Archive for the '2010 Books' Category

“Faithful Place” by Tana French

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Faithful Place by Tana French is her third mystery novel in a series loosely linked by characters. You don’t need to read them in order, but that’s how I’d recommend them. Begun with In the Woods, continued in The Likeness, we get to know Frank Mackey, a detective in undercover from the latter book.

The book starts with his memory of a pivotal life event:

I was nineteen, old enough to take on the world and young enough to be a dozen kinds of stupid, and that night as soon as both my brothers were snoring I slid out of our bedroom with my rucksack on my back and my Docs hanging from one hand. A floorboard creaked and in the girls’ room one of my sisters murmured in her sleep, but I was magic that night, riding high on that surge tide, unstoppable; my parents didn’t even turn over on the pullout bed as I moved through the front room, close enough to touch. The fire had burned down to nothing but a muttering red glow. In the rucksack was everything important I owned: jeans, T-shirts, a secondhand wireless, a hundred quid and my birth cert. That was all you needed to go over to England, back then. Rose had the ferry tickets.

He’s divorced with child, and bitter about custody and his wife’s new boyfriend. But an urgent phone call drags him back to the neighborhood he grew up in, the Faithful Place of the title. As the novel unfolds, Frank’s world gets shaken again and again, and he butts heads with family and police as he tries to figure out who did what, and when.

This book is receiving great reviews (it’s an Amazon Book of the Month and got a starred review at Publisher’s Weekly), and many are claiming it’s better than the second, which most people thought was better than the first, which most people agreed was a thumping good read. My preference may lean toward The Likeness, which I plan to re-read soonish.

French writes a great thriller. Her psychological characterizations are complex, and the characters engaging. I was loath to put down the book, and resented (quietly, most of the time) things that made me do so: kids, husband, work, sleep, food, etc. And French is great at getting me attached to the characters and putting them through emotional wringers. These books make me feel twisty on the inside with some of the things the characters experience and do.

Yet I didn’t find it perfect. The whole divorced-cop thing brought nothing new to that tired character trope. And the mystery wasn’t hard for me to figure out. I suspected the killer early on, and even though I saw attempts at red herrings, they were never red enough to convince me. So I highly recommend it as an entertaining read, but it’s not for me one of the best books, ever.

That said, now that I’m just after finishing this book, I’ve got a hankering to call someone a fecking gobshite, or say “fair play to you” if they do a good job. And I have a strong suspicion that we’ll see more of Stephen Moran in the future from French.

“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” by Josh Neufeld

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

After Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, I wanted to read Josh Neufeld’s graphic “novel” (narrative, I’d say), A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which depicts New Orleans and some of its inhabitants before, during and long after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Neufeld was a Red Cross volunteer in the aftermath of the hurricane, and began by chronicling his experiences online, which eventually led to this book.

The city itself is almost a character, since the book begins with the storm before it moves into the people. There are seven main characters in a rotation of five stories. They have different ages, ethnicities and religions. Some left; some stayed. Some returned; some did not.

A.D. New Orleans shows, in pictures and text, an up-close reality very unlike the lawless chaos the media was so eager to emphasize. As with Zeitoun, the personal is political, and the specifics point to universalities. This book makes it all too easy, and decidedly uncomfortable, to imagine oneself in one (or several) of the characters’ shoes. Highly recommended.

“Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

The August selection for Twin Cities’ Books and Bars was Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, a meticulous recounting of one New Orleans family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina and its deadly aftermath. The eponymous man of the title (whose first name is Abdulrahman) remains in the city before during and after the hurricane. He chose not to leave, though his wife, Kathy, and children did. It’s also their story, about the struggles of one refugee family and the difficulty of remaining in contact with those left behind.

Epitomizing the phrase “the personal is political,” Zeitoun addresses issues of class, race, politics and, as trite as it may sound, humanity. As the book began, I was irritated by the writing. Eggers’ description of Zeitoun seemed to pedestalize the man, while reading more like a screenplay at times than a work of critical nonfiction.

Zeitoun pulled onto Earhart Boulevard, though a part of him was still in Jableh. Whenever he had these morning thoughts of his childhood, he wondered how they all were, his family in Syria, all of his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews scattered up and down the coast, and those who had long ago left this world. His mother died a few years after his father passed on, and he’d lost a treasured brother, Mohammed, when he was very young. but the rest of his siblings, those still in Syria and Spain and Saudi Arabia, were all doing well, extraordinarily so. The Zeitouns were a high-achieving clan, full of doctors and school principals and generals and business owners, all of them with a passion for the sea. (12)

As I read on, though, I was completely and utterly won over to Zeitoun the man and to the plight of his family specifically, and New Orleans in general. This is often painful read, but tremendously moving and heartening. It’s an examination of the racism that persists, especially toward Arab-Americans and Muslims in the wake of 9/11. The current debate in New York City over what should be where in the aftermath of 9/11 shows how fresh these issues remain. The book is also an education, about the Muslim tradition and an unforgivable government and media debacle in our history.

