Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Sense of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a very short novel, more of a novella at only 163 pages, that has appeared on list after list after list of 2011 Best Books of the Year.  I didn't know much about this book, but since it won the Man Booker prize, was short, was about memory and perception, and became available at the library, I decided to give it a go. The novella tells the story of Tony Webster, a 60ish man reflecting back on time spent and interactions with his college girlfriend Veronica and genius childhood friend Adrian.

It's actually almost impossible to go into what I didn't like about the book without spoiling it for anyone who wants to read it. While the novel's musings about our memory's handling of time and our own life histories are infinitely quotable, the plot meanders about through the lives of a few rather unlikeable characters with little emotion or personality behind them, other than the caricatures they are made out to be. The plot is more a vehicle for the quotable (and highly insightful) musings than a story well-told. Don't get me wrong - the novella is beautifully written, and this would not cause me to rule out reading more Barnes' works. But Veronica's cryptic dialogue & her lack of any redeeming traits did make me wonder if Barnes thinks women are, as Tony's ex-wife put it, easily categorized into two camps: "those with clear edges to them, and those who implied mystery." Veronica, of course, was supposed to be in the latter camp.

I did enjoy and agree with many of the musings about life, and how our memories are dynamic as opposed to static - self-editing over time, how we can feel one way about our pasts one moment, then look at it through another lens & our opinion of it completely changes. Here are a few of those quotes I was talking about:
I'd read somewhere that if you want to make people pay attention to what you're saying, you don't raise your voice but lower it: this is what really commands attention.
We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it out to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient--it's not useful--to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives, so we ignore it.
In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian's terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse--a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred--about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded--and how pitiful that was.
When you are in your twenties, even if you're confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later ... later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It's a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it's obvious why you did; if you don't, then the log of your journey is much less clear.  
 So, yes, insightful and quotable. But as for the story itself, Veronica was constantly telling Tony: "You just don't get it, do you? You never did, and you never will." That's probably true about me and the plot of this novella. Or, I understood the overall purpose, but found the story a weak delivery vehicle.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Impressions

After reading that The Night Circus failed to live up to Beth and Carrie's expectations from the considerable hype, I was less excited to read this novel. I waited patiently until it came up in the library queue, and when it did, I picked it up out of mild (instead of burning) curiosity. Because my hopes had been dampened, I may have enjoyed this book much more than had I read it a couple months earlier. A short synopsis, as this is likely the 1387th review you've seen on this book:
  • Setting: An enchanting, entirely black and white circus, open only at night, that travels without notice - one never knows when or where it will show up or how long it will stay. 
  • Plot: two young children are chosen to compete in a mysterious duel of magic and illusion, a competition for which they train throughout their childhood, and once begun lasts years with no clear rules or stakes or end. 
  • Themes: chaos vs. order and control, innate vs. learned ability, illusion vs. reality, time and timing - fate vs free will.
If you prefer character-based novels, be forewarned: The Night Circus is almost entirely plot and setting driven, the characters merely outlines of chess pieces (I steal that comparison directly from the book), fleshed out only so much as necessary to move the story forward. Think Agatha Christie, with magic but no murder to solve - each character with an identifying characteristic to keep them straight (the tattooed contortionist, the farmer's son, the fortune-teller, the stylish former ballerina, the clockmaker, etc.). The character's special abilities are much more central to the tale than their personalities, which, as has been mentioned, were somewhat flat. All were defined by their skills and principles. I didn't actually mind this at all while reading - I was entirely riveted by the atmosphere Morgenstern deftly created. Her descriptions of this enchanting world brought the circus to life as if a Tim Burton film was playing in my head. 

The love story aspect more difficult to accept unless thought of in fairy tale terms - fairy tale romances are rarely based on much of substance, but mostly on whimsical fancy, and this is no exception, which was not an issue for me since the story was not first or foremost a romance, but more of a fable about what is under one's control and what is not, and the blurred lines between dreamlike illusions and reality - what is reality, after all, but what we choose to believe it to be.

Thematic quotes:
People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told to see.
This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it.
Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict.
Overall, I found this to be an incredibly enjoyable and captivating read, making me wish such a whimsical circus would appear randomly in my town, just to get a taste of the impossible even if for only a moment.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My Life In France by Julia Child: Impressions


I found this photo somewhere on the internet. I had to use it because, let's be honest, don't we all leave your books lying on the floor with a crisp rose oh so carefully strewn across each of their covers? Admit it. You totally do. I, myself, have a florist on speed dial just so that I can keep my books happy with fresh roses.

If you have managed to distract yourself long enough from the beautiful bloom (or perhaps  read the title of this post), you may have ascertained that the rose-bedecked book & thus the true subject of this post is, indeed, My Life in France, by Julia Child & her grand nephew Alex Prud'homme. This book was also our book club's selection last month. I can't say that I particularly enjoyed it. But finish it I did, because I am terrible at intentionally not finishing books. It's a sickness.

Why didn't I particularly enjoy it? Well, for one thing, it's mostly about food. French food. I am not the most adventurous eater out there, and I really do not like French food. It is very meat/animal based, for one, and I don't eat many animals. (I do occasionally eat fish or poultry, but not often.)  The bloody duck-crushing bit and the live lobster chopping bit had to be read in close proximity to a bucket, lest my gag-reflex get the better of me. Also, apparently lots and lots of butter is the answer to any culinary problem. I'm not anti-butter by any means, but I'm anti globs and globs of butter on everything. Much of the book was filled with such food talk, or read like a factual diary entry with a recap of a night out or a dinner event (we went here, and ate this, and then we ate this, and then this, with this wine, and it was delicious, then we went there and met so-and-so and ate that, and then finally we went home at 2am!!) which, shockingly, I found very dull.

