Friday, July 31, 2009

Joan Silber/THE SIZE OF THE WORLD


Six short novellas: A young engineer who spent the Vietnam War with the Marines can't make himself leave Southeast Asia, and marries a Thai Buddhist. His American ex-girlfriend charts her life as a single mother in Mexico and Florida. A twenty-something society woman in the 1920s moves to Thailand to join her brother, the tin speculator. A Sicilian woman moves to New Jersey after World War II, but never shakes off the ghost of her brother, or to understand her understand her daughter's love for a Southeasst Asian Muslim. The stories, some connected loosely, some much more tightly, unfold into a very human portrait of American lives that somehow converge or overlap in Thailand.

Although the content is not easy to sum up, the book is. It is simply a very vivid and seemingly faithful portrait of six men and women, their thoughts, feelings, and reflections on life, love, marriage, globalization, religion, culture, etiquette, wealth, and family. Ok, maybe not that simple--but it's a wonderful read.

The sections are either long chapters or short novellas, and are as precise and compelling as any stand-alone short story would have to be. Yet the book offers the satisfaction of novel, as the (tenuous and/or meaningful) ways the characters' lives interconnect becomes apparent.

I personally loved the book because it appeals to some of my favorite topics--Asia, and Italian America. But it's also a thoughtful but quick read, one I completed in two sittings because I found myself turning pages so naturally.

There are lots of subtle, great paragraphs. Here's just one example (this is Toby, the engineer):
I sat on the balcony, eating fish cakes with cucumber and hearing the music someone next door was playing on the radio. A station was playing Thai pop and then a familiar American tune came on--a singer with a deep, scratchy voice was oh-babying his woman to please come back, he needed her so bad. I'd listened to songs like this all my life. Love and more love; you'd think no one in the world did anything but yearn or fuck or swoon or pine every single hour. I knew all the words too, but I had lost my understanding, all at once, of why this was the only version of a full life.

I'd definitely recommend this book--I think it would be a great book to discuss with others, and wish I had a book club to read it with.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pope Joan -a novel- by Donna Woolfolk Cross

This is my debut review on The Book Book and my hands are sweating like the Niagara... so I'll try to keep this short.
Like a lot of girls in the ninth century Catholic world, Joan is not allowed to read or even to learn to read.  However, like any feisty heroin, this does not stop her.  Her scholarly abilities open new doors for her but not all of them lead to a happy place. 
When her brother dies in a Viking attack and she barely manages to escape, Joan makes a decision that will keep her alive but forever disguised.  So disguised that she manages to become Pope.
Great idea for a story, eh?
Well, it ismaybe, probably true.
According to the author, the Vatican denies this story as an “unsubstantiated legend” but they seem to be disregarding “more than 500 ancient manuscripts containing accounts of Joan’s papacy.”
The author takes what little she has found and weaves out a fine story.
This is a novel about family, honor, religion, and what is all that without a bit of romance?
(While reading the book I could see the scenes clearly, I also had a soundtrack in my head complete with the sound effects of my rapidly beating heart. I am not surprised that this book is going to be a movie.)
It's a light read considering the issues the story raises.  I really enjoyed reading the book and was a bit sad that it had to end...but I will happily end my review here because I am still scared silly about posting among such great writers...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

TEARS IN THE DARKNESS: THE STORY OF THE BATAAN DEATH MARCH AND ITS AFTERMATH - Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman


As a child, my grandfather would read the newspaper and say things like, "Those damn Japs, trying to take over ." I knew that was not the right thing to say, and I would look at my sister with big eyes until one of us would break out into giggles. My grandmother would tell us that he had fought in the war and tell him to hush that talk.

Twenty-some years later, I think I understand why he held such long-standing hatred of the Japanese. This book details the atrocities of American prisoners-of-war, and it is so emotionally choking that I had to read it in spurts.

In 1942, American and Filipino soldiers fought for months against the Japanese over a sliver of land called the Bataan peninsula. Ben Steele of the United States Air Force became adept with his rifle, as did many others (cooks, machinists, pilots), but the battle ended with the surrender of 76,000. This is the largest defeat in American military history.

The book mixes biography with heart-wrenching journalism. As we follow Ben Steele's fight for survival - first, the Bataan death march, which was a 66-mile horror; next, the series of POW camps - readers are also told of the struggles of other people, as told through diaries, interviews, and painstaking research.

