Sunday, September 30, 2007

Joshua Ferris/THEN WE CAME TO THE END

This novel is totally funny, but in a subtle kind of way. It's told in first person plural ("There were donuts? Benny's story would have to wait for those of us who wanted donuts.") Which seems weird but isn't, because it totally suits the story, which is about a bunch of people who work for an ad agency. Think about it--when you talk about work, you probably do a lot of "we did this," "we all hate her," etc. So it works.

The main idea of the novel is that this ad agency is dealing out the lay-offs like crazy, trying to save the company from going under. You get to sit in on the plans to create new ad campaigns and on the conversations between the different employees about what's going on in their lives.

I got pretty caught up in the little stories about each office worker. Why does that guy wear all those polo shirts at one time? Is the fired guy going to go postal? Does the boss have cancer and just won't admit it?

It's not easy keeping the characters straight, probably because of the strange POV. But I really didn't care about that at all. The stories they tell are quirky and engrossing, and their reactions (to people getting laid off or people bringing in bagels or whatever) are real and, therefore, endearing.

Plus, I love the ending. I came to the end and just sort of smiled and said, "Oh." It was great.

Michael Cox/THE MEANING OF NIGHT: A CONFESSION


A Victorian-era ex-Eton boy (Edward) learns he was born into a noble family and deprived of his birthright by his bitter mother. His life becomes a vice-filled quest to re-establish himself and have revenge on his arch-enemy, a rather unconvincingly evil impostor who stands to inherit Edward's title.

This book was too long, too overdrawn, and in the end neither artistic nor exciting (I figure you generally need one or the other). I think the moral ambiguities are supposed to be thought-provoking, but I found I just didn't care enough about the characters (none of whom I found likable). The writing is pretty good and this was a bestseller (starred PW review?!) so perhaps I'm in minority here but it just took way more of my time than it was worth.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Andrey Kurkov/DEATH AND THE PENGUIN

This book was passed on to me with a recommendation from a couple of friends who had read it and enjoyed it recently.


I must confess I was also attracted by the title.

And the Daily Telegraph's rave review, quoted on the front cover here, that it was "a tragi-comic masterpiece" also intrigued me.... although at the same time it disposed me towards a certain scepticism.

It's a short and easy read, and provides a fascinating glimpse of life in the Ukraine in the mid-90s, shortly after the Soviet collapse. This life, not unsurprisingly, is unrelentingly grim and impoverished - heavy drinking is a knee-jerk response to this bleakness (the male characters share a bottle of something almost every other page), corruption is ubiquitous, and murder is a routine act of politics, an almost-daily background event.

The protagonist, Viktor, is a would-be writer who manages to land himself a lifeline job writing flowery obituaries (or obelisks, as they jokingly nickname them) for a leading Kiev newspaper. The problem is that he is being asked to write these obituaries on 'notables' of the local political and business scene who are not yet dead - although many of them start turning up dead shortly after he has delivered his copy. Viktor gradually realises that his obelisks are somehow being manipulated as part of a labyrinthine vendetta between the country's high-and-mighty, an unhappy circumstance which puts his own life in jeopardy.

It's a nice idea, but it never really goes anywhere: the workings of the conspiracy - who Viktor's real 'employers' are and what the significance of the obelisks is - remain determinedly obscure.

There's a similar purposelessness to the figure of the penguin. Viktor keeps a pet penguin, Misha, in his apartment; he adopted it from the Kiev zoo a year or two earlier, when it began closing down for shortage of funds. There's a certain quirky charm to this, but no real significance. Apart from being a mirror of Viktor's own morose temperament, Misha the penguin carries no symbolic weight, and his presence in the story is frustratingly enigmatic, not to say pointless (until the very end, when it sets up the perfunctory denouement). Kurkov, apparently, has written a lot of film scripts, and I can see this penguin idea stemming from that experience. In a film it would provide strong visual interest, and generate a lot more humour and a lot more revelation of the pet-owner's character than it does here in a novella.

I wonder how much Kurkov might see Viktor as his alter ego. Early on, Viktor laments that he is unable to write anything substantial any more - he can only manage short stories, and even these are too short to get published anywhere. Kurkov seems to be suffering from a similar failing in this book. It is extremely slight and episodic, being divided into nearly 80 micro-chapters, most of them no more than a page or two long (and it's big print, too). Nothing very much happens. Various characters are briefly introduced, only to arbitrarily disappear again - presumed or reported to be dead.

I've seen a number of reviews that praise the book's deadpan humour, but I couldn't detect any of this. I would say that there is merely detachment here, an unremitting moral blankness. Incidents that might have the potential to evoke a certain black humour - army officers protecting their country dachas against burglary with landmines outside the door; the attendance of the penguin briefly becoming a voguish novelty at gangland funerals - are recounted in a tone of complete neutrality that fails to engage the sense of amusement.

No, for me, the book is not comic. Neither is it at all tragic. There is no story arc here, no character development. Viktor at the end of the book is no different than he was at the beginning, and the fact that he foresees his own death leaves us unmoved. He is such a complete non-entity that we just don't care what happens to him. I was reminded briefly of the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There - but in that film (one of my favourites) the central character's lack of personality or morality is constantly exposed, challenged, called into question. Here, the rest of the novel is as blank as Viktor himself.

I gather that there's a sequel, but I'm not in any hurry to read it.

