Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Martin Amis, Night Train

Martin Amis, Night Train. Well. I feel like I was bludgeoned in the back of the head, finishing that - one of those nasty, brutish and short novels. A stylized hard-boiled police narrative sort of book, but written by a British literary AUTHOR consciously trying to get the essence of the form down. The narrator was a tough ex-alcoholic female detective writing in Ed McBain dialect: there was a little too much Latin sprinkled around to be quite convincing, but he definitely got the world-weary cynicism down. The ending was purposefully unsatisfying and discouraging. I felt a little bewildered through the book, because I think I had Martin Amis mixed up with his father, Kingsley Amis (oops - he's the guy who wrote Lucky Jim), and was expecting a different kind of book, funny at least, which is why I wasn't ready for all the blood and cigarettes. But the man can write; he can't turn it off even when he tries.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Year's Best Science Fiction (2001)

The Year's Best Science Fiction (2001), ed. by Gardner Dozois. This was my Christmas break binge reading. Anything that boasts "more than 250,00 words" on the cover isn't exactly highbrow, but it was a blast. I was talking with my mom about how the short story is the perfect vehicle for certain genres (chief among them SF and hard-boiled mysteries). Most speculative fiction authors don't excel at character development, at least it's not their focus nor ours when we pick up their work. The reason we read their stuff is the ideas, the fantasy, and the fabulous brain twisting, which are perfectly displayed in a short story which doesn't drag you along with some bland action-hero for hundreds of pages. Anyway, lots of good stories. I really enjoyed a story by Brenda W. Clough, May Be Some Time, about a revived member of the Terra Nova antarctic expedition - it dreamily combined the elements of an adventure story, comedic British imperialism, and time-travel. Part of my delight in science fiction short stories might be nostalgia - I remember reading old Asimov's Science Fiction magazines at my grandparents' Beulah Beach cottage (where lights-out was laxly enforced) late into the night and feeling deliciously sinful.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time. At the very end of this memoir (in the last ten pages), I got the distinct feeling I had read this book before. I couldn't remember any details, so perhaps it was just literary déjà-vu. Anyway, I didn't really like Frank in the book; but I saw myself in him, especially his escapism and unwarranted self-superiority. The book's a little Salinger-esque, very east-coasty, full of angst, exactly what you'd think an author's childhood memoir would be like. I liked it, but I disagreed with the blurb on the back cover in which William Styron praised "its almost total lack of self-pity"; I thought there was much calculatingly understated self-pity through every chapter. One thing that I liked was that it was such a solitary memoir, very much about being a lonely child, growing into a lonely young adult.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

Jeanette Winterson, The Passion. A beautiful compact small fairy tale. It has historical figures, but it's not historical fiction. A cook for Napolean and a Venetian pickpocket/courtesan/gondolier tell their stories. Elements of magic realism? Maybe surrealism? Not even really a romantic novel, despite the name and the cover; it's alternately creepy and precociously lovely. The narrators contemplate passion, disguise, truth, present, past, death, the nature of time... I'm not describing this well at all; I think it's the tension between gambling everything and choosing not to play that's the central conflict. Unclassifiable.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Marianne Wiggins, Evidence of Things Unseen

Marianne Wiggins, Evidence of Things Unseen. A strange and lovely book. Maybe a little too luminous; such beautiful language, but at times it seemed overwrought, too delicate and elaborate. Opal and Ray (the names are not an accident in a book whose principle obsession is light) are the two quietly elusive people whose romance and lives the main story arc follows. Ray Foster's scientific (or phenomenological) passions didn't really convince me, but the scientific optimism of the early part of the last century did; overall the place and times came through more strongly than the people - it's hard to have two such non-verbal people as your focus, I think. That may be why last portion of the book, dealing with the son Ray Jr (or lightfoot - see what I mean about the light vocabulary?) was a simpler story - more direct, maybe a little stock, but lightfoot and Flash (again!) were so much more transparent or accessible. Or less opaque? I'm being infected by the language of light... But a beautiful phosphorescent story.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost. This was a total riot - I actually had to hide it for a week so I'd study. It's four separate narrations of the same events, with, of course, each teller reaching different conclusions and in their own ways unreliable. But it's not one of those annoying post-modern non-mystery novels that you are supposed to make your own conclusions on and are frustratingly inconclusive; it's an old fashioned mystery that ties up quite nicely at the end. Set in Restoration England, and with a few Natural Philosophers as characters spouting great debate and experimenting away, it might remind you of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, although it reminded me more of the historical thriller The Name of the Rose (by Umberto Eco), or maybe Possession: A Romance (by A. S. Byatt). A nice fat book, the kind of book you wish was longer, not shorter, with tons of detail about Oxford in 1663 - even some experiments in Robert Boyle's elaboratory as well as boundless political intrigue. Of course, I wished there was more of the deciphering and experiments, but we do have the above mentioned trilogy for that. The story has an odd heretical conclusion that is really pretty interesting; I also might have liked even more on the religious sects. I suppose that's the advantage of using in-character narration, you're limited on how many discursive asides you can make without breaking role, or the temptation would definitely be to show off the research and you'd end up with several thousand pages instead of merely 685.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Atul Gawande, Complications

