Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Audrey Niffenegger/THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE

Henry is a librarian who travels back (and sometimes forth) in time. His time travels are usually triggered by stress. His first time-travel experience occurred when he was in a car accident as a child and witnessed the death of his mother.

Clare is an upper-class Catholic girl who lives a comfortable life. She first sees Henry appear out of nowhere at the age of six. Henry becomes a secret and a mentor. He visits Clare often, until she's 18 and they endure a two year separation.


They fall in love. Henry continues to time travel--it's out of his control. Eventually he finds a doctor who identifies Henry's condition (he has a gene abnormality) and concocts various medicines to help Henry stay put. None of them work.

When Clare tells Henry she wants to have a baby, he initially agrees. But after seven miscarriages, he tells her they have to stop. But Henry time travels and has sex with Clare at a younger age, so she does get pregnant one more time--with a daughter who also time travels.


THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is ultimately a love story. It's told in first person, present. The POV shifts between Clare and Henry. The sections are dated, and out of chronological order. Reading each section independently is like viewing a work of art. The author puts the reader so completely in the moment with vivid, detailed description and honest portrayal of emotion. But the sections are short. I found myself getting annoyed at all the jumping around. I almost felt like the author couldn't carry this style of prose for an entire novel, so the sections became a gimmick. I would have preferred at least chapter-length dedications to a particular theme/piece. Also, I wasn't entirely buying the 'voices' between Henry and Clare. They sounded too similar. Also, Henry does a lot of drinking and loses himself for a few years. I wanted more story around this.

I would recommend the book, however. It is beautiful. Would I read it a second time? No. But I am so very glad I got through it once.

I rate it very good.


If you don't want to read it, you can wait for the movie, which I just found out should be coming June 2008.

The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier


Despite the enormous physical and mental challenge of solo round the world yacht racing, it doesn't make especially interesting reading. That's why, if you only ever read one round-the-world account in your life, you should make it Moitessier's.

On 28th May 1967 Francis Chichester sailed into Plymouth in the South of England. He had been at sea for 226 days and in that time he had circumnavigated the globe stopping only once in Australia for repairs. Chichester was knighted by the Queen for his achievement. His voyage captured the imagination not just of the sailing fraternity but the public at large and plans were immediately laid to establish a race to tackle the last great challenge of solo yacht racing: a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world.

Moitessier was an experienced sailor unlike many of the other competitors in the race. He was born in French Indochina and he had grown up in and around boats. He had also just returned from a return trip to Tahiti in his custom built steel ketch, Joshua. The Long Way begins just as he is leaving Plymouth and tells the story of his voyage.

At times this book can be slow. The story of any ocean voyage is inevitably the story of the weather and the wind. If you want to know what the weather was like in the southern ocean in 1968-9 then this is the book for you. Having said that, this is no simple day-by-day account. Moitessier mixes in personal recollections and philosophies as well as a keen appreciation of the nature which he encounters along the way.

The story takes an unexpected turn at the end. Moitessier, although he didn't know it, was in the lead as he made his way up the Atlantic when he suddenly decided to abandon the race and head for the Pacific again. He finally arrived in Tahiti on 21 June 1969 having been one and a half times around the world and having spent almost a year at sea.

One of the more extreme aspects of his voyage was that the only method he had of sending messages was by catapult. He deliberately did not take a radio. Instead he would photograph his log and then catapult the film onto the deck of any ships he met. In his whole voyage he only sent three such messages in almost a year at sea. He had a transistor radio but he never heard word of any of the other competitors and gave up listening to it in the Pacific.

The story itself is only 180 pages long but it is followed by a 70 page appendix about the technicalities of his voyage which I found very interesting. These were the days before GPS so Moitessier was navigating using methods which had been around for hundreds of years. Readers of Longitude might be surprised to realise that a clock was still crucial to navigation in 1968. Moitessier didn't like using his compass which was lucky because it rarely worked in his steel boat.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Ishmael Beah/A LONG WAY GONE

I could have sworn that someone else had already posted on here about this title, but I can't seem to find it now. Did I just imagine this somehow? Is there another book on child soldiers someone has discussed here?

(And, talking of other reviewers, where is everyone?? I can't believe that I am putting back-to-back posts up here - more than a week apart. Has everyone been too busy with Moonrat's literary competition? Or with catching up at work after the holidays? Or....?)

A Long Way Gone is an autobiographical memoir by Ishmael Beah about his experiences during the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s. When his village was attacked by rebel forces, he became separated from his family - at the age of just 12 - and spent the better part of a year forlornly wandering the countryside with a small group of other lost boys, barely warding off starvation and frequently facing suspicion, hostility, and even threats of execution from many of the villagers they encountered (who were mostly terrified that they might be the notoriously ruthless boy soldiers the rebels often used). Eventually they come to a village occupied by a squad of soldiers from the Sierra Leone Army, which appears to be their salvation. However, bitter fighting with the rebels is raging around the village, and the commander trains the boys to join his troops. Moreover, despite his protestations to the contrary, it soon becomes clear that this commander is using much the same tactics as the rebels, not only in making use of boy soldiers (most of whom are, like Ishmael, only in their early teens, and a couple of them even younger) but in the indiscriminate extermination of whole villages to deny refuge and resources to the other side. Ishmael and his friends, traumatized by the horrors they have seen perpetrated by the rebels and blaming them also for the presumed deaths of their families (although they never in fact find out what has finally happened to them), are easily indoctrinated into becoming merciless killers for the Army.

