Archive for the '15 Books, 15 Days, 15 Blogs 2010' Category

15 of 15: “Asterios Polyp” by David Mazuchelli

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

I did it! I finished 15 books in 15 days! Woot! And for those of you attempting this folly with me, thank you. For those of you reading along, thank you. For my family, who were even more neglected than usual, thank you.

I encourage everyone who participated in this project to comment. By everyone, I mean those who read 15, those who tried, those who considered it, and those who just read the reviews. What was your favorite, or least favorite? How many books did you move off your TBR shelves? What’s the biggest insight you take away?

And now, last but definitely not least, #15: Asterios Polyp. David Mazzuchelli was the artist/collaborator with Frank Miller on two of my favorite superhero graphic novels, Daredevil: Born Again, and Batman: Year One. Both are classics, and good examples of superhero books for those who dismiss superheroes. Asterios Polyp is Mazzuchelli’s first solo work, and it’s a masterful one. Having just finished it, I look forward to reading it again. It also made me want to read The Odyssey; few books have that power.

Asterios of the title is an Updike-ish architect. Recently divorced, his apartment building is struck by lightning. He grabs three items and his wallet, and takes a bus to the middle of nowhere. The story alternates between the present, where he works as a mechanic in a small town, and the past, his marriage to the artist Hana. Throughout, the art and story focus on duality, yet together they achieve something that transcends either/or.

The art is highly stylized (formalistic, the reviews call it) as is the use of color, playing with variations on cyan, magenta and yellow. Each character has their own font, as well as their own art style. The many layers of artistic variation are dizzying but exhilarating.

Asterios Polyp was just awarded the first-ever LA Times Book Prize for Graphic Novels. For more reviews, check out those from

New York Times
Scott McCloud
Entertainment Weekly
The Comics Journal

And, to sum up my 15/15/15 reading: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; Shakespeare Wrote for Money; Eats, Shoots and Leaves; Mercury; Chocolate War; Unwritten; Ex Machina: Dirty Tricks; Buffy: Retreat; This is Water; Desperate Characters; Borrowed Finery; The Slave Dancer; Stitches; The Catnappers; Asterios Polyp.

favorite book read: can’t pick just one! Asterios Polyp, Stitches, Catnappers, Slave Dancer, Chocolate War
least favorite books read: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Retreat and Ex Machina: Dirty Tricks
# of books out of 15 moved off TPR shelves: 14, 5 of which had been there over a year
lesson learned: do this in winter next time–late December or early January
next book: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
book on deck: Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
next book project: Baroque Summer

14 of 15: “The Catnappers” by P.G. Wodehouse

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Inspired by two of my fellow travelers on the 15/15/15 challenge, Farheen and Jessica, I took a Wodehouse book, The Catnappers, off the shelf. I’ve watched the Jeeves and Wooster series, but never yet read the stories or books. It was past time. I chose The Catnappers, which my friend Queenie lent me ages ago, because it was the shortest one I had. This was the last Jeeves and Wooster book, so I worried I’d miss something, but continuity is not important.

“Jeeves,” I said at the breakfast table, “I’ve got spots on my chest.”

“Indeed, sir?”


“Indeed, sir?”

I don’t like them.”

“A very understandable prejudice, sir. Might I inquire if they itch?”

“Sort of.”

“I would not advocate scratching them.”

“I disagree with you. You have to take a firm line with spots.”

A doctor tells Bertie to rest in the country. He retreats to the village of Maiden Eggesford, but finds anything but peace. Lovers are torn apart, then brought together. Mistakes happen, and are compounded upon. Bertie is gallant but dim. Jeeves is unflappable and clever. Aunt Dahlia is imperious. Other people are odd and crazy.

This was a very cheering read, especially given the dark nature of some of my more recent books. I’ll have to remember that for the next time I’m feeling blue; Jeeves and Wooster would be great antidotes.

13 of 15: “Stitches” by David Small

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

As I barrel on in my 15/15/15 project, I finally picked up Stitches, a comic-book memoir by David Small, reviewed as one of the best graphic novels of last year. David is six when the story begins. There’s a lovely, long series of tracking illustrations through Detroit into David’s living room where he’s drawing, then we meet his family. Each expresses emotion without words. Mother bangs pots. Father hits a punching bag. Brother bangs a drum set. And David? He gets sick.

