Capsule reviews

HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA. By Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books. 228 pages. $26.95.

This novel shouldn’t work. It opens purporting to be a self-help book with the disingenuous line, “Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron.”

As the reader tries to digest that concept, Mohsin Hamid scrambles it, and the story morphs to the chronicle of a poor young boy’s life in Asia, “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been taken away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of those things.” From under the cot the child strikes out and gets rich — filthily — before the whole works implode in the crush of corruption.

“Filthy Rich” comes complete with a pined-for first love whose life tangles in and out of the lead character’s own. And Hamid keeps wrenching in the idea that this is a self-help primer.

Like I said, this story shouldn’t work. But the technique, it turns out, weaves a classic tale deftly and disturbingly. The conclusion is a coda, when Hamid’s self-help advice becomes powerful and profound. If the beginning gives you fits, trust me, keep reading. The end is worth it.

Review Bo Petersen is a reporter at The Post and Courier

THE TASTE OF ASHES: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. By Marci Shore. Crown. 370 pages. $27.

When Yale historian Marci Shore writes of the “afterlife of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe,” she knows whereof she speaks. “Eastern Europe is special,” she writes. “It is Europe, only more so. It is a place where people live and die, only more so.”

Shore visited the region for the first time in 1993 and has returned many times. In 1994, she moved to Poland for six months to teach English and learned to speak Polish fluently and communicate in several other Eastern European languages.

Her quest, pursued diligently, was to understand the mind-set of the people after so many years of communist domination. What she found was puzzling: a passivism, reluctance to assert freedom of will, and “the omnipresence of guilt” among those who had embraced communism so fervently.

As the archives were opened, she found some heroic deeds and many shameful ones committed by the major players of the day. Many of those named are little known in the U.S., with the exception of writer Vaclav Havel, who led the Czech Velvet Revolution in 1989.

The far-reaching subject of the book, often confusing cast of characters and lack of a coherent narrative can make for weighty reading at times. Nevertheless, Shore often lightens the load with intimate interviews and empathetic personal involvement.

She admits she wanted “a story that ended happily,” but that the story of those she wrote about “is a tragedy.”

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer based in Charleston.

HER: A Memoir. By Christa Parravani. Henry Holt and Co. 306 pages. $26.

“Her” obviously is written as a catharsis by a woman whose twin died of an overdose after being raped, but sometimes the drama is just too much.

Cara and Christa Parravani were born into drama, with a father who abused their mother. There’s drama all through their childhood, even after their parents’ divorce.

At 13, each was having sex with her 18-year-old boyfriend; drugs and emotional problems seem to have been issues early in their lives.

They seem to have been dysfunctionally close sisters who love and hate each other, with each making sure their husbands knew they had married both sisters, Cara showing up during Christa’s honeymoon, even having planned since childhood that if one of them died, the other would follow soon.

Christa Parravani shows the reader nothing likable about her or her twin, even considering their accomplishments. It’s just the drama.

The first two-thirds of the book are trauma after issue after disturbing emotion. By the time Parravani gets to her sister’s rape and worsening drug problem, the reader is exhausted from all the angst.

By the last third of the book, Parravani seems to be recovering somewhat from her sister’s death, her own suicide attempt and myriad other issues, and her writing reflects a stronger person, even considering a quoted account of her session with a psychic.

“Her” seems to be a book Parravani had to write, and maybe it could help someone else going through something awful. It’s powerful, amazingly detailed and poetic, but it’s in no way an enjoyable book to read.

Reviewer Carol Edwards is a freelance editor and farmer living in Marlboro County.