At least it's a very quick and undemanding read, and an insight into the corrupt aftermath of the USSR. But it doesn't, alas, do much to advertise the merits of post-Soviet literature.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Chris Adrian/The Children's Hospital


I suppose the best way to describe this book’s style would be magical realism. The story begins when the world comes to an end and is covered by seven miles of water. The only survivors appear to be the occupants of a children’s hospital that started out in Baltimore. There are four angels, who at times do seem more like demons – because as everyone knows, it takes four to oversee an apocalypse – one who protects, one who records, one who accuses and one who punishes.

The main character is a medical student, Jemma Claflin who has already lost both of her parents, her brother and a lover to tragic, horrific deaths and fears that she may be the source of misfortune to anyone close to her. She soon finds she’s got a mystical healing fire she’s able to use to heal all of the horribly disfigured and diseased children in the hospital. Once the children are healed, the occupants of the hospital attempt to establish some semblance of normalcy and attempt to right the wrongs that surely brought this “Thing” upon them in the first place. This book is ambitious and I’m cringing because as the first book I’ve chosen to review for The Book Book, this one is a tough call. At a hefty 615 pages, this book gets a little bogged down in the middle. There are a huge number of characters and I was confused an awful lot of the time when the author shifted to the point of view of the angels – who I could never keep track of. This book probably could have been tightened up a bit more, but despite the confusion and the length, it was a pretty intriguing premise and story and I’ll be thinking about it for a while.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Michael Ondaatje/Coming through Slaughter

A look at the life of a New Orleans jazz coronet prodigy in the first decade of the 20th century. Buddy Bolden is a barber by day, a jazz player by night, and an alcoholic and a womanizer around the clock.

This book was an experiment with in style, and it was a failure for me. Ondaatje had the makings of a great plot, but he let his false-feeling "jazz" impressionism run free. The prose became difficult to follow and frustrating because it only revealed fractions of the narrative. The result: I didn't care about the characters much at all.

I'm a big fan of ANIL'S GHOST and ENGLISH PATIENT. This book was written in 1979, and (through some research into availability, reviews, etc--I couldn't even find a usable cover image to put here!) it doesn't seem like it is widely read, despite his stature. I guess even the best writers need time to hone their craft?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Jeff Talarigo/THE PEARL DIVER

Just wanted to echo Moonrat's feelings - enjoyed this one.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Christa Wolf / IN THE FLESH

If you enjoyed "The Lives of Others," the German film about domestic spying in Communist East Germany that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar earlier this year, you might want to take a look at Christa Wolf's somewhat overlapping story involving a writer and the collapse of the GDR in her semi-autobiographical stream of consciousness novel. Although In the Flesh was a best-seller in Germany several years ago, it was not reviewed by the New York Times and received little notice in the U.S. But it was one of my best reads last year.

It's about a woman writer feverishly fighting for her life as she struggles in a hospital with a mysterious, virulent infection that won't let go. Her illness is also a metaphor for the illness of the East German body politic. That sounds as if it might lead to some pretty heavy-handed symbolism, but no -- Wolf's account is a riveting, hallucinatory description of the patient's thoughts, feelings, memories, all interwoven with literary allusions (since she is, after all, a writer). Wolf has a great ear, and her use of language to evoke the different mental states of serious illness, in which the narrator alternates between "I" as active subject and "she" as passive object to describe herself, is brilliant. It's a marvelous evocation of the dual states we experience when our body is helpless and bedridden.

Probably Communist East Germany's best-known novelist in the West, Wolf was born in 1929, grew up under the Third Reich and then went on to success as a writer in the GDR. During the Cold War, she traveled widely to the West, where she was seen as a brave, feminist dissident who somehow managed to stay out of major trouble with the authorities. She was probably best known in the West for Cassandra, her feminist reimagining of the Cassandra legend, with sly allusions to the GDR mixed in.

But after the wall fell, a period of disillusionment set in, when thousands of people's reputations were tarnished by the release of Stasi records. It turned out that Wolf's position in the GDR wasn't quite what people had thought. Not only had the Stasi spied on Wolf, but they had also recruited her to spy for them. This became a huge story in Germany. Wolf was reviled as a collaborator. Her accommodation with the regime -- such as it was -- was a vivid example of how the corrupt, totalitarian East German state tarnished everything and everyone it touched.

Eventually a sense of proportion returned to Germany. Wolf insisted on publishing her complete Stasi records, and it became clear that she never gave the Stasi any information of any importance. While the NYT apparently hasn't been able to forgive her, Wolf is once again a highly respected writer in her homeland, as the success of In the Flesh demonstrates. And with "The Lives of Others" winning an Academy Award, it's probably no coincidence that In the Flesh has been reissued in paperback here. Check it out.

Brother, I'm Dying :: Edwidge Danticat

When I went to Edwidge Danticat's panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, she said that her new book, Brother, I'm Dying, was less of a "me-moir" and more of an "us-moir".

On the day that she learns her father is dying of a pulmonary disease, she also finds out she is pregnant. Soon thereafter, her Uncle Joseph, fleeing from unrest in Haiti and seeking political asylum, dies in immigration detention. He was 81.

[I'm not ruining the book, this is all captured in the jacket flap copy.]

