Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Pale View of Hills :: Kazuo Ishiguro

I haven't put a post up on Book Book in awhile because I haven't felt compelled to do so in awhile (and because I do pretty much the same thing on my own blog) but, just finished my fourth Ishiguro and LOVED IT.

Insanely haunting and quietly menacing, but characterized by the deliberate first-person narrator Ishiguro is known for. I can't say much more without giving anything away, and it's been reviewed here before, so all I'll say is, if you haven't read it, READ IT, so that I can discuss it with you!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

"The Blood of Flowers" - Anita Amirrezvani


First there wasn't and then there was. Before God, no one was.

This is how all of the stories began in 17th century Iran, and a village girl dreams that her own story will have the sweet almond ending of the fables. However, during the comet, her family's luck turns, and she ends up scouring pots with her mother by the "kindness" of distant relations.

Still, the girl dreams of more. In the village, she wove a turquoise rug and sold it for her dowry. Now, her distant-uncle runs the royal rug shop. He teaches her to design, paint, and plot the knots tied on the rugs.

This is not a fairy tale, though, like she had grown up learning. She is married out on a three-month contract - basically, similar to the deal in "Pretty Woman," though she doesn't even get to stay during the daytime. Instead, she weaves a rug that begins to earn her uncle's respect.

Like Arabian Nights, there are fables or moralistic stories intertwined with the main narrative. Most were lovely additions, though I'll admit that I skimmed over them. The girl shows the spirit of many women, tied by their own knots, yet struggling against them. This is what carried the story and captured my interest.

4.0 out of 5.0 Polo Cocktails.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Amy Bloom/AWAY

In 1924, a 22-year-old Ukranian Jewish woman named Lillian Leyb is the sole survivor when her family is massacred. Heartbroken at the loss of her two-year-old daughter and without any connections, Lillian travels to New York, where a distant cousin takes boarders and might be able to help Lillian make her way as a seamstress. Cold-blooded from her losses but ever the survivor, Lillian falls in with a successful Yiddish theater company on the Lower East Side, and thus begins her American life, which will take her from the cafes of Manhattan to the dirtiest bars in Alaska (and other places in between).

One of my friends recommended this book--it is her absolute favorite book ever. The New York Times and NPR seemed to have similar opinions, now that I've checked out their reviews. I liked it, but I found it's left me without a really deep impression. Bloom's historical research is very appreciated, and I was happy to read about a time in immigrant history that is relevant to so many Americans. In the end, I found Lillian a little unengaging, since her narrative meanders from character to character and since the author doesn't go out of her way to let us into Lillian's head. It is definitely an enjoyable, quick read, though, and I like that the book recognizes a fact about humanity: that in our lives, there is less continuity than we imagine there will be; there is rarely an arc that takes us from beginning to end with the people we imagine in the picture. Instead, most often, we cross paths with people we care about, and when our time together elapses we will more than likely never cross paths with them again.

On a slightly closer reading--Bloom makes one point that had not occurred to me before. If your parents die, you are an orphan. If your husband or wife dies, you are a widow(er). If your child dies--the worst of the three conditions--there is no special word for you. You are simply the parent of a dead child. Why don't we have a word, in English? Do other languages have a word?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lesley Kagan/LAND OF A HUNDRED WONDERS


1973: Gibby, a 20-year-old orphan, lives with her grandpa in rural Kentucky, where the two of them run a breakfast diner. Gibby has one major life impediment: she's NQR, Not Quite Right. The car crash that killed her parents three years earlier also left her with some brain damage that may or may not be permanent. She has poor short-term memory, word recollection, and (sometimes) common sense. But Gibby believes that the brain damage isn't permanent, and that if she can just prove that she is Quite Right again, her mother's ghost in heaven will be at peace. But Gibby's plans for proving herself are thwarted at every turn--by her pregnant best friend, by the evil town drunkard who is bent on taking advantage of Gibby's spotty memory, by the race riots that are ripping her town apart, by her grandfather's failing health, and by the body that she keeps forgetting she found washed up on the beach. Will Gibby be able to prove to her angel mom that she's ok... and get out of all her messes in one piece?

This is a great, quick read, and Kagan's gimmick--the charming but flighty brain-damaged first person narrator--is consistently and convincingly developed. The story is rich and multicolored with just enough irritation to keep you reading--you, the reader, remember the dead body, and it drives you nuts that Gibby can't keep that (and other things) in her head.

Kagan has also chosen a moment in history to lay down her narrative, framing the story with Vietnam vets, violent backlash to the civil rights movement, and rising drug culture. If anything, the book takes on a little too much--there are so many characters and so many issues and interests at stake that the book takes a turn for the plodding as the author works to revolve all the story lines. But overall the book is a quick and pleasant read. I would recommend it to fans of books like The Memory Keeper's Daughter or My Sister's Keeper.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" - Lisa See


I find the relationships between women much more interesting than the relationships between men and women. There is a plethora of viciousness that you do not find in a typical male/female break-up, and there is such a waste of anger and jealousy.

While the relationship between two Chinese women, Snow Flower and Lily, is interesting (bonded as "old-sames," which is more sacred than the bond of marriage), it is the historical aspects of this novel that intrigued me into avoiding my life for a rich six hours.

While, we all know about foot-binding, this book goes through the process with specific details. The idea of old-same relationships, as well as female groups formed based on age or status, is also fascinating. But it was the discovery of the only known female-created language, nu shu, that kept me enthralled. As a way to communicate, Snow Flower and Lily write in nu shu on a shared fan. This writing must be read carefully because of nuances, which causes the near-death of their old-same relationship.

I thought of all lost friends after reading this book, as well as the pettiness some women hold in their hearts. But I also thought about the connections between women that cause this new language to be born. It's simply a sweet tale, like deep fried taro.

4.5 out of 5.0 Candy Girls.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Alexander Chee/EDINBURGH


Fee, a twelve-year-old first soprano in an all-boys choir in idyllic Maine, is not the first boy to be molested by the choir conductor. But Fee, who is half-Korean, isn't quite the director's type. Peter, Fee's best friend, silver-blond with green eyes, is. Over the course of Fee's months in the choir and the years that follow, Fee wrestles with his experiences, his losses, and who he has become because of what was taken away from him.

This book was absolutely spellbinding. It's the only book I've been so engrossed in that I've actually missed my subway stop--and that happened twice during the week I was reading. Chee's language is extraordinary, and the story itself is told with such unsentimental but breathtaking detail that, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was living the story myself instead of just reading about it. The subject matter is difficult, but Chee's focus isn't on horror or gore. Instead, it's on how, in the face of this kind of destruction, the things in our life that would otherwise be mundane are transformed into darker and harder things--and vice versa.

I strongly recommend this book. I wish the author had others.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

JOHN GREEN/Paper Towns

so i stayed up until 2am on saturday night
to finish paper towns by john green. i
couldn't put it down. i started reading at 9.30pm.
put simply, the story is about a boy named quentin
who has had a crush on margo since he was ten.
by high school, margo is a popular girl and quentin

is the type to hang out with the band peeps.

everything changes the night margo shows up
at his bedroom window at midnight dressed
as a ninja seeking his aid for some non-lawful tasks.

what amazed me about green's writing : his voice
and humor, his dialogue, all his characters, who
are very real and very much alive. he also made
me feel many things while reading this story : concern,
dread, curiosity, amusement, joy, sorrow. and i didn't
feel manipulated. (i hate feeling emotionally manipulated!)

and no, i wouldn't say it's a dystopian tale.
but i always have to look up that word no
matter how many times i've seen the definition. ha!
the story definitely carries a theme, but it's more
about how we often fail to truly see one another,
therefore, to truly know one another.
some deep and philosophical stuff in the
novel--which i loved. it was all handled so well--
no wonder green won the printz. i can't wait
to read his other books!

Monday, December 15, 2008

"A Ship Made of Paper" - Scott Spencer


This National Book Award finalist was the ideal carrot for motivating me through a pile of essay-grading today. Read 10 papers, read 10 pages. Throw the student writing away, then devour the book. Try plan A again. Fail.

