Book reviews

Alexandra Fuller’s COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS, a review for The Oregonian

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Alexandra Fuller returns to the African landscape in her memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. It accepts the curious task of being both a prequel and a sequel to her 2001 debut, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. With a love of landscape, a historian’s lens and a knack for laugh-out-loud satire aimed at her mother’s narcissism, Fuller tells the broader story of her family’s participation in the Rhodesian civil war.

(Published in The Oregonian, August 28, 2011. Read the full review here.)

Heather Sharfeddin’s DAMAGED GOODS, review for The Oregonian

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Heather Sharfeddin’s fourth novel, “Damaged Goods,” tells the nimble and compact story of an auctioneer who comes to understand the meaning of “priceless.” Three months after a traumatic brain injury, Hershel Swift struggles to remember everything from basic words to how he once ran his business. His old self is an alien personality whom everyone in his hometown of Sherwood seems to despise, and he harbors a suspicion that he played a role in trafficking unregistered guns through his warehouse — a crime, he used to insist, that was victimless. When one day he assists a young woman, Silvie, on the roadside, they unknowingly start a journey that will lead them into their shame-ridden pasts and into a potentially violent future.

Read the rest of the review here.

Review of “Her Fearful Symmetry,” by Audrey Niffenegger

her-fearful-symmThis is a big year for Audrey Niffenegger. Scribner bought the rights to her second novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry,” for a reported $4.8 million — a huge vote of confidence in her ability to bring the book out from the shadow of her first novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”

At first, “Her Fearful Symmetry” seems to succeed. Niffenegger portrays romantic love without crossing into either triteness or cynicism; in a short prologue, a man discovers that his beloved, Elspeth Noblin, has succumbed to cancer while he was getting tea from the hospital drink machine. He puts the tea aside and lies next to her. The scene is poignant, simple and says all that can be said about grief.

Read more. (From The Oregonian, September 27, 2009.)

Review of “Shanghai Girls,” by Lisa See

shanghai_girlsIn her sixth novel, “Shanghai Girls,” Lisa See returns to historical China — for her, familiar terrain. This time she begins in 1937 Shanghai, the “Paris of Asia,” in its splendid, unsuspecting weeks before the Japanese invasion. See, who has already written two best-sellers about women who chafe against tradition, now explores a slightly different frontier of the same idea — what traditions we reject while at home but reclaim as exiles.

May and Pearl are “beautiful girls,” the Shanghai version of fashion models. They are also sisters, and when their Westernized father surprises them by arranging their marriages to pay off a gambling debt, they believe that their futures have been rewritten by a fool. Yet when the Japanese destroy Shanghai and all bets for the future are off, they find themselves compelled into a new destiny — fleeing the city, facing rape, starvation and terror. They find passage to America, where their new husbands await them.

Read more. (From The Oregonian, June 12, 2009.)

Review of “A Mercy” by Toni Morrison

amercy1American geography is often simplified into two colors along state lines, but Nobel laureate Toni Morrison returns to our variegated past in her new novel, “A Mercy.” The moveable feast of Native American, Dutch, French, Spanish, English and parochial territories is at once alien and intimate, for here is the primordial muck of commerce from which our country evolved.

The year is 1690, and Jacob Vaark is an orphan-made-good as a New World trader. A plantation owner asks him to accept one of his slaves as partial payment on a debt, which Vaark refuses until the cook begs him to take her young daughter. This act is the novel’s eponymous mercy. Vaark and his wife, Rebekka, have lost all their children in infancy, and young Florens joins the homestead as a replacement child. Two other “strays” live there, too: Lina, the lone survivor of a smallpox epidemic, and Sorrow, a pregnant and mentally unsound survivor of a shipwreck. “They were orphans, each and all,” Lina says.

Read more. (From The Oregonian, November 14, 2008.)

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