Thursday, October 30, 2008

All About LuLu - Jonathan Evison

I've been in a bit of a slump with my fiction selections lately. After reading the first 100 pages of this book, I thought I was finally emerging...but then I kept reading. All About Lulu is told from the perspective of Will, an awkward adolescent who has recently lost his mother. His father, a bodybuilder, isn't one for sentimentalism, nor are his younger twin brothers who model their behavior after streotypical neanderthals. Thus, Will is left to his own devices to try and figure out the world on his own. Then he meets Lulu - immediately Will is taken with her, and finds that she is the only one he is able to talk to, and then only one who seems to understand his quirky misfit-ness. Lulu becomes Will's step-sister - but clearly also his soulmate. Then one summer, Lulu goes away to summer camp, and something changes. She comes back withdrawn and cruel - clear in her effort to push Will away. And so Will chases other dreams - he works for a radio and a hamburger joint, he watches his brother's develop their own distinct personalities, and he makes a couple off-the-wall friends. But, all the while, he remains steadfastly loyal to Lulu, who year after year seems to spin more and more out of control. Will's inability to move on becomes a bit tedious at times, and the reader longs for an explanation of Lulu's bizarre behavior - does she suffer from mental illness? Does she actually return Will's feelings? What exactly happened the summer she went away? And, when the secret is revealed - it's too close to the end of the book, and it does not quite explain enough. Plus, it resembled a recent episode of Private Practice I just saw (which clearly came out after this book was written), while also seemed to be trying too hard to be shocking. All About Lulu is kind of chick-lit/Oprah book written by a man and about a male character. I plan to read reviews on by male readers to see how realistic they found the portrayal of Will's character.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop - Lewis Buzbee

While browsing at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto after a delicious breakfast at Hobee's, I came across this little gem. Lewis Buzbee is from the Bay Area and has spent his life surrounded by books. This is a both a memoir about his experiences working in and with bookstores, as well as a history of books and bookstores, and all things literary. Buzbee has a love, not just of the written word, but of that word printed on paper and bound in beautiful hardcover and paperback. He speaks about the development of gadgets such as the Kindle (he does not refer to the kindle by name, but devices like it), and the concept of libraries. But, in the end what he loves most is to possess the actual physical book. He cannot get enough of browsing in stores, of learning about new titels by eavesdropping on other customers, or through the relationships he has cultivated with various owners. He is a product of the independent bookstore, but he does not turn his nose up to large chains. In short, Buzbee pours out in his little book, the giddiness I feel everytime I open the door to a bookstore - the excitement of seeing new displays, and the knowledge that I can wander around and read whatever I want for as long as I want and I'm unlikely ever to be interrupted or asked to leave. He also dispels some of the wonder I have about how booksellers choose which books to put into their stores, and how books get from a publisher to the store floor. Part of the charm of this book for me also comes from the fact that Buzbee spends a great deal of time talking about stores in Palo Alto/Menlo Park that I frequented in high school (Printer's Inc., Kepler's, Stacey's), and the ones he puruses while living in San Francisco (City Lights, the now defunct Cody's and A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, Green Apple) Buzbee does not write about his particular favorite books or provide commentary about what he feels is worth reading and what is not - rather this is an informational and personal exploration of the concept of the book - and a true tribute to bookstores - and the wonder they hold for everyone.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro

When it comes to short story collections, I go in phases. Sometimes I just love them, and other times I find myself anxiously awaiting the ironic twist and unable to just simply enjoy the storytelling. And, for some reason, I find it necessary to read collections all the way through instead of allowing myself to read a story here and there when I decide I'm in the mood for one. It's something that I'm going to work on...but in the meantime...this collection of Munro's showcases female leads - most of whom have come from less than perfect pasts. Some of them find themselves married, others with children. But each one is perfectly real (at least to me) in her ambivalence and exasperation over her situation. I found myself captivated by Munro's writing, she's one of those authors whose passages you read again and again just to marvel at how perfectly they capture an emotion. In many ways her characters are depressing, and even the ones who got their happy ending seem to do so only because they didn't know what they should have been wishing for. Great stories to read with a pint of ice cream after a trying day.

