A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

51l1ADoTZzL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_A Constellation of Vital Phenomena follows a group of interconnected characters in a small village in Chechnya following the fall of the Soviet Union and multiple wars for independence. After a man named Dokka is abducted by Russian soldiers, his 8-year old daughter is taken in by Ahkmed, a neighbor and lifelong friend. Together they take on the task of surviving in what’s left of their world where “happiness came in moments of unpredictable loveliness.”

Starting this book with virtually no knowledge of Chechnya or its history, it took me a large portion of the book to feel like I could understand the characters and the context. Marra calls into question what’s worth fighting for once a community is ravaged by war and with J.K. Rowling-esque mastery, weaves these characters together into a tangled mess of a masterpiece. An omniscient narrator provides glimpses into the future beyond the plot while also conveying bits of the human experience in excruciating detail. This well-researched story is as chaotic and morally ambiguous as war itself, and like many of my favorite books, will have readers chuckling and tearing up within the same page. I appreciated the dark humor, the quirkiness of the characters, and the jumps across time throughout a very complicated 10 years of Chechnya’s history. Definitely worth carrying this one to Costa Rica with me…

“The look on his face told her what had happened and that hurt burrowed deeper than anything she’d ever felt, deep enough to change from the thing she felt to the thing she was.”

The Sympathizer by Viet Than Nguyen


For someone with only a surface-level understanding of the Vietnam War and its impact (especially beyond the narrow scope of the white, counterculture movement of the American 1960’s that dominates this chapter in US history books!), this novel felt like such an important read. It tells the story of a French-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent navigating life in America after the Vietnam War. While rejecting romanticized notions of all ethnicities– especially the American representation of Vietnamese in Hollywood–  Nguyen explores the diverse political and cultural identities of displaced and/or immigrant Vietnamese in the US.

Full of soldiers, academics, musicians, spies, journalists, and more, all of the characters have a satirical intensity but feel jarringly real. The book is laced with a witty, dark humor that I love and had me re-reading sections in order to fully appreciate the nuance of Nguyen’s prose. Both intellectual and plot-driven, it is definitely the most impressive book that I have read so far this year.

“But I was also one of those unfortunate cases who could not help but wonder whether my need for American charity was due to my having first been the recipient of American aid.”

“Disarming an idealist was easy. One only needed to ask why the idealist was not on the front line of the particular battle he had chosen.”

“We have all kinds of ways to talk about life and creation. But when guys like me go and kill, everyone’s happy we do it and no one wants to talk about it. It would be better if every Sunday before the priest talks a warrior gets up and tells people who he’s killed on their behalf. Listening is the least they could do.”



War Dogs by Rebecca Frankel

war dogs

I enjoyed reading this one so much that I was genuinely disappointed when I unexpectedly reached the end of it on my Kindle. Frankel explores the world of military war dogs (MWDs) and their handlers in what is definitely the least depressing book about war that I’ve read. Despite the chilling anecdotes of explosive-detection missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, my lasting impression of War Dogs is one of admiration and moments of unexpected joy. The book captures the way that an emotional and professional relationship between MWDs and his fellow soldiers combines with an unparalleled physical ability to make these dogs such a powerful force. The only thing that could have made this book better for a nerd like me is more details on the physiology of a dog’s nose and the failed attempts by humans to replicate its expertise with technology.

“Mariana could see the force of the bullet as it hit Bronco…He was covered in blood but sitting all the same, waiting for his handler as if it had been the plan to rally at this safe spot all along… Bronco slumped to the ground, sprawled over on his side. Mariana’s heart stopped. He stared hard into the dog’s eyes, and then a terrible kind of relief washed over Mariana as he realized Bronco hadn’t just bled out in front of him. Instead, he had rolled over to offer his belly up for a scratch. Mariana exhaled, marveling at the strength of his dog.”