Luckily, it was not entirely boring or out-grossing, and I did enjoy her depictions of French life, her anecdotes about things such as how to survive a French dinner party ("Just speak very loudly and quickly, state your position with utter conviction, as the French do, and you'll have a marvelous time!!"), and her observations about the policies and politics of the time period. She and her husband Paul were unabashedly liberal; Paul worked for the Foreign Service and at some point was summoned back to the States for an investigation into his alleged Communist and homosexual leanings. And her descriptions of Provence at the time make it sound like an utterly magical place: 

Bumping up the rutted driveway, we were struck, once again, by what Paul termed "the Reverse Hornet-Sting" of the place--the shockingly fresh and inspirational jolt we got from our lovely hideaway. It was the cool, early-morning layers of fog in the valleys; Esterel's volcanic mountains jutting up out of the glittering sea; the warming Provencal sun and bright-blue sky; the odor of earth and cow dung and burning grapevine prunings; the colorful violets and irises and mimosas; the olives blackening; the sound of little owls talking back and forth; the sea-bottom tast of Belon oysters; the noisy fun of the marketplace; the deeply quiet, sparkling nights with a crescent moon hanging overhead like a lamp.

I never watched any of her cooking shows growing up and knew virtually nothing about Ms. Child before reading this, and I found one of the most refreshing things about her story to be that she did not come into her own until her late 30s and early 40s. In fact, before she moved to France when she was 36, she was an absolutely horrid cook. She comes across as something of a strong-willed, OCD but lovable kook, and she was probably delightful company. 

The book was not a total wash for me. If you are into food and meat and cooking and duck-crushing you will probably enjoy this read much more than I. While I don't regret reading it, I definitely could have done without. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Back to life back to reality

Last week, that was my view. Oregon coast. November. 2011.

8 days ago, the Co-conspirator, aka The Wombat, and I, well, we got crazy and made this whole life partnership thing all official-like. The ceremony was ten minutes. The judge called me Christine (but corrected himself later), we forgot to take out the jokey "ridiculously good-looking" couple bit we were zoolandering with and so it stayed in the vows, and suddenly it was the end of the world as we knew it. No really. That was the last song of the evening, and it seemed to directly follow the ceremony. It really did fast forward straight from the vows the the last song. Suddenly, it was all over. Everyone tells you that's what will happen, but honestly, you really will miss your own wedding due to some sort of mysterious time warp reserved only for those silly enough to get married and invite people to watch the spectacle.

We were honored and giddy that so many of our wonderful friends and family worked hard to show up from all corners of the country to make the event as lovely and warm as it was. Seriously, it was great to see so many of our favorite people together all in the same place.

We then went on a mini-trip to the Oregon coast, via Portlandia, to the same inn where we reconnected exactly 4 years ago. Yeah, we're those kooky people, apparently. Our jackets still smell like smokey fireplaces and sea air. We're back, though, and The Wombat is already working in Texas on some ridiculous show, and I have to go back to work in 9 short hours. Do you think I can call in married? How about dead? Probably not.

So far, marriage feels exactly the same as being together before marriage... but subtly better. Like a tweak to the background that you can't quite pinpoint, or a slight vivification of the color, or an upgraded operating system in which things are pretty much the same but just work more smoothly, or some other geeky analogy that escapes me at this late hour. Hopefully, this lasts a little while.

Anyway, I'm mostly back, hopefully, with more regularity, now that I don't have a goofy wedding to think about. What's funny, I started reading Infinite Jest again on the plane out, and of course, I happened to be on November 5-6, Y.D.A.U., which I found to be a weird coincidence. For those wondering, it was the hilarious conversation between Orin and Hal about toenails, Himself and, well, the microwave. So. You know. Totally fitting for newlyweds.

Ok! Off to read and sleep and stuff. I leave you with some highlights. See you around the interwebs.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

24hour Readathon has begun!

Well, I've already managed to sleep through the first 4 hours, but it was much needed. Now I am awake, coffee brewing, and ready to go! I think I'll just try to update this post throughout the day.

Introduction Meme (Found at Blue Bookcase)

1)Where are you reading from today? 
I'm reading from STL, MO.

2)Three random facts about me…
-I love coffee, pasta, cheese, and Indian food, and the secondary colors
-I'm 5'10"
-I can't stand things touching my neck. Turtlenecks, chokers = impossibilities for me.

3)How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?
Just 2 - I have The God of Small Things, which I must read in it's entirety in the next 8 hours, and Middlesex, which I'm about halfway through.

4)Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?
Being my first time, my goal is just to devote as much time to reading and book-related things as possible. I have Book Club tonight, which should be interesting -- I'll try to tweet/blog from there.

5)If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time?
Sooo not a veteran.

Ok! Back later!

Only on page 161 of The God of Small Things. Might have to be slightly late to book club, but I believe I can just about finish it. It's challenging to read quickly because it's a book with language best savored rather than devoured. Hope everyone else is faring well.

Just got back from book club. Managed to get to 218 or so, but the discussion went well anyway! Not sure I'm going to manage to stay awake much longer here, though.

I have learned through the comments that easy fluffy books may be the way to go for readathons in the future! Intense or intricately plotted books are not the easiest things to tackle for hours on end.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Readathon fast approaching

The Readathon is tomorrow already! In less than 9 hours, in fact. How has this come up so quickly? I hope I can participate as much as I wanted. For some reason that is completely unclear to me, I had it in my mind that it started at noon, which was fine, since I'm on call overnight & have some non-book life stuff to deal with at some point tomorrow, AND book club got moved to tomorrow night, which I couldn't really object to since it's still book-related (right? In person discussion!) and I have to reread The God of Small Things for it, in its entirety because I'm just coming off a hellish week and have had Absolutely No Time to devote to anything that wasn't stress or exhaustion related.  Anyway, it starts at 7am where I am, at which time I'll probably be awake but I'll likely have interruptions.  Hopefully not too many. That lousy real world gets in the way much too often.