Orpheus Lost - Janette Turner Hospital

Orpheus Lost is one of the picks for this year's Stanford Book Salon. It begins its focus on Southern-girl turned MIT mathematician, Leela. She finds herself in the bowels of the subway drawn in by the haunting sounds of musician Mishka Bartok's violin. Shortly after, the two begin to date and eventually move in together. The novel is thick with references to Orpheus and Eurydice, playing off the myth on various levels. After a suicide bombing, Leela is interrogated by her ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend Cobb, who has become a mercenary and has a personal interest in tying Leela's current lover to the terrorist incident. Mishka, however, has secrets of his own that take him to Lebanon and unleash the usual web of confusion and misunderstandings one would expect in a book with middle-eastern characters in a post-9/11 world. Thus, at about 100 pages in, I found myself unimpressed and unsure I wanted to continue to read a story I had already heard a million times. But, then the author took a turn. She returned to the South for backstory on Leela and Cobb. She explored Mishka's parentage and the effects of loss from the Holocaust on his Hungarian family. The terrorist misunderstandings, while real and frustrating, then become the tragic result of years of secrets. Orpheus Lost is many stories of families woven together to the point of Leela and Mishka's hope for reunification. And, like Orpheus and Eurydice, they both have to travel to hell and back, in the hopes that they can avoid looking back at their past, in order to begin anew.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Soul Thief - Charles Baxter

Nathaniel Mason, the main character of Baxter's novel, seems to lack a cohesive identity. He cavorts with pseudo-intellectuals and falls in love with a lesbian, all while contemplating the import of Gertrude Stein. One night at a party, he meets Jerome Coolberg - a man who throws out quotations of dubious origin and philosophies on life that he does not quite seem to endorse. And he slowly begins to co-opt pieces of Mason's past. He suddenly knows personal information about Mason's family, which he retells to others as his own history. But, even as Mason realizes what Coolberg is stealing, he protests little and instead seems to spiral into madness. There is confusion about whether Mason is paranoid, or if Coolberg is in fact adopting his soul. The story itself skips all over the place in terms of time - from Mason's college years to his adult world with a wife and two kids. Through his characters, Baxter explores the idea of identity - how much we create on our own and how much we borrow, or in some situations, completely steal from others. I experienced a general sense of discomfort while reading this book - a frustration with Mason in his passivity and a vehement dislike for Coolberg. Overall, this was one that did not inspire too much enthusiasm while I was reading it, but did raise interesting issues that I have been thinking about for the day or two since I finished.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stiff - Mary Roach

Ashley recommended this one to me awhile ago, and after attending a seminar on interpreting autopsy reports, I figured a book about the life (and death?) of cadavers might be interesting. Roach explores the history of cadavers, researching when and how cadavers were first used to advance medical science. When thinking of cadavers, I always conjure up images of decrepit grave-robbers selling bodies in the crooked cobbled streets of London, and Roach's story doesn't start too far from there. I appreciated her evaluation of how people work with dead bodies - the concept of dehumanization and the acknowledgement that a corpse is not a living breathing human being. And more importantly, that the idea of harvesting organs or otherwise learning from the tragedy of loss of life is something we should find commendable, not disgusting. Roach has chapters on various different uses of corpses from crash test dummies to testers for the guillotine, as well as practice mannequins for plastic surgeons. At every step, Roach reveals with humor and awe the tremendous thanks we owe to the people who have donated their bodies to the advancement of technology and science - and of course to those from the early days of body snatching, who didn't have much choice in the matter, but without whom I shudder to think how we might nowadays approach heart transplants and face lifts.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Travels in the Scriptorium - Paul Auster

Auster's storytelling is always a bit surreal and other-worldly to me - embodied in the cover art of his latest novel. A man wakes up in a room with no recollection of who he is, how he got there, or if he is allowed to leave. There is a manuscript on a desk that the man begins to read, hoping it will shed light on his identity. He is interrupted by a nurse and a doctor hinting at operatives and other random characters - all of whom played roles in Auster's previous books. The man's life begins to unravel slowly (in a Memento type way), as he learns things here and there - but is sidetracked when he is drugged and frustrated with the abrupt end to the manuscript. For those intimately familiar with Auster's previous works (not me, by any stretch), I think this would be a fun cameo-filled Robert Altman-like experience. For those not as familiar, the story at times drags (despite its short length). But is an interesting exploration of the creative process - how stories emerge and are retold, how endings come about, and whose point of view in the end really matters.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

I have been reading a cluster of okay, but not great, books lately. So, I decided to break it up with some children's literature. Even when children's books are bad, they are usually quick reads and there is usually something fun or full of wonder about them. Most importantly, very rarely are children's books depressing. Hugo Cabret is the young son of a horologist (watchmaker/fixer), trying to get by in France after his father passes away in a tragic fire. Hugo inherits his father's love and talent for fixing and tinkering, as well as his obsession with a little automaton that looks like it will write a message for them if only Hugo can figure out its secret. But, attempting to survive on his own gets in the way of Hugo's ability to fix the automaton. He is caught stealing parts and nabbed sneaking croissants and milk. But, along the way, he meets Isabelle, the goddaughter of a mean toymaker. And Etienne, a young man with an eyepatch and a wonderous love of the movies. As Hugo seeks to unlock the secret of the automaton, he stumbles upon even bigger secrets, and of course, magic. Selznick's story is based on the life of a real filmmaker, and is told through words as well as extraordinary pictures. His black and white drawings reminded me of one of my favorite children's writers/illustrators, Chris VanAllsburg (Jumanji, The Polar Express). This book is filled with fun, wonder, mystery, and little automatons that draw pictures. I can't imagine needing anything more.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Art Thief - Noah Charney

