Sunday, January 31, 2010

In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje

During my first two years of college, I took a lot of classes in 18th and 19th century literature. The books were long, but my professors were wonderful, and it was a great foundation for me to learn about the concept of the novel and storytelling in general. And then, I took Professor Solomon's Modernist Fiction class and I felt like an entire new world opened up to me. I wasn't entirely sure that I liked this new world, but with steam of consciousness, literary cubism, and intertextuality, it was definitely something new and exciting to explore. But, the truth is those novels were hard work - I never quite knew what Faulkner was getting at, or I wasn't sure which of Woolf's characters were actually speaking. I didn't know if we were in the past, the present, or the future - it was all quite disorienting. Since college, I have mostly stayed away from this genre of writing - I prefer a good plot. I like linear storytelling. I like happy endings. But, when a co-worker who sounded like he knew what he was talking about told me that In the Skin of a Lion was his favorite book of all time, I thought I'd take a look. The book is ostensibly about the lives of immigrant laborers who helped build up Toronto in the early 1900s, with specific focus on the character of Patrick Lewis. Patrick becomes a seeker, determined to track down a missing rich man, and in the course of his investigation falls in love with two different women. In the Skin of a Lion is the story of outsiders, wearing different faces, accents, and personas in an attempt to assimilate and belong. Ondaatje's descriptions of the laborers and their dangerous work building bridges and pouring tar reminded me of Zola's description of the mine workers in Germinal. But, his piecemeal dialogue and his shifting from character to event to cloudy memory is in every way post-modern. I appreciated this book for Ondaatje's language and imagery. I particularly enjoyed a passage in which a young Patrick Lewis watches the immigrant laborers as they ice skate on a pond near his home. He longs to join and understand them. It's one of those passages that makes you feel like you're right there with the character. But, then Ondaatje switches to his next scene, and you're left wondering what just happened. I felt like I was watching television with my husband, a notorious channel-changer - the second I became interested in a character or wondered what would happen next, the scene switched on me. In the Skin of a Lion is definitely not for the reader who wants a clear linear story - but for those who are bored by such conventions, and who love working a little more while they unravel a book, this is certainly worth checking out.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Specials - Scott Westerfeld (Uglies Series #3)

In the third installment of the Uglies series, Tally finds herself transformed in to a "Special" - a super-human fighting machine, designed to enforce order. With strength, speed, and clarity of vision, Tally finds herself supremely focused on preventing a rogue faction in the New Smoke from undoing all the work her people have done to turn ugly free-thinking humans into obedient bubbly pretties. But, as Tally moves forward with a singular purpose, there remains that small voice inside her that wonders if she is really doing all of this for the right reasons. I found this book less engaging than the first two in the series - the chase scenes and other adventures that Tally finds herself in seem to last far too long without any particular purpose. Tally's boyfriend from the second book has suffered brain damage and is physically handicapped after the attempt to "cure" him goes wrong. Tally's reaction to him is unsettling. She is unable to remember why she fell in love with him - and just wants him to be pretty again. While perhaps this is Westerfeld's commentary on the danger of having your brain altered and becoming shallow, Tally's disgust at anything different is protrayed in a way that almost makes her seem justified. I'm glad that Westerfeld decide to abandon his original idea of making the Uglies a trilogy, and wrote another book in the series (Extras) so I see this play out further. Somehow, I want Tally to learn a few lessons - about friendship and how to treat people - and I don't want them all blamed on brain damage over which she seemingly had no control. I know there is more here in terms of Tally's character - and the point being that she does have control over her actions despite what she sometimes thinks. But, right now, the way the author has portrayed her friendships with girls and relationships with boys has been troubling and incredibly unsatisfying.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Club Dead - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #3)

