Saturday, April 26, 2008

Nahoko Uehashi/ MORIBITO: Guardian of the Spirit

Moribito is the first true fantasy book I've ever read. (Reading the Potter series is on my to-do list for the summer). It's also the first "Uncorrected Proof" I've ever read (whatever that means!). The book will be available in the U.S. in June 2008.

This is the first book in a series of ten that have sold more than a million copies in Japan.

Moribito is about a young woman named Balsa who vows to save eight lives-the number of lives that were lost protecting her when she was a child. In this book, she protects the life of a young prince who has within him the egg of a Water Spirit. She needs to help him reach the river before the egg-eating monster gets them and in time for the egg to hatch.


I love that the hero of the series is really a heroine. She's an expert at the martial arts. The characters around her are richly developed and believable for such an adventure. There are brief parts in the book which wax philosophical. This quote will give a summary example: People from different countries who speak different languages have different ways of thinking. You know that, don't you? Take Balsa here. She's from Kanbal. The Kanbalese believe that thunder is a god.


I was also very pleasantly surprised that the amount of names and places didn't intimidate me. World-building has put me off about fantasy, until now. I really like it!


My only complaint about the writing of this story was that there were a number of "Over To You Bob" moments. Disguised info-dumps. But if I weren't a writer, I wouldn't have noticed. The book is very enjoyable. It's a YA, I believe.
(The cover for the English version is different. I think it's much better).

Monday, April 21, 2008

Shaun Tan/THE ARRIVAL



The Arrival is a graphic novel about a man who immigrates to a strange new place--a VERY strange new place.

While on one level the man's experiences mirror those of any normal immigrant--leaving his family behind, finding a job, learning a new language--all of these elements are given a kind of fantastical twist. His new country is a landscape of conical shapes and sunburst designs. The animals are strange and the food looks wholly unappetizing (think tentacles). And the other immigrants have odd stories to tell about their pasts, including one man's tale of running away from gigantic exterminators.

I love this book because the pictures are beautiful and because it gave me a new look at the hardships immigrants face. It was fun to discover the new country's strange elements along with the man. I was also suprised at how much I felt myself connecting with the feelings of the different characters--the perplexed immigrant, the worried wife left behind, the people who escaped from nightmare conditions, and the family reunited.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Patricia Marx/HIM HER HIM AGAIN THE END OF HIM


A (nameless) young American woman struggling with a very prolonged infancy (she UPSes her mother her laundry, for example) finds herself enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Cambridge University, where she spends her time drinking diet iced tea and not writing her thesis. This happy parentally-sponsored cycle is interrupted by an insufferable philosophy graduate named Eugene Obello, with whom the narrator proceeds to become obsessed. The book recounts the ten years following their initial meeting and the various ways he mistreats her (and the various ways she takes it).

I picked up this book (which caught my eye with its bright orange cover) imagining there would be a lot of resonance (no further comment on any personal experiences at British institutions of higher learning). And Marx offers a sad amount of truth about some of the more ludicrous aspects of academia.

The book is definitely a satire, and for this reason I'm not really a good person to be judging it (I've never been a fan of even the most famous satires--CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES and THE LOVED ONE come to mind). HIM HER HIM AGAIN has all the classic elements--utterly unlikable main characters with painful but almost believable ways of upsetting their own natural environments. But I would recommend it to those who do like satires. There are some very funny moments.

Laura Joh Rowland/THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE

first off, say what you will but i do most certainly judge a book by its cover. if it's not pretty or interesting, i won't pick a new book up. call me superficial. having said that, i love the lushness of this cover and its colors and gold lettering. it made me pick up the book, buy it, and the read was certainly worth it.

let me preface by saying i haven't read anything by the brontes, with the exception of wuthering heights, which was required by school. as much as i love reading about victorian england, i've not read its authors enough. after finishing this book, things may very well change!


charlotte, being the eldest and most strong-willed amongst her three sisters, is compelled to go to london to clear her name with her publisher over a misunderstanding, as she has published jane eyre under a male pen name. she shares a carriage with a beautiful yet distraught woman on her train ride to london, and witnesses her brutal murder outside her hotel. the police write off the crime as petty robbery, but charlotte suspects more sinister motives.