Daniel is a model husband-father to Kate and Ruby, though he is not married or the natural dad. Still, he is devoted to them, except for the part of his heart that yearns for Iris, the mom of Ruby's best little buddy at daycare.

While Kate continues on a downward spiral of drinking and obsessing over the O.J. Simpson trial, Daniel and Iris begin an affair. Iris, who is a reluctant African-American ("I don't relate to my race," she says"), is too afraid to leave her buttoned-up husband, so the entire small town soon knows of their indiscretions.

Scott Spencer is a master at passionate, romantic writing. He makes armpit hair sexy. While the play on racial tensions didn't work for me, the taut storytelling more than made up for it.

4.0 out of 5.0 Sex on the Grass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yael Goldstein Love/THE PASSION OF TASHA DARSKY


Tasha Darsky is the world's most celebrated violinist, a virtuoso renowned for the sensuality with which she plays (even People magazine selected her as one of the sexiest women alive). The precocious daughter of New York art dealers, Tasha took up violin when she was a child and composing when she was in high school. But no matter how well she plays or how beloved she is to the world at large, Tasha struggles with three dear passions that cause her nothing but grief--a French composer she met at Harvard before she dropped out; the music she used to compose when she still believed in herself; and her teenage daughter, Alex, another genius who refuses to be reconciled with her mother. When a reporter comes to interview her, Tasha begins to unpack the history of her career, and to wonder which "passion" the passion of Tasha Darsky really is.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It isn't a novel so much as a [short] saga of one woman's life, and the book is pleasurably (and irritatingly) full of musical geniuses that remind me of the people I used to be insanely jealous of (and wanted to be close to, of course).

This book caught my eye because of the beautiful paperback package, which features a violin. It's true I'll buy anything with a stringed instrument (or really any kind of instrument, or even just musical notes) on the front cover. But the reason I ended up buying it was that I noticed as I flipped through that it had been previously published in hardcover with a different title--Overture--and under a different author name--Yael Goldstein. What I deduce from this is that whoever the editor of the book was, she had great faith in the novel and thought it was wonderful. When the initial hardcover publication flopped (it must have flopped, or they wouldn't have done anything as drastic as change the title and author name) the editor refused to be beaten; she proposed a complete repackaging, including a title that took the book in a very different direction. I was intrigued to see what made the book that worthwhile.

I personally found the book engrossing and couldn't stop reading it. After reading a couple of slightly sour or at least lukewarm reviews online, I wonder if maybe this is a book that musicians (or former wannabe musicians, like me) respond to especially, and if the reviewers who were a little harsher to Goldstein/Love were perhaps not quite the target audience. I would recommend this book to any music lover in a heartbeat--I already have recommended it to a couple of people.

For those curious about such things, here's the cover image from the hardcover edition.

"Trauma" - Patrick McGrath


Anton Chekov said that if the gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired by the last. The first line in Trauma is: “My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was 7 years old, and I felt it was my fault.” Bang.

A psychologist who quotes Freud, self-analyzes his relationships, and creates complex social situations (screwing both his ex-wife and a new girlfriend), Charlie is determined to see everyone's "trauma" but his own.

For lovers of the Gothic style of storytelling, this is a dark haven. For me, it was a cell. I'm writing about a psychologist, and my character would have had a shot of whiskey and told Charlie to see a shrink by the 40th page. Biased? "Yeah, babe, can I gitchu back?"

2.0 out of 5.0 Pegus.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In the Shadow of the Sun King- Golden Keyes Parsons


In 17th Century France the Huguenots, French Protestants, are being persecuted for their beliefs. Their schools and hospitals have been closed and they are excluded from serving in King Louis’s court. Madeline Clavell has given up much for her faith, her family court position, wealth and her family’s aristocratic standing. She is unwilling to give up her family though, and goes to any length to keep those close to her safe from Louis’s tyranny.

When the king’s dragoons take over Madeline’s house as a country headquarters for their torment of the Huguenots, she sends her two sons into hiding with their uncle to prevent them from being captured and taken for re-education in the Catholic schools. Desperate to protect her children and husband from further persecution Madeline travels to Versailles to plead with the king. As his former friend and love, Madeline hopes that the king will spare her. When she refuses to become his mistress however, Louis is furious and rather than help her he sends orders for the dragoons to destroy her house, send her young daughter to the convent and her husband to the prison in Paris, the Bastille.

Madeline returns to her home to find it burned to the ground, all of her servants, her husband and daughter gone. Her two boys were kept safe in a nearby cave by their uncle Jean, and with them Madeline travels to seek a safe haven. The Protestants in Geneva welcome the bedraggled troop of Huguenots and the Clavells slowly begin to rebuild their life. Madeline cannot stop thinking about her daughter and husband however, and with the help of a friend in King Louis’s court, works tirelessly to completely reunite her family.

I actually really enjoyed this book. It isn’t one that I would have normally picked up off of the shelf, as I’m not a huge historical fiction person, but it was well written. The beginning is fast paced and quite hard to put down. The characters are engaging and the historical content is interesting without being too info-dumpy. I liked how Parsons alternated between different perspectives in the chapters. The second half was definitely slower, but still interesting. I was somewhat disappointed by the ending, but it is the first book in a series, so I suppose that Parsons had to leave some questions open to continue into the next novel. It is her debut novel and I’m eager to read more. All in all, it was an enjoyable read and though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a beach read, it’s close. Maybe a by-the-fire-with-a-cup-of-something-hot read…

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"The Confessions of Max Tivoli" - Andrew Sean Greer


With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button arriving at theatres, I was drawn to this novel about Max Tivoli, a man born as a grizzled, old baby, who progresses through the aging process backwards. It is not the basis of the film (which is a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one that I would not recommend). Still, there are similarities; in fact, even Max claims to see a 12-year-old at a bar in Spain who has the eyes of an old woman and knows she is like him.

Old, gentlemanly Max falls in love with Alice when both are at the birth age of 14. His infatuation drives him to follow her throughout her life, reappearing in his different ages to dupe her into loving him anew. Along the way, his selfishness causes him to lose many of his loved ones, both families and friends, but he still is relentless in his push to possess Alice's heart.

It's a much better novel than I expected. People told me that the ending is bleak. Of course it is. But the writing is phenomonal. Every few pages Greer throws in a description or detail that brings truth to the foreground... a strange oxymoron with this style of fantasy novel. His writing tries to convince the reader that Max can be forgiven for his actions, while socking you in the gut.

4.25 out of 5.0 San Francisco Cocktails.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"Out Backward" or "God's Own Country" - Ross Raisin


Sam Marsdyke is a lonely, beyond socially-awkward young adult who lives on his family's sheep farm in rural Yorkshire. With no one to talk to, he creates his own stories and dialogue, but the thick patterns take a while to understand. Still, between the thick Yorkshire brogue, slang, and made up words, there are several funny moments, like when watching a ram's castrated pal:

"[...] poor castrated sod who kept himself pot-of-one the rest of the year waiting for his charver the tup to come and stay, though I didn’t know what the bugger it was them two had to talk about. Been up to much lately, oh, you’ve been rutting have you, that’s nice, I don’t much go in for that myself these days, not since my knackers were sliced off."

Sam begins a friendship with the new "townies" who move into a nearby farmhouse; their daughter reaches out to Sam, not knowing that the reason he was kicked out of school was due to accusations of rape. As story unfolds, the reader knows it can't end well, but the combination of the unique voice and the natural desire to watch a train wreck carry one through to the final chapter.

Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas prize, the novel is best read when alert and functional. It takes work to understand Sam. Still, I think he's one of the best delusional and unreliable narrators since Keyes's Flowers for Algernon.

3.75 out of 5.0 Ward Eights.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" - Oscar Wilde


You know the story: a portrait that ages while the man doesn't. Intriguing premise. It must be; there are at least four movies about Dorian Gray, the latest to be released in 2009.

But do the movies capture the essence of Dorian Gray? Do they show how Lord Henry becomes a demonic figure in Dorian's life? Can you examine each frame for the perfect snarkiness of dandies and blatant homosexual overtones?