Third time's a charm for me and this vampire series. Finally, I've gotten beyond the plot of the television show "True Blood." Whether it's because I've stopped picturing the show in my head, or comparing how the story lines differed, or whether this situation is actually getting better, I can't be sure. But, it's more likely that I'm just drawn in by the characters and my strange affinity for books in a series. The writing is still terrible and the dialogue horrendous, but Ms. Harris does have quite an imagination for the supernatural. In this installment, Sookie's vampire beau Bill has been kidnapped, and Sookie is sent to Mississippi to see if she can figure out who is at the bottom of everything. Sookie has more interaction with the Sheriff of Area #5, Eric Northman (my favorite character on the show...and quickly becoming my favorite of the books). She fights her attraction to Eric and convinces herself that she still loves Bill, despite discovering that he has betrayed her beyond her wildest dreams. Club Dead also introduces the werewolf, Alcide, who expresses his own attraction to Sookie, and who I hope will appear in future books in the series just to add another dimension to the vampire/telepath world of Bon Temps.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Godfather - Mario Puzo

I think I may be the only person in the United States between the ages of 25-45 who has not seen the movie "The Godfather." But, I decided to read the book first since it was listed in my book, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. I'm so glad I did because frankly, this book is AWESOME. It seems impossible that anyone wouldn't know that The Godfather is the story of the organized crime family, the Coreleones - headed up by Vito (the Don), along with his three sons Sonny, Fredo, and Michael. When the Don is shot following the marriage of his only daughter, the leadership and strength of the family comes into question, and the need to figure out who is loyal and who has betrayed whom becomes of paramount importance. At this point, much of my perception of the mafia has been clouded by "The Sopranos," but so much of this book reminded me of Tony and his pals. Figuring out how and when the family's enemies would take action and how and when to respond is a delicate balance of psychology and brute force. There were story lines I could have done without (particularly the Frank Sinatra-like character Johnny Fontane and his adventures in Vegas), but I was fascinated by Michael's transformation from Dartmouth student to scheming insider. The story immediately drew me in, and despite the unsavory nature of the Coreleone family's activites, it's hard not to root for them. On a side note - whenever movies are based on books, I wonder how much work it really takes to write thescreenplay. But when reading this book, I noticed that one of the most famous lines from The Godfather, "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes" appears in the book as the less catchy, "The fish means that Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean," proving to me that sometimes those movie writers really do earn their keep.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Born Round - Frank Bruni

After reading Ruth Reichl's memoir Garlic and Sapphires about her time as the restaurant critic for the New York Times, I was interested in reading Frank Bruni's memoir about his time in the same position. Bruni's story, however, was about so much more than enjoying great food and telling the world about it. Rather, Born Round is about Bruni's life long relationship with food. As a child, Bruni was always "big boned." His Italian grandmother and mother fed his insatiable appetite, and in his efforts to get skinny despite his addictions, Bruni developed a frightening eating disorder - which surely would been much more noticeable and seriously addressed by his family and friends had he been a young woman. Bruni tells in excruciatingly painful detail about his unbelievably binging, and his subsequent purging. He explains how he lost out on friends and potential love because of his fear of being seen as anything less than perfect, and his disbelief that anyone could love him unless he were thin. Despite Bruni's challenge with food, he agrees to take on the position as the New York Times restaurant critic. His acceptance of the job almost seems self-destructive, but somehow he finds a way to not only manage it, but to excel at it. Bruni honestly portrays the hard work he did physically to get himself in the shape he wanted to be in - but it's unclear, and I would have been more interested, in learning about his psychological work. While it's obvious that he gains self-worth with each pants size he loses, it's not clear that the reasons he delved into his excessive behavior in the first place were ever confronted or resolved. As with many memoirs, this book was difficult to read at times - Bruni's behavior is so obviously designed to deny him the very happiness that he seeks. And for anyone who loves books about food - the beautiful enjoyment of gourmet feasts and the fun of enjoying a meal with friends - this is not quite the right book. There are certainly glipses of this throughout - but mostly this is a book about the pain associated with eating, what happens when food is used as an emotional substitute, and one man's tremendous journey to see himself as more than just the food he eats.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gourmet Rhapsody - Muriel Barbery

