If you love language more than story, Banville is well worth giving a try.
Friday, August 31, 2007
If you love language more than story, Banville is well worth giving a try.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
I heart Banana Yoshimoto ("Banana" isn't really her first name, I read in some interview that she chose it because it was fun or something). Something about her writing is so pleasant in a subtle, palate cleansing way. Nostalgic without being overly dramatic. Spare. Clean.
This novella follows a girl and her frail but crass cousin during a last summer in the seaside town that they grew up in. I can't say much more than that, because it's not really a plot driven tale. But it's pleasing to read. It's short, so it doesn't take much effort. Just something nice and light, leaving you with just a lingering feeling of sadness intermingled with nostalgia. Honestly, I don't know what else to say about it. I liked it. But I like everything she writes.
Everyone else was posting about this book, so I had to read it.
Short synopsis: in the summer of 1931, a 23-year-old Polish Cornell veterinary school drop-out with no money and no hope accidentally finds himself on board a circus train. Hijinx ensue.
This was a real fun read, a great narrative with all the classic elements--I read the whole thing in two sittings (two sittings because, to my chagrin, I had to go to work in between). The added bonus is the circus never gets dull, and I learned a lot from this book. Some of the most fantastic minor plot elements, the author confesses in her note at the back, aren't fiction at all--taken straight from the annals of American circus history. One of the most unbelievable concepts to me is that in times of economic hardship the circus bosses were known to "redlight" blue collar men--that is, throw them from the train during the night (Gruen maintains in interviews that there is historical evidence this happened).
The only detraction for me was the contemporary narrative (the old man remembering)--I hate this format and find that I don't care about the old man (or maybe, more accurately, I find the old man's story really upsetting to read). My mother, however, cited the old man as her favorite part of the book (I stole her copy), so this is clearly subjective.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
I really liked it. It's a short read, a little over 100 pages. Easy, but got some great lines to make you sit back and just think a little.
More of a novella, really--in a small English vicarage in 1944 a mute German-Jewish boy's African gray parrot goes missing the same day a man is found murdered.
This was ok. It was a really quick read (I think it was all the new rights for chapter openers) and naturally couldn't get as deep or involved as I guess I was hoping it would (ie as deep and involved as YIDDISH POLICEMEN).
As the title might indicate, this book has a lot of ideas about the fates of the Jews after World War II. I can't help wondering if this whole little book was symptomatic of his brewing ideas for YIDDISH POLICEMEN.
Angelle, I know how interested you are in narrative perspective... Well, this book has a chapter told from the point of view of the parrot.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Erratum: I had forgotten that the narrator/"author" in this book is in fact called Tarnopol (somehow a less memorable name!); Zuckerman is his literary alter ego, protagonist of the two long short stories which open the book.
Friday, August 24, 2007
I've really enjoyed Coetzee in the past--I loved DISGRACE, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K, and WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS. He's great with brief, thoughtful prose, always humanistically inclined. You come out of his books feeling like a better and wiser person.
ELIZABETH COSTELLO I was a little disappointed by. It's a series of essays about moments in the life of a fictional novelist. It's very moral-oriented (each chapter is called a "Lesson"), occasionally felt like coursework reading, and (forgive me for this but) was rather self-indulgent--a writer writing about writing and writers.
There are definitely some thoughtful and worthwhile passages, but I found them work to get through. Low-brow girls like me appreciate those quaint little devices like plot, unfortunately.
PW, I see on Amazon, gave it a "reverberating" review ("a resounding achievement" they say). Hum. The only chapter I had any fun with at all was the last one, which can essentially stand alone.
Oh well. Anyone else read this? Am I way off?
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Her feel for language, her impeccable sense of pitch and her engaging, tough-minded tone take the reader on quite a ride as her protagonist, Cath, learns the ropes at “a firm whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas. A firm where women were about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.”
The novel spans six years and is made up of two intertwined, complementary narratives. Each concerns a failure of memory -- Cath's husband Bailey’s on the one hand, the banking industry’s on the other. Bailey’s cognitive decline is told with sensitivity and skill. The bankers are sketched deftly and colorfully. Bailey’s crisis ends in death. The banking industry’s crisis almost blows up the entire financial system, although the perturbation scarcely is noticed by the general public and nothing really changes.
The hedge fund collapse in the book was modeled on Long Term Capital Management. The spectacular demise of LTCM in 1998 was an eye-opener for industry insiders, but after a bailout arranged by the Fed it was quickly forgotten.
