RidgewayGirl's 2010 Reading Notes
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I'm looking forward to the artificial fresh start that the new year brings. The various discussions here are always enlightening, and contribute regularly to my list of books I must read right away. See you in a week or so.
Books read so far:
Murder in the Marais by Cara Black
Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale
Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt
Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
Fault Lines by Nancy Huston
Vienna Secrets by Frank Tallis
Fresh Kills by Bill Loehfelm
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes
Cleaving by Julie Powell
The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay
Life in the Air Ocean by Sylvia Foley
The Accidental by Ali Smith
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama
A Fair Maiden by oatesjoycecaroloates::Joyce Carol Oates
The Dragon Man by Garry Disher
The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty
The Sand Fish by Maha Gargash
Queenpin by Megan Abbott
The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh
The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes
Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott
The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard
The Angel of Grozny by Asne Seierstad
Die a Little by Megan Abbott
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
3782972::Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Help by Elizabeth Strout
When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
Blackout by Connie Willis
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
Invisible Boy by Cornelia Read
Icefields by Thomas Wharton
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules collected by David Sedaris
Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich
A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre
Based Upon Availability by Alix Strauss
The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum
Death on the Barrens by George James Grinnell
When Gods Die by C.S. Harris
Scaredy Cat by Mark Billingham
Haunted Ground by Erin Hart
So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwartz
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young
Rain in the Distance by Suzanne Falkiner
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Stettin Station by David Downing
Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton
Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
Elegy for April by Benjamin Black
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
Lost at Sea by Patrick Dillon
Still Midnight by Denise Mina
Dogtown by Stefan Bechtel
Teatime for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge by Patricia Duncker
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano
Faithful Place by Tana French
The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama
The Wave by Susan Casey
Alice's Secret Garden by Rebecca Campbell
March by Geraldine Brooks
The Quarry by Damon Galgut
The Wildfire Season by Andrew Pyper
Dark Summit by Nick Heil
Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Black Fly Season by Giles Blunt
The Profiler by Pat Brown
The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber
Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman
The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt
The Roaring Girl by Greg Hollingshead
The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby
The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy
The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
The Devil's Rooming House by M. William Phelps
The Cruel Stars of the Night by Kjell Ericsson
Bound by nelsonantonya::Antonya Nelson
The Lost Child by Julie Myerson
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
235195::Hav by Jan Morris
6426432::World War Z by Max Brooks
No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber
This is Chick Lit edited by Lauren Baratz-Logstead
This is Not Chick Lit edited by Elizabeth Merrick
Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg
Salvation City by nunezsigrid::Sigrid Nunez
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
19156::The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Gunn's Golden Rules by Tim Gunn
All Clear by Connie Willis
476015::Miss Lizzie by satterthwaitwalter::Walter Satterthwait
Still Missing by stevenschevy::Chevy Stevens
122649::Pride and Prejudice and Jasmin Field by Melissa Nathan
10068589::Worth Dying For by childlee::Lee Child
7520723::Starvation Lake by Brian Gruley
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Present Earth
The Anatomy of Ghosts by taylorandrew::Andrew Taylor
612692::Missing by alvtegenkarin::Karin Alvtegen
985486::After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
*starred* Looking forward to your books and comments this year!
eta oops! found your 1010 thread too :)
The beginning of the year was spent up in Virginia with the in-laws and nothing of substance was read. There was a truly dreadful mystery novel, put out by my favorite small publisher, Soho Crime, that I had high hopes for and a graphic novel that I picked up for my daughter and wanted to read before I handed it over to her.
Death in the Marais by Cara Black is the first in a long series of mysteries set in different arrondissments of Paris. This installment was dreadful in regards to plot and characterization, but redeemed itself in the descriptions of workday Paris. I skimmed everything but the descriptive paragraphs and was happy enough.