At six, David has sinus problems. His radiologist father treats him with X-rays, not uncommon at the time. At eleven, David has a lump on his neck. Surgery is recommended, but somehow the family puts it off for three and a half years. The aftermath of the surgery, and the series of revelations that follow are terribly sad and often horrifying.

Small’s minimalist art and black and white watercolor palette help make this tale not only readable, but engaging. There are many powerful wordless sequences from a child’s perspective, some true, others imaginary. Like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, with which this book shares more than a few similarities, the existence of the book and the ability of the artist to write it point to hope and redemption in the face of a harrowing family life.

12 of 15: “The Slave Dancer” by Paula Fox

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

For those of you following along in the 15/15/15 challenge, my 12th book was Paula Fox’s Newbery Medal winning The Slave Dancer. I hadn’t intended to read it again, but after Desperate Characters and Borrowed Finery, it just made sense (plus it’s really short).

I first read it a few years ago and was stunned by the power of the writing and story, and disappointed that I hadn’t read it as a child. I later read an online review by someone who wrote not only did they not like it, they thought it was poorly written. That assessment has nagged at me ever since*, so I wanted to go back and see if my opinion of the book had changed. It hasn’t.

Jessie Bollier is a 13yo boy in 1840 New Orleans, kidnapped into service on a slave transport ship because he knows how to play a fife. As he gets his sea legs, Jessie gets to know the crew, and in the process begins to see his first glimmer of how complex human nature and relations are. Purvis, who kidnapped him, is funny and helpful with advice. Another man, Stout, is superficially kind, but inconsistent. Once the ship reaches Africa and takes on its live cargo of slaves, Jessie’s awareness is pushed even further, as he’s forced to play his fife to “dance” the slaves as they get periodic exercise on the ship.

The truth came slowly like a story told by people interrupting each other. I was on a ship engaged in an illegal venture, and Captain Cawthorne was no better than a pirate.

At first, these hard facts had been clouded over by the crew’s protestations that the sheer number of ships devoted to the buying and selling of Africans was so great that it canceled out American laws against the trade–”nothing but idle legal chatter,” Stout remarked, “to keep the damned Quakers from sermonizing the whole country to death.

The slimness of the book belies the heavy themes it holds. Fox’s clear, spare writing conveys Jessie’s terror, horror and dawning knowledge of the depths of human cruelty. There are certain things–the occasional kindness of others to Jessie, beautiful days at sea, moments of connection with others–that keep the reader from drowning utterly in the frequently gruesome history this book relates. Highly recommended for adults and older children.

*As I read more, and write more, and read more writing about reading, I find no books universally loved or hated. I often have disliked very popular, well-received books. But the line between “I didn’t like it” and “It isn’t a good book/It’s poorly written” is a big one to cross. I’ve dared to sometimes, and regretted it later. I’ve also learned, for myself, that sometimes if I don’t like a book, I’m not yet a skilled and discerning enough read to get it. To borrow a phrase, I’ll keep coming back, and perhaps have another, different experience with that writer or book in the future.

What have you read, and what did you think of it?

11 of 15: “Borrowed Finery” by Paula Fox

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Book 11 in my 15 project was by Paula Fox, like yesterday’s. Soon after her adult novels came back into print, Paula Fox wrote a memoir of her girlhood, Borrowed Finery. Having read some of her books, I wasn’t surprised to find her childhood wasn’t a happy one. Fox writes with a minimalist style that manages to convey the emotion of a child and the insight of an adult. Her writing is seemingly effortless, crafted in such a way that it’s easy to read, yet echoes long in the head and the heart.

Fox is abandoned by her parents as a baby:

By chance, by good fortune, I had landed in the hands of rescuers, a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe…

For a very short period of my infancy, I had belonged in that house with that family…

I was five months old when the minister, hearing of my presence in Washingtonville and the singular way I had arrived, an event that had ruffled the nearly motionless, pondlike surface of village life–and knowing the uncertainty of my future, for the Boards, like most of their neighbors in those years, were poor–came by one Sunday to look at me. I was awake in the crib. I might have smiled up at him. In any event, I aroused his interest and compassion. He offered to take me

Her description of early childhood with the minister, whom she called Uncle Elwood, is idyllic, and marred only by the periodic correspondence of her parents. Later, out of guilt, duty, or a combination, Paula meets her father, then her mother. Over the next dozen years, she is bounced from them to relatives and friends and around again from NYC to Cuba to Florida to California. Throughout, her mother is a chilly presence, and her father is a maddening one, “part ally, part betrayer”.

