Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May Round Up


Brief reviews of books I read in May...

The Tiger's Wife
This book got so much buzz that I was sure I would love it. And although I did like it...a lot!...I had some problems with it, too. This first novel, written by some ridiculously talented young author (seriously, she's 25), is set in a thinly veiled, post break-up Yugoslavia. The main character is a young doctor, Natalia, who learns that her beloved grandfather has died in a far away village across the new border. Why was he there and why didn't he tell anyone where he was traveling? The novel is made up of alternating chapters: some about Natalia's quest to discover where he was going; in other chapters she shares two beautiful folktales that were stories from her grandfather.

One of the folktales is about The Deathless Man, a man who can literally not die no matter if he is shot, drowned, etc. The Deathless Man can look at the remnants of coffee grounds in your cup and tell you when you are about to die. The grandfather met this man at least twice, and appeared to be looking at the time of his death. Honestly, he reminded me of the narrator of The Book Thief. The second folktale the Grandfather tells her is about The Tiger's Wife. She was a deaf-mute woman from his childhood home. She was abused by her husband and her only companion is a wild tiger that lives in the nearby woods. These two stories are magical and entertaining, but they are also completely formed and beautifully realized. I loved reading those chapters.

I guess my problem is actually with that structure of the novel. The conceit, the granddaughter tells these family stories, is just a little too thin. Natalia, like her grandfather, was a doctor. And yet there are all these chapters where she talks about how she went back to the village and interviewed people and learned these stories. When exactly did she have the time to hone these masterful storytelling skills? She not only knows the secrets of the villagers, but also of these mythical characters. Something about it just doesn't quite fit. The switch from Natalia the narrator to omniscient narrator can be jarring at times. Ultimately, the A plot: why was her Grandfather in the faraway village, just isn't strong enough to hang the B and C plots (Deathless Man/Tiger's Wife) on. It feels unbalanced.

Is it a dealbreaker? No. I enjoyed the book tremendously. It's a beautiful meditation on death, destruction, and separation: When your fight has purpose -- to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent -- it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling -- when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event -- there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

Dead Reckoning
Okay, so this was a disappointing outing for Sookie and company. First of all, the main plot was a dud: who is responsible for the firebombing of Merlotte's? There's absolutely NO urgency to solving this mystery whatsoever. It happens, but no one really seems to care, and once the mystery is revealed, it's a total rehash of a previous villain. More importantly, nothing happens to move the main recurring plots forward: what is the future of Sookie and Eric? What will happen with the new King and his continued harassment of Eric and Pam? What's up with Bill? What will become of Sookie's relationships with the fairies? Is she really going to end up with Sam? This book just felt like filler. I guess Charlaine Harris is only going to write 13 Sookie books, and this is 11. I hope she's saving up the good stuff for the last 2. If you're still interested in reading it after that lackluster review (it's still Sookie!), I will mail it this week.

Succubus Dreams
This was courtesy of my delayed flight out of Orlando. I downloaded in the airport and read it on the plane. I really enjoy these books and want to say once again how proud of I am of myself for not rushing through and reading all of these all at once. I've been pacing myself to about one per month, and that's been nice. I don't really have much to say---I just enjoy the supernatural goodness, the paranormal romance, and the imaginary world she lives in. I also like the small clues about Georgina's past as the books progress. I wasn't that surprised to see her relationship with Seth hitting the rocks in this book. I really was struggling with that aspect of the books, to be honest. Who would put up with a girlfriend with that job? I'm sad for her, though.

Also, another fantastically cheesy cover. The great thing about the Kindle is that I can read stuff with these junky covers without feeling the least bit embarrassed!

Star Island
I picked this one up on the Borders Bender. I like Carl Hiaasen, whose novels are funny and interesting and light. He's written a series of YA novels that my students really love. One reason I picked it up off the pile was that since I was just in Florida, I thought it would be fun to read a book by a Florida author. It's always more interesting to read a book set in a place after you've been there! It was just what I needed as the end of school arrived. This is a thinly veiled retelling of a Lindsay Lohan type starlet. All of her handlers scheme, plot, and maneuver to keep themselves rolling in the money. It was a hoot. I'm sure I will forget it all in about 5 more minutes, but the closer I get to the end of school, the trashier the reading.

Sort of a light month for me, reading wise. But I've only got four more days of school, baby. Let the reading begin!


