Book Reviews: April 2016Posted: April 20, 2016
I managed to read four books this month too (although one of them is very short), so let’s get to it!
Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau:
This 1960 French cult classic tells the story of Zazie, a foul-mouthed young girl sent to Paris to live with relatives for two days while her mom spends some time with her new boyfriend. Zazie’s sole desire is to ride the Metro, but unfortunately for her, her arrival in Paris coincides with a strike. And thus begins a wacky and often surreal adventure involving a cross-dressing uncle, a lecherous police officer, a man-crazy widow, and other colorful characters.
Now, this story seems to have just the right mix of quirkiness and magic realism reminiscent of Amelie or The Red Balloon, so I thought I would enjoy it. However, much of the book’s acclaim comes from its innovative use of language, a lot of which gets lost in translation (I read it in Vietnamese, though I imagine the English translation wouldn’t be much better, you pretty much have to understand French to enjoy it, I think), so I just couldn’t see its charm. 2/5
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson:
When I reviewed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought it was the most British book ever. I was wrong. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is, if possible, even more British than that. In fact, it shares some similarities with Harold Fry – both feature an elderly man as the main character, both deal with this character’s coming to terms with their past and facing an ever changing world (though I think you can’t escape those themes if you write a book about an elderly English man.) In this case, the main character is Major Ernest Pettigrew, who, after the sudden death of his brother, strikes up a relationship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper of his village, and in doing so, risks alienating himself from everything he’s lived for.
I enjoy this. The characters, like I said, are very British – prim, proper, all about keeping a stiff upper lip and being courteous and honorable at all cost – but they are multidimensional as well, and the story are involving and sometimes a little funny too. However, some of the characters feel a bit over the top (I can’t believe that people in this day and age can be so culturally ignorant/insensitive, no matter how conservative they are) and the story feels a little slow at times. Still, if you like Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith, and Nancy Mitford, you’ll love this too. 4/5
The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey:
The “girl” here is Melanie, who’s very special. For one thing, she’s super smart for her age. She has no parents, only teachers – her favorite being Miss Justineau. She lives on a military base and has to be escorted to class by soldiers. That’s because she also happens to be a zombie, kept at the base to be studied by Dr. Caroline Caldwell and hopefully to help her develop a cure. Then one day, when the base is attacked by feral humans, Melanie goes on the run with Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, and two soldiers, and soon she becomes their only hope for survival.
This is like a bloodier, more depressing version of Warm Bodies, even though the main character is a kid. Still, I really enjoy it. Carey is a comic book writer, so his writing is succinct and visual, and the structure is cinematic, just how I like it. I also like the book’s explanation of the zombie epidemic as well – most other zombie stories gloss over that fact and just focus on the survivors, but here it offers an explanation that sounds pretty plausible (an infection by a totally real fungus that can turn ants into zombies), which makes it all the more horrifying. My only complaint is that the ending is a bit abrupt. 4.5/5
Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney:
Now this is something different for me – a poetry book. I’m not much of a poetry fan. The closest I get to poetry is song lyrics. But I’ve always been meaning to try reading some poetry – it helps with prose writing too. So after some thinking, I decided to start with Seamus Heaney, because he’s a big influence on one of my favorite musicians, Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol (they actually have a song called “Reading Heaney To Me“) and given my preference for all things Irish, I think a renowned Irish poet would be a good start.
And you know what? I think I’m converted. These poems are so beautiful in their simplicity, their vivid images, and powerful, sometimes heartbreaking, emotions (“Mid-term Break” almost made me cry). Some of my favorites in this collection are “Blackberry-Picking”, “Churning Day” (sweet, simple, beautifully accurate descriptions of everyday life), and “Honeymoon Flight” (it’s just like a Snow Patrol song). Others don’t register with me as much, but I’ll definitely read more. 4/5
So that’s my month in reading. What about you guys?