Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A PARTIAL HISTORY Giveaway Winners!

As promised, the four giveaway winners will be receiving a copy of A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois, one of my favorite reads this year! (If you missed it, Ms. duBois graciously answered a few bookish questions here.)

And the lucky winners are:
There were 10 items in your list. Here they are in random order:
  1. Jennifer M
  2. Sharon P
  3. Greg
  4. Petya
  5. srenee213
  6. Jeff
  7. Greg
  8. Karen
  9. Kerry M
  10. Beth
Timestamp: 2012-09-25 23:54:40 UTC
I will be emailing the winners in the near future. Even if you were not so lucky this time around, I do hope you'll find a way to snag a copy and read this gem of a novel. Many thanks to everyone that participated, and a warm thank you to all of you that stop by my tiny corner of the interwebs on a semi-regular basis!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Ghost Painter by Marilu Norden: Impressions

The Ghost Painter by Marilu Norden tells the story of a young artist living in New York, Angelina, who idolized a painter, Adelaide Moran, known for her breathtaking landscapes of New Mexico. Adelaide dies without completing her final masterpiece. While in heaven waiting to meet the Great Spirit (bear with me here), Adelaide decides that she's going to haunt Ramon, her smarmy art dealer, to get him, a weird psychic and a shady shaman to help her find an artist whose body and talents she can possess and utilize to complete her masterpiece.

This novel left much to be desired. The characters were more caricatures: Angelina Bonelli, beautiful, helpless starving artist of Italilian descent; her best friend Gabriella, a gorgeous, black jazz singer; Ramon, smarmy art dealer; and Adelaide, Native American beauty whose talents were never recognized to her satisfaction. Everyone is drop dead gorgeous and the main character, Angelina, is much more of a pawn than a player. Further, too much information is delivered in the first-person inner thoughts of the characters Angelina, Ramon and Adelaide, which interrupts the narrative flow.

However, despite these shortcomings, many of which could be corrected with a few rounds of editing, the plotline itself is actually amusing, especially if one is familiar with magical realism and is willing to suspend a fair amount of disbelief. So... have any of you seen that corny but fun movie from the late 80s, Chances Are? Robert Downey, Jr.? It's possible I'm the only one that watched it on TBS some fateful Saturday afternoon in the 90s. And, of course, Ghost? Those movies worked, for what they were, despite the ghosty, supernatural-type elements. I kept thinking this storyline would be better served as more of a comedic movie than a novel. Or perhaps just as a comedy of errors, in novel form. If the tone had been more goofy than serious, rather than not really picking a tone at all, the story could have worked.

All in all, The Ghost Painter has much potential, but it, like Adelaide's masterpiece, reads as very raw and unfinished.

*I received this book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Q&A with Jennifer duBois + GIVEAWAY!

If you've stopped by this sliver of the internet recently, you may have noticed that I absolutely adored the novel A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois. I happened to have the good fortune to ask Ms. duBois a few questions, the answers to which I can now share with you.

I also have the particular pleasure of offering you a chance to win the book! I have 4 whole copies of the paperback to giveaway, to 4 different people, so your chances are fairly high. Note that this giveaway is only open to those with a United States mailing address. To enter, simply leave a comment below by 11:59PM Pacific Time on Monday, September 24th. One extra entry for sharing the giveaway on twitter (cc: @zeteticat & note in your comment). I will announce the winner here by Wednesday, September 26th.

Enjoy the interview (and read the book!). Gary Shteyngart is right - Ms. duBois is definitely "too young to be this talented."

Q: I thoroughly enjoyed your novel - it was truly one of my favorites this year. What struck me was both the introspective nature of the story and the characters' impending sense of demise, and yet I didn't find the tone to be terribly melancholy or simpering. What inspired the dark themes and their matter-of-fact treatment?

A: Thank you so much! Most of the darkness—and probably most of the matter-of-factness—comes from my experience growing up against the backdrop of my father’s long decline from Alzheimer’s disease. (He became ill when I was 12, and died when I was 25, just after I’d finished drafting the novel.) The questions that arose for me during that experience—how do you go on when you’re confronting a lost cause? How do you find meaning and sense in a situation like that?—formed the thematic underpinnings of the book.

Q: Aleksandr Bezetov seems to be loosely based on real-life chess champion-turned-political activist Garry Kasparov - was it your intention to write a novel using both chess and Russian social politics as a backdrop?

A: Yes—I thought that the broad arc of Kasparov’s career, from chess champion to political dissident, would be a really interesting through line for a character in a novel. And chess and politics seemed to resonate metaphorically not only with each other, but also with Irina’s journey.

