Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Robert C. O'Brien/Z FOR ZACHARIAH


Z for Zachariah was written by Robert C. O'Brien, who is most known for writing Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH. But apparently he died before finishing Zachariah, and his wife and daughter wrote the last few chapters from his notes.

The story follows a girl, Ann, who thinks she is the last human alive after a war devastates everything beyond her small valley. But then a man appears. Ann isn't sure whether to trust him at first, but when he succumbs to radiation sickness, she takes care of him. Once he's better, Ann realizes that maybe she would have been better off alone after all; the man turns controlling and may have suffered too much during the war to have kept his sanity.

This story is so taut and fast-moving that once I sat down with it today (having started it yesterday) I had to read to the end. At the same time, it wasn't so scary that I couldn't take it (I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to scary stuff). The title, which I thought was a bit strange, refers to a picture book Ann remembers reading when she was little, which started off with "A for Adam" and ended with "Z for Zachariah." Ann figured since Adam was the first man, Zachariah must be the last.
Fast, easy read. Great ending. Taut without being too scary.

James Shapiro/1599

James Shapiro's book (subtitled 'A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare') is a survey of a pivotal stage in the writer's development; but it necessarily focuses on the social and historical context of his writing, and on the reflections of this in the writing itself, rather than on the life of the man - about which virtually nothing is known. Shapiro reminds us of this caveat at the the outset, but it is still just a little frustrating that we so often become aware of just how broadly he is speculating; and how many times he is forced to use "we simply don't know...".

The core argument for the crucial significance of the chosen year is well made. It was the year in which Shakespeare's theatre company, The Chamberlain's Men, made a decisive split from the legendary clown, Will Kemp (and hence from the broader, more physical comedic tradition which he represented), signalling new opportunities and ambitions for Shakespeare's writing in both serious and comic genres. It was also the year in which The Globe Theatre theatre was built, a hugely risky enterprise that might as easily have brought fortune or ruin on Shakespeare and his co-investors among The Chamberlain's Men (this is one point where I really wish Shapiro had enquired a little more deeply - how much and where is Shakespeare likely to have had to borrow in order to fund this undertaking? can we gauge the eventual return on his investment?). The rapid success of this venture - despite a sudden upsurge in the number of competing theatre companies and rampant uncertainties about the dangers of censorship or complete suppression by a paranoid government - gave Shakespeare, it would seem, a unique platform on which develop his artistry in new directions.

This was the year in which Shakespeare, just turning 35 (but already an actor and playwright with at least a decade's experience), completed final polishing of his great, long-in-gestation history play Henry V, dashed off the decidedly sui generis tragedy and comedy, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, in an improbably short space of time, and then settled down to produce the gargantuan first draft of his masterpiece, Hamlet. A truly remarkable year, even by his standards; and one that can aptly be seen as laying the foundation for the great plays of his mature years - Lear, Macbeth, Othello.

It was also an unusually turbulent year in England's domestic politics. The aging, childless Queen Elizabeth was still obstinately refusing to settle her succession - which was breeding anxieties about the risk of foreign invasion, civil insurrection, or the return of the vicious religious persecutions of half a century earlier. There was a bloody rebellion in Ireland, which threatened to drain the national treasury dry. There were innumerable rumours of assassination plots and possible invasions (the country was on an all-out war footing throughout the summer, expecting the imminent onslaught of another Spanish Armada - although this fear proved a mere phantom). And there was endless anxious speculation about the designs of the Earl of Essex, the charismatic but impetuous nobleman who had recently quarrelled with the Queen - and had then been handed the poisoned chalice of a command in Ireland to suppress the rebellion (an appointment probably prompted largely by a desire to have him out of the way, but which also raised the unwelcome prospect that he might - like Julius Caesar - use his command of the army to establish himself [or the King of Scotland, or the King of Spain] as England's ruler).

What is perhaps most remarkable in all this is how - at a time when the insecurities of Elizabeth's government were driving it to some quite brutal oppression and censorship, and most Englishmen were very evidently afraid to speak their minds openly even in private correspondence - Shakespeare somehow got away with alluding to so many of these contemporary events in his plays that year. Better than any book I've read before on Shakespeare, this one really shows you convincingly how the background events find expression in the work.

All in all, then, it's a damn good read. If you're hoping to find out more about Shakespeare "the man", you'll be disappointed; but if you're interested in the development of his work, or in the society that gave rise to it, this is a fascinating book. I fret that many of Shapiro's inferences are very tenuous, his juxtapositions sometimes trite and mechanical; but in general, the book is well-written and surprisingly easy to read. I usually struggle with non-fiction, but I got through this in a week.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This is a beautifully written novel about a young white girl growing up in the 1960s in South Carolina. Against a background of increasing racial tension she is raised by a black woman, rather like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the girl's unsympathetic father. When the black woman is beaten for wanting to vote, the girl and the woman run away together. The story is interwoven with gems of wisdom concerning the social grouping and conduct of bees, which are a symbol of what is going on in the protagonist's life. I wasn't totally convinced about the bees, but Sue Monk Kidd writes in a gentle, enjoyable style with some lyrical descriptive touches. The book was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stephenie Meyer/TWILIGHT

let me preface this by saying that i don't usually read romance nor vampires / paranormal (so i have nothing to compare it to). i love watching tele shows about it, but reading it, not so much. i'm not certain how this book or author caught my eye, probably just random surfing. i read it was her debut novel and won accolades. it is considered YA fiction, which i've been reading some due to the fact that a fellow crit member is writing YA, and she had suggested my own novel may fall in that category.