Atul Gawande, Complications: a surgeon's notes on an imperfect science. Another book for class, but I greatly enjoyed it. It's very straightforward, almost simplistic in delivery, but truly thoughtful and interesting. Good thought on medical decision making, mistakes, complications, balance between judgement and science, and the limits of knowledge. The perspective of a surgical resident is unique. The pieces on surgery and diagnosis were frightening and reassuring at the same time. Gawande's most original thinking was his honest analysis of medical training and the evasion that surrounds it. 1) training leads to mistakes, 2) training and practice are necessary to make good doctors, 3) The choices about who is practiced upon are partly chance, but mostly the disadvantaged are used for practice.

It's a hard book to categorize - it's similar to Oliver Sacks's, in that it's a series of case studies expanded and digressed upon, but without the intellectual and literary pretension (also perhaps not quite as nice to read; sacks writes like a novelist). It's better than most medically oriented nonfiction - more humble and chatty - think Stephen Jay Gould rather than the new england journal of medicine.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies

John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies. This book makes me wonder again, precisely what it is about Updike that I love so much. Because I do - I love reading his books, I love his easy beauty of language, the way everything is said perfectly without strain or effort. But so often I heartily detest his characters. I actually liked the family in this book (it's one of those multi-generational sweeping American epic sort of books), but I like them less down the generations. Clarence Wilmot was a Presbeterian minister around the turn of the century who lost his faith and couldn't continue - he didn't have a plan for an alternate career path and his family drifted into poverty as he succumbed to Tb. I liked Clarence, and empathized with his anemic and hopeless loss of faith, and I also liked his wife and her sturdy toughness. I liked their children, and wish he focused a bit more on Esther. I liked the very different relations with god and faith through the generations - it wasn't clichéd or insincere, although the doubters were more convincing than the pious. Alma DeMott, or Essie, I liked less, and wasn't really rooting for her film career. Her son could have been a great character, a modern anti-hero, but he wasn't quite fleshed out enough to please me. I almost had the feeling that Updike chose religion and cinema as two "great American themes" and set out to write a "great American novel"; that might be unjust, but I also never felt that the cinematic parts of the book were terribly compelling - they reminded me of example essays in an English 101 text. Sometimes with Updike I get this sense of unfulfilled promise - of something intangible lacking - of insufficient passion, perhaps. But I think it is only because I am so infatuated with him as an author, I have very high expectations. So it was a good, even grand, book; but not one of the best or his best.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Ann Packer, The Dive from Clausen's Pier

