Friday, June 27, 2008

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat - Oliver Sacks

Some book titles just beg you to read them, even if you have no idea what they're about. This was one of those books for me - but it turned out to be about a very timely topic for me. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is filled with clinical tales about patients with neurological and neuropsychological impairments. Sacks presents his case studies, along with varying degrees of information about what was "wrong" with these individuals. Often times, however, it appears that there are no solutions to the maladies, and Sacks's patients are left to try and cope in their turned upside-down world. As I was reading this book, I found myself wishing that I had more of a basic background on the biology of the brain and what functions different parts of the brain are responsible for. While Sacks will explain that his patient suffers from frontal lobe damage, he does not explain why or how this would lead to the symptoms he has observed. The back of the book also describe Sacks as telling these stories with compasion and an understanding of the suffering of his patients, but I didn't really find this to be true. His approach to his patients often seemed overly blunt, or almost mocking (sometimes he acknowledges this) - and while it is obvious from the descriptions of his patients how horrible many of their symptoms are, I didn't feel as if there was a placing of the patients into the larger context of their lives. Sacks might comment that a given individual had learned to deal with the condition, or become depressed because of it, or simply remained in the constant care of a hospital, but I often found myself wanting to know more. Without this additional information, I began to feel as if the book were no more than a salacious detailing of freaks in our society -and I do not think this is the result anyone, including Sacks, wanted his reader to have. Luckily for me, the day after I finished reading this book, I had an all day training at work - by a psychiatrist who gave a lecture on the basic biology of the brain, neurological disorders, and testing that can be done to determine whether neurological damage exists. After the lecture, I went back and re-read a couple chapters of the book - and having a better background did help. This book is an interesting introduction into neuropsychology, the complexity of the brain, and how many strange things can happen for inexplicable reasons. Given how complex and delicate the brain is, it certainly made me wonder why more of us don't have neurological problems. Or, maybe we all do, and we've just found good ways to mask them.

Bloodsucking Fiends - Christopher Moore

I've been having a frustrating week of reading. I've started about five different books, read 20-50 pages of each, and not been able to get into anything. When this happens, I try to go back to a trusted author - just so I can read something I know I'll finish - even if it might not be a masterpiece. So, I decided to check out another Christopher Moore vampire novel to get my reading back on track. I have a hard time paying attention to when books were published and in what order, but Bloodsucking Fiends appears to be the prequel to You Suck and A Dirty Job - both of which I really enjoyed. Bloodsucking Fiends takes place in San Francisco and tells the story of Jody, who has just been turned into a vampire and is trying to come to terms with who she is and what exactly all her powers are. She links up with C. Thomas Flood, a recent transplant to the Bay Area who is looking for a place to live and is ripe for falling in love with a gorgeous creature of the night. As a background to the subsequent novels, this wasn't bad, but on its own, I don't think it would have encouraged me to read much more of Moore's novels had it been the first one I'd picked up. Given my experience with this one, and his first novel Practical Magickeeping, I think I'm going to stick to Moore's more recent work.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Inheritance - Natalie Danford

Many years ago I read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. I absolutely loved it. What I found particularly clever at the time was that Kingsolver wrote the chapters from the different perspectives of the members of the missionary family. The idea of the same story or parts of a story being told by different people at different times was novel to me. I later learned in college that Virginia Woolf was a pioneer of this "literary cubism." But, lately, this idea of breaking up books - telling one part of the story in the odd chapters and the other part in the even chapters - or whatever the case, has really been getting on my nerves. I feel like I'll just get into one time period or character and all of a sudden the author jumps me to a generation later or earlier. Inheritance begins as the story of an Italian immigrant who has lived in the United States for years and who finally gets married and has a daughter. The story then jumps to years later when the man passes away and his daughter travels to a small town in Italy to follow-up a deed she found among her father's possessions. The small town is aflutter with gossip about the deed, and the woman slowly learns (or believes she is learning) truths about her father's life and the reasons he came to America in the first place. The story itself is intriguing, though the character of the daughter is quite self-centered. But, the shifting back and forth between the father's past and the daughter in the present time was too much for me. I felt like I was reading two different books, and I wasn't sure I liked either one. The idea that the stories rumbling around the Italian small town aren't quite right was also a little too predictable. I think this book caught me at a bad time and I just wanted in the mood for the style. It is, however, well written and a nice story about the immigrant experience in America - and that even though they say you can never go home again, sometimes it's better that way.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Lincoln Lawyer - Michael Connelly

