The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

In Jade Chang’s debut novel, America giveth and America taketh away.

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Harper Collins. Received ARC from publisher.

Charles Wang, a lovable, brash, and ambitious Chinese-American immigrant, achieves the ultimate American dream of making it rich in the land of the free only to have the financial crisis of 2008, the end-result of a freewheeling economy, take it all away. He’s left with his wife and three kids and the dream of returning to his native China to reclaim the ancestral land the communists took away from his family.

I started this novel expecting a lighthearted read and while the book has its share of amusing situations, it also shows how Charles Wang’s path to success included fighting or brazenly embracing stereotypes and prejudices against Chinese immigrants. His children, Saina, Andrew, and Grace, are born in the U.S. and raised in a world of privilege but they still deal with situations in which they are reminded of their otherness. It could be a stranger asking them where they are really from or their father making a comment that comes across as culturally insensitive. I appreciated that Chang does not shy away from depicting profoundly uncomfortable situations. I also like that Chang’s use of untranslated Chinese, similar to Junot Diaz’s use of Spanish throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is another reminder that this particular story is intrinsically American but also rooted in the immigrant experience.

Ultimately, we follow the Wangs as they come to terms with their changed financial situation and figure out that family is more important than the trappings of success.

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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Harper Collins. Purchased at Chapters Indigo.

After having read a State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, here are a some thoughts on this emotional and powerful read.

The story starts out with Dr. Marina Singh learning of the death of her colleague Dr. Anders Eckman. The scene where Marina breaks the news to Dr. Eckman’s wife is heart-wrenching.  In this opening sequence, the reader becomes aware of Marina’s feeling of abandonment when Mr. Fox leaves the room and she’s forced to tell Karen the news on her own.  Marina is also very conflicted because she’s aware of her employer’s role in the death of her colleague. Patchett’s writing immediately hooks you into wanting to know more about the story and its characters. It’s not a fast-paced book but her prose is enthralling.

Ann Patchett transports her readers with her writing. In Bel Canto we are trapped with the hostages in the confines of a mansion in a poor South American country. But in State of Wonder, the setting is much grander in scope. I don’t know if her descriptions of Manaus and the Amazon are correct but they are evocative. I was able to picture the oppressive heat, the humidity-filled air, the torrential downpours, the muddy waters of the river, and the claustrophobia-inducing darkness of the Amazon jungle. Patchett illustrates the harshness of the conditions but through the story we are also made aware on the fragility and complexity of this ecosystem.

Dr. Marina Singh, the protagonist, embodies a quiet strength that allows her to take in stride many of the setbacks she encounters in Manaus and the Amazon. Yet, it’s the character of Dr. Swenson that I found the most interesting. Dr. Swenson’s intense focus and belief in her convictions leads her to make decisions that many would find ruthless or unethical. Except for a few demonstrations of vulnerability, she seems to be in complete control.

These are just a few themes that struck me as I was reading but there is much more to this story. State of Wonder is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in 2011 but don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to pick up a copy and see for yourself.

 

 

A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Cover of "A Visit from the Goon Squad"
Anchor Books. Purchased online at The Book Depository

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is episodic. It develops in a non-linear fashion making it is easier to read the novel if you think of it as a collection of short stories loosely threaded together by common characters. Each chapter is told from the point-of-view of a different character and the order of the chapters is not chronological. Yet, despite the novel’s  fractured quality, I became enamoured with the original structure of the book and  I was completely engrossed with the complicated lives of the characters featured. I loved finding out how the characters fared by they way they’re mentioned sometimes offhandedly in another story.

The characters’ dysfunctional ways make them believable and identifiable. I thought the stories were funny, sad, disturbing and very touching. Time, and how it leaves nothing unchanged, is the theme of Egan’s novel and she does an excellent job of describing its effect without being fatalistic. I especially enjoyed the chapters based in the future where Jennifer Egan deals with the evolution of language and the way people relate to each other.

Here’s another taste of Jennifer Egan’s writing. A short story in the form of a list.

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Book Review: Buried Secrets by Joseph Finder

St Martin's Press. Received ARC from Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

Nick Heller is back! I read Buried Secrets within a couple of weeks of finishing Vanished and I have to say that this second book in the Nick Heller series is much more intense. In this instalment, Nick Heller is searching for Alexa, the kidnapped daughter of billionaire and family friend Marshall Marcus. The reasons for the kidnapping are not clear and Nick is not getting the information he should from Alexa’s father.

