Sunday, September 30, 2007

So Many Books, So Little Time - Sara Nelson

I enjoy reading books about books - to get recommendations from readers, and also just to see what other people think of books that I've also read. Aunty Marji enjoys the same thing - and she sent me this recommendation - by Sara Nelson who is apparently a "well-known publishing correspondent." Nelson vows to read and write about a book a week in 2002. Her books don't seem to have any unifying theme - she just read and tells anecdotal stories about why she chose them, what she thinks of them, and how they may or may not relate to other books she's read. Overall, this book was fine - I wrote down a couple recommendations along the way. But, at the same time, for someone who makes a living writing about books, I didn't find Nelson's analyses of the novels she picked up very interesting or informative - and since I'd never heard of Nelson before, she wasn't able to convey to me why I should really care what she thinks about things. Plus, she regularly trashed books I really loved (including Peace Like a River, one of my favorite books that I've read so far this year). So, while I appreciate that different people like different kinds of books - and that's the beauty of having so many books out there, I tended to find many of her comments about the works annoying or condescending. But, Nelson's husband is Japanese, and she has a half-Japanese son - so I did appreciate her recommendations of Asian-American writers and the Japanese experience in America. I enjoyed this book from the perspective of learning how another person who loves reading goes about choosing the books they read - what they like/hate and why - but if I knew this Sara Nelson in real life, I doubt I'd go to her very often for recommendations.

The Palace Thief - Ethan Canin

The Palace Thief is a collection of four short stories - one of which was made into a pretty good movie I saw back in 2002 called The Emperor's Club, starring Kevin Kline and Emilie Hirsch. Canin's collection was the Stanford Book Salon's choice for the month of September, and something I probably wouldn't have known to pick up on my own. The basic theme running through the stories is that "Character is Destiny." Each of the stories presents a narrator or main character who is stumbling through life, trying to make sense and good choices - but is prevented from doing so because of his character, or the character of others. My appreciation for short stories has grown considerably in the past couple years, and I found three of the four in this collection quite intriguing - "The Accountant" and "Batorsag and Szerelem" for their complicated narrators, and "The Palace Thief" for overall entertainment (I wasn't a huge fan of "City of Broken Hearts" about a divorced man trying to get back on the dating wagon).

Friday, September 28, 2007

Kafka Was The Rage - Antole Broyard

In this memoir, literary critic Broyard tells the story of his life in Greenwich Village in post-WWII 1946. It's a free-thinking time, where eveyone appears obsessed with books, ideas, and art. This reminded me so much of the beat writers in San Francisco, but as Broyard points out, minus the drugs. In some ways it seems like a frustrating pointless life and time, with people moving in and out of each other's lives, discussing philosophy, but finding no answers. In other ways, it gave me this real sense of invigorated creativity - and left me wishing I lived in this free bohemian time. Broyard passed away in 1990. His daughter Bliss Broyard has recently come out with a book about her family and their questionable racial background, called One Drop, which was recently reviewed by the NY Times:(

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Summons to Memphis* - Peter Taylor

In general, I am a big fan of Southern Literature. I'm not quite sure why - since I've never really been to the south, and don't have any connection to it. But, I think the history of the South lends itself to stories about families and secrets and the struggle between doing what's right/for yourself and doing what is expected of you by others - all themes which I find quite interesting. A Summons To Memphis is told from the perspective of Philip, the younger brother of two meddling sisters. The book opens with their plea for his to return home from New York to help prevent their aging widower father from remarrying and giving away their inheritance. As Philip returns home, he
recounts how his family made its way to Memphis from Nashville, and the unlucky relationships that he and both his sisters have endured. Taylor's story and his writing reminded me of Henry James. Not a lot happened in this book in terms of plot, but I found myself absolutely enthralled by the language. Taylor's characters, like those of James, often say and do things while meaning quite the opposite. While it can be frustrating to understand the subtext, it is a fascinating study in manipulation. I have a love/hate relationship with the winners of the Pulitzer, but this is one the committee definitely got right.

(* - Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell - Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point (reviewed June 2007). His newest book Blink looks at the split-second instinctual decisions we make - how we make them, what intuition is all about, how to use automatic judging to our favor, and how to overcome it when it leads to improper bias. As a whole, I didn't find this book as enjoyable as The Tipping Point, but Gladwell grabbed me from the first page when he told the story of the Getty Museum's purchase of a supposedly ancient Kouros statue. This was one of my favorite cases from Art Law in law school. The Getty spent tons of money trying to determine whether the statue was authentic. They ran all kinds of tests and spent lots of time to confirm that it was not a fake. Yet, numerous art historians took one look at the statue and simple knew that something was wrong, even if they could put it into words or scientifically prove it. Ultimately, the problems began to emerge, and now the statue is listed on the Getty website as "Statue of a Kouros, Greek, about 530 B.C. or modern forgery."
( Gladwell unpacks how these experts could have "just known" - the feeling in the gut they experienced when they took one glance at the statue. Like The Tipping Point, Blink is full of fascinating stories to illustrate Gladwell's points. This is a great book to get you thinking about the snap decisions you make everyday - for good or bad - to teach you to learn to trust your instincts and also help you to overcome internal negative biases. I definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs - Alexander McCall Smith

This is the second in Smith's series about the German professor of Romance Philology, Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. This short quick collection of antics follows Dr. von Igelfeld in his quest for fame and respect - which often, if not always, results in embarrassing and cringe-provoking situations. Dr. von Igelfeld is an unmarried man, and several of the silly stories revolve around him trying to find a partner, or single woman chasing after him. I think he and Amelia Bedelia are soul mates. If you're in the mood for the ridiculous, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs is absolutely perfect.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Nasty Bits - Anthony Bourdain - This is a collection of essays directly and tangentially related to Bourdain's exploits as the chef of a fabulous restaurant in New York, and his travels around the world eating at Michelin rated venues and off-the-beaten path jewels. Bourdain's relentless rantings are often hilarious, sometimes exhausting, but always (in my opinion) entertaining. I loved his first book Kitchen Confidential, though I've never seen his television show on the Travel Network called No Reservations. I can see people hating Bourdain. He has an opinion about EVERYTHING and he's an arrogant unapologetic drunk. But, I just love the way he describes and enjoys food - from the dirtiest dives in Vietnam to the fanciest dining rooms in France. I wish his books had an index in the back with his favorite restaurants and dishes listed by city. My favorite parts of his book are when he gives "advice" to diners - there's lots of this in Kitchen Confidential - from when and how to order the right dishes on a menu, to how to treat your waiters, to how to send food back to the kitchen, to when to take appropriate smoking and bathroom breaks during the service of a meal. He's the modern day Emily Post of how correctly to eat out in a restaurant. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the magic of having other people prepare your food for you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Washingtonienne* - Jessica Cutler - Last night, I wasn't feeling well. I just wanted to go home and read. But, I didn't feel like I had much ability to concentrate. So, I took this book off my shelf. Raz loaned it to me awhile ago when she was in her chick-lit/memoir phase, so I figured it would be a light read. That is the understatement of the year. This is the fictional account of Ms. Cutler's real-life exploits as an intern on the Hill. It is filled with her drug and alcohol induced sexcapades, which she recounts for her friends via her daily blog. She uses her size-0 body and designer clothing to attract wealthy (often married) older men who pay her rent in exchange for her company. This is the literary equivalent of bad reality television and quite possibly the most poorly written book I have read in the last several years. As Cutler attempts to describe her character's fashion ensembles, I couldn't help but think that she fancied herself the next Brett Easton Ellis (whose American Psycho, by the way, is pure genius). But, I thought I was giving her too much credit - until one of her characters mentioned Patrick Bateman (the main character in American Psycho) and then I just felt sad for her. I read this 300 page book in just under 2 hours. It passed the time and was so ridiculous that I found it entertaining. But, if you're looking for something to stimulate brain cells, stay far far away. If, on the other hand, you're looking to kill more brain cells, the link above will take you to the recovered actual blog of the real-life Washingtonienne.

