Monday, May 31, 2010

For One More Day - Mitch Albom

I recently went to the funeral of a 20-year old woman, which in itself is a tragic and devastating thing. One of her sisters gave a beautiful eulogy in which she talked about having a vivid dream during which she and her sister had a conversation. The dream was so real that she woke up feeling content - happy that she had that extra time with her sister, and hoping that the coming years would bring many more of those dreams so she would have even more time with the sister who was taken from her far too soon. That idea - of having just one more conversation with the person you love is something I think anyone who has lost a loved one can related to. Just that chance to see them laugh again, to tell them you love them, to ask them about their day and tell them about yours - it's a really powerful and real need. Albom's book is about just that. When former major league baseball player, Chick Benetto, tries to commit suicide, he comes face to face with his mother - who died eight years earlier. What follows is an account of Benetto's relationship growing up with his mother. There are a series of heartbreaking vignettes about the times his mother stood up for him, and conversely the times he failed to stand up for her, as Benetto comes to realize the importance of their relationship and the meaning of events that seemed incidental to him as a child. Albom's books, while simplistic on one level, are often difficult to read on an emotional level - they are a reminder of the mistakes we've made, and an urging to fix them before it's too late. As with Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, this was one that took no time at all to read, but has kept me thinking long after I finished.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie

In looking for good books about the Native American experience, my friend Sam introduced me to Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. This Young Adult novel is written as the memoir, complete with hilarious illustrations, of Arnold Spirit, Jr. ("Junior"). Junior, born with water on the brain and different enough from his peers to merit constant teasing, is certain that he needs to do something to get off the reservation. And so he makes the courageous decision to attend an wealthy all-white high school off the reservation. Somewhat autobiographical, Junior explores his frienship on the reservation with Rowdy, the son of an abusive alcoholic, as well as his own incredible accomplishments on the basketball court (which at times makes one question the truth-telling of the narrator). Junior falls in love with a white girl, misses his sister who has run off to get married in Montana, and continually seeks to find his identity between two worlds - both in which he is seen by everyone as the other. Through humor, Alexie portrays all the heartache of growing up on the reservation - all of the difficulties faced by Native American youth, and the effects of hundreds of years of oppression at the hands of the United States government. I read this book in a one hour sitting, though it's one that I think I will probably go back to pick apart more slowly later. Amazing on so many levels - but a particularly fabulous example of how insightful and powerful young adult fiction can be.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Sushi Economy - Sash Issenberg

This falls into the category of: seriously, there's a book about everything out there. Awhile back, I read a great review for The Sushi Economy, an exploration of the burgeoning popularity of sushi around the world - and the evolution of tuna from fodder for cheap cat food to a modern delicacy. Issenberg approaches the issue from every angle - from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market where auctioneers sell pounds and pounds of fish every morning to the hip LA restaurant sushi bars. Issenberg looks at the fishing trade itself - the various ways for farming and pirating tuna for legal commercial trade, as well as on the black market. This is a thorough study of the globalization of sushi, and interesting to the extent it answers the question of how such a seemingly strange food has gained such wide-spread popularity. But, at the end of the day, it's a book about the globalization of tuna - and while there are interesting factoids here and there, overall, it just didn't float my boat. Though it did put my in the mood for a big fat ninja roll.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Noah's Compass - Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is one of my comfort-read authors. She's written 18 novels over 46 years, and I've only read a handful, so when I'm in the mood for a quick read that I know will be satisfactory, I turn to her. Noah's Compass is her latest, but definitely not her greatest. It is the story of recently laid off elementary school teacher, Liam Pennywell. In his new stage in life, Liam decides to downsize to a small apartment where on the first night he is knocked unconscious by a burglar and taken to the emergency room. Unable to remember the details of the attack, Liam becomes obsessed with this small window of memory, causing him to reevaluate his life path up to that point and beyond. We meet Liam's three daughters, an ex-wife, and a new love interest - all in his attempt to just get his bearings and find his new direction. I found the dialogue between the characters particularly irritating and unrealistic. At times there seemed to be too much going on with the different relationships between the characters, nothing quite getting resolved or addressed adequately. At the same time, I suppose, it is a realistic account of what an aging man's life would look like - not neatly in parts, but all over the place. It was definitely the quick read that I ancitipated, but not nearly as satisfying as other Tyler books I've read.

