Archive for May, 2009

I Do Not Come to You by Chance

Friday, May 29th, 2009

By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The Short Take:

This engaging novel about a young man who becomes embroiled in the fast-money world of Nigeria’s email scams delivers a fresh and fascinating reading experience. Insights into Nigeria’s family,  societal, and governmental structures simply add more interest to an already mesmerizing tale.


At first you might feel you are reading the first cousin of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective series. Not so. Nwaubani’s first novel possesses a subtle but decidedly wicked sense of humor. She cites as her influences P. G. Wodehouse and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. That might seem quite the odd couple of writers, but — believe me — it works.

Family obligations, the struggle to escape poverty, thwarted love, and criminal pursuits might not sound like light-hearted reading, but Nwaubani’s work has such a gentle touch you never feel weighed down by the circumstances her characters find themselves in. You just can’t wait to discover what happens next.

Part of this is due to her characters. Even the most debauched criminal is ultimately likable to a certain extent. And you never stop caring about Kingsley, her central character, the young university graduate who enters the email scam world.

If you have an email account, you’ve probably gotten one of those bogus emails offering a too-good-to-be-true business opportunity or asking your help in claiming a substantial fortune (with a hefty commission to  you, fo course). Nwaubani talked extensively to email scam operators, called 419ers in her native Nigeria. Her research shows just how these complex and surprisingly sophisticated operations work. Giving you yet another reason to enjoy her work.

Judging from this, her first work, Nwaubani has the potential to be the Jane Austen of contemporary Africa. She frankly addresses the problems of her country but with a sly sense of humor and obvious genuine affection. Sounds a lot like Jane to me.

A Little Plot:

Eldest son Kingsley did all the right things: made excellent grades, earned a chemical engineering degree as his father wished. His parents have sacrificed everything for his education and it’s now his turn to do the same for his younger siblings. However, he can’t land a job. When his father becomes deathly ill, a dire situation turns desperate.

Kingsley’s only hope for his family’s future lies with his Uncle Boniface, better known as Cash Daddy. An email scam operator of epic proportions and bottomless pockets, Cash Daddy is the ultimate persona non grata to Kingsley’s family. However with no other resource, Kingsley must turn to him for financial assistance. Naturally, it’s not long before Cash Daddy offers Kingsley a career with him that will not only sustain his family but provide previously unknown luxuries.

It’s an offer too good to refuse. But that doesn’t make life any easier with his mother, who desperately wants Kingsley to stick to the honorable career and life she and his father envisioned. And it reshapes Kingsley’s life in ways he never imagined. It’s both uphill and downhill from there.

Nwaubani does not have a website (yet), but I did find an interesting interview on line. To check it out, click here.

The Lost City of Z

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

By David Grann

The Short Take:

Death defying adventures in the Amazon jungle! Victorian explorers risking health, sanity, even their very lives! Hostile native tribes, blood sucking insects, and deadly snakes abound! It’s the perfect book to read in air-conditioned comfort! And it’s all true!


I apologize for all the exclamation points, but this book offers all the thrills of a vintage True Adventures-style magazine while delivering the real deal. As a staff writer for The New Yorker, David Grann brings a wealth of research to his book (including many new sources), plus goes on his own trek through the Amazon in search of the truth.

What truth? The fate of famed explorer Percy Fawcett, his oldest son, and his son’s best friend. These three set out (alone!) to find the legendary city of El Dorado, which Fawcett referred to as “Z.” They disappeared in 1925, and literally scores of other explorers died trying to find them. That’s not counting the hundreds that barely survived the effort.

Grann makes all this come to vivid life. While never lurid, his retelling of these deadly jungle journeys quickens the pulse and gives you plenty of squirmy moments. He mixes the adventuring with equally compelling information about other explorers of the area, Fawcett’s personal history and motivations, and how conventional views of the Amazon, its peoples, and its cultures have changed.

The Lost City of Z is one fascinating book: probably the most thrilling non-fiction book I have ever read. Plus, it thoroughly convinced me I have no business going where these explorers dared to go.

