Book Review: The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

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4/5 Stars.

In the wake of a horrific act of terrorism, it’s all too easy to write off those responsible as inhuman monsters. In The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan challenges us to dig deeper and see that they are human, to understand the chain of events that might transform someone into a perpetrator of an unspeakable crime, and to consider all who are affected by these tragedies.

We begin with a bombing of a Delhi marketplace in 1996. Two young boys, Tushar and Nakul, are among the dead, but their friend Mansoor miraculously survives.

When those of us in the Western world hear about incidents like this in countries like India—small acts of terrorism that occur with great frequency—it’s not uncommon for us to react with apathy. We hear about it, we think about how terrible it is, and we move on with our day.

This, Mahajan suggests, is part of the unique tragedy of these “small” bombs: they’re common, almost meaningless and forgettable—unlike large-scale tragedies like 9/11. But Mahajan isn’t about to let us off the hook. No, this time we’ll become intimately familiar with the victims, the survivors, the families, and the terrorists.

Following the 1996 bombing, we learn how Mansoor’s life, as well as the lives of Tushar and Nakul’s parents, are forever changed. We meet Shockie, the man responsible for the bombing and Ayub, a young activist whose increasing desperation is leading him down an ominous path. Brilliantly, Mahajan gives us the opportunity to understand these characters without descending into sentimentality or forced sympathy, exploring pertinent dichotomies such as violence vs. non-violence, and Eastern vs. Western ideologies.

It’s an uncomfortable book. It’s a relevant book. It’s an important book. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for quite some time.

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Book Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

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3.5/5 Stars.

If you combined Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State with a Wes Anderson movie, you would get The Portable Veblen. Quirkiness abounds in this National Book Award-longlisted novel.

When Veblen and her boyfriend Paul get engaged, they each have a bit of an existential crisis. Bearing the scars from both their dysfunctional families, they come to wonder if they can deal with each other’s respective flaws. Maybe this was a mistake.

The bulk of the story focuses on Veblen, the titular character. Her father is in a mental institution. Her mother is one of the most amusingly grating, awful and passive aggressive parental figures I’ve ever come across. And Veblen herself talks to squirrels, convinced that they’re invested in the ins and outs of her life. Veblen’s secret fear is that no one will fully accept her until they accept her mother—and questions whether Paul can pass this test.

Meanwhile, what Veblen doesn’t realize is that Paul’s family has its own skeletons in the closet, and that Paul hasn’t escaped his upbringing unscathed.

The Portable Veblen is a book about relationships—both familial and romantic. Through their own unconventional journey, Veblen and Paul face quandaries and revelations that affect any couple: that being in a relationship means sharing your idiosyncrasies and accepting those of your loved one, and finding that crucial balance between retaining your individuality and becoming a harmonious unit.

I struggled rating this one. As much as I enjoy quirky, eccentric stories and characters, there were times when it felt over the top. But McKenzie’s writing is fluid, funny, and full of surprising depth. The interactions between Veblen and her mother alone make it worth the read, and as someone in a long-term relationship, I appreciated the insights on love and commitment. Lots of little treasures to be found in this one if you’re willing to endure some borderline-tweeness.

Book Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

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4/5 Stars.

“Once, my brother and I had sat at the window, watching the world. Now we were deeply inside that world, working hard to find our way through it.”

In dreamy, lyrical prose, Another Brooklyn tells the story of August, a black girl coming of age in 1970s Brooklyn while grieving the absence of her mother. The writing is lovely and poetic, a series of vignettes scattered like memories of what once was as August reflects on her youth.

In many ways, it reads like a love letter to girlhood. August and her three best friends navigate the complexities of adolescence, their gentle innocence inevitability tarnished by the harsh realities that surround them, from absent parents to predatory men.

This transition from girlish naivety to strong womanhood—often before we’re ready for it—is something that’s relatable for most women, no matter when and where we grew up.

I read Another Brooklyn in one sitting. It’s succinct and absorbing, worthy of losing yourself in for a couple of hours.

Refund by Karen E. Bender

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4.5/5 Stars.

Well, I’ve now read all of the finalists for the National Book Award, with less than 24 hours to spare until the winner is announced!

This is another excellent short story collection that I’m glad to have read. It’s full of poignant prose that convey hard truths about love, marriage, parenthood, loneliness and other deeply human experiences. Think the pensive wisdom of Olive Kitteridge combined with the quirky subversiveness of Miranda July.

Bender’s protagonists are ordinary people struggling to live fulfilling lives amid the anxiety, desire and yearning that exist (at varying depths) below their coveted sense of comfort and security. The stories are each distinct, but the common theme that appears throughout is money: not having enough of it, or knowing that even if you did, it still wouldn’t be enough to make you happy.

Don’t read this if you want a light, happy read. But if you find yourself drawn to dark, damaged characters navigating situations both mundane and extraordinary, I think you’ll love it as much as I did.

 

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

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4.5/5 Stars.

Short stories admittedly aren’t my favorite thing to read. I often find they are anticlimactic or that they feel unfinished, and I can’t help but have a difficult time pouring myself into a story that I know will end so quickly. But Adam Johnson’s short story collection, Fortune Smiles, is on the National Book Award shortlist, so I had a feeling I was in store for something special, and I was anything but disappointed.

The stories – distinctly melancholy, darkly funny, bleak and sometimes surreal – are thematically consistent: they’re about lonely people facing extraordinary challenges.

In Nirvana, a man’s wife has been stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, her entire body paralyzed for the past nine months. Struggling with his wife’s illness and her threat of suicid, he develops a program that allows him to speak to the hologram of a recently deceased president, and takes solace in his new confidant.

In Hurricanes Anonymous, a directionless young father takes care of his son in post-Katrina New Orleans.

In Interesting Facts, the ghost of a woman who died of breast cancer visits her family and worries about her husband moving on.

In George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine, a former Stasi prison warden is in denial about the atrocities committed under his watch, and eerily attempts to justify and rationalize torture as a necessary part of a functioning society.

In Dark Meadows – perhaps one of the most harrowing and disturbing stories I’ve ever read – a non-offending pedophile who himself was abused as a child helps the police track child pornography cases and finds himself looking after two neglected young girls in his neighborhood.

And finally, in Fortune Smiles, a man who defected from North Korea struggles to adapt to life in South Korea and dreams of returning to his home country.

The problem with many short story collections is that they are uneven. While some of the stories take hold of you, others are immediately forgettable. But with Fortune Smiles, almost every single story had me captivated – with the exception, perhaps, of Hurricanes Anonymous. If you enjoy short stories, don’t miss this collection. And even if you typically don’t, give it a try anyway.