Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

My first review! Since being invited to post here, I have been hesitant to do so. Everyone has such great posts and mine feel so simple in comparison. But here's hoping you get something out of it! And that it's not too long...

I'm not sure what I expected from Geek Love, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around how I felt about it. The overall concept is intriguing. A couple working in a carnival decide to create their own family of freaks by experimenting with drug cocktails and pills. Their first son is nothing more than a torso with fins. Next are the Siamese twins. Third they have the albino hunchback dwarf (Olympia, who for all intents and purposes, is the narrator), and finally there is Chick: the one they almost left by a gas station in some small town off the trail of their tour. In between were the ones who didn't make it and are kept in jars in their various stages of life. The kids take turns, along with their mother, cleaning the glass and making them shine.

The outcome of their experiment surpasses even Al and Lil's expectations, and not necessarily for the best. A religious obsession begins to form around Arturo the Aqua Boy. With cult-like fanaticism people begin following the carnival from town to town, rest homes rise up as people lose their limbs and can no longer travel. Followers beg for the opportunity to be operated on by Arty's personal doctor, to lose a toe or foot and more until they are nothing more than a torso like Arty. But what is he teaching them? That to truly value life and appreciate yourself you need a deformity? If you already feel like you're different, you may as well show people how different you are?

Despite their issues I loved these characters. From Arty's megalomania and the twins' vain jealousy to shy Oly the dwarf. And Chick. Especially Chick. To say anything about what made Chick special would be to ruin the book. It's a mystery to even the reader until about halfway through.

In tying up loose ends Dunn explores further, through a newer character, how perfection can be your downfall. That to truly experience what the world has to offer and to live up to your potential, it is essential to take away everything that makes you good. Miss Lick shows Oly a slew of people that she has helped. Miss Lick, being fairly "norm" herself, has turned beauties into monsters in an effort to let them live a life of productivity. A prostitute can be a doctor, a stripper an astrophysicist, if only they can lose the one thing keeping them in their current life. To gain everything, you have to lose everything. Or at least that's what Miss Lick would have you believe. In the end, though, Miss Lick loses everything and gains nothing and the lesson is taught by the most unlikely of teachers.

I think I really loved this book. Yes, think. It was disturbing and creepy and it almost feels wrong to say that I enjoyed it. The characters and the world they inhabit were created so beautifully that despite how unsavory everything was it was impossible to put down. The life they led was so incestuous and perverse, but based on how they were created anything else would have seemed unnatural. When it ended I longed for an epilogue, to know the reactions of the characters left behind. But as it was, the ending was perfect and right.

OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS - Malcolm Gladwell


For decades, there is always at least one how-to book that crops up like a dandelion in a strawberry patch. You know the names, even if you never read past the title: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or Dianetics. I remember "the Secret," as well as "the Word."

Still, Outliers is different. It shows the correlation between success and behaviors, situations, and just plain luck. For example, most Canadian professional hockey players are born in January, February, and March. Do you think that parents plan that? They might start thinking about it, now.

With fantastic interviews that build on basic principals, it is a book that encourages more discussion - even prompting a huge talk about how many hours one must read and write to become a successful author (with my 10-year-old).

4.5 out of 5.0 Knock-Outs.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, a self-described book of instructions "on writing and life," is ideal for writers and those who are intrigued by the writing process. Lamott, an author and creative writing instructor herself, aims to share almost everything she knows about writing in the two hundred plus pages of this book. However, the book is neither technical nor rigidly didactic. In a decidedly lighthearted, humorous way, Lamott shares her general strategies and steps to creating and perfecting a great piece of writing (with an emphasis on fiction). Chapter by chapter, she structures the book almost as a writing class syllabus--or an actual class that she's teaching--and invites us in as students who are willing to hear what she has to say.

Lamott doesn't focus solely on the writing process but also details the different aspects that writers need to consider when working on a literary project. These include finding a support network for feedback and criticism of one's work; dealing with inner demons and issues like low confidence, writer's block, and jealousy; and the pitfalls of publication. She's realistic in conveying the myths of publication and aptly points out the flaws in writers' thinking when they equate publication to fame, fortune, and happiness. One of the many points I loved in the book is Lamott's argument that the ultimate goal of writing shouldn't be publication, since there are many writers who never get published. To her, writing is about expressing the truth, or at least one's truth. It's something noble and important to pour oneself into. And as she so eloquently states on the last page of her book, "writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul." I'm not a fiction writer by any means but found myself moved by her belief in, and passion for, writing. Lamott also speaks of her faith in the role that great writing--and those who produce it--play in our society and lives.