Rapunzel's Revenge is a re-imagining of the fairy tale, set in a wild west fantasyland. I'm not a graphic novel reader, generally, and have only read a few others (Maus and Persepolis and their sequels is pretty much it) so I can't really give an informed opinion. My daughter's enjoying it and I did like the transformation of an essentially passive character into a powerhouse.
Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt is set in the fictional town of Algonquin Bay, Ontario, located between Sudbury and Mattawa, and takes place during February. The body of a missing girl is found, sending the detective who was convinced that she wasn't just another runaway back to the job of investigating her disappearance. John Cardinal lives alone; his daughter is away at university and his wife is battling depression in an asylum. He is partnered with Delorme, who has just moved to homicide from internal investigations, and Cardinal is pretty sure she's investigating him. The case quickly turns into a search for a serial killer, with many twists and turns along the way.
The novel follows the rules for the modern detective novel, from the lonely cop with a shady past to the atmospheric setting, but the book is so well written and well plotted that it rises above the genre.
I've been away from my thread for a week now. I'm deep in Blackwater, which I'm reading as part of the Reading Globally group's focus on Sweden this month. I have read a number of Swedish crime novels, but this, while rotating around a brutal murder, is not really a mystery novel. It would have taken me a lot longer to get around to reading this book, so I am grateful for Urania's suggestion of the title.
My copy has a very badly designed cover, which is off-putting. It features drifts of snow with an artful smearing of blood on one edge. There is a cutout through which an eyeball is seen. Opening the cover, one gets to see...the other eyeball. This cover communicates absolutely nothing about the book (which takes place mostly in the summer months) and was just pulled off a stack of covers labeled Scandinavian Crime Novels at random.
I was given a subscription to the NYT Book Review for Christmas, and have been spending spare moments with that. I do love it, although I have in the past become overwhelmed with unread copies. Luckily, they are still as good to read months or even years later.
I was also given a book about an eyeless cat for Christmas, and am trying to read a chapter or so a day so that I can discuss it with my mother. I'm not a cat book person, so it's a bit of an effort, but not really bad. And I do like cats; one is currently sleeping on the bed, but pet stories are something I think I may have outgrown some years ago. Or just become too mean and cynical to enjoy them.
Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman was, at first glance, another Scandinavian crime novel. It followed the requirements throughout, and was well-plotted and excellently written. Through the middle of the novel, however, was the quiet story of three lonely people; a young woman who leaves her job behind for a new life on a mountain commune with her lover, a doctor whose wife is undergoing a mental breakdown and a teen-age boy who is running away. Their stories join briefly at the beginning of the novel, with a brutal double murder of two campers, spin out in different directions only to return together at the end of the novel, when the mystery of who killed the couple is finally solved.
This was a bleak story, full of the impossibility of knowing another person, even if they're living with you. It was fantastically good, and I hope to find more by Kerstin Ekman. There was a lot about life in the middle of Sweden, near the mountains, on the border with Norway and a bit of the history of the area.
I needed something light after my Swedish interlude and picked up Garden Spells, the kind of Water for Chocolate kind of book that I would not usually read. I enjoyed it despite myself. It was charming without being annoying, which is quite a feat. It featured the idea that everyone's destiny is preordained and inescapable and known to the neighbors. And this is a comfortable and reasonably pleasant reality in which to live.
So. I picked up Fault Lines by Nancy Huston knowing nothing about it except that it was a bestseller in France, where it won the Prix Femina. The idea is intriguing; the book is divided into four parts, each subsequent section following a parent of the six-year-old child in the previous chapter, explaining their odd behaviors as parents as caused by events occurring when they were young. Each child is profoundly affected by the wars fought at the time of each story although none are in war zones. Huston writes with ease and beauty.
All the other girls are smug and competent and quick. They calmly snip away at paper snowflakes while I sweat and fret because my scissors are too dull. In the locker room they change smoothly into and out of their gym clothes while I struggle and blush. Their clothes are cooperative and neat, mine are rebellious: buttons jump off, stains blossom and hems surreptitiously unstitch themselves.