Like vampires, food seems to have taken the literary world by storm, and while I am bit burned out on books about critics and chefs, I find that I keep reading them. But, the truth is, I had no idea what this book was about when I bought it. I didn't care because I found Barbery's second novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog so beautifully written that I wanted to see what her debut novel was all about. Gourmet Rhapsody is the story of the life of Pierre Arthens, world renowned and nearly universally despied, food critic. On his deathbed, Arthens becomes consumed with finding that one flavor that will satiate him before he dies. It is something he can just barely remember from his past, but can't quite grasp on to - and so the chapters walk through his memories of fine meals and perfectly executed dishes in an effort to remember. In between Arthen's memories are the memories of his children, his wife, his mistress, his cat, the homeless guy he passed everyday on the way to work...and their recollections and feelings of the selfish man who never looked at them as anything more than a hinderance or a means for obtaining what he himself wanted in life. Monsieur Arthens is a horribly ugly man, but his appreciation for food is truly delightful. I lost myself in Barbary's descriptions of Arthen's favorite flavors, in particular those of his favorite ice cream and sorbets. Gourmet Rhapsody is like a fine meal - enjoyed in one sitting, but appreciated slowly and with great attention to detail.

Under the Dome - Stephen King

While I am a huge Stephen King admirer, I usually opt for his short stories in lieu of his incredibly long novels. But, after several Powell's employees named Under the Dome their top pick of 2009, I thought I'd give the 1000+ page book a chance. Under the Dome takes place in the town of Chesterfield, Maine, which one day, without warning, finds itself trapped under an invisible, yet deadly, forcefield. In typical King fashion, hundreds of pages are devoted to exploring the town and its citizens, and giving the reader the complete feeling of what it means to live in a defined space cut off from the rest of the world. To this end, there were times when I felt like I got the point, and that King was spending way too much time standing in one place rather than moving the story forward. But, admittedly, even when it seemed like nothing was happening, the panic and terror of the people of Chesterfield was beginning to take hold in me. In addition to the Lord of the Flies feel of the book, King also uses the dome to explore issues of environmentalism and the town of Chesterfield as a mini-version of our planet as a whole. As the town attempts to keep order, King's portrayal of law enforcement and political figures in the town is a scathing commentary on abuse of power in vulnerable situations (admitedly his characters are a bit 2-dimensional in their all or nothing when it comes to good and evil). After my recent post about reading for plot, Under the Dome was a reminder to me of the power authors have to do more than *just* entertain, but to also make us think critically about who we are and what we're doing. This book is an incredible undertaking - by King as a writer - and by anyone with the time to get all the way through it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pretties - Scott Westerfeld (Uglies Series #2)

I had a conversation recently with my brother about the main purpose of reading. He assumed that as an English major, I must have lofty goals, such as finding deeper meanings and analyzing sentence structure. It's possible I should have been embarrassed, but I readily admit that my main purpose in reading is pure entertainment. Of course, I am impressed when someone introduces a new way of storytelling, and there are days when I marvel at an author's writing style. But, mostly, I'm always on the hunt for exciting stories that remind me why I fell in love with books in the first place. For this reason, I particularly enjoy reading Young Adult novels - learning what the next generation is reading, and hoping that in an age of iphones and the Wii, that there are still books out there to capture their attention. Pretties is the second book in Westerfeld's addictive series featuring Tally Youngblood. This time around the plastic surgeons have gotten their hands on Tally and turned her pretty. In her new life filled with costume parties, champagne, and fun, Tally must struggle to remember the reason she agreed to become pretty in the first place - to undermine a government attempt to turn questioning citizens into mindless drones. As a female protagonist, I find Tally strong and opinionated which I really appreciate. At the same time, Westerfeld introduces a romantic lead for Tally, at the expense of her female friendships and her confidence, a move that I find questionable. Given the subject matter of the series - "ugly" people being turned "pretty" - there are subtle and not so subtle messages about judging people's worth based on appearances, which can make for an uncomfortable read at times. But, Westerfeld raises important issues that are clearly at the forefront of the minds of YA readers, and I look forward to reading the next two books in the series to see how it all works out.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What the Dog Saw - Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book is a collection of his New Yorker essays. Because one of the first things I do when I receive a new copy of the New Yorker is scan the table of contents to see if Gladwell has written anything for that issue, many of these were old hat. Gladwell has grouped his essays into three separate categories: those about great people, those about great ideas, and those about how we make such determinations. Mostly, it's a collection of Gladwell's best essays in getting his readers to think about an entirely new topic (such as why ketchup doesn't have as many varieties as mustard) in an entirely new way (such as why we - incorrectly - often equate genius with precociousness). Among my favorites was an essay about why people choke - or fail to perform at their peak potential. I also enjoyed the one about the man featured in the television program The Dog Whisperer. While I might not always agree with Gladwell's conclusions, I love his ability to look at the ordinary world and come up with the extraordinary. This was a fun read - I did not find each and every essay noteworthy or captivating - but I did like his explanation of how he comes up with what to write about, and more often than not, I find myself wanting to talk about his ideas and findings - most certainly a great indicator of a book well worth reading.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Thing Around Your Neck - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is a Nigerian writer whose novel Half of a Yellow Sun I absolutely loved a couple years back. This collection of short stories has a similar feel - most (but not all) of the stories feature women from Nigeria strugging to survive amidst political conflict in Africa, or figuring out how to live with new rules in the United States. I find Adichie's writing so beautiful, and each of the stories brings to life the discomfort of the characters within. My favorites included "Jumping Monday Hill" about a writer's retreat in Cape Town where authors from numerous African countries come together to share their stories and their prejudices. Particularly tragic was "The American Embassy" about a woman applying for asylum, but unwilling to tell the brutal story of her son's murder to an unsympathetic and incredulous intake officer. And one I found difficult to read, but impossible to put down, "The Arrangers of Marriage" about a woman who travels to New York with her new husband and discovers that he has rejected everything about their Nigerian culture. There is so much pain in each story, but also so much about continuing to live. This was a difficult collection for me to read straight through - even though I fell in love with the writing and am just amazed by Adichie's talent - the stories were at times too raw. Besides, I think this is a good one to savor. I have just requested Adichie's first novel, The Purple Hibiscus from the library, and look forward to learning about more of her work.