Nick’s characteristic sense of humour (I got strange looks on the bus because I kept snickering as I read)  is still present in this novel but the overall feeling of urgency makes you want to plow through the remaining pages to find out what happens. Alexa is being kept under some pretty horrific conditions which allows for some pretty gruesome scenes. In Buried Secrets, Nick Heller’s is conflicted as ever as he deals with some pretty nasty characters and a woman from his past and, like in Vanished, some of Nick’s investigative efforts lead him to uncover some questionable government deals.

Buried Secrets is another fast-paced, enjoyable thriller full of suspense from  Joseph Finder. I’m looking forward to reading his other stand alone books.

Book Review: Vanished by Joseph Finder

Purchased online at The Book Depository

With his novel Vanished, Joseph Finder introduces the character of Nick Heller a private spy who served with the U.S. Army Special Forces.  In this first instalment Nick is dealing with the disappearance of his older brother Roger who vanishes after his wife is attacked. Nick faces the task of protecting his sister-in-law and nephew while uncovering the circumstances of his brother’s disappearance. The more he uncovers the more he realizes that his brother is living a double-life. This fast-paced book leads readers into the grey area where governments and private contractors work in, in other words, the money-making side of war.

Our hero is intelligent, tough, loyal and seems to follow his own code of honour. He can also be funny, charming and a smartass when the situation calls for it. Like any great character there’s conflict in his background. His father is in jail for fraud and grand larceny after embezzling millions of dollars and his once close relationship with his brother is now rocky.

Vanished is an enjoyable action-packed read filled with interesting characters. I’m glad I decided to read it before reading the ARC I got of Buried Secrets. the next book by Joseph Heller featuring Nick Heller private-spy extraordinaire.

Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Spiegel & Grau. Purchased online at The Book Depository

In Ape House, a touching story written by Sara Gruen of Water for Elephants fame, Isabel Duncan is a scientist that researches and cares for  six bonobos at a research facility affiliated with a university.  These bonobos are special because they are able to communicate with humans using American Sign Language. Shortly after a journalist visits the bonobos, the research facility is hit by a bomb that severely injures Isabella. While she’s recuperating. the apes are sold and Isabella, normally reserved, finds herself reaching out to others to save the apes from exploitation.

As with Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen delivers an entertaining novel that also educates the reader on aspects of animal cruelty. In this case, the treatment that apes receive at the hands of scientists at pharmaceutical companies. The book also touches on the amazing research being done by places such as the Great Ape Trust where scientists are studying language acquisition and other behavioural traits in bonobos, chimps, and orangutans.

I really enjoyed reading about the bonobos and their individual personalities. I loved the Isabel Duncan character for her dedication to the bonobos which she describes as her family. My only complaint is that I found some of the characters in the book superfluous and a bit annoying. I found myself racing through these bits so that I could get back to the main bonobo-centric story-line. I was so engrossed with this book that I missed my bus stop while on my way home one evening.

Overall, Ape House is an entertaining and captivating read that may inspire readers to learn more about the preservation and protection of the Great Apes.

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They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers by Roméo Dallaire

Random House Canada. Purchased at Concordia University Bookstore.

Retired Lieutenant-General Roméo A. Dallaire gives a detailed description of the issues governments and NGOs face as they try to stop the use of child soldiers in conflicts around the world. Thanks to his military background and his first-hand experience with child soldiers during the Rwandan genocide, Lt-General Dallaire is able to give a clear account on how and why children are used in armed conflict. He says candidly that the key to stopping this epidemic of child soldiers is prevention as he explains the inadequate resources to rehabilitate former child soldiers. He details the work of the Child Soldier Initiative foundation and his work in getting military and humanitarian organizations to work collaboratively to prevent the use of children in war. He ends the book with a plea to the reader to become involved and he lists the many ways the public can help organizations fighting the use of child soldiers.

I found this book powerful because in addition to the raw facts, Lt-General Dallaire has chosen to include two fictional accounts to illustrate the issues surrounding the use of child soldiers. This first account is the story of a boy who is taken from his village after seeing his family murdered. It shows his transition from child to soldier and his eventual death at the hands of a U.N. soldier. The second story is told from the point of view of a U.N. soldier who kills an opponent during a skirmish with rebel forces only to realize that the “soldier” he shot is just a child.