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.