Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Pale View of Hills :: Kazuo Ishiguro

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

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

Saturday, December 27, 2008

"The Blood of Flowers" - Anita Amirrezvani


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

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

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

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

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

4.0 out of 5.0 Polo Cocktails.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Amy Bloom/AWAY

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lesley Kagan/LAND OF A HUNDRED WONDERS


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

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" - Lisa See


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

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

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

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

4.5 out of 5.0 Candy Girls.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Alexander Chee/EDINBURGH


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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

JOHN GREEN/Paper Towns

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

is the type to hang out with the band peeps.

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2008

"A Ship Made of Paper" - Scott Spencer


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

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

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

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

4.0 out of 5.0 Sex on the Grass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yael Goldstein Love/THE PASSION OF TASHA DARSKY


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

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

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

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

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

"Trauma" - Patrick McGrath


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

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

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

2.0 out of 5.0 Pegus.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In the Shadow of the Sun King- Golden Keyes Parsons


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"The Confessions of Max Tivoli" - Andrew Sean Greer


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

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

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

4.25 out of 5.0 San Francisco Cocktails.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

3.75 out of 5.0 Ward Eights.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" - Oscar Wilde


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

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

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

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

4.0 out of 5.0 Greyhounds.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Catherine O'Flynn/WHAT WAS LOST


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

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

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