The recent furor on whether Jonathan Franzen and his book are being overhyped because he’s a white male makes me wonder at the amount and content of the praise Zeitoun has received, e.g., Entertainment Weekly picked it as a book of the decade. I can’t and won’t say whether it merits the praise, but I do say it’s an emotional and provocative narrative, well worth reading, discussing and ruminating on how the future might change, given this oft-ugly chapter of the past.

“System of the World” by Neal Stephenson

Friday, August 27th, 2010

New gap on TBR (To Be Read) shelf:

TBR shelf, sans Baroque Cycle

New residents of AR/IDCTR (Already Read/I Don’t Care To Read) shelf:

Baroque Trilogy on the ABR (already been read) shelf

We did it! My husband and I finished reading Neal Stephenson’s System of the World well before the end of August for my self-assigned Baroque Summer reading project. We read Quicksilver in June, The Confusion in July, and the third volume in Stephenson’s sprawling, insane, erudite and entertaining Baroque Cycle trilogy this month.

SotW continues with main characters Jack Shaftoe, Daniel Waterhouse, and Eliza, duchess of Qwglhm (which Stephenson says is a joke and not meant to be pronounced, but I hear in my head as the Simpson’s Chief Wiggum saying his name, but with a K sound in front of it ending with a mushy r: Kwiggulm”). And there are a host of other characters (Isaac Newton, Princess Caroline, Louis the Sun King) who are almost as entertaining as the ones Stephenson invented.

“Men half your age and double your weight have been slain on these wastes by Extremity of Cold,” said the Earl of Lostwithiel, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Rider of the Forest and Chase of Dartmoor, to one of his two fellow-travelers….

“I am astonished that you should call this an extremity of cold,” answered the old man. “In Boston, as you know, this would pass without remark. I am garbed for Boston.”

Stephenson is a huge geek, and the book is about (among many, many things) the rise of finance, philosophy, natural sciences, and computers. If you’ve enjoyed other Stephenson, like Snow Crash or Diamond Age, it’s likely your thing. It also reminded me, in its sprawling, inventive craziness, of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you liked any of these, and aren’t opposed to doorstoppy books, give the trilogy a look. If not, or if you don’t identify as a geek, this probably isn’t a good fit.

I had a good time reading these as a summer project. They’re so dense it was sometimes hard to keep track of the details and personae, but reading them consecutively and reading along with my husband helped a great deal. I was involved with the characters, learned things from the historic details, was eager to return to the book when I was away from it, and sad to leave it when it was done.

Geeky stats: Trilogy begun 4 June, finished 21 August 2010. Other books read in that time: 12, out of which 8 were graphic novels. Total pages (not including intro and outro material and acks): 2,618.

How long before we succumb to a re-read of Cryptonomicon, which the trilogy is kind of a prequel to? Not long, I bet, though as usual my TBR list is long.

Scott Pilgrim v. 1 to 6 by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The Scott Pilgrim comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley is about the 20-something slacker kid of the title and his efforts to woo and win the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers. There are many obstacles along the way, like his chaste romance with high schooler Knives Chau, and Ramona’s seven evil exes, whom Scott must defeat in combat. Lucky for him he’s the best fighter in the province. (He’s Canadian.)

I think my favorite is volume 1, since it epitomizes the out-there, wacky visual humor of the entire series, and often made me laugh aloud. My least favorite was volume 3, since it wasn’t as funny. My favorite character was probably drummer Kim Pine (below, left).

Scott Pilgrim

The entire series of six is a fun-filled ride of manga-inspired goofiness that I highly recommend.

Oh, and the movie’s good, too.

“Little Bee” by Chris Cleave

Friday, July 30th, 2010

This month’s selection for one of my book groups, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee was recommended highly out there in the litosphere. And my expectations may have negatively influenced my reading experience. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.

The cover information is curiously cryptic:

We don’t want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book.

It is a truly SPECIAL STORY and we don’t want to spoil it.

NEVERTHELESS, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again–the story starts there…

Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.

Puffery, is what they call this kind of hyperbole in advertising. Do I want to tell my friends about this book? Not really. I found it good, not great. I’m more likely to urge The Imperfectionists or The Magicians on them.

I’m not going to tell you what happens, as that’s not what I do in my book reviews anyway. My approach is to tell you just enough about the book and my reaction to it for you to get a sense of yes/no/maybe you want to read it.