when charlotte returns home to the english countryside, she receives a package in the post from the dead woman, who pleads for charlotte to deliver the parcel to her mother. charlotte obliges, only to find a book scribbled with small notes in its margins, describing the dead victim's ties to a master who binds her to his will and makes her accomplice to wretched acts.

thus, the mystery further deepens. one of the most interesting plotlines of the book is john slade, who never appears as he is. the way the book is set up, using letters and diaries of other people to continue the tale, as well as an ominicient view to futher flesh out the story takes some getting used to. but in the end, rowland's mastery of charlotte's voice coupled with authentic setting and tone reels the reader into the tale.

the book is unlike any i have read, it is mystery, suspense, historial fiction and romance rolled into one. the prose is well done and stays true to the period. what i liked the most about the tale is how charlotte surprises me by both thought and action. rowland certainly brought charlotte bronte to life in this tale--rendering her brave, curious, intelligent and passionate. i definitely recommend this book!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mark Zusak/THE BOOK THIEF


In 1939, ten-year-old Liesel Meminger is placed with a foster family in a poor suburb of Munich. As Liesel grows up, the Nazi party becomes a larger and larger force in her life, and the war descends on her dingy city street. Liesel, her adoptive parents, her best friend Rudy, and a stowaway Jew named Max do their best to survive and be good people in an atmosphere of misery, oppression, starvation, and fear.

This is an important new, fresh treatment of World War II (and some parts of the Holocaust) for Young Adult readers. I believe strongly in the periodic publication of books like this, because I know I, for one, need reminders about World War II, what happened, and what humans are capable of (on both the good and bad extremes). I can see THE BOOK THIEF being to this generation of young adult readers (not to mention adult readers, of whom there are many) what NUMBER THE STARS was for mine.

Zusak has created an unusual narrative structure which leant the book some interest for me. Death is telling the story (in an unexpectedly sensitive way), and although this felt a little clumsy at first, the construction opened the door for a lot of valuable and poignant insights throughout the book.

I particularly admired Zusak's recreation of "everyday" life during the Nazi regime. He shows very clearly that there were many, many ways to die during World War II. The protagonists of the story are all indefatigably likable "good" Germans, and the book becomes a piece of heart-rending homage to the fallen (and the survivors).

I would recommend this book and I do think it's a good read. I didn't love it quite as much as I hoped, though. The language often irritated me--it was often gimmicky and/or redundant (Liesel is always "handing out" words) and feels like it fed heavily on Jonathan Safran Foer. In some ways, I wish the whole book had been a little more straightforward and a little less impressionistic. But these concerns do not weigh on me heavily for this book because the author has done such a thorough and commendable job executing his very difficult content.

An added bonus--the bookishness element you would assume from the title. Liesel is a word lover (she begins the story illiterate) and it is reading and writing that gets her through the darkest times of the war. A charming aspect for book people. (Like everyone here.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sharon Creech//WALK TWO MOONS

Thirteen-year-old Sal takes a cross-country road trip with her grandparents to visit her mother in time for her birthday. Along the way, Sal tells a story about her best friend, Phoebe, whose mother left the family for unknown reasons. Sal understands this more than she admits to her friend.

Woven throughout the story are Native American themes, such as respect for nature and for the connectedness we all have to one another. A few poems are presented in the book as metaphorical examples of what the story is really about: Love, loss, and acceptance. One poem, Longfellow's 'The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls,' angers Sal because it's about death. She refuses to believe that her mother is truly gone.


Ultimately, we find that Sal is traveling with her grandparents to see her mother's gravestone.
It is called 'Walk Two Moons' because one of the underlying themes is to not judge someone unless you have walked two moons in their moccasins.
This book won the Newbery Medal in 1995. It is beautifully written. The themes are adult ones, but presented in such a way that children won't be overwhelmed. The prose is rich and lyrical, yet simple and straightforward. Even though this is a children's book, I challenge you to read it and not cry at the end.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Michelle Dresbold, James Kwalwasser/SEX, LIES, AND HANDWRITING


(Subtitled: A Top Expert Reveals the Secrets hidden in Your Handwriting)

I randomly snagged this book from the library shelf in the hopes that it would have something interesting in it, and I didn't even read it for a week or so. After I finally picked it up, I didn't stop reading until I was halfway through and had to get some sleep.

