Best Books I Read in 2008 – Book List

I had originally intended to eschew the “best of 2008” and “worst of 2008” trend that always appears at the end of the year. However, one of the best websites I discovered in 2008 was Goodreads. Since joining in May 2008, I can’t recommend it enough. A self-proclaimed bibliophile, much of my leisure time goes toward reading. Thanks to a terrible memory, I have trouble recalling the particulars of books I’ve read; my reviews usually emerge as hazy generalizations that make me feel like I didn’t read the book at all. Continuing my trend of using technology to replace my memory, Goodreads helps me organize my books; I can keep track not only of books I‘ve read, but I also add books I want to read. It’s pretty much awesome.

So I thought, since I can actually remember what books I read this year, why not post a top 10 list of the best and worst books I read in 2008? Technically, this is “best and worst since May 2008”, since that’s when I started using Goodreads. Even so, I had trouble paring down each list to only ten books—I can only imagine it’ll be more difficult to do next year when I have twelve months’ worth of books from which to choose.

This list originally appeared as a blog post.


10. The Memory Keeper's Daughter

by Kim Edwards

The Memory Keeper's Daughter cover image
Trade Paperback, 432 pages
Penguin, 2005

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This is a story of curdled bitterness. One of the main characters tears his family in two and creates a gaping wound that doesn't heal until several decades later. A tale of "twins separated at birth", The Memory Keeper's Daughter explores how the secret complications of that separation affect all the members of the two families that raise these twins.

I appreciate her depiction of Down's syndrome in the '60s and '70s, as well as the challenges that parents of children with Down's syndrome faced, particularly in securing education and accommodation for their children. As someone who hasn't had much experience with Down's syndrome, I can't attest to Edwards' accuracy, but I think she got the emotional resonance down.

Often the conflicts in these books seem contrived and forced; that seldom happens in this story. The characters and their motivations seem real--irrational at times, sure, but that's because they're human. The relationships are a realistic, as is most of the plot, which is aided by creative license only when required to keep the story moving. Edwards makes me care about Caroline and her adopted daughter, Phoebe. She makes me resent David's actions and question whether Nora is really devoted to her son, or if every time she looks at him she's reminded of the daughter she "lost".

About two-thirds of the way through the story, another character, Rosalie, is introduced. I disliked this subplot, finding it somewhat random. In hindsight I understand Rosalie's purpose, of course, in that Edwards needed a way for David to become a father again and eventually decide to tell his family about Phoebe. But this is the only part of the book that feels contrived, which was disappointing in light of how good it is otherwise.

A moving story, I'd recommend this to others and read it again.

9. The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose cover image
Paperback, 536 pages
Harvest Books, 1980

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

It took me a long time to finish this book (perhaps the longest time it's ever taken me to read a book). Umberto Eco sets out not just to provide another pulp fiction fodder for the masses, but to construct a richly-textured story--or rather, history--with elements of mystery, rhetoric, and religion. As a result of the book's depth, not to mention its lengthy passages of medieval rhetoric, I started this in October and am only now finishing it; I read other books on the side to keep myself occupied. But the length of time it takes me to read a book is irrelevant, as long as I enjoy it. And that I did.

By including discussions of contemporary events outside the secluded setting of the novel, Eco manages to draw me into 1327. The characters in the book are not cardboard cutouts, modern people wearing the clothing of fourteenth century monks but otherwise curiously resembling our own friends and family. Instead, their language, habits (no pun intended), and thought processes are those of fourteenth century monks. Yet at the same time, none of these digressions distract too much from the main plot. Sure, they may not be directly related to the mystery, but none of them feel artificially-induced for the sake of educating the reader about a particular facet of medieval life. Each conversation originates as a logical consequence of an event within the world of the novel. It helps that the narrator is, at the time of the events, a novice monk, companion to the protagonist--a Watson to William of Baskerville's Holmes would be the most obvious comparison, although not entirely accurate.

And what of our two main characters? Adso of Melk is everything a narrator needs to be. By having him tell the story much later in life, Eco can use the older, narrating Adso as a filter for the experiences of his younger self. We also get to see what life was like for a novice monk in the fourteenth century, the challenges he faces in an uncertain religious climate, and the temptations embodied by physical lust.