Much of Lamott's information is conveyed through anecdotes and personal experiences in the writing world. What makes reading Book by Book such a pleasure is the hilarious way in which she tells her stories. I even found myself rereading certain passages and parts just for the comedic effect, and it did not disappoint. I was recommended this book as a good read and not so much for the writing advice, so naturally I found certain parts less relevant and enthralling (eg, the chapters on plot, dialogue, etc.) But other chapters are basically universal to all kinds of writing, and her advice in certain chapters is applicable not only to writing, but life itself.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE - Katherine Howe


As I adore asking the question, "What if?" this book was a wonderful treat. What if one of those accused during the Salem Witch trials was, in fact, a witch? I use the term loosely because, as in the novel, there is the current fads of reiki healing, energy work, and aura readings that account for helpful modern "physicks."

This debut novel explores the possibility of a true physick/magic-healer named Deliverance Dane. As 1990s student, Connie Goodwin, a doctoral student of colonial history at Harvard, begins to empty out her grandmother's New England home, she finds clues that lead her on an academic adventure. Her mother, a "healer" who moved to be near energy centers in the southwest United States, makes Connie roll her eyes in frustration. Therefore, the deeper Connie is involved in the mystery, the more she must give up her preconceived notions.

Fascinating premise; however, the book is best for light summer reading due to a sub-plot about a crazed professor and the forced romance between Connie and a local. Still, it held my interest enough to keep me reading late into the night.

3.0 out of 5.0 Salem Witches.

THE EMBERS - Hyatt Bass


Death, family tragedy, dysfunctional relationships - all of the makings of a great Russian novel. Unfortunately, this is the debut fiction of Hyatt Bass, a book that has been glorified by many reviewers.

Not this one.

After 63 pages, I grew exhausted by the whiny, self-absorbed characters. The plot could have pulled me deeper into this tornado, but a quick flip proved that there would be no redemption, just frustration. My wall has enough dents from past clunkers.

Shadows Still Remain



Peter De Jonge is not new to publishing. He's co-authored a couple of novels with James Patterson, so it's hard to call this his debut. Let's call it his first solo run.

This is some serious beach/vacation reading because once you start this book you won't want to put it down. If you've gone on vacation already, I hope you've accumulated a couple of sick days because this book is worth it.

After a night out drinking with friends, Fransesca Pena, a real pull yourself up by your bootstraps NYU scholar/athlete is found dead in a public restroom at East River Park in Manhattan. She's not just dead, she's been tortured. Detective Darlene O'Hara, a hard-drinking Erin Brokovichian character with a badge takes on the case.

That's the set up. Some of the plot points are a bit of a stretch, but it's okay. De Jonge has developed a couple of characters you can really get behind and you'll root for them all the way. And he takes you to the seedy underbelly of NYC where the villains are beyond redemption and prove it.

But, there's always a but in crime novels. Not only are the clues nearly indecipherable, but O'Hara's boss has taken over the case and is about to accuse the wrong person. Racing against the clock, O'Hara must trust her gut, and hit the streets to uncover who tortured Fransesca to death, and why. With more twists and turns than a sidewinder on hot pavement this book will keep you guessing until the end.
Just to let you know - Cut Short is now available. It will launch tonight at Waterstones in Islington Green 6.30-8pm and Waterstones in Harrow 9th July 6.30-8pm. You are welcome to come along and join in the celebrations! Please see my publisher's website www.noexit.co.uk for a schedule of my book signings and author talks around the country.
I'm also running a virtual book signing on my blog leighrussell.blogspot.com
Cut Short is the first in a brand new series of British crime thrillers. I hope it receives a favourable review here! I can't remember if I've sent a review copy to anyone on The Book Book but would love to do so. Please contact me leighrussell@live.co.uk with details of where to send it and I'll put a signed copy in the post - first come first served.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Robert Bolano: 2666

Chilean author Roberto Bolano's 2666, a novel published posthumously and the one that Bolano labored over the last years of his life in completing, is grandiose in every sense of the word.