While Germany is often the "bad guy" of WWII and Japan is considered guilty of Pearl Harbor, this shows another detailed history of the war. It should not be missed by anyone. The beautiful, poignant writing and organization of the material only adds to the powerful tone of the book.

4.75 out of 5.0 Teas.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

After You've Gone by Jeffrey Lent


This short “literary” novel (272 pages) made me think of a musical étude, a piece designed to test the artist’s skill. As I’m not musical, I can only suppose that the comparison was suggested by the cello in the novel, which has, I’m sure, symbolic value; if you read the novel, pay attention to the way the cello is used in the text.

The plot of After You've Gone is fairly straightforward: Henry Dorn, a man who has achieved a modest amount of success in life (rising from a poor Novia Scotia background to become a college professor) suffers the loss of his wife and son in a tragic accident. Given that he had pretty much turned his back on his northern origins, it’s not really surprising that his reaction is flight: he escapes to Amsterdam, and on the way begins a love affair with a young woman who also has some aversion to permanence. As is pretty much obligatory in the case of literary novels, (chronological narration being a big no-no) the narrative meanders around Dorn’s past and present towards its conclusion, which I found slightly unpredictable yet rather disappointing (if you read my reviews regularly, you’ll find I’m rarely satisfied with endings.)

The main theme that emerged from the novel, for me, was one of loss, and how even if we try to escape our past, we gradually build up new ties that become just as binding as the previous ones. Even a new pastime, such as Dorn’s quest to learn an instrument, has implications of involvement and engagement with a new world.

Lent’s prose is very fine; he is not fond of commas, so the words come out in bursts and this builds up a feeling of sensuality in the text, an impression that’s heightened by his descriptions of food and touch. He is less sure-footed when it comes to dialog, though. Although the novel is set in the 1920s, it struck me that I didn’t really feel the sense of being in the past. Although some of the plot elements depend, I think, upon them not happening in the present day, the overall feeling of the novel was contemporary and that, for me, was a jarring factor. There are a couple of scenes that just didn’t work for me, too: a bizarre episode in an Amsterdam jazz café, and the culminating scene of the father/son relationship. I would have cut the first and reworked the second.

I’m left with the impression of a well-written book by an author who hasn’t quite hit his stride. I’ve not read any of Lent’s other books, though, so maybe he just wasn’t 100% comfortable in this story. It’s still worth a look if you like shortish literary pieces.

The Notebook- Nicholas Sparks

The Notebook- Nicholas Sparks
Well, this book was on my Project 100 list and I believe I was one of the last remaining women in the US that hadn't read this novel. I'll preface all of this by saying that I'm not a huge romance reader, but having read and enjoyed Sparks' Three Weeks with my Brother, I was willing to give this a shot.

I'll not give away too much of the plot, but very basically it is about a young man of little means and a young woman of fantastic means who fall in love only to be separated by time and social circumstances.

What made this novel better than the typical love story is the framing of it, as a old man reading the story to an unknown woman. The story is touching and while predictable, still genuinely warm and fuzzy. I did enjoy it. It's a great quick read and especially good when you just want to read and not think too much. Sparks' writing is lovely, clean and concise and his characters are lively and real. While I enjoyed the book in general, I think that I enjoyed it more after reading Three Weeks because I knew how he wrote it and what was happening in his life at the time. Overall, it was worth the hype (and million dollar advance) that it received.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Stephen King/CELL

This book caused me to do something I've never done before: skip to the end. It wasn't suspense that did it. It was irritation.

Irritation is pretty rare for me as a reader. Boredom? Sure. But even that won't stop me from reading until the end (no matter how bitter), nor will it cause me to skip ahead to see if I should waste more time. I can find something of merit in almost anything I read, and some of this is still the ol' King I know and love.

But there was no real suspense in this novel for me. About three-quarters through the book, he reveals the end. In all the books I've read of his, he's never done this. That, and a certain panoramic view throughout the novel, bugged me to no end. For me, King is best when he's intimate, knocking around inside a character's head. There was some of this, but I couldn't bring myself to care about Clay and his band of outcasts. All in all, this is not one of King's better efforts. But he's pretty prolific, so I can forgive a clunker or two. Or three. The truth is, I love King's writing. But not this book.