My Enemy's Cradle - Sara Young

Set initially in the Netherlands during WWII, My Enemy's Cradle is the story of two cousins: Anneke - the perfect one in love with and pregnant by a German solidier, and Cyrla - the half-Jewish poet hiding her religion in the hopes of avoiding the camps she can't quite believe actually exist. With Cyrla's identity in danger of being discovered, she is given the opportunity to take Anneke's place in a German Lebensborn - or maternity home for women pregnant with the children of the Aryan nation. The catch is that once the children are born, they are taken from their mothers - sometimes adopted by Nazi families, or in the case of those who are deemed less than perfect, simply executed. Throughout the novel, Cyrla struggles with choices, her naivete clouding her judgment and convincing her that she will be able to escape and be with her family and the father of her child. As a reader, knowing what we do about how dangerous Nazi Germany was for suspected Jews, and the horrific realities of the concentration camps, it is difficult not to become frustrated with Cyrla's seeming stupidity. But, Young does a fabulous job of writing a character who simply could not know the truth, until it is revealed to her little by little. Things with Cyrla's relationships in the end come together a little too neatly, but a little happiness among all the horror was appreciated. Despite the brutality of a couple scenes, and the constant underlying fear of rape by SS soldiers and other inhumane acts, I generally felt this book would have been appropriately classified as YA. Cyrla is easy to relate to as a teenage character. I have read countless WWII stories, but the Lebensborn was new to me - this was an interesting persepctive on devastating time in our history.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lowboy - John Wray

Lowboy takes place in the subways of Manhattan, and tells the story of Will Heller, a 16-year old paranoid schizophrenic who has disappeared from a mental health institution intent on solving the problem of global warming by reuniting with the girl who got him into all this trouble in the first place. The narrative alternates between Will's own jumbled first-person account, and the story of his worried mother attempting to help the police find her child. I'm interested in learning more about the author's background with schizophrenia and the research he did to write from the perspective of a character suffering from this disease. The chapters about Will do an amazing job of recreating the world of someone driven by an obsessive need, who hears voices, and sees the world just a bit differently from the average preson. As a reader, I could feel Will's urgency and frustration. The chapters involving Will's mother and the detective who is searching for him were also quite interesting. I found myself so annoyed by the detective who is determined to paint Will as a dangerous criminal - and my heart ached for his mother who wants so desperately to protect her child. The story unravels in a way that doesn't entirely satisfy, though the nature of the relationship between Will and his mother plays out in a way that made me want to go back and read the entire book over again with new insight. While there's a lot of movement in this book, there isn't a great deal that happens in terms of plot. What I found most interesting was the method of the storytelling, and Wray's attempt to get inside Will's mind in an effort to understand a very tragic and difficult disease.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Reality Hungry: A Manifesto - David Shields

I'm not quite sure how to describe this book. The basic premise is Shields's belief that our culture is obsessed with "reality" because we rarely, if ever, experience it. To make his point, Sheilds launches into an in-depth discussion about memoirs. People ostensibly read memoirs because they want "real" stories. But, memoirs by their very nature are distorted reality - they contain the memories of the writer, not necessarily verified reality, but the facts as one remembers them, with the impressions and viewpoints of the individual at a given point in time. They are not objective biography. Despite this, people are up in arms when they realize that a given memoir has been exaggerated or fabricated (James Frey receives a number of mentions in the book). Sheilds discusses this phenomenon in a variety of other media, including the most obvious, Reality Television. People are fascinated by reality television, yet it's clear that many (if not all?) of these shows rely on scripted plot-lines and manufactured drama. The most interesting (to me) aspect of this book is that it is made up entirely of passages lifted from other sources. Shields has managed to put together a basically coherent argument about the state of reality, by compiling writings of other individuals. As he says, it wouldn't make sense to write a book about lies, without including a few lies. Because of the way the book is written, it does come across as a bit of a hodge-podge at times. Nonetheless, I did think it raised some interesting arguments about the nature of truth and reality, and why people are obsessed with truth in a world where we can never be sure to actually have achieved it