Adso's mentor, William of Baskerville, is a self-professed follower of Roger Bacon and William of Occam's schools of scientific method and deduction. As such, Eco devotes a good deal of dialogue to extolling the virtues of deductive reasoning and its function for an inquisitor. And this is the part where my estimation of The Name of the Rose rises from "enjoyable" to "clever": Eco has William spend so much time explaining his deductive methods that one becomes convinced he is a fourteenth century Shakespeare, and that a solution to the story's crime will naturally be forthcoming. So when it turns out that William actually fails, Eco's devotion to deduction provides a counterpoint to his exploration of a lack of order in the universe. Naturally, this is a problem for a monk who believes that there is a God who has a divine plan for every being in Creation. The existence of reasoning monks like William of Baskerville is therefore a quandary--how do they reconcile their two ideologies? Thus, Eco manages to raise quintessential metaphysical issues while still wrapping them around the nougaty goodness of an interesting plot.

For some, the length of the book and the ponderous pace of the first several chapters would make them discard it with a sigh of disinterest. I admit that at times I laboured to get through some of the particularly dense passages. Yet I persevered, and in the end, I feel rewarded. In fact, the failure of William to solve the crime in a timely fashion feels superior to the typical formula of a Christie or Conan Doyle mystery; I don't feel patronized because the detective has figured out the mystery when I could not. Rather, I enjoyed the journey for what it was: a dialogue between mentor and student, couched in a multiple-murder mystery at a monastery.

Eco explains his reasoning for writing The Name of the Rose (as well as his reasoning behind the title) in the postscript included in this edition. I liked the book; I loved the postscript. Not only did it make me appreciate parts of the book better, but I concur with many of Eco's remarks, not only as a reader, but as a writer. One part that I found particularly interesting was where he explains that he intentionally made the first one hundred pages a "penitential obstacle ... for the purpose of constructing a reader suitable for what comes afterward." This is something that many authors and readers often forget: not every story is meant for every person. People are, thankfully, infinitely diverse and different. Trying to cater to the tastes of everyone results in a very bland result. After all, reading a book is an investment. In order to deliver on that investment, the author wants to ensure that anyone still reading near the end of the book will enjoy the ending. The best way to do that is to weed out any other types of people near the beginning.

It's likely that I'll re-read this book in the future--several times, perhaps--and discover even deeper levels of meaning. These won't necessarily be the same interpretations you draw from the book; they might not even be the interpretations Eco intentionally designed for the book. That's the great thing about books so laden with symbolism and detail like The Name of the Rose: readers can find what they want in the book, without the burden of having to guess at what the author intends for us to find. Because after all, reading fiction--even active, thoughtful, intellectual reading of fiction--should not be a chore. While its length and rhetorical nature make The Name of the Rose seem like a chore on a superficial level, a closer examination reveals that it is instead a very enjoyable experience, as long as one keeps an open mind.

8. Small Favor

by Jim Butcher

Small Favor cover image
Hardcover, 432 pages
Roc, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Second review, read from June 7-8, 2010.

When I re-read a book I've already reviewed, I tend to write a new review to reflect how my opinion of the book has changed with a second reading. In this case, my opinion hasn't changed much. If anything, my admiration of Small Favor has increased. I stand by my original review, and I recommend you read that for my full thoughts on this book.

Some addenda though.

Reading the series in near succession like this gives me a new appreciation of how Small Favor brings back some of the light-hearted "fun" Harry Dresden. We haven't seen much of him since Proven Guilty. It seems like Harry has more wisecracks this time around, more insolence—although that may be, as Nicodemus observes, merely a function of the insanity of the situations Harry has to face in this book.

Seriously, though. Asking a gruff for a doughnut? Wow.

It occurs to me that my original review did not have a spoiler alert attached. This hasn't happened since Summer Knight, but I suppose I won't break with tradition now. The specific plot of Small Favor is of little importance. What matters is its sheer awesomeness.

Jim Butcher combines so many elements of the Dresdenverse—the Denarians, the Archive, Marcone, Murphy, Thomas, the Wardens, the Knights of the Cross, Summer and Winter courts—and yet the story is still simple and focused. There's plenty of snappy dialogue, wonderful descriptions of battle scenes and magic-working, and new dimensions on old relationships.

On top of that, the Black Council story arc continues. Someone has been manipulating the Denarians, and one of them was involved in the attack on Arctis Tor—the one that left the gates wide open for Harry's little incursion. It looks like the Black Council set up Arctis Tor, and contributed to the developments in this book as well.

