Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Reviews: In the Shadow of the Banyan (Ratner) and Triburbia (Greenfeld)

I confess...I've struggled to read much lately, between the back pain and other associated issues.  Though it is nice to have a nice little to-read pile waiting for me...

A Goodreads giveaway win that intrigued me for its concept and, honestly, the fact that it had a cover quote from Chris Cleave (Little Bee).  This story is narrated by Raami, a girl from a well-to-do family with royal ties in Cambodia who is seven years old when the Khmer Rouge takes over the capital and the country.  She understands very little as she flees with her family and goes through hardships that would break most people and a regime responsible for a genocide that claimed hundreds of thousands, and perhaps up to two million, lives.  Raami's world is shaken but she also finds comfort in folk tales and in stories told to her by her father.  To say much more would be to say too much, though I do recommend waiting to read too much about the author since the novel is based on her own life and it could be a form of unexpected spoiler.

It's always hard to say one enjoyed a novel like this since the story is hardly joyous, despite the young narrator's spirit.  Still, it was a very good read.  I found many interesting characters, from the various members of Raami's family to the good people who find a way to come together in the face of evil.   Raami doesn't always really understand what is going on, a state that is probably much more real than is often the case with child narrators given the fact that the author was only a little bit older when she experienced a similar journey.  I appreciate that you do see a bit of what draws some of the younger members to the Khmer Rouge regime, even while it is utterly clear to the reader that countless atrocities marked this period.  I did sometimes get a bit weary of portions of both the mother and father characters, which is largely responsible for this being four rather than five stars.

Not an easy read, but worthwhile.  

Another advance read from the folks at Harper, this book straddles the increasingly fuzzy line between novel and short-stories.  Like a few other books I've read in the past year, each chapter focuses on a different character who is connected to other chapter narrators.  Most of the main characters are men, although women and even a child do take center stage in some pieces.  All of the characters live in Tribeca, an area that had boasted an artistic vibe but grew ever-more exclusive and expensive until the recession began to impact values.  Most of the main characters do have an artistic side, although some are more dedicated than others, and the focus is on a group of fathers who meet for breakfast and are mostly tied by the fact that they drop their kids at the same well-off public school.  Underlying themes include fear surrounding an unidentified child molester, a playground hierarchy, and many struggling marriages (with a heavy dose of infidelity).

My copy lacked the map that is in the final print and might have been helpful in keeping things a bit straighter in my head.  I wanted to like this much more than I did and it did become a struggle to make myself finish this.   I do tend to feel a bit unsatisfied by short stories, but I think that can be overcome in this vignette format. There was some continuity, but these characters and stories didn't do much for me.  I can deal with imperfect characters, but it was hard to invest in anyone here....especially with the non-stop infidelity   I was interested in the thread about the already-growing hierarchy among the grade-school girls and that was really the only part that kept me going. 

I never do like giving anything below three (and think I end up staying there or higher since I do try to pick books that I'll like!), but honesty makes my good reviews more genuine -- Two stars.

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