Ann Packer, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. This book was about Carrie, a young women who stayed in her hometown of Madison; first for college, and then for a job, to be with her high school sweetheart. She grew discontented and restless, and before that could boil over into a break-up he jumped in a lake and broke his neck. So, does she stay or does she go? That moral dilemma is pretty much the whole book.
I thought Carrie was bizarre - I didn't buy the whole "wants to design clothes" thing - she didn't seem passionate enough. Not to mention the descriptions of clothes were vague and antiquated. I was also dissatisfied with her final decision. And she has this completely unrealistic sojourn in New York City where she lives for months and months off a few hundred dollars. Just details, really, that didn't ring true. But I enjoyed the story, and sympathized with her sometimes; the narrative was great, and I liked her mother, I grew to like the boyfriend, her lover was interesting even if a stereotype. Madison seemed truer (although simplified) than the portrait of New York City. It was as if New York was included more for what it represents as "the big city", as anonymity, as culture, as escape, than for any portrait of the true city. LA or London would have done nearly as well. But it is true that New York occupies a special place in the American myth. So a good read, but faintly dissatisfying.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I don't know how I managed to miss this book for all these years. Just beautiful: simple, moving, exquisite. The central figure is left an enigma. None of the people fulfill their potentials, their strivings. Life just wears on and leaves them behind. It's a sad story, but not wrenching - it just leaves you with a heartache.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina. I've been reading this forever. Partly because I have a mountain of readings for school, and partly since I've been unable to feel any deep sympathy with any of the characters. Anna - her passivity drives me crazy, the same with her husband. Vronsky is just a vaguely likable slacker, and I have no patience for slackers. Kitty is just a child, and Levin, who is actually interesting, is annoying in his infatuation with nothing more than an ideal of romance and a young girl. I feel their relationship is so lopsided in many ways that I really don't feel empathy for them. Levin seemed to have a deeper relationship with his housekeeper and hired hands than he does with his wife. I love Tolstoy, for all that, and the book still manage to be gripping, but I don't really like any of the people in it. It's sad when I'm more interested in the discursive asides and arguments of bit players than in the central drama.

I hate to rant on about Anna, but come on! If you're going to sin, you'd damn well better enjoy it. At the very least get around to self hatred and despair a lot quicker, there's no need to drag on in a sickening muddle for years on end. Hamlet couldn't make up his mind either, but at least he made some great speeches. Rip that scab off or decide to tough it out and be a good girl. Take up knitting, or get to know your husband, or become a closet drinker or something. Jeez. And Vronsky sounds like a fun guy - if you're living in sin, why be so damn respectable and boring about it? Rob some banks, gamble, something - you run away with your lover and all you can do is go to museums? I realize Anna didn't have a whole lot of choices, and was circumscribed by her role in society - but she is a total wet noodle. That train arrived about 400 pages too late.

And Levin, although an admirable man, is just too condescending to be believed. Let me try to show why- here's a scene from Levn and Kitty's honeymoon: "He was supposed, as he understood it, to do his work and to rest from it in the happiness of love. She was supposed to be lovely and only that. But, like all men he had forgotten that she also needed to work. And he was surprised at how she, the poetic, lovely Kitty, in the very first, not weeks, but days of married life could think, remember and fuss about furniture, mattresses for guests, about a tray, the cook, the dinner, and so on. ... And loving her as he did, though he chuckled at those cares, he could not help admiring them. He chuckled at her arranging the furniture ...." Blech. He should have married a peasant, and at least they could have farmed together.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Odyssey

I got sucked into this story. About a third of the way through I was hiding it under the covers with a flashlight, staying up past my bedtime. And for once the discussion about authorship and possible oral composition didn't kill the story, but added to my admiration. This swashbuckling story and sublime language was most likely composed orally over several centuries and only later written down? I can't read in Greek, but the intricate narrative structure, composed of flashbacks and tales within the tale was definitely a unified construct - whoever finally wrote it down must have had a hand in the final presentation. I loved Fitzgerald's translation, as well - it is beautiful in itself, and much less wooden than Lattimore's (although I understand that Lattimore's is much closer to the Greek).

I loved Helen and Penelope - they had such powerful roles within their own household, and yet in the larger sphere were strangely powerless. Helen was witchy, godlike, and foreign. Penelope was crafty, and faithful, and distrustful - the female counterpart to Odysseus. The traditional double standard for men and women's behavior was infuriating as usual. I actually sympathize with Clymmenestra who is held up as the vilest of women - If my husband sacrificed our daughter for favorable winds to go to war, I'd kill him too.