The only disappointment was the familiarity of the language. Later, I read that many of the phrases had been reused in Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Still, read the book. Skip or breeze through the chapter on Dorian's fifteen years under the portrait's spell (gemology, traveling, yawning). But read the book.

4.0 out of 5.0 Greyhounds.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Catherine O'Flynn/WHAT WAS LOST


In 1984, 10-year-old Kate Meaney, a loner without family or friends to speak of, opens a detective agency. Kate's hope is to identify, through hours of careful and boring observation, a crime somewhere in her everyday surroundings, solve the crime, and garner recognition from real adult detectives. Her "surveillance" takes her to Green Oaks, a new shopping complex a bus ride from her home in Birmingham, the industrial capital of the British Midlands, where she spends hours each day tracking the various suspicious characters who troll the mall. Twenty years later, in the same shopping center, two lonely, disaffected people--Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, a manager at a music store--try to distill their lives and understand what is keeping them so miserably rooted to Green Oaks. It turns out they have one thing in common--Kate Meaney.

I ended up buying this book because I have picked it up at least 4 times in a bookstore, thought, "This looks interesting," and then left without it. I decided to bite the bullet on Saturday, and overall I'm glad I did.

This is a good, quick read. (I read the entire book in one sitting, and I'm not someone who can frequently pull that off.) While I found the rotating narrative a little irksome and occasionally boring--why this section? what does it have for me? etc--the story is extremely accessible. While the text isn't exactly a triumph of originality, Catherine O'Flynn's tirelessly (and, it seems, intentionally) pedestrian narrative captures and embodies the malaise that afflicts so many people. The story is full of people to whom life has happened--mediocre relationships, jobs they don't like or understand, misplaced or uncommunicative families. Their familiarity is almost uncomfortable, as is their ability to tolerate the intolerable people around them and to tolerate their own lives, which have few or no redeeming features. The book, in the end, is about the challenge of fighting our own unhappinesses, an easily digestible cautionary tale about being true to ourselves, wrapped around a mystery that turns out to be exactly as satisfying as it needs to to support the story.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Toni Morrison/A MERCY


In 1690, a farmer dies of pox. He is survived by the English wife he ordered by mail and by their three servant/slaves: a Native American woman, a white woman, and a black teenage girl. In a brief and characteristically sensual narrative, Toni Morrison creates thumbnail sketches of eight lives brought together in infant America, all products of different desperations. Their interactions are a reimagining of American history at a peculiar formative moment, when slavery and race still had broad definitions, and when social advantages were random and fluid.

I purchased my copy of this book at a reading during which Toni Morrison was asked, "When do your readers disappoint you?" Her answer to this uncomfortable question: "When they expect a quick and happy ending." There should be, she went on, no need for a clean ending. "I like ambiguity and ambivalence in the mind of the reader after the last page." Furthermore, fiction should be "not knowledge but imagination and insight."*

All these things put forth as caveats, I want to treat this review as I would have if I hadn't heard her say those things. This novel is so rich in provocative themes that each section had me itching to know more, more about each character's situation, back story, and character. The chapters are lush and impressionistic, full of Morrison's trademark language, and the characters (from the short glimpses we get of them) are very interesting personalities.

But for the cast of characters and the issues tackled--settlement, slavery, religion, indentured servitude, the elimination of the Native Americans, rape, race, the systematic oppression of females, child loss, to name some--the book was short. Frustratingly, the story lines introduced in the short chapters weren't revisited or explored. As it is, the thumbnail sketches of the characters were a little too thin to to satisfy, and, honestly, a little bit stagnant. In this way, it reminded me of Gentlemen of the Road--a fascinating topic in the hands of a master writer that fails to hit the spot because it is too short and underdeveloped.

I appear to be in the minority on this book, since every review I've read has been nothing short of worshipful. I would still absolutely recommend A Mercy, because it is a tantalizing read. I hope that it will spawn interest in that period of American history and perhaps inspire other period fictions for me to read down the line.

*NYPL, 11/12/2008

David Wroblewski//THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE

Edgar lives with his mother and father on a hundred-acre piece of land in Wisconsin. They earn their living by breeding dogs. Edgar's father is passionate about finding intelligent dogs and crossing them into the line he's developed. Edgar is mute, but he can hear. He communicates with the dogs by signing. The dogs in this story are truly incredible.

Edgar's father dies, and it isn't until months pass that Edgar begins to suspect that his uncle had a role in the death. The uncle has insinuated his way into their lives, which Edgar deeply resents. He begins to see the ghost of his father, and believes he is being given messages from him.

When Edgar tries to prove his uncle's guilt through a scheme with the dogs, it backfires. He flees into the woods with three of the dogs he has raised and trained. They survive by pillaging food from abandoned cabins, until one day a generous and lonely man, Henry, takes them in. After staying with Henry a while, Edgar comes to realize he has to go back and face his mother, and the uncle he suspects of killing his father.

Up until this point in the book, I was enthralled. The prose is simply beautiful. Some may say that the setting descriptions go on too long, but not me. Every sentence is a work of art. I felt as if I was in the story. The author gives the reader a complete sensory experience. It's a character-driven book, the kind I gravitate toward, and the voice is sublime. I think the author took a course from Richard Russso? I have to check this. But if you like Russo's style, you will like Wroblewski's style. Very much.


**spoiler alert**


Edgar does come home, and after a series of unbelievable circumstances, ends up poisoned by his uncle and engulfed in flames in the barn. Ummm..... This is stupid. The dogs follow a mythic-dog creature (a character in the book) into the woods. I mean, give me a break. I don't mind that our 14 year old hero dies (okay, I do, but still), the ending was almost science fiction. The last twenty pages ruined it for me. The motivations of the uncle (Claude) were never really brought out. And there was a thread about ghosts and apparitions that I thought could've been more strongly developed.

I really liked this book, but the ending subtracts from the experience. Is it meant to be like a modern American Hamlet? I don't know. But that ending. Geesh!

Friday, November 28, 2008

"The Given Day" - Dennis Lehane


*Wave*... hello. I'm Kristin, a new reviewer for The Book Book. I believe books and cocktails make a rounded, rewarding life, and luckily MoonRat agrees with me (at least the book part). My reading goals have varied from 150 books in year to a dedication to all of the banned novels. You can read more about my past stories at Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner.

****

Dennis Lehane shows amazing versatility in his new novel, The Given Day. While it is no Mystic River, it is also not Gone Baby Gone. He has elevated his writing to near "liter-ahry" greatness.

Boston, 1918. Danny Coughlin works his police beat with dreams of getting his gold badge through hard work and the help of his infamous father, Thomas Coughlin. He lives with Italians, minds his Irish roots, and busts Bolsheviks.

Tulsa, 1918. Luther Lawrence is trying to make something of his new life with a wife and baby on the way. However, there is only so much that Tulsa offers black Americans besides his job as an elevator operator, but Luther's choices send him all the way to Boston to live a life on the lam.

Lehane weaves the stories of these two men with historical elements like the molasses flood, outbreak of Spanish flu, and Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox. As a teacher and writer, I dissected his chapters to try to find out what made the heart beat. It's simple, really... have an eye for stunning juxtapositions between fact and fiction and have an ear for incredibly realistic dialogue. However, as a reader, I just devoured this book in a day and a half. Gulp. Yum.

4.5 out of 5.0 Boston Golds.

Gish Jen/MONA IN THE PROMISED LAND

In 1968 in New York-area suburbia, Mona Chang decides to become a Jew. This news does not go down well with her parents, Chinese immigrants who run a pancake shop and can't understand Mona's desire to be Jewish anymore than they can understand their older daughter Callie's desire to be more Chinese. But perhaps the worst repercussion of Mona's conversion is that it attracts the attention of a college-dropout psuedo-intellectual named Seth, who is desperately beguiled by what he perceives as Mona's radical desire to thwart the establishment. Over one confusing and character-building summer, Mona, Seth, Mona's friend Barbara, Callie, Callie's roommate Naomi, Barbara's cousin Evie, Mona's parent's restaurant's cook Alfred, and a whole bunch of other people have a whole lot of adventures and misadventures in Suburbia. During a summer when race and race relations are the country's biggest news, Chinese, Black, Wasp, and Jewish must decide whether they like one another, how much, and why.