Fox’s tale is a fascinating one, including frequent brushes with celebrity. Underneath, though, is the tragedy of a girl with rootless, careless parents who rarely gets a dress of her own, instead always surviving with hand-me-downs. Sparingly written and evocative, this book captivated me to the end, where she gives up a child for adoption*, and reminded me of Mary Carr’s excellent memoir The Liar’s Club.

(This overview of Fox’s work and life, includes the startling fact that the daughter Fox gave up for adoption went on to have a very famous daughter, Courtney Love.)

10 of 15: “Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox

Monday, April 26th, 2010

For those of you reading along in the 15 project, my 10th book (yay, 2/3 done!) was Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, which has been on my shelf since March of 2002, according to the receipt inside it. I think I’d just read Fox’s Slave Dancer, winner of the 1974 Newbery Medal, and been blown away by its story and the skill of the writing, and wanted to check out her writing for adults; Desperate Characters had just come back into print.

Otto and Sophie Bentwood are a 40ish childless couple living in Brooklyn in the late 60’s. Their neighborhood is covered in trash, and their backyard overlooks the slums. They don’t like or understand the children of their friends. On a Friday night, before a party, Sophie tried to feed a stray cat, and is bitten for her trouble. The bite and the pain of it carry through the weekend, and this close-up snapshot of a particular place and time.

Fox’s prose is amazingly crafted, and conveys much with few words.

When Otto came home, he discovered Sophie off in a corner of the living room, sitting in a formal chair no one ever sat in, stippled with light and shadow. Her silence and the dining room table set for dinner, which he glimpsed through the living room doors, looked like a set piece arranged for some purpose that had subsequently been forgotten. He had the impression she was weeping without sound, and that perhaps the elements of this forlorn scene had been contrived for his benefit, a domstic lesson that was to elicit from him an apology. (93)

This is a beautifully written book, full of metaphor and portents, that delves deep into its characters. Otto and Sophie are among the desperate characters of the title, yet they’re complicated–not entirely pathetic, yet not entirely likable, either. It’s not a cheerful read, but neither is it a dire one. It is, though, quite rewarding.

9 of 15: “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Moving along in my 15 project has suddenly gotten harder. One of my book groups is reading Cutting for Stone, which _I_ recommended, while not knowing it’s 650 pages, and that it would overlap the 15/15/15 project. Plus a long-awaited and probably not-short book has finally arrived at the library. D’oh. So I find myself needing to read more than one book at a time if I’m to finish the book-group book and still keep up my book a day. Oh, these self-imposed boundaries.

Book 9 was the slight but powerful This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Signficant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, a graduation address given by the late David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.

The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre…but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be.

I am not the wise old fish.

It’s a book to give a graduate, or anyone who is making a big life change, or anyone feeling very depressed. Like all of Foster’s work, it’s smart, moving, real and full of human kindness. It’s also terribly, terribly sad. There are three different pages that touch on avoiding suicide, which Foster in the end couldn’t manage. He died in 2008. I miss him.

8 of 15: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: v. 6 Retreat”

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

For those reading along in the 15/15/15 project, the 8th book means we’re more than halfway there! My 8th book was a huge disappointment. It’s the 6th graphic novel collection, Retreat, of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book series, which has been written sometimes, and overseen always, by Joss Whedon, who referred to it as season 8.

I’ve tried hard to like it, and to find the good things about this series, because I have a huge affection for the Buffy television series, even if I thought seasons 6 and 7 were poorly executed (barring “Once More with Feeling”, the notable exception).

The comic-book series posits that there is now an army of slayers, spread around the world, training in unison against the forces of darkness. There’s also a big bad, named Twilight, who’s gunning for Buffy and her army of slayers. In “Retreat” the Twilight army keeps getting closer because they can track magic and power. Buffy and the Scooby gang head to Tibet to look up an old friend who might have something to say about using less magic and less power.