Maybe it's because I disagree with the premise. Maybe I don't feel cell phones are ticking time bombs, waiting to turn me and my family and friends into a set of zombies to be used for Armageddon. The truth is, I think cell phones are one of the best inventions modern society has had, despite the lack of manners with which people use them. But cell phones aren't the cause of eroding manners—they're a symptom.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth

Having read Interpreter of Maladies last year, I've been determined to read Jhumpa Lahiri's second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, for an unbearably long time. (Moonrat's review of the book, I would add, only increased my eagerness to get a copy and dig in.) Luckily I found a chance this week to read Unaccustomed Earth cover to cover, and I found Lahiri's latest work to be every bit as satisfying as Interpreter of Maladies, even more so.

Unaccustomed Earth finds Lahiri in familiar thematic territory: the lives of Bengali immigrants who seek to find a balance between the cultures of their current and former homeland, the languages they speak, and the values imparted to their children. But the stories here are longer, more complex, and even more nuanced than those in the author's previous short story collection. There's a mixture of emotions, settings, and an array of characters that gives each story its own personality and flavor in Unaccustomed Earth. Through one of the book's recurring themes, intercultural relationships, Lahiri provides an insightful eye into what makes cultures unique but also universal. The author dives into the richness of Indian culture with her details of traditions, attire, and lexicon from the Bengali language. The proof of the stories' universal quality is the fact that almost any reader can find an aspect he/she can relate to in the scenarios presented in these stories: the loss of a parent early in life; the sacrifices we make for professional advancement; jealousy and distrust in a relationship; and the list continues endlessly.

In Lahiri we have a writer who constructs her stories in meticulous and masterful fashion. She writes in delightfully accessible prose, beckoning the reader to begin a story and not leave until it's finished. Her passages flow gracefully, meshing plot, dialogue, and details of her characters' lives past and present. Worthy of mention is Lahiri's ability to take the reader straight into her characters' world, physically and otherwise. I found myself entrenched in the drama and circumstances surrounding the individuals who fill this book--the young woman disappointed by her younger brother, the man who makes a fool of himself in front of his wife and old acquaintances, the daughter who doesn't know what to make of her father's visit.

I understand the weariness of those who find repetitive Lahiri's tackling the same subject matter in book after book. The time may come when Lahiri moves onto new ground thematically, but until then I say we might as well enjoy the splendid storytelling that emerges from what she feels she knows best.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jennifer 8 Lee/THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES: ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD OF CHINESE FOOD


Who could have imagined the fascinating, humorous, horrific, ludicrous, and sad history of American Chinese food? Jenny 8 Lee, apparently. This eminently readable book details Lee's quest to find the origin of the fortune cookie--and the many strange stories of the American "Chinese" restaurant (not to be mistaken with actual Chinese cuisine, which is a totally different set of foods) she uncovered along the way.

Ah yes, this book was written specifically for me. And, it turns out, for most of America--there are more American-style Chinese restaurants in the US than there are McDonald'ses, KFCs, and Burger Kings put together.

The book begins with a 2005 Powerball lottery, when instead of the expected 4 or 6 winners, an unprecedented and unbelievable 110 people won the 2nd place jackpot--they all chose their numbers from the same nationally-distributed fortune cookie.

This is the beginning of what Lee calls "spontaneous self-organization"--literally hundreds of American Chinese restaurants across the country, staffed by strangers who have never met one another and are operating under the thumb of absolutely no higher order, all sell essentially the same foods (not, it should be mentioned, Chinese in their elements or inspiration).

Her quest takes her on the "Long March of General Tso"--where did General Tso's chicken come from? Why do people think sugar-covered fried chicken is a Chinese food, when nothing could be more American? How did this very real war hero, like Colonel Sanders, somehow become famous only for chicken?--to the great Fortune Cookie Debate--are they Chinese or Japanese?--to the kosher duck scandal of 1989, to the origins of the delivery bike culture as it was born in the 1970s, to the village in Fujian from which thousands of Chinese people have departed, risking their lives and at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, to come to America for the opportunity to work thankless hours for the very little we tip them. Lee even goes (literally) around the world on the quest for the "greatest" Chinese restaurant, and explores why it is, exactly, that Chinese food seems to taste better in dive restaurants.

Needless to say, I, um, ate this one up.