The book interweaves her memories of childhood in Haiti, being raised by her uncle and aunt, as well as other family history as told to her by her family, and her memory as more recent events unfold, including her father's struggle with the disease and her uncle's plight in 2004.

It is told with Danticat's usual beautiful prose, although at times, an understandably more journalistic voice, as if she was distancing herself some. It is heartbreaking and lovely at points, as she recounts saying goodbye to her mother at a young age (4 I believe it is), as her grandmother passes away, as her uncle buys her coconut flavored ices and a treasured copy of Madeline. Moments such as the first time she sees her parents again bring tears to my eyes, just as her recount of her five year-old little brother, whom she is meeting for only the second time, running up to her and squeezing her tight, asking her, "Are you really my sister?" brings a smile to my face.

Of course, reading her retelling her uncle's detainment, you catch an underlying sense of fury, anger, injustice that she never wholly allows to come to light. She lets the facts speak for themselves, only letting her sorrow over what his last few days must have been like, alone, old, come through.

Additionally, it offers a backdrop of the turmoil that Haiti is going through at nearly all times. I like learning about these snippets of unknown history (for most people who are not Haitian), so I enjoyed that too.

I am a Danticat lover, so of course, this comes highly recommended from me.

Khaled Hosseini/A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS


I'll begin this review by mentioning that I have not read THE KITE RUNNER. Most reviews I have read of A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS has started of with a comparison between it and THE KITE RUNNER. (Almost always saying either that is far exceeded or fell well short of Hosseini's debut, rarely anything in the middle.) So we'll skip that part.

I picked up this book at the library for the same reason I suspect many readers did. Because I felt I should. I wasn't particularly interested in a story about Middle Eastern women, but the subject matter seemed relevant to our day and I had been told by several people that is was a great book. But I did feel a little guilted into reading it, because of it's setting, and it makes me wonder how many others picked it up for the same reading.

But regardless of why I picked it up, I had difficulty putting it down for the next two days. I was grabbed from the very first sentence (although not really by the dust jacket) and it held on to me until about twenty pages from the end of the book. (I'll get to that in a minute.) It is a heart-wrenching novel of two women in Afghanistan whose lives eventually become intertwined. This thing I loved about this book is that it is so sad and enraging that even the tiniest little victories for the women seem enormous. But unlike I would have suspected, I don't feel like the author is cheating or pulling at heartstrings like you would puppetstrings. Perhaps because the setting and tone are so real, that you cannot help but believe that these people are real, and that this is the life they are living.

The story begins in the late 1950's and follows history through about 2004. It was so interesting to see references to U.S. historical events (for example, Watergate and 9-11) through the eyes of an Middle Eastern woman. It lends even more credibility to the story. The prose is quite simple, which I am a fan of, and the action moves along at a good pace. It is literary enough that you feel like it should be a big, thick book, but actually clocks in at only 384 pages. I really enjoyed the characters and the villain is truly a bad guy's bad guy. It even has a surprise twist at the end to boot. A book that really has it all.

My one complaint about this book is I felt like the author tried to hard to wrap everything up in a nice little package and stretched his credibility a little to much to accomplish that. A book so full of angst and realism should not, in my opinion, be wrapped up in quite so pretty and neat of a package. I would have preferred the book to end about twenty pages before it actually did.

Still, I would definitely give this book an excellent rating and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Victoria Redel/LOVERBOY

This is a novel about a woman obsessed with her child, a woman who creates a world to contain herself and her son, in which the rest of society intrudes minimally or not at all--and whose plan succeeds until the boy inevitably recognizes what he is missing. The story opens with the unnamed narrator in a hospital, vaguely aware of the nurses and other medical personnel who attend her, and proceeds entirely within the narrator's consciousness, either as flashback memories or interior monologue, until the last few pages, when it shifts to a dialogue among the nurses which explains what has happened. We begin by wondering what she has done, and watch the story gradually unfold to its sad, disturbing, and ironic conclusion. Victoria Redel is not only a novelist but a poet, and brings a lyrical touch to this compelling story. The narrator maintains the reader's sympathy despite her aberrant behavior, and we hope for a solution that will make her boy happy without breaking his mother's heart. I won't give a lot of details because I don't want to spoil the journey for other readers, but I will give you a taste of the way the story is told. The narrator is in the hospital, remembering:
"The first time I took him to a crowded park after he could walk, he scooted off, out of grasp. Teenagers ranged in gangly romantic tackles on the lawns. He wriggled out of my hold and was off. Someone drifted in front of me blocking my sight. Then all I could see was a thicket of strollers, their wide, loose-limbed bodies blocking the path. For that moment I imagined everything that would happen. The edge of a pond. The gnawing park rats. A split in the path. Who were the men on benches hiding behind papers or boldly watching people? There were arms to get around, the glare of noon, a fat couple coming together in an embrace. I swatted and pushed.
"It feels like that when I wake here, when I float up to the surface, it feels the same, just like that.
"This too bright room.
"There is a man in the corner. He sits with his book closed and watches me." (p. 33)

Loverboy was awarded the S. Mariella Gable Prize by Graywolf Press in 2001. It is 208 pp. long, and I read it in an afternoon and evening.


Walter M. Miller Jr/A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ


Following a thermonuclear holocaust that beset the earth in the 1960s, what survives of human civilization has destroyed all of its refinements (down to all of its own books). Reduced to a simple existence, communities cling to the Catholic Church, which has retained some sense of order in the chaos. The book follows the [re]evolution of [hu]mankind in three stages as it heads toward redevelopment and a second nuclear holocaust.

