Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

I picked this book up at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto because I loved the paper it was printed on...and it appeared, in part, to be about a 12 year old girl (I tend to like books with adolescent female narrators). I was pleased to discover that this one was indeed quite a treat. A bestseller in France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog taks place in a wealthy Parisian apartment complex. Renee, the concierge provides her first person account of the tenants who come and go, assuming that she is uneducated or worthy of actual conversation. To the contrary, Renee is a lover of Russian literature (her cat, Leo, is named after Tolstoy) and Japanese films. An autodidact, she relishes philosophy and culture, all while maintaining her subservience around the tenants who barely acknowledge her existence. Between Renee's musings and observations are 12 year old Paloma's diary entries. Paloma, who lives in the building, is an recognized genius parading as a mediocre student who enjoys Manga and has vowed to end her life on her 13th birthday to avoid the hypocrisy that is life. As Renee and Paloma pursue their separate existences, they are suddenly brought together by Mr. Ozu, a new tenant in the building who is able to see past both their facades into the complicated and interesting people they truly are. The Elegance of a Hedgehog is absolutely beautifully written, and while I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened in terms of plot, I found myself reading just a chapter here and there in order to savor the book. The characters are loveable and intelligent - and while I did not particularly enjoy the ending, all in all, I found this a simply charming story (and like many I've read this year, even better by the fireplace with a cup of tea).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Once Upon a Quinceanera - Julia Alvarez

I have an interest in coming of age rituals and celebrations. I love birthdays, but the ones with particular meaning in different cultures and socio-economic groups hold particular interest - including bar and bat mitzvahs, Sweet Sixteens (thanks to MTV for indulging this fascination), debutante balls, and the quinceanera. Recently, there seems to have been a rash of books and movies about this latin phenomenon. In this non-fiction book by the author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez explores the quinceanera by shadowing a young girl on the brink of her quince in Queens. Alvarez explains how the tradition evolved, and what it represents to families in the United States. Alvarez does not hold back her criticism - questioning why families struggling to stay above the poverty line would go into debt for a party. Yet, she answers her own question by looking at what the attention provides to Latinas, who are among the nation's most susceptible to teen pregnancy and dropping out of high school. Alvarez looks at how the quinceanera brings cultures together, and reminds "Americanized" youth to look back at their heritage with appreciation. She also looks at how the worshipping of material things and the need to outshine the neighbors has cheapened the tradition. Ultimately, this is not just a book about Alvarez's observations of a ritual, but also a memoir of her own life as the daughter of immigrants from the DR who never had her own quinceanera. Alvarez's perspective as a Latina in America, as well as a staunch feminist, brings a unique and powerful perspective to this fairy tale tradition.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams

This is the second installment of Adams's five-part Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Arthur Dent, last known surviving earthling, is aboard a spaceship about to be attacked by the gruesome Vogons. Thanks to the wonders of time travel, they are saved at the last minute by a distant ancestor of Zaphod Beeblebrox. They travel to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where the entertainment is constantly interrupted by the end of the universe. As different characters try in their own way to figure out how to survive, Arthur and Ford Prefect end up on a planet they determine to be earth at the time of creation. Thousands of humans have been brought to the planet to inhabit it, but their knowledge and skills are that of the cavemen. Arthur tries unsuccessfully to teach them to play scrabble in hopes of speeding-up evolution, but as he learns from Ford, "Rome wasn't burned in a day." Like this plot summary, The Restaruant at the End of the Universe, is filled with nonsense, verbal word games, constant time and space travel - and the never ending for the quest to determine the question to which the answer is 42. As I've noted before, I am not big on the math/science/physics of it all, but I really enjoy Adams's characters, and their constant absurdity. To me, this series has been good for some real laughs - not necessarily realistic plot or dialogue, but definitely a worthwhile escape from it all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bright Shiny Morning - James Frey