bella swan leaves everything she knows in phoenix to move to forks, wa with her father, a town that gets the most rainfall in the united states. we learn that she does this as a sacrifice, so her mother can move around with her new husband phil, who plays minor league ball. this theme of self-sacrifice runs through the entire book, and it is meant to be bella's forte as well as foible. she is all of seventeen and has to maneuver through the pangs of attending a brand new high school in a teeny town where everyone knows everyone else's business. on her first day, she catches the eye of edward cullins, one of the adopted sons of dr. cullins. of the five children, they are all pale, beautiful, and move with astonishing grace. hmmm.

to bella's terror and (let's be honest) thrill, she is seated next to edward after seeing him at lunch in bio class. only to have the boy lean away from her like she stinks of filth, his fists clenched in agony. as bella becomes THE MOST POPULAR girl in school, in which the geek to the sunny boy decide to chase after her, she finds herself becoming more and more obsessed with edward and his smouldering golden eyes. their relationship truly begins when edward shoves her out of being crushed in the school parking lot, even tho he was half way across the lot and managed to stop the oncoming truck with his broad muscular shoulder.

i started reading this book yesterday at lunch (at the boba house, yeah!) and finished this morning. i felt it was good storytelling in that the characters and their quandry drew me. edward is the brooding, chilvarous, beautiful vamp boy who contiuously saves bella throughout the book. and she, in turn, is the awkward and clutzy girl who doesn't see herself as pretty, but everyone else seems to. the prose is okay at best. there is constant description of how magnificent edward is (everyone wants to screw -- er, make out with -- a vampire!) and bella wonders why he would ever ever love her.

the problem is, i couldn't help wonder myself. other than the fact that bella has a delicious floral smell which makes edward want to suck her dry like a good latte, what does he see in this girl? there are hints to her maturity (she takes care of both her mother and father in many ways) as well as her bookish intelligence (she is writing about shakespeare and mysoginistic themes in his plays), the main parts of the book are her trying not to whisk her panties off every other minute and edward restraining from eating her up completely.

thus, i would say the weak points are in some characterization. bella is sacrificial to the end, and is the girl that needs to be saved by a vampire who loves her as both a person and a possible food source. but the tension provided by that is well drawn out by meyer, if you're willing to go along, and not think the whole situation a bit ludicrous. i found it hard to relate to high school again, at the same time, i could relate to getting that first true crush/love, and being consumed by the littlest things.

all in all, it is a rather fluffy story with some good tension hinging on the theme of forbidden love. i would rate the prose as okay, at times cheesey--but hey, it's a YA vamp romance--and the storytelling as the strongest point. if you aren't into YA and fluffy vamp romances, i wouldn't recommend it. if you dig the stuff, i think it's a lighthearted read.

i'm sort of in love with edward myself now. who knew i had an angsty teen girl still crouching within me waiting to be saved?

Anna Godberson/THE LUXE


Elizabeth Holland is the 18-year-old star of 1899 Manhattan high society--perfect pedigree, well-groomed, beautiful, and now engaged to the most eligible bachelor in town. But Elizabeth's engagement upsets the delicate social balances that have been constructed with a lot of hushed-up sleeping around behind the scenes, and everyone--Elizabeth's back-stabbing best friend, her vengeful maid, her besotted little sister--seems to want Elizabeth dead. Will she make it to her own wedding?

In case it didn't carry over into my book description, I'll admit I was rather disappointed with this book. I have an advance reader's copy that I picked up at BEA this year and I was thrilled to get my hands on it--it's like Gossip Girls, they said, only cultured and historical! I haven't read Gossip Girls, so perhaps this book was exactly par for the course, but in my gullible little mind I thought Anna Godberson would be using an established form--the teen society novel--to sneakily teach kids history. That was appealing to me.

So that was my first disappointment--because all the characters spoke and acted essentially like they would today. Periodically someone would say something like "that's not what a Holland would do!" or "well-bred ladies are never fashionably late!" but it all felt a little artificial. Also, the author didn't let any historical research get in the way of her story at all--she didn't take advantage of the potentially intriguing place and time to make setting a major part of the story (I'm left with no visual understandings of any of the Manhattan locales). Even within the framework of a sexy YA novel there was so much the author could have done. But instead we're left with yet another celebration of rich white bitchy girls who have lots of casual sex.

I perceive that last piece as really irresponsible. It's not that I think YA novels need to be preachy or adhere to certain values--it's just that I don't understand the reasons the author chose to glorify certain behavior in a way that is not only not well-written but is counterfactual and encourages (through a veil of fantasy) behavior that is harmful.

The use of casual sex in this book was not only universal (almost compulsory) but it was utterly not erotic. I can understand if an author includes a well-written kiss (or maybe more) to get the reader's blood flowing, but the way sex is used here is, for example, "She opened her kimono" (end chapter). It's basically assumed that if two of the characters (who, by the way, are all teenagers) are having a relationship that they are going to casually sleep with each other--the message I'm getting from this? "Want to keep a man, girls? Make sure you take off your skirt on the first date!" And then this gets back to the whole historical accuracy part. Am I wrong in assuming casual premarital sex was a much bigger deal back in the times when condoms and pills weren't available? Because no one suffers any sleeping-around consequences of any kind. No one fears or thinks of pregnancy or STDs--which even in an adult novel is unrealistic.