This book came highly recommended by three different parties, so I gave it a shot even though I always end up hating dystopian fictions. Miller was a talented and clever writer, and I really do think that his writing sets this apart from a lot of other purely conceptual speculative fictions. But his vision of the future (first published in 1959) has dated itself and for me it is too much work to suspend disbelief. I can't believe, for example, the Roman Catholic Church would be the one institution to survive (perfectly intact) the destruction of all civilization--and that it would stay strong in the Latin-speaking status quo for almost 4,000 years. Also, Miller's dystopia has no women in it.

Anyway, this is a dark, clever, often fun read (NYT called it chilling...chilling, fun, two sides of the same coin?), but for me the material is so dated that reading becomes an exercise.

Cormac McCarthy/BLOOD MERIDIAN

Based on historical events on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West is an epic novel of America’s westward expansion, focusing on a 15-year-old from Tennessee we know only as “the kid,” who happens into a ragtag army and is swept along on a nightmare journey of slaughter and scalping. The true protagonist of this tale, however, is the language. A few examples:
“Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.” (p. 54)
“The leaves shifted in a million spangles down the pale corridors and Glanton took one and turned it like a tiny fan by its stem and held it and let it fall and its perfection was not lost on him.” (p. 136)
“The terrain was thick with cholla and clumps of it clung to the horses with spikes that would drive through a bootsole to the bones within and a wind came up through the hills and all night it sang with a wild viper sound through that countless reach of spines.” (p. 242)

This book is death and agony and bloody Hell, violent and unglamorous and antiheroic, an antidote to the romantic vision of the wild wild West. John Banville says that it “…reads like a conflation of The Inferno, The Iliad, and Moby Dick…” And so it does. Its scale is monumental; its large, sweeping language echoes across the sunbaked land like a Biblical curse or prophecy. McCarthy’s sentences resonate; tirelessly he rolls the words on his tongue, the better to savor their grim, relentless beauty. The images of war and death and anguish and blood and blood and blood gradually take over the book until what we see and hear and smell overshadows the plot and we travel alongside the kid with our guts and hearts rather than our minds.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Orhan Pamuk/SNOW


A Turkish poet who has been living in political exile in Frankfurt returns to Turkey to write an article on a tiny town that has been suffering a bout of political/religious suicides. Meanwhile, the poet hopes to woo a beautiful woman he used to know who has recently gotten divorced. While he is in the town, tension between Islamists and secular political forces comes to a head.

I will refrain from going into my strong opinions on author personality and how it affects book appreciation. All that aside, I didn't really love this book the way I was hoping to. It was a little too long (440 pages for a book that takes place in 2 days?) and I was honestly just really frustrated with the futility of the whole plot, all the duplicitous maneuvering, childish love affairs, fickleness, overcommitment, and melodrama--it was like watching De Grassi junior high, only everyone was carrying loaded guns.

The author makes a point on the last page (in the voice of one of his characters) that "Westerners" who read the story have no right to comment on the situations of the characters, so I guess I "shouldn't" write what I just did, but seriously. This is neither a feel-good nor a redemptive book (nor was the writing powerful enough to sustain me).

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao :: Junot Diaz


Going into this book, I had a couple of reservations, for the following reasons: 1) I had been eh about the excerpt in The New Yorker over the summer - I didn't like it when I thought it was a short story, though once I realized it was an excerpt, I felt it was fine for what an excerpt calls for. But you know, damage done. 2) So much hype! Could it live up to the expectations??

Well, the answer, for me at least, is yes. There are a couple of issues, but I think it's strengths far outshine it's weaknesses. I mean, the Spanish lexicon threw me off sometimes, and I sometimes desperately wanted to know what was being said but was nowhere near a Spanish dictionary (I assume there's so much slang anyway), I'm unsure about the final final ending, and I felt certain portions of the book were much more compelling than others.

Nonetheless, everything is really great. It's a love story in the simplest sense (or a story about a really really awkward fat kid who my heart ACHES for), but in a larger sense it's about culture, roots, and, as Diaz likes to say, diaspora. It is big but it's also micro - it spawns generations, but in it, is this sad little individual. It runs through a family's history, the heartaches they have suffered, and how it all culminates in this one boy and his quest for LOVE. It's heartbreaking at times, but also so dorky and funny and such a great narrative voice that you never feel bogged down. Seriously, a pleasure to read.

I've written so extensively on the other elements I love about the book, that I won't here. But yes. Definitely worth picking up.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius :: Dave Eggers


Finished Dave Eggers' highly acclaimed book, and I must say that while it was good, I was a little disappointed by the gimmicks and it was a little too long for my taste. Not because it was actually too long page-wise, but because it felt like it could have been a little tighter. I was most intrigued by his relationship with his brother, and the kind of psychology he had over having to be a parent, the guilt, his runaway imagination, the kind of neurosis he has over things. That's all great. But for the most part I didn't really like how he broke out of character sometimes as a device to psychoanalyze himself, wasn't a big fan of the Real World interview section, and didn't care about his magazine all that much. So it was up and down for me. The quality of writing is good, he has a great style, really funny at parts, heartbreaking and poignant at others (throwing out his mother's ashes? So sad yet so real) but I think some of it could have been edited with a closer hand. All in all, good, but for me, not a work of staggering genius.