His two-year spell as a soldier is passed over relatively quickly - although some of the most brutal incidents from his experience then are prefigured in the early stages of the book or recounted in flashbacks in the final section. Oddly enough, I found the parts dealing with his wandering alone in the jungle at the beginning of his ordeal and the later period he spent in a UN rehabilitation centre much more compelling.

Ishmael Beah is clearly - and was, even as a child - an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive person; and his writing is quite impressive for a non-native speaker of English. However, I think this is a book to be recommended for its subject matter rather than brilliant literary style. The simplicity of expression becomes a little bit plodding at times; and there are a number of occasions where nuances of custom or gesture are insufficiently explained, or where snippets of patois are left frustratingly untranslated. There are also a few downright oddities of language, especially where he is trying to describe the physical sensations created by emotional states: phrases like "my veins tightened" or "my bones turned sour" may be striving for an imprecise, poetic evocativeness, but I'm afraid they just don't really mean anything to me. And he does repeatedly talk about "tapping" people on the shoulder when I think he means "patting" (Editor??). Nevertheless, this relatively unadorned style does help to create the sense of a child's viewpoint and reinforces the tale's authenticity.

I wouldn't say this was by any means a great book, but it is a heart-breaking story and an important topic - well worth a few hours of your time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mo Yan/THE GARLIC BALLADS

The peasant farmers of Paradise County - in an unidentified province of China - have a brutally hard life working on the land. One year, following local government directives, they devote most of their efforts to raising garlic; but, come harvest time, there is a glut, and when the government-run warehouses are full and refuse to purchase any more, many farmers face ruin. An impromptu riot ensues, in which the local government office building is sacked.

The novel follows the lives of three peasants imprisoned for their part in the riot. It's a fascinating glimpse of life in rural China; and, although it's set in the 1980s, during the early years of Deng Xiaoping's 'reform & opening up', in many ways the condition of Chinese farmers is unchanged 20 years on. Mismanagement, favouritism and corruption in local government are still rife. And the myriad fees and taxes that support this government can still be a crippling imposition (although recent reforms are finally supposed to be alleviating this burden). This book has apparently been banned in mainland China since it was written some 15 years ago (although it has, I believe, appeared here in magazines and unauthorised editions).

Mo Yan is perhaps the best-known of China's contemporary writers overseas, largely because of Zhang Yimou's film of his work Red Sorghum. However, I'm sorry to say that this is a book to be recommended for its subject-matter rather than its writing. The multiple narrative strands - and the frequent time-jumps, as the imprisoned peasants dream, daydream and reminisce - don't seem to serve any purpose; and the occasional switch to the first person is merely irritating, confusing. Sketching the political background to the story and prefiguring the riot in the brief quotations from the 'ballads' (the extemporaneous songs of the village's blind minstrel, Zhang Kou) which begin every chapter also seems a rather lame device; when the riot finally happens, it is an anti-climax. Prolonged descriptions of the scenery and of the characters' mental states soon become tedious because of the limited, repetitive vocabulary. And there is a prurient obsession with bodily functions that becomes almost comical - in addition to the beatings and other physical privations the characters suffer, they are always being assailed by constipation or intestinal gas, vomiting, unexplained nosebleeds, etc. And one of them is forced to drink his own urine - at three different stages in his life!

This is a book that cried out for some rigorous editing; but perhaps the translator was too reverential in approaching the work. Indeed, I lay a lot of the blame for the quality of the writing on the translator: there may be problems with the structure, the tone, the repetitiveness of the original, or with the paucity of its vocabulary - but this book just isn't written in very good English. Even at the level of basic copy-editing, there are numerous flaws - places where the English is inelegant, inept, or, occasionally, outright grammatically incorrect (and there is at least one instance where the wrong word is printed - "kept away" for "kept awake"; this kind of thing should not happen). One example of inexplicably poor writing that began to irritate me early on was the repeated use of the word 'chilled'. To my mind, certain drinks are 'chilled' - or perhaps the ambience of a trendy bar, or the demeanour of a laidback person. White wine is 'chilled'; sweat, urine, sweat, a lover's shoulder blade, sweat, gnat's piss (well, I think it's actually cicada's piss - but yes, all of these examples occur within a few pages of each other) are not 'chilled'; they might be 'chill', 'chilly', 'chilling', 'cool', or just plain 'cold', but they are not 'chilled'. Another bizarre ineptitude is that Zhang Kou the minstrel is two or three times described as 'strumming' his instrument; you play the erhu (a two-stringed upright fiddle) with a bow, you don't 'strum' it. I find this kind of thing quite flabbergasting.

The translator is Howard Goldblatt, a professor at Notre Dame who has pretty much cornered the market in translating contemporary Chinese literature - well, he tends to get first call on all the biggest projects (such as Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, which is set for a worldwide launch by Penguin this year). I think this is a pity because, impressive as his mastery of Chinese may be, on the evidence of this book and the couple of other things of his I've read, he's just not a very good writer.

This is a disappointing book, but it is a short read and provides interesting insights into Chinese life; it is thus worthwhile for anyone who's curious to learn more about modern China.

