The Reason I Jump (Higashida)

In his introduction, David Mitchell (one of the two translators, along with KA Yoshida, his wife) tells the story of this story. He and his wife have an autistic child, and they wanted to understand better his inner self. Hence, the subtitle — “The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism.” Higashida, an accomplished writer who makes amazing use of an alphabet grid, responds to 58 questions about autism and offers a few of his own stories and parables.

His inner voice is nothing short of astonishing. His responses, often little more than a page, are precise and clear. If you have anyone autistic in your life, I’d call this one required reading.

Kai and Sunny, familiar to those who know Mitchell’s work, provide outstanding illustrations here as well.

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The Leopard (Nesbo)

I know I’ve written before about my search for a Henning Mankell replacement. Since Mankell recommended him, I’ve tried a few of Jo Nesbo’s books. I listened to this one. It took so long that the library assumed that I’d lost it. In any event, Nesbo is awesome at plot. And I liked the fact that the story is continued. What happened in The Snowman still matters here. But there are already suggestions here that Nesbo has written himself into a kind of, at best, formula, at worst, rut.

There’s a difficult case. It seems like Norway might have a serial killer on its hands. Though he’s unconventional, the police need Harry Hole. They bring him back and he operates his way without impunity. Along the way, he gets hurt physically and emotionally and abuses everyone with whom he has a relationship, especially the women. But since he’s such a lovable rogue, people forgive him and are willing to help him. Oh, and there’s a lot of intense wince-worthy violence.

Still, sometimes a formula works. There are red herrings, there are messy ending, there are complications. I’ll keep searching, but I’ve heard good things about Nesbo’s new one, Police.

And Robin Sachs gets huge praise for me for his slight, but memorable and meaningful variations among the characters. I’m pretty sure I’d listen to any story he read.

I Am Malala (Yousafzai with Lamb)

The subtitle of the book, The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, is why many of us know her name, but this book allows us to learn more. I was impressed by the way her father fought convention and circumstances to promote her attendance at school and her participation in political activism. I was also struck by Malala’s depiction of the beauty of Swat, and the culture of the Pashtun people. As much I was dismayed by the emergence of the Taliban, at least I knew a bit about that. The detail that former members of the police force would take out ads to make it clear that they’d left the force (in order to protect themselves and their families) left me hanging my head. More frustrating, though, is her perception (grounded in a great deal of fact, in my opinion) of the US’ involvement in the area.

I know there’s been some backlash lately, that Malala is getting too much credit as an individual rebel. I think that’s the Western influence. We like our heroes solo. Certainly, there are others (including women), who are working for education in Afghanistan and against the Taliban. I know giving too much credit to a single person can breed resentment, but movements also need leaders.

One writing note – I wish the two authors had provided a note about their process. There were a few moments when the historical narrative bogged down and I wondered how much of that was Lamb’s work. And the decision to have Malala narrate the section after she got shot was odd, though not ineffective. Still, a brief explanation of why the authors chose to present the story that way would have been appreciated.

She’s a hero to me (malalafund.org); I will pass this book on to my children.

Swimming in the Moon (Schoenewaldt)

In my continuing effort to immerse myself in all things Cleveland / Shaker / Ohio, I chose this book about a mother and daughter who are forced to flee Naples and end up in Cleveland around the turn of the 20th century. Schoenwaldt has clearly done her research, and the story, in broad strokes, is fine. Lost in all of her efforts to convey authenticity, Schoenwaldt neglected to create character or detail or whatever it is that can make a good idea into a great book. There’s no heart here, no real connection with character or situation. And the prose is functional at best. Perhaps the book’s lack of spark is because all of the characters are so obviously in the book for their one sole purpose. There’s no depth to be found.

All in all, a perfectly blah experience.

Lost City Radio (Alarcon)

Lost City Radio, a kind of political fable / dystopia story, proceeds without names, a technique that can grow tiresome. Where is this set? The Peru of Alarcon’s background? Why keep it secret in a story where names matter so much? Norma, our protagonist, has a radio show on Sunday nights during which she reads the names of the missing, an act barely tolerated by the governing dictatorship. There is tremendous power in this act, simply saying the name. There is also tremendous power in her voice, and it reaches even the jungle, specifically village 1797, one that is very close to Norma’s heart.

This is a devastatingly heartbreaking book, often carried on the shoulders of young Victor, a remarkable young man who is trying to find his own connections to the city and to the living. Alarcon intertwines lives in the jungle and lives in the city, often combining the narratives without benefit of white space in order to bring together memory and the present, and he does so masterfully. The connections are inserted delicately but they have tremendous repercussions.

An important and powerful book.

http://www.danielalarcon.com

Adios Hemingway (Fuentes)

I read about Fuentes in a New Yorker article (here’s the beginning — http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/10/21/131021fa_fact_anderson) — and have long been fascinated by Cuba, so I decided to give one of his books a try. I was not thrilled that the only one I could find featured Hemingway as a character. I like to keep my biography separate from my fiction. But Fuentes, clearly and perhaps increasingly reluctantly a Hemingway fan, makes this work. The story intertwines, blurs and overlaps the present and the past when an uprooted tree reveals a body on the estate where Hemingway used to live (now a museum). Fuentes’ protagonist, a cop turned book collector / wannabe writer / private investigator, becomes involved in the case. Along the way, he struggles with his love for Hemingway’s work and his disappointment in (disgust with?) Hemingway, the man. And I followed this journey. At some points, I resolved to read more Hemingway and his biographers; at other times, I never wanted to consider his life and work again.

In the end, biography, in my opinion, is relevant but not a tipping point. In other words, what would happen if I only read the work of great citizens?

As for Fuentes, I’m not sure. The story seemed thin, the dialogue wooden, at times. This might need to be put at the feet of John King, the translator. (Is there something inherently difficult about translating dialogue? I have this problem with Murakami’s translators as well.)

There are moments of eloquence as well. Fuentes says of his main character that, “he felt like a bad metaphor for a strange reality.” And, in the end, Fuentes all but declares that “there are some things that shouldn’t be lost. And if they do get lost, then we really are in a fucking mess.”

Bobcat and Other Stories (Lee)

I always wonder whether short stories are placed in a collection in a particular order for a particular reason. In the case of Rebecca Lee’s collection, I am glad “Slatland” was third. Had it come any earlier, I may not have finished the collection. By the time I’d reached the third story, however, she’d earned some latitude from me. As with many great short story writers, she’s able to craft a vivid world so remarkably quickly. And her stages are full, so it’s generally a delightful task to see where the story leads. It’s not always clear whose story it is until the end, which is a good thing. Her narrators are not always well-characterized when it comes to gender, even when gender definitely matters in the story.

In just 7 stories (is that enough for a collection? I felt a bit cheated), some motifs emerge – relationships and marriages, stories, campus life (regrettably), journeys, etc.. Most impressive, though, was Lee’s ability to convey the power of language in at least seven different ways. There are some remarkable lines. In “World Party,” a mother says of her son, “He was alone with The Alone.” But read these stories for the broad strokes.

But don’t read them for the proofreading. I’ve never encountered a publisher’s error slip before. And I caught another error.