Martone & Neville/RULES OF THUMB


This is not a book you sit down and read from beginning to end, but one you dip into from time to time, skipping around and sampling what appeals to you or intrigues you at a given moment. Michael Martone and Susan Neville have put together a graphically attractive, certainly entertaining and possibly helpful compendium of advice from a variety of authors. (The subtitle is “73 authors reveal their fiction writing fixations.”) In each of these articles, about two to four pages in length, an author holds forth on what he or she thinks is important for a writer to know. A sample from the Table of Contents will give you an idea of what’s going on here:

—You Must Eat Broccoli Before You Begin, by M.T. Anderson
—A Writing Habit, by Lydia Davis
—Never Write About Writing, by R.M. Berry
—The Busy Attributive: A Case for Said, by Steve Almond
—The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Story Writing Primer, by Frederick Barthelme

Barthelme’s pearls of wisdom range from incontrovertible (step 23, “Obscurity is not subtlety; intentional obscurity is pinheaded and unkind”), to worthy of contemplation (step 2, “Don’t let it make too much sense”), to frivolous (step 33, “No characters named Brooke or Amber”).

This is a great way to while away an idle half-hour or two, and you might actually learn something valuable.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New York Trilogy :: Paul Auster


I'm late on this! I finished this last week, and now I've forgotten everything I wanted to say. But you can check my prior entries on City of Glass, Ghosts and Locked Room on my own blog. I guess the one thing to say is that this was my first Auster. The stories were very intellectual, made me think about a lot of things. The guy's clearly trying to do something, present something, and he's very smart about it. It's a little abstract, a little creepy, but I liked it, but I must say I liked Locked Room the least out of the three perhaps because I got used to the absurdity of the first two, and the second was more real and yet still existed in the same world of the weird. But all in all, enjoyable.

[I love the new cover, by the way.]

Monday, September 17, 2007

Karen Blumenthal/GRANDE EXPECTATIONS

History of Starbucks and a "year in the life" of its stock. I could tell that Blumenthal knew what she was talking about when it came to the money stuff - but she tried too hard to dumb it down. Most people who read this book probably already know something about business; it's not "Rich Dad Poor Dad" or any of that nonsense, and didn't need to play to the lowest common denominator as much as she did.

Regardless, Blumenthal basically comes across as a Starbucks cheerleader - I wonder if Starbucks got approval over her draft or something. Anyway. Eh. Plus, the title annoys me.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Michelle Otero/MALINCHE'S DAUGHTER


This is a 48-page chapbook of personal essays, published last year by Momotombo Press of the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies. The author, a Harvard graduate and Fulbright scholar, travels to Oaxaca to facilitate a writing workshop for women survivors of sexual assault. Inspired by her students and encouraged by her Vermont College mentor, Sue Silverman, Otero tells the story of her own molestation as a five-year-old. The language is lyrical and graceful, the story--interwoven with those of her workshop students--poignant and moving. (Otero has a personal essay, "Dust," in upstreet number three.) For an interview with the author, go here.

Jay McInerney/HOW IT ENDED




This is Jay McInerney's short-story collection, an out-of-print hardcover that's difficult to come by, published in 2000 by Bloomsbury (U.K.). The ten well-crafted stories examine relationships in the light of modern culture, in McInerney's usual (wry, often witty) fashion. Controlled substances, of one kind or another, figure significantly in most of them. I especially enjoyed "Smoke," about a married couple who resolve to give up cigarettes, and how the idea of cheating develops a whole new meaning as a result. Two of the stories were atypical for this author, I thought: "Con Doctor" is told from the perspective of a physician who holds a daily clinic at the local penetentiary, and "The Queen and I" takes the point-of-view of a drug addict who befriends a transvestite hooker. All in all, an interesting collection, particularly for readers who are interested in this author and in short stories.

Steven Millhauser/LITTLE KINGDOMS


A very good friend sent me Little Kingdoms as an unexpected thank-you gift for my having given her my copy of Millhauser's In the Barnum Museum, which she couln't find anywhere. I've become fascinated by collage stories, and one of the three novellas in this volume is a good example of one, "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)." This is the story of Moorash and his relationship with three other people--his wife and another couple, their best friends--structured as a retrospective exhibition of the artist's paintings after all the characters have died. The story is in the form of an exhibition catalogue in which the paintings are described in chronological order and related to the events of the artist's (and sometimes the subject's) life. The tone of the paintings becomes more somber over time, paralleling the progressive darkening of the story. My friend was dissatisfied with the ending, calling it "purple," but I think it works very well as the inevitable conclusion to this gloomy tale. The other two novellas are also good reading. "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" is the story of an early 20th century cartoonist who becomes obsessed with making animated films, and in "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," the collective voice of a town tells the tale of the castle that looms above it, using the traditional elements of the fairy tale. All three novellas explore how various forms of art influence and determine the way we look at our lives, and the (sometimes fabulous) stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Neil Belton/A GAME WITH SHARPENED KNIVES

I have had to admit defeat on this one. I announced last Monday that I would do my damnedest to finish off this book during a long business trip this week. And then that I would post about it on here, whether I had finished or not. Well, I haven't. My trip was far more gruelling and stressful than I had anticipated, and I had very few free moments.... but even those few I had, I did not feel inclined to devote to this book.