My friend Rob is getting his PhD in history at UVA - but when he's taking a break from his dissertation, he is a good source of information about the current presidential campaign, blockbuster movies, and books about lawyers. He recommended this one to me - the story of Mickey Haller, a jaded criminal defense attorney who takes on the case of a wealthy real estate agent accused of a brutal assault and attempted murder. The prosecution's case is almost too much of a slam dunk and Haller suspects a set-up. While investigating the case, he finds strange parallels to a former client, currently locked-up for life in San Quentin. With a little help from his DA ex-wife and a little shifty lawyering, Haller sets out to discover the truth about his not-so-innocent client. Just like with Law & Order, there were definitely a lot of, "that would never happen in real life" moments in this book - but that being said, I never miss an episode of Law & Order (or SVU or Criminal Intent). The mystery in this one also wrapped up a little too quickly in the end, but there were some great courtroom cross-examinations, and excellent twists. I would have liked to learn a little bit more about the background and motivations of Haller's real estate client, but those issues aside - as far as pychological legal thrillers go, this one was top-notch.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Brunelleschi's Dome - Ross King

In 1419, there was a competition to see who could design a dome for the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) in Florence. The top two contenders were Filippo Brunelleschi and his rival Lorenzo Ghiberti (famous for his "Gates of Paradise") Brunelleschi, supported by the Medicis, won the commission and this book tells the story of Brunelleschi's rise to the top, and his sturggle to carry out his designs over the following 30 years. The architectual details were a bit overwhelming for me - but for a reader with a bit more knowledge than I (and anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting Florence) - I am sure it all is all just astounding to discover how Brunelleshi came up with such innovative and ingenious ideas - and how he managed to move so many tons of bricks without moden day machinery. I, however, was more interested in the backstory between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti. I find the Renaissance artists so fascinating - they are all supreme divas, but so much under the control of their wealthy sponsors. If they lived now, I am sure they would trump Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears for the cover of US Weekly. I loved this book, simply because it was about something so different. But, I would have preferred a little more gossip and a little less trigonometry.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Moshin Hamid

Changez, a Pakistani man, notices an American at a cafe (in Pakistan) and under the guise (or reality?) of hoping to assist the man with his order or other enjoyment of what this strange country has to offer, sits down along-side him and begins a one-sided conversation. The cues and questions from Changez reveal that his companion is not entirely comfortable with the situation, but sits through the ordeal nonetheless. Changez relates his experiences in America - at the top of his class at Princeton and onto a prestigious financial services job. He falls desperately in love with the unattainable and almost ghostly Erica. Then September 11th hits, and Changez finds himself even more the outsider than he's always felt. At first, I wasn't sure if I would like the style of this novel - Changez as a character is very awkward - and it reminded me of traveling in Turkey when people were forever coming up to us with stories, trying to prove to us that they were American enough to then sell us a rug or other amazing tale of deception. For this reason, I immediately didn't trust Changez - a reaction that perhaps reveals the streotype Hamid is playing on with prejudices and differences. Changez's relationship with Erica is also one-sided. He bends over backwards for a woman who will never be emotionally available to him and will only continue to take from the relationship. In this way, I felt the relationship was a powerful metaphor for Changez's immigrant status in the United States. Ultimately, I found the one-sided conversation very clever, you could feel the impatience and reluctance of the American listener, and I found myself reading faster and faster to overcome the discomfort and figure out where it was all leading. The ending is disturbingly ambiguous - which I usually don't like - but felt Hamid developed masterfully. Hamid truly captures the distrust of many after 9/11 for those who look different (and aren't necessarily even Middle Eastern), while at the same time demonstrating what this treatment does to the people who are being distrusted - and the vicious circle this behavior creates. Very rarely do I find a book where I enjoy both the actual story being told, and an innovative narrative technique. Hamid gave me both - and left me with a lot of things to think about after it was all done. I've had his previous novel Moth Smoke on my shelves for years - and now have great incentive to get to it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Snuff - Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk will be the death of me. Every time I hear he has a new book out, I rush right out to buy it - or in this case - straight to the library. He has a unique writing style - all his characters speak the same way - yet, they're very real and always a little inappropriate. This time, Palahniuk takes the inappropriateness to the next level. In Snuff, porn-star Cassie Wright seeks to break the on-screen record for serial fornication. Six hundred men volunteer to be her partners, each with his assigned number written in marker on his arm - and visible for the camera. The chapters of the book are told from the perspective of several of the men, as well as Sheila, the producer behind the camera. Each man has his own reason for wanting to be part of history, and as one would expect, their stories by the end come together. Given the title of the book, I suspected that Cassie would die during the filming of the movie, but of course, not without classic Palahniuk confusions, twists, and turns. While this book had all of the trademark Palahniuk story-telling conventions that I love and that make him one of the best modern story-tellers, the subject matter was a bit too much, and ultimately, this one just didn't do it for me.