Penned by Jane Espenson, a Buffy scribe from the later seasons, this story was a mess. The humor was infrequent and unfunny. The art was hard to read; I often couldn’t tell which character was which, and if it wasn’t a close-up, the details were, literally, sketchy. The threats weren’t threatening, the relationships didn’t have depth, and while it ended on a mysterious cliff hanger, the bottom of the page had the audacity to read “The End”. I don’t care to find out what happens next. I’ll leave the character of Buffy in mid air (really) and be done with this series.

7 of 15: “Ex Machina: Dirty Tricks” by Brian K. Vaughan

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Sorry for the delay in posting this; I had it scheduled for 12:01 am, and instead saved it as a draft? Ah, well, I was tired from staying up for the Project Runway finale.

For those joining me on the 15/15/15 Project, book 7 was the graphic novel collection Ex Machina: Dirty Tricks.

I stopped reading the Ex Machina comic book monthly because the story moved too slowly for me. Even waiting for the graphic novel collection didn’t help here. Ex Machina is about Mitchell Hundred, who had an accident that enabled him to communicate with all machines. He used that to fight crime, then retired and ran for mayor of New York. This collection, the 8th in the series, is about a former fan of his who turned copycat. The art is provocative, and felt cheap and salacious. The story didn’t move the series forward in any significant way. This is the penultimate collection of the series. I will definitely buy the last book to see how it ends, but this one was disappointing.

What did you read, and what did you think of it?

6 of 15: “Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity” by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

For those joining me on the 15/15/15 Project, book 6 was the graphic novel collection Unwritten by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross.

Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity
is the first collection of a new comic-book series, recommended by C and my friend Blogenheimer on a recent trip to the comic shop. As Bill Willingham, the author of Fables, writes in his laudatory introduction, it’s part of a relatively newish movement in comics to something he calls the LAF triumvirate: Literature-based, Animal, and Fairy Tale fantasy. This new book sits squarely in the company of Willingham’s own Fables, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. For this geek, that’s a good thing.

Tom Taylor is the son of a famous fantasy writer, Wilson Taylor. Wilson wrote 13 books about a magical kid named Tommy Taylor. (All similarities to Harry Potter are deliberate.) Most fans assume that Tom was the model for Tommy, and it’s he who makes the fantasy convention circuit, as Wilson disappeared, or perhaps deserted Tom, many years ago. Tom wants to be a regular guy, but the shadow cast from his father’s book is long. It gets longer when Tom’s identity as Wilson’s son is called into question. Things get stranger when he’s kidnapped by someone claiming to be Tommy’s nemesis from the books.

Unwritten explores the boundary between what is story and what is real, and the relation of writers to their stories. There’s fascinating stuff going on here–postmodern literature, fantasy, and horror. This first volume lays the foundation for what feels to be a big, complex, sprawling story. I look forward to the next installment, and am not sure I’m going to wait for the collection; I may need to buy the individual issues.

As for the 15/15/15 project, it’s turning out to be harder than I’d hoped it would be to read and blog each day. I enjoy it, but it’s requiring some creative prioritizing as I go.

What did you read, and what did you think of it?

5 of 15: “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Book 5 in my 15/15/15 project will be The Chocolate War, the young-adult classic by Robert Cormier, when I finish it…

Later: I’m now finished reading Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, which I should have read as a young adult, and am glad now to have rectified that oversight.

Cormier was one of the avant garde in the young-adult fiction arena. He wrote complex, dark tales that featured young-adult protagonists. These books appealed to adults, but also to teens in search of more gritty fare than the boy adventures and girl romances that were the norm for the era. Reading Cormier again (here are my reviews of I Am the Cheese and All Fall Down), I’m reminded of how thin many modern YA books feel to me. The Chocolate War is short but dense, with complex characters and emotional shadings. The Newbery-Award winning When You Reach Me was very good, but didn’t mine nearly the depth that this YA classic did, in my opinion.

Jerry Renault is a freshman at a private Catholic day school in New England. He hopes to make the football team, and is struggling emotionally in the wake of his mother’s death from cancer. Archie Costello is the psychologically savvy leader of an underground group called The Vigils. Archie creates and assigns tasks to new recruits, and coordinates the actions of members as he likes. Brother Leon is the interim head of the school who buys 20,000 boxes of cut-rate chocolate for the school fund raiser and uses various means and methods to make sure it all sells. Leon and Archie are frightening characters; they’re smart and powerful. So when skinny little Renault protests, it’s clear bad things will happen. And they do, though not without the characters learning a great deal of unpleasant truth about one another.

