Wednesday, December 31, 2008

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda. Daniel Deronda is a smart, sweet, slightly aimless young man with unknown parentage being raised by a kind uncle. Gwendolen Harleth is a bratty, beautiful girl who would be rebellious if she had more brains or imagination. So far nothing surprising, and the story begins like many less imaginative Victorian novels. It's where the story goes that is remarkable. Eliot showed the few options available to Gwendolen and the extraordinary narrowness of her life without making her flat or robotic. Deronda, despite his dubious origins, has much wider horizons, and the only choice he really has to make is what to do with himself. While he doesn't change so much as Gwendolen, his outlook, opinions, and goals subtly shift as he becomes immersed in a different culture and history. The window granted through Deronda into early Zionism as well as 19th century mysticism was fascinating. Although the novel has the slow-moving ornate style of the era, it has great intensity. I'm going to go back and reread Silas Marner and tackle Middlemarch - I appreciate Eliot so much more than I did when I was younger. She's subtle and engrossing and her characters are real people (she's also slyly funny).

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief. I bought this for my little brother for Christmas, but stole it back from him to read in a waiting room. It was fine, a fun little book. Mount Olympus is in NYC (the heart of the west, apparently) and the Greek gods are still up to their mortal-loving ways. Percy Jackson, a young half-blood hero in the making, has to go on a quest and battle mythical monsters and immortal gods while trying to live through middle school. I enjoyed the mythology, but it was laid on a little thick. The writing was too much aimed at middle-schoolers for me to enjoy thoroughly, and it did seem almost pandering to an imagined demographic. Much can be forgiven for a good adventure with swords, though. I guess it's not so much young adult books I enjoy as books that are written for everybody.

Monday, December 29, 2008

John Le Carre, A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man. This story revolves around a young illegal immigrant, an elderly banker, and a human rights lawyer in Hamburg. It's a dissection of the chaos in the intelligence world post 9/11, as well as human rights, law, and morality. By now I ought to know what is coming when I read Le Carré (let's just say I don't expect a happy ending), but I can never guess just how things will go wrong. I love all these books. They have similar themes and even characters, but are all beautifully crafted. The similarity is that each person is utterly lonely, and the central threads of love, generosity, and choice. He keeps writing these wistful books, and they keep getting better. Authors that keep writing after they are sick of their characters and their forms, but go on anyway and write terrible books (I'm thinking Martha Grimes) are more than disappointing. Le Carré is most emphatically not in that category. Another lovely thing about him is that each of his books is thoroughly researched and embedded in the world at the time of his writing, but not in such a way that is forced or didactic.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Karen Cushman, The Midwife's Apprentice

Karen Cushman, The Midwife's Apprentice. A fantastic little book. A medieval story, perfect in detail, with a wonderful hero of a girl. I'm sad that this wasn't written when I was 10.

Marilynne Robinson, Home

Marilynne Robinson, Home. A story about family, fault, and sorrow. The love that we have for each other that is impossible to abandon, that withdrawal or absence underlines. Full to the brim with grief - and yet serene. A reminder that the details of housekeeping, of gardening, of simply living, can be an expression of love, that they can keep despair just outside the door. She is a surpassingly beautiful writer. No tears, but I kept swallowing them as I turned the pages, and my heart stayed in my throat.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Charles L. Bardes, Pale Faces

Charles L. Bardes, Pale Faces: The Masks of Anemia. A lovely old fashioned little book about blood. A scholarly rumination about history and medicine - the nature of diagnosis and illness. Sometimes a little too ruminative, a little too effusive. I didn't mind, although I occasionally rolled my eyes at prose like this:
"A red cell lives for ninety days, give or take, and when it is old and gray and full of sleep the spleen recognizes its senectitude and takes it aside, takes it down, administers some fatal blow and breaks it apart, recycles its parts for future use, its iron and vital stuff."