Namako: Sea Cucumber - Linda Watanabe McFerrin

I borrowed this one from my mother - this strange coming-of-age story is about Ellen, a quarter-Japanese child whose parents have moved her and her three younger siblings to Japan from the United States in the hopes of saving their marriage. Ellen is in the midst of quite an identity crisis - she is no longer a child like her siblings, but certainly not adult enough to understand much of what is going on around her. She looks different than her friends in America, but she's certainly not Asian enough and can barely speak the language in her new country. With her fractured outlook, Ellen befriends a girl named Anne, establishes an almost spiritual relationship with her aging grandmother, and experiences the confusion of interactions with a teacher who crosses boundaries under the guise of assisting her artistic development. While the entire novel is about Ellen's growth as an individual, the chapters are disconnected in a way that reflects Ellen's life, but also makes it difficult to really get into. I did, however, appreciated the portrayal of Ellen as a real girl - she makes cowardly choices because she can't find her own voice, she follows when she knows it's wrong, and she keeps secrets because she wants to feel special., but also because she is loyal. She is lonely and scared, but at the same time strong and independent. While I wanted more from this book in terms of plot, I really loved Ellen and have high hopes for the amazing person she is sure to become.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tongue - Kyung Ran-Jo

A couple years ago Jake and I went to the Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah. We decided to check out a number of short films by Asian directors. While not billed as horror films, each of the selections started out seemingly normal, but then morphed into a creepy, shocking, did that just happen? story. Reading Tongue reminded me of watching those movies. Tongue tells the story of a young chef who has just been abandoned by her long-time boyfriend by a beautiful model. As she fights off her depression and longing, she returns to the world of cooking. There are times when she pines for the ex, recalling the first time she herself met the model, and discovered the nature of her boyfriend's deception. But, most of the time it is a seemingly normal getting-over it and moving on story. Until it takes the did-that-just-happen? twist. I admit I had to go back and read a couple pages over for a second time to make sure I got it right. While many other reviewers have commented that the ending was predictable, I don't think I was expecting something so aggressive. It worked for me even if it wasn't the ending I might have chosen. The writing here is fluid - reminding a great deal of a few Japanese authors I've read - Murakami and Oe come to mind - not in terms of gravity of subject matter or density, but just in the surreal nature of the storytelling (similar to Banana Yoshimoto in terms of weight/substance). Tongue is one of those books that can definitely be read quickly, but for maximum effect, better savored to the very last bite.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Scarlett - Alexandra Ripley