It is, first and foremost, a massive work that runs the course of nearly 900 pages in English and more than 1100 in its original Spanish. The work, resisting simple categorization, defies standard conventions and may challenge many a reader's notion of literature. It would take a lengthy, detailed write-up to truly get into the heart of this acclaimed 'masterpiece,' but my hope is to convey at least the most salient aspects of my week-long experience reading this broad and overwhelming novel.

While the work in question is Bolano's 2666--that is, one novel--the work may be more aptly described as a collection of five stories (novels each in their own right!), loosely connected in Crash-like fashion, with its center (both thematic and physical) being the city of Santa Teresa, Mexico, a northern border city that many have assumed stands for real-life Ciudad Juarez. In particular, it's the killings and disappearances of hundreds of women--a real-life event that continues to this day in Mexico, no less--that Bolano wants to draw our attention to.

But it's not until the fourth part of the book's five divisions that Bolano tackles the subject head on. By that time, we've already read about a group of European professors on the trail of their life's work, a reclusive and mysterious German writer; a Chilean professor living in Santa Teresa (perhaps a stand-in for Bolano himself?); and an African-American journalist who travels to Mexico to cover a boxing match. It's not until the end--of each part and/or the entire novel--that the reader truly understands how all of these seemingly disparate stories connect beyond a common setting and/or character.

More than anything, 2666 struck me as a work of what some would call contrasts and others would call 'broad range.' A strikingly realistic passage is followed by one that is dreamlike, surreal, more like poetry than anything else--wording beyond comprehension. One moment the most elegant scene is presented, soon to be followed by one that's jarring and disturbing in both imagery and language. Bolano succeeds in conveying the atmosphere, tone, and location of each of the novel's five parts; his narration flows seamlessly from formal to informal, refined to grotesque, stuffy to earthy--all based on the character and place we're currently reading. If nothing else, the novel's fourth part, which details the women's murders in all the gritty, gruesome details one would expect from a journalist, is a timely and necessary wake up call for those who aren't aware of the occurrences in Mexico today. A call to action, almost, so things may take a different path.

And yet, for all its achievements in style, technique, and vision, 2666 is not without its flaws. To me, one of the "contrasts" or paradoxes that most defines this novel is how it goes everywhere and nowhere at the same time. By the time you've reached the end--and that's assuming a stubborn patience, a determined will to finish--you've come across dozens of characters, countries, and plot points, but you strangely feel as if you never left in the first place. To put it another way: there's a sense of accomplishment in having read a nearly 900-page novel, but something's still missing. Something's unresolved. Reaching the end doesn't bring the glorious sense of satisfaction that it should.

And then there's the journey itself. Those who tackle 2666 should be well aware in advance--and be able to accept--that the novel won't present a single, coherent storyline from beginning to end. In fact, it's mentioned in the epilogue how, given the novel's "open structure," the five parts of 2666 can hypothetically be read in any order, not necessarily the one in which Bolano chose to present them. Readers accustomed to a traditional plot scheme may be frustrated in not knowing what the real ending of the novel, if there is one, is. Speaking of the ending, Bolano certainly takes his time in getting there. While there are certainly priceless passages that are to be savored and remembered, you get the feeling that some (or much, depending on the reader) of 2666's text is filler: unbearably long passages, some told in rambling, stream of consciousness prose, that have seemingly nothing to do with the story at hand. Worse yet, Bolano throws in so many allusions and references--geographic, cultural, historical, scientific, literary, mythological, political, medical, etc.--that you wonder whether he's just adding another drop in the bucket to his novel's "worldliness" or plain boasting his indisputably erudite background. The superfluous mentions from these varied fields of knowledge are enough to boggle all but the most scholarly of readers.

It's been said that 2666 is more about trying to enjoy the journey than looking forward to reaching the destination, and I would agree to this statement based on my reading of the novel. It is undeniably the most unique and bizarre literary experience I've ever come across, for better or for worse.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Michael Perry/COOP

Book cover: Coop, by Michael PerryIt didn't just stumble into the bookstore yesterday, this time-honored (if not quite hoary) premise: the self-deprecating, fish-out-of-water tale of the sophisticated writer who moves to the farm and reports back to ignorant us about the adventures of a rustic life.