The two women are Little Bee, a girl from Nigeria, and Sarah, an English working mother. There’s not one, but several moments of fateful decisions. Many of their scenes together were moving and strong. The book opens with Little Bee in a refugee concentration camp in England. As for how it unfolds, the author does do a good job of spinning out the tale out of sequence, which is, as Little Bee would say, a good trick.

The author’s intent to publicize the unjust camps is a good one, and is overall effective. Also good are many scenes between characters, and some of the psychological characterizations. But one of the characters does something near the end of the book so unbelievable it pushed me right out of the book. And at times the book has an after-school special feel to it, though much darker. For a similar subject and a better, IMO, execution, rent the little known and under-appreciated The Visitor.

I found Little Bee’s premise good, and some of the book very good, but there were many times the characters felt like thin blankets, and the plot felt herky-jerky. In this, it reminded me of The Help, which I also liked but didn’t love. It’s possible, though, that my skepticism of them was sharpened by the overwhelming hype they’ve received from fans and critics. For me, Little Bee was good, eye-opening, often moving, but not consistently excellent for me.

“The Confusion” by Neal Stephenson

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I finished The Confusion, volume two of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, so I’m on track to complete my summer reading project of all three behemoths! Volume 1, Quicksilver, was divided into 3 books, one each for Daniel Waterhouse the natural philosopher, Jack Shaftoe the vagabond, and Eliza the former Turkish concubine. The Confusion alternates between book 4, Bonanza, which is Jack’s story, and book 5, Juncto, which is Eliza’s. As in Quicksilver, and Cryptonomicon before it, I found the Shaftoe parts more enjoyable; they’re frequently humorous tales of adventure, in the spirit of the picaroon novels Stephenson mentions in the stories.

Eliza is embroiled in intrigue and finance, plus has a vendetta against one man (or is it several?) who done her wrong. Her story was more frequently affecting, and much more complex and challenging.

These books are challenging and great fun. I’m learning about history, though it’s a fictionalized version. And I’m enjoying myself with a vast cast of characters I like spending time with. Which is good, because these books are so long. Overlong? Perhaps. But it’s hard to resist Stephenson’s zeal for the historical subjects and his characters.

I’ll have a little incidental reading in between, but then I’ll be off into volume three, The System of the World.

“The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Yes, yes, I know I’m supposed to be reading The Confusion, volume 2 of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. But finishing Volume 1, not to mention schlepping it everywhere for a month, made me want to take a wee break, which I did over the long weekend with Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.

I read about this book first at Entertainment Weekly, then again online somewhere. It lodged on my radar, then was recommended to me by the Biblioracle at The Morning News (Great fun for book geeks like me.) So when I found it on the shelf at Half Price Books, well, who was I to pass it by when the universe was so obviously putting it in my path? (Moi, good at rationalization?)

Rachman’s first novel is about a struggling international newspaper and the people involved with it.

The paper is hardly at the cutting edge of technology–it doesn’t even have a website. And circulation isn’t increasing. The balance sheet is a catastrophe, losses mount annually, the readership is aging and dying off.

There are eleven chapters, each focusing on one character, which are also linked short stories. Most are employees of the paper, but a few are peripheral: a reader, an applicant, and a girlfriend. In between are brief pieces of the paper’s history. Over the book, all of these overlap and interweave.

This book tells a lot with very little; Rachman’s background in journalism shows itself in his eye for detail and in the sharp jabs of humor. But it’s the characters that drew me in and held me. I kept hoping for them to be happy, and ached for them when tragedy occurred. And occurred, it did. This book has moments of terrible, terrible sadness, if only because I cared so deeply for the characters who experienced them. Near the end of the book, I was exulting as one character’s chapter seemed to be ending without tragedy. Then in a very few lines, the knife twist occurs. I read the end of that chapter several times, marveling at the swiftness of its punch, even as I continued to wish it had gone differently.

In its workplace dynamics and relationships, the small joys and the big tragedies, this book often reminded me of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End. Those who have worked at a newspaper or in a copy department will likely recognize many of the characters. This was a short, intense read, far more sad than I’d expected because I cared so much about the paper and its people.

“Foiled” by Jane Yolen

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Remember when I reviewed Dragonflight a little while back, and we had a great discussion in the comments about better books for tween and teen girls where the main character has a relationship with another girl and is not defined by the boys around her? Foiled, a graphic novel by the prolific writer Jane Yolen, is one of those better books.

Aliera attends the smallest high school in New York City. She fences, hence the pun of the title. She doesn’t always get along with her parents, but she has a good relationship with her cousin. They play a D & D like game every weekend and talk about what’s going on with Aliera, like fencing tournaments and cute boys at school. Not much goes on with the cousin, as she’s confined to a wheelchair with rheumatoid arthritis.