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Beekeeper's Apprentice - Laurie R. King (Mary Russell Series #1)

I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and need to return soon to my Complete Sherlock Holmes to continue his adventures with Watson. In the meantime, I heard about this series which features Holmes in his retirement as a beekeeper outside of London. He is befriended by 15-year old Mary Russell, a big fan of his who is knowledgeable herself in the powers of deductive reasoning. Impressed by her skill and potential, Holmes takes Russell under his wing and a bit reluctantly steps out of retirement to help her solve a few crimes. This first introduction to the Holmes/Russell partnership focuses primarily on Holmes's training of his new protege, with a couple short mysteries thrown in. Then about halfway through the novel, Holmes and Russell find their lives threatened and embark on a quest to figure out who would want them dead. Using an already established and loved character in Holmes strikes me as a bit shady, but at the same time, a lot of fun. The fact that Russell is so young was a bit unnerving to me - and I would have liked to see her in her mid-20s, at least. But, putting the age aside, the relationship works for the most part and the mysteries while not too complicated, are entertaining. There are about 10 books in this series, and while I won't rush out to read them, it's nice to know they are out there when I'm in the mood for a decent mystery.

The Kitchen God's Wife - Amy Tan

After reading The Joy Luck Club, it is clear that Amy Tan does Asian mother-daughter relationships like no other. So, I was happy to pick up her second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, and find that she continued with the theme. The book initially takes place in the Bay Area, and focuses on Pearl, the daughter of Chinese immigrant, Winnie. Pearl is suffering from MS, but has not yet told her mother, for fear of worrying her unnecessarily. Winnie, on the other hand, has secrets of her own - about her past in China, a former husband, other children, and a life she thought she left behind decades ago. But, when meddling Aunt Helen, who holds both womens' secrets, decides it is time for mother and daughter to come clean, Winnie begins to tell her story. The remainder of the novel takes the reader back to China to learn about Winnie's difficult beginnings where tragedy upon tragedy mount, and just when you think things couldn't get any worse, of course they do. I found myself incredibly annoyed with the portrayal of children in this novel - as selfish, demanding creatures with no manners - but as the book continued I believe this was intentional on Tan's part - a reminder the subsequent generations are often ignorant of the struggles their mother's have gone through on their behalf, and a window into how their behavior might be altered if they understood sacrifces that had been made for them. The plot does have the depressing effect I experienced earlier this month while reading Push, given that one bad thing after another happens. But, unlike Push, I found this book well-written, the plot and characters engaging, and the reflection of the characters on their experience particularly valuable. Of course, one could also chalk it up to my ability to relate to Tan's characters and families more than I could related to those of Precious. While difficult to get through at times, an emotionally worthwhile read.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What the Lotus Said - Eric Swanson

As with many people, I have an inexplicable interest in Tibet (well, perhaps most other people can explain their fascination). But, as I've said on this blog before, I do not have much of an interest in Americans who travel to far-off lands to "find" themselves, become all consumed in Buddhist (or other religious) traditions, and then return home to write books or otherwise look down on those of us who have not been similarly enlightened. Despite this, I find that I continue to read these books, if only for the vicarious thrill of traveling to these far-off lands. And perhaps, the hope that I will also be inspired to someday find myself. The author of this memoir claims that his journey to Tibet and back with a Tibetan lama and several other Americans is "not about what you think." I'm not quite sure what he thinks I thought it would be about, but I found this to be a pretty typical attempted journey to enlightenment book. The one thing Swanson doesn't do is describe Tibet as overly picturesque, or pull punches when it comes to describing the sketchy hostels he stays in or the long arduous bus rides he endures. The reader does not get the sense that Swanson has fallen in love with Tibet and its inexplicably magical ways - and I did appreciate that sense of honesty about the experience. The book is written in a fragmented way that is, I believe, supposed to mirror the writing in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which I have not read). Rather than coming across as wise or insightful, however, it just struck me as a pretentious attempt to sound wise or insightful and it did not work for me. For me, the attempts at humor through the book failed, and just came across as flip and disrespectful to the culture he was allegedly trying so hard to become one with. My long-distance love affair with Tibet continues, however, and I remain in search of the memoir that will get it right for me (maybe I should just book a trip for myself soon).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Stones into Schools - Greg Mortenson