There is also an unmistakable vein of misogyny. All the girls in the story hate one another and work actively or passively to bring one another down. Even Elizabeth, who is described as prissy and perfect, is not exactly a nice person. When she is caught in an indiscretion (sleeping with the stable boy) she does not react well and ends up publicly firing the maid who discovered her. On the other hand, the "dreamy bachelor" character, who happily goes around seducing all the main characters without any consequences, who is constantly drunk in public, who has no desire to shoulder any responsibility and has dropped out of Harvard to have more time to enjoy his father's wealth, becomes the object they all compete for, and comes out at the end of the book looking like a tragic hero.

Sorry this review got a little bit rant-like. I'm just disappointed that this is what's being published for teenagers, because I don't understand how it's good for anyone at all. Even if it's a matter of giving them what they want, can't we do it in a way that increases their vocabulary or doesn't sub-consciously put women down any further?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Kim Edwards/THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER


During the emergency conditions of a fluke snowstorm, an admired society surgeon delivers his pregnant wife of two babies--a healthy baby boy and a twin sister with the obvious signs of Down syndrome. Thinking to spare his wife the pain of raising and possibly losing this daughter, the doctor asks the nurse on duty to take the baby girl to an institution. He tells his wife that her daughter was born dead. Thus is irrevocably set in motion a chain of events that will change many lives.

I'll start with the bad points of the book for me, which rather upset my reading but didn't ruin the book. It was too long, first--it is a quiet plot that looks into the lives of a very small set of characters, but it dragged on to 400 pages. Also, the writing was a little stale for me; nothing unusual or gripping about the prose, and the opening 25 pages in particular felt like a Hallmark greeting card. I'll admit there was a lot of text-skimming on my part. Now onto the pros.

The theme that I find most provocative is the concept of two people wasting each other, of an unhappy relationship that tumbles to a state beyond redemption but that the characters, for whatever reason, continue to endure. I think that this is a difficult but provocative subject in a book, because I think this kind of relationship is something that happens to a lot of people in "real" life but is not perceived as romantic/active enough to get portrayed in fiction. But it's a theme that must hit close to home for many of us; I for one lap up books that try to broach the subject. Kim Edwards definitely succeeds in creating an inevitably failed and wasted relationship; another commercial success is KITE RUNNER.

Another thing that was interesting to me is that the bone of contention in the entire book is Phoebe, the daughter with Down syndrome, but as a character she is barely there. Although her existence changes/ruins many lives (through absolutely no fault of her own), she matters much more as a concept than as an entity. For her birth family, it is the fact of her absence and the lies that surround her whereabouts that tear a family apart. For her adopted family, we see the difficulties of public prejudices and disadvantages that her adopted mother must overcome to get her equal treatment in schools and to understand her relationship with the adult world. But in neither case does the author attempt to get into Phoebe's mind and character--which is to her credit. This book isn't, after all, about Down syndrome--it's about the unpredictable ways in which well-meaning people fail one another.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Alan Bennett/THE UNCOMMON READER


A novella about the Queen of England, who at age 74 accidentally discovers, to the chagrin of her family and advisors, that she loves to read. Various droll consequences ensue.

There's not a lot to say, because this book is such a quick read. Bennett is always clever and there are some particularly exciting terms of phrase. A modern reader may or may not get excited or upset by the Queen's reading list, which is heavily weighted in the direction of British authors and old-school Western European classics. So I guess the verdict is old-school but rather fun.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Gabriel Garcia Marquez/LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA


Let me start by saying this is going to be a negative review of a beloved book; sorry to those who disagree, and please tell me candidly about why you liked/loved the book if you did. Also let me say that although I'm definitely a contrarian and probably would have enjoyed the book less (although not on purpose) simply because Oprah selected it, I actually started reading this about a month before her announcement and didn't really enjoy it from the beginning (hence the long time it took me to get through). So although contrarian this review is also genuine, not just inflammatory.

There are some great passages, as always with Marquez. He has an uncanny ability to make a thumbnail sketch of a character or a situation but to find the one or two isolating details that make the whole description glow with novelty. Which is nice. But the book dragged for me despite these little gems.

For me, the elephant in the room--the elephant I've been ignoring since I read and loved HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE--is pedophilia. Do we seriously forgive Florentino Ariza for first deflowering and then abandoning his 13-year-old niece? Especially at that time, when her life would have been effectively ruined? And do we honestly believe that they had a good working relationship despite their gaps in age, that they got along like a good married couple and understood each other as two adults? This is something I could never overlook in real life and I can't get past it in the novel. Also, I'm recalled of Aureliano Buendias's child-wife (how old was she? Eight?) and also of the opening lines of MELANCHOLY WHORES. I support fiction that voices subconscious and that offers a realistic treatment of what we secretly think about but pedophilia seems to present an uncrossable threshhold for me. I can't celebrate a character who forgives himself for it.

There's also an element of forgiven misogyny that I didn't feel about his previous books. But how is it that all the women that Florentino Ariza chose to womanize with were perfectly fine with his ending the liasons? Was it just that he succeeded in choosing a rare string of women whose hearts would not be broken when they were abandoned by their lover? There is so much resiliance among his women--women who eventually reject him, who good-naturedly let him leave, etc. I don't buy it because I don't relate to it. Fermina Daza herself is a cold-hearted woman, unrelatable in her inability to be affected emotionally by anyone or anything.