Even with this lack of restraint, the overall story was pleasing. I wouldn't mind if textbooks were written in the same style, with myth and literature interwoven with description. I picked it up at the library because it was small and attractive, and it lived up to its looks.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dave Eggers, What is the What

Dave Eggers, What is the What. Simple, direct. Makes me respect Eggers - it's not his, but Valentino's voice telling the story. But the soul of his writing (what saves it from artifice and archness and makes it Staggering Genius despite self-consciousness) is there. I'm not sure what that essence is - saying it is love is inadequate. Anyway, it's a tremendous feat to write a story in the midst of massive human tragedy that is neither saccharine, overdrawn, nor despairing. This story made me cry, but for a friend -another person, not for nameless, faceless masses of people. More than cry, though. It was funny and beautiful, it made me love my life, I wanted to kiss strangers, and hug children. The best part of Valentino Achak Deng's story is that is didn't end when he left Kakuma, but it continues. The end is satisfying, even though completely unfinished.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chip Kidd, The Cheese Monkeys

Chip Kidd, The Cheese Monkeys. Two art majors at State U wander into a Commercial Arts class and a comedy-manifesto results. A silly, fun and crunchy sort of entertainment. Such snappy dialogue, such back and forth, such stinging wit. An intentional homage to an extinct era of comedy. The plot itself seemed actually to be two stories jammed together: first semester, introductions and human interest; second semester, design theory and rising mania. One strange thing, the softcover is pretty ugly for a book about graphic design. It's busy at the least, it took me about a minute to figure out what the title was.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Neal Stephenson, Anathem. If you want a better introduction than I can give, Neal Stephenson reads from Anathem here: I had more fun reading this book than was good for me. I hope that my future patients don't suffer too much from the effects of me reading it instead of studying (I did delay posting to study, at least). Every effort I've made to describe the story to friends has been a failure like this: "OK, so there is this society of math monks, kind of like the Pythagoreans, and it's another universe, and they live in maths which are like monasteries but cooler, and there is this awesome clock, and they garden, and learn stuff all the time and chant, and and and..."(here is where I drool on myself and am forced to stop torturing my friends). While I agreed with this criticism early on, I stopped noticing once I got into the story, and by the time I finished, I read all of the appendices, the glossary, and all the online acknowledgments. Maybe the Baroque Cycle was more fun, but I need to read Anathem again to decide.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On reflection this has to be one of the more misogynist books I've read. Not a female in it that isn't a castrating fiend, hellish domineering (castrating) mother, or a whore. The whores of course are the good guys. Never read a book before where the redemptive act by the hero was sexual assault of the villain. Putting that criticism aside, it was a good story with vivid characters. Bromden's voice was compelling, and I liked the image of the combine as the oppressive homogenizing forces in society working together. Haven't seen the movie, but by percolation I had an idea what to expect, so perhaps the suspense was a little spoiled. Anyway, I actually thought the ending would be sadder than it was.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Neil Gaiman, Stardust

Neil Gaiman, Stardust. I've been reading this aloud to Matthew (with minor editing) but I peeked ahead. This was a darling story, the village of Wall and Faerie and the lands beyond were wonderful and the journey through was delightful. I especially enjoyed the asides and minor stories in Faerie (where all the lands that have been eliminated from maps have gone). The story had such a traditional feel that at times one could imagine it was a George MacDonald story while the next moment it read like a comic book. I loved the movie, and for once I didn't think that the book far outshone the adaptation, but it was still worth the read. There is definitely room for more stories from Wall.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint

Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint. The plaintive voice of Alexander Portnoy is familiar and droning and his complaint is an endless (although entertaining) circle. It's funny, very funny. It's also filthy almost unbearably, filthy to the point of wallowing. In fact, it's probably one of the most offensive books ever written (if taken seriously). Makes me glad Freud and psychoanalysis are pretty well out of fashion. I think I like later Roth better - frailty and decay of the body is a more interesting obsession than masturbation.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. This book was terrifying to me. I don't want to think about how precarious life is and how fundamentally powerless I am to control it. And yet I've been circling around this knowledge daily, learning how fragile and intricate is our construction, and how contingent.

But, back to the story. Joan Didion is a graceful writer, and her precision and clarity make her emotion more powerful. It's not really a memoir of grief, but a story of the loves of her life, her husband and child, of companionship and friendship and living together, brought into relief by sudden absence. She conveys her grief and love in stark and thoughtful narrative.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth. Blah. Nothing worse than returning to something you loved as an eight-year-old and being disappointed. (Is it ironic that it seemed BORING and POINTLESS?) It reminded me of an eviscerated and very dull The Pilgrim's Progress.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia

Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia. This is the first Allende I've read, and it was pretty forgettable. All the individual parts of this story were fine, but the whole thing was lacking. It was a little trashy, a little superficial, but the real thing wrong was that it didn't seem true. I enjoyed the early unraveling of the family history, but the latter half of the story was just hollow. The protagonist, Aurora de Valle, was a delightful child and you could see through her eyes as she moved between cultures and households and you loved who she loved. But she was unconvincing as an adult, as a lover and as an artist (as a photographer she seemed especially forced) and so she was an seriously unconvincing narrator. I lost interest in the characters by the end.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Art Spiegelman, Maus(II)

Art Spiegelman, Maus(II). Once again thanks to Bredon I get reading material. These are really impossible to describe. I can only say that they were moving and beautiful and funny and that you should read them.

Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass

Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. These were wonderful. Rich and fascinating, full of adventure and anguish, at once thoughtful and exciting. Bredon lent them to me and I disappeared for the next few days. I loved the universe and I loved Lyra and Will. I was not even a bit disappointed (in fact they were at least as good as The Golden Compass) and I still think that I haven't read such great stories as these in years. It's odd, since the theological perspective is opposite, how much these reminded me of Lewis's Space Trilogy (these were more fun and more engrossing, though). Actually, they weren't theologically as far apart as you'd think, since Lewis's Satan and Pullman's Authority are remarkably similar (you could certainly describe both as bent). They also motivated me to go back and attack Milton again. I had just been attempting to reread him, but I'll read happily along for five or six pages and then realize I have no idea what is going on. Maybe I can try again now with more success.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind. A bookish gothic adventure (more like Dumas than anything else). The title tells you what you need to know - great fun and melodrama with overblown prose. A boy is in search of a mysterious author whose books are being systematically destroyed in post-war Barcelona. Along the way are many burned letters, secrets, romances, tragedies, and Sugus candies. Even though the final plot twist was predictable, this was a wonderfully suspenseful and intricate story. Also, I would love to visit the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated by Charles Johnston. I enjoyed this translation much more than the one I first read. It veers between gossip, romance, tragedy, country soliloquy and high comedy, and it's in verse (which seems only proper). I loved Tatyana's opinion of the city socialite scene:

"This world's so vacuous that it's got
no spark of fun in all its rot!"

Pushkins' Tatyana is one of the few heroines that gets to grow up from the period. I was greatly cheered that she had the courage to shoot Evgeny down.
(Oh man, I really really would love to learn Russian, at least enough to start, but with my language skills it might take me decades, plus it would most likely be hard work.)

Art Spiegelman, Maus(I)

Art Spiegelman, Maus(I). Thank you Bredon, via Mom. I thought I had already read this because I have heard so much about it. I'm only angry that you didn't lend mom both volumes, although it gives me an excuse to go to the library. More after II.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Allen Ginsberg, HOWL and Other Poems

Allen Ginsberg, HOWL and Other Poems. ("I saw the best minds of my generation...starving hysterical naked,") well, you remember these, I'm sure, or at least a parody of them. The poems are oddly, faintly, occasionally vividly beautiful. Always thumping and often filthy. A little monotonous. Could be useful as voice over for an anti-drug campaign for one of those stark and ineffective television ads with pictures of squalor and madness. I prefer my squalor in prose, but hey.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman's Union

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. So, Israel imploded in 1948 and a Jewish settlement was founded (a hopeful folly called Sitka) in Alaska and luckily for the fun of the language, it's a Yiddish speaking territory. Meyer Landsman is a (hard-boiled, soft-boiled?) alcoholic police detective in a unit that's about to be dissolved when the sovereignty of Sitka reverts to the State of Alaska. Ok, so maybe I can't explain the plot, but it's wonderful. Read this. So fun, so nice to listen to in your head, you'll laugh.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye

Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye. The story of the remembered girlhood of a painter. A book that reminded me how intense being nine was and how cruel and complicated children can be. Atwood always tells a good story.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Zadie Smith, On Beauty. Incredible. Funny, entertaining, appalling. The Belseys are a liberal, academic, contorted, and confused family who are insanely fun to read about. Class, love, politics, selfishness, everything Smith put in this book is alive and sharp and deadly. And this story is much more fun to read than Howard's End.