A few years ago I read and was deeply inspired by Greg Mortenson's first book, Three Cups of Tea, about his organization, Central Asia Institute, and their efforts to establish schools (mostly for girls) in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet, when I saw that he had published this second book, I didn't find myself rushing to read it. And, I'm not sure why - maybe because I thought it would just be more of the same - another 500 pages about the difficulties of getting through to people who believe that young women have no place in a classroom, the hardships of transporting materials to build the schools to such remote regions, the danger of challenging foreign governments and the Taliban. Or, maybe I just didn't want to be reminded that there are people out there who are so selflessly dedicated to literacy, peace, and young girls, while I sit at home and just read about them. Whatever the case, I did finally pick this one up - and from the first page of Khaled Hosseini's introduction to Mortenson's own epilogue, my eyes were filled with tears and my heart simply full from the wonder and amazement of the work being done by the people of CAI, and those they work with in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan. The book is a continuation of the work described in Three Cups of Tea, with a focus on a single school that took over a decade to build, as Mortenson describes the various barriers to achieving his ultimate goal of literacy and access to education for all children, but particularly young girls. The statistics throughout the book are staggering, but I was particularly touched by Mortenson's continual reminder of an African proverb that says something along the lines of - "Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community." Mortenson's message is a testament to the power that women hold in their communities - and the reason why the Taliban and other leaders seek to prevent the education of young girls. Some of the most amazing moments in the book come in realizing what men in these regions who work with Mortenson are putting on the line to educate their girls and better their own countries. Mortenson also shares a lot in this book about his own limitations - the sacrifices he has made in terms of losing time with his own children, how much he relies on the support and encouragement of his wife, and how he is not cut out for the fundraising and literary appearances that are now demanded from him. This book is a reminder (one that can be frustrating) that we can and should all be doing more - it doesn't have to be a complete life sacrifice to a calling like Mortenson - it can be just one more hour of volunteer work a week or one more check we write to an organization close to our hearts. It can even be just taking the time to read this book, to get educated, and to value the opportunities we often take for granted.

44 Scotland Street - Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street Series #1)

One of my favorite series of all time is Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which takes place in San Francisco and explores the lives of eccentric friends on Telegraph Hill. Alexander McCall Smith, who must be the world's most prolific writer, is on his way to creating his own world of memorable characters in Maupin's style with 44 Scotland Street, set in Edinburgh originally published as a serial for a Scottish paper. The novel features Pat, a 20-year old in her second gap year, who has just moved into a flat at 44 Scotland Street. Two of her roommates are traveling abroad, and the third, Bruce, is a narcissistic real estate agent with whom Pat comes dangerously close to falling in love. She finds a job at a local art gallery, run by the son of a wealthy investor who knows nothing about art, but has been given the gallery to occupy his time. Other notable characters include Pat's elderly neighbor, Domenica, who provides Pat with advice on all things romantic, as well as a pushy mother and her five year old son who speaks Italian, plays the saxaphone, and finds himself in desperate need of therapy. Pat's main storyline involved the accidental loss of a potentially expensive painting. The story itself was a little silly, but provided a good vehicle for interaction among the various characters and an introduction to the wonderful world of 44 Scotland Street, which continues in Espresso Tales - luckily already sitting on my shelves at home.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dead to the World - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #4)