When Aliera gets asked out on a date by the ridiculously named cute boy Avery Castle, things begin to get weird in that “hey, magic is real!” way. And they do not unfold in a predictable or saccharine manner. Aliera is funny, charming, and easy to relate to. Her fencing skills are cool. The art, by Mike Cavallaro, is manga influenced, and easy to read and engage with. This book sets the stage for further books, so it’s a beginning rather than a complete story. I will definitely read the next book in this series, and would recommend this one unreservedly for tween and young teen girls who like fantasy.

“Batman R.I.P.” by Grant Morrison

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

The blurb on the front said Batman R.I.P. is “as good as superhero comics get” and it was from IGN, a pretty trusted source for geekiana. I’ve been reading Morrison’s reboot of Batman and Robin, and like it a lot. This was the story that led up to it. So I took the bait, bought the book, read the book, and the same thing happened as almost always happens when I read a Grant Morrison book; I thought, “Huh? What? I don’t get it…”

Here’s what I think it’s about: A villain group called The Black Glove has sworn to destroy Batman, in a way that put me in mind of a book I liked much better, Daredevil: Born Again. They involve the Joker, who they refer to as The Master. They do, in fact, manage to make some Very Bad Things happen to Batman–poison, madness, drugs, kidnapped girlfriend, etc. And in the end a helicopter goes down, with one of the bad guys and with Batman. Do you think he’s dead? For real? This time?

Grant Morrison said in an interview that the villain’s reveal would be one of the most shocking things in Batman’s history. After reading the book, this confused me. First, because I found at least three main villains (possibly a fourth), and a whole lot of secondary ones. Second, because when I finally figured out which one I thought he was talking about (I’m still not completely certain) it wasn’t shocking.

In the wake of my confusion, I looked up reviews, most of which are excellent. But the excellent reviews came from comic-book critics and fans who had been reading the various Batman titles all along. That isn’t me.

I have geek cred. I’ve read comics for over twenty years, and even worked in comic shops. I’ve read a lot of Batman. But what I’ve read were often stand-alone graphic novels, like The Dark Night Returns, The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, Mad Love, etc. I don’t read every issue of every Bat title. I have a general sense of what’s going on in the major universes. I know the main characters and history. And that wasn’t enough to appreciate this book. There’s lots of good stuff in it; Grant Morrison is a good writer and a very clever guy. But I think this collection is better suited for medium-high to high Bat fans who follow the ongoing books. It couldn’t quite stand alone, I thought.

“Quicksilver” by Neal Stephenson

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

I did it! I finished Quicksilver, volume 1 of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy as part of my summer reading project. Was it worth a month of my time? You betcha, as we Minnesotans sometimes say. I know a few of you gave it a try; anyone still reading besides me and G. Grod?

The big book is divided into three smaller ones. Book 1 is Quicksilver, and uses character Daniel Waterhouse to introduce us to historical figures like Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Waterhouse is the son of a Puritan, but is not so fervent as his father was, which got that man blown up by Charles II. Book 1 focuses on alchemy and the rise of “science” which was at that time referred to as Natural Philosophy. It also does a good job of portraying the blurry line between science and religion/philosophy, and the frequent connection between math genius and madness.

Book 2, King of the Vagabonds, introduces Jack Shaftoe, a mercenary, and Eliza, a harem girl Jack rescues from beneath Vienna during a military siege. They proceed across Europe trying to make their fortune, meeting historical figures like Leibniz and William of Orange, and generally getting into a lot of trouble while doing so.

Book 3, Odalisque (which means Turkish harem slave, which Eliza was), brings Daniel and Eliza together, and introduces Bob, Jack’s more respectable brother. Natural philosophy, politics and finance collide as they usher in huge changes.

The hugeness of the book, in both size and subject, strangely makes me want to be pithy in describing it. It’s speculative historical fiction, much like Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the research for which spawned the idea for this series. If you like Stephenson’s work, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age, this will be in your wheelhouse. I found it a fun AND educational, if wrist-straining, summer read.

I’m going to take a little break, then move on to Volume 2, The Confusion, which I hope isn’t truth in advertising.

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

Friday, June 18th, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is the July selection for the Twin Cities’ Books and Bars group. I’d read only good reviews of it, but after I mentioned I was reading it, some of my literary pen pals–Tulip, Amy and Steph–said they weren’t fans, and were interested to see what I thought of the book. That made me hyper-aware as I finished the book. Would I like it?

In spite of peer pressure, I did, but I can guess why others haven’t.

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.

They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia, and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That’s how things were now. The sidewalk wasn’t quite wide enough, so Quentin trailed after them, like a sulky child. He would rather have been alone with Julia, or just alone period, but you couldn’t have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.