Those were my problems with the book. I'm sure a lot of people on this blog have read this novel already, and I hope you'll tell me what you thought.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Paul Auster/THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES

I was given this as a Christmas present last year, but have been 'saving' it. I've loved the other Austers I've read, so I was keeping this back - partly through trepidation that it might disappoint, but more to build the anticipation and add to the eventual enjoyment. After the string of severely disappointing books I've read recently, I felt that now was the time to look into this long-hoarded treat.

Auster has his quirks and foibles that may not be to everyone's taste. His stories have a studied simplicity, a parable-like directness. His characters regularly have names that seem heavy with potential symbolism - Wood, Glass, Dark, Minor - but in fact have none. He is dauntingly erudite (there's always at least one character who's an unusually voracious reader or a career academic, to justify the inclusion of numerous obscure anecdotes about Poe, Kafka, Wittgenstein). He's not, however, very good with dialogue or characterisation - everyone in his books is rather too obviously just a facet of his own intellect, emblematic of some idea or type rather than a fully-rounded person.

But you know what - I forgive him anything because he writes like a dream. This book is chock-full of neat jokes, wise insights, startling flights of fancy, brilliant descriptions. And it just reads so damned easily - it is a 'page-turner' in the very best sense: not just plot-rich but undemanding; it is the language as much as the incident (although it is a very eventful story) that compels you to race onwards.

This is probably his most accessible book. Though parts of it have the fable-like resonance of the New York Stories collection, it lacks their pretention and obscurity (I love them, but they are pretentious); The Brooklyn Follies is basically just a rollicking family saga. It is remarkably upbeat as well. Some terrible things happen in the book, but with one or two exceptions, everyone ends up happy. Almost all of the reversals-of-fortune are for the better: people miraculously lose weight, inherit fortunes, recover from serious illness, escape from bad marriages, patch up family disputes, rediscover purpose in their lives. And everyone finds love. And then all of this positivity is ironically undercut by the fact that Auster chooses to end the story on September 11th, 2001. It would seem that the lightness and happiness of the book are a reaction to the misery of that day; yet at the very end, Auster is perhaps glumly accepting that there is no way he can work such redemptive miracles in the post-9/11 world, that some wrongs cannot be righted.

I really wanted to give this (well, to give something) an *excellent rating, but I fear it falls just short. Much as I love his writing, I'm not sure if Auster can really do novels. The best of his work, I think, is the short stories. I also like New York Stories and The Music Of Chance, but these are very long short stories or novellas, not really novels. I didn't find any real coherence or purpose in The Brooklyn Follies; it's just a rag-bag of diverting tales, a disparate collection of writer's sketches loosely strung together into a single narrative.

It is a very good read, but not a great novel.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Clare Clark/THE NATURE OF MONSTERS


I can't help but wonder what the draw is of pre-Industrial London; writers seem to really rejoice in its squalor. Perhaps it is an especially fascinating setting and/or topic because modern audiences tremble at the idea that the streets of London, now considered by some (although I'm not going to broach this subject) to be among the most civilized cities in the world, were once full of beggars, thieves, whores, corpses, rapists, thugs, and murderers. Not to mention that they used to stink.

At any rate, Clare Clark has done the rejoicing in the London squalor aspect of this novel very well. She has imagined Eliza Tally's miseries from floorboard to attic: the daily grind is quantified in detailed depression, sexual abuse, physical degradation, psychological victimization, and boredom, all under the looming shadow of Saint Paul's cathedral, which the author claims as a centerpiece of her work. Clark creates a very real world of day-to-day terror as she describes two years in the life of a teenage girl who is preyed upon by everyone around her.

Eliza Tally (whose name is rarely mentioned in the book), a spunky but largely uneducated village bumpkin, is shipped to London in the winter of 1718 by her mother, who has sold Eliza for four guineas after her plot to manipulate Eliza into a financially advantageous marriage has ended in nothing but an illegitimate pregnancy and a muffled village scandal. An apothecary named Grayson Black has been generously compensated by the baby's father's family to take Eliza on and hide her in his house as a maid. Pregnant Eliza finds herself a de facto prisoner of the Blacks, who are wrapped up in a secret world for which the apothecary business is only a semi-functional front. Apothecary Black, who aspires to be the next Harvey, has a thesis he is bent on proving: that the emotional predilections of a mother are indelibly imprinted on her unborn fetus. Needless to say Black will do anything he needs to to cull supporting data.

The novel is unobtrusively rich in careful detail, but unfortunately Clark doesn't pull her plot together as masterfully as her backdrop. The book drags the whole way through and the afterthought-esque conclusion is tacked on very carelessly. And while Clark's prose is, for the most part, very nice, her language ranges to the rather overly colorful and some passages (among the most egregious is the birth scene) read as though a junior high school student was allowed too long with her thesaurus. Clark has created a wonderfully real world but falls a little short of using it as a successful vehicle for her story. The car is nice but it doesn't go anywhere.

Winning the Lottery


Let’s face it, who amongst us can honestly say they’ve never dreamed about winning the lottery, especially when it creeps up to ridiculous proportions like $200 million. I mean what a ridiculous sum of money for anyone to win. (Please let it be me! Please, Please!) So when I heard the concept of Patricia Wood’s debut novel “Lottery,” I was completely hooked, and so was the entire publishing world.