So along comes Michael Perry's Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting. You look at the cover. Bald-headed young guy holding a chicken in his arms, his goofy, slightly deranged grin apparently acquired on his escape, unscathed, from a rugby scrum. More of the same, you expect.

The summary at the top of the jacket flap seems to promise it, too:
In over his head with two pigs, a dozen chickens, and a baby due any minute, the acclaimed author of Truck: A Love Story gives us a humorous, heartfelt memoir of a new life in the country.
Ah, you tell yourself. I always like reading this sort of book. Gonna be an entertaining read. So you settle in for 350 pages of laughs at thumbs smashed by farm machinery, seat-squirms at the births (probably literally first-hand) of livestock, and moodiness induced by lyrical passages about sunsets, breezes, the undulation of meadows, the cawing of crows, the smell of sod.

You encounter your first little surprise in the prologue's first sentence: "At the earliest edges of my memory, my father is plowing, and I am running behind him." So you amend: Not just a one-year memoir. He's returning to his roots, not inventing roots where none existed.

But that's not right, either -- not entirely, exactly right. Perry's book resists categorization, in ways that must have frustrated the bejeezus out of his editors and marketing-type folks at HarperCollins.

Coop interleaves these strands of plot:
  • the loving relationships among Perry, his wife Anneliese, their six-year-old daughter Amy, and their (eventually) newborn infant Jane;
  • memories of his boyhood on a family farm;
  • reflections on matters of the spirit, a sort of backstory viewed through the lens of a lapsed member of a small religious sect; and yes,
  • starting a farm: acquiring (and housing) chickens, growing (and feeding, and feeding, and feeding) pigs, and so on.
Along the way, you get many of those expected smiles and outright laughs and clutches at the throat. You encounter tragedy, both remembered and present-day varieties.

Even if the sentiments of domestic life fail to move you, though, prepare yourself to nod in appreciation of Perry's ease with the English language.

As I read, I dog-eared dozens of pages as examples to cite in this review. In the event, the page to which I just opened the book has no dog-ear, though. It's the start of Chapter 5, right at a time in the story's arc when Perry has been regaling us with the saga of Jane's any-day-now birth:
Across the valley, the bare-bone tree line is thickening. The maple leaves are fit to bust but holding fast, this year's greenery still clasped in a tight fetal furl. The bud scales are dark red, infusing the canopy with a rubrous blush, shrouding the hills all smoky maroon. It is mid-afternoon, sunny, and still. I hear sparrows.

There is a baby on my lap.
Oh.

That first paragraph treads awfully close to the line of purple (or at least dark-red, rubrous, smoky-maroon) prose. It's saved -- barely -- by that casual bust, where a writer less in control of himself might not have resisted the tug of burst.

But the second short paragraph throws on the brakes, redeeming the nearly hokey springtime-is-icumen-in metaphor with the sudden, stubbornly plain-spoken fact of new birth. Passages like these, yes, may pluck at the heartstrings. But more, they're the product of a writer who knows (probably without thinking) how a reader's mind may turn at each moment -- who knows how to help it turn, without the browbeating of melodrama.

Sometimes Perry recalls details of the adoptive siblings and temporary near-siblings -- over a hundred all told over the years -- with whom he and his generous birth family shared a house and meals, and who wandered into and out of their lives. His parents, it seems, were so well-regarded as parents that various social agencies ensured a changing cast of characters. Many of these children were "special-needs" kids: like Rya, who---

Well, no spoilers. But as with the passage quoted above, Perry manages to tell Rya's story in a manner both matter-of-fact and moving. I think you'll remember Rya.

Now, it's true: Coop is not perfect.

I expect in reading a book like this -- any nonfiction book, for that matter -- to come away knowing some things I didn't know when I walked through the door. But I started to lose patience with Coop during a long passage in which details of the mechanics of plowing seemed to go on, and on, and on. I started to wonder if maybe this was an implicit metaphor for long days seated on a tractor, the sun beating down, the cruel trick of geometric perspective teasing you that you're almost to the end of the row, almost, you're getting there, almost, any damn minute now you'll be turning the corner...

But such moments, for me, were rare. Especially, to repeat: Coop comes with plenty of laughs.

By the time I finished the book, yes, my predominant mood was regret. But as I look back now at all those dog-eared moments, I remember again how much I'd flat-out enjoyed reading it.