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Completed: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Dear Jenny,

I just... cannot. I can't. I'm sorry, but I can't review this book. When I first started reading it, I thought, "It's like Alice in Wonderland!" but halfway through, I thought, "No. It's like Twin Peaks."

So... could you review Twin Peaks? What would you say? I would say, "A bunch of crazy shit happens and you absolutely cannot look away." And that is my review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I tried reading other reviews of this book to get some inspiration to say more. Here are some of the phrases I found: "Original and bizarre." "Surreal and sprawling." "Page-turning." Yes, yes, and yes. Some people complain about not "getting it" and I don't know that I "got it," but I sure did enjoy it.

It's complex and kind of nuts and really amazingly woven together. As I rode the roller coaster, I was afraid the end wouldn't be satisfying, but... it was. Not in the way I expected it to be, but it was.

I sent you my paperback version, so I'm sure you'll burn through it at some point. Perhaps we can talk about it then and I can say more. In the meantime, I loved me some Twin Peaks, and I loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. While reading this book, I felt like I was inside of it and it was inside of me, which is my favorite way to feel about a book.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Completed: The Things They Carried


My interest in the novel was sparked by a short story by the same name. In that story, a 3rd person narrator follows a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam. The story give precise descriptions of the actual items the soldiers carry (boots, weapons, gear) and how much they weigh; at the same time, it's clear that it's the memories, fears, and dreams of the men that are much more "weighty." It's beautifully written and when I saw the novel in the recycling bin, I was excited to read the whole thing.

At this point, it feels like I should point out the other reason I'm interested: my Dad was a Marine in Vietnam. It's not something he talks about that much, but I want to know more. It's a very real part of my family story and I think that's the biggest reason for being drawn to the novel. In the past, my brother and I have talked about whether or not Vietnam changed my Dad. It's not something we can ever know, but this novel definitely answers that question with a resounding yes. War changes everyone.

The first chapter of the book is either the exact same, or perhaps expanded version of the short story. After it ends, there's a radical shift in tone. The novel switches to first person narration, and eventually the writer of these chapters is revealed to be a writer named Tim O'Brien. Only it's not really Tim O'Brien the author, it's more like his alter ego. Narrator Tim does 2 things in the book: tells stories about the war and its aftermath for the intrepid platoon introduced in the first chapter, and ruminates on the meaning and purpose of stories and storytelling. (Coincidentally, a major theme of the book my 7th graders are ending the year with, Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.) But here's the thing, Narrator Tim goes to great lengths to make sure we know that not a single story he tells in the novel is factually true.

I'm going to quote at length here, so forgive me, but it's really the fulcrum on which the whole text seems to rest:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, "Is it true?" and if the answer matters, you've got your answer.
For example, we've all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You'd feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it's just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen---and maybe it did, anything's possible---even then you know that it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blas, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do
that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead. That's a true story that never happened....
wasn't a war story. It was a love story.
But you can't say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting to get at the real truth...
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way the dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen." (85).

I spent a lot of time reading and rereading that section. Partly because the book really does mess with your mind as you're reading it. I want so badly for the narrator Tim to be the author Tim, but he's really pretty clear that they are not the same person. I think this is a clever trick of the text meant to illustrate the essential idea: Vietnam changes everyone. As a reader, this couldn't be more clear: you think you know what you are reading, but you don't. You think you know what is happening, but you don't. Nothing is as it seems.

My favorite chapter of the book is one called "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." In this chapter, one of the men in the Platoon, Mark Fossie, decides to bring over his girlfriend. He flies her from Cleveland, to Los Angeles, to Bangkok, to Saigon. Her name is Mary Anne Bell. She is beautiful and fresh, young and inexperienced, kind and curious. Eventually, Mary Anne starts to become a soldier. She goes out on missions, starts to wear a uniform and camouflages her true identity. One night, Mark can't find her. She's gone off on patrol with the Green Berets. Mark wants to send her back, but he other men tell him he's a fool. She's already gone. There was something so haunting about this chapter. This is what happened to all of them: they were young and green and inexperienced, and the war turned them into men and soldiers. Their innocence was gone. Why was it necessary to show this through a female character, though? The book often uses women as foils for the hardness of war. The presence of a woman signifies both positive traits, such as tenderness and mercy; but more negatively, women also symbolize benign neglect and soft-hearted stupidity.

