The Night Buffalo by Guillermo Arriaga

Synopsis from Amazon.co.uk:

The Night Buffalo by Guillermo ArriagaGregorio and Manuel were best friends. They both had a tattoo of a night buffalo, which Gregorio insisted was done with the same needle, so their blood would mingle. Since Manuel started sleeping with Gregorio’s girlfriend, the friendship had become increasingly difficult to live with. In the aftermath of Gregorio’s suicide Manuel struggles to get his life back on track. Everyone seems to suspect him of knowing more than he lets on and everyone seems to be keeping their own secrets, including his girlfriend. Most disturbingly Gregorio appears to still be watching him, letters from him appear through the post, containing enigmatic messages, ‘You won’t be able to run from the night buffalo’, they promise. Gregorio hadn’t finished dying yet. From the acclaimed writer of “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”, this is the story of a passionate and destructive menage a trois and the tricks your mind can play on you.

Guillermo Arriaga is better known as a screenwriter, having collaborated with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in the films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and, most recently, Babel. Those films are noted for their nonlinear narrative, resonant characters, and a lonely, desperate sensuality. Mr. arriaga brings this same distinctive touch to The Night Buffalo, his third novel.

Gregorio’s suicide is the catalyst of the story. Most shaken by this event are Manuel, Gregorio’s erstwhile best friend, and Tania, Gregorio’s ex- (and Manuel’s current) girlfriend. Manuel feels a sense of relief when Gregorio kills himself; the strain of Gregorio’s increasingly volatile behavior was beginning to wear on him and on his relationship with Tania, which was not exactly a stable one to begin with, as the two began their affair while Gregorio was going in and out of mental hospitals. However, Manuel’s expected respite does not occur as he planned; Gregorio has left him a box filled with notes and photos. These cryptic clues reveal more betrayals and more infidelity, and Manuel realizes that he still has not disentangled himself from Gregorio’s lies and manipulation. He seeks comfort from Tania, but Tania is wrestling with her own guilt and, naturally, questions her role in Gregorio’s illness and subsequent suicide. as Tania begins to pull away from him, Manuel begins his own exploration of betrayal and jealousy, culminating in a ghastly act of violence and the dissolution of their relationship.

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The Umbrella Country by Bino A. Realuyo

Synopsis from Amazon.com:

The Umbrella Country by Bino Realuyo“Certain things are better kept than said. . . .
But certain things you have to find out now. . . .”

On the tumultuous streets of Manila, where the earth is as brown as a tamarind leaf and the pungent smells of vinegar and mashed peppers fill the air, where seasons shift between scorching sun and torrential rain, eleven-year-old Gringo strives to make sense of his family and a world that is growing increasingly harsher before his young eyes.

There is Gringo’s older brother, Pipo, wise beyond his years, a flamboyant, defiant youth and the three-time winner of the sequined Miss Unibers contest; Daddy Groovie, whiling away his days with other hang-about men, out of work and wilting like a guava, clinging to the hope of someday joining his sister in Nuyork; Gringo’s mother, Estrella, moving through their ramshackle home, holding her emotions tight as a fist, which she often clenches in anger after curfew covers the neighborhood in a burst of dark; and Ninang Rola, wise godmother of words, who confides in Gringo a shocking secret from the past–and sets the stage for the profound events to come, in which no one will remain untouched by the jagged pieces of a shattered dream.

As Gringo learns; shame is passed down through generations, but so is the life-changing power of blood ties and enduring love.

In this lush, richly poetic novel of grinding hardship and resilient triumph, of selfless sacrifice and searing revelation, Bino A. Realuyo brings the teeming world of 1970s brilliantly to life. While mapping a young boy’s awakening to adulthood in dazzling often unexpected ways, The Umbrella Country subtly works sweet magic.

There is a tendency among expatriates to romanticize their homeland; I certainly understand such an impulse, being of the Filipino diaspora myself. Bino Realuyo does exactly this in and attempts to exorcise his past and his origins. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing; the expatriate experience is rich, ever-evolving, and certainly deserves to be chronicled. However, it may be that more time needs to pass before the author can deliver his ideas in a more cohesive way.