I loved Harry's encounter with Uriel and the corresponding development with his powers. Butcher excels at improving Harry as a character and as a wizard without turning him into a Marty Stu. Sure, Harry gets a power boost in this book—but as Bob says, "And [Uriel:] did you a favor. . . . You just know that can't be good!" Nothing comes without a price, and it seems like the more Harry gets involved in these matters, the worse his situation gets.

I love the Dresden Files, and Small Favor is an example of why.

First review, finished on June 22, 2008.

This may be the best Dresden Files book yet.

At this point in the series, there is so much backstory and established "facts" that it can feel confusing to navigate it all, yet somehow Jim Butcher makes it feel easy. The pacing of the narrative, the division of characters' actions and duties, all of it comes together to make the book readable and enjoyable. Butcher has an excellent handle on how to set up a scene, create tension, and leave you in suspense at just the right moment.

It's a shame that Sci-Fi chose to create an "alternate" Dresden Files universe when they adapted these books. Had they stuck with the original storyline, they would have enough material for several seasons, and the show might actually have not sucked. But that's neither here nor there. The book.

I had trouble putting Small Favor down. As I said before, the pacing just makes it so exciting that I needed to know what happened next. The conflicts in this story are also heartbreaking (with what happens to the Archive and, later, to Michael) and compelling--how is Harry going to get out of this one.

Some people may find Harry's wisecracking attitude camp or annoying, but I love it. Okay, "Hell's bells" annoys me a bit. However, I've figured out why I like it so much--it reminds me of John Crichton from Farscape. Anyone who has seen that series knows that Crichton is the only human being in that section of the galaxy. Whenever he is in imminent peril, he makes a cultural allusion (be it pop culture, literature, or just some proverb) that no one--particularly the arrogant, gloating enemy--understands. This forms a bond between him and us, the audience. Butcher does the same thing with Harry, and the first person perspective only amplifies this feeling.

The plot was rich and interesting. After ten books, one may worry that an author is running out of ideas, but Butcher still looks like he has plenty left. He has managed to hew enough detail out of this universe that there are plenty of antagonists to square off against Harry and the good guys--but the moral ambiguity (gotta love moral ambiguity) means that these antagonists almost always try to foil each others' plans.

The blending of mystery with urban fantasy is tangible and potent. Few can do it so well. This novel is great in that respect, because urban fantasy lovers can read it and get exposed to a little mystery they might otherwise ignore; mystery lovers likewise get some urban fantasy. Yet Butcher remembers the golden rule of genre writing: the genre is a setting, not a story. This book is not about faeries, or wizards, or magic, or solving a crime. It is an action adventure with motifs of temptation, redemption, suffering, and all that makes us human. It's a story, set in a world of faerie, magic, and crime. What's not to like?

7. The Monsters of Templeton

by Lauren Groff

The Monsters of Templeton cover image
Hardcover, 364 pages
Hyperion, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

First I read this book with curiosity and, I confess, not a little scepticism. Then I read this book with pleasure and even, perhaps, morbid anticipation. Finally, as I turned the last few pages and the book spoke to me of endings and new beginnings, I read this book with appreciation and wonder.

The Monsters of Templeton begins in a distracted, almost haphazard fashion, introducing the tangential plot of the lake monster's death even as we meet the protagonist, Wilhelmina "Wille" Upton. It took me some time to warm to her and her hippie-turned-born-again-Baptist mother, Vivienne, whom Willie addresses as Vi. When I first picked this book up off a library shelf, I wasn't sure how interesting it would be, but I borrowed it anyway. I don't regret that decision.

I soon fell in love with our heroine, who is just the right amount of feisty and reflective. She is not without flaws, her mother admonishing her as much as she admonishes her mom. Add to this the fact that Vi's dating her reverend and Willie's best friend, Clarissa, is suffering in San Francisco from lupus, and you have a veritable cast of zany characters--yet somehow, Lauren Groff makes it all work!

As Willie searches for the identity of her father, we learn about her family, and she learns more about herself. She confronts her pregnancy, the affair that led up to it, and forms new relationships with old acquaintances in her small hometown. Willie grows over the course of this book, and I enjoyed watching her development.

The parallel stories that Groff tells through the flashbacks and letters of Willie's ancestors aren't my favourite part of this book, but they serve a purpose and are interesting enough. Thanks to her excellent and varied voices, Groff manages to synthesize diverse perspectives that keep these sections interesting.