“To date, no follow-up. Nothing. Nada. As if afflicted with Alzheimer’s, the Fed remains adamant that banks can police themselves. Deregulation rackets along like a runaway train, banking lobbyists clinging to its side, climbing into the cab, waving from the windows, hollering in their exhilaration. Hoo-ha.”The book is a powerful, frightening indictment of Wall Street and its institutional failure of memory, and every time I read the financial pages these days, I hear that "Hoo-ha." It's not at all reassuring.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
This novel is based on the real life experiences of a bank robber escaped from a high-security Australian prison and on the run in Bombay. Lin is an intelligent writer, from a tough working class background, fallen foul of the law after heroin addiction has turned his life upside down. Just off the airport bus he meets two people who play pivotal roles in his new life, each playing to different aspects of him. There is Prabaker, a tourist guide with the widest smile who teaches him the local languages and shows him Bombay from every angle and Karla, beautiful, clever and mysterious. He finds sanctuary in the sprawling metropolis and grows to love its contrasts.
I was completely absorbed by the first half of the book, as he sets himself to learn more about the people of Bombay, visits Prabaker's isolated rural village and on returning to Bombay goes to live in Prabaker's slum, when all his money is stolen. In the slum, once he has got past his revulsion of the smells and poverty, he discovers a strong, supportive community, run with integrity among the makeshift bamboo and plastic houses. He creates a role for himself setting up a first aid clinic, is able to earn a living earning commission on black market deals in drugs and currency.
The more I think about Shantaram the more I see it as an interweaving of light and dark. The light side of the book and Lin's character shine through in his love of Bombay, the slum dwellers and the detailed, living portraits he draws of them. As he becomes more drawn in to the lives of those around him you can almost believe he'll find a form of redemption there. The darker side of his personality emerges further into the story, when after a spell in a dire Bombay prison, which brings to the forefront the tough and bitter inmate he has so recently escaped from being, he starts to work for Khaderbaai the head of one of Bombay's mafia clans. In him he finds a father figure and philosopher who provokes endless debate on universal morality, right and wrong.
The mafia becomes his family and he distances himself from his life and friends in the slum, though he still holds them up as a beacon of purity and love amid the murky moral waters he is dipping into. It was at this point that I started finding the author's voice from the future intruding irritatingly on the unfolding of the story. Too many pages had a solemn, head-shaking 'if only I'd known better' air to them and the earnest sincerity with which he tries to analyse his relationships and actions wears rather thin. I think a bit more editing could have improved the story flow, cut about 100 pages and got the moral of human weakness and fallibility across without having to spell it out over and over again. Having said that I was still intrigued enough to keep reading until the very end to see what sort of resolution he would achieve for himself.
Read Shantaram for a fascinating insight into India, Bombay and its underworld and the human interest of the people he meets from all walks of life.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Philip Gourevitch/WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES; STORIES FROM RWANDA
Having sort of glossed over this book freshman year of college during my Nationalism course, I dug it back up whilst moving some more of my old things from home to my new apartment, and I decided to actually give it a close read. And I can't be more happy having done so.
Full of eye-witness accounts, riveting personal and political stories, informative and impartial historical accounts, and a biting wit, this book is an eye-opening and compelling account of the events surrounding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Not only does the author recount in detail the atrocities that occurred throughout Rwanda during those unimaginably bloody 100 days, he carefully analyzes the political and social implications of this event for Africa as a continent, and for the world.
Two of the points made in this book were particularly striking, perhaps because they are points that are rarely, if ever, mentioned during conversations about Rwanda, and also because they largely have to do with the aftermath of the genocide. First, Gourevitch relates, in painful detail, the extent to which the international community went, not only to avoid intervening in Rwanda, but also to harbor and take care of the genocidal refugees (fugitives?) after they were thrown out of Rwanda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Before reading this book, I understood that the UN and other institutions merely stood by while people were being slaughtered at a rate faster than that of the Jewish holocaust. However, after the Rwandan genocide, the UN and other agencies set up refugee camps right outside Rwanda's borders. These camps hosted tens of thousands of extremist Hutus who took this opportunity to regroup, refuel, and attack Rwanda anew. The ignorance and arrogance of the international community will blow you away, and they add a very cynical undertone to the book.
