Thursday, February 28, 2008

Then We Came To The End - Joshua Ferris

Everyday I sit in my little office typing on my computer. Sometimes I go to meetings and sometimes I take coffee breaks to gossip with my co-workers. It's all very mundane. But, then I watch movies like "Office Space" or television shows like "The Office" and I realize that this experience is so common to so many people, and yes, there are actually many aspects of it that are quite humorous. Ferris's novel is along these same lines. His characters work for a large advertising agency that is going through a severe downsizing. The characters scramble to look busy, spread rumors about each other, and then descend like vultures on the worthless items left behind by those who are given their notice. Style-wise, I found it interesting that Ferris chose to write his novel in the second-person. Everything is told from the perspective of "we" and "us" and we never find out who the actual narrator of the novel is. I thought it gave the book an interesting feel. Many of the little interactions between the characters are clever and made me smile thinking of someone in my own office who behaves the same way. But, the plot drags and gets a bit tedious at times. I actually think this book would be better presented as a movie, but then again, maybe too similar to the working drone productions already out there.

Monday, February 25, 2008

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult

I have really been in a reading funk lately. I started about four different books last week and couldn't make it past about page 20 in any of them. So, on a quiet Friday night, I decided to turn to an old favorite - Jodi Picoult. Picoult usually writes about adolescents (I actually think this one was in the Young Adult section at the library), deals with family turmoil, and has a very easy to get into writing style. She reminds me a lot of Chris Bohjalian. My Sister's Keeper is about a young woman named Kate who is suffering from a rare form of leukemia. She is diagnosed at age 2 and when her older brother does not turn out to be a genetic match for purposes of bone marrow donation, Kate's parents decide to get pregnant again - through invitro fertilization so that they can control the genetic make-up of their new child, Anna. Anna is a perfect match and from the day she is born, she is poked and prodded with needles and undergoes painful operations, all in the hopes of saving her sister's life. But, when her sister needs a kidney transplant, Anna takes a stand and hires an attorney to fight for her medical emancipation. Her mother is horrified, accusing Anna of signing Kate's death warrant. But, Anna's father is unsure, believing it's time they let their daughter take control of her own body. As Kate waits precariously in her hospital bed for the court's ruling, Anna is torn between her love for her sister and her family, and her desire to be seen as something more than simply a vessel for harvesting. This is a painful read - there are the obvious bio-ethics question about creating a child like Anna in the first place - and then the questions of how far one will go to save a child - even at the expense of the children who aren't suffering from catastrophic illnesses. I found the descriptions of the medical procedures a bit too graphic, but overall, this was a thought-provoking and engaging read.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Red Queen - Margaret Drabble

A modern-day researcher discovers the 200 year old memoirs of a Korean princess. The memoir recounts daily court life, the constraits of society, her devotion to her mentally ill king, and the constant political maneuvering within the court. The book then turns back to the researcher and her growing obsession with the memoirs. The subject matter of the Korean court was in general interesting to me. The writing, however, was superficial. The story was rambling and repetitive and did not give the reader a very good sense of the urgency and anxiety felt by this princess. This book reminded me of Anchee Min's Empress Orchid about an impoverished Chinese girl who rescues her family by becoming a concubine in The Forbidden City. The difference is that Min created a character that I actually cared about and presented the secrets of the royal family with such drama and importance that I felt as if I was really being allowed behind the curtain. Drabble's narrative fell flat and by the time I got to the second part focusing on the researcher, I simply could not wait for the book to be over.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Gathering - Anne Enright

The Gathering received the 2007 Man Booker Prize. In general, I find the Booker winners extraordinarily written and incredibly boring. Enright is the first one in awhile to hold my attention. After the death of the closest of her nine siblings, Victoria gathers her family together for an Irish wake. In bringing her brother Liam's body home, Victoria is reminded of her childhood, growing up mostly unsupervised by a mother too distracted by her never-ending pregnancies. As she confronts the horror of a secret she stumbled upon as an unsuspecting 8-year old, she is forced to acknowledge the reasons for her brother's wayward life. This is a brutal portrayal of a family torn apart by neglect and abuse, though at times I felt Enright was too straight-forward about what was going on - as if she did not trust her readers to read between the lines. Not much happens in this book plot-wise, but as a character and family study, I found it thoroughly amazing.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After several so-so books in the past couple weeks, I stumbled upon this gem set during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s. The book focuses on five main characters, a 15-year old houseboy (Ugwu), his revolutionary and anticolonial master (Odenigbo), twin daughters of a wealthy politician (Olanna and Kainene), and a white researcher desperate to gain acceptance in the African community (Richard). As each character struggles with his or her individual identity - and their relationships among each other, the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria secede to form the independent nation of Biafra. The ensuing civil war takes the lives of hundreds of thousands (depending on which side's statistics you believe), as Ugwu attempts to avoid conscription, Olanna discovers that her one-time wealth cannot save her from starvation, and Odenigbo fails to see that all the intellectualizing in the world cannot prevent the murder of his family. Adichie's writing and her ability to bring painful histories to light has earned her the title "Africa's next Chinua Achebe" (author of Things Fall Apart). Purely as a work of fiction, I found the characters rich and believable, if not frustrating in their set ways. As a piece of historical fiction, this is a devastating, yet illuminating introduction into yet another tragic chapter of Africa's history.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day - with help from James Joyce