For such China-curious readers, I would like to recommend the website http://www.paperrepublic.org, a literary blog run by some young translator friends of mine which offers author profiles, interviews, and numerous short excerpts from the most interesting contemporary fiction and poetry in China. These are the kind of guys who are "waiting for Goldblatt to die". I think Chinese literature in translation would be getting a lot more favourable attention around the world if the Goldblatt monopoly could be broken and young talents like these given more opportunities.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Michael Chabon/GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD


At the end of the 10th century, two friends--a spindly blonde Frankish scarecrow of a young man with a narrow sword, and a giant grey-haired African warrior with an axe (and both Jewish! Who would have guessed?)--make their way along the westernmost fringes of the silkroad, where they fall in with an angry young prince who has been dispossessed of his kingdom.

I think perhaps Mr. Chabon has been writing a bit too quickly. This book did not rock my world the way KAVALIER & CLAY or YIDDISH POLICEMEN did (I know it's tacky to compare an author's work to itself, but this book does strike me as a lackluster or at least only half-achieved novel in his oeuvre). There was so much potential for world recreation, dazzling adventure, deep emotional significance. Instead, the writing left so much of the plot implied (as opposed to expressed) that it was often hard engage with the narrative or to connect dots between events. The book was short--too short for the ambitious plot, in my opinion, and I rarely complain that a book is too short. I'm actually really sad, because I think there was a lot of potential for this novel to be much more. As it was, I actually had trouble getting through because the narrative was so shallow.

It was, however, a beautiful package--nice two-color typesetting, beautiful initial capitals and a border decoration on chapter openers, nice drawings throughout. That doesn't, you know, save the story.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

karleen koen/THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY

i picked up this book on a lark while searching for a book by dean koontz to read. (any recs on koontz, please leave in comments section. =) what drew me were mainly two things : 1. it was a ny times bestseller. 2. it is a historical fiction based in england and france. i have a soft spot for historicals set in england--which explains why cox's the meaning of night was my top read of 2007.

the book starts with fifteen year old barbara. she is taken care of by her grandmother in the english countryside. when her mother, who is known for her loose ways and heavy spending, visits, it's never good news. this time, she tells barbara she is to marry roger devane--a handsome and rich bachelor more than twice her age.

roger shares a long history with barbara's grandfather, the duke, a war hero. and the duchess (her grandmother) was always fond of roger, tho something about the match stirs a faint sense of worry within her. what is she forgetting about roger's past? or the gossip that may have surrounded him? everyone knows he is incapable of committing to one woman, and wanders from bed to bed among the powerful and rich women in society.

barbara, however, is delighted by this match. she believes she has loved roger ever since she was a little girl, when the dashing man would visit their country home and be kind to her with a word or present from london. barbara does have her way in the end, despite family sabotage. she marries roger, and that is where everything begins to unravel. she must navigate her way through the french court while trying to ingratiate herself into roger's life.

koen does a fine job of developing her characters from our young heroine to her grandmother the matriarch, to her selfish mother and roger, the love of barbara's life who carries too many secrets of his own. the tension within the story, the marriage between barbara and roger, innocence juxtaposed with his past, is so well done. and no one is all good or all bad. every charcter has a heroic moment as well as her/his foible.

i believe the book is very well written and has an epic feel. this is a debut novel by koen and she has followed with a prequel and sequel to the book. she is a strong prose writer, tho i admit to skipping many sections where she goes into furnishings in detail. =X she definitely knows how to bring to life the period of 18th century france and england. better still, she brings her characters to life. i recommend this book, especially to those who enjoy historical novels.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Time's arrow by Martin Amis


What is the essence of time but the perrenial river that stumbles past every pebble?

What difference would it make which way the river flowed? Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is a manipulative novel. I mean this in a good way. (Isn’t it sad that some words are forever canonized into having a negative connotation?) The book starts off with a man in a hospital, paralyzed and unable to move. This is the point where most novels would decide to end the story. Man born, grows up, falls in love, makes futile attempts at procreation, and is paralyzed by the humiliation of his inability. However this is where his novel begins in reverse.

A popular movie in recent times has been Memento which uses this concept to create an exceedingly well paced thriller about a man who at no point in time knows more than the viewer does. More so, Irreversible (a French movie) uses this same concept and toys with our sentiments about happy endings.

The book has a protagonist but the narrator isn’t the protagonist. One executes, the other refutes. From paralysis to well being, from love to unlove, and from death to life, this book dramatically questions our ability to understand the world around us as simply a sequence of events dictated by Time’s arrow. Sometimes I guess it doesn’t matter which way the arrow points.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A Pale View of Hills Book Club

Warning: comments section contains many spoilers

David L. Robbins/WAR OF THE RATS

This is my idea of "slumming it" in my reading - a rare example of me stooping to a mass-market thriller. I was attracted at first only by the subject matter (it is closely based on a key part of the battle for Stalingrad during WWII, and I'm a sucker for military history), but as I got into it I was surprised at just how well written it is. It's not great art lit, but it is very competently executed and highly readable.

The novel shows us the last months of the desperate battle for the city, with Russian and German troops fighting each other street by street and building by building in the depths of a freezing winter; often tunnelling under the foundations and through sewers and cellars to try to lay mines beneath buildings occupied by the other side (hence, to the soldiers, the struggle became bitterly known as 'the war of the rats').