Quentin is a prestidigitator and high school senior in NYC, and is part of the hyper-competitive race to get into a top university. When his Princeton interview doesn’t go as planned, he ends up sitting for an entrance exam to Brakebills, a private university for magic. Quentin has been obsessed with a Narnia-like fantasy series set in a land called Fillory since he was young, and is thrilled to discover magic is real and that he has an aptitude for it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s meant to. The Magicians is not coy about the debt it owes to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Unlike those, however, it’s not sweet, romantic, or centered on Christianity (Lewis) or love (Harry Potter). When Quentin finds out magic is real, the result is like Harry Potter filtered through Bret Easton Ellis. There’s drinking, drugs, sex, raging immaturity and bitterness. Grossman speculates on how magic might impact real, spoiled teens. Brakebills is less like a university than a vocational school with no career waiting at the end. The result isn’t pretty.

Along with the discomfort of reading about a debauched magic population, there’s Quentin, who is hardly a sympathetic main character. He’s a shallow, competitive guy who’s always grasping to be the best, whining about unhappiness, and pining for some life-changing circumstance that will bring him finally to the bliss he feels he deserves. He casts away old circumstances with hardly a thought, including friends and parents. This leads, unsurprisingly, to disastrous results.

For me, though, the disastrous results were of a piece with the whole book. The groundwork was laid carefully throughout, and things progressed to what I felt were fitting ends. Is Quentin reformed and nice by the end? No way. But is he wiser, less credible and (possibly) less selfish? I think so. I did find a self-awareness at the end that wasn’t there previously.

I had the opportunity to see Lev Grossman read earlier this week, and asked him about some of his influences. I had guessed, correctly, that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was one of them. So rather than describing it as “Harry Potter for adults,” I might say “The Secret History, with magic.”

This is a frequently dark, bitter book with scenes of profound ugliness. Yet I liked how it made me re-examine my own feelings about reading Narnia, Harry Potter, and others. Prior to reading this book, I re-read a fantasy favorite of mine when I was a teen, Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey. I found it a less pleasant read than I remembered, and I think that’s exactly the thing Grossman was going for: how magic would affect real teens if there were no kindly advisor figure like Dumbledore, and no obvious “big bad” like Sauron. This book contains deep ambivalence about how cool magic would be if it were real, and examines why longing for a fantasy world is not endearing, but a significant a character flaw.

“Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Yes, I just re-read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, one of my favorite books from girlhood. But I had a good reason. Really.

Books and Bars is reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for July. (And he’s reading at Barnes & Noble Har Mar tomorrow night.) It’s about a guy who still re-reads and loves a Narnia-like fantasy series from his childhood, so a woman who’d read it already suggested going back to a book we’d loved and wished were real when we were young. I chose Dragonflight, because it was the one I wished most fervently was real, and the one whose heroine I envied.

I used to own most of the Pern books, but have gotten rid of all but this one, since the last time I re-read them was probably in my early 20’s, or two decades ago. I was worried about revisiting a book I had such a strong affection for, and that made such a huge impression on me at the time (pun not intended)–it was a gateway book into sci-fi and fantasy for me. When I started reading, my affection was right where I’d left it. For better or worse, though, I could not silence my consciousness, far more critical and discerning that that of my younger self.

The back-of-book description is utter rubbish, so I’ll do a broad-strokes summary, though I imagine more than one of you is geeky enough to have read the Pern books, too. Pern is a colonized but abandoned world, with a largely medieval/agrarian culture. Lessa is a former noble who went into hiding as a girl when her family was slaughtered by an invader. She bides her time waiting for revenge and to claim her birthright, and thinks the time has come when a group of dragonmen come on “Search.” The old queen dragon has laid a golden, queen egg, and the men, led by bronze rider F’lar, are looking for intelligent, powerful women candidates to “impress” the new queen. Impression is a psychic link made between person and dragon at the time of hatching that lasts till one of them dies. Lessa, rather than regaining her birthright, goes back with the dragonfolk and *gasp* impresses the new queen, who is the great hope of the dragonriders to revitalize the dragons, who protect the planet from a rain of deadly spores (”threads”) that takes place every two hundred years or so. Few believe the threads are real. F’lar and Lessa do, though. Will the threads reappear? Will Lessa and F’lar triumph over them?

This was heady stuff for me as a teen. Lessa had telepathic powers, plus a psychic dragon. She also got handsome F’lar. The book was sort of the next progression from horse books for me (dragons being just bigger, psychic creatures than horses), plus with “romance” (not really that romantic, as I discovered this time around) and sex. (When the dragons go into heat, so do their humans.) I very much wanted to be Lessa, with psychic powers, a dragon and a tall, dark, handsome man.