After enjoying the soap opera-esque quality of Gone with the Wind, I was eager to see how the saga continued in this sequel (by a different author). At the opening of Scarlett, Scarlett and Rhett find themselves in marital discord. Rhett is off trying to increase his fortunes, while Scarlett finds herself shut out of society after making a scene at Melanie Wilkes's funeral. As in the original, Scarlett is shrewd and successful when it comes to business, but her self-centered ostentatious ways have her on the outs with everyone else around, including her estranged husband. And so begins her never-ending quest to chase after that which she cannot have. While I found the writing style amazingly similar to the original and enjoyed basking in the trashiness of the gossip and Scarlett's frivolousness, I found myself growing tired of it all by about page 300 (out of 800 or so). Scarlett's inability to face reality or to recognize that the world does not revolve around her was beyond anything I could tolerate. Her horrid treatment of her own children also made her such an incredibly unlikeable character that I found myself strongly rooting against her when it came to her efforts to win Rhett back. While the author tried a number of twists and turns, even sending Scarlett off to stay with relatives in Ireland, I just didn't feel the same enjoyment out of this as I did the original. It was fun to see what someone could do with the characters, but it wasn't long before I was just itching for it all to be over. Intriguing and exciting at the outset, but quickly grated on my nerves.

Almost French - Sarah Turnbull

Sarah Turnbull is a journalist from Australia who meets an enchanting French gentleman at a party. Shortly thereafter, he invites her to visit him in Paris...and eight years later, she's still there. Almost French is Turnbull's foray into French society, and her exploration of how much one can and should give up in the name of love. As Turnbull learns a new language and tries to fit in with her boyfriend Fred's seemingly snooty friends, she also struggles to find herself in a foreign land where she no longer understands how to dress, how to make small talk, or how to endure the painful struggle of trying to find a job. While I did not find anything particularly insightful or incredible about this book, I did find myself rooting for Turnbull in her magnifient efforts to assimilate. I would have liked to learn more about Fred - and better understand why he was worth all the trouble. He did seem implicitly supportive, but at the same time appeared to make no effort to put himself in Turnbull's shoes - to appreciate how much she had given up in terms of career, family, and day-to-day comfort in order to make their lives work together. Yet, at the same time, Turnbull never seemed to direct any of her frustrations at him - suggesting indeed that there is something quite amazing about their partnership. I really appreciated Turnbull's observations and assessments of French culture - her recognition of her own failures when she tried to impose her Australian sensibilities onto others, and the moments when her understanding of things finally clicked. I don't think I could ever survive in a foreign country without developing countless ulcers and generally feeling constantly on edge - worried about offending someone, and never feeling like I understood all the rules. Turnbull manages to come across as heroic, without presenting herself as a martyr or as smugly self-superior. She made me appreciate the ease of being at home, but at the same time long for travel and that feeling of moving a little beyond your comfort zone.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Favorite Reads of 2009

I managed to make it through 144 books this year (6 short of my 150 goal). Looking back on the year, it was difficult to pick my favorites. I always love a good series, and really enjoyed making my way through Barry Eisler's espionage series featuring John Rain, as well as starting out the first four in Michael Connelly's detective series featuring Harry Bosch. I read a ton of great books for work that I wish the whole world would read - and a couple of those made my list. I also read a lot of fluff that just made me happy. Once again, I'm really glad I have this blog to look back on and remember - and I am grateful for all the wonderful recommendations I received throughout the year. The list below is a bit arbitrary, but I think pretty close to containing the books I truly loved, or ones that really made me think long after I'd finished them. I look forward to a great reading year in 2010!

1. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford
2. Still Alice - Lisa Genova
3. The Hunger Games/Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins (Young Adult)
4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/The Girl who Played with Fire - Steig Larson
5. A Reliable Wife - Robert Goolrick

1. Beatiful Boy - David Sheff/Tweaked - Nic Sheff
2. Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell
3. The Soloist - Steve Lopez
4. Night Falls Fast - Kay Jamison
5. Outcasts United - Warren St. John