After all the controversy over Frey's "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, I just couldn't resist picking up his recent novel to see him take a stab at writing fiction that is actually represented as fiction. Bright Shiny Morning is both a history of Los Angeles, and a portrait of the various people attempting to live out their dreams in the City Angels. There is the American-born and raised daughter of Mexican immigrants, trying to make her parents' sacrifices worth their while. There is the world-famous celebrity couple living together in their mansion for the cameras, but privately living separate homosexual existences courtesy of non-disclosure agreements. There is the 19-year old couple from the midwest who have come west with nothing but hopes for a better future. Along the way, there is the usual sex, drugs, violence and destruction of dreams that one would expect only in Los Angeles. As a concept, I liked this novel - Frey divides up his short chapters on the various characters with factual statements about the creation and growth of Los Angeles - beginning in the 18th century and continuing up to the current day. The idea that all of Los Angeles and everything it has come to represent began as nothing more than a pueblo is an incredible thought. Frey's writing, however, is all over the place. Not only does he jump from character to character, but he avoids punctuation with no rhyme or reason, making dialogue and thoughts often difficult to follow (giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is supposed to represent the haziness and confusion of LA itself?). In many ways, the characters are quite real - all trying in their own ways, but with a huge dose of tragedy. In my hopes of a coincidental Dickensian end, I anticipated that some of the character paths would cross, but they never did. Of course, this does make the novel a bit more realistic - simply a portrayal of all these different types of lives living in parallel existence in such a seemingly small area. But, it doesn't make for an interesting cohesive story. Frey has great character ideas - he just needs to reach a bit more for a plot. I appreciated the creative aspects of this novel, though often found myself thinking that Frey was trying too hard to be different, shocking, or original. Again, kind of like LA in general.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies - Alexander McCall Smith (#1 Ladies Detective Series - Book 6)

In this latest installment, Ramotswe is haunted by her past when her abusive first husband Note Matekoni arrives back in town with a plan to blackmail the detective. Meanwhile, assistant detective Mma Makutsi (of 97% typing accuracy fame) decides to take dance lessons in the hopes of meeting a fine successful businessman. Instead, she is paired up with a stuttering gentleman with two left feet. Enter Mr. Polopetsi - an ex-con looking for work, who Matekoni agrees to take on as a helper when one of his apprentices, Charlie, deserts his post for a wealthy lady in a Mercedes Benz. While there aren't a lot of customers paying the detective agency to solve mysteries in this one, there are certainly a lot of personal conundrums and emotions to sort out for all the characters. As with all the books in this series, this was a quick read. I enjoyed all the Botswana aphorisms, Ramotswe and Makutsi's constant observations that others are not as polite as they, and just getting to know the characters a little better. As always a wonderful treat. Someday, I hope to read Smith's books with a cup of the infamous bush tea.

The Black Echo - Michael Connelly

Earlier this year, my friend Rob introduced me to Michael Connelly with The Lincoln Lawyer featuring attorney Mickey Haller. At the time, he also told me that Connelly had written a series of detective novels about the character Harry Bosch. Connelly's most recent novel The Brass Verdict brings together Haller and Bosch. I thought that would be a fun read, but before I took it on, I decided I'd go back to the beginning and learn a little more about Mr. Bosch. The Black Echo was published in 1992. Since then Connelly has written 13 books featuring Bosch (not including The Brass Verdict). In this first installment, we meet Bosch, a renegade homicide detective who is called out to an apparent overdose in the sewers off Mulholland Drive. Bosch recognizes the victim as a fellow soldier in Vietnam and suspects there is more to the death than meets the eye. His hunt for the truth pairs him up with an FBI agent and sets him on the trail of bank robbers that will take him back to the underground tunnels of Vietnam and the pain and vengeance he thought he'd left behind. This is perfect pocket-fiction airplane reading. Life many detective thrillers, it is pretty far-reaching, but Bosch is a likeable curmudgeon. I am a fan of long series, and like getting to know a character over a period of time and books. This reminded me of Robert Tannenbaum's series of books feature DA Butch Karp (of which I read about 10 when I was taking Advanced Criminal Law from Mr. Tannenbaum my last year of law school). While I do prefer my Law & Order with a little courtroom legal drama, I am satisfied every once in awhile with just the law. While I probably won't read the next 12 Bosch novels right in a row, I am happy to have found a series that will last me awhile and that I can keep coming back to. Thanks Rob!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love - Jill Conner Browne - I picked this book up at a used book store many years ago because I liked the cover and it seemed like a fun mindless read. If I would have known then how funny it would be, I wouldn't have just let it sit on my shelves for so long! The Sweet Potato Queens are a group of big red haired women in Jackson, Mississippi who come out every St. Patrick's Day to appease their adoring crowds, and to shower the people with their fabulousness. The rest of the year, the Sweet Potato Queens work hard to maintain their image - and now the Queen of the Queens, Jill Conner Browne, has put together this book - a how-to/survival guide/self-help book on ensuring that you too know the secrets of love, life, men, marriage, and being prepared. The humor is at times a bit bawdy, but I laughed out loud, and while reading this pool-side with Jake, I kept irritating him by reading passages to him that were just too good not to share. My favorite chapter was "What to Eat When Tragedy Strike," which includes all the necessary recipes for dealing with any emergency - both salty and sweet. I look forward to trying out many of the recipes, especially the Butterfinger Cookies. This book is so crazy that I am amazed it is based on actual people and hope that Browne has exercised a healthy dose of exaggeration. She has four other books about her group of friends/worshippers, as well as a recent fiction novel and a cookbook. I look forward to reading them all and marveling in the strange beauty of the Sweet Potato Queens.

