Tag Archives: Isabel Allende

A baker’s dozen of my favorite novels

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Fair warning: this is NOT a comprehensive list of my all-time most cherished novels. It’s merely a list of the 13 trade novels I’ve enjoyed the most among the many I’ve read and reviewed in this blog in the past three years. So, no bellyaching please, that I’ve left out Philip Roth or Leo Tolstoy or somebody else you think is the all-time greatest novelist! Please note, too, that I’m excluding the mysteries and thrillers I review as a category of their own. Which is not to deny that some of these books are thrilling in their own right. 

What follows are the 13 novels in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to my review of the book. 

Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende

A 19-year-old Berkeley woman hides out on a Chilean island from the FBI and the Las Vegas criminal gang pursuing her.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

By the 23rd century, the oceans have risen by twenty feet, and only a seawall protects the city of Bangkok. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, leaving only the Thai Kingdom to resist the “calorie companies” that are the only source of food for most of the world.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist portrays the five-century history of conflict surrounding a cherished religious book, from the Spain of the Inquisition to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley

Political satire of the highest order. Like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

A National Book Award-winning novel about a brutal crime and its consequences on a Chippewa reservation in the Upper Midwest.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

A 19-year-old Iraq war hero on a Pentagon tour of cities around the country encounters the reality of American civilization today — and finds he doesn’t like it much.

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

Set in 1838, an extraordinarily rich tale of class conflict, exploitation, and forbidden love in South Asia against the background of the opium trade.

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

Set in Geneva, this taut thriller takes the reader into the world of a brilliant American scientist who has developed mathetical formulas that make billions in profits for his hedge fund.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

A novel that digs beneath the artificial veneer of life in North Korea to examine  the mindless lives of its people, from the lowliest convict to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, himself.

Stardust, by Joseph Kanon

A tense and beautifully-constructed story set in Hollywood in its heyday as the euphoria of victory in Europe and (later) in the Pacific gives way to the hysteria of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

A high school English teacher in a small Maine town is lured through a portal in time that leads directly back to September 9, 1958. Jake’s mission: to hold out until 1963 and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can assassinate JFK.

The Debba, by Avner Mandelman

A naturalized Canadian citizen, formerly a trained killer for the Israeli armed forces in the 1960s, returns to his homeland when he learns of his father’s murder in Tel Aviv. Suddenly he is pulled back into the ethically murky environment he had fled seven years earlier.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

In a future USA with a tyrannical right-wing government in power and privacy a thing of the past, a hapless Russian-American seeks love in vain as New York enters into the final stage of total collapse.

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Isabel Allende’s latest novel is a triumph

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A review of Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Pick up a copy of Isabel Allende’s new novel, Maya’s Notebook, and get ready for a wild and wonderful ride through the years and up and down the length of the Western Hemisphere. Though structured as a coming-of-age novel of young Maya Vidal, recounting the four seasons of her twentieth year, Maya’s Notebook ranges from the glorious madness of Berkeley, where she was born and raised, to the back alleys and casinos of drug-addled Las Vegas and an Oregon rehab center for incorrigible teenagers, to the magical solitude of an island off the Chilean coast. Along the way in this wrenching journey you’ll find yourself drawn back in time to the CIA-inspired coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende and the murderous repression that followed for seventeen years under the late unlamented Augusto Pinochet. Maya’s Notebook is a tour de force. Only a writer of Isabel Allende’s maturity and rare skills could pull together all these disparate threads and weave them together so artfully into such a pleasurable, and often laugh-out-loud funny, reading experience.

Maya Vidal is (of course) an unusual young woman. As she describes herself at the outset, “I’m nineteen years old, female, single — due to a lack of opportunity rather than by choice, I’m currently without a boyfriend. Born in Berkeley, California, I’m a U.S. citizen, and temporarily taking refuge on an island at the bottom of the world . . . I’m five-ten, 128 pounds when I play soccer and several more if I don’t watch out. I’ve got muscular legs, clumsy hands, blue or gray eyes, depending on the time of day, and blond hair, I think, but I’m not sure since I haven’t seen my natural hair color for quite a few years now.” Her father is Chilean, an airline pilot, “handsome as a bullfighter and just as vain,” her runaway mother a Danish flight attendant whom Maya long fantasized was a Laplander princess.

Why does this striking young woman find herself on an island in Chiloe, where she’s taller than everyone else? Therein lies the tale. On arriving, when she meets her designated host, Manual Arias, an aging sociologist friend of her grandmother, Maya introduces herself by saying, “Hi! I’m on the run from the FBI, Interpol, and a Las Vegas criminal gang.” Only deep into Maya’s Notebook does it become unmistakably clear that she’s not joking.

Maya is raised by her grandparents in a sprawling house in Berkeley. The great love of Maya’s life is her grandfather, her Popo, her grandmother’s second husband, Paul Ditson II, a huge and compassionate man as black as she is white, a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley. In exile in Chile, her constant companions are the old sociologist whose tiny home she shares; the local schoolteacher who suffers from unrequited love for the lonely old man; and a lame dog christened Fahkeen the day Maya arrived when a cab driver hears her try to get rid of the beast, yelling “Shoo! Get away, fucking dog!”

Almost in passing, Allende tosses out unforgettable passages. Berkeley is “that gritty, radical, extravagant city, with its mix of races and human pelts, with more geniuses and Nobel Prize winners than any other city on earth, saturated with noble causes, intolerant in its sanctimoniousness.” The school where Maya’s grandparents sent her “taught using an Italian system of experimental education in which the students did whatever the fuck we wanted. The classrooms had no blackboards or desks, we sat on the floor, the teachers didn’t wear bras or shoes, and everyone learned at their own pace.”

Maya’s Notebook is Isabel Allende’s 19th book. Allende, a long-time Bay Area resident, is Chilean, a first cousin once removed of the late president (not his niece, other than in the Spanish vernacular). Clearly, she’s spent a lot of time in Berkeley.

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