I liked this book, particularly for the writing. Gish Jen is a relentlessly original writer, and one of the charms about the book is the language of the narration, which mimics something between the second-language English an immigrant might speak and hallmarks of American Jewish Language, which I thought was terribly clever of her. Mona is also the kind of sixteen-year-old you can't help but wish you had been, with enough presence of mind and mouth to talk back smartly to people and a set of over-thought values that lead her into familiar shenanigans.

I did think, however, that an awful lot was tackled in this book, maybe more than the premise could comfortably contain, and there were times when I felt like I was reading more of a fable or a satire than a novel. The race conversations came on strong and many and were a little hard for me to read, and the ending made me a little sad. I'm glad I read it, but I do wish it had been a little less densely packed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stephen Mansfield/THE FAITH OF BARACK OBAMA


A fascinating study of the factors that have influenced the faith of the president elect. Mansfield discusses Obama's Muslim stepfather and humanist mother, his radical pastor at Trinity Church, his conversion to Christianity, and his self-proclaimed doubts about some tenets of his religion.

Mansfield illuminates the reason for Obama's skeptical approach to his Christian faith by explaining how Obama's mother taught him to respect all religions--but not subscribe to any. (Obama, however, became a Christian as an adult). Mansfield further shows how Obama's post-modern approach to faith, his "picking and choosing" of which parts of Christianity to embrace, has not only connected with young voters but has also provided a basis for Obama's approach to the intersection of church and state.

Readers will probably be most interested in the chapter about Obama's pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, a church Obama attended for over twenty years. Jeremiah Wright became a controversial figure in the media for condemning his country, and Obama ultimately left the church and spoke out against his pastor's statements. Mansfield takes an in-depth look at the character and teachings of Wright in order to shed light on why Obama first considered Wright a mentor and later left Wright's church.

Vague wording and convoluted sentence structure make some sections of this book difficult to follow, but its study of the many contradictions (belief and doubt, detachment and community) that forged Obama's faith is well-executed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rajaa Alsanea/GIRLS OF RIYADH

An anonymous female internet user sends highly controversial emails every Friday to a mushrooming group of Saudi readers. In the emails, she recounts the adventures of four of her friends, all upper-crust urban girls in their late teens, who are on the cusp of pursuing marriages and/or university degrees. The anonymous blogger broaches ideas of love, heartbreak, marriage, and faith, claiming to speak out for Saudi women everywhere when she gets backlash from her readership, who criticize her morality and religiosity.

I recommend this book because it was illuminating. I haven't been able to classify it as "good" or "very good" or "very bad" or anything; I'm simply not prepared to make a judgment call. Here's why. The content, in theory, could be construed as trashy--the girls in question are all rolling in money, and yet this fact is never acknowledged (sure, they all have personal drivers who wait for them literally around the clock--it's never questioned in the book that "everyone" and certainly every good Saudi woman has a driver). The girls all declare that they love Sex & the City, and this is without a trace of irony or self-reflection (one girl, Gamrah, insists on watching all the episodes even though she doesn't understand English and has no clue what they're saying). So the book is, on the one hand, an answer to chick lit.

On the other hand, the content is, as I mentioned, illuminating. Although the writing didn't really hold me--the translation is very readable and conversational, but I don't think high art was the aim of the prose--and sometimes the girls' attitudes toward themselves frustrated me, I learned a lot about a culture that I think is difficult to absorb in positive pop culture. This was a book written by a Saudi and for Saudis, unlike so many of the books about the Middle East that play on themes of escape and oppression in order to appeal to American audiences. Although Alsanea is critical of her own society in Girls of Riyadh, her take on modern Islam is a totally different animal than a book like Kite Runner--which, incidentally, I love--can ever offer. It's missing the degree of alientation any book written FOR a foreign culture necessarily imposes.

I don't want to go on and on here, although I have a lot more to say about the book. If anyone else has read it, leave me a comment...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Anya Ulinich/PETROPOLIS

Sasha Goldberg is a complicated antihero: the daughter of a black man who was adopted by a Jewish couple growing up at the very end of the Soviet era in a scrabbling Siberian town that just barely feeds itself by mining asbestos, Sasha has any number of factors working against her. She wants to be an artist, but she's not very talented; she's not quite savvy enough to avoid getting herself into some life-altering jams. In the end, she decides to go to America as a mail order bride.

I enjoyed reading Petropolis. It was billed to me as a modern satire, and so I was highly skeptical about it, but although the characters are often larger (or fatter or louder or more ridiculous) than life, it is really more of a straight-up novel, the story of a girl from Russia whose hapless story offers a sharp critique of Soviet, post-Soviet, and American culture.

What I liked best about the book was the writing. The author's voice is tight and original, which is even more impressive to me because I know that she, like her narrator, came to America as a young adult. There is not so much an umbrella plot that ties up neatly as there is an ambient feel that you, the reader, are simply experiencing a piece of Sasha's saga. While this might frustrate some readers, it makes the reality of the story a little more vivid.

I really, really wish, though, that someone had stopped her from rotating tense--the first part in past tense, the second in present, etc. Why can't you just commit to one? Why? Alas.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kate Teltscher/THE HIGH ROAD TO CHINA

Kate Teltscher is a British academic, a professor of English literature who specialises in travel writing of the colonial period, particularly in India. Here she has produced a fascinating and highly readable account of the life of George Bogle, a young Scot who went to India in 1770 in the service of the East India Company. His diligence soon recommended him to the Company's powerful governor, Warren Hastings, and a few years later he was selected by Hastings to go on an important mission to Bhutan and Tibet - the first Briton ever to visit those countries.

The hope of the mission was not just to open up these regions to trade with British-ruled Bengal, but - more ambitiously - to establish indirect diplomatic links to Qianlong, the Emperor of China, via the Panchen Lama, then the most active and influential leader in Tibet (although the nominal ruler of the country was the regent of the child Dalai Lama; and, as a client kingdom of China's Qing Empire, the country was closely supervised by a pair of Chinese ambassadors - all three of whom were strongly inimical to the idea of a British interest in the country).

Bogle stayed with the Panchen Lama throughout the winter, and struck up a very cordial relationship with him. Despite the political difficulties it might create for him, the Lama agreed to represent the British requests to the Chinese Emperor (but, alas, his efforts came to naught - and a couple of generations later, the continuing diplomatic impasse on trade issues between the British and Chinese Empires would result in the Opium Wars).

Bogle was a meticulous observer of all that he encountered on his journey, and the story is usually most appealing when Teltscher quotes directly from his notebooks and his letters to his family. Indeed, poor Bogle's observations on his travels were so voluminous that he never managed to fulfill his patron's hope that he would be able to wrangle them into a publishable account (they were not, in fact, edited for publication until a century later).

However, perhaps of more interest than the travelogue is the political background of the period - both the vicious in-fighting within the East India Company which for a while rendered Hastings almost impotent and thwarted the advancement of Bogle's career, and the numerous intrigues, feuds, coups and wars amongst the native potentates of the region.

In Bogle's private correspondence we learn a lot about the warmth of his relationships with family and friends (and how difficult it could be to maintain these links when separated by such great distances). We also realise the enormous pressure he is under to make a success of his career in the colonies in order to redeem his family's fortunes (ruined by a financial scandal, the 'economic meltdown' of its day). And we are reminded of the hardships of life in a strange land at this time: the mortality rate amongst East India Company employees is quite terrifying, with many succumbing to disease within just a few months or years of arriving in Calcutta. Most intriguing of all, though, is what Bogle manages to suppress from his writing: his native mistresses and illegitimate children (a commonplace amongst Company employees) find no mention - and an old family story that he had an affair with a Tibetan woman, perhaps one of the Panchen Lama's sisters, must remain unsubstantiated.

The narrative drags very slightly at times (rather a lot of descriptions of mountain scenery, that I would prefer to have seen in direct quotation from Bogle's writing), but in general it is lively and easy to read. It might perhaps be of limited appeal to the general reader, but for anyone interested in Tibet, British colonial history, or early travel writing, it is to be highly recommended.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum


Newer mystery by a Norwegian author. Fifteen year old girl is murdered in a small town where everyone knows each other.