The Wonder Spot - Melissa Bank

Years ago, I read and enjoyed Bank's collection of short stories, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing. While I do not remember what any of those stories were about, my lasting impression of Bank is that her writing was easy and that her characters were clever. The Wonder Spot achieves the same lasting result. This is the story of Sophie Applebaum, a mediocre student, hoping for something more but not quite motivated to obtain it. The separate chapters of the novel are themselves like individual short stories - connected only because they feature the same main character. The book spans from Sophie's adolescence enduring Hebrew school until her almost 40s. The stories focus heavily on Sophie's relationships with men - but provide a much broader commentary on personal relationships in general as Sophie observes her perfect younger brother's union with an Orthodox Jew, and her flaky older brother's meaningless flings. Sophie also has difficult friendships with women - yearning as a child to be viewed as popular, and in later life unsure what she should be forced to give up for acceptance. While Sophie is not the brightest or most insightful individual, she is full of saracasm and wit - probably somewhat of a charater flaw in her ability to understand others. The Wonder Spot won't leave you with much to ponder in the end, but it is an enjoyable read with a satisfying end.

Citizen Girl: Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

For my trip to Belize, I decided to bring only mindless chick-lit, so that no intellectual processing would interfere with my pool-side laziness. I am also trying to get through all these books Raz lent me so long ago. I had semi-high hopes for Citizen Girl. It is written by the same duo that gave us The Nanny Diaries - a book that I think all the real mothers I know hate with a vengeance, but I found pretty entertaining. Citizen Girl features a character known simply as "Girl." In many ways, this is distressing, because if she is supposed to represent the Everygirl, then I think we are in serious trouble. Girl has been taught well by her feminist mother and is ready to change the world. She lands the seemingly perfect job (after being fired from her non-profit by a back-stabbing boss) - without a proper interview, and without any real understanding of what she is supposed to be doing. It has something to with launching a campaign to attract young feminists to an amorphous website run entirely by men, which in the ultimate satirical twist, turns into distressing pornography. Girl also has a random love interest - apparently, the reader is supposed to believe that the two have some sort of strong connection, but all their conversations are highly irritating and they do not seem to understand each other on any level - not to mention the fact that the love interest's friends are complete jerks. As Girl plugs along in her job, she finds herself questioning her integrity and her ability to continue to work on a project for which she has no support and no guidance. But, instead of being an insightful novel about the difficulties of the independent working woman to reconcile her ideals with reality, Girl is simply a whiny character who stands for nothing and is merely a mish-mash of ideas she has been fed by others. While a number of the frustrating scenes present Girl in typical real-life corporate work situations, there is nothing about the way she deals with the challenges that says anything positive about feminism or the power of women to succeed in a man's world. This book is poorly written and the characters are barely one-dimensional. A definite sophomore slump for the writers who have been called a One-Hit Wonder.