However, the first section is really bad. It proceeds with an angry cleverness but no heart. It's a parody that pokes fun at the characters without understanding them. The mother is a bundle of contradictions, simultaneously over-protective and oddly negligent, conflicted and stubborn, but we never discover why because the next segment concerns the passive husband. The structure means that this is really a collection of four novellas, each (except for the first) which could have been a compelling book, but remained too short, each chapter closed as I became involved in their story. Too much remained unrevealed, unspoken, unresolved.
I didn't like or dislike this book. I suspect that it won't stay with me long, despite the agile writing and the many shocking revelations.
>7 RidgewayGirl: everyone's destiny in preordained and inescapable and known to the neighbors
Interesting. And you sway me with charming w/o being annoying :)
I know that some people have grown tired of the Early Reviewers program and the occasional crap book received. I had gotten a few stinkers, but to be fair, I requested them and one I would have gone and purchased in hardcover because I'd loved a previous book by the author.
My last few ER books have been very satisfying. December brought me Vienna Secrets by Frank Tallis, a mystery novel set in fin-de-siecle Vienna that is part of a series. I loved the main character, a Jewish psychiatrist named Max Liebermann, who's excited about Freud's theories, loves the city of Vienna and is certain that the prejudice against the Jews is soon to become a thing of the past. He's fully rooted in his time and a compelling, complex character. His associate, an Austrian police inspector, is likewise both interesting and clearly part of the era he lives in. I'll be looking for the earlier books in the series.
Fresh Kills by Bill Loehfelm is being marketed in a way guaranteed to keep it away from the very readers who would enjoy it. It's advertised as a mystery in the hardboiled tradition and features an incongruous endorsement by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Fresh Kills is a raw, beautifully written exploration of a man's relationship with his violent, hard-drinking father. He thought he'd written his father out of his life years ago, but when his father is murdered, John is forced to confront that one relationship and how it has reverberated through his adult life. He does try to find his father's killer in a haphazard way but more as a way to distract himself than as a serious endeavor. Staten Island is beautifully rendered in this book and the title refers to the landfill that holds much of the debris from the World Trade Center.
As usual, you have read and review several interesting books that I want. Although I have read a fair number of Ekman's novels, I haven't read this one. It sounds absolutely fascinating; unfortunately, most of the translated novels that I really want to read are not available in translation in Baron von Kindle's library. And I am sick, really sick, that Apple is supposed to announce a new product next week (probably Baron von K.'s arch rival) just when my old Apple died a death complete with fireworks, so I will be unable to purchase the new Apple model. I was thinking of eloping and leaving Baron v. K to work on a new goat shed with Beloved. The Hurston book sounds interesting as well.
The Kerstin Ekman book was exceptional. I'm on the look-out for more of hers, especially a historical novel that looks interesting.
The Nook looks interesting and has very cute wallets to keep it in, but until I am dragged kicking and screaming into the ereader age, I'll stick to paper, glue, cardboard and ink. I do appreciate the reports and encouragement you send to reluctant luddites as you forge ahead into the brave new world. Do you still buy actual books anymore or are you successfully digitized?
I do buy actual books. In looking at my Amazon wishlist, I see it contains far more books (either out-of-print, translated not popular in the USA, or all of the aforementioned). Additionally, I many scholarly books I want are not available. As for art books, forget it. I think Apple may solve the later problem immediately. As for the other two problems, that remains to be seen . . . unless Apple has made a contract with Google. Interestingly enough, the U of Chicago is now making one free book per month available on line. You just have to download a special version of Adobe Digital Read to use the offer.
Kate Atkinson made a few ripples when she went from writing literary fiction that was frequently shortlisted for various awards (she won the Whitbread) to mysteries. I read the first one, Case Histories, and was unable to read the next one. Not because it was awful, but because it was so very good. I was sure that nothing that followed could measure up and I would end up disappointed. I'm glad to report that I was wrong. One Good Turn is magnificent. Written beautifully, Atkinson manages to create memorable, fully realized characters while spinning an intricate web of a plot that concludes in a wholly believable way. It's not a traditional mystery novel, but her own take on it, set in Edinburgh during the annual Festival. Intelligent escapist literature at its finest.