I really enjoyed this book. I wanted a glimpse into the lives of everyday Norwegians & was intrigued that murder could really happen in such a passive country. The characters were fine; the writing was well thought out for a mystery....all the right elements. I would definitely like to read more of Fossum's novels. I do hope that she is less kind in her treatment of the victims. She must be a mother. I am a mother, too, and although I would never write a mystery, when I read one (P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh.....) I find it more credible when the victims have suffered so that in the end, there is more gratification when the perpetrator is brought to justice.

Friday, November 7, 2008

William Paul McKay and Ken Abraham/BILLY


Billy is a biography of famous evangelist Billy Graham told in novelized form. The story of Graham's early years in ministry is told from the point of view of an ailing Charles Templeton, a former partner in Graham's work who recalls how he turned from his faith and criticized Graham for committing intellectual suicide by believing in the infallibility of the Bible.

Although biographies of Billy Graham are not in short supply (and Graham published his own memoir Just As I Am in 1997), this book centers specifically around Templeton's influence on the evangelist, and the crisis of faith it brought on just before Graham's career-boosting evangelism campaign in Los Angeles in 1949.

The prose is rather meticulous and heavy-handed, but the story is absorbing. Graham is presented as saint-like, yet humble and ordinary; Templeton, a powerful and in-demand speaker even before Graham started his ministry, is made out to be an arrogant villain who considers Graham beneath him. Oddly, the climax of the story switches to the point of view of Lucifer, and describes demonic and angelic activity surrounding Graham as he struggles with (and ultimately overcomes) doubts about the authority of the Bible. However, I found the story to be quite interesting and the contrast between Graham and Templeton to be enlightening, even if a bit extreme.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Alice Mattison/NOTHING IS QUITE FORGOTTEN IN BROOKLYN

In 1989, the worst week of Constance Tepper's life begins when her purse is stolen while she's cat-sitting at her elderly mother's Brooklyn. Fourteen years later, in another Brooklyn apartment, Con finds her weekend crowded by her underachieving 29-year-old daughter, Joanna; her mildly annoying amateur historian ex husband, Jerry; her late mother's pushy neighbor, Peggy; and, most problematically, Marlene, her mother's best friend and Con's long-time idol. The combination of personalities begin to jostle all kinds of suppressed histories, from 1989 to 1942 to 1927, and, it turns out, nothing is ever quite forgotten in Brooklyn.

Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn is quiet and absorbing, a quick page-turner that revels in the honest details of our everyday lives and the mediocre motivations that inspire our actions (but, more often, our inertias). In a cast of very average and yet interesting characters, Mattison creates a stupor under which something dark is bubbling, just out of reach. As the reader experiences two incredibly mundane weeks in Con's life, it becomes clear that there's something much more sinister going on, if only Con would make herself ask the right questions, but for much of the book it's an itch that has to go unscratched for the reader as Con, so close to catching onto the full story, instead chooses to think about things like when she's going to use up the chopped meat she bought. The effect is spellbinding and infuriating; it becomes impossible not to finish reading in a big hurry.

For me, the most effective point of the novel is the idea of surpressed memory, which is something novels systematically ignore. I'll quote here instead of paraphrasing poorly:
As I've said, this is anot a story about memory, and in November, 2003, Con hadn't been thinking about the week in 1989 that I've chronicled. If anything this is a story about forgetting. Con had forgotten that week as much as it is possible to do so. I don't blame her. Fourteen and a half years had passed. If we're accustomed to reading novels, we're used to stories told by someone who remembers, much later, the order of events, who said what, and how each person moved and gestured. Of course we all have detailed, possibly accurate memories of striking scenes from the past--but not of what happened an hour later, or the next morning. In real life, aside from vivid flashes, we usually can't remember the exact words of a conversation we had minutes ago. We remember, a week or a year later, that someone's story made us uncomfortable, but not necessarily why, or what the story was about. So, Con had forgotten a great deal, but any of us might have done the same.(174)

Con's character nearly survives the entire book without ever scratching the itch that's so obvious to the reader; of course, it'd obvious to us because we see her past clearly around her while she simply doesn't.

Why did Mattison have to remind us of this? How could I never have come across this concept in a novel before? We never ask ourselves how heros and heroines experience scene after scene so vividly; in real life, we never sustain that level of presence in action for such a long period of time, and as such most real drama is simply de facto, the upshot of other things that we just become too tired to think about.

A smart read. Give it a go.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

CRASH TEST/Hobson Brown, Taylor Materne, Caroline Says


This semester at Wellington, everyone's feeling the pressure. Laine feels like she has to take things farther with Noah then she wants to go. Noah's desperate not to screw things up with the one girl he might have a chance with. Chase can't stand ex-girlfriend Parker's hateful stares. And Parker's dealing with the pressures of private school in ways that are starting to spin her out of control.

Crash Test has everything you'd expect from a novel with snotty schoolgirls on the cover: sex, drugs, and Interpol. But the story is told in language so beautiful I could frame the pages. The style, quick-moving story, and multi-dimensional characters reeled me in fast--I read almost the whole book in one day. The ending dragged on a bit, but I enjoyed the book so much that I'm about to hunt down the rest in the Upper Class series (this one is the fourth).

One last note: it's too bad these books have only girls on the cover because Crash Test, at least, could just as easily appeal to boys.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Arthur Phillips/PRAGUE


John Price, a 24-year-old American virgin, decides to relocate to Budapest when he finds out his older brother (who hates him) has started teaching English there. John, the new expat, quickly finds himself a journalist job and a set of English speakers to fill his time--his hateful brother, a overweight gay Canadian with a fetish for the lost past, a guileless midwestern girl with whom he falls hopelessly in love, a 72-year-old jazz piano player in a slinky red dress, and a soulless Hungarian American entrepreneur. As a year passes, John learns about love, sex, truth, history, art, music, and culture. Or doesn't learn, as the case may be.

This book got pretty rhapsodic reviews from every major reviewing venue back when it was published in 2002, but somehow it missed me. It's too bad, because I felt like Phillips had the makings of a great story rich in Hungarian history and an eye-opening critique of the dissolution of the Soviet empire and what exactly Americans let themselves get away with abroad. But the book was unfortunately too long, too sprawling, and often self-indulgent in the content (there were long passages that shouldn't have made the final draft). Parts also read a little too closely to a frat boy's erotic fantasy than I was quite comfortable with (anyone else feel this way?).

I also tend to enjoy a book when I know more about the author and find I like what I learn about him/her. Unfortunately, Phillips's interview in the reader's guide at the back of the book made me think he must be an insufferable human being whom (much like several of his characters) I would want to strangle if I were forced to sit through, say, a beer with him.

For example, the question was "How did you come up with the idea...?" and the answer reads
"Ah yes, my brilliant idea... however did I come up with it? Well, that's an interesting story. The short answer is that I have no idea. The longer answer is that I really have no idea..." (etc)

Ugh. Among other ughs. One of those instances I wish I hadn't know about the author. The bio in the front of the book didn't help, either.

There were also some problems for me in narrative arc--there was nothing binding the story together from beginning to end, except perhaps John's presence in Budapest, but ostensibly (at least as the book set itself down, including in its rotating narrative) this was an ensemble piece. The most interesting character by far was Mark, the Canadian nostalgist, but his thread of the story is abandoned without apology about halfway through.

All this vented--I must now admit that I quite enjoyed most of it. There were some stunning and laugh-out-loud funny passages that made me glad I'd persevered in reading. In many instances, Phillips exhibits that post-Dickensian (adverb-heavy) turn of clever phrase I love so much. There are wise and/or snarky observations throughout, as well, even if their impact is somewhat diluted by the less resonant content that populates the book.

For example, I was tickled by this post-coital reflection of John's:
"By then, John understood that some things mattered and some things did not and that happy people in this world were those who could easily and rapidly distinguish between the two. The term unhappiness referred to the feeling of taking the wrong things seriously."

So simple, so true.