Cormier skillfully creates and deftly characterizes an impressively large cast. The opening sentence sets the tone, and the author doesn’t flinch from it:

They murdered him.

He also places great trust and power in the reader. Not all questions are answered in the end, and while many conflicts come to a climax, few end neatly. This book brought to mind any number of other classics on the culture of secondary school, peer pressure, and the violence of crowds, not least of which was its homage to the myth of the death of Jesus. Powerful, sobering, provocative, The Chocolate War deeply impressed me.

What are you reading? Share your books and reviews in the comments.I’m not sure spring is the best time for this project–winter would probably be better for more indoor, inner-focus time. But I’ll plug away. I figured this would be an attempt, not a done deal.

4 of 15: “Mercury” by Hope Larson

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The 4th in my 15/15/15 project is Mercury, a young adult graphic novel by Hope Larson.

I picked up Mercury as soon as I saw it in the comic shop last week. I’ve liked all three of Larson’s previous books, Grey Horses, Salamander Dream,and Chiggers. As do those books, Mercury has sympathetic and emotionally complex young girls, struggling with friendship and identity with a dash of magical realism thrown in.

In modern day Nova Scotia, Tara Fraser moves back the the town she and her family used to live in, before her parents split up and their house burnt down. She stays with her aunt and cousins and is returning to 10th grade, a few years after she left. The town, her burned-down home, and the school, are all both familiar and yet new to her.

Tara’s story alternates with that of her lookalike ancestor, Josey Fraser. Josey’s family lived in 1859 on the same farm, in the same house that burned down in Tara’s life. She’s a young teen when a handsome stranger named Asa Curry comes to their farm, claiming he’s looking for gold. Asa grows close to Josey, then he and Josey’s father find gold, all under the suspicious eyes of Josey’s mother. When things go bad, a series of events unfolds that echo mystically through the years to Tara’s time.

I really enjoyed seeing the parallels and contrasts in Josey and Tara’s life, as well as learning about some of the Scottish-Canadian historical myths of the region. Larson’s story and art easily capture the wide range of emotion in a teen’s life, from joy to anxiety, and it’s easy to sympathize with her characters as they try to make peace with their mothers and find love on their own. I enjoyed the magical realism, but could see how some might argue it’s not necessary. I think it gives an additional layer and a distinction to the story that made it stand out from other young-adult coming-of-age tales.

3 of 15: “Eats, Leaves and Shoots” by Lynne Truss

Monday, April 19th, 2010

If you’re trying to finish 15 books in 15 days with me for the 15/15/15 project, put your book and link in the comments.

On day three, I didn’t pull it off. My third book finished WILL by Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. When I finish it, which I hope will be later today. Yesterday got a bit overstuffed. Review to come!

(In my defense, I am not finding this book as fast or fun a read as I had hoped.)

M at Mental Multivitamin had a very good idea, which is to finish 15 books over the 15 days that were in progress. She wondered whether I’d “allow” that or not. Sounds good to me.

I finished Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss, and have to leave for the bus stop to pick up 6yo Drake in 15 minutes, so I’m going to do this quickly.

I wish Truss’ book had been more of a quick read. Her book on punctuation that exhorts “Sticklers unite!” was longer than it needed to be, e.g., 2 pages of acks + 4 pages of Foreward + 1 page Publisher’s Note + 11 pages of Preface + 34 pages of Introduction. That’s 52 pages before the book even begins! Had this book been more the size of Strunk and White’s , I would have preferred it.

She bewails the current state of punctuation ignorance, offers many examples, and then has a chapter on each major punctuation mark. There is a lot to like about the book. Truss has a good sense of humor, and I often laughed out loud. She’s done her research, much of which was fascinating, and some of which was news to me. In the end, though, I found she was sometimes preaching to the converted, because who else is going to read this book other than people who tend to be sticklers about punctuation? And while I could relate to some of her stickler-ism, at other times I wanted to back away from her slowly, as her crazy was just too much for me.

I’m going to change exactly none of my punctuation habits because of this book. I use punctuation the way I think is right, and in a way I hope conveys meaning as simply and unfussily as possible. Truss notes that much of punctuation is personal style and preference, and that writing is always in flux. Thus the main point of her book seems to be a rant against people who misuse apostrophes, and I think we’re all pretty much in agreement on that already, right?