At one point, Perry is recalling the work of a man employed by his father as an artificial inseminator -- "the breeder man" -- who, umm, serviced the cows.
...the inseminator stopped behind the cow, drew on a shoulder-length plastic glove, and stepped across the gutter [in the barn floor]. After patting the cow to calm her, he grabbed her tail, hoisted it, and from then on the whole deal was very personal.

I can't say the cows ever appeared overly distressed by what certainly had to be a disruption in their day. They would pause in chewing their cud, kinda freezing in a "hunh?" sorta pose, and their eyes would bulge a tad, about like yours would at the point of realizing your taxes were due yesterday.
Ha! Again, Perry intuits just how to nudge the reader along, without prod or bludgeon, down paths complicated by emotion, biology, and the sheer weight of fact.

I greatly admire this talent, especially in non-fiction writers; it's a gift they don't have to give us, after all. And it's a gift which Michael Perry grants (yes, even in the loooong furrows of the plowing epic) on every page of his marvelous Coop.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

LOST AND FOUND by Andrew Clements

LOST AND FOUND is a middle-grade book about two boys, Jay Ray and Ray Jay, who are twins looking for their separate identities. Each wonders what it would feel like to be a separate person rather than half of a set. When the school they transfer to receives only one file, they seize the opportunity to be seen as an individual. Both boys decide to pretend to be the person on the file, Ray Jay, and take turns going to school. Hilarity ensues.


It's a funny and sympathetic look at life as a twin. The author is a father of twin boys, and I believe this gave the book a level of authenticity. This is nicely drawn as a character-driven story. It's pace is a bit slower than I'm used to for a 'boy's' book, but it's vintage Clements. Andrew Clements is the master at writing about school life and the challenges faced by children. This book (as well as the others I've read by him) has a happy ending. I recommend it for both boys and girls.


Friday, June 12, 2009

IN THE WAKE OF THE BOATMAN - Jonathon Scott Fuqua


The relationship between fathers and sons is rocky, precarious, tenuous at times, as I watch my boys, as I watch my friends' families. I wonder at adult males who like their fathers.

IN THE WAKE OF THE BOATMAN explores this relationship from before the main character, Puttnam Steward, is born until a crumbling mid-life crisis that makes him reassess everything about himself. Not to be coy, but all that he learned, he learned as a kindergartner - rough lessons from a damaged, pathetic father.

As Putt tries to figure out himself as a teen and young adult, he ends up putting himself in situations where he is in danger, yet he comes out as a hero each time. This further enrages him because he cannot connect the person he is with the one others see. The person he is wants to wear dresses and be pretty.

The descriptions are so vivid and consuming that one feels itchy within Putt's skin, just as he did. It is lovely writing regarding a fascinating subject.

4.25 out of 5.0 Boat Drinks.

Hannah Berry/BRITTEN AND BRULIGHTLY

A graphic novel with the soul of film noir, Berry's beautifully illustrated story follows a disenchanted private eye named Britten. Britten's history of investigating cheaters and delivering the bad news has earned him the reputation "Heartbreaker" and has left him with little to live for. He takes on a murder case, the only thing he'll get out of bed for anymore, when a young woman tells him her fiance's suicide death looks more like foul play.

Britten pokes around a gloomy city perpetually misted with rain, maintaining his deadpan demeanor. He's assisted by his "partner" Brulightly, really just a teabag to which the private eye explains his thoughts and channels back a wicked sense of humor.

The plot is thick, the gray and brown images lovely, the weightiness punctuated by occasional dark humor. The ending rounds out the character's quest for meaning in his gritty job but didn't feel completely justified to me. Still, the writing is spot-on and worth a read.



Elizabeth Jenkins/ELIZABETH THE GREAT

This book is on my list of nonfiction reads. Another thrift store pick, I expected a rather dry read. Instead, this is a fascinating biography of a fascinating and complex woman who ruled England with a velvet fist. 

The book reads like good fiction. I found myself as impatient to find out what happened next as I've been with any fantasy novel. Queen Elizabeth spent her whole life in peril of being beheaded. Even before she took the throne, she was confined to the Tower (where all accused of high crimes are taken before their beheadings) by enemies who had their own ideas about who should succeed their current Queen.