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I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

Synopsis from Amazon.com:

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo AmmanitiThe hottest summer of the twentieth century. A tiny community of five houses in the middle of rural Italy. When the adults are sheltering indoors, six children venture out on their bikes across the scorched, deserted countryside. While exploring a dilapidated and uninhabited farmhouse, nine-year-old Michele Amitrano discovers a secret so momentous, so terrible, that he dare not tell anyone about it. To come to terms with what he has found, Michele has to draw strength from his own sense of humanity. The reader witnesses a dual story: the one that is seen through Michele’s eyes, and the tragedy involving the adults of this isolated hamlet. In this unforgiving landscape, dominated by the contrast between dazzling sunlight and the blackness of night, Ammaniti skillfully blends comedy, the world of children and their language, the strength of friendship, and the drama of betrayal. The result is an immensely lyrical and deftly narrated novel, a compelling portrait of losing one’s innocence and a powerful reflection on the complexities and compromises inherent in growing up. I’m Not Scared is the winnter of the 2001 Viareggio-Repaci Prize for Fiction and has already been sold in twenty languages.

I’m Not Scared takes place in 1978 during a recordbreaking heatwave in Italy. Michele and his friends while away the hours outside, playing games and taunting each other; the village children are free to get into more mischief as the adults are unable to tolerate the heat and prefer to stay indoors. One day, in an attempt to navigate the cruel politics of childhood, Michele is dared to enter a ramshackle, dilapidated house; naturally, refusal is not an option. As his friends wait outside, Michele explores the house and finds a boy trapped in a hole. Michele does not tell his friends of his discovery and vows to keep his silence as well as stay away from the creepy house. His curiosity gets the better of him, however, and he returns to the boy, determined to figure out how and why the boy came to be in the hole. Unfortunately, the boy won’t tell Michele his name and appears to be under the impression that he is already dead. Despite the extreme heat and the difficulty of the journey (the house is located up in the hills, a monumental journey for a nine-year-old), Michele visits the boy repeatedly; he begins to feel a persistent foreboding that the adults in his life are trying to hide something. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears the adults – his parents, his friends’ parents, and a mysterious, old man from Rome – arguing one night; the source of the ruckus is a news segment on television, wherein a beautiful, wealthy woman pleads for her son, Filippo, to be returned safely by the men who had kidnapped him.

Not much else can be revealed about I’m Not Scared without completely detailing the plot. However, that may give the impression that the novel is more intricate than it is; though there are quite a few twists and turns, they progress exactly as expected, which is what makes this read disappointing.

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Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Enduring Love by Ian McEwanScience writer Joe Rose is spending a day in the country with his long-time lover, Clarissa, when he witnesses a tragic accident–a balloon with a boy trapped in it is being tossed by the wind, and, in an attempt to save the child, a man is killed. As though that isn’t disturbing enough, a man named Jed Parry, who has joined Rose in helping to bring the balloon to safety, believes that something has passed between him and Rose–something that sparks in Parry a deranged, obsessive kind of love.

Soon Parry is stalking Rose, who turns to science to try to understand the situation. Parry apparently suffers from a condition known to psychiatrists as de Clerambault Syndrome, in which the afflicted individual obsessively pursues the object of his desire until the frustrated love turns to hate and rage–transforming one of life’s most valued experiences into pathological horror. As Rose grows more paranoid and terrified, as his treasured relationship with Clarissa breaks under the tension of his fear, Rose realizes that he needs to find something beyond the cold reasoning of science if this love is to be endured.

With the cool brilliance and deep compassion that defined his best novels (The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent), Ian McEwan has once again spun a tale of life intruded upon by shocks of violence – and discovered profound truths about the nature of love and the power of forgiveness.

After spending several weeks apart, Joe Rose is enthusiastically waiting to see his wife, Clarissa. (Enthusiasm is the most appropriate description, not excitement, as Joe Rose is nothing if not coolly logical.) Clarissa and Joe are a quiet, intellectual couple: Clarissa is a professor who specializes in Keats, while Joe is a disappointed science writer who, despite being reduced to writing what he sees as pseudo-scientific articles, has achieved some success, allowing him to float on and be content. Joe has planned a picnic in the English countryside for their reunion, but they’ve barely opened their bottle of wine when a helium balloon, clearly out of control, comes drifting where they are picnicking.

