Tuesday, February 26, 2013

{read: sales in Saudi Arabia} A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

I was expecting more from the acclaimed Dave Eggers. This was airy, aimless, and left me wanting some substance.

Alan is a sales rep from Reliant who goes to Saudi Arabia with a team of three young tech people to make a presentation to the king in hopes that Reliant will be chosen as the IT provider for a new city, KAEC, that's being built. But progress on the city is slow, no one knows when (or if) the king might even show up for the presentation, and the only reason Alan is included is because he met the king's nephew 20 years ago. He's depending on this sale and its commission to bail him out of his enormous debts and pay his daughter's college tuition.

Alan tries to strike up a friendship with a taxi driver who ferries him around and he takes part in a few lustful dalliances that score him alcohol and a day trip, but mostly he waits.

While this story was easy to read, I wanted more from it. Alan changes not at all throughout the book, the final scenes are anticlimactic, and I was left wondering what the point of the book is. Is it that the U.S. has outsourced everything without thinking of the consequences? Is it that we are all broken in some way, but we're more than the sum of our broken parts?

Either there was much more here and I just didn't read deeply enough to get it, or it was only what it seemed on the surface: a desperate man reaching for life preservers that will always elude his grasp. While some people like novels about quiet desperation and resignation, I've never been one of them. Perhaps this just wasn't my kind of book.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, 2012)
My rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

{read: Irish thriller} Ratlines by Stuart Neville

Ireland is one of the countries that offered asylum to the Nazis after WWII, but now, just weeks before JFK is scheduled to visit, someone is killing them. Albert Ryan, a man who fought in the war and now works for Ireland's Directorate of Intelligence, is tasked with getting to the bottom of it. But what he finds is that it's not quite as simple as it seems. He gets pulled into a tangled mess of intrigue and the bodies start to pile up. Can he find a way out?

I had discovered Stuart Neville years ago with his first novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, which featured an IRA hitman who is haunted by the 12 men he killed and, once released from prison, sets out to kill those who had engineered their deaths. (That's the first of a trilogy.) This standalone didn't disappoint, and the end is especially chilling. Neville excels at creating damaged male characters who fight against right and wrong, all the while knowing that a "normal" life will always evade them and death is just around the corner.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville (Soho Crime, 2013)
My rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

{tread: resilience} Torch by Cheryl Strayed

How much of my reaction to a book is based upon my expectations for it? Perhaps that's a subject for another day, but I bring it up here because Torch by Cheryl Strayed was a book that I was almost afraid to read. After devouring Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, I moved on to Torch with mixed feelings. Rarely do I end up liking an author's fiction and nonfiction equally. In fact, if I really like someone's nonfiction, her fiction usually disappoints me. (Expectations again.)

Then I read the jacket copy and saw that the plot of Torch is at least loosely autobiographical. Strangely, this made me angry. I wanted fiction, which I defined as a work that was entirely made up with absolutely no basis in Strayed's life. I didn't want memoir/autobiography thinly veiled as fiction.

I let Torch sit on the shelf a few more days.

Finally, I picked it up. I hoped I wouldn't have to invoke the 50-page rule. But after all my angst, I needn't have worried. Torch is that rare treat, a book that envelops the reader completely in its world. What we as readers always hope for is to enter a world that's completely imagined, populated with characters so real we feel like we could invite them over for drinks or go shopping for a new coat with them. That's Torch. After the first few pages, I forgot to compare the plot to Strayed's life. I forgot to pay attention to what she was doing as a writer. I was caught up in the story, which ends up being one of hope in the face of grief.

In Torch, Teresa is diagnosed with incurable cancer and told she has a year to live, but she's dead within a few weeks. Her family, common-law husband Bruce and children Claire and Joshua, are left to struggle on without her. Claire drops out of college. Joshua deals marijuana and meth. Bruce learns he can't stand to be alone with Teresa's memory and gets married just months after Teresa dies.

Yet this story, which could be depressing, isn't. These characters are doing the best they can, fumbling forward while looking backward. This is a story about the resilience of the human spirit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

{read: The Bee List} A collection of Bee novels

The title of Lisa O’Donnell’s January debut, The Death of Bees, brought to mind the obvious almost-opposite title, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. And that reminded me of Little Bee by Chris Cleave, which is one of my all-time favorite books. Here’s a short tour of The Bee List, each featuring distinct first-person female narrators.

1. The Death of Bees offers three voices, each with its own clear perspective on the world. Interestingly, I found myself paying the most attention at first to Nelly, whose chapters are rarely longer than a few paragraphs. While her older sister Marnie and their neighbor Lennie tell most of the story, Nelly has so little to say that you feel it has to be important. Yet it was the first few lines, which are in Marnie's voice, that convinced me to give this one a try:


Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.

Marnie and Nelly are determined not to go into foster care and set out to cover up their parents' deaths until Marnie turns 16 and is a legal adult. Will they succeed? This story is set in the low-rent district of Glasgow amidst grinding poverty, but perhaps surprisingly, it's a story that's more about hope than despair.

2. The Secret Life of Bees featured Lily Owens, a white girl escaping from her father and searching for her mother in 1960s South Carolina. She and Rosaleen, the black woman who is the closest thing she’s known to a mother, take off on foot and end up seeking shelter with three black beekeeping sisters. This bestselling coming-of-age tale about mothers and daughters, told in Lily’s irreverent voice, will charm you. It’s a best-selling classic Southern novel.

3. Little Bee’s title character is a teenage Nigerian girl who, after a chance encounter on an African beach with an upscale English couple on holiday, barely escapes with her life. She eventually winds up in an English immigration removal center, which is where asylum seekers are sent. When she’s finally released, she sets out on foot across the country to find Sarah and Andrew. (No, this isn't the fictional UK equivalent of Wild.) But, as she and Sarah learn, that brief encounter on the beach has lasting consequences. One of my favorite characters was Sarah’s young son, Charlie, who is convinced that he’s Batman and battles the “baddies.” The searing voice of Little Bee will stay with you long after you finish this tour de force that shows us what globalization really means.