I recently saw the excellent Elizabeth I on HBO, and have seen some of the first and some of the second movies about Elizabeth that Cate Blanchett did. The HBO miniseries presents Elizabeth as continually being frustrated in her attempts to marry. But according to Jenkins, Elizabeth was reluctant to marry. She points out that by the time Elizabeth was eight, she had attended two executions. By then her mother and first step-mother were headless corpses, and it was then (or soon after) that she first uttered the sentence, "I will never marry." 

Jenkins take on Elizabeth was that she deliberately used the prospect of marriage as a diplomatic and negotiating tool. The alliances and treaties drawn up were frequently negotiated with the prospect that Elizabeth would marry one Prince or King or another. Of course, she never did, and Jenkins theories as to why are interesting.

Jenkins explains in her forward that many historically important events are glossed over or barely mentioned in favor of studying the world immediately surrounding Queen Elizabeth. Many times as I was reading my mind drifted back to the HBO series, and I wonder now if the writers used this book heavily. I do think they would have been better off presenting Elizabeth's reluctance to marry, which feels far more plausible than the idea that many men were, for whatever reason, reluctant to marry the Queen of England. However, I think both the book and the TV series got the intrigue and constant planning aspects right. 

In short, terrific read. Jenkins is now firmly on my list of authors of whose work I can't wait to read more. Here's a link to the book. It appears to be out of print, but a plethora of cheap copies are available. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID by Jeff Kinney

If you haven't read a middle-grade book since you were twelve, please start here! You're gonna laugh so hard you'll pee yourself. I promise.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is told via cartoon format. The main character is a boy in middle school. He has an older brother who pounds on him every chance he gets, and a baby brother who gets all the positive attention from his parents.


The first book is mainly about his friendship with Rowley. And the sinister cheese on the playground. Other books are about his family, the soccer team, his older brother, and summer vacation.


The books began in 1994 as an online series at Funbrain.com. From idea to execution to publication, the first book took nine years to write (and illustrate). Kinney's goal was to write about all the funny parts of growing up and none of the serious ones.


There is plenty of humor on every page--the drawings are perfectly matched to bring out the more subtle layers of the text.

Rudyard Kipling/THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and other stories

I had thought these stories - or most of them - were originally part of Kipling's debut collection, Plain Tales From The Hills, which made his reputation and allowed him to return to England after 7 eventful years in India (he'd gone out fresh from school, when still only in his middle teens), and were here renamed - rebranded, perhaps - to trade on the popularity of the longest of the stories, now well-known through the memorable film adaptation of it made in the 1970s by John Huston, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the two amoral adventurers who set themselves up as god-kings of an obscure region of Afghanistan. It seems I was mistaken about that, but I believe these stories have been gathered together from his earliest writings about India in the 1880s - although I haven't been able to track down the original publication date.

Anyway, the 'Hills' of the title of that first collection refer to Simla, the summer capital of the British administration in India and the centre of colonial society (it enjoyed a temperate climate, by virtue of its elevation in the foothills of the Himalayas - in stark contrast to the baking heat of 'the plains' of central India). Many British wives were left unattended here for long periods, while their husbands - civil servants, engineers, army officers, etc. - had to attend to their jobs elsewhere. Many unattached men would eagerly apply for extended summer leave (or seek whatever excuses they could) to spend time there. It was, in short, quite a hotbed of extra-marital naughtiness. These shenanigans, however, are shrouded in tactful self-delusion; so long as people are "discreet", their peers don't get too censorious; husbands, it seems, must know what is going on, but choose not to make a fuss about it most of the time. And there is quite a broad possible spectrum for such relationships: enjoying the flirtatious companionship of young officers - an extended entourage of young officers, in some cases - is considered quite acceptable for most married women; and, given this degree of latitude, it is easy to imagine that many of them are using these very public but supposedly Platonic dalliances to disguise something more earthy. It is a microcosm of Victorian society in general: ostensibly very prim and proper and sexually repressed - but in reality, quite the reverse. Kipling examines this strange milieu with surprising frankness in several of the stories - yet retains also a coy evasiveness about certain details: this was an era when 'to make love to someone' meant 'to make declarations of affection, or to try to win someone over' rather than more directly 'to have sex with'. It is the moral and social consequences of such entanglements that he focuses on, rather than the specifics of the intimate behaviour between the parties.