Monday, June 09, 2008

John Updike, Marry Me

John Updike, Marry Me. The older I get the more I love John Updike's language, and the more I recoil from his characters. I don't know why I keep coming back to him, but I do. There is something there that draws me, even in the most woeful of his books. But really, his suburban adultery stories I find the most hopeless and dismal to read of almost anything. I'd like to check out one of his really good novels or better short stories to cleanse my mind. This particular book was the story of two couples and the excruciating mess they make of their lives. Although Jerry, Sally, Richard, and Ruth are scummy and irritating, there is just such sorrow and lostness in their descriptions (not in themselves, really, but in aspects of themselves), well, I can't explain it but I find it somehow compelling. He's writing about miserable, cowardly people, but not to redeem, exalt, or make examples of them. They are just people. Not very nice people. But recognizable.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Richard Brautigan, A Confederate General From Big Sur, Dreaming of Babylon, The Hawkline Monster

Richard Brautigan, A Confederate General From Big Sur, Dreaming of Babylon, The Hawkline Monster. Brautigan is truly funny and bizarre in splashes, but somehow there wasn't much going on in these books. I enjoy the absurd, but it helps to have some sort of structure. Really, they just weren't that great. (What sort of masochist reads three novels by Brautigan in a row? Well, it is summer vacation and they were bound together so I just sort of plowed right through with no regard for my sanity). Years ago I enjoyed Trout Fishing In America, although it wasn't the work of transcendent genius that I'd been promised. If I'd read these separately, buffered by several decades, I might feel more charitably toward Brautigan, but as it is I feel as if I drank a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster and used my head as a battering ram.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mitch Albom, tuesdays with Morrie

Mitch Albom, tuesdays with Morrie. A dear friend gave me this book as a gift. To be honest, I thought I wouldn't like it ("I don't usually go for the uplifting") but I did enjoy reading it. Maybe I didn't connect with the author's tone or his answers, but I did connect to the questions he was asking. These questions matter. How do you live a good life? How do you value other people and love them? What is important and what is distraction? What are the values of our culture and are they right? How do you live a good life within a culture that is dysfunctional? How do you tolerate fear, pain, and loss? How do you confront your own death, and worse, the death of those you love? I enjoy people who ask these questions and honestly try to answer them. It's not a matter of religion or no religion to me - I can deeply empathize with most people if they are thoughtful. The intolerable sin is apathy, a careless approach to life. Don't be unthoughtful or formulaic - have a reason for what you do and who you are. Not asking questions is worse than having the wrong answers or no answers. Morrie's insights reminded me of the Forster epigraph "only connect". So the answers in this book were simple - love each other, listen, touch, learn. Pretty basic humanism, hard to argue with (water's mighty wet stuff, chief!). I didn't love the author - he didn't delve deeply enough, it seemed to me, but I loved the subject of the book. A great teacher is important and should be cherished - don't let your teachers fade from your mind.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Malory, The Morte Darthur

Malory, The Morte Darthur. Oh the battles! And the courtliness and cruelty! And the High Language.... If I only had occasion to say something like: "Madam, I pray you that ye be not displeased with me for I will take the adventure that God will send me" or "Arise, for shame, and perform this battle with me to the utterance!"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Victor Villaseñor, Rain of Gold

Victor Villaseñor, Rain of Gold. I guess this came before the book Thirteen Senses, which I read a few years ago but didn't realize was a sequel. A funny, juicy, and joyful family history. The grandmothers are priceless characters, even though occasionally over the top (although for a lady that shares raunchy anecdotes with her personal friend the virgin Mary every morning, over-the-top is understatement). It successfully pulls off interweaving separate narratives that eventually join without being irritating or distracting.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner. I devoured this in an afternoon, although it was at times excruciating and heavy with visceral emotion. It's the story of a boy named Amir who betrayed his dearest friend, told in vivid and beautiful language against the backdrop of a disintegrating home: a story about the hope of redemption.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Anton Chekhov, My Life

Anton Chekhov, My Life. A short novel or a long story, perfectly told, that reminded me how much I really love Chekhov. Misail, Masha, Kleopatra, Blogovo - all the people are perfect, recognizable, and vivid. Misail is the son of an architect and is a failure. He absconds from his expected role and becomes a laborer, a roof painter. He is not truly a reformer or revolutionary. He finds a love and loses her. He doesn't change anything. The ending is right. (By the way, this was the Constance Garnett translation, the voice I grew up hearing Russian literature in. I think her words are perfect for Chekhov.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Salman Rushdie, Shame

Salman Rushdie, Shame. Not as rich, florid, substantial or comedic as The Satanic Verses and disappointing by comparison. Still a good story, complicated, baroque, dramatic, mournful, recognizable. I enjoyed the mood of the sprawling, decaying architecture and the sprawling, decaying relationship between the families that tangled through the plot.