I believe the new season of True Blood is set to start up soon...which means I need to get a move on reading this series because it seems the further ahead of the television series I get, the more I'm enjoying myself. It could also just be that it took Harris a few books to settle into her rhthym, to write less riduculous dialogue, and to explain what's going on just a bit bette. In Dead to the World, Sookie's ex-boyfriend Bill has shipped out of town - which is wonderful because I hate Bill, and without him the story plays out a bit better. Eric the Vampire Sheriff of Area Five, on the other hand, is suffering some sort of amnesia at the hands of witches, and needs to hide out at Sookie's place - a recipe for their ever-anticipated romantic get together. Meanwhile, Sookie's brother Jason has myseriously disappeared, and Sookie must venture further into the realm of the werewolves and not-quite-humans to find him. This installment moves along the relationship between Sookie and Eric, and introduces new packs of supernatural beings to keep the story interesting. This series is starting to take on a comfort-food existence for me. It's nice to know Harris keeps cranking them out, so when I need a fun mindless vampire tale to turn to, there will always be something there.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Push - Sapphire

I haven't yet seen the movie Precious that is based on this book - but given the runaway success of both the film and the novel, I thought I better check it out. The good news is that this book is incredibly short and can easily be read in one short sitting. The book is written from the perspective of the character Precious, an illiterate teenager pregnant for the second time by her own father. She lives with an abusive mother who blames Precious for "stealing her man," and her first child, born with down syndrome is offensively named Little Mongo. Once her second pregnancy is discovered, Precious is sent to a continuation school, where under the guidance of a caring teacher, she learns how to explore her past through writing. The author writes in Precious's voice, meaning that the grammar and spelling throughout the book are horrendous - even worse when she is demonstrating Precious's actual written words in her new journal. I understand the point of this literary device - and have seen it used so many times in books where characters come from the inner city, are immigrants, or otherwise come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I do, however, find that it can distract from the story that is being told. What Sapphire does do well is present the viewpoint of a traumatized and abused young woman. In many ways Precious is wise beyond her years - she has learned to survive - both physically and mentally, and she has within her a desire to be better for her children. What is frustrating is that, through not fault of her own, she has no perspective or ability to understand her limitations - and while the teacher character in the book is supportive in this respect - there is only the haunting reality that Precious's children will end up deprived of the very basic care that she herself was never given. Obviously, this is part of the point of the story - that as a society we have failed countless children and communities on very basic levels - that our welfare system is broken, and that we allow our most precious resources to simply fall through the cracks. What I felt was missing in this story though was a sense of hope - Precious, despite all she has endured does have hope for herself and she is certainly working to better her future for herself and her children - but there isn't really a hint that this is going to turn out very well for anyone. The book and movie have been called "inspirational" and "redemptive." But, I didn't get this sense at all. Perhaps "unfortunately realistic" is more to the point, and lately I've just had a hard time reading stories about such bleak problems that offer no suggestions for solutions. This book seems to just be asking us to recognize that so much pain and horror exists in this world, and that yet the human spirit perseveres. I think we need so much more.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Shadow Tag - Louise Endrich

The premise of this book intrigued me. A woman, Irene, keeps a journal (her red diary). One day she realizes that her husband has been reading it. And so she chooses to continue writing in that journal, albeit with deceptive and misleading entries, while also beginning her new real journal (the blue notebook). Had the story of Irene's disintegrating marriage, the turmoil of raising three children while obtaning her PhD, and her losing battle with alcohol been told exclusively through the two journals, I think this would have made for a very interesting read. Instead, I felt as if Erdrich simply used the journals as gimmicky device to pull the reader in, and then somewhat abandoned that narrative in exchange for a rambling disjointed story. The reviews for this book have been overwhelmingly positive, but for me, there was just too much going on that seemed forced and contrived - and not just because the basic premise is Irene's manipulation of her husband Gil through her writing. Gil himself is a painter of Native American imagery - often using his own wife as his subject and placing her in compromising and degrading positions. The portrait of their marriage as so irretrievably broken comes through from the first pages (from Gil's initial decision to read Irene's diary - and the fact that her diary contains so much animosity toward him), and it spirals out of control until the end. This book is bleak, depressing, and wholly unenjoyable. To the extent that is the book Erdrich set out to write, she has certainly succeeded. To the extent I thought I would ever read any of her other twelve or so novels, I think I'll probably take a pass.

