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