Monday, May 21, 2007

Elizabeth Costello* - J.M. Coetzee - Luckily, this wasn't the first book I read by J.M. Coetzee. If it were, I probably would never have picked up another. This is a book about the fictional Australian novelist, Elizabeth Costello - who finds herself late in life, after receiving numerous awards for her writing, giving speeches on topics ranging from the modern novel to vegetarianism to the nature of evil. The novel unfolds in eight chapters - each chapter a different speech. Coetzee seemed to use the book as a vehicle for laying out his philosophies on various issues - or setting up debates that didn't seem to move forward any sort of story line. While each speech certainly provided a window into the character, I found them tedious, and the character narcissistic. The ideas are intriguing (though granted I didn't understand half of them), but I didn't find the book particularly enjoyable.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Galileo's Daughter - Dava Sobel I'd been interested in reading this book since it was published in 1999, but I rarely buy non-fiction, so I didn't have the chance until I borrowed it from my mother a couple weeks ago. This is a biography of Galileo, told in part through letters written to him by his illegitimate daughter, a cloistered nun and Galileo's confidante. Over 125 letters written by her survive, though all of the letters from Galileo to his daughter have reportedly been lost or destroyed. While the familial relationship was interesting, I didn't feel as if the correspondence added much to the narrative, and it seemed as if most of the biographical information about Galileo came from other sources. As I am not particularly interested in astronomy, mathematics, or physics, I found most of the discussion of Galileo's findings and research a bit boring (I know it's all incredibly important and I respect that, I just don't care to read about it). I was interested in Galileo's treatment by the church, but at this point I feel like most of that information is common knowledge, and I almost felt as if Sobel's retelling of the story was like reading a high school textbook. I was unimpressed by her writing, and felt as if the use of the letters was too gimmicky - a way to appear to have a new angle on Galileo's life, but not really adding much overall. That being said, a very well-read friend of mine who reads biographies by the dozen loves this book - and feels that it was most certainly deserving of all the praise it has received. More science-minded individuals would probably enjoy it.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart Picked as one of the NY Times's top books of 2006, this is the story of Misha, a 325 pound Russian Jew, who wants nothing more than to return to America. After Misha's mafia father murders an American, Misha's chances of legally obtaining a visa are dashed - so he ventures to the country of Absurdistan, where he hopes to buy one on the black market. Civil war erupts - the local government, backed by Halliburton, is mired in corruption - and Misha finds himself stuck in the middle. I was interested in Misha's back story, his interactions with his family, and his quest for love. I was not as interested in the political commentary about the US's love for oil and questionable dictators. This book was at times clever, but I got bored quickly and wasn't that excited about reading it after about 150 pages in. Well-written, but overhyped.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Kokoro* - Natsume Soseki - This novel, centered around the friendship of a young student and an elder "Sensei", deals with the transition from Japan's Meiji society to the modern era. The young student develops a strange fascination with the misanthrope Sensei and through vague conversations, and ultimately a tell-all epistle, discovers the truth behind the Sensei's ennui and malaise. The book moves slowly, and the reluctance of the characters to just say what they are thinking is a bit tedious, but it is well written and unfolds as a depressing, yet compelling, illlustration of a society steeped in guilt and obligation. Published in 1914, Natsume's Kokoro is credited with establishing the form of the first-person novel.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rashomon and Other Stories* - Akutagawa Ryƫnosuke - Akutagawa is known as "the father of the Japanese short story." This collection, first published in 1915, included about eight different stories, all exploring the darker side of life and the difficult choices people are often forced to make. Akira Kurosawa made the film "Rashomon" based on a number of Akutagawa's over 150 short stories. I've been shocked in this month's exploration of Japanese writers to encounter so many stories with haunting and disturbing themes. I'm not sure what I expected, but everything has left me feeling depressed and contemplating the meaning of life and the good/evil of human nature. Akutagawa's stories are short and the entire collection could easily be read in one sitting - but I think it would be a mistake to do this. It's simply too much to take in all at once.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Talented Mr. Ripley* - Patricia Highsmith - By now most people have probably seen the movie based on this book, which I myself enjoyed. When I was looking for mystery recommendations last month, KJM's husband recommended it. I'd basically forgotten the story, but the basics are Tom Ripley is approached by the father of Dickie Greenwood who has been gallavanting around Europe for far too long. Mr. Greenwood pays Ripley's way to Italy to find Dickie and bring him home. Upon finding Dickie, however, Ripley becomes infactuated with him - and not only wants to become his best friend, but actually wants to become HIM. Murders and investigations ensue, while Ripley overcome with paranoia goes to strange and inexplicable lengths to maintain his secret life. There is nothing likeable about Ripley's character, but I still found myself worried he would get caught and relieved when the detectives overlooked the obvious. This isn't the most brilliantly written book, but I found it exciting. Highsmith has written four other novels featuring Tom Ripley, and I definitely plan to read them.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