I hope to participate as much as I can, but I'm new to this and not entirely sure how it works. I may do it wrong. I know I won't read for 24 hours straight - I will go to sleep at some point, being over 25 and all. (Why is it that one's ability to subsist on minimal sleep substantially diminishes in one's late 20s? Or is it just me?) As mentioned, I'll be focusing on The God of Small Things, with some Middlesex thrown in if there's time, and with a possible short story for RIP VI if I can manage it, since I haven't managed to participate in that yet. And then there's book club at 8pm, from which I am considering 'live' tweeting/blogging... My non-tweeting, non-blogging co-members would just love that, I'm sure. Or maybe it would get them online and discussing books here too. You never now. We shall see.

Hope to see you around here tomorrow.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reading Buddies Discussion: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex has been sitting on my shelf for years - so many years that it's managed to sit on many iterations of my shelves throughout several moves, including across the country and halfway back. A friend of mine read and loved this book, so much so that he gave me his copy in the middle of grad school, when too many other obligations prevented me from picking it up. When Erin from Erin Reads mentioned they'd be reading it as the October Reading Buddies selection, I knew I had to join in. But, as usual, I'm a little behind the post schedule - 2 days to be exact. I wanted to get a little further into the novel before discussing my initial impressions.

I can see now why everyone has such a giant literary crush on Eugenides - his writing is rich with imagery and humor, vibrant characters, colorful settings and cultures, and narratives that sweep across generations and geography, histories and subjects with the ease of clear water flowing down a mountain stream. The beauty of the story is that although you have an idea of where it is ultimately headed, you have absolutely no idea of what will befall the characters along the way. I somehow came into this novel knowing only the very rudimentary bits of what it was about - a transgender character finding her and then himself. That's all I knew. I didn't know it started generations back, and covered the Turkish destruction of Smyna and the Greek immigrant experience...in Detroit of all cities.

Like Erin, I had the print version of the book, as mentioned, but also had the audio from the library, which is what I've gone with. And the audiobook is phenomenal. The narrator, Kristoffer Tabori, has a voice and tone to perfectly match those of Eugenides' language. The characters come alive through his enthusiastic narration - sometimes I pick up the print book to read along (being a little to visual when it comes to reading to completely adapt), but most of the time the audio is almost preferable. (I am happy to find that I read much faster than I speak, though.) Best thing about audio is that you can read while driving, while doing errands, while cleaning the house, doing laundry, working out, even with a headache that would normally prevent much reading. Another good thing: pronunciation. My inner voice no doubt would butchered the pronunciation of many of the names and Greek words. I'd have been pronouncing Smyrna incorrectly in my head the entire time had I only picked up the print version of the book.

I am only about 30% through the book, and can't wait to see what's ahead. It seems like others are enjoying it as well! I'm wondering if I'll be able to put off reading The Marriage Plot until the hype dies down or not.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant: Impressions


Wherever You Go is Joan Leegant's elegant and lyrical novel exploring the relationship between American Jews and Israel, their faith, and each other. It's told through the points of view of three separate, disconnected characters: Yona Stern, a 30-year-old single woman who is at sea in her own life in New York and travels to Israel to attempt reconciliation with her sister, now part of a settlement in the Palestinian territories; Mark Greenglass, a drug addict turned Talmud teacher who's just lost the religion that saved him; and Aaron Blinder, a young, directionless, immature college drop out who finds himself drawn into a Jewish extremist group in Israel.

The novel explores the question of Jewish faith and faith in general, and different ways Jews come to terms with their Jewishness both culturally and spiritually. We get to know the characters through their present inner struggles peppered with snapshots of the key moments from their past that led them to where they currently find themselves. Yona, an artist at heart, has been punishing herself for her betrayal of her sister, Dena, over the past decade. It becomes clear later in the novel that she is not in Israel to make amends with her sister so much as to learn to forgive herself.

In fact, all of the characters, in the end, are searching for ways to live with the decisions they've made. Mark feels perpetual guilt (is there a Jewish guilt just like there's a Catholic guilt?) that the addict girlfriend of his youth, once considered the love of his life, remains trapped in the drug-addled existence from which he managed to escape. He has a tiring savior complex about it, not realizing that she is not his to save. Aaron can't come to terms with the terrible mess he's made of his own unintentional life, and only realizes he wants to fix it after he's practically ruined it beyond repair.

Much of the novel explores the tragedies of our failures to understand each other and ourselves, encapsulated in an observation by Yona's precocious neice:

"That's the thing about animal cries," the girl said. "About any creature we don't understand. Some sounds are hostile and others are friendly, but we can't tell the difference."

Leegant's writing is descriptive and detached yet emotionally present. I've never traveled to Israel but the word-sketches and anecdotes were vivid enough to make me believe that I had. The character names also clearly have some meaning (Aaron's last name of Blinder being the most obvious), as well as Leegant's choice to refer to both Yona and Aaron by their first names and Greenglass by his last. She also depicts the dangerous effects of extremist thinking in a fresh way - and gives a face to the Jewish side of religious extremism.

If you enjoy novels that give you a glimpse into ways of life with which you are unfamiliar, I would definitely recommend this. In the end, the novel highlights the importance of forgiveness and compassion and redemption, for ourselves and others. In a dream, Greenglass learns:

To live is to make mistakes! To accumulate regrets! We should welcome our mistakes like flowers, collect our regrets and care for them, for they too sprout from good soil.