Mostly I read to myself. But, every once in awhile, someone reads aloud and I am reminded of how beautiful language can be and that in the right hands it can capture inexplicable emotions. In high school, my English teacher played a recording of T.S. Eliot reading from my blog's namesake "The Wasteland," as well as "The Hollow Men." It was the first time I truly appreciated poetry and I can still hear Eliot's raspy voice warning, "This is the way the world ends..."

But, more importantly, and fitting for today...when I was in my last year of college, I took my favorite 19th Century Victorian Novels class. This is where I learned to love Austen, Dickens and Thackery, and developed my dislike for George Eliot. My professor (the brilliant Robert Polhemus) was also a Joyce scholar. I had studied Joyce during my summer in Dublin, and struggled mightily through Ulysses, which I appreciated, but could never quite follow.

On Valentine's Day (1997), Professor Polhemus stopped class to read Molly Bloom's soliliquy from the book's final chapter in which Molly (Penelope) welcomes home her long-adventuring husband Leopold Bloom (the wily Odysseus). And now when I think of returning and what it means to fall in love, I think of Professor Polhemus reading Molly's words:

"I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Wishing everyone a very happy valentine's day (and in a leapyear, no less)!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-exupery

The Little Prince is one of the best-selling books of all time. It is often presented as a children's book, and I first read it many many years ago. Re-reading it in a short sitting today, I believe it's one of those stories that was enjoyable to me as a child, but much more meaningful to me as an adult. The narrator of the story is an aviator whose plane has crashed in the desert. He meets the Little Prince, an extra-terrestrial of sorts, who reminds him of the wisdom of looking at the world through a childs' eyes. The Little Prince relays to the narrator the story of his travels across the universe, to various planets with serious adults, and the important lessons he learns - the most important being that "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." The author also illustrated the novella, and the drawings add much to the enjoyment of the story. The ending is a bit sad, but The Little Prince overall is filled with valuable observations and hope.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Away - Amy Bloom

I feel like I've been in a reading funk for the past couple weeks. Despite reading books that come highly recommended, I just haven't found anything I find remotely interesting. Angela lent me this one, and Ashley's mom also really enjoyed it. It is the story of Lillian who makes her way to America after her family is slaughtered in Russia. She survives by conducting simultaneous affairs with a handsome actor and his wealthy father. But, when Lillian learns that her daughter Sophie may in fact have survived the massacre, she vows to return to Russia to find her. The book covers her adventure from New York to Seattle and across Alaska, as she learns the American ways of lying, cheating, and exchanging sex for money and food -- all of which seem to come perfectly natural to her. I found Lillian's character so one -dimensional. While she had clearly endured so much tragedy and was trying to survive the only way she knew how, I never really felt much sympathy. She seemed like a shell with no true emotion. Obviously, she wants nothing more than to find her daughter, but each step of her journey is done so matter-of-factly that the only way I knew she'd rather be with her daughter than go to work at a factory was because the author told me so. There are so many great immigrant woman torn from her family stories out there that this one is probably worth passing over.

