the center of this exchange aren’t so much consulted as told of the impending match. Two people coming together for love is on the complete other end of the spectrum. Here, nobody except the two people involved consult about the match. Arranged marriages are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. These marriages involve the coming together of two families that share common beliefs, cultural practices, languages, etc. The bride and groom are consulted, but everything is seen through a familial lens: how will this person fit in with my family?

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

This is one of those books that customers have been recommending to me for years, but I’ve been never felt much of an urge to read myself.  With the movie coming out I figured I would give it a shot, not that I have any particular plans to see the movie, but just to see what all the fuss is about.

We’ll start with the good: Gruen obviously did a lot of research on Depression-era train circuses. She does a good job describing what life on tour with working men, performers, sideshow freaks, and a menagerie of animals might be like.  It’s a very quick, easy read (I read it in two sittings) that moves along at a decent clip.

Some problems I had:

1) Jacob, the protagonist, is debilitatingly passive throughout the story.  He constantly finds himself in circumstances where others take control from him, and he does nothing to stop them.  Other characters make almost all his decisions for him, which is frustrating beyond belief.  For instance, he makes a vow to himself not to let any of the animals be harmed again – but then stands idly by as the elephant is tortured with a hook.  Multiple times.

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Firmin by Sam Savage

Firmin by Sam SavageI bought this book because it had a giant bite taken out of it, and it said it was about a rat who grew up in the basement of a bookstore.  What’s not to like?  (Well, okay, I kind of have a rat phobia, but I was willing to give it a try.)

Firmin is born in a nest made of a shredded copy of Finnegan’s Wake, in the basement of a 1960s-era Boston used bookstore.  He’s the runt of the litter and often gets shorted at feeding time.  As a result, he turns to the books surrounding him for something to chew on and finds that he can’t stop.

Like many things that start as small, illicit pleasures, paper chewing soon became an imperative, and then an addiction, a mortal hunger whose satisfaction was so delightful that I would often hesitate to pounce on the first free tit. (17)

In this way, Firmin becomes a literal consumer of literature.  After a while, however, he learns to read what is written on the pages, and switches to only chewing on the margins.  Soon he is better read than most humans, and he migrates to the ceiling where he watches the bookstore below.  I love his description of what he observes, because it reminds me of the joy inherent in having a bricks-and-mortar bookstore to visit:

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Something Borrowed – Emily Giffin

Something Borrowed by Emily GiffinOn the night of her 30th birthday, Rachel allows herself to sleep with the man she has desired all throughout law school. And it was great. Dexter Thatcher is great, the sex was great, and she feels great. That is until she wakes the following morning with a slight hangover and her absolute best friend’s fiancé in her bed. That’s right, folks. Dex is none other than Darcy’s long time boyfriend and recent fiancé. In fact, Rachel was the one who introduced the two. Bitch, right?

Quickly Dex comes up with a cover for both of them and they part ways, each feeling guilty. But only slightly. Thereafter, the story unfolds like you’d expect it to. Rachel and Dex sneak around to see each other and manage to hide it from all, save a select few non-judgmental and almost encouraging friends. All the while, though, Rachel – who prides herself on being on the straight and narrow her whole life- questions her actions, her friendship with Darcy, modern feminist arguments of being complete without a man, whether what she is doing is all that wrong, and if Dex really is “the One” or if she is fooling herself or he’s fooling her. Bitch, right?

Well, wrong. At least the way Emily Giffin tells it.

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