I'm so glad to hear that One Good Turn measures up. I've loved Kate Atkinson's work and especially enjoyed Case Histories, but have yet to get to One Good Turn.
Hennessy's had always been Bayview's little secret. Never mind the drugs and the underage drinking. Hennessy's was simply where you came if you didn't fit in. Daddy's little princess never came here, but her sister did, and she came with something to prove. It was the one place guaranteed to be free of rugby, golf, of competitive sport of any kind, and of the people who played it. Hennessy's clientele was pretty ambivalent about basic functioning, let alone competition.
Declan Hughes's The Wrong Kind of Blood is a classic noir. A smart talking private eye with a grudge and a tragic past: check. A beautiful dame with troubles and secrets of her own: check. A sidekick who just can't function in the real world: check. Corrupt politicians, policemen on the take, drugs and booze: check, check and check. Throw in a gritty, decaying version of Dublin and you get a fast paced, hardboiled rocket of a book. The mystery extends into the past and echoes up into the bloody present of a Dublin rife with new money and new development built with the results of back room dealings and love turned sour.
The Wrong Kind of Blood is set in the Dublin of five years ago, when the celtic tiger was roaring, but the story could have just as well occupied the mean streets of Los Angeles or New York in a film starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Mitchum.
Never heard of him--adding the book to my wishlist!
Hard-hitting review: check.
I just finished Cleaving by Julie Powell, who wrote the hugely popular Julie & Julia. In this book, as stated clearly in the blurb, she writes about learning the art of butchery and also about the obsessive love affair she carries on while married. This book is going to have a hard time, not because of its flaws, but because of reader disapproval of her behavior. The reviews I've read so far have all given the book low ratings, based on what the author does. I don't think this is fair; it's like hating a prison memoir because the person in the book had committed a crime. On the other hand, Powell carved a huge readership for herself out of precisely the kind of reader who would dislike her actions. I'll be honest, I disliked her actions, but I think that that is a separate issue from what I think about her book.
And it is, for the most part, quite good. It reads like a sub-titled film, starring Isabelle Huppert or Jean Paul Belmondo. Powell is carries on a love affair in front of her hurt and angry husband. When she's dumped by the object of her affection, she is sent into a tailspin of misery and cyberstalking. She's not a very nice person, but neither are the other two people involved. She decides to become an apprentice butcher and Powell has a talent for describing the art of dismemberment, tying her actions in the butcher shop to her feelings about her unravelled life. The book loses a lot of its narrative strength when she completes her apprenticeship and, finding that she still doesn't know what she wants out of her marriage, travels around in an aimless way. This part is really not very good, becoming the sort of travel memoir written by a person with plenty of money to spend, and so her solo adventure becomes one in which she has someone hired at every stage to protect her, guide her and handle all the language and cultural barriers. I'm not sure that this kind of travel has any value to the person doing it; it certainly is not worth writing about.
From February's Currently Reading thread:
I'm also listening to the audio version of To Kill a Mockingbird read by Sissy Spacek. Her voice is perfect for the task.
No way, I just finished that! I absolutely loved it. I agree, Spacek is brilliant for the part. Her accent is just right — not too over the top. I had read and enjoyed the novel before, but listening to it on audiobook definitely enhanced the experience for me.
I picked up The Secret of Lost Things off of a remainder stack based on the cover, which shows the spines of old books. I do like books about books, which is pretty navel-gazing I suspect.
Rosemary has lived all of her eighteen years in a small town in Tasmania. When her mother dies, a family friend sends her off to New York armed with three hundred dollars and her mother's ashes in a small pine box. Rosemary finds a job in an enormous used and rare bookstore where the employees are about as colorful as you could hope to find in the NYC of 1980. Rosemary learns to negotiate relationships, although the man she decides to fall in love with is about as unsuitable as possible.