(* - This is the 100th book I've read this year!)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Divisadero - Michael Ondaatje

By the author of The English Patient (which I've never read nor seen), Divisadero is like two novels in one. In the first major story, Anna lives in Gold Rush country with her father, her adopted sister Claire, and her adopted brother Coop. After a violent incident occurs, Anna runs away and never sees her family again. Coop slinks off to become a gambler and Claire goes to work for the public defender in San Francisco. Eventually Coop and Claire serendipitously reunite, but Coop's memory has failed him and Claire is left to help him piece together his past. In the second part of the story, we find Anna in France, now a writer, researching the life of the famous author who once lived in her home. The life of the old writer becomes infused with the new -and we are left to draw parallels between the two stories to imagine what has become of all the characters. I enjoyed the first part of this book - I found the characters of Coop and Claire (as well as their mostly mute father) interesting, and I could have used another couple hundred pages on their futures. Anna, to me, was the most annoying character of the book - and the second half of the novel was painfully difficult to get through. Obviously Ondaatje wanted to do something a little more creative and literary than merely tell a chronological story about a couple lost souls. But, I think that is the story I would have preferred to read.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Peace Like a River - Leif Enger - 11-year old Rueben was born with weak lungs and brought to life by a miracle seemingly performed by his own father. After his mother runs off, Rueben lives poor but content with his father, his older brother Davy, and his younger sister Swede - a budding writer far too wise for her age and reminiscent of Scout Finch. When Davy is put on trial for murder and escapes from jail, Reuben's world is turned upside-down and his family heads out West. As Reuben bears witness to his father's many miracles, marvels at his sister's intelligence, and endures his failing health, he tells the story of his life from the perspective of his older self, yet still through the eyes of an innocent 11-year old boy. I loved this book - I always enjoy stories told by children, and with a little faith and family thrown in, this made for a very exciting and touching book. A definite highlight of my past few weeks of reading.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

New England White - Stephen Carter - Stephen Carter is an African-American law professor at Yale - so his novels unsurprisingly combine two areas in which I'm very interested - race and the legal/political system. And, he writes thrillers - a triple-whammy. I really enjoyed his first novel The Emperor of Ocean Park, and this new one features more prominently a number of his minor characters from that book. Centered around a college campus, a professor is found murdered. He happens to be the ex-lover of the university president's wife, Julia. Julia suspects that the murder has something to do with her husband's college roommates - all wealthy white men - one now the President of the United States, and the other a Senator and front-runner in the next election. As she chases down one clue after another, she finds herself in a tangled web of lies and deception involving her family and a suspicious murder the people in town thought was resolved decades before. Carter is suspenseful, and he drops enough hints to keep the reader guessing and involved in the story. This one went on about 100 pages too long, but all in all, I found it a worthwhile mystery.

Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch - Dai Sijie - Years ago I read and loved Sijie's first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Sijie's second novel features Mr. Muo, back in China after a stint in France learning all he can about Freud and pschoanalysis. Muo, in an effort to free the love of his life from a Chinese prison, hopes to spread his new-found knowledge throughout the country (which resembles and is often mistaken for a sort of fortune-telling). Muo encounters one interesting character after another as it becomes less and less clear what is actually happening in "real" life, and what is simply taking place in Muo's own head. While I enjoy Sijie's writing, I could not get into this book until about page 70. Then after another 100 pages, I lost interest again. It was a little more effort to follow than I was in the mood for, and while Muo is a whimsical character - of the sort I usually enjoy, this one is not high on my list of books to recommend.