In the Woods - Tana French

Even though I don't often think of it when people ask me what kind of books I like, I really do love a good detective/mystery/crime novel. Jake's aunt Colleen, who I believe reads about 10 times as many books as I do, lent me this one. Set in Ireland, the main character is Rob Ryan, a detective in Dublin's homicide unit. As a child, two of his best friends disappeared while playing in the woods. Rob, the only survivor and eyewitness to the disappearance, was found gripping a tree trunk and standing in a puddle of blood. His memory fails him and he is unable to provide any help to the investigating officers and the disappearance is never solved. Years later, another young girl is found murdered near the same woods. Ryan is assigned to the case and believes the crime is somehow connected to what happened in the woods 20 years earlier. His partner, Cassie, is an amateur psychologist and attempts to put together a profile of the current murderer, while helping Ryan to uncover the memories he lost so long ago. The mystery unfolds slowly, with enough clues for the reader to guess who the murderer is, as well as the underlying motive for the crime (with a few worthy detours along the way). The ending left me slightly unsatisfied in some areas of the story -mostly because unlike many readers, I do like happy endings where all the loose ends are tied up - but as far as murder mysteries go this one had all the right elements, and it made me excited to seek out more thrillers.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood

In 1984, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were murdered in Canada. Two servants in the household were convicted of the crime. James McDermott was hanged. Grace Marks initially received a death sentence, but it was later commuted to life in prison. Marks's conviction was surrounded by a lot of publicity and discussion over whether she was insane, possessed, horribly evil, or even wrongfully accused. Alias Grace is Atwood's attempt to piece together known information with her theories on what actually happened to Kinnear and Montgomery. The story is presented as a whodunnit, as well as a psychological study - with a doctor coming in to interview Marks to determine whether her inability to recollect the events of the murder are due to trauma, lying, or the fact that she simply was not present at the scene. The book has a definite gothic feel to it, which made it a little scary to read alone in my hotel bed, but I have generally had good luck with Atwood's novels and found this one a good mixture of mystery, feminism, and just good storytelling.