They called it a high concept hook - “Forrest Gump wins Powerball,” and it created an immediate stir in publishing. Ann Oldenburg’s article in USA Today, stated that Lottery went to auction and landed a six-figure deal for its first time author. It is a dream that all writers aspire too.

So often we hear the hype, buy into it and then end up being disappointed. That is definitely not the case here. I read Lottery in one day in two sittings. And it would have been one sitting but for the simple fact that I had to cook dinner, feed the kids, bathe them, check their homework and tuck them in bed, all while glancing impatiently at my book and growling and muttering under my breath. When I finally closed my book, I sighed with happiness tinged with the sad thought that having finished, I could never have that new book pleasure filled with the discovery of finding new characters that warm your heart. Unless I suffer from amnesia, then please remind me that I will want to read Lottery again.

The main character is Perry L. Crandall, and he is not retarded. He knows this because he scored a 76 on his IQ test and Reader’s Digest says that you have to have 75 or lower to be retarded. So he is not retarded. And from this introduction on, you are absolutely hooked by Perry, his loving but sharp tongued grandmother, his nervous but caring boss and a disgusting burping, farting best friend, Keith, who was my second most favorite character of the book. Not just because I think burping and farting are hysterically funny, although they are, but because Ms. Wood develops Keith, a Vietnam Vet, into a living breathing person you come to care deeply for. Now all the bad guys in the book, Perry’s brothers, in-laws and even his mother, are either lawyers or married to lawyers. (I would feel indignant on behalf of all us lawyers, except I actually know too many like this to take offense for my profession.)

When Grandma dies early in the book and Perry wins $12 million playing the lottery, you’d have to be a real gullible, naïve fool not to know what happens next. The beauty of Ms. Wood’s book is that Perry, who knows he is slow, is neither as gullible nor as naïve as people like to think. And while the bad guys are little more than cliché’s, they work extremely well when placed in the context of the book. Their portrayal is as Perry sees them, no more, no less. As characters, they are not shaded or nuanced like Grandma, Keith or Cherry, a woman Perry would like to have as a girlfriend. That is because the actions of the brothers and Perry’s mother have only ever been unkind, and even when circumstances change and they try to act nicely to Perry, he sees right through to the desperation beneath their surfaces. Their words might have changed, but they are still the same. Perry is one of the most likeable underdog characters you will ever read. You will root for him, cry with him and laugh your head off at things he says. You will definitely not be bored, I promise.

To see an interview with author Patricia Wood please click here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Carolyn Parkhurst/THE DOGS OF BABEL

i picked up this book after giving up on k1m harr1son's dead w1tch wa1king 100 pages in. but that's another story. literally. the dogs of babel was passed on to me by a friend a few years back. and since i'm waiting for my book orders to arrive, and am too mushy brained to slog through crime and punishment, i thought i'd give this book a go. i started reading a little before dinner, and finished the tale after 11pm.

the story is narrated in the first person in both present and past tense by paul, who finds his wife has died after falling from the tall apple tree in their back garden. the only witness is their dog, lorelei. due to grief and (as we will learn) guilt, paul (a professor in linguistics) changed his research to dog speech. or getting your dog to talk, in the hopes of finding out what happened on that fateful day when his beloved lexy fell from the tree.

the novel is a love story (paul recalls much of the beginning of their courtship) as well as a mystery. the good points? i find parkhurst to be a good storyteller. her narrative voice is strong. her prose is good. unlike some reviewers i read on amazon, i think she is a good writer. she describes many things in metaphors and similes in beautiful, uncliched language--something which is difficult, as i can attest to first hand.

the problem with the story? unbelieveable plotlines. a cult of dog mutilators who ripe out throats of canines, etc to encourage them to "speak". all this is difficult to read, and prompted much furor among animal lovers amongst the reviews. i found it difficult to read, but even more difficult to believe. also, lexy, paul's beloved, is obviously bipolar from the start. she has outbursts which makes it obvious that she is off kilter. it was no mystery to me from the start [spoiler] that she did indeed kill herself.

i need a new category for this story. i don't usually like to read depressing stories. i really don't. i did enjoy the time traveler's wife, and i think that was more well done although the reader could see what was coming. the feel and tone of the story is similar, in that the narrators describe their romances in detail. i thought her storytelling and prose were strong, but the actual plot and characterization less so. i would recommend the book only if you enjoy this type of story--which i usually do not.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Dean Koontz/ THE HUSBAND



I have read one other Dean Koontz book and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But this one blew me away. As a writer, I'm always looking for the hook and this one has a fascinating hook. Regular guy has his wife kidnapped for a completely unreasonable ransom. What is he willing to do to get it? Mitchel Rafferty is a landscaper in California. He owns his own business, but it's hardly big time. When he gets a call that his wife has been kidnapped and they want two million dollars in less than two days he thinks it a joke. But when he hears her scream in pain and the kidnappers kill a man right in front of him to prove their point, Mitchel believes. For the rest of the book he must jump through the kidnappers' hoops trying to meet their demands and get his wife back. This book never took the path I thought it was going to and although there was one twist that was just a little hard to swallow, there was enough psychotic history that I gave the author the benefit of the doubt. I raced through this book in one day despite it being 400 pages (Exactly) and me having three children four and under. Trust me, a Herculean feat.:) If you haven't read this author before, I think this is a great book to start with. I'd rate this an "Edge of Your Seat" read.

