Friday, August 31, 2007

John Banville/THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE

This is a bit of a cheat - something I read quite some time ago. However, the book I'm currently on (A Game with Sharpened Knives by Neil Belton) has certain similarities with Banville, so I thought this might be a useful warmer for next week's review.

I recommend Banville, but with qualifications. He's heavy going: I think it takes me at least twice as long to read one of his novels as it does any other book of comparable length. Partly this is because the writing is so gorgeous that you want to savour it, want to keep dodging back a couple of pages to re-read a particularly brilliant passage. But partly it is also because there's a lack of narrative drive or character identification. In Banville's fiction - at least in this and the couple of other novels I've read - there is the narrator and nothing else. And that narrator - erudite, arrogant, witty, detached, observant, finicky, introspective, supremely articulate, manic depressive - would appear to be Banville himself (an unfortunate identification, since his protagonists also always seem to be criminals).

The narrator here is in a prison cell awaiting trial - explaining how he came to be in this position in the manner that he imagines he will give his evidence in court. He has committed a random murder, in the course of an impulsive robbery - trying to steal back a painting that had once belonged to his family but had been sold to a wealthy neighbour. The underlying motive for the initial crime might have been a need for money (in a largely unconnected, soon forgotten prologue that is rather like a Graham Greene short story we see that, after promising beginnings - wealthy family, career as a scientist - he has somehow lapsed into an idle, directionless life, drifting about the Mediterranean islands with his wife and child, sampling exotic locales and flirting with the seamier side of life: when he incurs a debt to a local gangster, his family are held as collateral, and he returns to Ireland alone to try to raise the money to redeem them), but this is never discussed; an obscure fascination with the painting itself appears to the be only reason for the theft. The murder which accompanies it is even more motiveless.

That synopsis probably makes it sound more substantial than it is. The bulk of the novel covers a period of just a few short days: his return to his family home; the crimes a day or two later; hiding out for a while with an old family friend, and then giving himself up. There's really almost no plot at all. Almost no characterization either - there are only a handful of people in the book, and none of them feature very prominently or interact with the protagonist in any very detailed way. I don't even see any psychological insight in this - the protagonist's inner drives remain obscure to us, as they are to him. Comparisons with Crime and Punishment or The Stranger are misplaced, I think.

For all these shortcomings, though, it is still a marvellous read. Banville claims to be trying to create a new sort of novel - beautiful soliloquys, extended prose poems rather than conventional fiction. They may be overlong, overdone ("All syrup and no pancakes" as a Canadian friend of mine likes to say) - but I'll put up with the longeurs, with the meagreness of the story, for the many wonderful moments along the way.

I don't want to put extended quotations on BookBook, but I posted a couple on my blog a while back. I also particularly liked this misanthropic epigram:
"Pity is merely the acceptable form of an urge to give weak things a good hard slap."

If you love language more than story, Banville is well worth giving a try.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Goodbye Tsugumi :: Banana Yoshimoto


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.

Sara Gruen/WATER FOR ELEPHANTS


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

The Writing Life :: Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard's essay on writing is part autobiographical, part just a writer thinking outloud about what it means to be a writer. There's no real coherence to the book, and yet, if you're like me, and you're a writer, you roll with it. You find yourself nodding your head in agreement on the process, the feelings, the frustrations, the necessities. Not to mention she has some really great little gems, passages that so well-describe the things that maybe no one else can understand unless they've tried to be a writer. This book, I feel, is great for a writer. Someone who gets it. But I can't imagine a non-writer reading the thing and deriving any joy from it. On the contrary, I feel like a non-writer who reads this book might think we're all a bunch of lunatics for ever wanting to live this writing life. Which we probably are....

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.

Michael Chabon/THE FINAL SOLUTION


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

Philip Roth/MY LIFE AS A MAN

I have mixed feelings about Roth. He can at times be very funny. He can at times be very insightful, particularly about the conflicts between the sexes. And then there's the sex - usually a lot of sex in a Roth book, too. (Now, I'm not really a fan of literary pornography, but Roth wins me over because he manages to be funny about sex.) And he writes - sometimes - quite beautifully.

On the other hand, the authorial persona is hard to like. You always feel that the first person narrator is a thinly-disguised version of Roth himself, and that the Roth being revealed is a shrill, vain, self-obsessed neurotic.

Probably that is nowhere more true than in this 1974 novel, which is, I think, the first appearance of the Nathan Zuckerman character who has become Roth's regular literary alter ego in later novels.

I didn't feel that the experimental conceit Roth used here (two short fictions by 'Zuckerman', followed by a longer Zuckerman autobiography, attempting to give three different, complementary but inconsistent versions of Zuckerman's disastrous relationships with women) was very satisfying. To me, they felt more like three pieces of writing on related, overlapping themes that had been hopefully thrown together in hindsight, rather than having been originally conceived and executed as parts of a coherent whole.