In particular, the story focuses on Vassily Zaitsev, a real-life Soviet hero of the battle. Zaitsev was an exceptional marksman, whose exploits may well have served to help turn the tide of battle against the Germans - both in practical terms (he was said to have shot as many as 250 of the enemy in a two-month period, almost all of them officers and NCOs; this must have been significantly disruptive of the chain of command and hugely demoralising) and through the psychological boost this gave to his own side (the Communist Party propaganda machine was shrewdly set into motion to build him up into an inspiring national figurehead of the resistance to the German invasion). War of the Rats is thus telling the same story as (and was probably a major source, though I think an uncredited one, for) Jean-Jacques Annaud's Stalingrad film of a few years ago, 'Enemy At The Gates'. However, this is a much more gritty and believable, less Hollywoodized version of the tale - based closely on contemporary records and Zaitsev's own memoirs.

The book is largely concerned with the minutiae of the brutal art of sniping, a chilling but utterly compelling subject. The Russians set up an ad hoc 'sniper school' so that Zaitsev can share his expertise with other promising sharpshooters. The lessons taught in the school are starkly illustrated in the bleak urban battleground outside, as the Germans assign a top marksman of their own to find and eliminate Zaitsev, and a tense game of cat-and-mouse develops between the two. Whereas in the film this German adversary is demonized as a ruthless and wicked Nazi stereotype, in the book he is a far more rounded and human character, a man who simply has a job to do. The story is depicted alternately from the German side (following the marksman, Thorvald, and the young soldier he enlists as his aide/guide/spotter) and then from the Russian (Zaitsev and his team of snipers), with no favouritism shown to either: both are shown to be human beings caught up in events outside of their control, struggling wretchedly to survive in a hellish environment; both sides win our sympathy. We notice, however, that while Zaitsev and Thorvald respect each other's skill, they cannot allow themselves a recognition of each other's humanity; they must depersonalize their adversary in order to be able to kill him.

The 'sniper duel' is a brilliant story idea - though not a very cinematic one: the action is static rather than fast-moving, the contest is fought not with the body but in the mind. If you liked the film of 'Enemy At The Gates', you'll almost certainly love this book; if you didn't, you might still give the book a try. The rendition of the 'sniper duel' here is ten times as gripping as it is on the screen.

It is perhaps unfortunate (at least for would-be historians like me) that there are doubts as to whether this key element of the story took place at all. Zaitsev himself told the story, but apparently it is uncorroborated by the military records of either army, and most historians are inclined to dismiss it as aprocryphal. Oh, well - it's a hell of a good story, anyhow.

I would have appreciated an historical note on the sources at the end of the book (but I suppose Robbins would object that he is not an historian; and perhaps would say that he did not want to muddle and distract his readers by pointing out where his novel diverges from the known facts). I was also disappointed that the novel ended so abruptly, with subsidiary plot strands left hanging (one almost suspects the author was toying with the idea of a sequel). These two quibbles aside, it is a great story, extremely well told - one of the best Second World War novels I've ever read.

A brief quotation to finish with - I particularly liked this observation of Zaitsev's in comparing his own language to that of the invaders: "He judged it an ugly language, a battle tongue. German was spoken in the back of the throat, bitten and chewed with the teeth. By contrast, he considered Russian to be liquid; it was a language to be cradled on the lips, swirled in the mouth like cognac. Russian could be whispered through a keyhole to an angry lover on the other side to stroke her into unlocking the door. German was the language to knock the door down. It was how you spoke to your dog or cleared your throat."

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kazuo Ishiguro/A PALE VIEW OF HILLS


Etsuko, a Japanese woman who grew up in pre-War Nagasaki, lives alone in England. Her English daughter, Niki, comes to for a short visit, and Niki's visit prompts a chain of thoughts and memories, both of Etsuko's first marriage in post-War Nagasaki (and a solitary single mother with whom she became friendly) and of the recent suicide of her oldest daughter, Keiko.

I liked this book. Ishiguro has a way of overstating the most mundane elements of his story, thus investing them with ambivalent morality, darkness, and implications. I found Etsuko extremely persuasive as a narrator--interesting to me, since all the other books I've read by Ishiguro thus far have had male narrators of a certain self-interested ilk.

I read Ishiguro for two reasons. The first is that he truly is a (or the) master of the first-person narrator. He is unembarrassed of reality, even the most unattractive reality, and recreates unflinchingly (yet manages never to bore). Hence the masterpiece that is THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. But my other reason, which is maybe less univeral among his readers, is that I'm really compelled by what he has to say about Japan. In his books, as in many other works of literature, cinema, etc, by both Japanese writers/expats and international writers of Japanese descent, there is a theme of The War--it always comes back to The War, no matter how far removed you think a subject is. I hope Ishiguro wouldn't think I'm simplifying any of his complex and sophisticated books by saying this; I just think it's very easy for English language readers to forget (or never know about) the devastation of the War in the Pacific, and its very strange two-sided psychological damage to the Japanese people (rather different from the one-sided psychological damage it wreaked on the rest of Asia VIA the Japanese government). Ishiguro's Japanese characters are plagued with both devastation and guilt. The bomb destroyed their lives and they talk about how excited they are to move forward out of the ashes but there is the ever-present underlying fog of the past, of what they lost, and of how responsible they were for losing it.

I want to open up further conversation about this book with other people who have read it, but I don't want to introduce any spoilers. I'm going to make a different post called "A Pale View of Hills Book Club" and then post all my [spoiler-laden] ideas in the comments section. Please share your thoughts with me if you've read this--I'm very very curious to see what other people think.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

This was one of those books that had no plot or point to speak of and to be honest really wasn't even very cohesive, yet evoked an emotional response of an immeasurable depth. Jeanette Winterson never fails when it comes to unusual imagery and provocative analogies, that's for sure.