A crushing disillusionment set in after the first 20 or 30 pages, I think. I had initially been attracted to it - as I usually am in choosing my books - by the superficial dazzle of the language. Belton is most certainly capable of some fine descriptive writing.

Unfortunately, that is all there is to this book: page after page after page of descriptive writing. Everything must be described: the trees, the weather, the streets, the houses, the traffic, the people in the pub. Before long, it becomes cloying, tedious. There is a huge section early on - really, dozens of pages - devoted to describing the protagonist's bicycle ride home from work. That rather sets the tone for the rest of the book. Everything is described at inordinate length, but nothing ever happens. I've managed to get about two-thirds of the way through this, and, really, nothing of any note has happened. I've also skimmed the closing pages and am reasonably confident that nothing of any note happens in the entire book. It's set during WWII. There are occasional intimations of espionage and black-marketeering. The protagonist occasionally feels threatened by people he encounters in the street. But these are mostly phantoms spawned from his neurotic temperament. None of these sparse flickers of suspense ever looked likely to develop into a substantial plot point.

I was attracted initially by the writing, before I realised how empty it was. I was attracted also by the subject matter: the book imagines the life of the celebrated Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger during his wartime exile in Dublin. I thought that was potentially a rich premise. Some of the writing about Schrödinger's ideas is very fine; but I feel that the author overdoes his attempts to weave these into a metaphor of the historical events taking place around Schrödinger; too often he lapses into pretentiousness and obscurity.

This metaphor-obsession drives the over-elaborate, long-winded physical descriptions as well: the forlorn, neglected condition of old houses, the bleakness of the Irish weather, the coldness of the water in the bathroom sink - it's all supposed to contribute to the air of unease and despair. But really, how often do we need this kind of imagery to make the point? Every single bloody page??

Belton really needed a ruthless editor to take him in hand on this. It would perhaps make a decent short story (a long short story, perhaps, but a short story) - 'Schrödinger in Dublin'; but there just isn't enough of substance here to sustain a novel.

One of the puffs on the back cover is from the writer Patrick Skene Catling, who apparently describes the book as being "as exhilarating as a mid-winter swim in Dublin Bay". Now, in fact, that wouldn't be exhilarating at all, merely painful and dangerous - and nobody in their right mind would attempt it. I can't help thinking that Catling was slyly defaming the book. One of the great back-handed compliments I have ever read!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

John Tayman/THE COLONY


I last read this one a few months ago, but Moonrat's post on The Pearl Diver reminded me about it. It's a nonfiction book about the leper colony that the US government maintained on an island in Hawaii. The colony existed until 1969.
Now, I'm often ignorant, but I thought leper colonies were a Bible thing. Apparently, though, our government was banishing people until Edward Kennedy drove off that bridge.
Anyway, the book tells a bit about the history of leprosy treatment in the US, including quarantines and various remedies attempted. Surprisingly, it never drags. Tayman manages to not get bogged down in medical terminology and keeps the book fairly light - while still managing to pack in a ton of information. Really good read, and moves quickly.

Jeff Talarigo/THE PEARL DIVER

Japan, 1948: A coastal village girl makes her living by diving for pearls. Her life abruptly takes a very different course when, at age 19, she learns that she has a mild case pof leprosy and she is "evacuated" to a community for her new people. The story follows her through her life in the leper colony over the subsequent decades.

I love this book. Not only is it beautifully written and an interesting story, but it's an utterly unexpected topic. The story takes place in Japan and Talarigo is sensitive to and observant of cultural mannerisms, but this isn't about the war or the bomb or geisha.

I also think this is an extraordinary example of effective cover art. I actually bought this book because I liked the cover art--it just happened to also be a good read.

I'm excited now because his next book is coming out in Spring 08.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Diane Schoemperlen/OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND




A fellow Vermont College alumna recommended Diane Schoemperlen to me as an example of someone who writes stories in collage form. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, and the only book of hers they had on the shelf was this one, a novel about a writer who is going through her daily routine, minding her own business, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appears in her living room and asks if she can spend a couple of weeks at her place, resting up for her busy season. (The month of May is dedicated to Mary.) The unnamed first-person narrator, being a well mannered woman, though not Catholic, said yes. She escorted her to the guest room, showed her where the bathroom and laundry facilities were, and asked her if she'd like some lunch. Things went on more or less in that vein for the entire time Mary spent with the narrator, without too much excitement beyond trips to the grocery store and the occasional walk around the block. Interspersed between the chapters that described what went on, what they talked about, and what the narrator thought about later were chapters titled History (1), History (2), etc., which consisted mostly of extensive lists of the Virgin Mary's apparitions, from Biblical times to the present. These included well known appearances such as Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe, as well as many more obscure incidents. I had been expecting a satirical novel, and ended up with what appeared to be a testament of faith. It was interesting in its way, but too much Virgin Mary for me. There was one section worth quoting, though--