A Little Plot:

Percy Fawcett was a household name in the Victorian era — a legendary explorer in an era of great explorations. Boldly going where no European had gone before, he helped define the borders of Brazil and Bolivia, established first encounters with secretive jungle communities, and survived to tell the tale — again and again. The book covers all Fawcett’s explorations, where he seemed to thrive in this hostile environment (until the final, fatal one). Others (lots of others) weren’t so fortunate.

Ultimately Fawcett was determined to find the lost city of Z, the El Dorado of legend. Insistent that a small party had a better chance of survival, he set out with only his son and his son’s closest friend.

The catalog of dangers they faced each and every day included everything mentioned earlier plus flesh-eating piranha, a toothpick-thin catfish that can creep into bodily orifices, even the impossible heat.

Was Fawcett’s search for a lost civilization of grandeur and gold a lost cause?  Was he delusional? Maybe even mad? The answer is both yes and no. Discovering out why is an adventure in itself.

To learn more about Grann and his book, click here.

Genesis: A Novel

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

By Bernard Bestett

The Short Take:

This slim novel packs a pretty strong punch. Yes, it is set in the future and has robots and holograms, but I wouldn’t call it sci-fi any more than I would Orwell’s 1984. Genesis gives you a lot to chew on. And it’s a pretty tasty meal.


You think you’re getting the retelling of a crucial event in the history of the self-isolated Republic. But in fact, this book examines what “thinking’ and self-awareness really are. Plus it includes intriguing observations on the evolutionary existence of ideas.

Twice the dust cover comments refer to Genesis as a thriller. The pages keep turning for sure, but my mind was just as engaged as my curiosity. I thought I knew what the surprise ending would be. But this novel is more subtle than that. My foresight encompassed a fraction of the ultimate revelations.

A Little Plot:

The entire book consists of the four hour, oral examination of a young girl who hopes to enter The Academy, a prestigious group that basically rules the Republic. Her subject matter is Adam Forde, a figure of legendary proportions who altered the community’s future. This examination reveals Adam’s story along with her own unconventional insights and opinions.

Doesn’t sound fascinating? Guess again.

For more information on Genesis and Kiwi author Bernard Beckett, click here.

Cutting for Stone

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

By Abraham Verghese

The Short Take:

Complex, passionate, maybe even transforming, Dr. Verghese’s first novel is a saga of love, loss, and redemption — not just for one character but for many.


As soon as I finished this book I went to Verghese’s website. I had to know just how much of this book came from his own experiences. Upon reading his bio, my appreciation for this novel grew even more. That’s not to say this is the best book ever written. But it is fascinating, informative, and very eye-opening.

The narrator, Marion, is arguably the central character, yet there are so many other tales of love, loss, and redemption intertwined with his that the transformative power of love ultimately trumps Marion’s own journey. Every major character has his or her own story and they all play a role in the creation of Marion, both child and man. Marion’s birth parents, adopted parents, his twin brother, the staff of Missing Hospital, practically every character introduced in this book adds to the depth of Cutting for Stone.

Anyone with an interest in medicine or the history of Ethiopia will find added pleasures. Though I must admit I somewhat skimmed the surgical procedures. Frankly I suspect I did myself a disservice — Verghese’s passion as a doctor shines in these segments — but I have a very low blood tolerance.

I love books that teach me something without making me feel lectured to. With this one I learned more about Ethiopia, medicine, foreign doctors coming to America, and how important it is for doctors to care for their patients beyond the medical. Of course, all this was merely incidental to the deeply personal and appealing story of Marion and his family.

A Little Plot:

Joined twin brothers — Marion and Shiva come into this world as their mother, a nun, leaves it. Distraught by the death, their physician father abandons them. Fortunately for the twins, two other doctors, Ghosh and Hema, create a loving home for them. Ghosh and Hema come from India, but they live and practice medicine in Ethiopia, at a small hospital the depends on donations from American churches.

The book traces the lives of the twins, but also the lives of both their adoptive and birth parents. In each life passion plays a prominent role, whether for another person or a profession. The book reveals each story in turn as it moves backward to India and forward to America.

If you want to know more about Cutting for Stone or Abraham Verghese (and I highly recommend it) click here.


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May 2009