The book would appear to be an attempt to exorcise the demons that haunted Roth from his tempestous first marriage (which, exactly like Zuckerman's marriage in the book, ended in acrimonious divorce after a few short years, and was followed little after that by the ex-wife's death in a car accident, possibly a wilful suicide). It is largely a hymn of hate against the woman, and an extended - but less than fully convincing - attempt at self-justification, self-exculpation by Zuckerman/Roth. Hell, the topic itself makes for uncomfortable enough reading, without the addition of the constant speculation it engenders as to how much this is actually Roth's own life he is parading before us.

There is some fine writing here. Some of the early episodes from Zuckerman's childhood are particularly arresting. And there are some great lines, great jokes in it too. (Curiously, the one that sticks in my mind best is an observation on the annoying habit of an elderly aunt who, while listening to evangelical rallies on the radio in the evening, would be constantly clearing her throat "as if expecting to be called upon to speak next". Oddly enough, this is presented as a snippet from a short story written by the 'wife' figure in the second of the Zuckerman short stories - a frame within a frame within a frame.)

In the end, however, it drags. The protagonist does nothing to win our sympathy: rather, his protracted whining and navel-gazing eventually become merely tedious, and I found I spent the last 50 pages or so waiting rather impatiently for the book to end.

And then, of course, it didn't really end. Another common quirk - or flaw - of Roth's work: a lack of development, a lack of conclusion. The closing gag in 'Portnoy's Complaint' is of course that the session with the psychoanalyst is only just about to begin - and the elaborate sexual history we've just been told has presumably been just a sort of mental rehearsal by the patient of what he thinks he might say. 'My Life As A Man' leaves you with much the same feeling at the end, that after 300-odd pages of huffing and puffing, we've only just reached the beginning; yes, the same sense of anti-climax as with 'Portnoy', but without the compensation of a final joke, and without the feeling of having heard such an entertaining story first.


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

J.M. Coetzee/ELIZABETH COSTELLO


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

The Bell Jar :: Sylvia Plath


Okay, so it's not your summer reading easy breezy happy read. But you know, you grow up hearing about how this poet stuck her head in an oven (which for the LONGEST time I thought it meant she baked her self to death), and oh, by the way, she wrote a book called The Bell Jar [flash to image of a woman with a big glass jar on her head trying to fit it into an oven] which is sort of autobiographical, and recounts at least part of her battle with depression and madness. And then when you're done with school, and twiddling your thumbs, and wishing you had read more in high school and college, and what kind of books do you have to read now in order to catch up with the rest of the literarti, inevitably at some point in time, you'll land on Sylvia.

That, and my supervisor, who wrote her college thesis on the book, knows I like books, and left it on my desk with a note that I might enjoy some "light" reading.

In any case, I'm enamoured with Plath now (as I've made clear on my blog I hope). Her use of language is phenomenal, and she's incredibly accessible. The story itself is cringe-worthy (electroshock therapy?? multiple attempts at suicide?) but it's a testament to what a great writer she is that she balances this very serious story with a touch of humor (if wry) and manages to really immerse the reader in to the frightening world that the protagonist lives in. I mean, seriously, if you ever wondered what it was like to be truly depressed and crazed, this book really gets the feeling across pretty well, I think. [Well, I wouldn't know, I've never been clinically depressed, but from all accounts, it definitely dragged me into her head]

I won't do a summary here, because I'll just assume most people know the plot of the book, or at least know about Sylvia's life. But truly an excellent read. Alas for the oven and the bell jar she got her head stuck in.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Kate Jennings/MORAL HAZARD

Fiction can sometimes go where journalism has a hard time getting access. With hedge funds falling like flimsy card houses in the wind, there's new interest in what's going on behind the scenes among the movers and shakers. This 2002 novel offers an impressionistic and concise view, runs only 175 pages, and is written with a published poet’s precision of language. It's a semi-autobiographical account by Kate Jennings, an Australian poet and novelist whose friends got her a job as a speechwriter to support an older husband with Alzheimer's.

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

Gregory David Roberts/SHANTARAM


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.

Ian McEwan/ATONEMENT

In the hot summer of 1935 a privileged British family holds a dinner party at their country estate. The first third of the novel follows the individual family members on their thoughts over the course of the afternoon; the second jumps forward five years to a bombed-out road in northern France; the third to a London preparing for Blitz. I don't want to say more about the plot out of responsibility to those who haven't read this book yet. Although the action only covers a handful of days (albeit days that are years apart) the book is richly written and the world McEwan has created is very deep.

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

José Saramago/BLINDNESS

I imagine this might be the most "accessible" book by the much-praised Portuguese Nobel Prizewinner, José Saramago: it adopts the well-worn sci-fi premise of a breakdown of social order following on some great catastrophe. In this case, however, the apocalyptic event is an epidemic of contagious blindness.

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.

Michael Martone/UNCONVENTIONS




This is not your usual writing craft book, but more of a peek into the fertile brain of an outstanding writing teacher. (Actually, I wanted to introduce myself to The Book Book, and this is the most recent one I've read.) The content consists primarily of Martone's lectures for the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program, some talks he gave at various AWP conventions, excerpts from his upcoming book, Four for a Quarter, and assorted other pieces, such as a review and an interview. Martone is curious, iconoclastic, and infinitely inventive on the subject of writing. Those who have taken his workshops will find much of this material familiar, but may be glad to revisit it. ("I have only a few things to say," he told me just last week, "but I say them over and over again.")