Monday, June 9, 2008

You Don't Love Me Yet - Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem has received never-ending praise for his novels, including Motherless Brooklyn (a detective novel featuring a man with Tourette's that I just couldn't get into), Fortress of Solitude (sitting on my shelves) and this latest one You Don't Love Me Yet. As with most up and coming brilliant writers these days, Lethem is just one that I can't quite get into. His books are filled with real people and real angst, but I just can't seem to relate. This one focuses on a band in L.A., waiting for their big break. One of the members, Lucinda, works for something called a complaint line, a performance art installation of sorts where people can call up and just have someone listen to them complain. Her maybe-ex boyfriend works at the zoo but is depressed beyond comprehension over a kangaroo who can't quite find his place. When a very strange man calls the complaint line delivering lyric-worthy images, Lucinda turns the words into songs and her band finds itself on the brink of notoriety. The book is filled with characters who are just trying to make it in one way or another - whether in show business, or just through the day. Like the complaint line, I found the concept of this novel interesting - and I did like the character of one of Lucinda's ex-boyfriend who has the idea to throw a party where everyone comes to dance, but listening to their own headphones while a band "plays" silently on stage and waiters stand around with appetizers that no one is allowed to eat. It was all so absurd it reminded me of way too many people I know. But, as a novel, I didn't feel like the story much mattered - to me or any of the characters and so it ended up just being kind of boring. But with kangaroos.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Lavinia - Ursula K. LeGuin

Even though I suppose it is a bit uncreative, I do like books that rewrite other books from the perspective of a different character - like Gregory Maguire's Wicked (The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West); Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (featuring Rochester's wife from Jane Eyre); and of course, Stoppard's Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead (from Hamlet), so when I read a review of Lavinia, I was intrigued. For those who remember their classics, Lavinia is Aeneas's wife, from Virgil's The Aeniad. In the poet's version, Lavinia appears only briefly and never speaks. LeGuin writes her novel from Lavinia's perspective - growing up as the daughter of the king who faces the biggest decision of her life: who will she choose to marry and what will her choice mean for the fate of her people? Throughout the book, LeGuin retells parts of both The Illiad and The Aeneid - which I found useful as a reminder, but also distracting. Through Lavinia, I realized that the trouble with books that retell stories from a different perspective is that you pretty much already know what's going to happen. This problem is compounded in Lavinia because Lavinia speaks with the poet/oracle who lays out her future in uncanny detail - then all we need to do is sit back and watch it all unfold. It makes everything so anti-climactic. LeGuin's writing, however, is beautiful - and in some ways it was nice to pretty much know the story so I could just enjoy her lyrical prose - which I also found interesting - she chose to write this book in prose, despite the fact that The Aeniad is in verse, yet her style evoked much of the same emotion. The other aspect of this book I found intriguing was Lavinia's very forward-thinking even feminist perspective on everything. Imposing this persona on Lavinia seemed too unrealistic given the period she is from, but upon further reflection I decided that if I were going to augment some of the famous women in literary history (Eve, Penelope, Ophelia as just a few examples that spring to mind), I'd give them independence and fire too. That LeGuin is able to do this while still paying tribute to Virgil's genius is a reflection of her talent as a writer and storyteller.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers - Xiaolu Guo

This book is the first person musings of Z (short for Zhuang), a young Chinese woman studying English in London for a year. Guo writes her novel like a Chinese speaker trying to learn English - with all the mistakes a new student would make. This writing style reminded me of Everything is Illuminated, and I worried I would get too irritated to finish much of it. It also made me wonder how these types of books get translated into other languages. Is it possible to convey "broken English" is another language? Anyway...shortly into her stay abroad, Z meets an older man and quickly moves in with him. This new man is a bi-sexual anarchist who shuns material wealth and embraces freedom. Z, on the other hand, assumes that they are in love and must therefore want to spend all their time together and with no one else. Their relationship is filled with misunderstandings stemming from language, culture, and age. Because everything is written from Z's perspective, I often found the narrative frustrating - she is naive in many ways and I often wanted to shake her and tell her to move on from her loser boyfriend. There are a couple really funny vignettes that highlight the difference in cultures - one with the boyfriend expecting Z to pay her half of the dinner bill and Z's response being something along the lines of, "I thought we were in love. When in love man pay. Otherwise, why have man around?" As the book progresses and Z's English improves, the writing becomes much more easy to follow. Z also begins to find her own self, which gave me some hope for her future. I was thinking that this would be a great book for a book club - there are so many scenes that I found myself wanting to talk to someone about - and so many ideas about independence, family, the search for happiness, relationships, and even food (Z misses her food from home, her boyfriend is a vegetarian which she can't understand). Something about this book felt incomplete to me, but for the first time in awhile, I found myself wishing I had a highlighter so I could keep track of certain images and conversations - of course since I borrowed the book from the library, they probably wouldn't have been to happy about it. But, all that to say that this is a strange little book filled with wonderful gems.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Consider the Lobster - David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is a genius. He knows it, but luckily, he seems to have a good sense of self-deprecating humor about it. Consider the Lobster is a collection of Wallace's essays about far-ranging topics from: whether lobsters feel pain when you submerge them in boiling water to an analysis of John Updike and why he's such a jerk to Senator McCain's bid for the 2000 presidency. I like reading books of essays because I feel like I come across topics I'd never otherwise read about - and if there are topics that I really don't want to read about, I can just skip them. It's even better when the essays are well-written - it's like reading a New Yorker without as much of the stigma. My favorite essays in the book were, "Authority and American Usage" about language and lexicons (this essay most prominently displays Wallace's literary superiority) and "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," about the popularity and banality of sport autobiographies. Like my experience thus far with Jonathan Franzen, I enjoyed Wallace's essays much better than his fiction stories in "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." I am on the prowl for more Wallace essays, but I still have his fiction magnum opus, Infinite Jest on my shelves, so there is definitely more DFW in my future.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros

In high school, I went through a phase of loving Mexican, Mexican-American and South American literature - I'm sure this was triggered by Allende and Garcia Lorca, but has since expanded to Borges, Saramago, Neruda, and Garcia Marquez. At the time, this one by Mexican-American Cisneros was on my never-ending list, but I never seemed to get to it. Perhaps if I'd realized it was a novella instead of an actual novel, I would have set aside an afternoon to read it. But, I did just that when I came across it in my library at work the other day. This is the story of Esperanza Cordero growing up in a Latino ghetto in Chicago. Esperanza writes as a way to escape her humiliation of living in a run-down shack on Mango street. Her lyrical vignettes about friends, family, and growing up, focus on her desire to be someone more, but ultimately realizing that she does not want to abandon the place that made her into the person she is. Each short chapter focuses on a different time or aspect of Esperanza's life. They do not necessarily connect to one another, other than the fact that they are all about her. The writing is more like poetry than prose, and I found myself reading and re-reading lines and entire chapters just to appreciate the way the words seem to sing off the page. The House on Mango Street features so much of what drew me to Latin American literature in the first place - a focus on family and brilliant language full of pain and possibilities.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Skin - Roald Dahl

Like every kid growing up, Roald Dahl was one of my favorite writers. I couldn't get enough of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox and all the when I heard that he wrote macabre short stories for adults, I thought I better take a look. Dahl's writing, as expected, is quite easy to get into and his characters are very likeable (in a sinister way). But, as far as short stories go, I thought the twists and shockers were too obvious. There is one story called Champion of the World that must have provided the beginning for his novel Danny, the Champion of the World about pheasant poaching - I enjoyed reliving that story. In general though, I was not quite satisfied with this collection, though I admit that one story about a gentleman with a tattoo by a famous artist on his back is so creepy I think it will haunt me for quite awhile. These are worth checking out just to see Dahl's other side, but overall, I recommend sticking to his children's classics.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Practical Demonkeeping - Christopher Moore

Last year, I enjoyed a couple fun vampire books by Christopher Moore (You Suck and A Dirty Job) - so when I was in the mood for some light-reading about creatures from the underworld, I decided to check out this one - Moore's first novel from about 15 years ago. The reviews on were not that favorable - and many Moore fans reminded readers that this was his first book - and it was good to see that his writing had evolved over time. So, I came in with low expectations. I wasn't disappointed - there are an overabundance of characters in this novel, so it made it a little difficult to follow at times. But, the basic plot is that many years ago, Travis inadvertantly summoned the demon Catch from hell. Catch feeds on humans and is invisible except when attacking. As Travis searches for the incantation to send Catch back down below, a strange Arab arrives on the scene hunting down Catch with the help of the unsuspecting residents of the small town of Pine Cove, CA. Things get a little absurd, but Moore's characters are certainly colorful and his stories are a fun diversion from serious life.