The final chapter of the book takes another unexpected turn. In this chapter, Narrator Tim remembers back to his first crush. He loved a girl named Linda, a classmate of his when he was nine years old. She starts wearing a hat to school and the bullies pick on her; but she's been trying to hide the scars from her surgery. She has a brain tumor, and later that year, she dies. Narrator Tim looks back and recognizes that her death was the harbinger of what is to come: so many precious, young lives wasted with so little understanding of how or why those losses are necessary. It is just a sadness that must be borne, and only through telling stories is it possible to make those lost lives have meaning.

There's so many more powerful scenes and moments in this book. It's just so terrible and beautiful. I'm still reeling from it. It's amazing.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Joys of Airplane Reading


I'm stuck in Orlando. It has been beautiful---not a cloud in the sky for days! So, of course, it started to thunder and lightning the minute we got through security, followed by a chaser of hail. Nice.

This leads me to think about the joys of what I think most of the world refers to as "airplane reading." You know, the crappy mysteries and pulpy romances that are the standard fare of airport bookstands. (Of course, these days, I'm just as likely to peruse and then download to my Kindle.) It was in an airport that I picked up the first of the Millennium Series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

What is it about traveling that makes me more likely to read "trashy" books? Maybe it's just that it's so hard to concentrate in the airport itself, with all of the people, announcements, and commotion. I don't know. Either way, I'm stuck here now, and I'm thinking it's time to download something good and trashy.


Update: The trashy book I wanted was 14.99 on Kindle. Ridiculous! Now I'm just delayed and annoyed!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Kelly's Book 5: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Dear Jenny,

This is a book I got when I was in a book club years ago juuuuust as I realized, "You know what? Book club is not for me!" I don't read fast enough to be in a book club -- the idea that I am reading books that other people want to read with my limited reading time [and when I say "limited" here, I mean limited by my reading speed just as much as I mean limited by other life commitments] is just preposterous.

Having said that, there are a few books that I read in that book club that I never would have read on my own that I am glad that I did (Cloud Atlas, for one. Read it? Really good.) I think that I would have included this book in that short list, if I had stuck with it at the time. It seems really interesting so far. The bookmark indicates that I read about 60 pages back then, and I do remember liking it, but something kept me from finishing and it's definitely a book that you need to read continuously to keep everything straight (meaning: don't put it down for a week and expect to come back and pick up where you left off -- it will all be confusion by then.)

This is the first TBR book that I have also bought the Kindle edition of in our TBR Quest. (Tess doesn't count -- it was free!) This book is 600+ pages long and I knew I would not be able to finish it in a month if I did not have it with me at all times (meaning: on my phone). So I spent the 10 bucks and I've already read 60 pages, so the Kindle Power is working. Not sure if we ever determined whether or not this is "cheating," but I'm doin' it!

So far, I LOVE this book. I have no idea where it is going, but it is weird and random and that is right up my alley! :)


Monday, May 2, 2011

Completed: Love in the Time of Cholera

Dear Jenny,

I finished Love in the Time of Cholera a couple of weeks ago, but I've been lame about posting. For the most part, it was exactly what I expected from Gabriel García Márquez -- beautiful language describing well-drawn characters in a lush, epic story.

Generally, I loved this book, although I have a few issues. I was unsurprised by one annoying thing, surprised by one particular thing, and there's one thing that I flat-out despise (I won't go into details about it, as it's a spoiler and I figure you might read it, but I'll talk a little bit about it in vague terms).

Back-of-the-book Synopsis:
"In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermino Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs -- yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again."

Who's That Now?
The annoying thing that I was unsurprised by was my confusion keeping the character names straight. This issue was not nearly as bad as 100 Years of Solitude where, I swear, everyone shared 2 out of 3 of the same names (thank goodness for the guide in the front) but I did struggle for awhile with "Florentino Ariza" vs. "Fermina Daza". I know those names are not the same but, for me, they look a lot alike. Then I vaguely remembered some long-lost foreign language knowledge where "o" is masculine and "a" is feminine (right?) and I just keyed into the last letter in their first names. Things were better after that, but it's still kind of annoying to have to focus so much to figure out who we're talking about.