And while my boyfriend was a fan of the book, which he stole to read when I was trying to finish it, he would like Miss 8 Lee (should she be reading this) to know he doesn't like her personally. It is HER fault, after all, that every single night for an entire week he was sent out at 11 pm to scrounge up General Tso's Chicken, Hot & Sour Soup, Kung Po Chicken, Crab Rangoon, Beef Chow Fun, and several other late-evening snacks.

Yeah, be forewarned--reading this book will make you hungry.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill


I must be feeling nostalgic for England this week; two posts in a row on British books! This one caught my eye because I used to read Susan Hill when I was in my twenties, when she was writing rather good, creepy ghost stories. I had lost touch with her career for some time, and was quite surprised to see a library recommendation for a Susan Hill... crime novel? Well, I had to read on and find out.


On the face of it, The Risk of Darkness is just another British police procedural, a genre which has its attractions for me when I just need to relax my brain. I landed in the middle of a series, which is always a bit disorienting, but the main characters got sketched in pretty quickly so I wasn't lost for long. There is the usual loner hero; they are generally reserved and private men, whose aura of unattainability and rugged, low-key sexiness has the women round them like flies, and Simon Serailler does not disappoint in that respect. One thing I found strange was that some of the other characters assumed he was gay, and I just couldn't find any explanation of that in this book. Was there something about his personal appearance and manner? All I learned of him was that he has white-blond hair, not generally an indicator of sexual orientation in my experience.


As I got deeper into this novel, I realized that the main character was, in fact, Death. This is not the usual murder-solved-in-the-third-to-last-chapter formula; without spoiling the plot for you, let me just say that you don't have to wait too long for the big catch of the novel. This particular criminal is just part of a dance of death that weaves through the plot, not all attributable to crime by any means. To those characters lucky enough to survive, death brings change and sometimes renewal.


All this weaving and bobbing makes the novel a little fragmented in places, as you're trying to follow several plot lines at once (this may be improved by reading the series from the beginning!). Once you see the unifying element of death, it's much easier to perceive everything falling into place. With short, punchy chapters, this novel reads briskly and easily, so I'm putting it in both the "beach read" and "good" categories. If you like your crime with a British flavor, check this one out of the library, but if your idea of good reading is P.D. James, you might find it a little lightweight.

Making Money by Terry Pratchett


This is the gazillionth book in the Discworld series, and if you don't know what that is this review is going to sound pretty weird. In brief: many years ago Terry Pratchett dreamed up an alternate world which is flat and carried through space on the back of four gigantic elephants standing on the shell of an even more gigantic turtle. In this world, magic is real, Death truly is a scythe-wielding skeleton in a black robe, and a census would have to include troll, dwarf, vampire, golem, and werewolf--among other creatures--in its "ethnicity" box. Within this structure Pratchett explores our society, myths, and institutions, taking them to wherever they might go in a world where pretty much anything is possible.


Confusingly, my picture of the cover of Making Money shows the British version, while the Amazon link shows the American edition. Yes, this is another import from that little island the other side of the pond, where it has achieved huge fame and been made into a TV series. Being a Brit myself, I often find myself wondering how Americans react to Pratchett's very British humor, which is of the deadpan-hilarious variety. I've never read the American editions, so I can't tell you whether they've been altered in any way - I hate it when American publishers do that, as if you Americans can't get your heads round a slightly different culture. I have a much higher opinion of your brainpower.


But I digress. Making Money is set in Ankh-Morpork, the Discworld's largest, most diverse, and most dangerous city, particularly if you eat the sausages. Our hero is Moist von Lipwig who, having saved the Post Office in Going Postal, is beginning to find his life a little too routine. He is rescued from committing crimes to make things more interesting by Lord Vetinari, the city's Patrician/tyrant, who puts Moist in charge of the moribund Bank. Things then get very interesting, as Moist has to deal with Mr. Fusspot, the Lavish family, strange things happening in the basement, golems, a very dead wizard, and an extremely nasty finger.


Having read my way through the Discworld series over the last twenty or so years, I can pretty much tell where these books are going from about page 5. After the first few books, Pratchett settled on a formula and pretty much stuck to it. And yet I keep reading them. Why is this? Possibly because my husband keeps buying them (he's a huge fan) but also, I think, because there's something irresistible about Pratchett's gentle mockery of all we hold dear. He's never cruel, but he has a talent for dissecting all our pretentions and ambitions and holding them up to us in an "oh dear, look at this" kind of way. And he has these throwaway lines that are just a delight to read.


