Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Magicians - Lev Grossman

This is another wonderful book given to me by my friend Eleanor. It's one of those books that sat on my shelf for a few months and when I finally read it, I was just amazed that this gem had been there for so long without my understanding of what a great story it contained. The Magicians is part-Harry Potter and part-Narnia. I've also heard it referred to as part Brett Easton Ellis, which sounds about right. It's the story of a misfit who suddenly finds himself at a secret school learning magic. The kids around him are misfits - often depressed and self-harming individuals. Quentin, the main character is also obsessed with a science-fiction fantasy from his childhood that told the story of a made-up world, that perhaps wasn't as made up as he thought it might be. Subject matter wise, this book seems like it is for the Harry Potter age-group, but the language is strong, the alcohol flows freely, and the kids are a little too disillusioned with the world for me to recommend this to any kid younger than 16. The kids take such liberties with the imbibing that part of me wondered whether the entire book was supposed to just be Quentin's fantasy world concocted in a drunked stupor. I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book which takes place at the school of magic - I found the characters ineresting and I was interested in where everything was headed. The final third, however, went a little overboard in the science-fiction realm, and I found it difficult to follow - not because it was particularly confusing, but just because I don't like it when things get too magic and warlocks. Despite being semi-depressed reading about these kids who felt their lives were so boring that they had to get wasted each night, this was a book that made me happy to be reading - and just a reminder of why I keep turning the pages day after day.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Unbearable Lighness of Scones - Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street #5)

I always compare this series to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. I read in the prologue to this book that Smith actually consulted with Maupin before he began this series -which originally appeared as a serial in a local publication. So, that explains that - and makes me feel like I'm not so crazy in having sensed the similarities. The Scottish melodrama continues in this one, and with each passing book, I realize that my main interest in this series is 6-year old Bertie and his exasperating relationship with this controlling mother. I've grown a bt tired of self-centered Bruce and the couple older characters...but this may be a function of the fact that I need to space the books out and read them at the pace they were intended to be read.

The Mind's Eye - Oliver Sacks

I am fascinated by neurological disorders - and the idea that because they are often so difficult to diagnose, people often think other things are going on, like failing eyesight or general insanity. Alas, I am not a very scientificly minded person (brain disorder, I guess), so I really appreciate the accessible way that Sacks writes his books - with colorful characters and interesting anecdotes. The Mind's Eye presents individuals who have suffered the loss of one of their senses - from the seemingly straightforward loss of sight to the strange loss of the ability to read (while maintaining the ability to write) and the sense of three dimensional space. Sacks spends a good portion of the book writing about his own struggle with the inability to recognize faces. This I found incredible, and gave a whole new understanding to people who consider themselves "bad with faces" and provides an excuse for that person you've met 10 times but still doesn't seem to recognize you when you run into them on the street. As with his other books, the mind's ability to adapt and compensate for loss is explored. This book also raises the fear in me that one of these incomprehensible afflictions could strike me at any time...but also gives me hope that there are brilliant minds like Dr. Sacks out there studying the brain and hopefully finding solutions to these crazy problems.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much - Allison Hoover Bartlett

The synopsis for this book reminded me of Edward Dolnick's books about art theft. Though this time, with books as the object of desire, I figured it was even more up my alley. This book focuses on John Gilkey, a man obsessed with books - not necessarily for their stories, but for their value. He fancies himself a sort of aristocrat who deserves the life and respect he believes comes with owning rare first editions and other highly sought after collectors items. He makes his way through book shows and used bookstores swindling owners left and right. The author meets with him in prison in an effort to understand why he steals. In addition she meets with the man who hunted Gilkey down, as well as various booksellers to understand the world of bookselling, and to uncover how such a wide-spread deception could occur. While the fundamental premise of this book is fascinating to me - unfortunately, I did not feel completely satisfied with the execution. I thought that the author touched on the psychological problems Gilkey suffered from and made an effort to speak to his family hoping to uncover more. In the end, however, I thought the book posed more questions than answers. This did, however, open my eyes to an entirely new world with respect to book loving. I don't really understand the value in old books - I just like them for their stories - though I do appreciate some good cover art. I'm not a collector of objects, so paying large sums for books that will never actually be touched or read is foreign to me. I thought the author explored this well - why Gilkey would become enamored with such a world, and how the various players in this world interact. I think so much more could have been done with the book, but it is an interesting story about a very strange character.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

City of Thieves - David Benioff

I normally like to write my blog posts within a day or two of finishing a book, so I can be really true to how I felt upon finishing- instead of after having too much time to reflect on it - though sometimes that reflection is a marker of how "good" I thought a book was. Unfortunately, my schedule lately had preventing me from keeping up to date on my hopefully I'll be able to report reletively honestly about what I've been reading. City of Thieves was given to my by my friend Eleanor - and it was a perfect book to read with a newborn in the house - not because of the subject matter, but because of the ease with which the book is written. I thought perhaps this was Young Adult novel (and maybe it is), but it's a bit graphic in its discussion of violence and sex. The book is set during the German siege of Leningrad during WWII. The story is narrated by Lev, a young Jew who is imprisoned for looting a dead German paratrooper. While locked up, he meets Kolya, a charismatic soldier imprisoned for desertion. The two of them are promised their freedom and ration cards if they can somehow locate a dozen eggs to bake a cake for the wedding of a colonel's daughter. The impossible quest takes the two men through Leningrad and the countryside, as the encounter the best and worst of humanity brought out by the war. The story is filled with hilarious moments - as a reader I almost felt guilty laughing given the setting of the book. It reminded me of the movie Life is Beautiful in this way - a mix between gallows humor and trying to make the best of a truly bad situation. A real gem in the midst of tremendous tragedy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Slam - Nick Hornby

I always read Nick Hornby's books - even when they are about soccer, which I have little to no interest in. I bought this one for Jake when it first came out - excited that not only was it a Nick Hornby book, but that it was also a Young Adult book. Two great favorites together! I had only a vague idea of what the book was about - a teenage kid who is in to skating (a.k.a. skateboarding!). And boy, was I in for a surprise. Sure, this kid loves skaring - and has a very weird relationship with his poster of Tony Hawk. But, this book is mostly about the boy's intense relationship with his girlfriend and the worst mistake he could make as a 16 year old. Given the subject matter of the book, I can't say that I found it "enjoyable" - and the cynical humor that is Hornby's trademark, while hilarious when spouted by jaded adults, is just uncomfortable when coming from a teenager. The plot of this book is an enormous train wreck - you can't stop reading, are in disbelief that whole time, and in the end everything is just tragic and depressing. Not at all what I was looking for from Hornby or from Young Adult fiction.