"…As a writer, I have always known there is no such thing as a simple story.
"Much as I know better, still sometimes I find myself longing and trying to do just that: to write a simple story composed entirely of simple sentences about simple things.
"I write: A dog barked in his sleep.
"This start seems as promising as any other so I continue: A woman stood by the window.
"I have no idea where this is going but I like it. I write some more: A car passed. The rain fell.
"I think I’m really getting somewhere now. I stop and read over what I have written so far. This is my first mistake.
"Now I cannot resist my own inclination to elaborate, embroider, and explain. I cannot let that sleeping dog lie. I decide to make him an arthritic old black Lab named Jet. His bark is plaintive and directed, in this instance, at a dream cat he is chasing down a dream blind alley. He is sleeping on a braided rug under the kitchen table. On the table are four empty containers of Chinese food.
"Before all this came up, that amorphous dog was any color, all colors. But having gone ahead and made the dog black, he is no longer yellow, brown, or white. Having made him a Labrador retriever, he is no longer a German shepherd, a Saint Bernard, or a Lhasa apso.
"My simple story quickly gets out of hand. The next thing you know, the woman is a thirty-two-year-old hairdresser named Annette, the window is in the kitchen of her third-floor bachelor apartment, the car passing in the street below is red and going too fast, the rain is falling heavily, it is April, it is Friday, it is eight o’clock. The next thing you know, Annette will be pulling her fortune out of a cookie and reading it aloud to Jet. The next thing you know, there will be a knock at the door and the lives of Annette and Jet will be changed forever.
"I already know how stories are made. (pp. 170-172)"

Kazuo Ishiguro/THE REMAINS OF THE DAY


The reflections of a British butler on his life and career, told over the course of a 4-day car trip taken in 1956.

This book is amazing. It has no plot, no character descriptions (you don't even know the main characters' names!), and no honest narrative, and yet it is fascinating and unputdownable. I read the whole thing in a day. Ishiguro is just such a fantastic writer and character builder. I don't know how he suspended an entire novel on (ostensibly) so little. But he did. I've loved him before and I love him again now.

Plus, this book demystifies the whole concept of "butler" for us untutored [me]. And also about what it means to be British. I know he would probably hate me for writing this, but I wonder if Ishiguro is so much more equipped to make this point because he's something of an ethnic outsider himself. But then again, I'm sure I'm not the first close-minded wondering reader who's asked that question, either.

Anyway. Fabulous. The Booker Prize people weren't wrong for 1988.

Leila Aboulela/THE TRANSLATOR


Sammar is a young Sudanese widow who has been stranded alone in Scotland since her husband and true love was killed in a tragic car crash. Sammar, a devout Muslim who works at a local university as an Arabic translator, leads a quiet life of prayer, depression, and loneliness. As she struggles with her faith and coming to terms with the personal challenges Allah has set before her, Sammar is thrown into another disturbing loop: she discovers that she is gradually falling in love with a Scottish professor.

This book is short and beautifully written. It is an uplifting and forgiving look at religion that very gracefully addresses issues like the compatibility of faith and intellectualism. Furthermore, it's a wonderfully accessible book that sheds light on a culture many English-language readers know nothing about (I knew nothing about Sudan, so I'll presumptuously stand in as representative). I really loved this book and would recommend it to anyone.

(I cheated, too... I read this last spring but I really wanted to post. Since we're all cheating, let's just all post on whatever we want.)

(I love books.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bohumil Hrabal/TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE

OK, another 'cheat' here. I am badly bogged down in my current read, A Game with Sharpened Knives, and beginning to despair of ever finishing (I am only in possession of it in the first place because the doctor friend I was staying with last month had likewise given up on it). So, here's another little review of something I read a while back.

Hrabal is a Czech satirist (aren't all Czechs satirists??), perhaps best known for 'Closely Observed Trains' (which was adapted into a very highly acclaimed film 40-odd years ago, one of the classics of Eastern European cinema).

This is a very short novel - I think, from rather later in his life.

Great title! Intriguing concept, too: it's a Kafka-ish fable about a man who has spent his entire working life in a damp windowless basement compacting waste paper and books in a hydraulic press. There are rather too many books, of course, what with government censors withdrawing titles from circulation on a whim and anti-bourgeois sentiments condemning countless private libraries to destruction. The discarded books become his life. He hands on selected titles to various collectors - underground academics - that he's met. He smuggles thousands of them home for himself (the huge weight of them on a precarious platform above his bed nightly threatens him with obliteration - a sword of Damocles). He makes his bricks of compressed paper into art works, with specially chosen books hidden like pearls in the middle of them, and reproductions of Old Master paintings wrapped around the outside. He even saves up his money to buy the press for himself, so that he can continue this work after his retirement. You might say the man has an unhealthy obsession with crushing and being crushed, and it's not too difficult to guess how it ends. It's a slight thing, very short, and with no real 'story' to speak of, but it does linger powerfully in the memory.

And the sheer richness of the language is a constant delight. I particularly liked this summation of the joy of reading: "I do not so much read as savour the words. I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck on it like a fruit drop."

I have just learned from IMDB that there was a French film version made of this about 10 years ago. Oddly, the entry includes almost no detail other than the cast (the wonderful Philippe Noiret played the protagonist, Hanta), and IMDB's predominantly philistine readership give it a dismal rating, but I think it would be worth checking out. It seems that there is also an animated version currently in production.

So, of course, you must all read it now.

Postscript:
I found a website with an interesting series of B & W art photographs inspired by this book. Unfortunately, bloody Blogger won't let me add a couple of them to the end of this post (only at the beginning, which takes up too much space, and detracts from the book jacket). Do go and take a look at the site.

Aha! I finally worked out how to do it.