I also enjoyed the gods in the story - and the contrast between say, Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon is hostile towards humans in general - and would prefer to stop all sea voyages; while Athena is the god of civilization, of craft, and is far more sympathetic towards humans in general. The gods are so human. I like how they aren't greatly involved, almost rooting from the sidelines for their favorites. I was reminded a little of the episode in Job, where God and the Devil make a bet on poor Job; only here, the god's don't struggle for allegiance, but for the success or failure of their favorites. Athena, in particular is interesting, for she has strict limits on how far she will intervene, even for her favorites. She will weight the dice, or help plan a ruse, but refuses to take actual part in the fray. The heroes in the story are independent actors and not merely pawns. The ending was pretty ruthless - but it actually stopped short of total carnage. I never realized how much Dante borrowed from Homer - and even Shakespeare's plots echo Homer's with improbable disguises and sleep potions (did he have access to Homer, or was this just the narrative tradition?)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A book to lock yoursef in the bathroom with and read all at once. Each chapter is is numbered in cosecutive primes. It's written in the voice of an autistic child and manages not to be overly sentimental or touching. It still pings on the guilty pleasures scale for being remotely heartwarming, but screw pretension, it's a good story.

Monday, September 04, 2006

J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead

Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philidelphia in 1793. You know, I've always been fascinated by plagues since my Sunday school days, when I pronounced the word like it's spelled and asked questions like: what kind of boils did the Egyptians get, anyway? So when I was assigned this book for my medical history class I jumped into it. Anyway, Powell alternates between a dry, factual tone and sensationalism, relying heavily on contemporary newspaper articles and correspondence. The background of the epidemic is fascinating, especially because in 1793 Philidelphia was the nation's capital, and therefore a political and social center. The small details included about civic life, commerce, newspapers, the Quaker church, and household routine are riveting.

Powell's "hero" or at least major protagonist, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is a problematic figure. There was a feud between medical practitioners about proper treatment for yellow fever victims - the "French method" consisting of wine, baths, and gentle purges against Dr. Rush's discovery of drastic bleeding and mercury purges. Rush was popularly regarded as a hero for his devotion, courage, and confidence in treatment; although some physicians at that time rightly regarded his treatments as dangerous. He gave great hope to his patients: telling them "You have nothing but a yellow fever," and did much to quell the panic in Philidelphia. However, it is amazing that his patients survived his "heroic" bloodlettings, because he and his contemporaries thought humans had twice their actual blood volume, and sometimes prescribed bleeding of more blood than the patient could actually contain. He was so enchanted by his theory, that "it never occurred to him that he might be wrong," even more, he considered physicians that did not follow his treatment guilty of murder.

Yellow fever is itself very interesting, a viral disease transmitted by a mosquito vector. Outbreaks continue in Africa, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. In non-immune populations outbreaks are very severe. There is now a vaccine, but there is still no cure, and only supportive treatment. It causes jaundice, bloody vomit, headaches, and seizures as well as fever.

(We also read excerpts from John Kelly's The Great Mortality about the black plague which was both infuriatingly and interestingly voiced, and as soon as I can rustle up a copy I'm going to read it and write about all of Kelly's mistakes.)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Saul Bellow,Henderson the Rain King.

Saul Bellow,Henderson the Rain King. Henderson is a striving man, a failure, a bully. A millionaire strong man with broken crowns. He is "A bungled lump of humanity." A mythical Africa is the backdrop for a decaying giant and the explication of his failure.This is a book about suffering and perhaps even more the struggle - Henderson refers again and again to his capacity for striving: "It was a question of spirit, too, for when it comes to struggling I am in a special class. From earliest times I have struggled without rest."

Once again Bellow is obsessed with the decay of the flesh, with its betrayals. It's the comic tone of Vonnegut with the same vision of the absurdity of the human body. At the same time he recalls Hesse and the search to stop desire, to get off the wheel. "Only to repeat fear and desire without a change? ... Any good man will try to break the cycle. There is no issue from that cycle for a man who does not take things into his own hands."

Anyway - I identify with Henderson strongly. I feel so many of his same yearnings - at the same time grandiose and pathetic - wanting to do good while screwing up royally. I also liked what he said about reading:

"I am a nervous and emotional reader. I hold a book up to my face and it takes only one good sentence to turn my brain into a volcano; I begin thinking of everything at once and a regular lava of thoughts pours down my sides."

"When I started to read something about France, I realized I didn't know anything about Rome, which came first, and then Greece, and then Egypt, going backward all the time to the primitive abyss. As a matter of fact, I didn't know enough to read one single book."