Robert Olen Butler/FROM WHERE YOU DREAM

I am obsessed with books on writing and craft. I just did a quick count and I have somewhere on the order of forty-five of them. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler, edited by Janet Burroway is one of the best I've read.

The book is primarily a transcription of a series of lectures Butler has given at Florida State University, where he teaches creative fiction writing.

Butler is the author of ten novels, two collections of short stories and is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

One of the things that make this book different from most is the tone. Most books on writing present methods and ideas as alternatives that may work for some writers and not for others. Butler makes no bones about what is and isn’t good fiction and he doesn’t mince words about how he believes one must pursue the creative process. Based on some of the reviews on Amazon, many readers couldn’t get past his voice and therefore rejected what he said. My recommendation is to get over it if you can, because there's great stuff in here.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section is the lectures, and they read like lectures. Very early in the book, he makes it clear that he’s talking about writing literary fiction, or creating art and although he does give genre fiction its propers, he makes a distinction between art and commercial, or genre fiction. If this is going to offend you, you probably won't like this book, but you may want to smooth your feathers and see what he has to say anyway.

He talks about “the zone”. All writers know this place and do just about anything to go there as often as possible. He offers some valuable insights about “the zone” and accessing it. He talks a lot about writing from the unconscious, versus writing from the head. Unconscious = good; writing from the head = bad. He has a section on yearning and says that by far, the most common writing flaw he sees with aspiring writers is that their characters don't yearn for something. The lecture called “Cinema of the Mind” is about the best I’ve ever read on showing versus telling, but it goes much deeper. By showing, he’s talking about concrete sensual details versus abstract, general description. Later on in the book, there is a transcript of an actual exercise that he did with four students. He had each of them walk through a scene and describe what their characters were experiencing. It’s powerful. The students don’t do all that well – so useful in reading through this – because it’s very difficult to do, but by allowing us to be a fly on the wall, so to speak, the book really reinforces what sensual description is all about.

Of particular interest to writers and contributors to The Book Book is the section on Reading. In particular, he emphasizes reading to evoke an aesthetic response, as opposed to reading analytically. From page 108-109:


"Your experience of this name should be aesthetic, not analytical. A kind of harmonic resonance is set up within you. That is the primary and appropriate response to a work of art. You don’t listen to a Beethoven symphony or look at a Monet painting or what Suzanne Farrell dance and walk away with your head full of ideas, having, say, sat in your chair and had the keen intellectual enjoyment of watching the way the themes of the first movement were echoed in the second and then turned into that crescendo in the fourth. That’s a separate kind of pleasure with certain value, but it is not the aesthetic response.

It seems to me that a lot of literature classes go wrong because the teachers, unintentionally but often intentionally, give the impression that writers are rather like idiots savants: they really want to say abstract, theoretical, philosophical things, but somehow they can’t quite make themselves do it. So they create these objects whose ultimate meaning and relevance and value come into being only after they have been subjected to the analysis of thoughtful literary critics, who translate that work into theoretical, philosophical, ideational terms.”

The third part of the book analyzes three actual short stories done by Butler’s students.

I loved that this book touched on subjects that I haven’t seen addressed quite in this way, if at all. There are some great techniques I’m anxious to try myself and I suspect this is one of the many books on writing that I will dog ear with repeated readings.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Jesus' Son" by Denis Johnson




A friend of mine told me that Denis Johnson had a new book out. I said, "Who?" He said, "!!!" I took it that Denis Johnson was someone I should know. I went to a bookstore and picked up a book of his called, Jesus' Son. When I realized that the title was a reference to a Lou Reed lyric, I decided I would bring it home. And what a little bruiser I've let enter my mind. The book is intense. It reads like Bukowski, but lyrical, and stripped of the false bravado Bukowski pretended to hate. The guy is good for lots of pretty little turns of phrase: "The green silence after the hailstorm" "Under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God." The writing is compact and intense and pulls beauty out of the muck, but takes only small pieces of it, slowly, one at a time so the overall mood can be sustained and stay intact. My favorite paragraph in the book:
"I'd been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I'd ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven."


It's always great when a writer of the so-called "tough literature" is not afraid to use commas instead of fragments. This guy reminds you of a lot of different writers, which only makes you remember that he's not quite like any of them.

A neo-pulp classic, that's supposed to have been been based on the stations of the cross, this book will get you drunk on the towering bigness of the sadly beautiful smallness of American life...and you can't not like this book a lot.

If I ever start a band, I'm going to name it after his story, "Dirty Wedding", and oh...we will ROCK!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ellis Avery/THE TEAHOUSE FIRE


A nine-year-old French-American girl is stranded in Meiji-era Kyoto when her uncle's Jesuit missionary burns down. Alone in an intensely xenophobic country with only the most rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, Aurelia (whose name, Japanized, becomes Urako) finds refuge with the Shins, a family of tea ceremony masters who have been favored by the Shogun for the last three hundred years.

Painstakingly research and vividly reenacted, The Teahouse Fire is a relentlessly honest depiction of Japan from a foreigner's point of view (she says very, very knowingly). I was impressed with the way Avery was able to bring the art of tea to the center of a story and make it symbolic of many layers of society and the story.