And lastly, there's the "Buds", the Running Buds, five men in late middle age who run around the town every morning, the town gossips, discussing their lives and the lives of everyone in Templeton. Groff inserts their opinions on events in the story, writing with the rhythm of a runner. These chapters serve to tie together the past and the present and put everything in perspective.

Set in and concerning a small town with a long history, The Monsters of Templeton is a touching story about family, growing up, and making choices. Groff manages to create a flawed but likable heroine and an even wackier mother. Unlike many books, which begin with a bang but peter out before reaching a satisfactory ending, this book comes to a calm and conclusive resolution that left me with the satisfaction comparable to eating a filling meal.

The Monsters of Templeton is a good read, and I'm glad I plucked it from the library shelf.

6. Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy

by Jack Dann, Gardner R. Dozois,

Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy cover image
Trade Paperback, 416 pages
Ace, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy. If you have read all of the authors whose stories appear here, then not only are you well read, but you will enjoy the stories in this book. If you haven't read some of these authors, then like me, you'll find a few new names to explore.

I love Neil Gaiman's work, and "The Witch's Headstone," part of his upcoming new book The Graveyard Book, is no exception. It was fun, with that undercurrent of whimsical exploration.

Many of the other stories were fascinating, or at least had fascinating parts. A couple, such as "Slipping Sideways Through Eternity" were just weird. I enjoyed "The Stranger's Hands" and "The Magic Animal," the latter of which puts a clever twist on Arthurian legend.

The last story, however, is definitely the best. I knew Orson Scott Card as a science fiction writer. This is the first time I've really read any fantasy by him, but I was absolutely blown away. "Stonefather" is a compelling story about a boy discovering who he is. It may seem like an unlikely plot, fairly derivative, but it's told in a way that leaves me yearning for more.

Wizards is an excellent collection. The fact that I didn't like some of the stories does not detract from the book's worthiness--it simply means that it has some stories that cater to people with different interests than me, which is fine. In fact, it's great: it makes the book have a wider appeal.

I'm going to look into some of these authors next time I'm at the library--I've some more reading to do!

5. Dreamsongs: Short Works

by George R.R. Martin

Dreamsongs: Short Works cover image
Hardcover, 704 pages
Spectra, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books were some of the first fantasy I read, back when I was in grade seven. One of my friends introduced me to fantasy by way of David Eddings' The Belgariad, and after polishing that off, I read the first three A Song of Ice and Fire books (yes, all three were out then, and the fourth one just came out recently!). Martin is one of my favourite authors, truly a brilliant combination of writer and storyteller: a master of the technique as well as the craft.

Martin is brave to publish Dreamsongs, which gives us--especially those of us who are younger readers and haven't been as exposed to the short fiction magazines of Martin's youth--a glimpse of Martin's formative years and the works with which he became a professional author. You can clearly see his writing improve over the course of the five-part book. Yet at the same time, even his early stories carry the kernel of creativity that's evident throughout this volume.

My favourites were "The Second Kidn of Loneliness", "And Seven Times Never Kill Man", "The Ice Dragon", "Meathouse Man", "Remembering Melody", and "Nightflyers". Having never read any of Martin's horror/SF stories, those latter "Hybrids and Horrors" made a significant impression on me--in particular, I'd compare them to [author:Orson Scott Card] in terms of ingenuity. Although "The Pear-Shaped Man" wasn't one of my favourites of this anthology, it's an excellent example of that Card-like creativity that makes Martin a prodigious writer: he knows how to get under your skin.

For those who have read other works by Martin, this will expand your knowledge of his oeuvre and his talents: he is indeed a science fiction/fantasy/horror writer, and everything in between. Plus, it will sate your thirst for more Martin stories in between books in A Song for Ice and Fire!

For those who are reading the works of Martin for the first time, this book is an excellent introduction.

4. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

by Roméo Dallaire

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda cover image
Paperback, 562 pages
Carroll & Graf, 2003

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Genocide is depressing. One of the few things more depressing than genocide, however, is apathy, like that exhibited by the world governments during the genocide of Rwanda.

Reading Dallaire's memoir, I was tempted to blame the U.S., France, the U.N., et al., for their lack of response to his constant prescient warnings about the situation. However, Dallaire's message is clear and correct. Rather than pointing fingers, we need to come together as an international community to prevent this from happening in the future and stop those genocides that are going on today.