The book is set in England during the time of Oliver Cromwell, and that's probably some sort of social metaphor far beyond the capacities of my perfunctory skimming during my flight to North Carolina, but there you have it. It's alternating narrators, one a giantess whose stature has given her unusual insight into the human condition, the other her son, an explorer who brings the banana and the pineapple to English soil for the first time much to the consternation of the pale-faces. That's about as plot-heavy as it gets--most of the book is filled with queered retellings of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and Artemis, etc. It's so fantastical and atmospheric it was just a pleasure to read. There are a lot of ideas embedded here--mob mentality the "frontier," the gender construct...but again, they're more loosely strung together than wound into one cohesive thesis. In short, this book is a perfect subway read because you can stop and start whenever and it doesn't matter much.

Rating: =)

Eclipse | Stephenie Meyer


My sister says of the three, she dislikes Eclipse the most. She says, quote, "It sucks." I didn't think it was nearly that bad, and I think her dislike has something to do with all the war/battling strategy in there. Not really her area of interest, I don't think.

The reason that I didn't like this one as much as the first, possibly even the second (though I'm not sure about that), is that the melodrama is hyped up a notch in this one. Edward is OBSESSIVE and OVERPROTECTIVE to the point that I want to SMACK HIM, and Bella is a little too clingy and crazy for me. It borders on making them unsympathetic, although I think Stephenie Meyer has done a good enough job in the first two (esp the first) that I still give them the leeway, remembering who they were in the beginning. But really. Those two need to stop. Also, it sort of bothers me that Bella is willing to throw away everything -- forget her family -- for this guy. I'm sure that Meyer is being pretty true to the self-absorption of teenagers across the world, and that eventually she'll have some moral kick in (I can already see it in bits, actually), but coupled with Bella and Edward's OBSESSION with each other, it's a little disconcerting. Maybe I'm too old. Maybe I'm too parenting. But the two of them are starting to drive me a little nuts, because they remind me of the type of couples I can't stand. Needy to the nth degree. And their flowery love for each other. Sometimes I want to be like, GOD YOU'RE SEVENTEEN! But I guess that's what it was like being a teenager.

So. My sister had asked about Edward vs. Jacob right? By the end of this novel, Edward wins still but only marginally. Only because Jacob's got the worse temper. But what made Edward endearing, mysterious and enticing in the first novel is starting to wane. Now he just seems like a control freak, the kind of boyfriend I never want.

My sister tells me that book 5 (the one after the next one) will be written from Edward's point of view. I hope it sheds some light on him and makes him much more sympathetic again.

Everything else though? I really like the werewolf legends thing. It gives the books a really cool unique quality that I commend Meyer for thinking up. I loved that. The whole werewolves mindsharing thing is awesome too. I'm starting to really enjoy them.

Yeah, okay. You know now I'm going to read the rest before passing them to my sister. Speaking of, I had to steal my sister's copy of Eclipse to finish reading on the plane, even though I was only 150 pages away from finishing, and now my sister won't get it back til I go back to China next summer. Hehe.

New Moon | Stephenie Meyer


New Moon is my sister's favorite of the three. She's read it twice already, and I only just brought it back to her in mid-December, when I went to China. I think the star-crossed lovers thing has something to do with it; my sister will deny it, but she's a hopeless romantic underneath all her layers of teenage cynicism.

Me? I missed Edward in this one for the most part. And -- and maybe this is where my adult sense kicks in and why this is better for the teenagers -- I found it a bit melodramatic. The guy breaks up with her in the beginning and she falls into a pit of despair for months. Okay, I remember my first breakup, and yeah, it was sort of all-consuming. But to be like that? Am I just forgetting what the emotional roller coaster was like as a teen? Because it seems crazy to extremes, in a way I almost don't condone. I don't like the whole, I can't live without you thing, not when you're seventeen. It was too over the top for me, and I think that was my biggest quabble with the book, given its premise. Everything else was good. I liked the development of Jacob Black as a character, and the new turn (and addition of cool new mythical creatures) that it took. I also liked the end, the collision of events that causes them to go to Italy. It's pretty crazy, yet believable and it made it hard to put the book down (yet again).

My sister kept asking me who I liked better, Edward or Jacob? And when she first asked me, I'd only just started New Moon, and so I said Edward, because he really was breathtaking that first book. By the end of New Moon, I said the same thing, but with reservations. I don't know if it's the author's intention to make us feel that way -- the same way Bella must -- if so, good job. So, I liked this one, but not nearly as much as I liked the first.

Twilight | Stephenie Meyer


[I just read all three of the books in this series in a row, thanks to my little sister. I wrote reviews on them on my own blog, which I think are short enough for me to post up here, so that's what I'm doing, verbatim.]

Okay, my next three posts have to do with the Stephenie Meyer Twilight trilogy. My little sister has been bugging me to read them, so that's what I did -- over a span of a few days. She is obssessed (she's 14). I thought to lump them in all in one post, but that sort of goes against how I do things here, so we'll do one for each.

First up, Twilight.

I surprised myself by really enjoying this. No seriously. What in particular got to me was how incredibly mesmerizing Edward is. Like, hel-lo, I could totally fall in love with Edward too! Hee hee. Really though, what I found myself drawn in by was how Edward was completely mysterious and incredible, enough that I could completely see how Bella would fall for him even not knowing a thing about him. Stephenie Meyer is skillful in her depiction of him, and I found myself paying close attention to her technique - how she manages to make him so attractive and compelling. Mostly because I have a character in my book that I'd like to make mysterious but also make it clear the attraction my protagonist has for her. So I kept wondering how she did it. How did she make me fall in love with this seventeen year old vampire too?