Okay. I was surprised by the sexy-ness. I shouldn't have been, because the back of the book clearly states that Florentino Ariza has 622 affairs while he is waiting for his "true" love, but I didn't think they were actually going to get into too much detail. I mean, it wasn't super-graphic, like anatomically or anything, but still... there were some moments where I thought, "Yeah. I can't really recommend this book to, say, my mother-in-law" (unless I warned her first: "It's kind of sex-y.") The sexy-ness didn't kill me -- I was just surprised by it.

And My Despise
There are some things about Florentino Ariza that I really found myself hating. First of all, that he was so darned oblivious that while he was "waiting" for his true love, he was actually falling in love with (and breaking the hearts of) (And! Having his heart broken by!) all of these scores of other women. (Seriously. Some of his affairs last 10+ years.) He justifies this, and the way that Gabriel García Márquez writes it all, you find yourself buying into his particular brand of justification (kind of like Tony Soprano -- his morals might not have been your morals [or what anyone would really call "moral"], but he had his own moral code that he adhered to, so it was all right). That one, I can forgive.

The other, however, I really struggled with. Again, no spoilers, but he treats his final lover very, very poorly, as he is distracted by his "true" love. It made me kind of hate him, even though I had been pulling for him the whole way. It was a huge hurdle for me, in fact. I was almost unable to remain on Team Florentino. I overcame it, but it was tough.

But I guess that's evidence of an amazing author: Gabriel García Márquez has written a basically unlikeable character -- Florentino Ariza is unattractive, has a questionable moral code, and has a ridiculous, all-consuming obsession with something that can, quite possibly, never be. Oh, he also has life-long constipation that he treats with near-daily enemas (TMI!) -- and yet, and yet... you want him to achieve what he desires.

My Favorite Parts
Of course, the language. It's amazing to me that these books are translated -- I have an immense respect both for García Márquez, as well as for the translator! (Edith Grossman, if you're curious.) Florentino Ariza writes beautiful love letters throughout his life and I just love that part of the book -- imagining the letters being written, sent, delivered, read, pored over, hidden, etc. The letters are an additional character in the book and I loved it.

Even though I've mostly babbled on about Florentino Ariza here, Fermina Daza's character is beautifully written and the story of her relationship with her husband is brilliantly epic. The story of her life (particularly her marriage) is at times heart-breaking and, at others, inspirational. In other words, it's very real.

Finally, the end of the book. I hate it when a book takes you on an epic ride and then the author doesn't know how to end it, but Gabriel García Márquez totally sticks the landing. Definitely the kind of book that you finish up and then have a long pause to take it all in. (Again, pretty much exactly what you'd expect, right?)


Sunday, May 1, 2011

April Round Up


A little more about the other books I read in April...

Blame by Michelle Huneven
Did I tell you about the biblioracle? Every once in a while, one of the TOB guys opens a thread where if you post the last 5 books you read, he'll recommend one he thinks you'll like. This is the first time I actually participated, and he recommended Blame. It's the story of an alcoholic named Patsy. One night while rip-roaring drunk, she kills 2 pedestrians while driving. She cant remember doing it, the whole evening was a blackout for her. She ends up in jail, and the story follows her transformation back to society and her path to sobriety. It's not very plot-heavy, the narrative mostly centers around her struggle to figure out who she is and how she can live with the crime she's committed. It was an enjoyable, but not brilliant read. I think my "problem" with it was that it was clear the entire time that some new information was going to come to light that exonerated her. Instead of enjoying the story, I just kept waiting for the twist to be revealed.

In the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French
These are great. If you know a mystery/thriller reader, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them. I enjoy a series, but I especially like what she does here. Instead of the same narrator, she's creating the fully realized world of the Dublin police department one detective at a time. In the Woods is narrated by Rob Ryan, a police detective in the murder squad. Rob and his partner Cassie are investigating a murder that happened in the same woods where Rob and his 2 friends were abducted as children some 20 years earlier. Rob's memories of that event are gone, but he slowly starts remembering bits and pieces of his past as the investigation continues.

The Likeness is narrated by Rob's partner, Cassie. It's a year or so after the first book. A girl named Lexie has been found dead. But it turns out that Lexie's whole identity was in fact the alias that Cassie used years earlier when working undercover. Lexie and Cassie could twins, the physical resemblance is so strong. Cassie goes undercover, again, into the life Lexie has created for herself using the fake identity. This book is even better than the first. Totally creepy and claustrophobic and I was really left guessing what was going to happen right up until the very end.