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea - Chelsea Handler

Sometimes, I think it's quite possible that I live under a rock, completely and totally out of touch with current events and reality. I blame this partially on the invention of the DVR. It means that I only watch certain shows, and that I have not seen a commercial in years (except during the Superbowl). I don't watch the evening news because I can't stand the bias. And, I don't read the newspaper because I hate getting ink on my hands. And so, I continue in my little bubble. Until someone comes along and asks if I've heard of so-and-so, or my opinion on such-and-such. Then, as a result of extreme embarrassment at my ignorance, I run to the library or the internet to learn what I can. And so it was with Chelsea Handler (, stand-up comedian, best-selling author, late-night talk show host, and the unofficially hardest working woman in Hollywood. She's been on the scene for a number of years, but it wasn't until my friend Loana started dropping her name on a daily basis that I started to catch a bit of a clue. I almost even bought this book in an airport bookstore, but luckily, she saved me the $14.99 and lent it to me instead. Handler's latest book is a collection of essays about her life growing up in New Jersey as the youngest of six children. She recounts how her wild imagination and her yearning to fit in enabled her to concoct incredible stories. As she grows older, we learn about her somewhat disastrous dating life and her shallow friendships. Handler's stories are observant, and she certainly has a unique and funny outlook on often dismal situations. But, I did not find this book laugh out loud funny. There were clever turns of phrases, cringe-worthy episodes, and some knowing relate-ability. I did particularly enjoy one essay about attending the birthday party of a "friend" she completely dislikes, and regifting a present that the birthday girl had actually given her. On purpose. I have never seen Handler on television, but she is coming soon to the bay area for a stand-up show and I hope I will have the chance to check her out. I've heard that her dead-pan delivery translates better in person than on the page - and the feminist in me loves to see more women out there recognized for their humor. Handler is no David Sedaris, but I can see myself checking out more of her books for a laugh or two in the future.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Wisdom of the Last Farmer - David Masumoto

My husband Jake jokes that if you want to start a successful restaurant in the bay area, all you have to do is work for Chez Panisse for a day, and then bill yourself out as a former employee. People will come running on the assumption that all your food will be fresh, organic, and innovative. So, David Masumoto did a good thing having the introduction to his book about peach farming written by someone who treasured the experience of eating Masumoto's family fruit at Alice Waters's restaurant. With this set-up, I was instantly drawn into the world of Central Valley farming, and excited to learn more about the peach growing process, as well as about Masumoto's life as the son of sansei Japanese-Americans who had lived through the horrors of the World War II internment camps. Wisdom of the Last Farmer is a collection of articles and essays Masumoto previously published about his life on his family farm (, and in particular about his relationship with his father and his hopes for passing the family farm along to his own two children. Because of this, there is a bit of repetition - as characters are introduced and re-introduced in different chapters, and some stories and themes are recycled. Masumoto provides an interesting perspective on the aging culture of farming, and what this means for the future of our fruit and vegetable industries. But, mostly what I enjoyed about this book was Masumoto's reflections on family - on tradition and obligation, on why we take care of the people we love, and why we need to tell the stories of our lives. I wanted to love this book - not just because Masumoto's peaches are served at Chez Panisse - but because he stands for so much, not the least of which is incredible success in the wake of racial prejudice and financial difficulty. I was not blown away by the presentation of the stories, but I was inspired by his anecdotes. Masumoto has written a number of other books about his life, Heirlooms, Letters to the Valley, Four Seasons in Five Senses, Harvest Son, and Epitaph for a Peach. While I won't rush out to request these from the library, Masumoto is someone I am interested in learning more about - and I look forward to buying and ordering his fruit from Berkeley Bowl, my local farmer's market, and neighborhood restaurants in the upcoming peach season.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ground Up - Michael Idov