Terry Pratchett now has Alzheimer's, so we may be seeing the last of the Discworld novels soon. If you've never read any of them and want to start, my suggestion would be to go back to the early days, starting with The Color of Magic. By the time you've read enough books to get to the more formulaic later ones, you'll be so fond of this strange universe that you won't mind.


I've classified Making Money as a beach read because the phoned-in plot keeps it out of the "good" category in my opinion. It's still a pleasant way to pass a few hours, and well worth a look if you're after some light humor to pep up your day.

Friday, July 10, 2009

JOSEF JAEGER - Jere' M. Fishback


As I read more YA books, I wonder, "Where were you when I was a teen - and stuck with Gone With the Wind?"

JOSEF JAEGER is no exception. Based on Hitler's Germany, Josef is a 13-year-old who lives with his uncle after his mother's death. His uncle, Ernst Roehm, is the openly gay chief of the Nazi brown shirts. Through his personal experiences, Josef realizes that he is gay, as well.

After Josef is chosen to play the lead in a propaganda film, he finally feels safe. He loves his work, he loves a Jewish boy, and he loves his life in Berlin. However, he hears rumors that his mother's death was not natural, so he does what he can to find out the truth.

I knew I would like this book due to the historical elements, but I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Rather than using a heavy hand with the stories that we have all read - the deaths, the extermination of Jews, the Nazi power - the author uses Josef as a metaphor for the German people. He is a teenager who is trying to find himself during a time when politics truly meant life or death.

My only gripe was that Josef is portrayed as a 13-year-old. Since I live with one, I felt that some of the experiences would have been more believable in a 15- or 16-year-old. While I kept in mind the cultural and time differences, I still have difficulties. Even the cover drawing looks like a much older boy.

Outside of this, the writing is clean and concise. There are beautiful passages of imagery, like jagged snow peaks "looking like monstrous teeth biting into brilliant sky." Fishback's use of language is poetic at points, like a master brushing paint on a canvas. For the author's sake, I hope this book gets banned because then it will receive the attention it deserves.

4.0 out of 5.0 Summer Beers.

Unfinished Business by James Van Praagh


This is another book in a series of reads designed to force me out of my reading comfort zone. I don't normally have much interest in mediums; I believe in a spirit world but I don't think you should be messing with it, on the principle that you never know what's behind the door. So you wouldn't normally catch me picking up a book by a TV medium! I got this one from the library's list of recommendations, so I guess it's flagged as a bestseller.


Maybe it's my unfamiliarity with the genre that's making it hard for me to know what I think of this book. The premise is that we can learn to live better lives from what "the spirits" tell us. Basically your dead mom, dad, uncle Joe, best friend Sally or whoever are still hanging around, just dying (the pun is totally intentional) to tell JVP or any other passing medium that "life" is pretty darn good on the other side and that you can make your life so much better by letting go of your negative emotions. I wish I could have taken a photo of the great look on my husband's face when I suggested that his deceased parents could be standing beside him. I also have a really hard time trying to imagine my late in-laws gabbing on about love and forgiveness. Not that they were bad people; just that New Age vocab wasn't their natural medium of communication. It's funny how all the spirits in the book talk like James Van Praagh.


Apart from a scattering of anecdotes of communication with the spirit world, mostly in the context of TV shows or other such venues, this is mostly a book of good advice. And a lot of it really is good advice: let go of your guilt and fear, forgive people who've hurt you, seek forgiveness from those you've hurt, love people, don't focus on material things and so on. On the less productive side IMHO, there's a big dose of "make it happen" advice along the lines that if you think positive thoughts about your future, you will become nicer, richer, and probably more beautiful. The book, as you might expect, preaches love and tolerance towards all people except, of course, religious people, who are closed-minded gay-haters according to JVP; on this point his own love and tolerance seems to take a nosedive.


The whole thing is embedded in a pink fluffy cloud of platitudes taken from various religions, other New Age gurus, things JVP's friends have said, you name it. The Higher Self is frequently mentioned. My favorite quote is probably "the Virgin Mary and other entities". Karma, reincarnation, NDEs, and all the usual suspects get paraded around in the interests of a deeper, more transcendent, understanding of ourselves.


