Thursday, December 29, 2011

We the Animals - Justin Torres

Jake found a recommendation for this book in one of his magazines - and since I'm always eager to encourage his reading, I picked it up for him, and then stole it back for myself.  I'm always (perhaps overly?) impressed by anyone who was a Stegner Fellow, so Torres started out ahead in my book from the start.  The book (which seems perhaps autobiographical?) is about three-brothers growing up with their Puerto Rican mother and white father in a chaotic abusive household.  It is a coming-of-age story of the youngest brother - and told in a stream-of-consciouness lyrical narrative, with each chapter its own vignette in the life of the boys' development.  The book is angry and uncomfortable, and while I'm not usually a fan of this type of disjointed piecemeal storytelling, I found this book quite powerful.  At times, it seems the author is trying too hard to create a new style, or to be a bit too literary in his presentation, but ultimately, this book worked for me.  Because I like stories, I did finish the book wanting to know more about each brother and wishing it had followed a more traditional narrative.  This is a book that stayed with me - and is short enough that I could go back and find the parts I wanted to re-read for clarity and emphasis.  Seemed like a bit of an experiment of a novel to me, and I look forward to reading more from this author.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nightwoods - Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, while an amazing story, was a little slow-moving for my taste.  So, I've been hesitant since to read any of his other novels.  But this one looked short, so I thought I'd check it out.  Then my friend Courtney told me she found it a bit slow, and I got scared again. But, I'm glad I read it.  The subject matter is difficult and reminiscent of one of my favorite novels (in a visceral - wow - now this is the power of literature - kind of favorite), Bastard Out of Carolina.  The main character, Luce, is on  her own in the mountains (sound familiar?), but has recently been joined by the non-speaking twins of her murdered sister.  As Luce adjusts to life with little ones to care for - in particular little ones who are not in an emotional space to give back in any loving kind of way, the story of her isolation unfolds.  There were chapters or pages I read where my only reaction was, "what the hell is the point of this?  Will this EVER end?" and there were others I read where my reaction was "what the hell is the point of this?  Who cares, this is some amazing storytelling!"  The overall narrative is tension-filled, and I feared a violent climax.  I wouldn't say I found the book "enjoyable" - the subject matter is too raw and brutal.  But this is a GOOD book.  The writing is rich, the storytelling is gripping, and the characters are real.  I'm a new believer in the power of Charles Frazier, and plan to go back and read his second novel, Thirteen Moons.

The City of Ember - Jeanne DuPrau (Ember Series #1)

I'm always on the look out for a good YA novel.  Even better if it's part of a series.  This one was recommended to me by my friend Sara, a middle-school teacher who is always keeping a look-out for what the kids are reading.  The main characters is Lina, a 12-year old girl who is being raised by her aging grandmother.  Right off the bat, a female protagonist appeals to me - and you know any good YA hero can't have any parents in the picture.  Lina lives in a place called Ember - and it's clear from the beginning that something is going wrong.  The electricity keeps going out, and no one seems to know how to fix it.  Supplies seem low, with food running out every day.  Doon, a classmate of Lina's speaks out about the problems - he is quickly labeled as a troublemaker, but intent on  figuring out how to solve the town's electrical issues.  It is then that Lina stumbles upon a very old set of instructions - she can only partially read it (her infant sister Poppy found and ate the instructions first).  No one will believe what's she found, and she herself is labeled a troublemaker.  But together, she and Doon are determined to figure out the message and save their city from ruin.  It's a YA novel, so of course it was a fast read, and it's a bit simplistic in plot and dialogue.  In this sense, I feel like while the characters are 12 year olds, this could be read by someone a couple years younger.  I always like messages that need to be decoded, and of course the ubiquitous plot device of children outsmarting the adults.  There are currently 4 books in this series (and I guess it's also been made into a movie - with Lina played by the girl who played the lead in The Lovely Bones).  It's not as gripping as something like The Hunger Games, but I'm sure I'll finish out the series in the new year.

The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides

I really liked Jeffrey Eugenides's first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, so I was definitely eager to check out his third - which has received wonderful reviews.  The novel follows several characters after their graduation from Eugenides's alma mater, Brown University.  It centers around Madeleine, an intelligent, but co-dependent young woman, and her relationship with her bi-polar boyfriend Leonard.  Completing the triangle is her sometimes friend, Mitchell, who is traveling the world to find himself and forget about her.  The book flashes back to college, and forward to their current lives positing the relationships as love stories in comparison and contrast to the great marriage plot novels of the 19th Century.  This book reminded me of all the fiction I've read by Jonathan Franzen - clever and well-written, but with extremely self-absorbed and annoying characters that define the term "first-world problems."  Other than Leonard who seems to come from a troubled background and clearly suffers from a real mental illness, the other characters seem to suffer from general malaise brought about by their privilege and lack of imagination.  Madeleine's belief that she can "save" Leonard is such a tired cliche that I kept expecting Eugenides to come up with some kind of twist on the narrative, but it never came.  As a portrait of living life with someone with mental illness, I thought Eugenides probably portrayed everything quite acurately - the highs and lows, the selfishness, the drama, the fear - and this is something I found valuable to read in terms of the work that I do.  But in terms of literature I want to identify with, with characters I actually care about, The Marriage Plot, like so many endings to Victorian novels, was a sad disappointment.