There is a mystery, too. A manuscript, presumed lost, by Herman Melville is hinted at and she, as well as a few others at the bookstore, begin searching for clues to its nature. This book is beautifully written, in a slightly old-fashioned way, reminiscent of The Thirteenth Tale. Rosemary is naive, in the way of a sheltered eighteen-year-old, but she isn't stupid. The book explores Melville's friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and how his career as a writer ended with the publication of Moby Dick. The parts about Melville are eloquent and have me eager to dig into Moby Dick. And Auden, Lorca and Borges.
But inside, the church was disappointing. It was nothing special. It was blank, utilitarian and modern, regardless of its old stone walls. It was ugly. It didn't smell spiritual, whatever spiritual would smell like. It smelt of disuse; it smelt a bit seedy. It said nothing about the possibilities of anything after this life, other than more of the same small dull accountings, moreof the same colour brown. Brown, Eve decided, was the real colour of the empire, of Great Britishness - the sepia colour that had set in like a dampstain in the Victorian era. Ceremonial browness. The Union Jack should be brown white and blue. The St George cross shouldn't really be red. It should be brown on white, HP Sauce on a white plate, or an HP Sauce white bread sandwich. All the small towns and villages flew the flag. They had driven, on their way here, past repetitions of repetitions of brown-brick Victorian semis and terraces, houses and shops like extras from a post-war kitchen-sink drama, houses brown as decrepit dogs and so on their last legs that someone should really take them in hand and have them humanely put to sleep. It was the brown end of an era.
The Accidental is by Ali Smith, one of a group of young British writers praised in Granta and one who has fulfilled the promise of her early days. Her first book, Hotel World was an astonishment to me; Smith uses words cleverly, puts them together in unusual ways, but never at the expense of her carefully drawn characters. She's not writing to show off.
In The Accidental a family is spending the summer in a rented house in Norfolk, separated by their preoccupation with their own troubles, they can't see the sufferings (large and small) of their loved ones. Then, one day, a woman shows up and without quite knowing why or how, she has insinuated herself into the life of this family, changing things entirely. Each chapter is written in the voice of a different member of the family, changing meanings and intentions along the way.
Hotel World was, for me, the better book, but I'm not sure that that wasn't because it was my first encounter with Smith's writing. The characters in Hotel World were also more sympathetic, while both Amber and Eve were almost opaque. She has just released a new book of short stories and I want to see what she does with a smaller canvas.
I'm pleased with the quality and variety of British authors working today and find myself reading more British Authors than Americans. That may also be in part to the excellence of awards like the Orange, Whitbread, Mann Booker and IMPAC Dublin prizes. I know they don't feature British authors exclusively, but they do draw my attention to authors that I might not have noticed.
I've just begun The Children's Book, but I'm planning to read it as slowly as I can bear to. She's worth lingering over.
>24 RidgewayGirl:-26 This reminds me that I must finish a collection of short fiction by Ali Smith which I started sometime last year. I found the early stories quirky and interesting (there was a gentleman building a boat out of books!) but it seems there was a rather longish snoozer in there which resulted in me putting the book down and not picking it up again. It may have been my mood or lack of attention-span, so I should give it another go.
I was fed up with my life. Fed up of working and never having anything. Tired of searching my pockets for the price of my next pint. I'd sat next to Death that afternoon. Why not take the risk? The only people who might get hurt were us, and weren't we used to that? I wanted something good for a change. And if the money was going begging, well, why shouldn't we have it? From what Anderson had said, it was dirty money anyway, ill-gotten gains that could do us some good. I should have known better. Dirty money contaminates. It never goes begging and there's always someone else who can be hurt.