Q: Your post on Powell's site articulated an issue that needs constant addressing, that is, the cultural cues that result in a somewhat broader reading spectrum for women (in the ability that comes from being forced to relate to either gender) but a rather limited one for most men. Going back to a possible bit of inspiration for the post, did you consciously write Irina from the first person and Aleksandr from the third for a gender-specific reason, or did something else come into play?

A: Lots of different variables came into play in making that decision. Aleksandr’s story occupies so much more time than Irina’s does; his journey contains a lot of plot, and he undergoes an enormous amount of change, and all of that seemed better served by the tiny sliver of distance from a character that’s granted by the third person. Irina’s story covers a very brief time period, and her sections are very much driven by her voice, so first person seemed the natural fit for her. But I did deliberately decide to write a female point of view character into my novel (I think of first person and close third person as in the character’s point of view, so both Irina and Aleksandr are point of view characters, to my mind). When I was in graduate school, I usually wrote short stories from male perspectives. I think that was partly because I was afraid that writing from a female point of view would invite speculation that the character was autobiographical (which has indeed been the case with Irina). But I also think there was this weird internalized misogyny going on where I subconsciously felt that writing about men was writing about the universal in a way that writing about women wasn’t. So I’d always write these stories that were about some funny, ornery, misanthropic voice, and, over and again, I’d make that voice male. It’s like I thought that writing about a woman would automatically trivialize the story, or try the readers’ patience somehow, or require the plot to revolve around shoes. It’s very hard for me to believe that I had this stuff in my head—but I think that, as a very young writer, somewhere deep down, I did. And at a certain point I realized there was something wrong with being a female writer who was using the best efforts of my brain exclusively to explore the psychologies of male characters. And I do remember consciously deciding that it was very important for me, just on a personal level, to write a sort of curmudgeonly, smart, ironic, prickly voice and to give it to a woman.

Q: How often do you play chess? Are you any good?

A: I play chess only rarely, and I’m pretty bad at it. People who are really excellent at chess seem to have such particular brains, and part of what was interesting to me about writing the book was getting a chance to try to tackle the interiority of a person like that.

Q: What draws you to Russia? Have you spent a significant amount of time there?

A: I had the chance to travel to Russia as a very small child, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and that trip sparked my lifelong curiosity about that part of the world. And I’m really into international politics, so that’s the prism through which most of my interest is filtered these days. I had the chance to return to Russia in 2010, a few months after I sold the book, and it was such a mind-boggling experience to get to go to a place I’d been Googling so committedly for years.

Q: With Pussy Riot's trial and sentence recently in the news, the general mood in Russia under Putin's rule seems especially relevant (though, not surprisingly, it seems the band and the incident received much more press and support abroad than in Russia itself). Were you at all surprised by the outcome of the trial?

A: I wasn’t surprised by the trial’s outcome, though the fact that the band was charged in the first place for a 40 second performance was pretty interesting. It seems clear that Putin is becoming less and less tolerant of mockery; my semi-optimistic view of this is that it’s indicative of a growing insecurity as his grip on power becomes more tenuous.

Q: Why Huntington's disease?

A: My father’s Alzheimer’s disease raised a lot of questions for me—about cognition and personal identity, the struggle against futility, etc.—that I wanted to explore in the book through the lens of a character who knew that she would one day lose her mind and memory. Huntington’s disease fit the needs of the story because it’s degenerative, fatal and, crucially, testable—genetic analysis can tell you not only whether you’re going to get the disease, but also, with some accuracy, when you’ll begin to exhibit symptoms. So I chose Huntington’s because it was the disease that matched the dramatic situation I was interested in.

Q: This may be a ridiculous question, but what became of Ivan's cat? Did I just miss it? (Are you a cat person?)

A: You’re the third person to find this mistake! Poor Natasha got lost in revisions. Maybe she went to live with Elizabeta’s old parakeet. In spite of my misplacing this one, I do really like cats.

Q: Who are your favorite contemporary authors?

A: Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Grace Paley, George Saunders and David Foster Wallace.

Q: What are you reading these days?

A: Libra by Don DeLillo, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. I’m also reading a book of poetry by Brittany Perham called The Curiosities.

Q: Where do you do most of your writing?

A: At my computer in the kitchen.

Q: If we could finagle a Freaky Friday type scenario, is there anyone, living or dead, with whom you'd trade places for, say, a week?

A: I’d like to trade places with Hillary Clinton and be the Secretary of State for a week. But maybe not this week.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

THE LOLA QUARTET by Emily St. John Mandel: Impressions

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel is another of those novels I picked up because something about the title and the cover (there I go again, initially judging a book by its cover) intrigued me. It turned out to be a pleasure to read - a well-paced mystery exploring all those complicated issues surrounding the juxtaposition of who we are compared to who we thought we'd become.