Gentlemen of the Road - Michael Chabon

Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of my very favorite books -- one of those books you want to read faster to find out what's going to happen, but at the same time hope will never end. But, since Kavalier & Clay, I have been disappointed in nearly everything else I've read by Chabon. I've been struggling to get into The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but put it aside for another time. Then, I tried Chabon again, borrowing his latest Gentlemen of the Road from the library. This is an adventure-tale which reminded me of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Arabian Nights, not in terms of the writing, but in terms of the fantastic adventure. Normally, I think I would like this type of story, but Chabon's writing takes flowery-prose to a new level. The sentences are never-ending and I found myself struggling to get through them, with no comprehension or interest in what was happening to the characters. This probably speaks to my level of reading comprehension. I think for people who enjoy quests and a little more fantsy, this would be a precious read. For some reason lately, I am looking for something a little more grounded in reality and the present.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Keep - Jennifer Egan

This books starts out as the story of two cousins who share a tragic childhood secret. Years later, Howard is rich and successful and renovating a castle in Eastern Europe. He invites the ne'er do well Danny out to help with the project. Several chapters later you learn that the Howard/Danny story is actually the creation of Ray, an inmate in a maxium-security prison. The chapters go back and forth between the two stories until eventually they intertwine. As Danny stays longer in the castle, he begins to unravel some of its secrets and to suspect that his stay is not as voluntary as he would have liked to believe. This book is somewhat of a gothic psychological mind-bender. The writing, however, is modern, with the author taking asides to talk to the reader. Ultimately, I found the scene transitions too abrupt - every time I got into the rhythym of one story or character, it would suddenly change. Great concept, questionable execution.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn

When a young girl is kidnapped in a small southern town, journalist Camille Preaker is sent home to investigate. She moves back in with the mother who never loved her, and the step-sister she never really knew. As Camille learns more about the girl who has disappeared, she discovers even more about herself (an admitted, but hardly recovering "cutter") and her sickness-inducing mother. This is a creepy book about going-home, and the realization that no matter where you go, someday all your problems will catch-up with you. Sharp Objects is a quick read - suspenseful, but not terribly surprising, and more sad than anything else.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Double Bind - Chris Bohjalian

The Double Bind is a fascinating exploration of memory and mental-illness. The book opens with the main character Laurel's brutal attack while riding her bike on a deserted road. Years later, she works at a homeless shelter and meets a schizophrenic man, Bobbie Crocker, who has a collection of brilliant photographs. When Bobbie dies, Laurel finds herself obsessed with figuring out where the photographs came from and who the man behind the pictures was. In an interesting plot device Laurel happens to be from West Egg - which fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald may remember as the home to Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Laurel becomes convinced that Bobbie is related to the Buchanan family, and somehow perhaps the brutal attack many years earlier. Story and writing-wise, I did not find this book as compelling as Bohjalian's other novels, such as Midwives and Trans-Sister Radio, but there are some interesting twists, and I liked his ideas of how trauma affects recollection and future actions.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

This is one of those books I've seen everywhere lately - prominent in bookstore displays, good NY Times review, and very long queue at the library. So, when it finally arrived my expectations were high. This is the epic story of Oscar Wao, an insufferable Dominican-American nerd growing up in New Jersey who can't get a date to save his life, but wants nothing more than a girlfriend. Except perhaps another comic book or sci-fi thriller. After introducing us to Oscar, Diaz takes us back to the DR and the lives of Oscar's sister and mother. The book is rich in DR history and quite epic in developing Oscar's familial past. But, after about 100 pages, I just couldn't take the writing style anymore. It reminded me of Jonathan Safran Foer and Gary Shteyngart - you can tell the writing is "good" and "interesting," but at the same time it just grates on your nerves. Well, at least mine. I found the character of Oscar flip, and his obsession with sex got really old, really fast. I also felt about this book like I did about Zadie Smith's White Teeth - a book that tries to take on important issues (like race, class, immigration, identity and "otherness"), but doesn't quite come together in a satisfying way.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Saskiad - Brian Hall

The Saskiad is a female coming-of-age story about the precocious Saskia, a twelve year old who lives with her mother, several other adults, and numerous children in a commune-like house in upstate New York. Saskia is a voracious reader, and she describes her world as though she were living in an imaginary land. The first third of the book is written in very imaginative prose. Saskia fancies herself a bit of an Odysseus, embarking on adventures, preventing mutinies, and trying to figure out answers to all her questions of identity. Then, out of the blue, Saskia's father Thomas invites her to spend the summer with him. She brings her new friend Jane, and the three set out over land and sea to save the world. Saskia struggles with her sexuality throughout the novel, while her father crosses boundaries, and her mother remains constantly unable to protect Saskia because of her own delusions. This book is beautifully written, though the style changes dramatically from the first third through the rest of the novel. The relationships among the characters is often uncomfortable, but not unrealistic. Though by no means perfect, I still felt reading this was like discovering a lost treasure.