The Cutting Room is a dark, sharp-edged story, following Rilke, the cadaverous 43 year old gay employee of a failing auction house whose behavior defines risky. He is called to evaluate the contents of a house, a house whose contents are richer than the auction house has ever seen. He is given the job on the condition that the auction be completed in a week's time and that he clear out the contents of an attic office personally. In the attic he finds a collection of first edition erotic books and, in a cardboard box, a handful of pictures taken in Paris in the 1950s, two of which seem to show the murder of a young woman. Rilke sets out to discover what happened and in the process discovers more sleaze and criminal behavior than he had ever expected.
The Cutting Room is noir fiction at its finest. The characters are beautifully drawn, complex and interesting. The pace of the novel is fast, with a well thought out plot. I enjoyed every moment of this book, although I am relieved not to have met any of its shady characters in real life.
I was too old to call it love at first sight, but I had all the symptoms. People have died for love, they have lied and cheated and parted from those who loved them in turn. Love has slammed doors on fortunes, made bad men from heroes and heroes from libertines. Love has corrupted, cured, depraved and perverted. It is the remedy, the melody, the poison and the pain. The appetite, the antidote, the fever and the flavour. Love Kills. Love Cures. Love is a bloody menace. Oh, but it's fun while it lasts. The world faltered on its axis, then resumed its customary gyration, a place of improved possibilities.
The Cutting Room was good wasn't it? I meant to follow up on Louise Welch's work after that. I wonder if she has another book out?
I will confess that Joyce Carol Oates is not my favorite author. She does write well and she has interesting things to say. Is there a genre that she hasn't attempted? She belongs among American writers like Cheever, Roth and Updike, in both prestige and and era, although she is still going strong. I've now read three of her books, the latest being A Fair Maiden, a sort of fairy tale about a poor girl from the pine barrens of New Jersey who is working as a summer nanny in a snooty seaside town when she encounters Marcus Kidder, an old man who wants something from her. The story is well told and interesting, with a distance between the reader and the characters in keeping with the fairy tale feel. Is Marcus Kidder her rescuer or her seducer? Is Katya his soul mate or his complicit victim?
I remain ambivalent about this writer. I enjoyed A Fair Maiden even as I was irritated. JCO reminds the reader several times that Katya has an ugly Jersey accent. The people in her life are all, without exception, crude stereotypes, as though poverty precludes any sort of ethical grounding. I liked the real sense of desperation that JCO brought to Katya and I really liked that she knows when to end a book.
I have a sinking feeling that I'm not done with Oates yet. I will probably hear of an intriguing premise or new take on an old genre and try her again.
>32 RidgewayGirl: As a die-hard fan of Oates these days, I will confess that I could not read her in the late 70s when I first picked up one of her novels. In fact, it has only been the last five or so years that I have come under her spell. I think she very often writes about the dark things within all of us that we don't often acknowledge (those same dark things within us which show up in other literature as vampires and werewolves). I know she thinks tragedy the highest form of art. I know poverty and power are frequent themes. She also likes to mess with American iconography and myths.
The irony here is that my fascination with her has developed out of my reading mostly of her short fiction, some of her poetry and her journal, a good number of her essays, and only a few of her novels.
Yet, I would not recommend her to everyone.
#32 I have a feeling that to be fair I will have to try something of her more recent work sometime. There was a time when I read several of her works, and then I read Them. It is a book about generations of a family, and I remember getting to the end and reading a letter by a young woman of the family, I think, a real letter written to Oates which inspired the whole novel. The thing is that letter made the young woman real to me, and there was something that made me interested in her and concerned with what might happen to her. It was the most alive part of the book. I realized that the whole rest of the book seemed to take that woman and her family and make them smaller. That was enough to put me off of Oates.
I've read a few books since I last posted here.
The Dragon Man by Garry Disher is a dark police procedural set on a rural peninsula near Melbourne, Australia. If you like that sort of thing, I'd recommend this one, just don't read the jacket blurb which makes it sound like a cozy and gives away pretty much everything except the last thirty pages.
The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty is a coming of age novel set in a small town in Kansas during the Reagan years. It good, not great, but does provide a look at the bally-hoo that periodically occurs in that part of America when evolution makes an appearance in high school science classes. It did a good job of providing both sides, which is commendable since it's hard to see both arguments clearly.