Kipling seems to take quite a moralising attitude on this - not on the love affairs per se, of which he seems very tolerant, but on the occasionally selfish and callous behaviour of the men (women seem to be far more vulnerable, both in their emotions and in the precariousness of their social position): one young philanderer meets with a fatal riding accident; another is driven mad by the ghost of an abandoned lover. The potential awkwardness of such affairs is more easily swept away, more easily forgotten, forgiven, or simply ignored amid the bustle of Simla, where there may perhaps be many hundreds of such liaisons each year. When they occur on a remote colonial outpost - 'a small station' - with only a handful of foreign residents, they make for grim comedy.

Kipling also shows a sensitive interest in the emotional and imaginative life of young children. One of the most famous stories, Baa Baa Black Sheep, charts the shocking psychological brutalisation of a small boy sent back to England to live with an unloving and fiercely religious aunt, while another movingly illustrates how a child is starved of love and attention because of the cooling of relations between his parents. These two are perhaps the best and most interesting of all the stories here. (There is also a rather good 'horror story' - only slightly let down by an abrupt and perfunctory resolution - about a British engineer whose horse bolts into the desert with him in the saddle one night, and falls into a crater in the sand; the man awakes the next morning to find himself trapped in a hellish community of the 'dead, but not dead' - Indians who have improbably recovered from serious illness after being given up for dead, and have been banished by Hindu superstition to live out the rest of their days as pariahs in this hidden prison.)

These tales, then, are rich in historical interest - particularly for those of us intrigued by the sexual mores of the Victorians. However, I have to warn you that they are very heavy-going. The style is ploddingly laborious, extremely dated; the elaborate wit is too self-conscious, too heavy-handed. (One should perhaps make allowances for inexperience: these stories come from the very beginning of Kipling's career, written when he was a young man, little more than a boy.) And they are often pretty incomprehensible, thanks to the plethora of historical references, obsolete slang, fragments of native Indian dialects, etc. This is a book that is really crying out for footnotes. (I wonder, in fact, how much of this would have been accessible even to his contemporary readers back home: did the experience of British India so pervade the culture that even folks who'd never in their lives set foot outside the British Isles would get all of these references? I somehow doubt it.)

There are also, of course, misgivings about political correctness. Kipling presents the prevailing attitudes and prejudices of the time - that white men are innately superior to the uncleanly and immoral natives, that British rule over India is an undoubted and unqualified good - without comment or criticism, simply as unchallenged, perhaps unchallengeable, fact. Just occasionally one suspects - hopes - that there may be a hint of irony or satire about this; but for the most part, Kipling seems to be approving, even celebratory in his portrayal of the Empire and its assumption of white supremacy. This can make the some of the stories rather unpalatable for the modern reader.

Nevertheless, despite the turgid style, the inaccessibility of many of the references, and the discomforting racism, there is much to enjoy in this book. Kipling had a formidably profuse imagination and a keen eye for detail. There is such a broad range of stories and themes here, such memorable characterization, such withering social satire, that almost everyone will find something to divert them.

It's also made me impatient to get my hands on Charles Allen's new biography, Kipling Sahib.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Carol Shields/THE STONE DIARIES


The life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from 1905 in Manitoba to 199- in Florida, complete with family album photos.

For this 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, Carol Shields essentially created a family scrapbook in the form of a novel (or maybe it's the other way around, it's hard to say). We get the story of how Daisy's parents, Cuyler and Mercy, met and married; how Daisy was born; how her birth and adoptive mothers are each killed; how the peddlar present at her birth felt about coming to North America; how her best friend likes to gossip about sex; how her niece got knocked up by a married man--just about everything except what Daisy actually thinks, feels, wants, or does. The book is told through straight narrative (in first, second, and third person), letters, essays, opinion pieces, even photographs.

I can't make up my mind about this book. I think I liked it in the end, since it seems to have made a pretty strong impression. But I did have long passages of reading 5 pages and realizing I had no idea what was going on, that I'd totally tuned out. It was a lot of work to read for such a short, light book. And while I take Shields's point about how we ignore or miss the people we think we love, I did find it very, very frustrating that we have this whole book supposedly about Daisy Flett and we never really figure out what happens with her life. It made me sad.

Sum total: I'm glad I've read it. I do feel that the act of reading this book made me a better, more thoughtful person. I can't say that there weren't certain frustrations along the way.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Bones" - Jonathan Kellerman


I try to write in the mystery genre, but I do not read a lot of the popular mystery authors. Jonathan Kellerman turned me *off* with a prior book, but I picked this one up for less than a dollar.