*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What's with all the reader formatism?

I'm sensing a growing... formatism in the book world, a new form of bookish snobbery. That is, reading formatism, aka, in which format you prefer to read. Hardcover? Paperback? Audio? ... GASP EREADER? DEAR GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU the internet seems to cry. DON'T YOU KNOW YOU ARE KILLING THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE? AND BORDERS, RIP!

Pledges to read the printed word abound. People, including indie bookstore owners and avid readers everywhere, blame evil Amazon and the Kindle for their struggle to survive amid the rise in bookstore closings the past few years. Tumblr had this post circulating today, and probably for a while now, in which pictures of closed bookstores are depressingly lined up, possibly to shame us. "I pledge to read the printed word" says one comment. Another, "I'll never by an eReader." And lastly, "Breaks my heart to see this. Precisely the reason I pledged to read the printed word a year ago."

Readers, yes, it is devastating, tragic, even, to lose bookstores, indie and goliath alike. But, I can't help but ask: seriously? Do you actually think Amazon and rise of ebooks are entirely to blame? Have you, by some small chance, noticed anything else going on in the world over the past 3-4 years? Like, perhaps, oh, I don't know, maybe the financial meltdown and the collapse of the global economy, and the impending imploding economical apocalypse of doom the media keeps crying about? Would you consider, possibly, that some of that may have had an effect on bookstores' buoyancy battles?

Here's the thing. Despite the economageddon and our imminent deaths at the hands of the army of the undead (lurking creepily around the next corner), book sales have, according to the AAP, remained, amazingly, somewhat steady. Yes, ebook sales are increasing dramatically, and paper book sales are declining, but, really, it's not as bad as everyone is whining about:
According to Tom Allen, President and Chief Executive Officer of AAP, “The February results reflect two core facts: people love books and publishers actively serve readers wherever they are. The public is embracing the breadth and variety of reading choices available to them. They have made e-Books permanent additions to their lifestyle while maintaining interest in print format books.” (emphasis mine)
The amazing thing is that people are reading and talking about it like never before. We're tweeting about it. We're blogging about it. We're sharing on Goodreads. We're interacting with authors on all these platforms. Some are creating sites dedicated to the passion of reading.

One more fallacy in the argument of the ebook as having sole responsibility for a decline in indie sales: The library. No one is going to blame the library - where you can go borrow just about any book you want - for FREE - for the demise of the bookstore.  (Are they?) Furthermore, most independent stores now have an option to buy an ebook through their websites (using google kobo books), allowing the tech-savvy reader to both buy an ebook and support his or her favorite bookish hangout.

My own habits are anything but consistent. I have kindle books. I listen to audiobooks. I borrow books from the library. I buy physical books - hardcover, paperback, whatever. I buy them from Amazon, from indie stores, borrow from friends. I have my own complicated system* of determining in what format I will read and whether the book will be borrowed or bought.

(I was going to celebrate the growth of indie stores in the St. Louis area, which actually gained an indie bookstore three years ago and has formed it's on independent bookstore alliance that hosts awesomely nerdy things like book cruises, but this post is already stupid long (and oh look, oops, I just did it anyway - STL FTW). I was also going to compare the pros and cons of different formats (for example, here Vintage Anchor points out the joys of owning physical books), but I've run out of steam, and that's worthy of its own entire post.)

Indie bookstores are going to survive, in some form - they're just suffering some growing pains. Everything is gonna be okay, dear readers, no matter what format you prefer. You're now free to choose from more formats than ever before. Don't be a formatist. Celebrate others reading, no matter the device (or non-device).

Reading is evolving. And it's beautiful.

*Loosely based on perpetually sliding scales of disposable cash for books, strength of desire to read a book on a given day, time to read a book, availability of said book at local library, price on kindle vs. price of paperback vs. price of used copy, how awesome the physical book will look on my shelf, how much shelf space I have left, whim, whimsy, etc. Like I said, it's complicated.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: Impressions

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon has been on my to-read list for several years, and despite its length, I'm glad it was chosen for September's book club selection. As a disclaimer: I read the last 400 pages of this book in under 24 hours, during the work week. That is, those 24 hours included some amount of sleep overnight and a full day's work. So, I may have missed some things. 

I actually went into this knowing very, very little about the plot. I started reading and thought, ugh, this is about comic books and the holocaust? And it is about both those things, but they mostly provide the context within which the two main characters move and develop as people.  The story follows two Jewish cousins, Sam 'Clay,' who grew up in Brooklyn, and 'Joe' Kavalier, who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe at the last possible second and has come to America to live with his cousin's family and to try like hell to rescue his younger brother and his parents. The two immediately devise a scheme for the next best comic book - The Escapist - and pitch it successfully to Sam's then boss, and believe they will now make loads and loads of money and all their problems will be solved (if only!). From there, we weave in and out of their lives over the course of the next 15 years or so, from about 1939 to about 1954. 

The novel definitely deals with some intense subject matter, but Chabon peppers the story with enough humor that the text doesn't feel heavy. While on a deadline for producing the next-best superhero - one to match the best-selling Superman, Chabon describes the boys' sense of urgency: "In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, they decided to lie down for a while and waste time." 