Mark, the best character, leaves some real gems in his conversations and journals.
"Ponder this: a teenager in 1953 Hungary rebels against the fools who teach him and the foolish peers who sheepily go along with the Party line. It turns out, thirty-six years later, that that rebellious teenager was a moral, a hero of conscience. Question: Had he grown up in Canada, would he have rebelled anyhow just because he was a teenager? Survey thought: Is there a higher degree of nostalgia for adolescence among people who, retrospectively, turn out to have been adolescents under a system subsequently acknowledged to be immoral?" (269)

There's also a brilliant passage about "good old day"ism on page 213, which is worth reading by itself even if you never get to the rest of the book.

So, overall... worth reading, but annoying, but worth reading. I feel like the content I did get out of it made me a better person. And he does have some very nice language tricks. If you do read it or have read it, let me know so we can discuss. Also, has anyone read EGYPTOLOGIST? After my reaction to this one I can't decide whether I should or not.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri/UNACCUSTOMED EARTH

There's no point, I thought to myself for six months, in reading something by an established author whose latest work everyone is raving about--I won't have anything new to add to the discussion, surely, and besides, I'll probably be disappointed because there was so much hype.

Which is why Unaccustomed Earth sat on the floor of my office for six months before I finally decided I needed to read it (having already blown the money on a hardcover).

Yeah, well. I literally couldn't put it down. My mother was visiting this weekend and I found myself sneaking off to read it late into the night after she went to bed. I gave her the copy to read on her return trip.

Jhumpa Lahiri got some flack from some people back in early 2008 when this book was first published--why does she keep writing about upper middle-class Bengali immigrants? What does that have to do with most Americans? Her stock answer, which she sticks by, is she doesn't care what people think, she writes for herself. If people like what she publishes, great. If they find something in it that resonates, bully for them. (Check out this New York magazine article.)

And it's true I don't have an awful lot of Bengali or immigrant in me (read: 0%) and yet somehow she hits a nerve with every story. I'm not sure I can put my finger on why--I don't respond to her stylistically, the way I do to, say, [my imaginary boyfriend] Michael Chabon. I think it's more about her content--there's a sinker in every plot line that makes it go straight into my brain.

In Unaccustomed Earth, for example, there was a particular story that I reacted to on an extremely personal level. I read it several times because I was so surprised by it. I won't say which story it was for me, because I suspect that the story will vary depending on the reader--there was another story I responded to strongly because it reminded me of a close friend's situation.

Anyway. I can't think of anyone I wouldn't recommend this book to. I don't feel that way often.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Booker prize 2008

Aravind Adiga, a debut novelist wins the Booker prize this year for his book, the White Tiger.
Incidentally I reviewed this book on this blog a while ago, when I experimented reading all the Booker prize nominees (the other book I read at the same time was Child 44)

http://thebookbook.blogspot.com/2008/09/white-tiger-by-aravind-adiga.html

I'm still ambivalent about this prize. Anyone else has a take on this?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lynne Spears/THROUGH THE STORM


Lynne Spears warns in the introduction of her book that it's not a "juicy tell-all," and the truth is that readers won't be privileged to much inside information on her famous daughters, Britney and Jamie Lynn. Instead, this memoir tells the story of a relatable woman dealing with both the ordinary and extrordinary challenges of raising her famous children.

The first half of the book paints a picture of a simple life in the South--complete with crawdad cookouts--punctuated by the grief of living with an alcoholic husband and keeping creditors at bay. Some of Britney's early experiences with audtions and talent shows are mentioned, and Spears often asserts that she never pushed her daughter into show business and never guessed at the level of fame Britney would attain. She spends much time alluding to the hardships that would come later, but most of the early chapters of the book focus on Lynne Spears' personal ups and downs dealing with ailing family members and the task of raising three children alongside an alcoholic husband.

The rest of the book discusses how Spears and her family have dealt with the whirlwind of fame. Spears touches on experiences with Britney's budding career, admitting her own naivete at handling her daughter's rise to fame. For example, she allowed Rolling Stone to do a photo shoot in Britney's bedroom and then was shocked to find that instead of taking pictures of Britney amid her stuffed animals and posters, the photographer was capturing shots of the then seventeen-year-old in a bra and hot pants. Spears also discusses younger daughter Jamie Lynn's rise and fall, which culminates in the teen's pregnancy.

While most of the book is surprisingly quiet, revealing no real shocking details, it reaches a page-turning climax with Spears' recounting of the flurry of events surrounding Britney's forced institutionalizations. Spears chronicles the disturbing influence of Sam Lutfi, a paparazzo who supposedly had Britney under lock and key and even want so far as to allegedly crush perscription pills and put them in Britney's food.

Overall, Spears comes across as a likeable women telling her story in a quaint, come-sit-on-the-porch-and-listen-a-while kind of way. She defends the role she has played in her daughters's careers but also admits her faults as a mother and emphasizes her faith. One of the appeals of the book is that Spears makes her story sound like it could have happened to anyone. Ultimately, the spirit of the book is captured in a suprising wish Spears has for daughter Britney: to throw off the "breathy, super-produced pop-voice given to her by record producers" and regain her "strong, true voice again, in more ways than one."

Read an excerpt here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Oops.

My apologies! If anyone was confused by a personal post that was up here, I totally posted to the wrong blog and didn't even realize it! It has been deleted and posted up in my personal blog now. Sorry about that!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Junichiro Tanizaki/THE MAKIOKA SISTERS


In the late 1930s, Sachiko Makioka, the second daughter in the once-great Makioka family, is just about driven batty trying to solve her family's complicated problems. Yukiko, the older of her two younger sisters, is dangerously close to becoming an old maid, having reached 30 with nothing but failed marriage negotiations, but her older sister, Tsuruko, has the final say in who Yukiko can marry, is totally out of touch with the realities of modern society and seems to thwart Sachiko and her kindly husband's good efforts at every turn. Her youngest sister, Taeko, impatient to carry out her own marriage, which she has been waiting for for a decade, seems to be on the verge of resorting to behavior that could ruin the whole family. As Osaka is afflicted by flood and impending war, Sachiko battles her stubborn, old-fashioned family, all of whom she loves dearly, and tries to get them to do what's best for themselves.

The Makioka Sisters is Tanizaki's classic, probably his most famous book in translation, at least, and I had wanted to set aside the time to read it for awhile now. It's a big project--it's a long book, and the read feels as rich and decadent as the family it describes. There is a lot of clever humor, but it's hidden in Tanizaki's very subtle relation of tiny--even "mundane"--details, and an impatient reader will miss most of what makes this book worthwhile. I would recommend taking it up when you have time to savor. It's certainly a rewarding read, however, especially if you have any interest in Japanese culture. Fans of Memoirs of a Geisha will recognize a lot of threads and themes, since The Makioka Sisters is the original treatment of upper-class women in the years before World War II, and Arthur Golden was probably inspired by this book, which was composed between 1943 and 1947.

For me, one of the most wonderful aspects of the book is how focused on real-life problems it is. There is no high drama or unrealistic plot twist. Some proof: without ruining the book at all, you might flip to the last page and read the last sentence, which recounts the unfortunate fact that one character gets on a train to visit Tokyo and unfortunately has diarrhea the whole journey. I love that Tanikai chooses to end on this note, this utterly mundane but realistic problem, and that the overall feeling is "life goes on"--you've simply been allowed to see a couple of years in the lives of these very real characters.

Dashiell Hammet/THE THIN MAN


A murder investigation brings former detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora into contact with a score of unsavory characters, including a trigger-happy mobster, a vindictive divorcee, and a morbid young would-be sleuth.

Sparse prose, snappy dialog, misty-eyed monologues--this book has all the best elements of a hard-boiled detective story. I'll admit, though, that the ever-shifting suspicion lost me more than once. The ending had an interesting reveal, but one I couldn't have even tried to puzzle out myself since I couldn't keep track of all the characters or their motivations.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Islandia By Austin Tappin Wright



This book was published in 1942, eleven years after Wright's death. I first read it in 1946.
I was nineteen and had just arrived in Bad Kissingen, Germany when a good friend sent it to me. I reread it and share it with special people and I always wondered how many others have found the novel to be as fascinating as I found it. I hope that you will induldge me .