Thursday, August 24, 2006


I was just assigned the Odyssey for school. Coincidentally I had just bought a new translation of the Iliad (Robert Fagles' translation) this summer and was about half way through it. So I put Achilles and Agamemnon down and picked up the sequel. Transitioning from one to the other is very jarring; the Odyssey is so much more like a novel and instantly engaging, while the Iliad is more clearly a spoken poem. I love the characters and the drive in the Iliad, but the story is more accessible in the Odyssey - part of the difference might be the translations (I'm reading Fitzgerald's Odyssey) but most is in the narrative and the pacing. I find myself enjoying both much more than I did as a child, which is the reverse of what usually happens when I reread a classic - often I was far more captivated when I was younger, and my older self is disappointed. Maybe this time I have a larger context to put it into and so I can connect to it more easily. Anyway, as I get deeper in to both books I'll write some more.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Trial Writely

School starts tomorrow. Rosie and Callie are watching Scrubs. Mark has woken up and refuses to go back to sleep. I knew that latte was a terrible idea. I just shut off the irrigation water so our house sits in a lake. I don't know why I want the grass to grow any longer. I'm taking biochem (not the hard one for majors), genetics, history of medicine, history of ancient Greece, and medical parasitology. I'm exited about the parasites, but it's not till Tuesday. I exhausted myself last week and I feel like a convalescent today. I lay lazily around, reading books and watching my sisters play with my boys. We don't have the truck back from the shop yet, so I'm taking the bus tomorrow. If I get to school in decent time, I'll keep taking it - save gas and get reading time to myself. I'm using this word processor that Google has. Writley - it's still in beta, but I thought I'd try it out. It's strange, I was thinking I'd like to store my docs on-line because I do so much school work on the campus computers and emailing documents as attachments is so shoddy and iffy for me, and I heard about this right afterward. I also hate losing all my word files every time I have to replace a hard drive because I either forget to back up, or my back up doesn't work. So far, I like this. It has a good spell check (great actually, better than the old version of word I use - important for me because I spell abominably) auto-save, save in word or HTML or pdf or whatever you want. I'm sending this to my book blog, just to test it out.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ron Hanson

Atticus. A prodigal son. A bit of a detective story. An expatriate community in Mexico. Mental illness/ bipolar disorder. Failed love affair. The deep love of a parent for a child, and the judgment given by both parties. I enjoyed this book. I've been trying not to read for pleasure at all, because I should be studying for the MCAT, but this was a short book.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Quarterly, Winter 1992 (24)

I just picked up Q 24 for a quarter, so I read it. I didn't get Wayne Hogan's cartoons at all. I enjoy short fiction, but reading the whole collection at once is like bingeing on chocolates. The best stories were the two near the beginning, by Gary Lutz. Incredibly bleak, but so believably real. Perfect snapshots of the worst, dreariest reality of being human. Some of the poetry was a little cute, I thought. I don't think this magazine is around anymore, as I can't find it on the web, or even back issues on amazon. Just a random mystery book.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex. I stayed up all night reading this book. It's a rambling, multi-generational, transcontinental book about an intersexual person named Calliope (later Cal). He was raised as a girl but is genetically male (he has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency; here's a link to the wikipedia article). It begins as an omniscient narration of the events that lead to cal's conception, beginning with the story of her grandparents life in a village in Turkey. They were Greeks who fled as refugees from the destruction of Smyrna. - the second book this summer that I've read that featured that event. Also oddly enough, the second book that included brother-sister incest. But any details or summary I give about this book will not do it justice - it is simply too large and ranging for me to get a concise little picture down about it. Anyway, it was riveting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Daniel Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater. I know and love this author from his children's books and his readings of children's literature on npr with Scott Simon. Boingboing led me to his new serialized fiction, The Neddiad.

Monday, July 17, 2006

a blog i wish was mine....

well it is a neat-o science blog!