This was the most compelling book of the three so far, I think, because of the mystery, and also because it's where we're first introduced to this world of vampires, dissimilar from the Dracula-esque types we're used to. Who doesn't love getting a new fantastical world in bits and pieces and compiling it together? And she does a really good job of making this place seem very real. It doesn't seem impossible that these fantastical creatures live where we do. It's haunting and beautiful in a way. I was completely convinced by Bella's obsession with Edward and the danger that she's in.

Okay, so I'll confess. I really enjoyed it. I was up til late late reading the damn book. It felt most appropriate to read at night, and I couldn't stop turning the pages once I started. Yes. Call me a teeny bopper. Go. I won't take it back. It was an awesome guilty pleasure.

We Need To Talk About Kevin | Lionel Shriver


I had a lot of hangups with this book, though plotwise, it was interesting. I felt that it was engineered to discuss a TOPIC, and was less about the story itself. I disliked the structure of the book, written entirely in letters, I felt the narrator was pretentious and unsympathetic, and I found it hard to "buy" the authenticity of many of the characters. Also, I guessed the "surprise" ending too easily. I really like the school shooting idea -- I've thought about writing a novel to that effect myself -- and I also like the nurture vs. nature question, but I felt this book had too many pitfalls. The letter structure overclouded all the good parts. Scenes depicted were actually compelling but because it was in letter format, there weren't a LOT of scenes, and there was too much THINKING and NARRATIVE and also it just didn't feel REAL because it was within a letter. The plot itself was interesting, and it wasn't a hard read in that sense, but I just found myself getting frustrated at the author more than necessary. I wish she had done it in some other way.

Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides


Because I have a bunch of books to write about here, I'm going to zip through the following reviews. If you want a little bit more depth, I've also written on all of these on my own blog.

First up, Middlesex. I thought it was a really good book, fresh in concept -- who would think to intertwine the idea of intersex with a Greek family saga? It's engaging, well-written, creative. The first person narrator also happens to be omniscient, which threw me off at first, but I ultimately bought because of the fresh voice of the narrator. The scenes are rendered well -- as if we were watching it on a screen as opposed to reading on a page, making everything very alive. And ultimately, we care about what happens in the family. We care about how everything happens so that the narrator becomes what he is. It is sprawling, but a unique view of what it means to become American. It really is a very good book, although I guess it didn't click with me personally as much as other books do. Which is the primary reason why this book gets a good and not a great rating. Personal taste, even though it was an enjoyable read.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Title:- The Satanic Verses
Genre:- Fiction
Subgenre:- Novel
Author:- Salman Rushdie
Publisher:- Viking Press
ISBN Number:- 0-312-27082-8
Price:- £5.99

The Blurb

No book in modern times has matched the uproar sparked by Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which earned its author a fatwa from Iran's Ayatollahs decreeing his death. Furore aside, it is a marvellously erudite study of good and evil, a feast of language served up by a writer at the height of his powers and a rollicking comic fable. The book begins with two Indians, Gibreel Farishta, who has been for fifteen years the biggest star in the history of the Indian movies, and Saladin Chamcha, a Bombay expatriate returning from his first visit to his homeland in fifteen years, plummeting from the sky after the explosion of their jetliner, and proceeds through a series of metamorphoses, dreams and revelations. When the jumbo jet blows apart above the English Channel, Gibreel and Saladin are the two who survive and are washed to an English beach. However, it soon becomes clear that curious changes have come over them and that they have been chosen as protagonists in the eternal struggle between God and the Devil.

Rushdie's astonishing powers of invention are at their best in this Booker Prize shortlist and Whitbread Prize winner. Salman Rushdie is the author of Midnight's Children, winner of the 1981 Booker Prize, and Shame.

The Review

The Satanic Verses is a novel which falls in the genre of Magical Realism (a beautiful paradox of our modern times), of which we see much in Gabriel García Márquez's works.

It tells the story of the enchanting Gibreel Farishta who rises from being a pauper in Bombay to a popular filmstar playing Hindu deities in Bollywood mythologicals. The humor in the novel commences when Gibreel refuses to make love to his female admirers with the elephant snout on, which he has used as a prop for playing Lord Ganesha in a movie and which his fans have come to fancy. He complains that an acting career in Bombay is quite less of acting and much more of frantic travel between studios trying to keep schedules.

It also tells the story of the misplaced Saladin Chamcha, who develops an English accent so refined and immaculate that he lends his voice to British radio shows. He shuns his father who loathes books and had sent him away from Bombay to study in Britain. He returns after a long period of absence only to find that the city of his childhood has changed in a quintessential measure.

On his return trip to UK, Saladin Chamcha meets Gibreel Farishta who has absconded in order to meet his flame Annie Cone, the Mount Everest conquerer whom he courted in Bombay. The plane gets hijacked and all but the two protagonists of the novel - Chamcha and Farishta - are dead. The two are washed ashore on the waves of the English Channel, only to find that there has been a major change of roles. Gibreel thereafter suffers hallucinations of being an archangel, while Saladin is transformed into a chimera representing the devil.

Saladin miraculously recovers from the transmogrification and plots his revenge against Gibreel for refusing recognition and help when Saladin was led into custody by policemen. Like Iago, he plots the murder of Annie Cone at the hands of the suspicious and jealous Gibreel Farishta himself. In the climax, Gibreel shoots himself when he realizes what a mistake he has committed.