The main author, Dresbold, consults to police, attorneys, and prosecturs, profiling suspected criminals by examining their handwriting. In this book, she talks about the basics of examining handwriting in order to gain insight on the writer's personality and psychological state. She also provides case studies from famous crimes and includes samples of handwriting from celebrities.

Some of the basics Dresbold covers:

  • The personal prounoun I reveals clues about the writer's relationship with her mother and father as well as how the writer views herself. For example, a missing hook on the end of a cursive I suggests the writer had no real relationship with her father.


  • The lower loops of letters like g, y, and j can reveal sexual preference, appetite, trauma, and abnormalities. For example, sharp lower loops reveal an abnormal, angry, or agitated sex life.


  • The way a writer forms her o's and a's gives hints to her communication style. Lower case a's and o's that are open at the top reveal a talkative person.


  • Around 80% of felons share a common handwriting trait--the "felon's claw," a sign that the writer is prone to self-sabotage.


  • Weapon shapes can often be found in the handwriting of known murderers. Both a bomb and an assault rifle are visible in the signature of Osama bin Laden.


Dresbold also helps the reader examine handwriting samples of famous figures like Michael Jackson, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Ted Bundy, Hitler, and many others. Most fascinating is the section of the book that attempts to use handwriting samples to shed light on famous unsolved murder cases like those of Lizze Borden, Jack the Ripper, and JonBenet Ramsey.

This book kept me totally absorbed, not to mention itching to examine the handwriting of people I know.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Martha Moody/BEST FRIENDS


Clare Mann meets Sally Rose when they are roommates their freshman year at Oberlin. They do not hit it off. As Clare perceives it, they come from completely different worlds--Clare, from a socialist Protestant Ohio family, is a loner with insatiable sexual appetites; Sally, the daughter of a Jewish California millionaire, is socially conservative and almost disgustingly attached to her family. However, they can't overcome their destiny--to be best friends, which they are for the rest of their lives.

From opposite sides of the country, the women talk and visit their way through their young adult lives as Clare becomes a doctor and Sally a lawyer. They navigate failed relationships, death, family dissolution, and domestic and professional disappointments together.

This book was an excellent read. I found myself sneaking away from my colleagues at lunch so I could have a private lunch break and get through it more quickly. It is a natural saga of two women as they grow up, and although Moody has not superimposed a plot arc of any kind--which, in my opinion, helps the authenticity--she does a wonderfully deft job of dropping hints of whatever mini-revelation is coming up next, which really keeps you turning the pages to see how things unfold.

I was complaining not long ago that there don't seem to be many adult books about female friendships (there are several great ones about male friendships). I'm glad I found this one. I find the topic very provocative and am so glad Moody did this beautiful tribute. I particularly liked this moment as Clare is leaving a funeral:

Well, that's life, I thought. It ends. And that's friendship: every friendship has its wobbly moments. Live with it, I told myself. Get used to it. I remembered Sally years before in the car driving west, swirling her hand in that chaotic gesture, saying from now on the deaths would be easier. And I had a true friend, right? Yes, one true friend. A friend of immeasurable value. Because who else but Sally could ever love my prickly nugget of a soul?


I don't normally quote, but there are some really great passages throughout. The language is really excellent--Clare, the narrator, makes an ongoing point that Sally has a gift for precise adjectives, and it's clear that Moody herself doesn't do too badly.

Another passage I really appreciated was Clare's reflection on redemption:

There's this loony idea--American, Christian--that what you do doesn't ultimately matter, that anything can be forgiven and redeemed. I don't buy it. Nothing disappears, nothing is cancelled out. A stain in the wood, meat on the hands, a virus in the cells. These things don't go away. In the end, imperfectly but largely, you reap what you sow. I think in my life that's all I've learned.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Ian McEwan// ON CHESIL BEACH

In 1962, Edward and Florence get married and honeymoon in a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach. It takes place at an interesting time in England-just before the sexual revolution.