I'm not quite sure what to think, but I am greatly enjoying reading through all the archives.....

matt- read this bit on that song that has been played a few times in our house, and here's another

Friday, July 14, 2006

Philip Roth

The Human Stain. Books that deal with the touchy subject of race always- oh yeah - sorry Bredon - I'll introduce the book first:
This is a book about a disgraced east-coast professor of classical literature, Coleman Silk. It's narrated by an author who is largely an observer and interpreter (a la Nick Carraway), a neighbor who befriends the professor. The story's set in 1998 at the height of the big blow job scandal (repeatedly mentioned throughout) and is something like an end of the century Scarlet Letter. Professor Silk is having a passionate and secretive affair with an illiterate and abused younger woman. That's all the plot rehash I'm going into.
Anyway, Roth knows how to hit all the hot buttons: race, Vietnam, abuse, anal sex.... If it's a touchy subject, he hit it (although oddly, only an oblique reference to homosexuality). Therefore, I do not recommend this book to my mother! The only thing I found hard to read were the false accusations - for some reason I find those excruciating even in children's cartoons. I have to say that Roth is a master, and he writes about ideas without preaching. Even though I felt this book was a little dated in its focus I'm going to read the rest of his books to get a more solid feel for his writing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Last Chance To See: I tried as hard as I could to read this slowly because I didn't want to finish it. Unfortunately this was impossible, thanks to the well known Adams paradox. I often hate to read books about conservation or endangered ecosystems because they are mind-numbingly depressing and infuriating - it's not that I don't care, but that I can't bear to think about it. The last five minutes of any nature video or show are always like that; that's when they show the remaining sliver of habitat getting bulldozed and the last breeding pair carried off by some poverty-stricken poacher. Anyway, Adams managed to avoid this incredible sadness for the most part, while still conveying urgency. Hilarious as always, and really interesting, especially about island ecosystems and evolution. I almost peed my pants reading about the Kakapo mating.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Martha Grimes

The Old Wine Shades. As usual, a fun convoluted mystery with a familiar and funny cast and a hazy ending. The usual children and dogs are found, as well as a bit of vague quantum physics and wine drinking. I think she is a little sick of her own series, and they are starting to repeat themselves. But the thing is, Martha Grimes when not at her best is still phenomenal; I really enjoyed this book-completely farfetched as it was. I loved the parts about plays within a plays, and nested stories like Russian dolls. Grimes has a gift for hilarious dialogue and dry (or not) humor that makes me snort in public. But she's still writing the same book over and over again; it's a book I like, but I know she can do so much better. My guess is she's continuing to write the Jury novels for a steady paycheck, but it's the non-Jury books that she pours her heart into now (Foul Matter, Hotel Paradise, etc...). It is fairly endearing that she pokes fun at herself with the two pot-boiler novelists that are bit players in the Jury books.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Saul Bellow

Well, we've all gotta die sometime. How are we going to do it? What happens afterwards? Who will remember us? This is the basis of Bellow's book Ravelstein. It's a purported biography that slips into autobiography. The narrator chronicles the death and life of his closest friend, an intellectual teacher and philosopher Ravelstein. Ravelstein is a Platonist, and also an atheist. He claims not to believe in an afterlife but often speaks as though he does. In his dying days he returns to religion and the problem of being Jewish in this modern and hostile world. He asks his best friend, a writer who is older than he to write a personal biography. The narrator/friend agrees, but delays the project for years until a sudden and debilitating illness confronts him with the nearness of his own death. Chick (the narrator) has said that after death he thinks the 'pictures will stop'; but he simultaneously possesses an irrational belief that he will see his family and friends in some sort of afterlife.
The good parts in the story are the descriptions of Abe Ravelstein - a big man who spent wildly, lived wildly - a man of both passion and intellect. I think the point of the book was in Ravelstein's preoccupation with great love, or searching for it. Completeness, not only desire. Living with a grand passion is more important than good and evil. Reading this makes me want to reread Plato.
There were a few odd things about the book: read as if written in the early nineties when AIDs was an inexorable scourge,and largely untreatable (Ravelstein was on AZT monotherapy) because it was published in 2000. On second thought, the speaker is writing a memoir of a deceased friend, and so the time-frame of the book is earlier. This book doesn't dwell though, on the reasons for and physical process of death, but on the mental and 'spiritual' journey toward it.
At any rate, you are meant to consider mortality. The finality of death. For those of us who don't believe in an afterlife this is simultaneously terrifying and wondrous.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small Things. A small world of a book. Unbelievably poignant. Sad. Still. The winding, indirect method of narration is so true for so many family stories, where the main points are known, and what must be expanded are the details. Even though it seems like well-worn territory - the novel that revisits a traumatic childhood- this story felt true and right emotionally. I sometimes found the stylized language distracting, but on the whole it was lovely. Do I recommend it? I'm not sure. The larger story covered some of the same issues of caste and social discord that Mistry did in A Fine Balance, but more superficially. But the personal story was intricate and tuned. Still, I felt that it was incomplete in some way. Not only the open ending, but some of the people seemed incompletely fleshed out. Especially Ammu, who despite being perhaps the most elaborated on, seemed blurred and contradictory. For such a fighter she gave up with barely a whimper. And her death seemed almost too Dickensian. But a beautiful book.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Chris Bohjalian