Personally I'm against this "pick and mix" attitude towards finding a guiding rule for your life. My advice is, study the religion that underlies your own traditions first, so that you understand it thoroughly; don't just rely on what people tell you. Get an understanding of the basic tenets of the other major religions or denominations, and see where they conflict with each other (and they do; Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all logically incompatible despite what the "all paths lead to God" people say.) Then make a decision in favor of one religion or tradition, or if you don't believe any of it declare yourself an atheist. Then keep enquiring, and if you eventually find you're wrong, start the process again. Getting a bit of your beliefs from your Auntie May, a bit from the TV and a bit from the National Enquirer is never going to get you anywhere.


My conclusion: some of you are going to love this book because you're into this sort of thing. The rest of you probably won't read it anyway. These books will always find an audience; this sort of thing has been selling well since the 19th century. Lap it up if you like.


Well, I guess I've branded myself as closed-minded by now, but it's OK as I forgive myself. And as JVP says, "Self-forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. You know you have been healed when you feel one with yourself." So I'll slap on that spiritual Band-Aid and get on with my day. Peace.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sarah Rees Brennan/THE DEMON'S LEXICON


When Nick's brother Alan gets marked for death by a demon, the two must find and kill the magician responsible in order to save Alan. In tow and making things more complicated are a brother and sister with the same problem. Nick has the tricky task of helping these novices while trying not to fall for the girl, whom his brother already has his eye on.

The magic is involved and interesting, the action scenes satisfying. But this book is really about the tense, overly-dependent relationship between Nick and the brother who has practically raised him--Nick's only friend amidst a harsh landscape of evil magicians and soul-hungry demons. The angst is so thick as to be exhausting, the tension relieved only by scenes in which someone is wielding a sword. The love connections are myriad: Nick and the girl, Alan and the girl, Nick and the girl's brother?, the girl and her brother?, Nick and Alan?? The style is good, the dialog is very often hilarious. The ending is really interesting, and two more books will follow.

Enter for a chance to win this book at my other blog, The Spectacle.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Intent to Kill by James Grippando


I didn't get past page 65 or so of this book. I'll tell you why.

The first paragraph of the book starts with "The first thing Ryan found was a hand with part of an arm." But this has nothing to do with a crime. It's a Mr. Potato Head doll that's been thrown about the house. As a reader, I hate having my time wasted. The author feels that he can lure you in then pull the rug out from under you, and make you feel like a dope. Maybe this is some kind of foreshadowing trick, I don't know. I didn't care enough to find out.

The opening of the book was so heavy handed, and after the Mr. Potato Head bit, I didn't want to spend any more time with this book. I realize that in these pot-boilers the plot carries the book, not the characters. We also need a set up. Some newsworthy event that stirs our compassion and intrigues us in some way like a plane crash or train wreck, and this cataclysmic event will then give us a hint of our main character's unique capabilities. But in this book, the set up is not just heavy handed it teeters on the edge of tired cliche.

I know this author has his fans who love his work. One friend of mine told me, "You'll never guess who did it." I should be able to guess if I'm an attentive reader. I just know I don't want to spend the better part of the day being deceived like I was at the beginning. Many of these types of novels will introduce last minute evidence or characters to flush out the story, and for me that's cheating. It's like introducing a new rule in the middle of a baseball game. Sorry, it doesn't work. I'd like to see some of these capable writers reread In Cold Blood and attempt to do something half as good.

After I set this book down, I don't fling books aside anymore, I picked up Shot Through the Heart by Mikal Gilmore. Now that's a book worth reading.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Elise Blackwell / HUNGER



Hunger, the first of Elise Blackwell's four novels, is set in Leningrad during Hitler's siege of the city. During the first winter of the siege, Leningrad suffered a terrible famine. The unnamed narrator of Hunger is a botanist who spends the "hunger winter" helping to guard a precious collection of edible seeds, which could help keep him and his beloved wife alive--if he is willing to compromise his professional ethics by stealing them.

This novel is a quick read, partly because of its low page count, but also because of Blackwell's clean prose. It gets its elegance from straightforward grammatical structures combined with thoughtful diction. Again, the novel takes little time to read, but plenty of time to absorb after you put it down.

So many times, dozens of times, I was told how lucky I was to have no children, how it was easier for us with fewer mouths to feed, not having to hear the horrible cries, to watch those we cherished more than anything, those who depended on us solely, suffer. Oh, the responsibility, people would say. And I would think, oh, the clarity.

Moral clarity, for this narrator, is as elusive as a unicorn.