The novel is named for a high school jazz quartet consisting of most of the novel's central characters, who are pulled back together years later by a dangerous coincidence. Gavin Sasaki is a fedora-sporting, noir-loving, soon-to-be disgraced journalist on an assignment in his Florida home town when his sister informs him that she has come across a young girl who looked exactly like she did when she was that age. They suddenly both wonder what became of Anna, his high school girl friend, who seemed to vanish after his senior year of high school, right before he moved to New York. The picture his sister takes of the eerily familiar-looking child leads to an unforeseeable chain of events as the mystery slowly unravels.

We spend a little time with each of the main characters: the members of the original quartet, and Anna. The story also shifts between past and present, giving us glimpses into how each came to be living a life so far from their youthful, hopeful renderings of the future.
He stopped halfway to look up at the sky. He'd been reading about constelations recently, and had fallen particularly in love with the North Star. It always took him some time to find it in the haze of the streetlight, but there it was. True north, the direction of his second life, New York. He felt in those days that he was always on the edge of something, always waiting, his life about to begin.
Everyone seems to be in some state of flux - and none of their lives have turned out remotely as they'd imagined. Their self-imposed isolation and loneliness doggs them all in varying ways, but they also manage to find solutions to their stases - although whether or not they are good solutions is up for debate. Nevertheless, the novel manages to end on a hopeful note.

I also had the good fortune to meet the adorable Ms. Mandel yesterday evening at Left Bank Books, one of my favorite local bookstores! It was not the largest turnout, but the four of us managed to have a nice time sitting in a circle, chatting about the novel, writing, and musing about life in general. Meet the author events always seem to have a certain level of awkwardness (or, perhaps it's just me that's awkward!), but this one felt more intimate, like a new book club getting off the ground. At any rate, I highly recommend both reading The Lola Quartet and meeting the warm and unassuming Emily St. John Mandel if you get the chance. I've already picked up a copy of her second novel, The Singer's Gun, and hope it won't remain in my substantial TBR pile for too long.

*I originally received this novel from NetGalley & Unbridled Books in exchange for my review, but have since bought a hard copy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

11 - a day in a life

Eleven years ago, I awoke on a morning much like this one. A cloudless, crisp morning that promised a mild, perfect afternoon. I dressed quickly, perpetually later for work than I preferred, ran out the door onto Bank Street and quickly crossed Hudson Avenue, laser-focused on getting to the subway on 7th Avenue. I did not glance to my right, was not stopped in my tracks by the sight of a smoking tower. So far, it seemed a morning like any other. 

I ran down the platform stairs, just missing both an express and a local train. The platform was nearly empty but quickly started to fill. No trains; strange for rush hour, but not incredibly unusual. More people crowded the platform. The passing time quickly slid into something's not right territory, but only in a some idiot must have pulled the emergency cord kind of way. 10 minutes later, a train slowly chugged into the station. Because I was already late, I sardined myself into the packed car with the rest of them, as what must have been the last uptown train slowly, painfully trekked to 116th Street. 

As I bought my morning coffee in the student building, the cashier said with equal parts worry and excitement, "Did you hear? There's a fire at the World Trade Center!" I immediately thought it must be something along the scope of the bombing in 1993, and tried to call the boyfriend at the time to either pass along the news or see if he knew anything more. Of course, I couldn't get through. By then the phones were completely jammed, but it was Sprint, and it was 2001, so although I was becoming mildly alarmed, I still had no suspicion of the magnitude of what had happened. 

I crossed the quad and headed toward the office, making it all the way to my cube without talking to anyone. My phone was actually ringing - it was my ex. He worked in a building off Hudson Avenue. "I just watched two planes fly into the World Trade Center," he said, panicked and terrified. 

"What?" I said, not full comprehending, still booting the computer. "Wait, WHAT? What are you talking about?" 

"Two planes. Flew into the towers. They're burning. At first I thought it was a horrific accident, but then another plane hit the other tower... There's no way this was an accident." He was just standing in his office, watching from the window less than a mile away, not sure what to do. 

I'd pulled up the paltry, confused news by then. "Holy..." Reading, absorbing the shock. "Um, how close are you? I think you should get the hell out of there. Call me when you're safe." I don't actually know what I said. I hope I said something similar. The rest of the morning was a blur. I crowded with others into the Dean's office to watch the coverage. The towers collapsed. I emailed my family to let them know I was fine, since by then it was impossible to get through on the phones. We all wandered around in an adrenaline-fueled daze, more horrified than terrified. There wasn't much to say. You either knew people likely to be in the towers or you didn't. We located our close friends and family. We tried to find out if everyone was okay. 