The Law of Similars. Terrible book. Dull dialogue, insipid characters, unconvincing emotions, and slow and simplistic plot. Doesn't even get bonus points for including interesting information about homoeopathy (like you might get in a Crichton pulp) - you could get more and better from a Wikipedia article. And even the legal issues involved are nearly ignored although the protagonist is supposed to be a lawyer. Blah. I don't know why I finished it - I was hoping for a surprising twist at the end. If you want a more enjoyable way to waste your time try the old game of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - you'll be pulling out your hair, but in a good way.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Satanic Verses

Update: fabulous. hilarious. confusing. convoluted. Is it magical realism or schizophrenia? A few of my favorite parts: the tropicalization of London, Our Mutual Friend as a musical, terrible puns (Alleluia Cone's nickname is "ice queen"), the devil is concerned over his bad breath ...

Monday, June 05, 2006


My sister was here and she talked to him!

Sunday, June 04, 2006


I've been reading sci fi short stories at
pretty fun, found thanks to http://boingboing.net/
if you enjoy william gibson and his descendants....

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Myra Syal

what I'm reading now:
The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. Hyperverbal, polylinguic. Intensely reminiscent of Carlos Fuentes. Metafiction, multiple historical time periods, interwoven/repeating characters, obsession with cinema.He's a new author for me, and I am entranced. I'll read everything he's ever written (don't disappoint me!) The way to my heart is too much information - woo me with a superfluity of words.
more to come on this book!

Two other writers with Indian themes I've been reading lately -

The most depressing book in the world: A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. (I chanced on it at Goodwill: again, it was in Oprah's book club, so there were about six copies.) It was very good; I got deeply attached to the people. One of those books that can make you triumph over small achievements - a good meal, a new shirt, a shared glass of tea...I love books that make you entirely enter their world (best example of this, by far, is Solzenitzen's A Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich.) I loved reading about their initial wary tolerance and eventual family of choice between the four strangers and their daily life doing piecework against the clock. The widow Dina Dalal was my favorite. She quietly made her own small space for herself - her uprightness and inflexibility were monstrously frustrating but she was revolutionary and absolutely admirable as well. However, the book had the most completely horrible ending ever. Think of the worst possible ending and multiply it by four. I was so gloomy after this book; the ending was so excruciatingly awful because you could envision in such detail the possibility for a happier one. Sometimes I hate and detest realism. I never knew or learned much about the post-independence government of India. This book was a great primer on the worst of its corruptions. I had to do quite a bit of background reading in encyclopedias to ground myself. I learned about the partition and way too much about corrupt bureaucracies and usurpation of power (I actually snuck this book in last semester, so I read it over a long period rather than in one gluttonous binge) I recommend this book; but don't read it if you are depressed with the state of the world and human nature in general.

A throwaway chick-lit book: Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, by Meera Syal. Actually set in the Indian community in London. Not bad if you like the genre. Lots of funny parts about relationships and mother-daughter bonds. Pretty bland and almost formulaic - you could insert any culture and write a ready-made book - although that may be unfair. However, still funny and enjoyable even with wildly improbable plot twists. It's well-written and smart, so I recommend it as a bathtub indulgence read for when you're feeling girly.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