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

I am always trying to figure out what type of fantasy/science-fiction book I like.  I am not really into space or time-travel per se (though I like the Ender's Game series and The Time Traveller's Wife).  I like fantasy creatures (like elves and dragons), but not necessarily books where they completely take the place of humans.  I like quests, but don't necessarily like battles (not into the Orcs from Lord of the Rings).  I loved this book.  And I realized, I think I just like magic.  I like books where things are magical and where characters perform magic.  And that is the basis of The Night Circus.  Two master magician types place a bet that they can develop a protege to beat the other's protege.  They don't specifically identify the time, place, or rules of the competition, but one day a circus arrives in town. It's been specially created to exhibit the most amazing and fantastcial talents - and it's not a circus of illusion, but of actual magic.  This book gave me the same feeling I had reading Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comesi - the feeling of something unknown and wonderful coming to town.  And within the circus there is love and competition and wonder and amazement, and it's all just so fun and inviting - like living in a Cirque de Soleil production.  The problem with magic is that it doesn't have to have any boundaries.  So, ultimately, the ending of any book like this is going to veer off into the simply impossible - and it's hard to criticize that becuase all along you've been suspending disbelief and agreeing to a world created out of the impossible.  And so I just absolutely loved this book - all the way up until about the last 20 pages when it went a little too crazy for me - but I didn't really see any way to avoid the ending it had.  It made me want to go out and get my tarot cards read in a dark room, by a  strange woman in a costume, burning incense, and whispering enigmatic secretes.  At Christmastime, when I still listen late at night for Santa's reindoor on my roof, it's nice to just let go and believe.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reversal - Michael Connelly (Mickey Haller Series #3)

As much as I try to read Michael Connelly's books in order, things keep getting in my way.  Like my father-in-law lending me this book before I'd read The Brass Verdict, which is the second book in the series.  But, I figure my memory is so poor, I'll never know if I'm missing something because I'm reading the series out of order, or if I just forgot it from a prior book anyway.  In The Reversal, Connelly's #1 homicide detective, Harry Bosch, teams up with his half-brother criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.  But this time, Haller has switched sides and become a special prosecutor.  I have no idea if this actually happens in real life, but as a plot-device, it allows Haller to also team up with his ex-wife, who happens to be a District Attorneys.  Basically, a notorious murderer has obtained a reversal of his conviction due to DNA evidence that seemingly exonerates him, and Haller is brought over to the dark side to re-prosecute.  Convinced that the man is guilty, Haller re-investigates the case with his defense-minded eye.  Bosch is his usually curmudgeonly self - ostensibyl part of the trial team, but going rogue on every possible occasion.  I did like having the two characters brought together (which happens initially in The Brass Verdict - but I haven't read that one yet!!).  A fun mystery and good vacation read.

The LItigators - John Grisham

When I go on vacation, I always like to bring a Grisham book along.  With his formulaic plots, I feel at home no matter where my travels take me.  With The Litigators, however, I really felt like he'd not just recycled general plot structure, but actual plots themselves.  He never tires of having the main character start out at a prestigious law firm where his billable hours are through the roof and he's treated absolutely horribly by some managing partner.  In this one, the main character has had enough of it, and simply decides one day that instead of going to the office, he'll just go drink at a bar instead.  Once he's ruined his chances of making partner, he stumbles drunk in a cab and ends up at the law offices of two ambulance chasers.  He decides to join their ranks, and from that point you know he's about the hit the jackpot.  At this point, Grisham also recycles one of his favorite plots lines - that of the big-time plaintiff's attorney (featured prominently in The King of Torts).  You want the former firm guy to succeed, but you don't want him to succeed in the slimy way of these plaintiffs' attorneys who just collect clients to increase their share of the attorneys' fees but don't actually care about the people they represent.  And so Grisham's main guy has to walk a fine line.  And he does it pretty well.  I did find myself pulling for him and his pro bono representation of an immigrant family whose son is on life support after chewing on a lead-filled toy from Mexico.  At this point in his career, it does seem like Grisham is just phoning it in, piecing together his past characters and plots,  But, I still need the same kind of mindless reading when I'm on vacation, so I think I'll keep getting his latest release.