Tag Archives: families

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys, the sequel to American Gods, has a decidedly different feel to it compared to its predecessor.  While American Gods had the feeling of a sweeping epic, Anansi Boys is the story of one particular young man.  This just goes to showcase the talent that Neil Gaiman possesses, because both books are exceptionally well-written.

Fat Charlie Nancy is our hapless protagonist, shifting as life forces him to move.  He gets bossed around at work.  His fiancée, Rosie, refuses to sleep with him until after they’re married.  The one aspect of his life that causes him the most trouble, however, is his father.  He spent most of his childhood being tricked, and, understandably, enjoyed the fact that his mother moved the two of them to England when he was a child, while his father stayed behind in Florida.

The real adventure starts when Fat Charlie’s father dies.  It is then that he learns that his father was a god — Anansi, the spider god — and also that he has a brother.  When, in an idle impulse, Fat Charlie asks a spider to bring his brother to him, his problems really start.  His brother, Spider, is everything Fat Charlie isn’t — confident, self-assured, and charming.  Spider also ends up in love with Rosie.  Fat Charlie’s frustration with his brother boils over, and his anger leads him to make a dangerous decision with unforeseen consequences.

Most likely the best thing about both Anansi Boys and American Gods is their use of traditional mythological characters while maintaining a realistic modern sensibility.  I’ve read books where the author has taken a mythological or religious theme and placed it in the modern day and made it cloying or cutesy; Anansi Boys is never either of those.  Rather, Gaiman’s novel has a sharpness to it that creates a sense of believability that is uncommon in books with fantastical components.

Another wonderful aspect of Gaiman’s writing is the lightness of it.  Even when characters are in peril and the pacing is fast, Gaiman’s prose is supple and flowing.  His use of humor is also quite smooth and rather dry, which goes well with the overall tone and subject of the book.

My only quibble is the ending, which I found a bit too neat.  That might just be me, thinking ahead to future books, but I would have liked a little more ambiguity in the final results of Fat Charlie’s story.  I also would have liked a stronger development of Fat Charlie’s boss, Grahame Coats, and his relationship to Tiger.  Until very close to the end, Gaiman didn’t discuss a direct relationship between the two; while this might have been because he wanted to create a surprise factor, it isn’t too terribly difficult to imagine, and I think the story might be more interesting if there were a more defined partnership between the two.

Overall, Anansi Boys is well worth the read, especially for its interesting take on magical realism and Gaiman’s strong writing.  The gods may be based on African ones, but the story belongs to us all.  Let’s take advantage of that.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, the first in the Arbai trilogy, is nothing short of amazing.  We are given a multi-layered story that keeps true to the science fiction and fantasy genres while managing to create something completely new and fresh, which is no easy task.  I was so engrossed in the book that I read the last 250 pages or so during one day.  It’s just that good.

A universal plague has broken out amongst the people of Grass‘ universe.  People are becoming sick and dying, even years after being exposed.  The doctors and scientists don’t know how to stop it.  The only ones with any information, it seems, are the leaders of Sanctity, the most popular religion.  The head of Sanctity decides to send his nephew to Grass, the only planet that has had no sickness.  And thus, Rigo, Marjorie, and their two children end up in an entirely new world with unfamiliar rules and strange taboos.

The wonderful about Grass is that Tepper has shaped it to be so many things.  The main plot circles around Grass and its relationship with the plague.  But it’s easy for the reader to completely forget about the disease and explore the relationships between Marjorie and those around her.  She’s our protagonist, and Tepper positions us well in her head.

Marjorie’s marriage is not a good one.  Her husband and she have personalities that tend to make things worse for one another, rather than better.  Stella, their daughter, takes after her father, much to Marjorie’s chagrin.  Rigo’s mistress is along for the ride, to round out the dysfunction.  These people can’t work together in a cohesive unit.

This lack of unity hurts them.  Meeting the “bons”, the noble families of Grass who exercise their veiled hostility toward all non-bon people, in such a state makes gaining their trust a difficult task.  They could try hunting with the bons, but one view of the creatures these settled people both hunt and hunt with disturbs Marjorie greatly.

On another part of Grass, Brother Mainoa of Sanctity is working on the Arbai village ruins.  The ruins of several Arbai villages have been found on many planets now inhabited by humans.  No one knows what happened to the Arbai; all the villages show few remains and relatively obscure relics.  Except for the one on Grass.  The Arbai remains there are ripped apart.  Brother Mainoa studies the site in order to gain new insight, whether from the artifacts or from the strange friend he gains.