You Suck - Christopher Moore Vampires on the loose and in love in San Francisco, and goth-teenagers desperately seeking to be their minions - Moore's latest novel is a fast read bordering on the ridiculous - but really fun nonetheless. The book cover kept calling out to me at various stores, and finally I decided to borrow it from the library. Sections of the book are written as the Diary of Abby Normal - a perky loser who just wants everyone to take her thirst for an immortal soul seriously. Her description and reenactments of conversations are hilarious. This is definitely not the most literary novel I've read, but for a frivolous good time, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Boomsday - Christopher Buckley

Boomsday is the latest fictionalized political commentary by the author of Thank You for Smoking. It is the story of Cass Devine, accepted at Yale, but forced into the army by her greedy selfish father. Fast-forward 10 years, and Cass, through her blog, has become the voice of her generation. And just in time. With the baby-boomers hitting retirement, it seems the under-30 year-olds are saddled with ballooning and unsustainable social security payments. Cass comes up with a "Modest Proposal" that has the politicians up in arms - and trying to figure out how to best use it for their own career advancement. From a pro-life minister to a womanizing senator to the sinister President of the United States, they all work their spin on the issue. Buckley is insightful and funny - I loved and hated his characters immediately, but was disappointed when they acted like the stereotypes they are. I expected more from them. Just like politicians in real life.

A Pale View of Hills* - Kazuo Ishiguro - By the author of Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, Artist of the Floating World, and When We Were Orphans, this is the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in London whose eldest daughter has just commited suicide. In dealing with the tragedy, Etsuko is reminded of her last summer in Nagasaki - presumably 1945 when the bomb was dropped. Throughout the narrative hints are dropped about Etsuko's prior life and her struggle with identity and finding happiness in a culture embroiled in duty. All of Ishiguro's novels hinge on the idea of memory - what we choose to remember, how we remember, and how what we remember shapes how we live our lives and the paths we choose. A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro's first novel - it's clear he is still playing with and developing his own ideas of memory - and I did not find it as engaging as When We Were Orphans or his latest Never Let Me Go. But, despite the difficulties of the subject matter, I find Ishiguro's writing very soothing, and I highly recommend everything I have read by him, including this one.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Rant - Chuck Palahniuk

Rant is the latest release by one of my favorite authors. Written as an oral history - featuring interviews by over 20 different characters - it tells the story of the recently deceased Rant Casey. Casey is the supposed Patient Zero of a devastating rabies epidemic that has infected the country, as well as the creator of "Party Crashing", a late-night drag-racing bumper-car activity whereby participants hunt down and crash into other participants. The book traces Rant's evolution from small town nobody to infamous serial killer. Palahniuk is an incredible story-teller, and by creating a novel in which each of his characters has a story to tell (often the same story from ten different perspectives), I think he's created his best work yet.

NY Times Review:

Go - Holly Uyemoto Go is the story of a third-generation Japanese American who moves home after a bad break-up with her boyfriend. She retraces family stories of her grandparents and parents growing up in the internment camps, as she re-adjusts to life with her dysfunctional mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The ideas in the book were simplistic and I did not think the writing was particularly engaging. I enjoyed little pieces of the story, or observations that reminded me of my own family (like after her grandmother's funeral, the relatives sit around opening the koden envelopes, consulting their records of who had given what in the past, and taking notes on the amounts. I always thought it was weird when my grandmother did this, but apparently, not such a strange custom, after all), but all in all it was barely mediocre. I wouldn't recommend this book for anything more than something to help pass the time on a lazy summer afternoon.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A Personal Matter - Kenzaburo Oe - Kenzaburo Oe, a resident of Tokyo, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. The father of a child with brain damage, A Personal Matter, appears somewhat autobiographical, as it tells the story of Bird, a man whose wife has just given birth to a baby with a severe brain injury. The novel, told from Bird's perspective, follows Bird through the ensuing days as he attempts to cope with the news and his feelings of inadequacy. He wrestles with whether to allow the doctors to operate, knowing his son will never be "normal", or to simply allow the baby to die. As I explained the plot to Sarah, she pointed out that it is similar to The Memory Keeper's Daughter. She's right, but I never would have made the connection because Oe's writing is so raw and powerful - as the Powell's review starts out - it's like a "punch in the face." There were sentences I had to read multiple times to get over my shock that certain words were actually written out on the page. Oe's writing is honest and incredibly brutal, with sex and power politics constantly at play. This book definitely took me out of my comfort zone. It's not for the beach, but it's marvelous overcoming angst reading.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Clouds of Witness - Dorothy Sayers : This recommendation by Aunty Marji closed out Mystery Month for me. Amateur sleuth Lord Peter Whimsy is called away from vacation when his brother is accused of murdering their sister's fiance. Sayers lays out an in-depth decription of the trial - which I found fascinating and made me wonder if Sayers had a legal background. While I quickly got into this book, after about the first 70 pages, I found it hard to keep my interest - I think the writing was too old-fashioned for me. The final chapters were skillfully put together, but I didn't find myself that impressed by the resolution. I also think, though, that I enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd so much, that this fell a little short by comparison.

April was a good reading month for me, and I declare my "Topic of the Month" reading plan an early success. I was really happy to learn about some new authors (like Sayers) and read others that I've heard about for so long but never read (like Chandler). I plan to work more mysteries into my rotation and I received a lot of recommendations that I just didn't have time to get to. Yet.