The novel also runs the course of three mini-plots: The first comprises the tale of Mahound's revelations from Archangel Gibreel, Hind - Mahound's fiercest opponent and Baal - the irreverent poet. The second speaks of the Imam and his gang of terrorists. And the third and most beautiful story is that of Ayesha, the girl who leads poor villagers on a Haj pilgrimage after convincing them that if God willed it, the waters of the Arabian Sea would part to make way for them.

The novel has ample instances of Rushdie-style humor and sarcasm. The narrative though broken into four parallel threads of narration is held together in a very cohesive manner. Rushdie's implicit commentary on the racism prevalent in UK is commendable and should have been the focus of attention, rather than the much publicized and denounced fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against him. However, the novel is not as erudite as it could have been. It is in no way grand or profound, and does not seek to reveal something that the reader is unaware of. Definitely not one of Rushdie's better novels.

The book was banned in many countries including Iran and India, for propagating the theory of The Satanic Verses - those verses of the Holy Quran which were revealed to the Prophet by the Satan and which he later retracted as being part of the Holy Book of the Moslems. It was fortunate that Salman Rushdie survived the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, since the Japanese translator Igarashi was murdered, and the Italian translator Capriolo suffered serious physical injuries due to being stabbed.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Michael Chabon/THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY


In 1939, 17-year-old Sammy Clayman is forced (in the middle of the night) to give up half his bed to his just-arrived Czech refugee cousin Joe, who, at 19, managed to escape the Nazi crackdown in Prague through a no less than magic. Sammy, who has elaborate plans for fame and fortune as a comic book creator, sees his artist cousin as a ticket to fast-lane success. Joe, who is obsessed with his remaining family who are still stuck in Prague, sees Sammy's plans as a way to the fast dough he thinks will help him bring them to America. Thus the perfect partnership is born.

For lack of a more accurate way to put this... Michael Chabon rocks my world.

I read and loved YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION this summer, and that sponsored a whole flurry of Amazon orders. I stalled with KAVALIER & CLAY because I was initially put off by the length (636 pages looked like a time suck) but I genuinely felt great grief when I got to the end that there weren't another 1000 pages for me to keep reading.

Why do I love Chabon so? His ideas are often extremely original, which certainly helps, but his language is just so very well thought-out and brilliantly executed. Almost every sentence tickles somehow--he puts things in a way you never heard before but, once you read it, you can't understand why everyone doesn't describe the world that way, since it's such an obvious comparison.

Chabon is also and artfully researched author. He is a prize historical recreator: he establishes his lost city down to its temperatures and smells, teaches his audience lost Americana, and yet never beats you over the head with his showy knowledge or bores you with static details.

Despite the high reality of the description and place setting, there is a technicolor dreaminess to the plot that invokes the whole comic book genre. Sammy and Joe are superheroes themselves, with dramatic childhoods, struggles with their inner monsters, and amazing acts of derring-do. Not all readers will find this an unmitigated pro--for me, it occasionally detracted a little, since it made certain pieces of an otherwise sophisticated and well-wrought book emotionally simple. At the same time, I do appreciate the way Chabon designed his execution to reflect his topic, and the overall product affected me deeply.

I know it's easy to fall into the habit of comparing works by the same author (it's almost irresistible!) but I'm going to try really hard to resist here. I liked both of these a lot and would recommend either to anyone.

I did notice one interesting thing, though, having read both. I've been reading Chabon's books in reverse chronological order (not through any planning on my part or anything) and as a result have been able to see his themes in reverse. It seems that in a way Chabon uses each novel as a stomping ground and inspiration for the next novel he ends up working on (Sam Clay asks the detective he meets, Detective Lieber, "So, are they making Jews detectives these days?" and some of Joe Kavalier's collected drawings reminded me sharply of Chabon's descriptions of the "prophet" Elijah in YPU. And this is just the beginning.). So if you haven't read any of Chabon's stuff, you, too, might consider reading in reverse for added enjoyment.

Alison Lurie/ONLY CHILDREN

Alison Lurie seems to be a well-regarded writer (indeed, one of the puffs on the cover of my rather old edition has the hyperbolic claim by British author John Braine that "there is quite simply no better living writer"!), and this book came to me with a warm-ish recommendation from a friend (yes, we're great book-swappers here in China), but I'm afraid I found it deeply uninspiring.

It's a short read, at a little over 200 pages in a fairly small format, but I very nearly gave up on it half-way through. The writing is not bad, but it's certainly not scintillating. And there doesn't really seem to be any point to it - other than overindulging in a writerly exercise to explore how far one can render the adult world interestingly from a child's perspective. The answer, for me, is not very far: a long-ish short story, maybe, but not a novel.

There is nothing of substance here. Two ill-matched American families spend a long weekend in the country together over the 4th July holiday at some point in the mid- to late-1930s. There are passing references to the Great Depression - and, even more fleetingly, to the rise of Fascism in Europe - but this is scarcely relevant background. It is a simple study of the interactions between adults and children, and between men and women (chiefly driven by the compulsive womanizing of one of the two husbands). Some of the accounts of domestic storms, squabbles and reconciliations are reasonably effective; but the restricted timeframe - just 4 days - denies any chance of there actually being a story.

