First Impressions

Title of book: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

Reason for reading: This was on the shelf at my grandparents’ house. I picked it out of the line-up because it had a really beautiful spine— Dark blue with shiny gold filagree on the top and bottom.

First impressions: Like I said, I really like the spine. The front of the cover is beautiful in a kind of vintage-looking way: “Voyage” and “Narwhal” are larger than the other words, set before a watercolor picture of a huge iceberg or snowy mountain. I also like how, even though the author’s accolades are on the front, they don’t overpower the title. I never enjoyed when books touted the author and his/her awards more than the title of the book (although I do know that this is a marketing ploy).

Previous reads by this author: None.

Hardcover, paperback, or ebook: Paperback.

GoodReads rating: 3.89 average

First sentences: He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrozoans and infant snails.


First Impressions

Title of book: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

Reason for reading: I saw the movie a few years ago during a flight to the Caribbean and fell in love. I saw in the credits that it was based on a book, and, against my better judgement, added it to my “to read” list on Goodreads. This might not end well.

First impressions: The cover is the type that I absolutely hate— Pictures from scenes in the movie are pasted all over the front, with “Now A Major Motion Picture” displayed on the top, along with the names of the actors in said movie. This is, however, a library book, and I’m a little less picky when it comes to library books than when I buy one.

Previous reads by this author: None.

Hardcover, paperback, or ebook: Paperback.

GoodReads rating: 3.39 average

First sentences: Muriel Donnelly, an old girl in her seventies, was left in a hospital cubicle for forty-eight hours. She had taken a tumble in Peckham High Street and was admitted with cuts, bruises, and suspected concussion. Two days she lay in A & E, untended, the blood stiffening on her clothes. It made the headlines. TWO DAYS! screamed the tabloids. Two days on a trolley, old, neglected, alone. St. Jude’s was besieged by reporters, waylaying nurses and shouting into their mobiles, didn’t they know the things were forbidden? Photos showed her lolling gray head and black eye. Plucky pensioner, she had survived the Blitz for this?

“I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.” The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, p13
“Based on the average life expectancy of a Soviet woman, she could expect to live for another forty-eight years, but the Soviet Union had died, and she hadn’t, and the appendices [of the medical reference book] couldn’t explain this discrepancy of data, when the subject outlasted its experiment. Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. ‘Life: a constellation of vital phenomena— organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’” A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, pp183-184

First Impressions

Title of book: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Reason for reading: I saw this book on the “New and Noteworthy” shelf at B&N a few months ago and, first of all, felt drawn by the title. It seemed like such a mouthful. I wonder sometimes how an author chooses a title, which is essentially a couple of words to sum up thousands of hours of labor and creativity. When I read the description for the story it seemed so different from what I usually read (I can’t remember the last eastern European book I read, unless it’s “Anna Karenina,” which is one of my least favorite books of all time). But in its strangeness there was an allure, so I added it to my list and went from there.

First impressions: The cover is a picture of bare, leafless trees, with a gray background, and an overlay of tiny golden stars. The title is written almost spider-like, and I imagine it as the lines drawn between stars to make a constellation shape where none before appeared.

Previous reads by this author: None.

Hardcover, paperback, or ebook: Hardcover.

GoodReads rating: 4.16 average

First sentences: On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn’t slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. “Havaa, we should go,” he said, but neither moved.


Review of “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett

In Italian, “Bel Canto” means “Beautiful Singing.” It has been used to describe opera’s golden age, in a period between the mid-1700s and early 19th century. It was a time when beautiful voices sang beautiful things, and wasn’t fully appreciated until it was gone. “Bel Canto” can also mean “Beautiful Song,” which is exactly how this book read for me.

A group of affluents are invited to attend a dinner party in the vice-presidential mansion of an unnamed South American country, in honor of a visiting foreign businessman. The evening’s entertainment is a world famous opera singer, and after her performance all the lights suddenly go out. When the power is restored the guests find themselves hostages of a terrorist group that had entered through the air-conditioning vents. What follows is an organization of the guests and terrorists alike into a microcosm of society, where relationships that would never have been possible before suddenly blossom and priorities are rearranged.

The guests have come from all corners of the earth, creating a sort of Babel with many different languages— Italian, English, French, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, and Quechua. Everyone is able to communicate, however, through the efforts of Gen, the translator for the Japanese businessman whose birthday was the event that had gathered everyone together in the first place. There is a beautiful contrast between Gen, who struggles to maintain communication and remove barriers between languages, and the shared language of the music the terrorists could not silence. All the occupants of the house, terrorists and hostages alike, are united in their appreciation for the arias and performances the diva continues to sing, like a caged bird. When she sings everyone finds they don’t need to talk to understand each other, they only need to listen.

As time passes, the hostages and terrorists create a relationship that is interwoven and complicated, and becomes taken for granted. The time spent all together under the roof of the mansion becomes their “bel canto.” It is a beautiful song, made beautiful by the love shared between all the occupants, and beautiful because they realize it can’t possibly last.

There were several times when a song would be named, and I would find it to play on my phone while I read the passage it appeared in. I feel like it helped me participate more in the story, by hearing what they were hearing, and the songs stirred emotions that we’re haunting and beautiful at the same time.

This was a privilege to have read, and a gorgeous piece of fiction.

I gave it five out of five stars.

“'If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day.'
‘Try it first with a bird,’ General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. ‘Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn’t know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic’” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, p165
“A daughter was a battle between fathers and boys in which the fathers fought valiantly and always lost.” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, p121
“The young terrorists waiting in the air-conditioning vents were simple people and they believed simple things. When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn’t true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, pp23-24
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