I was a little disappointed with it, but it's possible I'd hoped for too much from the book going in. The book was a little on the long side (for my taste), and yet somehow the author managed to rush through the things I wanted to know more about. Although ostensibly the story of Urako and her unrequited loves, the narrative really focuses on Yukako, the "older sister" who first brings Urako into the Shin family but whose friendship falters and becomes plagued with selfishness as the book progresses. It is painful to watch Urako's non-life as she sinks passively into the stories of people who don't notice her or don't like her; it is also not as painful as I hoped it would be to experience through her eyes Yukako's ongoing insensitivity and accidental rejection.

Also, it was just a little overwritten, especially at the beginning. The author was a little bit self-indulgent with little Japanese-to-English gems that must have been even more alienating for English language readers who don't have years and years of Japanese language study behind them. Urako's first year in Japan is narrated in a confusing and misunderstood way--doubtlessly to help you feel the frustration and aimlessness of her character--but I found myself having to read some paragraphs three or four times just to figure out what she was trying to say.

Nevertheless, qualms aside--the book is a careful and beautiful tapestry, and is subtler and smarter than, say, the crowd-pleasing MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. If you're a Japanophile this is a must.

Nick Arvin/Articles of War

I’ve had Nick Arvin’s debut novel, Articles of War for several months now and didn’t pick it up to read it until very recently because I assumed the subject matter wouldn’t appeal to me.

The story’s main character is a prematurely balding 18 year old farm kid from Iowa, who finds himself on Omaha Beach in 1944. “Heck”, as he’s known by his fellow soldiers because of his reluctance to curse, is the story of a naïve boy who finds himself in the middle of the horror and the confusion of battle and discovers that he is a coward. Arvin’s precise, economical prose brings us so deeply into Heck’s terror, it makes us wonder how anyone put into the horror of war can summon the courage, or perhaps the madness needed to rush into battle and almost certain death or disfigurement.

Heck meets a disturbing French refugee family early on in the book and his brief, awkward physical encounter with Claire serves as a wobbly beacon of hope for him throughout most of the story. I’m not a fan of gratuitous romance in fiction, but I found this subplot to be interesting and well integrated and I disagreed with Janet Maslin’s criticism of this “standard ingredient” in her New York Times Book Review of Articles of War. The romance was far from standard and served to further embody the elements of shame that followed Heck through the forests of France and Germany.

Arvin’s descriptions of fear summoned a visceral response in me. In a scene where Heck is in the back of a truck and on the way to the battlefield:

“Heck decided that his own fear definitely annoyed him. It felt now like an object, exactly as if someone had cut him open, stuffed this thing inside, and sewn the flesh closed again.”

Arvin was inspired to write the book after reading an article about Private Eddie Slovik, the first American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War, and in fact, Slovik’s story is integrated into the in the plot.

This story explores the issues of courage and cowardice and it reveals that neither are neatly categorized. I could not help but think often about the soldiers in Iraq as I read this story.

More of a novella than a novel, the book is a slim 178 pages. Arvin's prose is spare and elegant. Rarely have I read a book with such vivid description, written so economically. His depiction of the physical sensation of fear, in particular is incredible.

Articles of War was selected by Denver Major John Hickenlooper as the city’s selection for the One Book One Denver program.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A. N. Wilson/IRIS AS I KNEW HER


i almost never read non-fiction novels. i don't count the mounds of writing books i have purchased--as every aspiring to be published novelist has done. and when i do read non-ficiton, it is always biographies. i have read biographies on iris murdoch and elizabeth I extensively. i have read biographies on josephine (napoleon's consort) as well as cleopatra. women from history bound to power, that interests me.
wilson's biography stirred some controversy when it was published, for putting murdoch in a rather negative light at times. i read many passages thinking he almost wanted to be mean for some reason. what is the difference between mean and truthful, when writing a biography of someone who the author claimed was a mentor--someone who absolutely made himself want to be a novelist?
many sections read like the authors own biography, and he tended to ramble from one anecdote to another. i found the long discussions on philosophy to be slow. but i think it was relevant, since it was a topic very much tied to murdoch. overall, i would recommend the book to any murdoch fan who finds her novels as fascinating as i do. wilson contends that to truly see into murdoch's psyche, you only have to read her books. this may be true with all writers, but i think it's especially so with murdoch. she wears her words on her sleeve.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Leonard S. Marcus/DEAR GENIUS


This collection of letters written by children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom is interesting for a few reasons:

1. It shows the low status of children's book publishing when it was in its early years.

2. It offers insight into the character of Nordstrom, who often apologized for her inability to clearly communicate her thoughts and who was more interested in "good books for bad children" than anything superficially moral.

3. It illustrates how an editor might work with her authors--i. e., by being brutally honest about what works and what doesn't, by offering suggestions without demanding changes, by telling her authors whether they were really doing their best work.

Nordstrom worked with such famous authors as Maurice Sendak, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and E. B. White. Her letters provide glimpses of how she shaped their work. One letter to Sendak asks if he would like to change the last line of his famous picture book Where the Wild Things Are (a line which refers to Max's supper being ready for him when he returns from his journey) to "and it was still warm" instead of "and it was still hot." I've only ever seen it as the latter, which I think is superior by far. Good thing Sendak didn't want to change it!