Chabon also exposes us, or those of us unfamiliar, to the weird experience it is to be Jewish in America through all sorts of characters in the book. Not just being Jewish, but also feeling isolated, as a result of any sort of difference. Both characters suffer identity crises, and both are forced to repress certain aspects of themselves for a time. In a bit of foreshadowing in the beginning, Joe is described as
one of those unfortunate boys who became escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons. Such men feel imprisoned by invisible chains--walled in, sewn up in layers of batting. For them, the final feat of autoliberation was all too foreseeable. 
This passage encapsulates the main theme and underlying mood of the book, although each section has a distinctly different mood from any of the others.  I can easily see why this won the Pulitzer Prize. I'd recommend this to almost anyone - it's got something for everyone: comedy, tragedy, adventure, magic tricks, golems, mysteries, romance, superheros, and familial bonds. How often can you find all of that in one novel?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Top Twelve (Oops) Books I Want to Reread

Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.
  1. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy - Luckily, we've chosen this book for the next round of book club, so I'll be rereading this in the next couple weeks. I loved the language and the style. It was one of my absolute favorites when I read it a decade ago, we'll see if I still feel the same. 
  2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami  - I really loved this when I read it several years ago. It'd be nice to read it again with a regained critical eye. Perhaps I'd get more out of it. 
  3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - so, I may be alone in this, but I loved this book when I was required to read it in high school. I had every intention of hating it, and yet, somehow, I was riveted. I wonder if I'll still like it a lifetime later. Also, with the much anticipated When She Woke now out, I kind of want to revisit it. 
  4. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather - because it's been so long I barely remember. 
  5. The Awakening by Kate Chopin - same deal.
  6. Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle and Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut - I've gone far too long without some Vonnegut in my reading diet. 
  7. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - I read this 10-12 years ago and can't remember much of it. And that's a travesty because Bradbury's fantastic.
  8. 1984 by George Orwell - Or, well, maybe it would just depress me too much. But it's another one I read half a life ago. 
  9. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger - another book I'm curious to experience as an adult instead of a teenager. 
  10. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri - I adored this short story collection when it came out, especially the first piece. I would love to revisit it. 
  11. The Blind Assassin  by Margaret Atwood - I didn't enjoy this one as much as some of her others. I think I need to reread to pick up on what I may have glossed over at the time
  12. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion Jane Austen - I adore her witty dialogue and dry observations about the trivialities of daily life that women were pretty much relegated to at the time. 
Book I can tell I'm going to need to reread to fully enjoy:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - Can you ever tell while reading a book for the first time that you'll enjoy it immensely more the second time around? That's how this one feels. But this first run has been a little slow-going. Really, I needed to read it while actually on vacation, with much time to fully devote to it. That's not how it's gone, at all. 

Committing to a reread is actually very hard with all the unread material I want to cover. Really, I just need to be paid a comfortable salary to read and then write about what I read. Any sponsors out there? Ha. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

RIP VI challenge

Thanks to Brenna and Beth, I have discovered this little ghoulish challenge. I mean, really, how can I pass up a challenge whose picture-theme is based on one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who? As always, I'm fashionably late to this party, and my reading plate is rather full (God of Small Things - a favorite from a decade ago that needs a reread - for book club, Middlesex, which I've meant to read for ages, for Reading Buddies, Infinite Jest, to be finished before the nuptials, and various other things I've wanted to read for quite a while). But I hope to rearrange some things, and at the very least get a copy of The Lantern (the audio version is waiting for me at the local library) and join in the October group read. I also have these goodies on my shelf that are all fair game for this challenge:

Agatha Christie is always a good, fast read & short stories may be the way to go as well. So... I should get reading, then, huh. Hope you're all having a lovely weekend.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reading Habits

At book club last week, during which we discussed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (review forthcoming), a member mentioned a woman she knew that so completely engrossed herself in her reading material that she'd have an atlas & the decade-ago equivalent of Wikipedia at hand at all times. If she wasn't quite sure where something was, she'd look it up. If the novel mentioned a city, she'd find it in an atlas and then research its history. If it mentioned a an obscure scientist or artist with whom she was not familiar, she would immediately familiarize herself. You get the picture.

A book like Kavalier and Clay, which spans a few decades, would probably take her several months to read that way.  To me, it seemed like a completely overwhelming and, well, hyperimmersive way to read a book. How does she get through anything? Is reading a novel such a chore that she rarely bothers, or is it a great joy for her to use novels as her guides to learning about people and places and history?

I will occasionally stop to research something if I've always meant to learn more about it, or look things up on a map if I have absolutely no general idea of where a place is in relation to other places, but never have I gone to the above extreme. It must be a completely different reading experience. But would it also take something away from the flow of the story, from the general pleasure of reading itself? I tend to think it probably would, at least for me. I also like to trust that the author is giving me enough information to follow and enjoy and fall into the story without having to stop, look something up, start again, stop again, etc. If the author is any good, that is.

Anyone else read like the woman above, or even anything close to it?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Top Ten Books it seems just about everyone has read but me

Hosted every week by the The Broke and The Bookish, participated in haphazardly by me.

  1. All things Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom, etc.) - I feel as though I should delve into one of these one of these days, especially since he grew up in Webster Groves, a township of STL, and especially since one of his novels is set in St. Louis (so few are). But, I haven't yet. Some day. 
  2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini - Seriously everyone has read this book. It was the first book for book club, but I didn't have enough notice to acquire and read a copy. I have since found a used copy and will probably read it someday. It's not high on my priority list though. (Should it be?)
  3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown - Another that absolutely everyone read and talked about. My mom gave me Angels and Demons which I tried to read, and while the plot was interesting enough, I just could not get past the atrocious writing. So, this will remain in the Never Gonna Read pile.
  4. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer - This never appealed to me for some reason. Readers I trust have read and loved and recommended it, but... I don't know. Not so into it. I may get around to it one day.
  5. White Teeth by Zadie Smith - I tried to read this several years ago but couldn't get into it. I feel like I should read it try again but it's not at the top of my list. 
  6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - Every woman I know has read this, most likely when they were younger. I have not. I need to get around to it. 
  7. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov - The language, I hear, is outstanding. The subject matter keeps me at bay. One day. 
  8. All of the Harry Potter books - I read 1-3 when 4 was only out in hardcover, and I was not about to lug that giant, awkward book around the city and on the subway. So I stopped after 3. I do want to read the rest though. Everyone says I must. 
  9. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer - This will never happen. The general theme appalls me (and I don't mean the vampires), and I hear the writing is hard to stomach. I think I'll survive without ever reading this. 
  10. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and all things Judy Blume - Sooo I never read Judy Blume as a child! And now I feel too old for it, until there are children for whom books must be screened and age-appropriately recommended. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Impressions

A friend of mine leant me By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham a couple months ago, saying I should read it if I liked The Hours. While I didn't enjoy it as much as his most well-known novel, it was still an engaging, fast read with the occasional delightful little insight.