The second point Gourevitch makes is that the entire continent of Africa felt profound repercussions from the genocide, and especially what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). In the face of complete apathy from the international community, African nations and leaders came together to take down destructive dictators and harmful extremists. Heroes surfaced in these circumstances, and many of them are still government leaders in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. Although this is a message of hope, Gourevitch does not whitewash his story at the end, but rather reminds us that a lot of work still needs to be done, and that, unfortunately, international powers were an obstacle to solving the political problems behind the genocide, instead of being a source of support and justice.
Philip Gourevitch is a remarkable journalist and author--one who has done extensive research, and who has the ability to capture and hold the reader's attention without resorting to the kind of sentimental rubbish that is characteristic of the kind of journalism that deals with "human interest" stories. His sources are multiple and varied, and he does not leave the reader guessing as to his historical accounts--he fills in every gap, and reinforces his opinions with evidence. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.
The downside of the rich prose is that this is a book you have to ingest very slowly to get more than plot from it. The upside, however, outweighs: your labors will be rewarded by the mini-gem of each sentence. McEwan packs something interesting--a wittisism, a truism, an observation about society you can't understand why no one has made before--into literally every sentence. Here's just one scandalous favorite culled from a selection of many, many little word treats:
The smooth-hollowed partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures, huddling at the foot of a cross.
This, a description of the word "cunt."
The books asks and asks again some uncomfortable but compelling questions, most disorientingly about the innocence of childhood (how innocent IS childhood actually?) and the eventual meaninglessness of familial love (a love that is not chosen). I would recommend this also for McEwan's uncompromisingly faithful capturing of moments in war.
And I apologize in advance for this misguided observation, but am I the ONLY one who thinks Mr. McEwan could be the long-lost cousin of the tenacious Richard Belzer?
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Saramago doesn't follow a conventional sci-fi approach, though. There's little consideration of the mechanics of the disease or its epidemiology (indeed, the author seems at times to be endorsing the superstitious response of some of the victims that it can be spread by sight), nor of the details of national and international response from governments. The premise is that the prospect of acquiring blindness by contact is so terrifying that the victims are immediately ostracized, isolated. The book follows a small group of the earliest victims, who have been detained in a disused mental hospital and left to their own devices, left to create a new society for themselves. (The soldiers guarding them are hesitant even to deliver their food; there is no medical treatment available, no supervision of any kind.) It thus becomes a parable of the Nazi concentration camps, of the breakdown of humanity in the face of extreme circumstances. The sexual brutalisation of the female internees by a criminal gang that forms within the hospital is a particularly harrowing episode.
Some aspects of the story are less than entirely convincing. The harshness of the government's immediate response doesn't ring true, and seems to arise from a non-existence of any biological containment measures. Saramago also assumes that victims of sudden-onset blindness, lacking the benefit of therapy and support, will never really come to grips with their disability; in particular, the victims are represented as being incapable of keeping themselves clean: ordure is a recurring image in the book, particularly in the later stages, where the entire world has gone blind.
Such quibbles are perhaps irrelevant: this is, after all, more of a fable than a realistic novel. The ruthlessness of those is power is a key theme; the ubiquitous shit is a necessary symbol of the decay of civilization.
Saramago's trademark style - long, stream-of-consciousness sentences, dispensing with conventional punctuation - can become a little wearing. At times it can produce some quite startling and useful effects, creating a swift, sinuous narrative of action, or subtly shifting perspective to take us briefly inside the head of one or more of the characters. At other times, though, it's simply mannered and irritating (it's particularly heavy going when it's rendering dialogue: it's sometimes almost impossible to keep track of who's saying what to whom).
These reservations aside, it is a superb premise, compellingly told; a powerful, distressing, thought-provoking book. I read it recently while trapped in a Chinese airport by an interminable, unexplained flight delay: it was a very useful reminder that my misfortune really wasn't all that bad.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Whales there are in Dickens, and a multitude of sprats. But this is a book about plankton. An explanation is called for...It certainly was, and I awaited it eagerly. I took a folding chair down to the park and spent a pleasant afternoon with Mark Lambert's study of Dickens (Yale, 1981) and his use of the suspended quotation -- that wonderful Victorian circumlocution much beloved of Victorian novelists, especially the early Dickens, whereby they would start a quote, stop, wander off on a long rambling authorial digression before eventually return to the speaker. I found the book on sale at a bookstore that was closing and couldn't put it down -- the author had me at "plankton" -- and it looked as if I would get more than my money's worth.