As an individual, I feel powerless. How can I possibly help alleviate the suffering of other human beings halfway around the world? I could donate to charity, but after reading how the various NGOs and humanitarian organizations squander the relief bought by our money, I'm not convinced that donations are an effective and moral way to help. I can't go over there and volunteer my time--unfortunately, I'm not strong enough, emotionally or physically, to be competent at that.

But I can learn. I can watch. I can open my eyes and read books like Shake Hands with the Devil. I can tell other people about these books, help open their eyes. And maybe if enough of us pay attention, if enough of us speak out and get the government to do something, then we might be able to make a difference. Canada doesn't have a terrible record. We've had failures and successes at peacekeeping. I'm proud of my country, though. We just need to unite against the bureaucracy that threatens to steal away our humanity and reduce us to meaningless statistics and quantifiable variables.

Daillaire's book is commendable because even though it comes from an obviously biased source, it largely avoids obsessing over assigning blame. Instead, he chronicles what happened during tenure as Force Commander of UNAMIR. Thanks to him, future generations have a testimony as to what happened in Rwanda. Eyewitness accounts help make clear what government reports and newspaper articles cannot; they communicate the human experience one undergoes in these situations. They remind us that this isn't fiction, so it isn't a tragedy. It is truth, but it is injustice.

3. Lullabies for Little Criminals

by Heather O'Neill

Lullabies for Little Criminals cover image
Trade Paperback, 352 pages
Harper, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Second Review: January 26, 2016

Wow, did I ever write more concise reviews in 2008!

In that spirit, I don’t have much to add after this second reading. I’m teaching this to my Grade 12 English class of adult Aboriginal learners. We spend a lot of time reading texts by/about Indigenous people and issues, such as Indian Horse. I wanted to expose them to a slice of Canadian identity (Francophone culture) they haven’t encountered before. In doing so, we can compare that experience to the experience of Indigenous identities, and we can talk about stereotypes. As many of my students have experience with the issues in this book, it also helps them identify with the characters’ struggles. I’m pleased with how hooked they are on the book. (We haven’t finished reading it in class yet!)

What did I pay attention to this time? Baby’s yearning for a mother figure feels much more pronounced.

I also appreciate how, even though O’Neill writes Baby’s narration with a precocious vocabulary, she makes it clear that Baby’s emotional maturity is far behind her intellectual maturity. Baby is an academically advanced person, but she can still be as petulant and childish as any twelve-year-old.

Whereas in my first reading I was captivated by the characters, this time I also paid attention to the way the system fails both Baby and Jules. In the past seven years I’ve come to understand how systemic problems, and lack of privilege, affect individuals and manoeuvre them into situations that give them few good options. That is very much the case here, as we see when Baby goes to a correctional facility for little more than having the temerity to experiment with drugs and have a negligent parent.

Once again, the juxtaposition between Baby’s relationship with Alphonse and her budding attraction to Xavier broke my heart. I wanted to cry as her facade of normalcy shattered around her and Xavier learned who she was. Lullabies for Little Criminals reminds us, over and over, of how we judge and are judged by others, and how these judgements influence us.

Definitely a powerful novel, one which is not diminished on subsequent readings.

First Review: July 30, 2008

About two hundred pages into the book, I suddenly realized that this story was breaking my heart.

It's sneaky. You don't know you're getting attached to Baby, the main character, until it's too late. You don't realize you're emotionally invested in her, that you want to see her make the right decisions that lift her out of the morally ambiguous streets and propel her to a successful, happy life. So when events push her into doing the opposite, it's terrible.

The theme that resonates with me most is that childhood is the most precious innocence we have. Baby makes several philosophical remarks about childhood, how society encourages us to grow up too fast--and the fact that we can't go back afterward. We're stuck as adults. As an 18-year-old, I've reached the legal age for adulthood. I'm venturing into that scary world of responsibility; no one treats me as a child anymore. I have the advantage of never experiencing Baby's hardships, yet I still feel confused at times. Everyone probably does, which is why this book captures your heart.

Baby has no mother, and her father is not much of a father figure. She is a person of remarkable natural integrity and morals nonetheless, but as the book progresses, these morals get twisted further and further out of focus as she tries to deal with growing up while her father slips further away from reality. She goes through several phases of friendship, attempting to fit in at school, hanging out with other kids at a community centre, hanging out with a more dangerous social misfit than her, her first boyfriend ... and being seduced by a pimp.

