The following book reviews were written by student assistants in the Reference & Research Services Department here in the library. We hope they inspire you to pick up a good book!
NW, reviewed by Brianna Cockett-Mamiya
Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel NW follows the lives of four different characters — Natalie, Leah, Felix, and Nathan — living in the northwest corner of London. NW is fascinating in a number of ways. For one, the novel plays with an experimental structure, being split up into four sections, each one taking on a different narrative form. Smith uses third person narrative, screen-play style dialogue, and one of my favorite section consists of 185 vignettes spanning across the life of one of the main characters, Natalie. The various forms throughout the novel may come off as scattered or a bit challenging, but I really enjoyed the unique structure. NW explores the themes of race, class, gender, and social mobility in a way that is really compelling. Although the characters all grew up in Caldwell, a council estate or housing project, they each stand on different steps of the social ladder. Each character is fleshed out so well that they come off as real people rather than likable characters. Not only does Zadie Smith write beautifully, NW shows that she is masterful at writing real people going through real social issues.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, reviewed by Ariana Varela
In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz weaves multiple stories and cultures into this saga about immigration, identity, gender, and the idea of a “home.” The novel is told from the omnipresent narrator Yunior, a recurring character in Diaz’s works, who recounts the life of Oscar Wao, a nerdy Dominican-American who loves to read and write sci-fi novels. Wao’s family illustrates questions of identity and belonging in the context of inter-generational trauma and gender role modeling. The novel flashes back to his mother’s life in the Dominican Republic before immigrating to New Jersey, in where Diaz includes the history of the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship and U.S. involvement in the Dominican Republic, which helps ground the reader. This historical overview sets up the idea of the fukú or a curse placed on individuals in the DR due to the supernatural powers of corrupt dictators. This curse follows Wao’s family and is used to explain the family’s misfortune and continuous struggles. Both Oscar and his sister Lola are confronted with feeling like a stranger in the nation they grew up in, creating a constant search for home and origins. They are forced into navigating a split national identity. The multiple plots and complex characters make it hard to put this book down. This is a must read that will seize your imagination the way novels do, while also exposing the universal truths of the legacy of colonialism and the impact of immigration on family dynamics.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, reviewed by Brianna Cockett-Mamiya
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami was published in Japan in 2013 and the English translation was published in the U.S. in 2014. Through a third-person narrative, the novel follows thirty-six year old Tazaki who designs train stations in Tokyo. In high school, Tazaki had four best friends, and each had a color as part of their surnames (red, blue, white, and black), which they used as nicknames, leaving Tazaki the only “colorless” one. The group of friends stayed in touch after high school, but in Tazaki’s second year of college they suddenly cut ties with him without any explanation. Tazaki lacked a sense of belonging in the world and was truly colorless up until he starts dating Sara, who pushes him to confront his past. Following Sara’s advice, he seeks an explanation and closure by reuniting with each of his old friends, starting in his hometown of Nagoya and ending the journey in rural Finland, and what he finds is truly startling. Having read a few of Murakami’s works in the past, I can count this novel as one of my personal favorites. Magical realism is usually a style which is heavily used by Murakami, but in this work it is only hinted at. This slight touch of magical realism paired with the darkness which pervades the novel adds excitement and mystery to an already perplexing plot. The perspective of the novel, entirely focused on the protagonist, allowed me to feel deeply what he felt, and to empathize with his quest to find closure and a sense of belonging. Something I’ve noticed about Murakami’s work in the past is that his writing is a bit slow and takes time to get into, but, especially regarding this book, after you have gotten past a few chapters it is captivating and well worth the read.