npr link - al gore


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Tim O'Brian, John Grisham

Just finished two short books (I love summer!) First the good one: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. It was simultaneously numb and harsh and present. It was very short, jumpy, raw. It seemed reminiscent of something but I haven't read it before - maybe something of Vonnegut's attitude? Tragic, yes, but absolutely hilarious at the same time. I laughed out loud, and then felt callous for doing it. Deeply pessimistic? No, I think, more resigned than anything else. Anyway, I enjoyed it although it made me feel sick to my stomach. Almost too timely. Second, fairly lame book: A Painted House, by John Grisham. Another book that I finished just because I started - I picked it up at somebody's house and they lent it to me. (Thank you! I love borrowing books!) Now, I'm no snob, and I like Grisham's legal thrillers, especially with chocolate late at night. But this was an attempt at a much more serious book and much more carefully written. Also much more boring. I did enjoy it - but the protagonist was seven years old and not particularly fascinating. Brief synopsis: cotton farming sucks. Baseball and grandparents don't. Oddly enough there was a The Client like sequence where the kid witnesses a murder and keeps quiet about it ... I guess he had to stick a couple murders in there so as not to disappoint his fans. So - decent book - but doesn't quite become the classic evocation of southern farm life in the fifties it is trying to be.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

final verdict on birds without wings: much better than captain corelli's mandolin. I really enjoyed the backround on the greek/turkish/ottoman/armenian/kurdish conflicts. I'd never read much on that aspect of WWI before, except a bit on the balkans. Makes me want to pull out a history book. Definitely want to learn more about the ottoman empire. So, although the people were definitely similar, the setting was interesting enough to make it worthwhile.
trying to study for the mcat while watching 3-4 little boys is frazzling me. I have a newfound respect for my mother. i find it difficult to finish ANY task
oh yeah- i'm double posting here and on my xanga blog because I'm experimenting here http://www.xanga.com/gwendyphx but I'm eventually going to delete that one

Thursday, May 18, 2006


well. a new blog. I don't know html yet, so be patient. This is fairly experimental so far. I was not satisfied with myspace, and I haven't figured out how to move my old posts over. anyway, Bredon, the genius, is going to help me (right, Bredon?)
( about the title, it's from "To the Countess of Bedford")

"Poverty is the worst form of violence." - Ghandi

Louis de Bernieres

At the moment, this is my private blog- it's late at night, and I'm having trouble sleeping. I've decided to use this site as my private book journal - I hate it when I can't remember what I thought about a book or an author. I'm reading Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres, the author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. It is a good read, somewhat grandiose and melodramatic. It's a bit too similar to the above mentioned book in theme and tone for my tastes, and again, a bit self-consciously tragic, although it is set in the Ottoman empire in world war I.. I enjoy the female characters, but it's a little much that they all seem to view men with the same bemused toleration or are interchangeable tragic/romantic heroine/victims. I'll finish the book because I started it and am interested in the people, but I don't think I'll pick up anothor book by the same author unless it has something radically different to say.

well - i'm farther into the book, and it is getting better. but I REALLY hate it when authors stick half baked poetry and songs into their books. (I could even live without Tolkein's.)

Alice Munro

I’ve heard and read a great deal of praise for Alice Munro, and so I had her in the back of my mind. Usually I have a habit of writing down author’s names on small scraps of paper and losing them for a few years. On my last rummage shopping trip I happened to see two collections of her short stories, Runaway, and The Progress of Love; so I picked them up, and have finally just finished reading them. I think I am a little disappointed. The stories were surely beautifully written. The protagonists were all women, in ordinary lives. They were perfectly drawn and photo-real. The stories were mostly set in small Canadian towns that reminded me of the small Midwestern towns I grew up near. There was a clarity and an unfulfilled quality about each of the women. Perhaps I read them too quickly, or too close together, but they seemed to blend together a little, as if there were really only a few characters stretched out with assumed names into all the stories. I was also strangely reminded of A. S. Byatt – not exactly in writing style – Munro is a craftsman that Byatt certainly isn’t – but maybe in perspective? Her female characters seem to share this distance from their own lives. And an clinical attitude about sex. I mean she writes about passion, but without emotion. Maybe it is only a timeframe similarity, as I get the impression that the women in both authors’ work are from the same decades. I do want to read her full length novels. The short story format usually leaves me a little disappointed. There is so little resolution in a short story, and so little time to get to know the people in it.
(I also posted this on myspace- http://blog.myspace.com/gwendyphx - I think I am going to make this site just for books)

just some quotations

just some quotations
"Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. "

"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
Frederick Douglass (1817 - 1895), Speech, April 1886