It was the contrast of those last two relationships that broke my heart. Baby, fast approaching the nadir of her pre-adolescent life, succumbs to the advances of the neighbourhood pimp. You think, "Okay, this can't get any worse. Yeah, she's with a pimp, but she'll get out of it. She'll find a way out." Then she meets a boy her age and falls for him, and suddenly it is that much worse. Baby is torn between two worlds, two different lifestyles. She tries to push each away in turn, but both stick to her and try to claim her.

The ending is open. It does not neatly wrap up Baby's life in an epilogue, tell us that she went on to live happily-ever after. If it had, that would cheat the book of its significance. I won't spoil it, but I will say it is positive.

Trying to do the right thing is hard enough when you know what "the right thing" is. When you don't even know that, and you're a thirteen-year-old girl without the advice of a parent to guide her, life is much, much harder.

2. I Love You, Beth Cooper

by Larry Doyle

I Love You, Beth Cooper cover image
Hardcover, 253 pages
Ecco, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I finished this book in three hours. From page one, Larry Doyle creates an eerily familiar depiction of high school, specifically that moment when you look back during your graduation and realize you're finally free and have your whole life ahead of you--and it's scary.

Doyle's wit sets us off on a one-night odyssey that originates from the single question, "What if, instead of delivering an average graduation speech, the valedictorian head of the debate team confesses his love for the head cheerleader? What happens then?" Such a question has many answers, so Doyle takes a fresh path.

This is a book that reads like a movie. It's epic and cinematic and paced like it has scenes rather than chapters. Doyle smartly confines himself to a single night (with a short epilogue) and, with a few digressions, a single storyline. I've tried watching Superbad twice and couldn't get through it. This book succeeded for me where Superbad failed because, unlike that movie, this book employs an intelligent, honest-because-it-hurts sort of humour. Each sentence jabs at one's brain, dredging up specific memories of youth and high school.

I Love You, Beth Cooper could be, at first glance, a typical coming-of-age story about the nerdy smart guy who falls for the popular cheerleader (or for his construction of who the popular cheerleader is). To some extent, it is such a story. But it's not only such a story, and that isn't the aspect of this story that makes it awesome. Rather, it's the fact that in spite of employing such a major trope, the story is never trite, and it never tries to force a redeeming theme on the reader. Instead, anything and everything that could possibly go wrong for the protagonist does. And when things go right, they don't always go right in the way one would expect.

If you're seeking some sort of original umbrella wisdom on the truth about graduating high school and entering the world of adulthood, your mileage may vary with this book. But if you just want to be entertained, then I'll agree with Dave Barry's review: "I'm not saying it will make you laugh out loud. But I am saying that if it doesn't, something is wrong with you."

1. Unaccustomed Earth

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth cover image
Hardcover, 352 pages
Knopf Canada, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I went into this book not knowing what to expect, and I loved it. Jhumpa Lahiri creates timeless families that straddle the cultural divide between America and India. She captures the conflict of growing up as one tries to balance one's parent's wishes with the influence of one's heritage and the culture of one's surroundings.

Of the first part of the book, I loved "Unaccustomed Earth", "Hell-Heaven", and "Only Goodness." The other two stories were great, but those three are my favourite--particularly "Only Goodness," which resonates with me as an older sibling who is now watching his younger brother grow up (luckily not as an alcoholic--yet....). And that's the great thing about Lahiri's writing. There seems to be a number of authors, such as Yann Martel (Life of Pi) and Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) who can write stories involving Indian culture that speak to much more universal truths. This is not through any intrinsic value of Indian culture that makes it superior, but I think I'm falling in love with that setting. The themes these authors profess affect everyone, however, and that's why Lahiri's stories are so moving.

Part two consists of three stories involving a woman, Hema, and a man, Kaushik, both Bengalis. The first part is told from the viewpoint of Hema as a young girl, who becomes fascinated with Kaushik when his family stays with hers while moving back to America from India. In the second, Kaushik recounts his difficulty adjusting his father's remarriage several years after his mother's death from cancer. In the third story, Hema and Kaushik reunite for the first time in several decades, in Rome, where they rediscover each other. The ending is somewhat tragic, but at the same time it possesses a sense of stillness. These stories made me want to stop and appreciate each moment in life.

I found this book in the library, but now I'm buying a copy. I want it on my shelf.