Both characters are young, educated, and shy. Edward comes from a family where the father has the dual role of both parents. His mother suffered an accident and was not sane, so the father raised the family. Edward's roots are middle-class. Florence comes from a well-to-do family. Her mother is cold and aloof. Does Ian have mommy issues?


The story is briefly about their courtship, but more about why both characters don't talk or understand each other on any deep/intimate level. When it's the wedding night, Edward ejaculates early and Florence panics. That's basically it. Then the relationship falls apart.


Ian provides a lot of flashbacks to kill the time, so the reader isn't left with just one chapter of a failed sexual experience.


I haven't read a book where one event is detailed so completely, but I still lack any attachment to either of the characters. Positive or negative.

If anyone has read this book and likes it, I'd love a good discussion.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shan Sa/EMPRESS


A fictional account of the life of Wu Zetian, the 7th century noblewoman who served as concubine to one Tang emperor and then empress to his son before taking over the throne and declaring herself emperor of her own dynasty.

I was highly ambivalent (yet hopeful) going into this. While I was not expecting much from Ms. Sa--I'd read THE GIRL WHO PLAYED GO and found it to have many problems that made me cranky--I love the story of Empress Wu and was excited to realize there was a modern novel about her. I have also read a now out of print book by Annette Motley called GREEN DRAGON, WHITE TIGER. That book succumbs to many of the classic blunders of bodice-ripping historical pageants (particularly ones by white Americans that take place in Asia)--it's too long, a little overblown, and perhaps a teensy bit sympathetic to its very colorful heroine--but it does at least give a straightforward account of the things we know about Empress Wu. I was hoping for another (perhaps more nuanced) retelling.

And Shan Sa's retelling is more nuanced. I also appreciate that as a Chinese national, she might (presumably) have brought something of cultural memory of this loved and hated woman to the story that an American wouldn't have (or, maybe, she at least had to overcome the cultural memory). She also offers an unreliable narrator who forces the reader to reflect on what the true history was. However, I'm not entirely convinced that this unreliable narrator was an intentional creation on Sa's part.

The biggest problem of this book was disorganization of data. The only reason I could even follow the story at all was because I already KNEW what happened in intricate detail--and even then there was some puzzling through Sa's overly ornate and not always informative language.

In fairness, Shan Sa's work has been translated from French and it's possible that some of her English problems with confusing or silly language lie in a translation issue. I'll never know. My overriding problem with this book, though, was the disorganization. I really had trouble making it through to the end.

Anyone looking for a book to write? Maybe you can write a nice version of this story and let me know when it's ready. ;)

Friday, April 4, 2008

IAN MCEWAN/Atonement


This novel has already been reviewed here on this blog, but I thought I'd post a different perspective on the story.

Atonement is more about exploring the minds of different characters than anything else. We get to glimpse the inner workings of a precocious 13-year-old writer set on imposing order on the world around her, a young woman just gaining power over her life after graduating from college, a mother whose distance from her children makes her perception of them seem like that of a deluded psychic, a young man at once confident of his future and plauged with doubts about his recent romantic feelings toward his childhood friend, and one or two other intriguing characters.

The first half of the book is set on examining the motives and perceptions of each character in a series of events that changes all of their lives. The trouble starts when 13-year-old Briony sees her older sister jump into a fountain in her underwear while their housekeeper's son watches. By the end of the day, Briony has committed an act for which she will spend the rest of her life striving to find atonement.

What I love about this book is the exploration of the different personalities involved. I loved every character whose head I got inside of, even those who ended up pitted against each other. I couldn't help being drawn in by the way each one thought about the world--their plans, their memories, their flaws. It was also interesting to see how one person could be different things to different characters: is Robbie passionate or mad? is Paul a fool or a villain? is Emily a snob or an invalid?

The ending is also perfect. It's a bit of a quiet ending, but it brings the story back around to Briony's struggle as a writer to understand good and evil and the perception of truth. If you're okay with some psychological meandering, I definitely recommend this book. If character studies aren't your thing, you might still find the drama interesting enough to carry you through, or you might find yourself skipping to the second half of the book, which follows the plights of a few of the characters during WW II. In any case, I think this book is amazing, and I'm off to see if the movie does it any justice.