By Nightfall is told in the third person, but solely from the perspective of Peter Harris, an early 40-something, mildly successful art dealer that lives in Soho. As a reader, you spend a lot of time (too much, really) inside Peter's head, subject to all his self-musings, self-consciousness, self-criticism & self-admonishings (noticing a pattern?) over worrying about his own problems when there are people far worse off than he. (Those come across as a little disingenuous, more of, I think I'm supposed to be worried about other people but I'm really just not and I feel bad about it - does that make me a bad person? I don't want to be a bad person and I don't like feeling bad about others' downtroddenness so I wish their lives could at least appear to be comfortable enough so that I didn't feel I should feel bad about being much better off than them and still having Problems of my own, which are bothering me. Oh, woe is me.)

It takes place in the very recent past, after the market crash of 2008 and the economic downturn, a time when rich people didn't want to appear too flamboyant about their richness because it would seem, well, tacky. And rich people are all about appearances, the poor souls. The novel is set over the course of a week of Peter's life, during which time his wife Rebecca's wanderlust and, well, lost, much-younger-brother (Mizzy) comes to town, for whom Peter finds he has ambiguous feelings, which causes a mid-life crisis of sorts.  It seems Mizzy is rendered an aimless, beautiful drug-addict because he must live in the shadow of his older sisters' various successes, poor lad. He had to go hang out in Japan for a while, at some monasteries, but that doesn't give him a sense of purpose, either, and now he's globe-trotting again. I know, it's all very tragic. So now he's setting up temporary camp in his older sister's swank loft apartment in Soho. Oh, the tragedy. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. Very wealthy, privileged people are people too, after all, and still can experience tragedy, although, I don't find purposelessness tragic, merely self-indulgent, at least, in this case, despite the fact that he's young. Although, I suppose, when your nickname, Mizzy, is short for The Mistake... what can you expect?

One of the most unbelievable accounts in the novel comes when Peter mistakes Mizzy for his wife... while he's in the shower. Really? Come on. With clothes involved, it could be remotely believable, but not without. Rebecca, Peter's wife, is painted as an icy stranger, overly concerned about Mizzy's well-being. Peter describes Rebecca as thus, as they lie in bed together on a Sunday morning with the New York Times:
They do not lie close to each other. Rebecca is absorbed in the book review. Here she is, grown from a tough, wise girl to a savvy and rather cool-hearted woman, weary of reassuring Peter about, well, almost everything: grown to be a severe if affectionate critic. Here is her no-nonsense girlhood transmogrified into a womanly capacity for icy, calmly delivered judgments. 
"Womanly capacity"? Obviously, I'm going to take issue with that. Men have the same capacity for piercing the heart with statements calculated to do just that. And this is how he views his wife? Judgmental because she's tired of reassuring him? How low is this man's self-esteem that his wife's to blame for not boosting him up enough?

It appears I didn't enjoy this book at all, and though it's true I read many passages with eyes rolling, that's not the whole story. Cunningham has a knack for capturing - with uncomfortable accuracy - those intimate interactions we have with people whom we've known for years, with whom we've established a comfortable rapport that can turn into assumptions about another that then turns us into strangers interacting with our own out-dated projections of the other person instead of continuing to work (it can be work) to stay in tune with each others' ever-changing subtle natures. These two are clearly out of sync with each other, and a strong, judgmental resentment has been built around their own misconceptions of whom their spouse is which doesn't at all match with whom they want their spouse to be.  That is the danger we face in long-term intimate partnerships, such as marriage, and it is what we have to work to avoid to make such relationships survive. The dialogue is normally wry and witty banter, usually enjoyable to read, and though Peter's self-conscious pretensions are trying, the novel does capture, with some accuracy, the weird self-critical back-and-forth that can go on in one's head in times of life-crises, the ones that occasionally lead to a little self-insight:
Beauty--the beauty Peter craves--is this, then: a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope. Mizzy must have hope, he must, he wouldn't shine like this if he were in true despair, and of course he's young, who in this world despairs more exquisitely than the young, that's something the old tend to forget.  
I'd say you should read this if you're curious, but be ready to take the self-delusional pretensions with a grain of salt. It was unique in its ever-second-guessing-of-oneself nature, told in the third person, and I'm guessing most of us would be lying if we said we've never gone through such times, even if we haven't reached mid-life crises yet. Greg over at New Dork Review of Books warned me about its pretentiousness when I started reading, and I wonder if that colored my experience. Hard to say. Despite my criticism, I think I enjoyed it a wee bit more than he did.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead: Impressions

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead was a uniquely interesting if not entirely enjoyable novel. It's been on my TBR list for years, after a good friend told me I absolutely had to read this book (I can't recall whether or not he gave me a specific reason, but I do remember the emphaticalness of his recommendation), and it won the very small poll for August's book club pick because it sounds particularly intriguing and deceives one into thinking it will be fast paced right away. It is not. The pace does not quicken substantially but rather accelerates very slowly until about midway through the novel, after which it maintains a good page-turn inducing speed.