The book offers an in-depth analysis of a very tiny subject, which broadens to reveal vistas, all in a rather playful, almost whimsical style. Lambert's argument is that Dickens was not only competing with his characters for audience attention in his earlier works, but he also found himself in an aggressive rivalry with them, revealed by the frequency of his interruptions. Less of this in his later books, with their more austere, modern style (at least in regard to quotes). This may have been because by then he was doing so much performing himself, in public readings where he clearly was the star and no longer had to compete with his characters.
Guaranteed to take your mind off the ills of the modern world. If you can find an old copy on Amazon, pick one up for the beach house.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
It's a masterful counterfactual novel. This is more easily said than done, because it involves much more than the willing suspension of disbelief. For example, I left my disbelief at the door and was more than willing to meet Philip Roth halfway in The Plot Against America, but my gut rebelled. I just couldn't feel the reality of a world in which Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR in 1940. I sympathized with what Roth was trying to do, but I couldn't get caught up in it. In contrast, Chabon caught me up and swept me away to a world that should have been absurd but wasn't at all. Mostly, it's because Chabon firmly embeds the imaginary in masterfully evoked everyday details: scraps of Yiddish, a present-day setting that's just slightly off-kilter, even the familiar and reassuring conventions of genre fiction. By the end of the book I felt I had known Jewish Sitka forever and was deeply involved and concerned about the uncertain fate of the sometimes brave but always deeply flawed residents I had come to know -- including members of its Hassidic organized crime gang.
Chabon's imagination clearly flourishes in the arctic. Though he writes in sunny California these days, something about arctic (and antarctic) landscapes seems to fuel the imagination of Michael Chabon, who grew up in Pittsburgh. When I was a kid, I read a mesmerizing account by Admiral Byrd of wintering alone in the Antarctic and nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, trapped, alone, nowhere to turn. Chabon must have read the same thing, because in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay he mutated this into a tour de force interlude of magic realism and a fable of escape and survival. In the new novel, he goes this one better by turning the founding myth of Israel -- carving a homeland out of an inhospitable desert -- on its head and reimagining it in the arctic tundra. Part of the what makes the novel so credible is its wintry sense of place -- you feel the snow in your face, the snap of the winter cold, the bleak, attenuated winter light. You huddle with the characters against the encroaching darkness. Haunting.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
The narrative was entertaining, and certainly well written. I personally have a problem with nonfiction that over-dramatizes the past--maybe it's my dumb history degree, but it always bothers me a little when an author, for the sake of narrative fluidity, puts words in the mouths or thoughts in the heads of real people. At the end of this book you're left with the impression that Holmes is guilty of countless (hundreds of) murders. I'm not saying he's any saint, but there is only concrete evidence that he was involved in 9 of those murders. The author has perhaps (unwittingly) let other murderers off the hook for the sake of making Holmes's story as exciting and despicable as possible.
Also... and this is trashy to say, but true... I found myself much more interested in the chapters about Holmes (the killer) than Burnham (the architect). I flipped dutifully through the accounts of structural difficulties, municipal politics, and high society shenanigans, but (dare I admit it? Yeah--since my guess is that at least a few other readers secretly felt the same) felt much more tantalized by the passages where Holmes was luring innocent young women into his sound-proof kiln.
Anyway. An entertaining read. And a nice picture of the turn of the 20th century.
Sunday, August 12, 2007
A very nice surprise. You gotta read this book. Even though it seems really slow in the beginning, SC took a completely unrealistic concept and convinced me that these incredible magicians lived and walked around England in the 1800s. Not only did they live, they had purpose--if you were a magician, you should be respected for what you could do.Wars could not be won without the aid of a magician. We could use a good one (or 2) today, believe me. It was very hard to read the end & accept what happens to these 2 very different, eccentric and lovable characters and yet, it couldn't end any other way.
[moonrat posting for thetrunchbull]
Friday, August 10, 2007
The story of Amir and Hassan, two Afghani boys of different races who grew up together in Kabul in the 1970s, and a search for redemption 25 years later that brings Amir back to war-torn Afghanistan to resurrect the past.
This book tortured me from beginning to end. Hosseini comes back to redemption again and again, but for me, in the end, we never get there. Nothing is right. Hassan is too good and Amir is too weak. The worst part, I think, is that Amir is a painfully relatable character--you forgive him, or at least accept him, for his hideous cowardice because you see how you might make the exact same cowardly decisions. Of course the level of atrocity and suffering the characters endure is something that most people privileged enough to read this book will probably never know, and it is worth reading to understand those things (which become so unreal and distant to us when we hear them on the news). And it's worth reading to foster understanding of Afghan culture, etc etc. But that's not what the book was about for me. It's about the legacy of a friendship and a 350-page reminder to be the best person you possibly can.
