What I’ve Read Recently…

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo: A terrible, frightening, and tragic portrait of the Annawadi slum and its inhabitants that reads like fiction. 

Defending Jacob by William Landay: A psychological study of a man defending his child accused of murder. Not quite the shocking ending critics led me to expect.  

The Likeness by Tana French: One of the best character studies I’ve read. Even if we know whodunit 3/4 of the way through, we don’t know why until the end. 

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast by Cheryl Strayed: Much, much more riveting and (I feel) genuine than Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love, though the comparisons are valid. 

How It All Began by Penelope Lively: Meh. Maybe crises of marriage and family are overrated. 

11/22/63 by Stephen King

It’s Stephen King—so it’s not for everyone. But I found 11/22/63 less SF/Fantasy than some of his previous works, and therefore more accessible to those of us who don’t quite understand the genre as well as we might. In sum: high school English teacher Jake Epping travels back in time to stop the assassination of JFK. But what he doesn’t realize is that every time he enters the past (1958, initially), he changes some aspect of the present—and not always for the better. But, as he learns, “The past is obdurate,” despite his herculean efforts otherwise.

I borrowed 11/22/63 from my library for a one-week hold and didn’t think I’d make it even halfway through the book (800+ pages). To my surprise I finished it quite quickly (admittedly, I skimmed some of the historical asides and focused on the character development and the quite atypical romance).

We reviewed 11/22/63 in the January/February 2012 issue of Bookmarks magazine.

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known person to have escaped North Korea’s labor camps, and here he tells his horrifying story to Blaine Harden. In order to survive the camp, Shin (who was born inside the camp to parents who had done nothing wrong) had his mother and brother executed; the dream of grilled meat and an outside world he could barely imagine led him to risk his life. Harden relates his story in flat, undramatic language that seems to undermine the violence of Shin’s life but also serves to highlight such savagery as a fact of Shin’s daily existence.

Harden inserts snapshots of North Korean history into Shin’s personal odyssey; though awkward and repetitive at times, these asides provide important background for understanding how and why these labor camps persist.

Harden points out that anyone can see these labor camps on Google Earth.

Also see Bookmarks magazine’s review of Escape from Camp 14 in the July/Aug 2012 issue.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award winner)

With Hurricane Katrina in the background, a broken family—living among chicken coops and rusty trucks—tries to make sense of an unexpected pregnancy, a prize pit bull upon whom they pin all their hopes, and the storm that will either bind them together or tear them apart.

It may sound like just another story about family dysfunction, adversity, and resilience, but the scenes involving one of the brother’s relationship with his pit bull, China, rank as some of the most visceral writing I’ve ever read. And though I’m not a fan of pit bulls, I found myself rooting for China all the way.