The story, as far as I can tell, is a bit of speculative fiction with a fair amount of absurdism thrown in. It seems to be set in an alternative version of the late 50s or early 60s (they mention the "famous reverend"). In this alternate reality, the Elevator Guild has substantial power in city operations (the city is probably New York, but it's never actually called New York City). The reality seems to have begun, or split, down this different path sometime in the 1850s, when elevators were first introduced. At the time of the book, there is a heated rivalry between the Empiricists, who need to see everything about the elevator in order to determine what's wrong, or if everything is running smoothly, and the Intuitionists, who have some sort of intimate interaction with the elevators they inspect and can determine any problems by communing with the elevator itself - no need to check the physical gear. An Empiricist name Chancre is currently in power, but elections are coming up.

Lila Mae Watson, the protagonist, is the first black, female elevator inspector, and she's an Intuitionist - three strikes against her. Race relations in this reality are no better than they were in ours in the 50s and 60s. Lila Mae can blend right into the background, become invisible, due to her color and everyone's tendency not to take notice of anyone non-white. It is still blatantly threatening to black people, as Lila Mae describes her natural inclinations ("Because her father taught her that white folks can turn on you at any moment") while entering a bar (O'Connor's) looking for her one pseudofriend in the guild:
They can turn rabid at any second; this is the true result of gathering integration: the replacement of sure violence with deferred sure violence. Her position is precarious in the office, she understands that, and in O'Connor's as well; she's a lost tourist among heavy vowels, the crude maps of ancestral homelands, and the family crests of near-exterminated clans. Her position is precarious everywhere she goes in this city, for that matter, but she's trained dread to keep invisible in its ubiquity, like fire hydrants and gum trod into black sidewalk spackle. Makeshift weapons include shoes, keys, and broken bottles. Pool cues if their handy. 
The underlying threat of violence flows throughout the novel, but unevenly, and at times, unnecessarily. (Would someone please explain to me the relevance of The Screaming Man? Because as far as I can tell, that small scene in there solely to mislead, and adds unnecessary violence.)

Lila Mae's character is an interesting choice - she's a woman, black and an Intuitionist, but her personality is calculating, cool, observant and distant, basically turning gender and race stereotypes on their respective heads. Perhaps it's only objects that Lila Mae can relate to, as an Intuitionist who understands the wants and needs of elevators but not those of people.

The novel, overall, didn't go as far as I would have liked. The elements of the absurd (Intuitionism, for example) took a while to recognize in the light of an alternative reality. The wordplay was enjoyable, but it often slowed down the pace of the novel. (At one point a character is described as "that vapor, that meandering cumulus masquerading as a man.")  It's a short novel but not a fast read. I'd recommend reading it (I'm almost positive I'm missing something) but only when you're looking for something different and a little challenging.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Too many books in the air

I am reading too many books at the moment, or maybe just the right amount. As I mentioned previously, I've embarked on a journey with Infinite Jest, the coconspirator's favorite book. While it is quite good and insightful, I'm still early in (about a fifth in) and having a little trouble gathering momentum. The book is massive, the size of a law school tome, and the pages are larger than normal - although, it's easy to see why. No one would want to pick up a complicated novel that was so obviously 1600+ pages long! 1000 pages is one thing, but 1600? No way. But if it had ben printed in 'normal' paperback size, based on the kindle "lines" and other kindle line to physical book pages comparison, Infinite Jest would be infinitely long.

For those of you with any IJ experience: The Wardine and Poor Tony sections (and the section with Hal's grandfather going on and on to Hal's father as a kid) have been the most challenging to read so far, and I'm growing fond of Marathe and Steeply. I love that there are dangerous Quebecois wheelchair assassins. The halfway house complaints are also hilarious. I have no experience as a drug addict, but DFW seems to be giving an uncomfortably accurate window into various thought processes of addicts. Anyway. The book keeps alternating between enjoyable and entertaining and completely uncomfortable.

My book club is reading The Intuitionist by Coleson Whitehead, and since  we're meeting next Thursday to discuss it I thought I might want to start reading it. It looks promising, but I've barely started. A friend of mine also recommended Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which I found available for audio download at my library, so I've started listening to that. It's very interesting so far. I didn't read any description ahead of time, and it's nice to go in blind. It's also an easy way to read while doing mindless tasks or not feeling so well.

Anyway, I thought I'd throw out a quick update since I sense it might be a little while before I get another review down. Anyone else prefer to be involved with more than one book at a time? Or are you a book monogamist?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: Impressions

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell manages to connect the past, present, and two levels of dystopian futures in an engaging and insightful novel consisting of loosely interlocking narratives told in drastically different styles. The structure is very different from anything I've read before - it is somewhat modeled after Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, A Traveler, a collection of stories that seem to stop in the middle or just before the climax. Cloud Atlas, however, picks up those threads later in the novel and finishes each story.

The characters range from a gullible young lawyer to a scheming and talented obscure composer to an "awakened fabricant" (think Blade Runner) in the future. An aging publisher, who manages to get himself trapped in a retirement home, laments upon his life's chosen profession:
Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don't, will is pitted against will. 'Admire me, for I am a metaphor.'
The most difficult section for me to read was "Sloosha's Crossing," which is written in a sort of future ruralspeak dialect, but it was also such a riveting section that I couldn't help but read it quickly. The narrative's main climax occurs here, basically, in the middle of the novel, and yet you still want to pick up the threads of each of the other stories.