I think I've gone a bit overload with the art related books recently. After reading two non-fiction books by Edward Dolnick, I came across this fiction book about three seemingly unrelated art thefts - a Caravaggio from a Baroque church, a Malevich from the Malevich Society, and a recent acquisition from the National Gallery. As the police and art investigators across countries track down the stolen works, they find themselves wading through museums, private galleries, and auction houses in an effort to distinguish the forgeries from the authentic. Like Dolnick, Charney has done his homework - and throughout the story he weaves in information about how art theft is investigated, how most art thefts are accomplished, background on the relevant artists, and of particular interest to me - how auction houses operate. But, after Dolnick, I found much of the information repetitive, and the thrill of the art heist had lost some of its luster. If, however, I had come to this book pre-Dolnick, I think I would have loved it. And it made me think about people who become interested in a subject and exhaust all possible resources reading and learning about it. I don't think I'm one of those people. I think I'm more of a learn a little about a lot -because once I start to hear about a given topic in depth, the boredom sets in. It made me a bit sad because I do still find the topic intriguing and I wanted to love this book. But, perhaps it is one that I can come back to in a decade or so, having forgotten everything I learned from Dolnick, and ready to start all over again.

Case Histories - Kate Atkinson

Strangely, this book is not stocked at, so I am without an image for now...but perhaps that is representative of how I felt about the book overall. It has a great cover and paperback feel and the jacket cover description is enticing - but in the end, I was underwhelmed and disappointed. The book starts out with three differnt crimes - a young beloved child who disappears into the night, a teenage mother stretched to her limits who wacks her husband with an axe, and a young woman gunned down in her father's law office as the result of a seeming act of violence. Private detective Jackson Brodie is contacted by family members related to the three incidents, asking for his help in one way or another. Plot-wise, this started out promising for me, but I found Atkinson simply writing little vignettes about her characters rather than a cohesive narrative and often throwing in salacious material that did not seem necessary to the plot. The lives of the characters are tragic, with each one living in their own level of dispair. By the end, the reality of each crime is revealed - but it is mostly just told to the reader in a way that made me wonder why I had to read the whole book to get there. Clearly, the point of the book is not whodunnit, but rather the impact that violence and loss has on survivors. This book was unable to hold my attention, despite my initial interest in the story. Atkinson has a second novel that follows up on her characters from this one. I know I am a sucker for the sequel - in many many cases where I did not even enjoy the first one - but alas, I will probably check out One Good Turn from the library at some point in the near future. Why? I simply cannot explain it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Breaking Dawn - Stephenie Meyer (Twilight Series #4)

While I was more sad to see the Harry Potter series come to an end, I was plenty hesitant to finish off this one too. Despite my complaints about the Twilight series in general - mostly that the conversations between the star-crossed lovers are treacly and Bella's low self-esteem makes me want to throw the books against the wall as I'm reading them - there is no question that this series is entertaining and I was eager to find out how it would all end. At the beginning of this one, Bella is planning her wedding with Edward - and all the questions are there: will Edward really agree to turn her into a vampire? How will Jacob react? Will Bella regret her new life and all the implications? Will the Volturi make a return visit? This one started off with Bella in her usual irritating mode - Jacob returns and is pathetic as ever, but then I thought it took some very unexpected (to me) turns and finally got some bite. Bella becomes stronger - both physically and mentally in this novel, and she seems finally to have found her non-annoying voice. Jacob - my favorite character in the previous novels - takes on a more central role, and has about a third of the book told from his shape-shifting wolf perspective as he makes a break from his pack to protect the Cullens. There is a lot of focus in this book on the vampires with special powers - such as Edward's ability to mind-read and Alice's flashes about the future. As far-off vampires gather and challenge and impress each other with their various gifts, it was a little bit X-men-ish. That being said, I love the X-Men - and even if it seemed like Meyer was ripping off known superheroes, I still found it entertaining. Some of the themes/scenes in this installment probably merit more than a PG-13 rating (with respect to sex, not violence), but perhaps Meyer assumes her readers have aged along with the series and would be mature enough to handle it all by now. There's not much else to say without spoiling the plot, but while I've read on-line that other fans were disappointed with the ending Meyer chose to write, I found myself pleasantly surprised - and as many folks who check in with this blog know by now, I am definitely one for the happily ever after.