Monday, May 05, 2008

P.D. James, The Murder Room

P.D. James, The Murder Room. I don't know why it is, but I never can remember if I've read these before until I'm fifty or so pages in, and then it's too late to stop. P.D. James is a pleasure to read, but her stories don't grab me. Neither does Adam Dalgliesh, that cool cucumber. Odd, because he's so much a cousin of Peter Wimsey, who does (and Richard Jury, who sometimes does). There's something about all of her characters I don't connect with, except in the most minor ways. But rereading her is like rewatching one of those movies you always forget if you finished - fun and restful- and you can even let yourself be a little surprised at the end.

Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift

Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift. Charlie Citrine is a ridiculous puffed up writer (he's writing a perpetually unfinished treatise on boredom, but he made his big bucks on Broadway) who carries around a suffocating love for the dead. He owes and is owed debts to and from his boyhood hero, the washed-up poet Humboldt, who was the Guthrie to his Dylan. He spends every day worrying about his wife, his lawsuits, his girlfriend, his clothes, his racquetball game, his evaporating money, his car - but he longs to be a philosopher king. He keeps getting entangled in impossible messes with Chicago underworld types and he just can't seem to hold on to himself. Charlie is another Bellow hero filled with lofty yearnings and petty obsessions. I don't know why I love these ridiculous and idiotic men that Bellow writes about - they are nearly entirely worthless human beings.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Jane Smiley, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

Jane Smiley, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. This book reminded me of one of those young-adult pioneer stories with a girl in a prairie dress looking over the horizon on the cover. It's a familiar story form - a young woman marries, travels west, stakes a claim, and hardships and adventure ensue. The familiarity is absolutely intentional - there is even a scene where Lidie chops her hair and dresses as a man in order to travel freely. But this story has an adult level of emotional and political development. The historical/political detail about Kansas Territory and the abolitionist movement and conflicts were the most interesting parts of the book. I was actually pretty shocked that this book turned out to be like this - Jane Smiley is one of those odd authors whose books are entirely different from each other. She seems to pick up any form and tell a story comfortably. If it weren't for her style of humor I wouldn't recognize them.
All right, time to catch up on posting, I suppose. It's not that I haven't been reading, it's that I've been furtive about it. Technically, I've had no time, so that other than cartoons from back issues of the New Yorker and horrid journal articles my reading has consisted of allowances of novels when I am nearly asleep. But now I am a relatively free woman for six weeks or so, so I'll catch up on the backlog!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Joanne Harris, Chocolat

Joanne Harris, Chocolat. Ugh. Too sweet. The book equivalent of Hershey's Syrup. I haven't seen the movie, but I bet it was better.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Iva Pekárková, The World Is Round

Iva Pekárková, The World Is Round. A occasionally beautiful, filthy, shifting novel. A beat-inspired hedonistic travelogue (with a rare female protagonist) meets One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich . This wasn't nearly as powerful, but the small details of camp life were so significant and lovingly described that comparison was inevitable. Somehow I felt the structure, or the narrative, was lacking - too amorphous. But the characters, the feelings, the dialog, even in translation, were often perfect. So - flawed - but enough beauty to savor.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

David Sheff, Beautiful Boy

David Sheff, Beautiful Boy. A memoir of living with a son's drug addiction, so a fairly terrifying book for a parent to read. Matt brought this home because they're promoting it at Starbucks and he wanted to know if it's "well-written" for his customers. Fairly. Not incredibly gripping, a little repetitive. But still, I had to keep reading, hoping for a neat resolution and a happy ending for Nic. By the nature of the story, you care for the characters despite Nic's flaws (the subject of the book, after all) and David's extraordinary navel gazing. Although you have to excuse some of the constant self-blame, because mostly David's role consisted of worrying. The second half of the book was tighter than the first. David suffered a brain hemorrhage some way through the writing process,and I wonder if that paradoxically cleaned up the narrative. I read that Nic Sheff wrote a memoir published at the same time, and I'm curious to read it. Not curious enough to buy it, but if I run across it I'll read it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Roddy Doyle, Paula Spencer

Roddy Doyle, Paula Spencer. I really like Roddy Doyle - he's funny and gritty, and not too self-conscious. Paula is a rough, loving, recovering alcoholic struggling to stay dry and discover who she actually is. She's a working class house cleaner, widow, and parent relearning life. She's living in the new Ireland, but stuck in the economic past. She's great. She's grand. The only thing that struck me as a little off was the huge amount of pop culture references - they weren't jarring or anything, but the book's only a year old and I was struggling to connect some of them (but they were not pathetic, like poor Tom Wolfe's awful I am Charlotte Simmons) and they do work because the story is embedded in a very specific place and time.