Tana French is a great writer. I'm impressed by her plotting. In many mysteries, the novel ends as soon as the murdered is revealed. In these books, the work and life of the detectives are primary. Even after the murderer is revealed, the books continue with no real cessation of suspense. It's not figuring out WHO the murderer is that is interesting, it's watching the detectives struggle to make all the pieces fit into the puzzle. There's a third book, Faithful Place, that I picked up from the library. The narrator of that one is Frank, Cassie's liason in the Undercover Unit. I'm trying to wait to read it because I know I'll be sad when it's over and will be left anxiously waiting for the next one.

Ablaze: The Story of the Victims and Heroes of Chernobyl by Piers Paul Read
The first 2/3 of this book were brilliant. The last third was a total snore. What a bummer. The book's divided up into three parts. The first is pretty short and gives a brief overview of the Soviet nuclear power program. Interesting enough. The middle third is fucking awesome. It goes through the events at Chernobyl, almost minute by minute. Who was working, how the explosion happened, etc.

The human drama of this book was just unbelievable. I had NO idea how little the plant workers really knew about radiation. The radiation was so high that their dosimeters were unreliable. One guy climbs up to the next building and looks down directly into the open reactor core. This is not good. All of the men who were on that shift acted heroically to avert a further meltdown and they all died of horrible radiation poisoning within weeks. The author keeps a pretty tight focus on the events *at* the plant through these first 2 parts, and that's really why I wanted to read it. But I started to lose interest as he widened the scope in the third section and began to talk about the political reaction to the crisis. I almost gave up. Once he left the Chernobyl plant and it's workers, I lost interest. Reading about the machinations of the Soviet cover up and scapegoating just wasn't that interesting. I wanted him to go back to the plant, the workers, the containment, the building of the sarcophagus, etc. I'd even read another book about Chernobyl just to get more of that story.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
What a great book. This is a novel told through a variety of points of view over a period of years in a small Maine town. I really liked it. It's beautifully written, and the question of how people grow and change over time was explored thoughtfully. I liked the different characters and figuring out how they fit together. It's a mediation on family and what it is we can and should expect from the people who love us the most. It's also about aging and loss. I'd recommend this book to anyone.

Succubus on Top by Richelle Mead
I love a good supernatural romance type of book. Not sure what else there is to say. This was the second in the series, and I will definitely read the others. Again, trying to pace myself. Sometimes with a series like this I read them all right in a row and then can't remember them.

Also, I read this on my Kindle, so I never saw the cover. It's so hilariously cheesy and good! It's cracking me up.

Great House by Nicole Krauss
You know how fast I read, so you also know what a compliment it is for me when I tell you that I specifically tried to slow myself down when reading this book. The novel's characters are connected through time and space by a great, big writing desk. As each section is revealed, the different characters examine their lives and their relationships. I loved this book. I'm not really doing it justice, but I'm not sure what else to say about it without ruining the way the book is constructed. It's lovely.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
I guess this doesn't really count since I finished it today, but it feels like a book I read in April. I gotta say, this book was awesomely bizarre. It's a first novel, and it feels like it. The main plot is about a man named David Pepin who is accused of murdering his wife, Alice. This book is so WEIRD. There are 2 detectives investigating the murder: Ward Hastroll and Sam Sheppard. Yes, that Sam Sheppard, he of the famous Cleveland murder case. Anyways, all 3 of these guys are obsessed with killing their wives as a way out of their unhappy marriages. There's a bad guy named Mobius, a strange obsession with Hitchcock movies, and the introduction of characters and events that are completely implausable. It jumps around in time and it seemed like there were a million loose ends. In other words: a mess. And yet, it was also interesting and enjoyable. Ross is a great writer. He's descriptive and funny, insightful and caustic. I was curious to see which pieces would fit together and which wouldn't. I theorized and speculated about all kinds of connections as I was reading, some that came true and some didn't. It was engaging and at times the writing was spectacular, and so I didn't mind that the pieces don't really all come together. I think this guy has a lot of promise, and I'd definitely give another novel of his a try.

I'm also pretty impressed with myself since 3 of the April reads came from the Borders bender. At least they're not just sitting on the shelf, destined for future TBR challenges! Whew!

Looking forward to Sookie Stackhouse's next adventure, which comes out Tuesday. I've already pre-ordered an actual copy since it's cheaper than the kindle version. So annoying, but whatever. I'll play their silly little games. I can ship it to you when I'm done.