Mixed into all this are religious anarchists, monstrously evil creatures, horsemanship, disease vectors, people with their minds wiped blank, murderous monks, and kind people in unexpected places.  Grass is so complex that I don’t really feel that I can describe it properly.  It’s a marvelous story.  I especially enjoyed the option Tepper gives the reader of focusing on one particular part of the story — they don’t all wind together until close to the end.  It makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen, which is great.  I like to be surprised when I read!

Once everything is together, things still go off in surprising directions.  So surprising that I’m going to have to get the next book in the series soon.

Rating: 5/5.

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth, a book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, has been on my reading list for a while.  I read The Namesake, one of Lahiri’s previous books, five or six years ago and really enjoyed it.  While Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of enjoyable stories, they feel more coarsely developed than her earlier novel.

Lahiri delivers to us a group of stories about second-generation Indian immigrants.  They are their coming-of-age stories; some are somewhat surprising, since it takes some of the characters forty years to reach a point of true maturity.  I think Lahiri has it right when she casts her population in that category of delayed social milestones — the pressure to be successful academically and to have a good career takes precedent above love and creating a family for a lot of these people.  Their parents want them to do both, but the push to be wunderkinds causes a lot of social immaturity.  Add to that the cultural pressure to stay within the ethnic group with all romantic affairs, and it’s no wonder the children of Indian immigrants are often seen in academia without a spouse or children until they are well into their thirties (or even early forties).

My favorite story in this book, also called “Unaccustomed Earth”, is about a Bengali woman who is married to a white man, has a son with him and another child on the way.  Her father, with whom she trades the narrative voice, is a widower living on the other side of the United States.  He has taken to travelling, and has a secret travel partner who is also Indian.  His daughter, while starting her own family, feels the pull to follow Indian tradition and ask her father to stay with them.  I felt that the interplay between her wants and her perception of what society expects of her were interesting, as was what her father actually wanted.  I thought the end of the story, especially, was very good.

I also liked the second half of the book, composed of three short stories, which is about two families and their only children — one boy, one girl — and their journeys through growing up.  The first, “Once In a Lifetime”, is written in the second person by the girl, Hema, to the boy, Kaushik.  She talks about the re-emigration of Kaushik’s family and the interaction the two families had when hers hosted his when they were first back in the country.  The second, “Year’s End”, is from him to her, about his life during college.  The last, “Going Ashore”, is their stories to each other when the get reacquainted.  The series is pretty good, and would have been interesting as a book on its own.

My main issue with Unaccustomed Earth is with Lahiri’s narrative.  She feels as though each character’s inner workings needs to be written down for the reader to read.  Why can’t their actions speak toward their feelings?  Give the reader some work to do.  We like it.  That’s why we read.  The book could have been shorter that way, too, or it could have included more stories.  As they stand, the stories feel bloated.  The only ones where this structure makes sense is in the second half of the book, where two characters are basically writing to one another.  For the other stories, it feels heavy-handed and coarse.

I loved the stories in Unaccustomed Earth.  I like Lahiri.  I just wish that her editor had taken the time to tell her to be a little more subtle with her narrative.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

Heather Sellers says again and again that, when she shares the story of her family with other people, people who don’t know her parents, they react with shock and incredulity.  How, exactly, could a child have grown up relatively normal if both her father and her mother were so irrational, so abusive, so … well, crazy?  In her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers explores her current life in the context of her childhood in an interesting way that leads to a greater understanding of her own behavior and the path she is living.

Sellers starts off discussing her trip from Michigan to Florida with her boyfriend and his two sons.  They are going because Sellers has a speaking engagement, because the boys haven’t been to Disney World, because she has her twentieth high school reunion, and because that’s where her parents are.  The visit to both parents’ homes goes badly, leaving Sellers disheartened.

Throughout the rest of the book, we learn why her parents’ behavior is so odd.  Well, not why it’s odd, but we learn that it’s normal for her mother to behave as if someone’s been looking through her purse and for her father to think it’s appropriate for his daughter to sleep in a recliner she shares with a dog while he has an extra room filled with odd gadgets.  These are not people who should ever have had children — at least not together.  Instead of providing Sellers with stable ground to find her feet, these two constantly caused earthquakes.

In her adult life, Sellers accosted by a former high school boyfriend, who pesters her with questions about her mother.  “What was she, schizophrenic?” he finally asks, leaving Sellers struggling to cope with the realization that her mother might be mentally ill.  She asks her parents, but gets no answers from either of them.