With all due respect for its age (same as mine–1968),there was a lot of disturbing, disappointing stuff in there. Lessa is supposed to be a strong female heroine, yet she is both a virgin and unknowing when her dragon goes into heat, and she ends up having sex for the first time with a dragonrider. Further, that dragonrider was having sex with others, won’t share his affection for her, only his frustration, often shakes her physically, and notes that without the dragons involved, their sharing a bed “might as well be rape.” Well, if the shoe fits, and all, then maybe it is.

During the book, Lessa has only one conversation with another woman (unless you count her dragon, and I don’t), and it’s about home economics, so hardly forward-thinking stuff. Women play a subordinate, domestic role in society, and the men are portrayed as polygamous. And while Lessa and F’lar are perhaps almost three dimensional, none of the other characters are. The women are either matrons or sluts, and the men are either loyal or stupid.

Re-reading this book was a curious mix of old joy and current discomfort. I loved this book when I was a geeky, hormonal teen, but find it problematic today. I probably would not recommend it to anyone, much less a young girl, who deserves a book with a strong female character who is friends with other strong female characters, and not subject to the physical and psychological manipulation of men.

I’m having a hard time thinking of a YA or YA fantasy book that has this, though. Even ones that are better about the psycho-sexual relations between the sexes (or within one) usually have the young girl as a loner, and not friends with anyone with whom she talks about things other than boys. What books am I forgetting here, readers?

“The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition” by Anne Frank

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Inspired by reading friends at In Our Study, I recently read Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife. I thought it was a fascinating, compelling close reading of Anne Frank’s life and her diary, which in turn made me excited to read/re-read The Diary of a Young Girl.

I remember reading it at age 10, in grade 5, for a book report about a famous person*. I think I’d read it before that, at least once. I loved Anne’s diary. I related to her, and it helped me learn more about the Holocaust and WWII**. Her beginning resonated then and now:

June 12, 1942: I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support…

June 14, 1942: I’ll begin from the moment I got you, the moment I saw you lying on the table among my other birthday presents.

What I read then was not the same book I just read, though. Anne did keep a diary, in fact many volumes of them, now referred to as the “a” diary. Near the end of their time in the secret annex, a politician on the radio encouraged those in hiding to document their experiences. Anne went back to the beginning of her diary and began an edited version, now known as the “b” diary. After the war, her father Otto Frank took both documents (which had, against all odds, survived) and combined them into what’s called the “c” version. This is what I read as a girl, and the version most people know. The Definitive Edition is more recent, and restores many deleted passages from the a diary, especially ones dealing with sexuality and Anne’s difficult relationship with her mother.

Reading Prose’s book, and then reading Anne’s diary as an adult, gave me a vaster appreciation of the diary as a book. Anne wanted to be a journalist and to publish her writing. At the ages of 13 to 15, when she was writing the diary, she already showed immense facility with storytelling, characterization, humor and emotion. The diary is the work of a skilled, maturing writer. If you haven’t read Anne’s diary, or haven’t read it in years, I highly recommend The Definitive Edition.

*For the book report, we had to dress as our character. I remember I picked out a plaid skirt and tried to style my hair like Anne’s on the cover of the book. Another student in my class, named Peter and on whom I had a crush (as Anne did on two boys named Peter in her diary) also presented that day. His subject, whom he dressed as? Hitler.

**I learned about the Holocaust and WWII when I was about 7 years old from, of all things, a comic book from a Christian bookstore. It was an adaptation of Corey Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and I found it while my mother was shopping for other things. She bought it for me and I read it to tatters.

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” by Stieg Larsson

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

I turned the English version of Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest down once, when a friend offered to lend it to me while I was in the midst of a bunch of other books. But the next time around, when it was released stateside in late May, I couldn’t resist. I found a $16 copy at Target and went with with it.

For those of you who missed it, or skipped it because of length, I recommend the New York Times Magazine’s “The Afterlife of Stieg Larsson” that ran just before the US release of the third Millennium book.

I’m not sure if it matters if I give a review here, is it? You’re either going to read it or skip it depending on your experience with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What I found was a slower book than its two predecessors. That said, I enjoyed it. It’s less of the third in a trilogy than a completion and continuation of The Girl Who Played with Fire, the ending of which was less than completely satisfying.

Who lives, who dies, who gets away and who gets arrested in the wake of the events at the end of Fire are revealed at the beginning. I don’t think I’m giving much away if I say that Lisbeth Salander lives, am I? She’s confined to the hospital when charges are brought against her for many assaults, while in the background a gigantic conspiracy and cover up is under way. To the rescue is white knight Mikael Blomkvist, beloved by women, who has to figure out what’s going on so Salander can get her name cleared. Multiple plots are up in the air, some more compelling than others. Hatred and violence against women are again a theme, but not as gruesome and graphic as in the previous books. Unlike the last book, though, this one finishes with a satisfying denouement and few hanging threads, a relief since Larsson died shortly after handing in the manuscripts for the trilogies. Good, satisfying, didn’t leave me hungering for more. Not ohmigod-I-loved-it good, but few things are, right?