Joe and four other men grab onto the ropes hanging from the basket, but they are lifted clean off the ground, and their notions of heroism vanish as they are raised higher by the wind. All but one of them let go of the ropes; John ’s misguided valor causes his death, and Joe says of witnessing the fall:

We watched him drop. … No forgiveness, no special dispensation for flesh, or bravery, or kindness. Only ruthless gravity. … He fell as he had hung, a stiff little black stick. I‘ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man.

All the witnesses are left shaken by the incident. Joe repeatedly asks himself, was he the first one to let go? Joe, being logical to a fault, rationalizes his behavior as the natural instinct for self-preservation, but this doesn’t prevent him from feeling waves of guilt at John ’s death. What seems to be the central conflict is now established, but Enduring Love, surprisingly, delves into something else entirely. After John Logan’s fall, Joe exchanges a look with Jed Parry, one of the other failed heroes, and this launches the real catastrophe: Jed falls madly (and i do mean madly, as in the obsessive sense) in love with Joe. Jed is convinced that Joe returns his love (in fact, he believes that Joe was the one to initiate the nonexistent affair) and begins to hang around outside his apartment, leave scores of messages on his answering machine, and write letters extolling the virtue of God’s, and by extension his, love.

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Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Monkey Bridge by Lan CaoHailed by critics and writers as powerful, important fiction, Monkey Bridge charts the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese American experience in the aftermath of war. Like navigating a monkey bridge–a bridge, built of spindly bamboo, used by peasants for centuries–the narrative traverses perilously between worlds past and present, East and West, in telling two interlocking stories: one, the Vietnamese version of the classic immigrant experience in America, told by a young girl; and the second, a dark tale of betrayal, political intrigue, family secrets, and revenge–her mother’s tale. The haunting and beautiful terrain of Monkey Bridge is the “luminous motion,” as it is called in Vietnamese myth and legend, between generations, encompassing Vietnamese lore, history, and dreams of the past as well as of the future. “With incredible lightness, balance and elegance,” writes Isabel Allende, “[Lan Cao crosses] over an abyss of pain, loss, separation and exile, connecting on one level the opposite realities of Vietnam and North America, and on a deeper level the realities of the material world and the world of the spirits.”

Monkey Bridge is the story of Mai and Thanh, recent immigrants to America from Vietnam. Through the kindness of Uncle Michael, an American GI and family friend, Mai was able to leave before the fall of Saigon; her mother, Thanh, followed through the American airlift shortly after. The novel highlights the struggle for Mai and her mother to assimilate in America. For Mai, the struggle is not too difficult. Within a few months, she has learned to appreciate America’s shopping malls, has gotten used to the chill of Virginia, and speaks American English without a Vietnamese accent. For Thanh, the adjustment is more challenging. In Vietnam, Thanh’s French convent school education gave her fluency in French and a love for the French classics. In America, she is just another immigrant who spoke no English.

In their effort to assimilate, Mai and her mother have ignored the riddle that continues to prey on their minds: on the day that her mother was airlifted out of Saigon, Mai’s grandfather, Baba Quan, was left behind. Mai is confused by her mother’s alternating grief for and seeming indifference to Baba Quan. When Thanh suffers a stroke, Mai hears her call out for Baba Quan. This incident sparks Mai’s resolve to find her grandfather, because she believes Baba Quan is the only person who can ease Thanh’s disquiet.

Lan Cao has clearly written an autobiographical novel. In the book’s jacket, the author is described as having left Vietnam in 1975. The photo, naturally, is the requisite black and white. Lan Cao is wearing black, standing against a stark background with her arms folded, unsmiling. Clearly, this is a very serious book about a very serious subject from a very serious writer.

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An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

an-invisible-sign-of-my-own.jpgWith her stunning debut collection of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender showed herself to be “a writer who makes you glad for the very existence of language” San Francisco Chronicle. The book was a sensation; it spent seven weeks on The Los Angeles Times bestseller list, received ecstatic reviews nationwide, and established Aimee Bender as one of the freshest and most original voices in American fiction.