Clarifications: 15/15/15

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

If you’re reading along, at any pace, in the 15/15/15 project, visit when you’ve read and/or blogged the book, comment on the most recent 15/15/15 post, and include your link in the comment so others can see what you’re reading and what you think.

I’m going to try hard to reply to your comments, either in the comments, via email or at your blog, but probably can’t do them all. I _am_ however, reading them all.

And now, I’m off to read.

2 of 15: “Shakespeare Wrote for Money” by Nick Hornby

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Want to share in the 15/15/15 reading project? I’m going to try to finish a book a day till April 30, then blog about it the next day. If you’re interested, share what you’re reading and a link to your blog post so everyone can check it out. Join late? No problem. Can’t finish a book a day? Also, no problem. It’s about the books.

My second book for this project was Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money. I picked it up because of the title, but, leafing through, I became enamored enough to buy it. It’s the third and final collection of book columns Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) wrote for the Believer magazine. He begins by listing the books he’s acquired that month, then the books he’s actually read. Sometimes there’s a high correlation between the two, sometimes there’s not, as for the month of the World Cup finals.

Hornby is a clever, funny, likable guy, and reading his columns was like having a good chat about books with a friend who has far-reaching interests. The critique credo of the Believer is to say nice things about works or nothing at all. He mentions books he’s read and didn’t like, but only names names when he has good things to say. The columns are from 2006 to 2008, and I liked this prescient comment in his take on The Blind Side by Michael Lewis:

There is even a cheesy, never-say-die heroine, Oher’s adopted mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose extraordinary determination to look after a boy not her own is Christian in the sense too rarely associated with the American South. It would make a great movie, althought you’d need a lot of CGI to convince an audience of Michael Oher’s speed and size.

Other than predicting the popular success of the movie based on Lewis’ book and perhaps even Sandra Bullock’s Oscar, Hornby had another connection to a Best Picture contender this year; he wrote the screenplay for An Education, which he seems to hint at in one of the later essays.

One of my favorite parts of these essays was when he “discovered” young-adult fiction after he wrote a book for young adults. He was nicely abashed at all the good books he hadn’t known existed, and now championed:

I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.

I would definitely read the previous collections of this column, and am sad that it’s no longer going on. At least I got to be in on the end, however belatedly.

1 of 15: “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Finished on Friday, blogging for Saturday 4/16, this is the first of 15 books I hope to read over the next 15 days, or 15/15/15 for short. Post a comment on what you read, and a link if you have it.

Hailed by many as one of the best books of last year (Publishers Weekly, TIME, New Statesman, The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly, and The Economist), Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, had a long wait at the library. I was surprised when it didn’t make the short list for this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. Having read it, I suspect it was excluded because it was tonally similar to one of the other contenders, Wells Towers’ Everything Ravaged Everything Burned, which I read and admired, though can’t say I enjoyed. I feel similarly about this book.

Mueenuddin has written a collection of slightly linked short stories, each connecting in some way to the Harouni family in Pakistan. The stories focus on a wide range of characters: the wealthy Harounis, friends of theirs, servants of theirs, and others. Without exception the stories are beautifully written, with evocative language and complex characters.

That winter she had been in London for a wedding, not a close friend but the wedding of the season, the daughter of some bureaucrat who made a crooked pile on the privatization of a steel mill and couldn’t return to Pakistan because of cases against him in the National Accounyability Bureau–”nabbed,” as they called it, almost a mark of distinction. Late at night, after the mehndi, riding through London in someone’s hilarious car, she’d been in a bad accident. She woke at down in the hospital, severely concussed, and watched a rare snowfall from her bed, a thin drift on the sill, perceptibly gathering as the large flakes settled out of the gray first light and pressed against the window. She couldn’t remember anything at first, where she was, why she was there, sleeping all through the day, until it began to come back, but changed, the experiences of another person.

Also without exception, they are filled with tragedy and human cruelty, often with corruption mixed in as well. Any story that begins happily will take a turn. Most often, the turn occurs when one person acts wrongly toward another. The stories are an intricate portrait of a country in transition from feudalism to modernism. The growing pains are wrenching. I appreciate having read about Pakistan and spent some time in the minds of others, but am glad to be finished with the book. The wonders of the title are all too fleeting in the lives of the book’s characters.

ETA: If you don’t already, visit today’s Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, a wonderful gathering of readers.