We don't witness the narrator's crucial choice midway through the book, we are only told what it was and what came after. We don't witness what happens to his wife, we only know that it happened. What we do see is powerful, but I wished for more. I longed for the gripping sensations that I believed would come with being shown these events.

Fortunately, by the end of the novel, I understood that these "off-stage" moments weren't the most important turning points in the story. The events themselves don't cause major changes in the narrator as much as his hindsight does. He isn't recognizably changed until he has had time to reflect on and process the past. The turning point arrives when we see how the narrator comes to terms with what happened during the winter of hunger, and the aftermath of his choices is just as powerful to watch as those dramatic scenes would have been. In the end, I was most interested in the condemning and redemptive power of his small acts and reflections.

This is a debut to be proud of, and I'm looking forward to Blackwell's later novels.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson


This is my first review for the Book Book, and may I say that I'm delighted to join this community of geeks (Moonrat, is there really no non-pejorative way to describe people who log their reading habits?) I really enjoy reading your reviews, and have added many of the books you've chosen to my own reading list. Strangely enough, the book I had just started when I joined this blog also has a lot to say about community, and said it at such length that I'm now getting threatening emails from the library.
Anathem is a large book, both in terms of its physical size (900+ pages) and in terms of its scope of imagination and ideas. Set on a planet called Arbre, it describes a civilization already many thousands of years old, where the rational thinkers (scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and the like) live separated from the rest of society in closed compounds called concents. These bear some resemblance to medieval monasteries, except that their inhabitants, on the whole, don't worship anything. They're not anti-religion exactly; at one point the narrator states that if one of them were to prove the existence of God, the rest would say "nice proof" and begin believing in God. Yep, they're that rational. These people, called avouts, live to think and learn, and are bound by oath to avoid secular (or Saecular, as they would say) distractions such as possessions, technology, and family life (the avout are rendered sterile by their diet.)
The rest of Arbran society is similarly divided: the religious tend to cluster into Arks, roughly equivalent to churches but with a slightly more Branch Davidian flavor, while the rest of the population lives what we'd recognize as ordinary lives, generally in cities near a concent (at the time of the narration, the population is in severe decline so there's plenty of uninhabited space.) At regular intervals there is an Apert, where the concent gates open and the avouts get to mingle with the local populations; this is a chance for brainy children to be recruited into the concent and for avouts to change their minds and go back to ordinary life, although that rarely happens. Hilariously, the Information Technology people have evolved into a race (the Ita) separate from any of those described above; I explained this to my husband, who is an IT guy, and it was slightly worrying that this made perfect sense to him.
Devoid of thinkers, the world outside the concents is, not surprisingly, one of slow technological development and near illiteracy, with the exceptions of the Arks, the Ita, and the Saecular Powers who are a somewhat shadowy bunch of military/political leaders. But then an unprecedented event occurs (I won't say what it is as that would spoil the first part of the novel for you) and these different groups are forced to leave their comfort zones and begin working together, a dynamic that drives the last two-thirds of the book. The engaging young avout who narrates the story, Erasmas, and his friends are caught up in the center of the sweeping changes that result.
I suppose it's inevitable that reading this book reminded me of Dune and the Gormenghast trilogy. The similarity lies in the skillful building up of details so that you find yourself thinking in terms of the world that you're temporarily immersed in. I think Anathem has more to offer in the way of ideas, though; reading it is like paging through the contents of a very well-stocked mind, and in fact I suspect that the book could easily have been twice as long. I'm not crazy about where the plotline ended up (although I can't explain why without introducing some spoilers) but this novel got me thinking about a good many things. Such as, for example, the historical events that got the avout confined to the concents in the first place, and why further attempts were made to limit their power every couple thousand years. The short version is that people who are very good at thinking inevitably come up with ideas that pose a threat to all or part of civilization, and need to be confined and managed. Our own civilization seems to be taking the subtler route of dumbing down everything that can be dumbed down, and mysteriously somehow failing to eliminate recreational drugs.
And I could go on and on, particularly with a 60,000 word limit. This is one of those books that I might actually read again one day, which is a fairly high accolade for me (I'll have to buy it next time.) Character and dialog are both well above average for a book of this genre (I'm assuming that it fits somewhere within fantasy, although to class it alongside the half-naked sword-wielding spell-throwing sort of fantasy is a bit unfair) which is a good thing, as a lot of the dialog deals with difficult concepts. Stephenson avoids the pomposity which dogs both Dune and Gormenghast, so if you threw up your hands in horror when I mentioned those novels please rest assured that you can still read this one. It's my first Neal Stephenson novel, and I am definitely going to give this author another try - suggestions welcome.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I am the Messenger