I would recommend this to anyone.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
I'm supposed to rate this, aren't I? Let's go with a firm: Eh.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
This was a short and extremely well-written novel (another debut, although he has a couple more in England that will surely make their way over) so a quick, satisfying read. However, I gotta be honest here--the main character is SO irredeemably despicable that I don't think I actually enjoyed the book. You just loathe him from start to finish with every ounce of your being. For me, personally, all the good writing in the world can't save the experience for me, because the book just left me feeling so bad and distasteful.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Monday, August 6, 2007
Now, Lemus' style is stilted and agressively hyperbolic to the point of becoming very corny, (she actually used the phrase "as if..." in its 90s valley girl form), and she constantly uses disclamers as an attempt to backpedal and cover her melodrama, Ex.: saying "Okay, please don't laugh..." before laying down on of her over-the-top, silly similes.
However, that doesn't mean that she doesn't do some things right. She describes New York City in a way that makes it exciting again, like someone who really knows and loves the place. Her protagonist's love interest is a complex fireball whom we can actually imagine loving ourselves. I swear, I felt a bit of longing when she disappeared for a time, leaving only a note.
Overall though, if you like your characters to develop, and your authors not to exploit September 11th, then you probably don't need to read this book. It's a reasonably decent diversion, and little else.
Sunday, August 5, 2007
This was a really enjoyable read--styled after 1940s pulp detective fiction--seedy hotels, multi-stringed murders, fatal dames, and overblown metaphors aplenty--only thoroughly (and often Hasidically) Jewish. I think the biggest prize about the book, though, is how well Chabon writes. It wasn't work to get through the prose at all, which I can't say for myself about a lot of "well-written" books, but I feel both much smarter and thoroughly entertained having come to the end.
I wasn't actually smart enough to figure out the premise on my own, unfortunately. It took a lot of "wow, there's a huge Jewish community in Alaska?" and fumbling around on Wikipedia for me to understand at last that this was an alternate history. I realize this could have been prevented by reading the flap copy. But I hope you, fellow reader, are a little less thick-headed than I am.
Defintely worth reading.
Friday, August 3, 2007
As a novel, the book is rather bland. The writing leaves much to be desired, and none of the characters are very developed. However, this is actually a memoir (hopefully not of the James Frey variety). Burroughs' life is a train wreck, of course - otherwise, it would make a boring memoir - and this is definitely worth reading as a memoir.
Decent. I felt as if this actually should have been multiple books, as this one kept starting plot lines and then quickly ending them, or ignoring them.
Overall, surprisingly enjoyable, but nothing fantastic.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
I've been wracking my brains trying to think of a good book that I've read recently that is 1) not widely read (at least I don't think so, or not yet) and 2) I haven't already rambled about on my own blog. Then I remembered this little jewel.
I read The Stolen Child last year, when it first came out in hardcover - note that the softcover is different, as it probably didn't do too well.
The story follows a very interesting premise based on a Yeats poem of the same name. A child named Henry Day is taken deep into the woods and swapped for a changeling who has the ability to change his features to match anyone's. As this changeling assumes the life of Henry Day, growing over time and experiencing life, Henry Day becomes known as Anniday, and slowly succumbs and adapts to life with the other changelings in the woods, forgetting his past, and biding his time until he too, will be able to swap with another child's place.
The narrative follows both the fake Henry Day and the real, now Anniday, as they move through the lives that are not theirs, and as each begin to question who they were before they were changelings, and search for answers that will give them permanency.
The novel isn't the best written thing I've ever read. Sometimes I felt it could be tighter in its prose, and sometimes I felt that the plot itself could have been tightened up a little. But there are moments in this book where I felt a genuine anguish for these characters and the lives that have been ripped from them, and for the people around them whose lives have, knowingly or unknowingly been altered. The plot is so inventive that I can't help but be interested, and I want to know how it could possibly turn out for them, caught in a situation where they can't possibly win. I'm a sucker for multiple POV storylines like this, for plots involving switches and secrets, and the added "woodland magic faerieland" aspect to it only makes it more fun for me. Don't read expecting the great American novel, but I think it's an entertaining read.