Wednesday, June 27, 2012

tightly focused

The Submission by Amy Waldman
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: For this story to work, we all have to cast our minds back to 2003, a scant two years after the 9/11 attacks, and remember how raw those attacks still felt.  Only then can we all ask ourselves the question: would I have supported a memorial designed by a secular Muslim-American if it had been chosen under these circumstances?  Hopefully, we can all answer honestly that we would have.  And if perhaps we wouldn't have then, certainly with the distance of additional decade, we can all say we would now.  But that's almost beside the point because Waldman gives us multiple points of view without forcing us to choose.

Waldman recreates the mood of post-9/11 New York City without pulling her punches.  Numerous sides get their share of the story-telling: the widow who tries to be fair-minded; politicos who try to pander to all sides without, of course, ever appearing to; the brother of a firefighter who has made being anti-Islam his personal cause; other anti-Islamists who aren't afraid to piggy-back on the fear of the time, even though they didn't lose anyone in the attacks; the reporter who get the leak about the story of the Muslim who won the anonymous competition to design the 9/11 memorial.  If some of these sides are presented more as caricatures than fully fleshed-out characters, that's almost beside the point too as this is a not a character-driven story.

This book has other flaws, perhaps the biggest one being that too many things seem to be beside the point, including things like the motivation of the person who leaked the news about the designer of the memorial, and whether anyone ever found out who it was.  But Waldman does well to keep her story focused on what does matter - the conflicts, internal and external that arise in a situation like this.  Overall, this is a very well written and thoughtful piece of fiction that could all too easily have been non-fiction, which is something we would all do well to remember.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

disjointed and disconnected

A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: This book got off to a very promising start for me.  Nayman's initial narrator (Oscar) said something that gave me an instant feeling of connection.  But, after only a few pages with this narrator, and just as things are starting to get interesting, we are abruptly thrust into a new time and place, and given a narrator (Christine) with whom I not only felt no connection, but couldn't even bring myself to be really interested in at all.  I was so turned off by this section of the book, that I had a hard time feeling any investment in the the next section, even though I felt at least some connection with this third narrator (Marilyn).  Both Christine and Marilyn hint at some dark secret from Oscar's past that they think they know, though both do it in such a jumpy, pseudo-tantalizing fashion that by the time we hear Oscar's voice again I was more relieved that all the games were coming to an end than actually interested in what the secret was.

It's a shame that the story felt so herky-jerky, because I think that if Nayman had kept Oscar's voice as the sole narrator throughout the book her story would have had the emotional impact she was going for.  Instead, by throwing in so many extraneous plot points and red herrings (Christine's opium addiction and Marilyn's conflicting feelings about her wartime photography, among others) she's declawed what could have been a powerful story.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.