The book is pretty long (about 400 pages), but it's easy enough to skip around looking for letters to your favorite authors. It's also great for writers who are still learning about the editing process.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Wei Hui/SHANGHAI BABY

Self-congratulatory fashion-conscious 25-year-old cheats on her impotent, depressed, drug-addicted true love with a married German while jetting about amongst fancy people and encouraging them to tell her how talented she is. Favorite gems include "He pulled down my Calvin Klein panties" (Thanks, Melanie, for flagging this one for me). Seriously?

I'm tired of this "edgy" "next generation" self-indulgent Chinese bimbo crap. There's so much of it. Chinese literature is famously content-focused instead of stylistically-focused (meaning you can still make it if you're world's lousiest writer, like the founding father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun). But seriously--I don't feel like Wei Hui's anti-feminist super-materialistic (can I say it?) rather trashy gad about town is significantly contributing to Chinese culture content-wise. I think it's a little sad that she's one of the few frontlist examples we see of modern Chinese literature.

PW had a long article a couple of weeks ago about how American publishers are still trying to find a Chinese voice that sells here (the Chinese Murakami, they say oh so non-controversially). But Wei Hui?!

just an intro

hi, i'm cindy.
moonrat extended a gracious
invite to your community and
i'm thrilled to be here!

i'm an avid reader and a writer.
i wrote a lot of love sick poetry
as a teen and short stories, and
am working on finishing the final
draft of my first novel.

i stopped reading and writing through
most of my twenties (college, marriage,
grad school). and i'm so glad to discover
my first loves again.

i was born in taiwan and came
here at the age of six. the esl
(english as a second language)
experience is deeply ingrained within me.
sure, i sound like a cali girl,
but i often think i see english in
a different way due to my esl
background.

i'm currently reading a biography
on the novelist and philosopher,
iris mudoch by a. n. wilson.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Alexander McCall Smith/44 SCOTLAND STREET

I thought it something of a spooky coincidence that Kit reviewed another McCall Smith book on here just the other day. I was only reading this out of a misplaced sense of guilt, having suddenly discovered that I still had it on my shelf nearly a year after someone lent it to me.

The origin of this book is rather more interesting than the book itself. The writer was fascinated by the idea of serialising a novel, in the way that many of the great 19th Century novelists did. Then, on a trip to San Francisco, he met Armistead Maupin, whose success with Tales of the City encouraged him to pitch a similar idea to The Scotsman. So, what we have here is the cumulative result of nearly 6 months of daily-published segments from that famous Edinburgh newspaper. Apparently, it has proved to be a terribly popular feature in the paper: I believe it is still running, and has already spawned a couple more 'novels'.

You see that I am sceptical as to whether this really counts as a novel. Daily publishing, I think, is just too frequent. The book is far too episodic and rambling in structure: there's no overall theme or narrative direction. And there are a lot of loose ends and red herrings: characters or plot points that are briefly introduced and then abandoned again.

I wouldn't say McCall Smith is a bad writer, but there's a kind of humdrum efficiency about him. He's relentlessly competent, rather than inspiring. And he does have a few severe weaknesses. He's probably too erudite for his own good: there's a lot of showing off of arcane knowledge for supposedly humorous effect here (and some of the specifically Scottish references require explanatory footnotes). The jokes are so mild as to be virtually non-existent. And the plot development is crashingly obvious: I could foresee almost every single event in the book before it happened.

Worst of all, he can't do convincing dialogue at all. And hence, to my mind, he's poor at characterisation. Frankly, I just didn't believe in any of the people in this book. And even if one made the imaginative effort to suspend disbelief and accept these people as real, I don't think you'd care about any of them. They are mostly very flawed, rather unattractive, often downright irritating people. And, with only one or two exceptions, they are all comfortably well-off upper middle class types - not a social stratum for which I have much affection.

Edinburgh is a notoriously snobbish place, and, while affecting to make gentle fun of this vice, 44 Scotland Street is for me mostly participating in it rather than satirising it.

Presumably this book appeals mostly to people who live in Edinburgh (and recognise the places, the history, the typical 'characters'), or to those who like to daydream of living there. I've spent quite a bit of time in Edinburgh, I love it to pieces, and I do aspire to live there one day - but I found this book merely irksome.

At least the short, self-contained chapters make it an easy page-turner, so I suppose we could classify it as a "beach read". Me, I don't spend much time on beaches. When I am on a beach, I don't generally read. If I were reading, I'd want to read something a bit more satisfying than this.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Alexander McCall Smith/ THE NO.1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY


This is the first of McCall Smith's charming series of stories set in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe uses the money from the sale of her father's cattle, her inheritance, to set herself up as a private detective. She relies on observation and her knowledge of human nature to solve what cases come her way.

This appears to be a rather naïve and anachronistic portrait of Botswana recounted through the rose-coloured spectacles of fond nostalgia, bearing as much resemblance to today's Botswana, as the image of tea in bone china and cucumber sandwiches does to England today.

Nevertheless the observations of human nature, the fine delineation of the Botswana of twenty years ago, the shrewdly drawn characters and the dry humour make this a great escapist read, when you want to lose yourself in a simpler, though by no means perfect, world.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Prep :: Curtis Sittenfeld


I read this book on the recommendation of a coworker, about a girl who goes to boarding school for high school. Initially I thought the book had promise in its premise. But no. It's just year to year of vignettes that never culminate in any bigger transformation for me. It's unfortunate because I think some of what was going on was actually kind of interesting, it's just that the protagonist was so irritating and awkward and wallowing that I wanted to smack her. I really wished she'd get out of the way. So ultimately, a failed novel for me.