The boyfriend had been evacuated from his office's skyscraper location. He emailed from a nearby coworker's apartment. Being an idiot, he planned to try to get as close as he could to watch the chaos. Many of us stayed at the office until mid-afternoon, not knowing what else to do. By then, I decided to make my way somehow back to the west village (where the boyfriend's apartment was), and ended up walking most of the 5-6 miles. I managed to catch a bus at 80th street, but by 42nd, the streets were completely closed to all vehicles. 

Walking through the completely deserted streets between mammoth buildings was probably the most surreal experience I've had to date. It was still a lovely, sunny 74, the juxtaposition with the day's events only adding to the rabbit-hole nature of the experience. I passed a girl who managed to get through to someone on her phone. "Like, I don't know, do you think he likes me? Everyone was, you know, like, so totally drunk last night. I'm still totally hungover. But he was super flirty. I remember that. Do you think I should, like, call him? I mean, I don't know... so where are we going tonight?"  I began to think I somehow got transported into a David Lynch film.

I eventually made it back to the apartment, and a couple hours later, so did the boyfriend. He couldn't get anywhere near the actual scene. "Shocking," I said. He was more excited than anything (a big giant red flag, in retrospect). We wandered around the village that evening, and, even in the west village, the racist blame was already bubbling up. 

The city seemed irreversibly altered after that, especially in the months immediately following. You could walk down 42nd Street in a straight line. Men in camo with machine guns patrolled Penn Station. "Missing" posters were pasted all over the city. Everyone was a little on edge, walking around with varying levels of paranoia seething just below their skin. Levels of paranoia that still seem to dictate attitudes and policy decisions across the country. 

Eleven years later, 1000 miles away, the events of that day are still impossible to forget. Thousands of innocent people, going about their daily activities, lost their lives, senselessly, while the world watched in shock. Eleven years later, I have no new insight to offer, no grand observations or proclamations. Only a wish: to see this country, this world, united one day by compassion and generosity instead of by fear and suspicion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli: Impressions

The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli isn't my normal reading fare - tragedy, death of a child, cancer - I mean, UGH, how joyless. These subjects have the makings of a book I usually wouldn't even consider reading. But something made me take a second look. Perhaps it was the setting - a California citrus farm - coupled with the fact that I'd meant to read Soli's other novel - The Lotus Eaters - for quite a while. Whatever the case, I'm happy I had the opportunity to read this strange, melancholy tale.

The story opens with the events surrounding the death of Claire's eleven-year-old son, juxtaposed against her birthday party only the day before, during which everything in her family's life seemed to be falling into place, finally. Such contentment never lasting long, the family is shattered after Josh's senseless killing, and Claire's marriage ultimately cannot weather the grief, though they'll always remain connected by the pain they shared:
How to explain that after twenty or more years, a marriage, if it had ever been real, could no longer by sundered by a piece of paper. In two decades--the same time it took to raise a human being--a marriage became its own entity. Life intervened, yes, a decision was made that life together was too painful, but the marriage itself lived on, a kind of radiological half-life. 
We rejoin the family many years later, just as Claire is diagnosed with breast cancer, and her family has moved on, moved away, only Claire remains doggedly attached to the citrus farm. Neither of her daughters is willing to move back to the ranch to care for Claire, nor is Claire willing to leave the ranch. And so a caretaker must be hired. Enter: Minna, a gorgeous, mysterious force from the Caribbean, a spinner of fanciful tales that all seem willfully to believe against their better judgment. After all the family had been through, Claire preferred the comfort of a stranger:
It was impossible to be in [her family's] presence--the undertow of the past was too strong, a constant replaying of some infatuation, some slight. Only with strangers, new acquaintances, could one gage who one was in the present, try on whom one might become.
Minna proves to be both lovable and despicable, showing great warmth and insight mixed with manipulative spitefulness. Only later do we get Minna's backstory, which, though certainly horrific, only partially explains her less noble behaviors and her attachment to the mystery man on other end of her late-night phone calls.

The Forgetting Tree is an imaginative and unique take on the reconstructing of ourselves that must occur after tragedy, belated or not. Claire's blind acceptance of Minna's obvious nonsense could become irritating at times, but irritating the way a parent's insistence on giving his or her child a 173rd chance is irritating. But both Claire and Minna manage to rebuild themselves inside-out as they only could in the presence of an outsider, a compassionate stranger.

*I read this book courtesy of TLC Book Tours (see what others thought) and St. Martin's Press.
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