The novel attempts to distinguish itself with its gimmick of intermittently describing the world as perceived through the imaginations of the 8-year-old daughters of the two families, and also sometimes of describing their fantastical daydreams. This has a certain charm or interest early on, but Lurie can't sustain it; or tries to do so for too long. Well before the end of the book, I found these passages of the childish world-view merely grating. It's not even terribly convincing: there is, I think, too much adult sophistication intruding into the make-believe games of the children. The authorial persona lacks authenticity, and even consistency: at times we seem to be purely inside one or other of the little girl's heads; but at others there is an awkward mixture of the naive child's voice with something more like the conventional third person narration of most of the book. This tends to create the impression that the narrator is in fact one of the girls now grown up, who is attempting to reimagine from her present-day adult perspective how she experienced the world as a child; although this is not, I think, the effect Lurie was striving for.

Many people might find this a diverting read, particularly if they favour domestic dramas and better-than-average writing. Me, I tend to hold out for compelling stories and truly exceptional writing - so this didn't really do anything for me.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

How Did Santa Know?
How did Santa know? Because I made a list, of course, and made a point of putting Roth's latest Zuckerman novel on it. It was hard to put down, if ultimately a bit of a let-down. But, hey -- what can you say about an aging writer (Zuckerman, that is) who is impotent and incontinent? In the end, it's not exactly going to be a spirit-riser.

A sequel of sorts to The Ghost Writer, the first of Roth's novels about his fictional and literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The two novels bookend the Zuckerman series -- the first about the young Zuckerman, a sprinter in the literary race, and the last about the 71-year-old Zuckerman (the age Roth was in 2004, the year the events in the book take place), nearing the end of the long marathon, a prostate cancer survivor who has distanced himself from the world but is swept by a last wave of (imagined) passion for a much younger woman. All while being revisited, almost 50 years later, by his youthful encounter with the novelist E. I Lonoff, his wife Hope, and Lonoff's young lover Amy Bellette, portrayed in The Ghost Writer. There's also a subplot about Lonoff's biographer that allows Roth to vent about the exploitive and reductionist aspects of the genre as it's currently practiced. In the end, Zuckerman once again retreats from the world, but not before life, fiction and fantasy have become hopelessly muddled, demonstrating that writers like Zuckerman never really stop writing, if only for themselves.

Often humorous, sometimes poignant, frequently depressing and written in Roth's characteristically supple, effortlessly fluid style -- it has a lot of the Roth elements, even though the plotting is slapdash and almost incidental, and the book succeeds more as an essay on the loss of creative powers than as a novel. Roth is one of the greats, and he just keeps on keeping on -- one of my favorite writers. Appropriately, the jacket design is by another cool older dude who just keeps on keeping on -- 78-year-old Milton Glaser.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

lisa see/PEONY IN LOVE

i received this book for my birthday back in august and was too afraid to read it. mainly because i was writing in a somewhat similar genre, and feared any similarities or brilliant writing would discourge me. =p well, i finally picked up the book to read in december and had a really difficult time getting into the tale. i thought snow flower and the secret fan bordered on okay good as a novel. peony is a more fantastic story.

the book centers around the play the peony pavilion, a story that caused stir among the chinese of that period because the herione actually chose her own fate in life as well as in love. the play is a favorite of the heroine's, also named peony. her father stages the play and allows her to view it from above behind a screen for her sixteenth birthday.

during the play, peony glimpses a handsome young man sitting below in the audience, and the two meet outside when peony steps out to get some air. the young man and she discuss the play. he is interested in a young woman's thoughts on the story, and urges her to meet with him in secret again. breaking all rules of decorum, peony does so, twice. alas, her father announces she is betrothed on the last day of the performance, and peony, believing herself to be in love with the stranger she had met, refuses to look through the screen at her future groom.

her mother, strict and abiding by tradition, suspects peony's transgression and locks her in her room. peony rebells by making commentary on the peony pavilion play, while refusing to eat and wasting away. when she finally learns her betrothed is in fact, the young man she had secretly met in the gardens of their estate, it is to late. she is too weakened from lack of food, and dies.

i found it really difficult to read through the first part of this novel for several reasons :

1. many times, it seems like see is trying to lecture us on the peony pavilion play as well as chinese traditions. every paragraph seems to be an explanation of some ritual or meaning. i understand that readers may read this book to immerse themselves in the culture, but i found it rather heavy-handed in parts.

2. i knew the twist was peony would die and spend the second half of the novel as a ghost in the mortal realm. i don't particularly enjoy reading about heroine's who kill themselves, whether it be intentional or not, and found the "waiting for her to croak it" unappleaing as i read to that inevitable end.

3. peony was not sympathetic to me. maybe i'm too modern, but the whole not eating love-sickness thing annoyed me on a certain level.

wow. am i being harsh?

on the upside, after our heroine kicks the bucket, i found the story easier to read and more enjoyable. i did find her state as a "hungry ghost" interesting and her escapdes and intrusions in the mortal realm, as she hangs around her almost groom's home.

my biggest complaint would be that the reason peony remained trapped in the mortal realm (her spirit tablet remained undotted) seemed a flimsy plot point to me, as she was able to manipulate the mortal's thoughts and movements around her, she couldn't get her tablet dotted? the ending was also a bit...anti-climactic. overall, i would recommend the book if you are interested in a tale that is more fantastic than snow flower, steeped in the traditions of china from the 17th century centered around the peony pavilion play. the book does address a woman's place in society of that time, and the challenges imposd upon them due to changing expectations.