So, is it worth buying in hardcover? Only at a discount, I’d say. Since it’s a bestseller, the discounts are impressive right now. You might not want to wait, as the discounts will likely lessen as time goes on, and you’re at risk of spoilers from those who have read the book. The hardcover discounted 40% costs about as much as the full-price trade paperback will when it’s released. And the wait lists at the libraries were staggering a year ago; I shudder to think what they look like now.

“A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

I’m a snob, so I’m always wary of the label “Oprah’s Book Club.” But I actually find her magazine pleasant to flip through. A book-group friend liked Oprah’s favorite books of the decade list, and picked Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth for our next meeting. When I began to read, I felt wary, too. It felt very self-help-y and new-age-y.

Is humanity ready for a transformation of consciousness, an inner flowering so radical and profound that compared to it the flowering of plants, no matter how beautiful, is only a pale reflection?

I put my suspicion aside, and read on. And I really appreciated what I found. Tolle writes that the basis of much pain and suffering comes from the ego. Once we can recognize that, we can break free and be on the way to who we truly are.

Knowing yourself goes far deeper than the adoption of a set of ideas or beliefs. Spiritual ideas and beliefs may at best be helpful pointers, but in themselves they rarely have the power to dislodge the more firmly established core concepts of who you think you are, which are part of the conditioning of the human mind. Knowing yourself deeply has nothing to do with whatever ideas are floating around in your mind. Knowing yourself is to be rooted in Being, instead of lost in your mind.

This is by no means a fun, fast read. But it is rich and thought provoking, especially for those of us who have trouble settling the mind, or quashing unkind thoughts. At the fear of overstatement, I think this could be a life-changing book, even if just in small positive ways. And which of us couldn’t benefit from that?

“The Lost City of Z” by David Grann

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

June’s selection for the Books and Bars club is The Lost City of Z by New Yorker writer David Grann. Grann, like many before, him, became obsessed with the mysterious 1925 disappearance of Amazon explorer Percy W Fawcett:

…his name was known throughout the world. He was one of the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. For nearly two decades, stories of his adventures had captivated the public’s imagination…

Grann’s story reads like fiction. Fawcett becomes obsessed with finding a lost civilization he’s named Z. He’s secretive about his trips, and on his last one disappears, along with his son and son’s friend. Interspersed with Fawcett’s story (and already knowing the broad strokes of the end of it) are the beginning of Grann’s–how he got involved in the story, and how it became so important he “had” to go to the Amazon to see for himself what might have happened. (In the rainy season, no less. I would have thought he’d learned something from all the tragic narratives.)

The details of early 20th century Amazonian expeditions are fascinating and harrowing. “These men must be crazy,” I thought, as did Grann, until he became so involved that he couldn’t, wouldn’t extract himself. An thumping good read of two men’s obsessions, with enough answers at the end to be satisfying enough.

“Howard’s End is on the Landing” by Susan Hill

Monday, May 17th, 2010

My friend A of New Century Reading and I have a semi-regular book swap going now. We lend each other books with overlong library queues, or, in the case of Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing, ones that are otherwise not easily available.

I think it was at Pages Turned that I first read about this book, and knew I must read it, then was stunned to find it not at the library, as it’s not (yet) published in the US. I successfully fought down the “WANT IT NOW!” urge to buy it from some site I’ve forgotten the name of (probably for the best) that sells international books for only $25 and no shipping or something, and was thrilled to find that A. had a copy.

Hill is an English author. One day while looking in her shelves for a book she knew she owned, she instead found many unread books, and many more that she had formerly loved and wanted to re-read. Like I’ve done many times, she made a book vow. Unlike me, though, she kept it (or if she slipped, she didn’t admit it in the book.) Hers was to only read from her shelves for a year.

The journey through my own books involved giving up buying new ones, and that will seem a perverse act for someone who is both an author and a publisher…

I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read…

There is no doubt that of the thousands of new books published every year many are excellent and some will stand the test of time. A few will become classics. But I wanted to stand back and let the dust settle on everything new, while I set off on a journey through my books.
(p. 2, 3)

The book is both an autobiography of the author’s literary life, including numerous encounters with famous figures in literature. At times I found the name dropping tiresome. But the book overall so engaged me that, like a friend, I accepted it on its merits, which are many. Hill loosely chronicles her year and the books she reads. All of those she writes about are re-reads of favorites, like those of Iris Murdoch or Elizabeth Bowen, or a defense of oft-maligned former favorites, like those by Enid Blyton and Anthony Trollope. She didn’t write about reading any books from her shelves that were new-to-her, however long they’d been sitting.