I am the messenger, is the story of Ed Kennedy (19) who works illegaly for a cab firm, has only three real friends and epitimses the phrases 'waste of space'. between a chainsmoking mother, a stingy friend with 40grand in the bank, a girl he loves to bits but 'likes him too much' for more, a quiet friend with a tattoo of jimmy hendrix, and 'the doorman' who smells like death, you would think Ed Kennedy would be last one chosen to be a hero or a saint.

After a failed bank robbery though, Ed Kennedy becomes the messenger, recieving messages of his next mission via aces. Through acts of kindness to those around him, Ed is being lead by the hand though a journey of self discovery and sometimes, of course is helped with the advice of pie eating hit-men.

This book is YA, and it knows its audience. It was a extremely easy read, but although the language is simple - the meaning isn't. Marcus Zusak shows his talent again with this novel, and although in my opinion it can;t compare to the book thief, it is still excellent.

When i first picked it up, i was hoping for the beautiful descriptive language of the book thief, but this wasn't the case. The language of the book doesn't reflect the writer but reflects the book and its character. I give it 8 out of ten, only because of part of the ending (the ending is excellent), where we discover who is behind the messages - slightly disappointed with that as i thought Ed's first guess near the end would have been a brilliant twist.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A LONG WAY DOWN by Nick Hornby

I was going to review middle-grade books all summer long, but this hilarious book about suicide derailed my intentions.

One New Year's Eve, four people with very different reasons but a common purpose, find their way to the top of a fifteen-story building in London. None of them has calculated that, on a date humans favor for acts of significance, in a place known as a local suicide-jumper's favorite, they might encounter company. A Long Way Down is the story of what happens next, and what doesn't..." New York Times Book Review



With four main and distinctive characters, Hornby succeeded beyond expectation in bringing each voice to life through his first-person narratives.


Three of the characters are British, and one is American. Hornby's humor is honest and wry, and he captures British 'isms' as well as American 'isms.' There is a scene at the beginning of the book where they're all sharing stories about why they're up on that roof. It's quite hilarious as they each feel compelled to outdo one another---whose life is the most miserable? The American --who ends up on the roof with a few pizzas--had to make up a life-threatening disease. His breaking up with his band didn't feel worthy enough a reason to jump off the roof.
By the end of the book (nobody jumps, but then you realize that right away), each character finds a patchwork of peace to their lives. It's not about the grand solutions or sweeping fixes (which are both both boring and fake), it's about the smaller moments of decision which allow each character to grow.


The dialogue is fast-paced and the characters are flawed and real. If you like Richard Russo's characters, I think you'll like this book. I read it in two sittings.


If You Want to Write- Brenda Ueland; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle- David Wroblewski; For One More Day- Mitch Albom

Here's a drive by book review. I haven't been in my house for more than about 48 hours in the last two months. Unfortunately, that also hasn't translated into good blogging or reading time, but I have read a few books. Here are the super quick and dirty reviews.

If You Want to Write- Brenda Ueland
This was a decent book. I liked some of her advice, expecially about finding the microscopic truth in everything you write. It really had a quiet confidence to it. I don't know that I like it more than Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, but it was pretty good. Worth the read for any writer.





The Story of Edgar Sawtelle- David Wroblewski
I'm almost always a day late and a dollar short in jumping on the Oprah bandwagon. So, I'm sure by this point many of you have already read this book, or read a million reviews about it, but here's what I think anyway. I liked it. It was a nice sweeping style family epic that we haven't seen in a while. I felt it moved a little slowly at times, and I can't say that I loved the ending. However, Wroblewski's writing is fantastic and his characters are really intriguing and have a depth that most authors don't achieve. Quite good overall, but not earth-shattering.

For One More Day- Mitch Albom
I might be a little biased on this one, having lost my own mother, but I loved this novel. It is so crisp and beautiful. The concept is intriguing and the pacing is spectacular. Albom creates a magical space and I bought it. The characters are very real and the plot is everyone's wish. Read it, definitely. It's a quick read and is quite amazing.