In An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender exceeds her early promise. She gives us the story of Mona Gray, a second-grade math teacher who has just turned twenty–a number which, like all numbers in her life, seems to have a profound significance. Mona lives her life under the shadow of her father’s long, weird, unnamed illness and her own bizarre compulsions. She excels at music, running, and sex, but ceases each activity just at the moment enjoyment becomes intense: Mona is “in love with quitting.” Only numbers provide the order and beauty she craves. “Mix up some numbers and you get an equation for the way the wind shifts or an axiom for the movement of water, or the height of someone, or for how skin feels. You can account for softness. You can explain everything.” With construction paper and Magic Markers, Mona arranges her classroom into “a beautiful museum of numbers,” but that could also describe her life: a collection of oddities, a static place, a hushed and insular world where disruption is unwelcome. Then the science teacher arrives, with burn marks on his fingers and a genius for teaching children the joys of coughing, and Mona’s strange and tidy universe is threatened by love, the supreme disorder. In her luminous, pitch-perfect prose, Bender conjures a dream world much like our own, a fairy tale grounded in a penetrating sense of what moves the human heart.

Like in her collection of short stories, The Girl In The Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender once again gives us a surreal tale of suburban malaise and magical realism. As expected, the protagonist, Mona Gray, is both endearing and eccentric, having had a nearly lifelong love affair with quitting. Mona always seems to be on the verge of mentally imploding (and physically as well, after buying an ax on her 20th birthday) but she keeps her demons at bay by soothing herself with math and numbers, which are solid and dependable and not subject to the random catastrophes that make up a life.

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The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann PackerA riveting novel about loyalty and self-knowledge, and the conflict between who we want to be to others and who we must be for ourselves.

Carrie Bell has lived in all her life. She’s had the same best friend, the same good relationship with her mother, the same boyfriend, Mike, now her fiancé, for as long as anyone can remember. It’s with real surprise she finds that, at age twenty-three, her life has begun to feel suffocating. She longs for a change, an upheaval, for a chance to begin again.

That chance is granted to her, terribly, when Mike is injured in an accident. Now Carrie has to question everything she thought she knew about herself and the meaning of home. She must ask: How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or of weakness to walk away from someone in need?

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier reminds us how precarious our lives are and how quickly they can be divided into before and after, whether by random accident or by the force of our own desires. It begins with a disaster that could happen, out of the blue, in anybody’s life, and it forces us to ask how we would bear up in the face of tragedy and what we know, or think we know, about our deepest allegiances. Elegantly written and ferociously paced, emotionally nuanced and morally complex, The Dive from Clausen’s Pie marks the emergence of a prodigiously gifted new novelist.

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier tells the story of small-town girl Carrie’s struggle to break free from expectations, both hers and other people’s. She doesn’t have the courage to leave her boyfriend/fiance, Mike Mayer, so she instead acts cold and distant. Poor Mike also struggles but for a different reason: he wants to regain what he and Carrie have lost before they are forced to actually acknowledge its presence. This is what leads him to jump off Clausen’s Pier and break his neck, rendering him a quadriplegic. Carrie, naturally, is filled with guilt (but not necessarily tears as the novel uses countless pages to describe Carrie’s lack of tears) as she knows very well that it’s her emotional distance that caused Mike to jump off the pier. Tensions arise between Carrie & her friends and Carrie & Mike’s family, who are aware that she is pulling away from Mike, and had in fact been pulling away from him before the accident occurred. Unable to bear the pressure from her loved-ones and herself, Carrie decides to take off for New York without telling anyone. A spur-of-the-moment trip lasts months, and why shouldn’t it? Carrie is away from her family and from poor Mike for the first time in her young life. She embarks on an emotionally conflicting but sexually satisfying affair with Kilroy, who gives her excitement and the thrill of newness, but not much else. The freedom exhilarates her, but as the reader knows before Carrie does, it’s only a matter of time before regrets, guilt, and loyalty will her to come back to Madison.

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