Stardust :: Neil Gaiman


I decided to read Stardust after I saw the movie, which always kinds of screws with you. I was surprised to find that the movie and the book are actually kind of different, even though the basic premise is the same. I actually liked that. This is a fun, easy read (especially good to follow a depressing read with, like I did). I mean, who doesn't love a journey for Heart's Desire, witches, stars that turn into women, unicorns, etc? Yeah, you're not going to gain any IQ points from it, but neither will you lose any brain cells. I like adult fairy tales like this. They make me happy for all their simplicity and innocence.
I finished this on the beach, so I guess I'll make this a beach read.

The Farming of Bones :: Edwidge Danticat


Woo. I owe this blog a couple of posts (otherwise, I fear Moonrat is going to kick my butt).

First up: The wonderfully talented Edwidge Danticat. An author of Haitian background, her prose is so lyrical, so rich and full, that reading her stuff requires me to take a breather afterwards. To digest it. The way you would a painfully delicious meal.

The Farming of Bones takes place around the events of the 1937 Parsley Massacre that occured in the Dominican Republic. [I didn't know anything about these events before I read this book but] basically the government in place at the time took it upon themselves to purge the island of Haitians, many who had been in the DR for generations as cane workers and other low-level workers. Within a couple of weeks, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were rounded up and macheted, shot, drowned, etc. Some were lucky enough to escape back over the border into Haiti.

The story itself follows a young woman named Amabelle, and you get a glimpse of her life just before these events unfold, and then the nightmare that ensues afterwards.

The beauty in this book is not that she blunts the horror of the events - because she really doesn't. But it's the way in which she tells it, the language she uses, the way she is able to acutely describe pain that goes with physical anguish and emotional anguish, the way she captures loss and memory. Most of all memory.

It's a bit of a depressing read, but ultimately well-worth it. It's achingly beautiful in the way that Danticat is best at. Of all her novels I've read, my favorite so far. Excellent.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Frank Ross/QUIET GUYS


Most boring man on earth becomes a CPA. Most boring man on earth (aka Frank Ross, aka one of the worst writers on earth) writes a terribly horribly boring book about it. Honestly, he teaches at a university with a great reputation - couldn't he have hired a freshman English major to edit the book for him!? The grammatical mistakes set my teeth on edge. In fact, I think that there might be a grammatical error in the title. Can anyone help me out here? The title is "Quiet Guys Can do Great Things, Too." Shouldn't it be "Quiet Guys Can do Great Things Too?" I loathe excess comma usage.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Yasmina Khadra/THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL


During a particularly hot summer in Taliban-ridden Kabul, two marriages are irrevocably changed by the public stoning of a prostitute.

This book was published to enormous critical acclaim--every major review venue is quoted on the cover. This just further cements my disrespect for book reviewers--I have no idea who the heck they were all pandering to. This book is just insufferable--unoriginal plot that effortlessly promotes the patriarchy while pretending to criticize it, loose purple prose, unbelievable and unsympathetic characters. The author, an Algerian man (it's a pen name), simply capitalizes on all the interest in Afghanistan generated by THE KITE RUNNER and has created a flimsy little shadow puppet show to sell on those grounds, but I am utterly unconvinced that he has ever seen Kabul or has any idea what it's like--there are no place descriptions, although the characters do spend a lot of time walking around aimlessly outside so he's wasted a built-in vehicle for bringing the city to life.

Very, very unimpressed. Found myself rushing through the extremely unimpressive ending just to get it over with faster.

Edward P. Jones/LOST IN THE CITY



A collection of stories about poor black people in DC.

Enjoyed this one.

Charles Portis/TRUE GRIT


The 1968 classic on which the John Wayne movie by the same title is based. Post-Civil War Arkansas: Mattie Ross is 14 years old when her unarmed father is shot dead by a drunken hired hand and robbed of all his possessions and his horse. Mattie is going to have her revenge. She sets out to find a US Marshall with "true grit" to trek with her into Indian territory to find the escaped criminal and bring him down.

I read this book on a recommendation despite the fact that I'm usually deterred by "Westerns." I really did enjoy this, though. There are so many subtleties--Mattie is only giving you a straight-up first person narrative of her actions, but Portis hides a lot of psychology in his very bare prose--all rendered for the most part convincingly in the voice of a stubborn, angry, unattractive teenage girl. Despite when the book was written and when it takes place Portis falls into very few traps in dating himself or making the book less appropriate/kosher for modern audiences (a la Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND). The ending in particular offers some things to think about.

This is a quick read but an interesting one.

Jim Harrison/RETURNING TO EARTH


Highly depressing. A terminally ill man decides to commit suicide, and his family helps him. The family, of course, suffers greatly.
The book constantly alternates narrators, and Harrison doesn't always succeed in giving each narrator their own voice.
Really, I'm ambivalent. Excellent story, narration drove me nuts, depressing, but interesting.

Kate Walbert/OUR KIND

With my pedestrian tastes, I couldn't get past how the book was set up. I don't need my stories to be linear, but it would be nice if they actually related instead of just having the same characters. Walbert calls the book "A Novel in Stories," but I disagree. It is a group of stories about the same people, I'll give her that.

Plot: Well, there isn't really one, as each story is separate. But essentially, a group of ladies who lunch is growing older and remembering their youth through parties.


I did thouroughly enjoy the writing. Definitely no wasted words here.