Hill writes clearly and with affection, both of the books she admires and the people she’s known. Many of the authors she mentioned I knew, but many I didn’t. Reading this was like spending several afternoons in the company of a bookish, learned friend. It reminded me pleasantly of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. (Heavens, was that really almost four years ago?) The major downside to both of those, though? Now there are so many more authors I want to explore, beyond those already sitting on my shelves.

“The Man in the Wooden Hat” by Jane Gardam

Friday, May 14th, 2010

A companion book to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat returns to the characters of Edward Feathers, nicknamed Filth because of his success abroad (it’s an acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong) and his soon-to-be wife Elisabeth, or Betty.

Told mostly from Betty’s point of view, the book often veers into different storytelling styles, such as that of a play script, or into omniscient awareness. All this is handled with such authorial facility by Gardam, though, that it’s not intrusive, but impressive and entertaining.

Old Filth was mostly Edward’s story, and this one is largely Betty’s.

“Yes, I will,” the girl was saying in the shabby hotel in the back street, and street music playing against the racket of the mah-jong players on every open stone balcony. The overhead fan was limp and fly-spotted. On the beds were 1920s scarlet satin counterpanes with ugly yellow flowers done in stem stitch. They must have survived the war. Old wooden shutters clattered. There was the smell of the rotting lilies heaped in a yard below. Betty was alone, her friend Lizzie out somewhere, thank goodness. Betty would have hated not to be alone when she read Edward’s letter. What lovely handwriting. Rather a shame he’d used his Chambers writing paper. She wondered how many rough drafts he’d made first. Transcripts. He was wedded to transcripts. This was meant to be kept.

And she would. She’d keep it for ever. Their grandchildren would leave it the to a museum as a memento of the jolly old dead.

Eddie Feathers? Crikey! He does sound a bit quaint. (Would you consider our being married, Elisabeth?) Not exactly Romeo. More like Mr. Knightley, though Mr. Knightley had a question mark about him. Forty-ish and always off to London alone. Don’t tell me that Emma was his first. I’m wandering. I do rather wish Eddie wasn’t so perfect. But of course I’ll marry him. I can’t think of a reason not to.

She kissed the letter and put it down her shirt.

It takes many of the events from the previous book and adds dimension and further perspective on them, though it goes a bit beyond the ending of the first, which is interesting (and again, rather authorially daring), given the timeline of events.

As with Old Filth and the story collection in which he appeared, The People on Privilege Hill, I was delighted to enter this world and spend time with these rich, wonderful, deep characters again. I laughed and cried. I was both eager and reluctant to finish the book. And I look forward to reading more by Gardam. And many thanks to my friend Thalia for lending me Jane Gardam so many years ago, or I might not have read these books that I have so very much loved.

“Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel Await Your Reply, was on several year-end best-of lists, including Entertainment Weekly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Publisher’s Weekly. Thus it took rather a while for it to work its way down the queue to me at the public library. At which point I tore through it in 3 days.

The novel is told in alternating chapters from three unconnected points of view: Ryan, a college dropout; Lucy, an orphaned 18yo from Ohio; and Miles, who has spent the majority of his adult life searching for his schizophrenic, brilliant, obsessed twin brother Hayden. Though it ranges as far afield as Africa and northern Canada, the book and its characters are decidedly midwestern US, where the characters were raised or are living: Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois. Early on, I flipped back to Chaon’s bio. His description of central Ohio, where I grew up, was so uncannily accurate I knew he had to have a connection there. Sure enough, he’s a professor at Oberlin College.

Each of the characters is struggling with identity, in both real-life and theoretical senses. Ryan, Miles and Lucy struggle to figure out who they are, especially in relation to others around them.

It pulled me in immediately, and kept me engaged all the way through:

We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says.
Listen to me, Son;
You are not going to bleed to death.

Ryan is still aware enough that his father’s words come in through the edges like sunlight on the borders of a window shade. His eyes are shut tight and his body is shaking and he is trying to hold up his left arm, to keep it elevated. We are on our way to the hospital, his father says, and Ryan’s teeth are chattering, he clenches and unclenches them, and a series of wavering colored lights–greens, indigos–plays along the surface of his closed eyelids.

On the sea beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.

It’s a thriller about identity theft in the information age. But it’s also excellently written, deeply characterized, well-plotted literary novel. This reminded me of Big Machine by Victor Lavalle, one of my favorite books from 2009, and Memento, the film by Christopher Nolan. Highly recommended.