Dead bodies in various states of decomposition are found in a suburban Los Angeles protected marsh. Alex Delaware is - dun, dun, dun, dun! - the psychologist who provides insights into the minds of criminals and their behaviors.

Did I learn anything? No, this was a quickie read to satisfy an overwhelmed mind. This psychologist was too HelLA for me, though the chief investigator has some snappy dialogue. There is a lot of backstory that I didn't understand, but I was not compelled to read more of his books to find out why someone ignored someone else and why it wasn't resolved in this book.

Besides, my own psychologist from the realm of *amazing* (near the planet of Rockstar) has provided more forensic information before coffee this morning than a few days spent with this book.

If you like mysteries, supposedly this is a better Alex Delaware novel in the series. If not, you will like mysteries after my books are published. The end.

2.25 out of 5.0 Fruity Bone.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Jane Austen/NORTHANGER ABBEY

I picked this up at a thrift store, thinking it was on my list. Alas, it was not. So I cheated and changed Jane Austen's Emma to Northanger Abbey. But as I'm confessing this, I hope you will absolve me of wrongdoing. : )

Catherine Morland is a poor but happy, naive young woman who makes her first vacation and "debut" at Bath, where she meets Isabella Thorpe, her brother John Thorpe, and the Tilsens. She befriends Isabella, who from early on you see is one of "those" women - capricious, conniving, and manipulative. Her brother John is no better, in fact he is worse, for, in addition to these qualities, he's a loud-mouthed braggart.

Henry Tilsen and his sister Eleanor couldn't be more different. Indeed, Catherine falls for Henry upon their first meeting, and afterward frets visibly until she sees him again. There's not much indication he loves her, too, at least not at first. In fact, there were times in the novel it felt as though he was openly making fun of Catherine.

However, they invite Catherine to Northanger Abbey, where Catherine engages in a few fantasies straight out of the Gothic horror novels she loves. Some of Austen's writing gives some opinion of these novels (and the writers who write them), and also - through Catherine's thoughts and actions - of the readers who read them. Not the highest opinion, but not the lowest, either. Back then, however, I doubt the concept of reading was one which people felt would soon be lost altogether, as I hear frequently lamented today. Her commentary on snobbery is not at all subtle.

I enjoyed this novel, but not deeply. I got the feeling Austen was still teaching herself to write a novel. If I remember correctly, it's only the second one she wrote, so I'm more than willing to try another of hers. I found her to be almost as witty and biting a social satirist as Dickens; I have a feeling her later stuff does her wit more justice.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro


Never Let me Go, is set around the lives of a group of students growing up in a seemingly idyllic English boarding School set in an alternative 1990s. In my opinion, this book is best described as 'haunting' and will stay in your thoughts long after you've put the book back on the shelf.

Its hard to go into any details, as i don't want to ruin the plot, but this book encapsulates a number of broad and important themes, such as what is it that makes us human?- the soul, love, creativity etc., Is our future already determined by who/what we are? The field of medical science and Ethics?

The power of Ishiguro's writing can be best summed up with this quote :

"What I like in a good author isn't what he says, but what he whispers." Logan Pearsall Smith

Although this novel starts in a comfortable nostalgic way, there is always a shadow or hint of the true nature of this skewed world, and although Kath the narrator does touch and question these elements, her own fear of the truth makes her 'push it to the back of her mind'. As a result, the narration isn't a linear telling of the events of Kath, Tommy and Ruth at Hailsham and beyond, but a tapestry of memories and thoughts.

A natural telling of someone narrating their own story. A story which has elements that reflect the experiences of a 'normal' childhood.

Easily this novel could have focused on the more 'cold' aspects of this alternative world, giving dates and figures etc. but instead to reiterate the overall point, it barely hints at the facts of this world till the end, where previous snippets of information are finally tied together and the hard truth of Kath's fate is revealed. But instead it focuses on the 'human' story, through the telling of Kath's life - it properly shows how tragic and inevitable the fate of the donors' lifes are and the lies people tell themselves to cope with being both a donor/carer or being a normal.

Overall, an exceptional complex book which i found hard to review without going into great detail.

10/10 !