M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation. Excellent, even though it has the longest title ever (there's another subtitle- Volume I: The Pox Party - which would have been great alone). Octavian is a classic hero, as precocious as his namesake, and absolutely indomitable. The children's literature I've always loved best contains heartless adversaries, punishing circumstances, and plot and characters that completely suck you in. The angles of this story about science, oppression, freedom, hypocrisy, and greed were incredible - the complexity and honesty of the perspective made every fiction of the revolutionary war I read as a kid seem hagiographic and shallow.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A. S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories

A. S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories. A Stone Woman was a magnificent and memorable image made into a story - I dreamt of turning to stone after reading it. Didn't so much care for Raw Material - the writer was just not convincing (ha). All of the stories were enjoyable. Byatt is always entertaining and clever. Her erudite characters make me wish I was better educated in the classics. Why didn't I attempt Latin instead of failing miserably at French and Spanish? I'll never feel learned unless I learn some Latin, but I don't think my chances are good.

Friday, February 08, 2008

John Le Carré, The Mission Song

John Le Carré, The Mission Song. My favorite comfort read, who is unfortunately never comforting. This particular Le Carré is about Salvo, a gifted interpreter, who of course works part time for a deniable government organization. On his first important assignment, he is the interpreter (above and below the waterline) for a shadowy multinational syndicate and a collection of warlords and political leaders who are of course going to bring peace to his beloved Congo. The story is like Le Carré's others, in that the unprincipled and ruthless win, and the possession of a conscience dooms a hero. But I think these books are always beautifully written, perfectly constructed, and true. The heroes are not good men and women, but they have a core of good. And, strangely, the stories are mostly about love.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March. Augie grows up in depression-era Chicago and floats from calling to calling, recruited by one than another crackpot or schemer and eventually rejecting him and drifting to the next. Something about Augie makes others want to adopt him, and all Augie knows about himself is that he is not a specialist and he has some fate to find. He is a reader (like so many Bellow heroes) and seems content to drift through life, although his defining characteristic is opposition. It's so easy be Augie - anyone who lived through adolescence should recognize the feeling of special destiny mixed with apathy and discouragement. It's not so much a "coming of age" novel, because it ends with Augie still half-formed. Bellow is becoming my favorite author.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia. I love Oliver Sacks. What I love most about his books is the boundless curiosity that spreads out from topic to topic, and I also appreciate the respect and obvious love he has for his patients. He has a passion for music himself, and so the exploration of the neurology of music was captivating, and more personal than some of his other books. This book also had a little less natural structure and tightness than some of his other collections. Lots of stories about memory loss and brain injury that alter musical experience, and summaries of interesting research and case studies related to music and the brain. I'm not a very musical person myself, but as I read this I did think about the place music has in my head, about the memories and emotions it can evoke -and I also thought about other more musical people I know, and how large a portion of their lives is wrapped up in playing and listening to music. Matt is like that, and it baffles me. I think my involvement with books is just as mysterious to him as his musical focus is to me.

Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, The Cobweb

Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, The Cobweb. If I were Stephenson and George I would have kept this under the pseudonym "Stephen Bury" - or better yet I would have buried it. I doubt it was the fault of George, but collaboration seems to have amplified every flaw in Stephenson's style and narrative and to have eviscerated the ornate plots and baroque flourishes that he can pull off with such cohesion. Put gently, this book was terrible. Think a John Grisham novel, but with a weaker plot and flatter characters (ok, maybe not flatter, but the plot definitely lacks conviction and seems mechanical). For one thing, the main character is a strong silent type, which is hard to pull off, even in a thriller. The botulin toxin plot (which could have been fantastic) was dull and forced, as well as unbelievable. But the insurmountable flaw was the horrible purple prose. Let me reproduce a sentence here (from page four) that should win some sort of award:
"Clyde had attended the same junior high school as Desiree, and he could still remember sitting behind her in algebra, tracing the construction of her French braids- straight dark hair pulled in on itself, stretched to explosive tension like the strings of a piano - and getting woozy over the lace that draped around her tanned neck like a ring of Ivory soap suds."
(!)I thought at first that sentence was satire, but I gave up that hope after a few hundred pages. Now, Neal Stephenson's never been phenomenal at romantic tension or writing female characters in general, but that usually doesn't stop me from loving his books. I suppose everyone is entitled to a few failed experiments. This one is best forgotten.