The novel made quite an impression on me; I would imagine myself as John Lang meeting and making friends with Dorn, a person from a strange foreign land, learning his language and talking about his country and becoming good friends, and then accepting a post as Consul to his country where new mores´ and customs must be learned. I throughly enjoyed the story, the imaginary world and the strong characters. Wright's women characters are those that, probably, he and certainly, I, would want to meet and know. He was many years ahead in his attitude toward women. It is an adventure, and there is war and politics and unrequited love. Wright spent most of his life creating his Islandia; too bad it existed only in his mind. I would have liked to visit there.

Lang's uncle was instrumental in his getting the post because he and a group of major business players wanted to get trade going with Islandia in spite of the fact that the Islandian people for the most part, do not want trade and do not welcome foreigners. Lang will find himself being pulled in different directions by the pressure that his uncle and various visiting business people put on him and his loyalty to his friend and his growing understanding of the people and the land of Islandia. I thought it interesting that A.T. Wright created for his country the " Hundred Law" which limited access to Islandia to one hundred visitors at anyone time. He also expressed concern for the exploitation of timber and resources, over population and pollution - this was back in the 30's or even earlier!

It may have been 20 years ago when I last rereread the novel but I read it again recently; I am still captivated by the places and the people. The Fains, The Hyths, The Dorns, The Somes, exclusionists all, the conservative Westerners that are opposed to a pending treaty which would open the country to foreigners. These folks have been on their farms for more than 400 years (one, a thousand years). No telephones no telegraphs; people wrote letters! They made do without what was considered modern conveniences back then; why, I am not sure because Wright was from a wealthy family and did not lack for luxuries.

Then there are the Moras of the East, strong political factions that want trade and argued vigorously for it in council. The possibility of a Trade Treaty was one of the main themes of the novel.

Wright made no mention of a formal religion except that the people of Islandia must have had some bad experiences with Christian missionaries because they were banned from the country. They had several words for love: "alia" for love of place and lineage, "ania" for commitment and desire for marriage and "apia" for sexual attraction and another word, "linamia" to designate a strong affection for a person of either sex.

I became John Lang and lived the story; Dorn and Dorna , his sister ,were very real persons to me. The intrigues , the passions and the dialog were mine to savor; happiness and sadness, hope and despair. I sometimes, tried to fit real life people into the various roles, I often wonder about "linamia", I think, that in these times, it is, sadly, very difficult to really get to know someone well enough to find the strong affection that the term denotes.

It is a very long story and Wright often goes too far in his detailed descriptions of everything. He is the kind of guy if you asked what time it is he would tell you how to build a watch. But it was a labor of love and he cared deeply for every place and every person in Islandia and I count it among my most favored novels.

The Tenth Case By Joseph Teller


This is the first novel by Joseph Teller, a former undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics, and a trial lawyer for many years, who uses his experience and skills to create which may be an alter ego protagonist, Harrison J. Walker, “Jaywalker”. I was fortunate to read an advance copy.

Readers have many choices when it comes to Police detectives, private investigators, and lawyers solving, investigating and either prosecuting or defending and most are carrying some kind of baggage or have an attitude. If the author is good, we want to read more; best examples are Patterson’s Alex Cross or Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme. I liked Teller’s Jaywalker, he‘s a likeable “good guy”.

Jaywalker is a maverick New York lawyer who honed his skills as a public defender and is the kind of lawyer you would want if you run afoul of the law – some one who, really, cares and is not afraid to “bend a few rules” if it will get his client free. His success ratio is in the high 90’s.

Jaywalker is in trouble; his reputation and a perceived unseemly action with a female client have caused the court to suspend his license for a period of three years. The suspension does not, particularly, bother Jaywalker but he is concerned about the clients that are depending on him so he strikes a bargain with the court who allows him to select ten cases to bring to conclusion. It takes a while to work them out but his last one, The Tenth Case, a murder, will become the most challenging and difficult case he has tackled. His client, a beautiful young woman, is accused of stabbing her husband. The woman, Samara Moss, former Las Vegas showgirl and some time prostitute, married billionaire Barry Tannenbaum, three times divorced and 44 years older than her. The marriage lasted eight years although after the first few months, they set up separate households and Samara spent his money and slept around as she was wont to do. Husband and wife met social obligations together but lived apart. Jaywalker had defended Samara on a drunk driving charge when she totaled Barry’s $400,000 Lamborghini and was very well compensated but this time, Jaywalker will have to settle for the same wages that a public defender would get.

The problem with the case was “why?”; Samara had it made, she has money, clothes and total freedom to do what she wishes. The evidence against her was overwhelming and most of it was found in her own home. There was also an application signed by Samara dated shortly before his murder for a six month life insurance policy in the amount of $25,000,000 on Barry. Samara denies her guilt.

The characters are carefully developed and the plot and the action moves fast and smoothly. This became a very suspenseful novel.


The court drama was interesting, we follow the preparation, dialogue and interaction between the prosecutor and Jaywalker and the Judge and I was never certain about the outcome. I found it hard to put the book down until I finished it. MIRA Books is ready to publish another “Jaywalker” novel, I look forward to reading it

Monday, September 29, 2008

Curtis Sittenfeld/PREP


Sometime in the 90s, a smartypants from the midwest who wants more than her public high school has to offer secures herself a scholarship to an elite boarding school in Massachusetts that is peopled mainly by the children of extreme privelege. There, Lee finds herself an underachiever and an outsider, quite unlike the person she was at home. Lee chronicles her four years at Ault, her misery, loneliness, failure, abortive friendships and romantic relationships, and estrangements from her family and the people who once loved her, all the price of the top-notch education she's supposedly getting.

I realize now that Angelle reviewed this book almost a year ago. Her review, although brief, captures many of my sentiments. PREP, while not at all poorly written, is not such a literary gem that it wasn't too long by half, and I found myself impatient and dying to start skimming only a quarter of the way through.

As Angelle cited in her review, the book is told in vignettes. Over four years, many plot lines and characters are introduced, but almost everything is in passing. Although this is not unlike the real high school experience (remember how your best friend freshman year is just the girl who sits next to you but whom you never talk to by junior year? Yeah, I guess it really is pretty on target), it is a little difficult to sustain interest over an entire 450-page novel when there is little to no continuity among characters or plot. In fact, one of the only continuous elements in the book is Lee's cringeworthy behavior.

Despite what I've said so far, PREP wasn't a terrible read. The real trouble (after the lack of continuity) was that there was no redemption or any uplifting aspect too it--I kept find myself waiting for Lee to finally claim a victory over her snotty classmates or at least over her own self-defeatism, but alas, the day never came. Perhaps this can be ascribed to Sittenfeld's accurate capturing of how horrible it is to be in high school. Unfortunately, it just fell too close to the bone, and without any forgiveness. The book literally caused me discomfort.

I am, nevertheless, curious about AMERICAN WIFE, her follow-up. Anyone read it?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga



A debut writer. A nominee for the Booker prize.The book takes a very simple plot and weaves into it, the complexities that surround modern India.

India is credited with having the economic boom of the century but little does the outside world realize that this economic surge hasn't reached out to the larger part of India's population. The rigid structures of society still prevail. Caste is part of breakfast, communalism is part of lunch and the idea of living as segregated communities is served over dinner.

The white tiger builds upon these structures. The story starts off as a letter that Balram writes to the Chinese supremo. His narrative is supposed to be the voice of the real India. The India that the prime minister would showcase is the icing on a rotten cake.

The white tiger is a story of Balram, currently a rich enterpreuner who hails from an underprivileged caste and an economically backward part of India. His ability to be a cut above the rest of the folks in his village earns him the title of the white tiger. The vision of his endangered self looms uneasily over his every action as he tries to break free from the chains rooted to the social structure of the country.

Aravind Adiga's use of dark comedy couldn't be more ideal. There are no heroes in this book. No good or bad, ethical or unethical. There is only the force of circumstance.