Meanwhile, while she’s worried about her mother’s well-being, Sellers is also realizing that she has something going on in her brain.  She can’t recognize faces.  While she can make guesses as to who people are, she often walks right by people she knows (and occasionally greets people who are strangers).  She figures out what she has, asks for diagnostics … and her concerns are minimized.  It is not until researchers at Harvard find out that she thinks she has face blindness and invite her to be part of a study does she get confirmation of the fact that she cannot, in fact, recognize people.

Try getting people to believe that.  Most of the rest of the book documents her attempts to get those around her to realize that, no, she’s not being rude, she just can’t recognize you.  No, it’s not that she doesn’t remember names.  No, hair and clothes aren’t always enough to be able to discern someone.  Sellers explores the difficulties in trying to get others to realize that she does have a disability, which is something a lot of us can relate to.

My main issue with You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is that, with the split structure, I had a limited amount of interest in Sellers’ story.  I wanted her to pick one line and stick to it!  Having read the entire thing, I see why she made the choice she did.  I still think it might have been better to make the two a little more distinct; the book is already divided into chapters and sections; why not use a section to explore one time period?

Other than that, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a solid medical memoir with some interesting familial twists.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes reading about dysfunctional families, odd medical maladies, or both.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

What if a retired man, encouraged by his wife, started a business to match people up?  What if he’s matching them up for arranged marriages?  This is the premise of The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a cute and likable story by Farahad Zama about life and love in India.  Presenting a straightforward story, the book gives us small bits of life advice while remaining an ultimately light tale, providing for easy reading.

Books taking place in India, and discussing the people who live there, are nothing new.  One of my favorites is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.  In fact, there seems to have been an explosion of the genre recently, with many new Indian writers bringing their works to the world.  I, for one, am ecstatic about this.  I’ve been fascinated by India since I was little, and I can always read a little more fiction that takes place there.  I don’t care if it’s serious, like Roy’s novel, or lighthearted, like Zama’s book.

The basic premise, that an older man, Mr. Ali, helps others find marriage matches, struck me as quirky and charming.  He sets up shop on the front veranda of his and his wife’s porch, advertises for clients, and starts taking in their information to add to lists, which he sends out to clients who would find them of interest.  His business becomes so popular that he takes on an assistant, Aruna, a sweet, intelligent young woman who has been forced out of her master’s program in order to provide money for her family.

Aruna proves to be a very capable employee, as well as pleasant enough to Mr. and Mrs. Ali that they consider her like a daughter.  Their own son causes them no end of troubles, with his social activism, and Aruna appears to offer them a bit of stability and comfort their lives would otherwise lack.

It is a bit predictable that Aruna is good with managing the office and at assisting people in finding their marriage matches.  I can easily accept it since Aruna is such a sympathetic character — she needs to be good at her job because her family needs the money.  Plus, her job leads her to a match of her own, so it’s a good plot device.

I have to admit, I expected that Aruna (and possibly her sister) would end up married by the end of the book.  I think that’s pretty much a given with a book like this — someone important to the story will get married.  It’s practically a rule.  Zama did, however, surprise me a bit.  I was guessing about one man for Aruna, and it turned out to be someone completely different.  I liked that he was able to distract me to a certain extent, although I did manage to get the right man before the official reveal.

There was another way The Marriage Bureau for Rich People surprised me.  The Alis are Muslim, Aruna is Hindu, and the customers of the matchmaking service are both, with some Christians tossed into the mix as well.  There is no friction between the groups; in fact, the people seem to readily acknowledge the similarities of their core beliefs, and choose to take the opinion that God is God and religion is a creation of man.  This is amazing, and I wonder how accurate that assertion is for actual Muslims and Hindus living in close proximity to one another.  For this book, it made storytelling easier, so I suspended my disbelief.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t wonder about the actual relationships people build with their neighbors with beliefs different from their own.

My last surprise was actually closely tied with the premise of the book:  I didn’t realize that so many marriages in India are arranged. I knew it was a practice commonly employed in the past.  Why I thought love-marriage was predominant now, I have no idea; the caste system, plus the difficulties of meeting people of the opposite sex who would be considered suitable to not only the individual but also the family, makes it a challenge to find someone.  No wonder family members, like uncles, or services like Mr. Ali’s, are necessary to help marriage matches along.

I enjoyed learning a little more about an aspect of Indian culture that I haven’t read a lot about.  I also thought the romance part of the story endearing.  I hope that Zama writes more books, because I already know I’d like to read them.

Rating: 4/5.

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