The overarching themes in the background occasionally seem heavy-handed, but never in an offensive way. In one aside, a tertiary character offers this explanation of how humanity has arranged itself:
'Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will... The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence.'
Quite a bleak outlook on the state of things, and one that currently can't help but ring mostly true. But out of this hopelessness, one finds optimism at the conclusion of the novel, one of my favorite reads this year, and one I'd recommend to anyone looking for something different and does not mind elements of dystopian futures. I'd also recommend reading it at the same time as others - it was a joy to read this with Erin & Anita, even if I was the slow one in the group!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Mostly Non-Bookish Update

Things have been a little quiet over here at Bookish Habits - I do apologize; it's been quite a hectic summer! Just this morning I had to run one of our cats to the vet after what I can only describe as a freak-out episode, the first half of which she screamed in what we can only assume was some kind of pain, and the latter part of which she was panting and drooling like a dog that had run an ultramarathon in the Mexican mountains. The vet said she seemed perfectly healthy, all systems normal, by the time I got her there, though. (What? Okay. Sure. Let's go with fine.) At any rate, not nearly enough time for leisurely reading, and I've been choosing long, complicated books to boot (Cloud Atlas - review coming shortly-loved it, by the way; currently, Infinite Jest...)

Friends have been in and out of town all summer, and our Wednesday nights at the Botanical Gardens have been a near-regular staple, despite the 100 degree heatwave that doesn't want to break. Ever. The pool has been visited but unfortunately not frequented. Last weekend it was sort of like used bathwater. Ew. Not refreshing. We've been climbing (in a gym, thus far, only) and I've been going to yoga classes. Running has not been happening, mostly due to my hatred of both treadmills and triple-digit heat.

Decisions for the upcoming nuptials are being made, suits and dresses bought, color palettes nearly chosen. (Who knew you had to pick a color palette? Apparently this is a basic thing besides deciding on what the bridesmaid dresses will be. Ugh. An event/party planner I am not. Luckily the coconspirator's sister is, indeed, an event planner, and I'm sure her help will be crucial to getting through this.) We even had our engagement photos taken, a year after the fact, by a wonderfully fun and cheerful husband-wife photographer team.  

In bookish news, the new bookclub I am in finally met a couple weeks ago and we discussed Room. It was interesting to revisit the novel after a few months, especially with people who'd just read it. None of them liked it at first, and then poof they couldn't put it down. I think these ladies will be a great group, although it was hard to leave at 11pm since I was the only one who had to get up and go to work the next day. The rest are teachers with the summer off. Why did I give up on my plans to be a teacher, again? 

Hopefully all this social nonsense will die down a little, and I can go back to shoving my nose in a book with more regularity. Being social is exhausting, no matter how fantastic the people are. Bookclub is at my place next time around, and we're reading The Intuitionist, which I'm excited about. I promise I'll be hopping around to some other bookish blogs soon & catching up! 

How has everyone else's summer been shaping up?

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Impressions

Once again, I very much enjoyed Wolitzer's style of writing. It's wry and warm at the same time. I did not enjoy The Uncoupling nearly as much as The Wife, though, as the plot seemed to be less tightly woven, more meandering in style.

The story is set in a New Jersey suburb called Stellar Plains (think Edward Scissorhands or Weeds or just look at the cover for a visual) where everything is orderly and quaint and comfortable, and nothing much every happens. Life is very safe and routine. That is, until the local high school decides to hire a new drama teacher who wants to stage Lysistrata - the Greek comedy in which the women refuse sex to get the men to stop their warfare. Then, slowly, a "spell" takes hold of the town, one that causes the women inexplicably to lose any desire for physical pleasure - in fact, causing them to be repulsed at the thought of it. Everyone reacts in strange and different ways, depending on the individual relationship.

It also seems to pose a not-so-subtle commentary on the accelerated change our culture experiences with each new wave of technology and connectedness:
You weren't supposed to think life was worse now; it was "different," everyone said. But Dory privately thought that mostly it was worse. The intimacy of reading had been traded in for the rapid absorption of information. And the intimacy of love, well, that had often been traded in for something far more public and open. 
The novel teases out all the details people tend to keep secret, rising to a crescendo of revelation and forgiveness near the end, a commentary on how little we really know even our closest friends and confidants:
All over town, the spell did its work. No one knew, of course; how could they possibly have known? Even in the absence of a spell, no one ever really knew what went on in anyone elese's bed. No one ever really knew what went on in anyone else's kitchen, or bathroom, or upstairs hallway. What actually happened there, and what got said. Couples might put on clown wigs and prance around. Entire families might kneel and chant and eat root soup. Who really knew anything about how other people lived? You might tell a friend some details, but of course you would always carefully choose which ones to reveal, and you would tweak them in some vain or self-protective way.
The magical realism bit of the novel seemed a little forced to me, although without it, there'd be no story to tell, no relationship quirks to shed light on in a new way. It falls only just short of working for me. Still, I'd say this book is definitely worth reading. It's light and delightful, even if not a riveting page-turner.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mid-Year Review

2011 is flying by - it's already over half over, so I thought I'd sum up my year so far, with some very casual "analysis."

Total books: 25
Total pages: 7603
Women:men::18:7 (oops)

I'm not a crazy-fast reader, and nor does the whole life bit allow for much more reading than I've managed. I'm jealous of all of you that can pull off 7-8 books a month. How'd everyone else do?

Living Dead in Dallas

The UncouplingMystic RiverBossypantsThe GiverThe StrangerThe Wife : A NovelAnimal FarmAmerican GodsFrom Eve to Dawn A History of Women in the World: Origins: From Prehistory to the First MillenniumA Visit from the Goon SquadThe Bird SistersRoomThe Thin ManMockingjayCatching FireThe Hunger GamesThe Age of InnocenceThe Cookbook CollectorThe Weird SistersUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeNorthanger AbbeyAnd Then There Were NoneSnow Crash


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