Its a pretty short book and it has enough elements in it to keep you glued at least until the first half. It flounders for a little while before picking up pace and ending in a very O. Henryish fashion.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Richard Russo/STRAIGHT MAN

Richard Russo is my favorite author. And I confess I only read books I enjoy (I cannot bring myself to finish reading a book I may consider a flotsam of syllables.) So I will tell you right now my next several reviews will be glowing reviews of Russo books.


Straight Man is a terrific read for anyone who is going through a mid-life crisis. Also for anyone who likes to laugh and cry at the same time.


The story is character-driven. It is told in first person, present tense (my favorite POV), and takes place over the course of a week. It is about Henry Deveraux Jr.

Henry is a professor in a small, nowhere town in Pennsylvania. He's the classic wise guy, and makes fun of himself and everyone around him. He hates his job, his students, and his coworkers. Well, maybe 'hates' is too strong a word. But the funny part is that most everyone likes him. Those who don't are trying to reform him.


It begins with Henry as a child wanting a dog. When the parents finally relent and get him a dog, it's more like a statue of a dog. It's so old it hardly moves. Except to take a few steps, then die. This is the parable for his life and for the week that this story is based on. Henry is about to lose his nothing job, is afraid he might have prostate cancer, and worries his wife might be having an affair. All of it told in dry, sardonic humor.



I laughed so hard, so many times. I love Russo's characters. They have real flaws and are true to life. My only complaint (and this is small) is that I feel his relationship with his wife is underdeveloped in this book. While his relationships are all at arms length, I wanted to see what would happen to Henry, the character, in an intimate relationship.



Straight Man. Go read it now. Then email me and we'll talk. I love this author.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ursula Vernon/NURK

Okay, here's a quick-brushstroke summary:

Cute little shrew named Nurk goes on a journey in the footsteps of his adventuring grandmother, sailing downriver in a boat made of a snail's shell. En route, he encounters the kingdom of the dragonflies, talking fish, frightening mushrooms, a mole the size of an asteroid, and many other obstacles. He becomes a hero, perhaps even one his grandmother would be proud of. Delightful drawings throughout.

How would YOU position such a book in the marketplace?

The publisher, Harcourt Children's Books, responds to that question: it's for ages 9-12.

Only, er, not. Or rather: not quite -- not without qualification.

Why? Mainly because Nurk (subtitle: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew) sprang from the mind and brush of Ursula Vernon, creator of the webcomic called Digger. If you've seen any of those comic strips (or the books created therefrom, or just about any of Vernon's artwork, for that matter), you know what to expect: small furry creatures, yes; cute? oh my, yes!

And yet...

...and yet, Vernon does have something of a twisted sense of humor. Consider, for example, an excerpt from the first couple pages. At this point, you've just read a brief, lyrical passage about the tree in which Nurk lives and the stream which flows by it, a passage which itself stops just this side of precious. And then you continue on:
More than anything, Nurk wanted to be like his grandmother Surka the warrior shrew. Surka had been a fighter, a dishwasher, and a pirate queen, and he was very proud to be related to her. Her portrait hung in the front hallway, and it was the first thing anyone ever saw when they entered his house. (Since the portrait showed her brandishing a severed head, this was a bit of a shock for first-time visitors...)
The "dishwasher" in the middle of the grandmother's resume will be the first snag for a careful reader's attention. And then there's the severed head, of course, references to which will appear throughout the book, beginning with the very next paragraph. These are the first signs the story -- the shrew, and the reader -- might be in the hands of a children's-book author with a fondness for anarchy.

A little later, Nurk is admonished by a hummingbird mail carrier. It seems a letter which he has just delivered to Nurk might or might not actually be to Nurk. (The address is smudged and not quite legible.) The hummingbird reminds Nurk that if he opens "a letter intended for someone else, you've committed theft and mail fraud and misrepresentation and swindling a public employee and using a false name and maybe even treason."

This passage presents several problems for any reader expecting Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. The syntax and diction, for instance, rather push the limit of what might be considered classic style for pastoral children's literature. (As anyone who's read anything by Vernon can attest, she is every bit as much a writer as an artist.) And the introduction of treason at the end of the list verges on (gasp!) political satire, which some parents might not consider appropriate for the 9-12 age group.

When you dive into Nurk, then, you should forget all about Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh and Frog and Toad and the rest. Those aren't in Nurk's category -- its family, really. You want to know the real genetic relative? The Shrek movies.

Which is to say: Nurk stubbornly declines to talk down to kids. Furthermore, it offers subversive rewards to adults, packaged in an exciting adventure story for the kiddies. It would be, really, a waste if only kiddies were to read it: the ideal audience is a child and a parent taking turns reading the story aloud. At least, as long as the parent braces himself for many questions along the lines of, "Why did you laugh just then, Daddy?" If you're not the sort of parent comfortable with such questions, you might want to reconsider Nurk.

Nurk faces the mushroomsBut before making up your mind for good, please consider too the drawings accompanying the text. These (except for the cover) are all in black-and-white, and on average you'll find one full-page illustration per each of the dozen chapters. (A sample is at the right; click on it for a larger view.)

Note the way this fairly simple picture captures the shrew's-eye view of the world -- a world in which mushrooms loom like Sequoias. Note the way that with a few strokes of a pen, Vernon has captured the trepidation of the creature about to enter this dark forest: his head tilted back, his mouth shrunken to a pinpoint, his forepaws held up at chest height. You can almost hear the "gulp." (And don't forget to notice the perfectly scaled little backpack, either -- a detail that another author/artist might have left out altogether, or exaggerated up or down.)

Between the text and the art, what you've got in Nurk is an adventure for sophisticated kids and their parents -- anyone, really, who can face big ideas, occasional big words or sentences, and yet (while swallowing a "gulp!" of their own) still soldier on.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lisa Gardner/THE KILLING HOUR

I'm not usually a big thriller/romantic suspense reader but I'm trying to expand my horizons, and I expanded them into Lisa Gardner's THE KILLING HOUR. I'm glad I did. This is apparently a sequel to THE NEXT ACCIDENT, but I didn't have any trouble following along without having read that book.

Five years ago, pairs of women in Georgia were kidnapped, usually after leaving a bar. One would be killed right away and dumped in a public location. On her body would be clues (leaves, rocks, etc.) to lead investigators to the other woman: who'd been left in the blinding sun with only a bottle of water. At first the police didn't realize the items on the first bodies were clues, but eventually they did, and the second woman of the fourth pair kidnapped was rescued. The killer had murdered seven women, and the crime spree stopped.

When it starts again, the new body is dumped in an FBI training camp in Virginia, which naturally stirs up a lot of attention. Agent-in-training Kimberly Quincy finds the body, and winds up working with a Georgian investigator, Mac McCormack, to find the second woman before she dies.

The killer has a point of view in the story (always identified as 'the man'), as do Kimberly, Mac, and the second woman, Tina. There are a few other point of view characters as well, from time to time, and I did feel the cast was a bit larger than it needed to be.

The evidence left on the new body is considerably harder to interpret than the earlier evidence, and Kimberly and Mac find a variety of experts to interpret it. I didn't find this overdone, but it was close to the edge. A reference to "they show this being easy on those TV crime shows but it's just not" made me laugh, though.

There is a romantic subplot between Kimberly and Mac, and I could so have done without it. It didn't ring true to me, I didn't feel either of the characters would genuinely have been interested in each other, and it didn't have any impact on how the story unfolded. Fortunately, it was short.

By far the best parts of the story belonged to Tina. The killer dumps her in a hole somewhere, and her struggles to survive and not to let herself give up made my heart race every time.

Several main characters have had very traumatic pasts, and Gardner does a nice job of gradually revealing these, to the degree we need to know them, without being annoying by constantly teasing us by mentioning the past and not explaining it.

I did identify the killer before the investigation did, but only just. An earlier casual mention of something odd someone did had me on the wrong track for probably half the book, which was fun.

For what I'd expected to be a scary book, I wasn't scared. I am a grade-A chicken (I had to hide my eyes for part of "I, Robot", for crying out loud!) and I didn't find this book frightening. Sad, in that someone would use these innocent women to make a point (a point that was never 100% clear in my mind), but not frightening.

Still, I read it in one sitting, and I would read more by Lisa Gardner.