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mark Lambert/DICKENS AND THE SUSPENDED QUOTATION

What's not to like about a fairly short book of literary analysis that only costs ten cents and begins like this?
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

Michael Chabon/THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION

Always a heavy reader, I haven't had the attention span left over to read many books since joining the Blogger and Flickr cults some months ago. But this one pulled me away from the keyboard and knocked me over. I loved everything about this book -- the deftly executed noir elements , the evocation of a parallel universe in which a Jewish homeland was established in Sitka, Alaska in 1948, and the bruised and battered love story between the protagonist and his ex-wife, who also happens to be his boss. Two things especially stood out in my mind:

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

Erik Larson/THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY

A narrative account of two men in Chicago at the 1893 World Fair. One man is the architect who oversaw the building of the fair (a monumental undertaking). The other is a serial killer--one of the earliest documented (and possibly among the more prolific) serial killers in US history.

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

Chris Bohjalian/The Double Bind


I started out *really* enjoying this one. There are Gatsby references, it was funny, and (at that point, most importantly) I could read it on the noisy 100-degree train without too much effort.
Which, I suppose, should have been a sign.
You know, I remember reading "Midwives" by Bohjalian (pre-it-being-part-of-Oprah's-book-club-thank-you-very-much) and loving it. Of course, I just looked that up - the Oprah's version was published in 1998. Almost 10 years ago. Which could account for why I enjoyed it.
Anyway, basically, girl gets attacked/raped/etc., and goes crazy. She reassembles her life, but of course, she's still crazy. Don't waste your time. Although I may waste my time and re-read "Midwives" to see how I feel about it 10 years later. In a few months, after I get over being annoyed with this book.
Boring.

Susanna Clarke/Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell


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

Khaled Hosseini/THE KITE RUNNER

I realize I'm one of the last people in the world to read this book, but there we go.

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

Kafka On the Shore/Haruki Murakami

You know, I'm so torn about Murakami. I'd like to say I unequivocally adore him, but to be honest it does get a little touch and go when sisters start getting raped and perfectly preserved WWI soldiers guarding secret entrances go unexplained. Not that I need explanations for everything---I don't, especially since it's Murakami we're talking about here. So in that light, I suppose you could say Murakami emotionally and stylistically satisfied me, but left me slightly parched intellectually. I really, really wanted some of the major mysteries presented to be tied together in some overtly stated way, and I didn't get it. Pooh.

I'm supposed to rate this, aren't I? Let's go with a firm: Eh.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Jem Poster/COURTING SHADOWS

1881, rural England: a young architect is sent on a 3-month assignment to a remote village, where he charged with restoring the town church. Unsympathetic to what he considers to be the superstitions of the villagers (manifest at the very beginning of the project, when he opens the churchyard cemetery), Stannard plugs on with his vision of the restoration, gradually generating the animosity of his employees, the church curate, and other members of the town.

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

Robert Rankin/The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse


Absoloutely hysterical. Perhaps better (perhaps) than my favorite satirical author, Christopher Moore. But I'm not making that call yet.
Little Miss Muffet, Little Boy Blue, Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose - all the fairy tales and toys are alive and there's a serial killer on the loose.
I made the mistake of reading this one on a plane, and I think I scared everyone around me because I kept laughing out loud.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"Like Son" by Felicia Luna Lemus

Felicia Luna Lemus is a Mexican American who looks absolutely, undeniably white. She writes books that confront the irrelevance of gender, without becoming consumed by it. She lives in Manhattan's East Village. In interviews, she seems quite interesting. Her second novel, Like Son, found its genesis in a portrait of Mexican boho goddess Nahui Olin. I liked the idea of looking at a picture and getting a whole novel out of it. I liked it a lot. So, I read this one.

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

Michael Chabon/THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION

A middle-aged alcoholic divorcee detective gets caught up in one last murder before the impending dissolution of his bureau. Along the way, he stirs up underworld demons and his own dark, tortured history, and the case becomes much a lot more than anyone expected. The twist: the story takes place in fictional Jewish Alaska, on the premise that in 1948 the Jewish colony of Israel had failed and the US government had provided the global Jewish community with a 60-year lease on an Indian Island off its northernmost coast.

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

Stephen L. Carter/The Emperor of Ocean Park

Excellent beach read.

J.R.R. Tolkien/The Hobbit

No review necessary for a Tolkien book - just keeping you updated on what I've read.

Sara Gruen/Water for Elephants


Fascinating. Couldn't stop reading. I know it's quite popular, so sorry for you book snobs - I love it. In fact, I love many mass market fiction books, just as a warning.

Augusten Burroughs/Running with Scissors


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.

Katharine McMahon/The Alchemist's Daughter: A Novel


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

The Stolen Child :: Keith Donohue



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.