Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Under The Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo by Philip Kearney

Book description:
Seeking to escape the monotony he had come to endure in his job as assistant District Attorney in San Francisco, Philip Kearney needed a change. His solution came one day in a casual email from a friend: "U.N. has opening here for an international prosecutor doing war crimes stuff. You should apply, gotta go."

"Here" meant Pristina, Kosovo. And "stuff" - Kearney soon finds out, after landing the job despite his inexperience with international law and an inability to speak any foreign languages - meant a harrowing string of investigations involving the most brutal and devastating crimes imaginable. Abruptly removed from the comforts of home and the order and stability of America's justice system, Kearney finds himself the sole international prosecutor assigned to a region of nearly one million people. Welcome to the Balkans circa 2001.

Kearney is thrown headlong into a series of historic investigations that quickly land him under the protection of four armed security guards. Armed himself with only the region's archaic criminal justice code, Kearney is soon prosecuting local street thugs, shutting down a ring of international sex-traffickers and spearheading an investigation into secret death camps - a case that ultimately implicates local officials and inflames ethnic violence. He developed an urgent passion, stemming from devastating stories of torture, murder and slavery that dominate Kosovo's bleak landscape.

Though I haven't been to Kosovo, I did spend two years living in Bosnia which struggled with many of the same challenges in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kearney does a good job of framing an incredibly complicated set of issues in order to make them palatable to readers unfamiliar with the complexities of war crimes tribunals. His picture of working for the UN as an American rings true and provides an excellent introduction into that lifestyle. Though I would have preferred more focus on the issues and less on his perception of them, the book was certainly a good strong read.

Model Home by Eric Puchner

Book description:
Warren Ziller moved his family to California in search of a charmed life, and to all appearances, he found it: a gated community not far from the beach, amid the affluent splendor of Southern California in the 1980s. But his American dream has been rudely interrupted. Despite their affection for one another--the "slow, jokey, unrehearsed vaudeville" they share at home--Warren; his wife, Camille; and their three children have veered into separate lives, as distant as satellites. Worst of all, Warren has squandered the family's money on a failing real estate venture.
As Warren desperately tries to conceal his mistake, his family begins to sow deceptions of their own. Camille attributes Warren's erratic behavior to an affair and plots her secret revenge; seventeen-year-old Dustin falls for his girlfriend's troubled younger sister; teen misanthrope Lyle begins sleeping with a security guard who works at the gatehouse; and eleven-year-old Jonas becomes strangely obsessed with a kidnapped girl.

When tragedy strikes, the Zillers are forced to move into one of the houses in Warren's abandoned development in the middle of the desert. Marooned in a less-than-model home, each must reckon with what's led them there and who's to blame--and whether they can summon the forgiveness needed to hold the family together.

I thought this story of the American Dream gone horribly awry would have a wry humor, but instead it was just overwhelmingly depressing. Everything bad that could happen to this family did, and there was little joy to redeem the story. The book was well-written and the characters rang true, but reading it became a bit of an ordeal as the depressing events just piled up on one another. I would recommend this book for the vibrant literate writing, but definitely don't pick it up if you're in the mood for a light beach read because this novel is gloomy enough to depress any beach vacation. 3.5 stars.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Book description:
It is the height of summer, and celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house in Dublin to a friend while she is away performing in New York. Alone among all of Molly's possessions, struggling to finish her latest play, she looks back on the many years and many phases of her friendship with Molly and their college friend Andrew, and comes to wonder whether they really knew each other at all. She revisits the intense closeness of their early days, the transformations they each made in the name of success and security, the lies they told each other, and betrayals they never acknowledged.

This wonderful literary novel may take place in one day, but encompasses 20 years of shared friendship. The narrator, a successful playwright battling a case of writer's block, is vacationing in the Dublin home of her friend, successful actor Molly Fox. What follows is an unexpectedly rich story of their friendship, as the narrator avoids thinking about the play she cannot write by thinking of the moments she and her friends have shared.

The book isn't really about anything at all, and yet I found it impossible to put down. The quiet beauty of the writing combined with the surprisingly complexity of the characters as the story develops made for a powerful novel. Though I haven't read any of Madden's previous work, she is defintitely going on my wishlist now. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Book description:
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

This well-written and moving tale of immigration and exploitation is one of the best books I've read this year. When Ah-Kim and her mother immigrate legally to the U.S., they nonetheless find themselves working in a sweatshop to pay off the debt they owe to Kim's aunt (the owner of the factory). As Ah-Kim, a star student in Hong Kong, wrestles with English and the tribulations of school in Brooklyn, she is forced to re-evaluate her vision of herself and to assume a caretaker role over her mother whose lack of English skills keeps her isolated.

This extraordinary book explores the mindset of an immigrant child, and traces the lifelong impact that some choices can have on an individual and a family. The central story here is that of a mother and daughter fighting against the odds to succeed, and the love that keeps them strong in the face of overwhelming adversity. Highly recommended debut novel- I hope we see many more from author Jean Kwok!