I keep track of the books I'm reading and the long list of books that I want to read on But, I need to keep better track of where I get my recommendations, so I can figure out if there are consistently reliable sources, and others that I need to just toss aside. This book came from some unknown source and sounded promising. It's the story of an aimess intellectual couple and their quest to run a hip coffee shop in Manhattan. The book is based on the author's real-life foray into cafe ownership. As someone who has always romanticized the notion of owning a cafe (I mean, who hasn't), preferably with a small bookstore attached, I was curious to see how this one would play out. From choosing the name of the shop (nothing with a pun) to hiring "coffee artists" to figuring out which pastries to sell and what kind of vibe to put forth, I found Idov's dialogue and story telling style for the most part witty (in a Juno, if not realistic, way). But, the characters themselves were simply not likeable. The couple doesn't act like much of a team, and they take themselves way too seriously for the reader to ever truly root for their success. Of course, that might be part of the point. The main characters cannot be bothered to find money important, so the mere fact that they've set off to achieve a capitalist's dream (complete with competing Cup a Joe across the street) solidifies the satire and ensures their ultimate demise. This story is the classic picture of urban malaise. And while it is not as annoying to me as suburban malaise, I found it mostly tedious and uninspiring.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Turnk Music - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch Series #5)

As work heats up for me over the next couple months, I anticipate that the percentage of my reading time taken up with mindless mysteries and other thrillers (probably featuring vampires) will increase. To that end, I plan to make some headway in Connelly's series featuring LA Homicide Detective Hieronymous Bosch (I have 10 more to go!). In this adventure, Harry is fresh off his suspension when he is assigned to the murder of an entertainment industry bigwig found shot and stuffed in the trunk of his car. Suspecting a mob hit, Harry makes his way to Vegas, where he once again crosses path with former lover, Eleanor Wish. As with most of Connelly's books in this series, Harry chases down false leads, always suspects the wife, and has a hunch that there might be some LAPD insiders on the make. This one held together quite well for me, though as usual Harry's romantic interludes always seem forced and awkward. I did, however, particularly enjoy the relatively witty dialogue among the feuding police forces (internal affairs, in particular). Trunk Music does not have much about Harry's past (which I found compelling, especially in The Concrete Blonde), but he is an interesting protagonist and I look forward to his future adventures.

The Kingdom of this World - Alejo Carpentier

When the earthquake in Haiti first hit, I was heartened to see that my local bookstore made an effort to stock and promote books about Haiti and by Haitian writers (most notably Edwidge Danticat). In my effort to learn more about Haitian history, the owner recommended this fiction book, which is actually by a Cuban author. The Kingdom of the World tells the story of Ti Noel, an illiterate slave who lives through the Haitian revolution in 1804. After the United States, Haiti was only the second country in history to break free from European colonization. Dependent entirely on plantation slavery, once Haiti achieved independence, it experienced a complete overhaul of its social and economic order. Carpentier employs the devices of magical realism to tell the story of this brutal transformation, and while short, this book is chock full of voodoo, violence, sexuality, history, and commentary on race relations. Predominantly, I felt this was a book about form - Carpentier's method of storytelling is as important, if not more important, than the actual story he is telling - and it takes a lot of work to follow. As I often feel when books are a little over my head, I think I would have really benefitted from reading this book in a class taught by a professor of literature, as well as Haitian history. I particularly enjoyed the theme of hybridization throughout the novel, and the ideas of intersecting cultural identity - particularly profound given Carpentier's own complex background. I'm not sure I came away with much factual information about Haiti from this novel, but it certainly gave me a feel for the times, and the incredible struggle against and for power endured by those portrayed in the novel. For anyone looking for a work of historical fiction, that is more lyrical than linear, this is a good bet.