And I picked up The Sand Fish because it was set in Dubai. Maha Gargash was born and raised in the area and the book describes the UAE as it existed in the 1950s. The book is mostly interesting because of the setting, but that setting is undeniably fascinating.
I'm still reading The Children's Book, which is worth reading slowly, a chapter at a time. I keep thinking about details at odd moments. Byatt gives such a wealth of detail that imagining the setting is easy. I'm still listening to To Kill a Mockingbird, read in Sissy Spacek's soft, gorgeous accent. Given the number of books mentioned here that I suddenly have to read as soon as possible, I am trying to read more slowly.
I've been very lucky this year in discovering new authors of dark crime novels. I'm currently reading my second book by Louise Welsh, the author of The Cutting Room. This one is called The Bullet Trick and follows a down on his luck magician as he takes a job as part of an Erotische Cabaret in Berlin.
And I recently finished Queenpin by Megan Abbott. Abbott has received several Edgar awards, including for Queenpin, which is a hard-boiled, pulp fiction style story with a twist; the protagonists are women. Gloria Denton is the Queenpin of the title, a woman who is legend in certain circles and who has carved a place for herself among the hard men and gangsters. She takes a young woman under her wing who had been going to business school, taking care of her widowed father and working part-time cooking the books of a run-down nightclub for its small time owners. With the help of her mentor, the woman learns the ropes, cultivating the arts of deception and distraction. Everything is going well when she notices a charming and sexy gambler, which is when things get sticky for our heroine as she seeks to not lose her edge even as she falls in with him. Queenpin is a short book, one that doesn't waste a word or pull a single punch. I liked the way this book played with our ideas of gender. In the traditional hard-boiled, women are referred to as dames and generally fall into those two famous categories. Here the women are absolutely hard-hearted. The protagonist falls in with the gambler for sex and fascination, rather than love. Abbott plays with the traditions of the genre, tweaking them so that Queenpin fits seamlessly within the genre.
March has started cold and too busy, leaving me no brain at all at the end of the day and no pockets during the day to read a bit. Things will slow down soon, but in the meantime, my reading has been purely escapist.
The Bullet Trick is another excellent noir set in seedy, dark versions of Glasgow, London and Berlin. If you want your life to look blissful and stable, compare it to William Wilson's; a cut-rate conjurer and dedicated drinker. The bad things that happen to him are not entirely his fault.
And for a change of pace; The Brightest Star in the Sky, a sweet, magical (this time in a pleasant way) story about the denizens of a house divided into four flats in the center of Dublin. Marian Keyes has written some very, very good books, which were all labeled and packaged as chick-lit. She took part in a literary round table on a radio program for the BBC and it was refreshing to hear a group of serious thinkers (the other authors, all male, had written books on history and world politics) gush about how much they'd enjoyed her book and how they wished it had been published with a less pinky cover so they didn't have to sneak around with it like they were reading porn.
Her earlier books were better; more focused and intense, but The Brightest Star in the Sky wasn't a waste of time and was very comforting in its way.
March has started cold and too busy, leaving me no brain at all at the end of the day and no pockets during the day to read a bit. Things will slow down soon, but in the meantime, my reading has been purely escapist.
The Bullet Trick is another excellent noir set in seedy, dark versions of Glasgow, London and Berlin. If you want your life to look blissful and stable, compare it to William Wilson's; a cut-rate conjurer and dedicated drinker. The bad things that happen to him are not entirely his fault.
And for a change of pace; The Brightest Star in the Sky, a sweet, magical (this time in a pleasant way) story about the denizens of a house divided into four flats in the center of Dublin. Marian Keyes has written some very, very good books, which were all labeled and packaged as chick-lit. She took part in a literary round table on a radio program for the BBC and it was refreshing to hear a group of serious thinkers (the other authors, all male, had written books on history and world politics) gush about how much they'd enjoyed her book and how they wished it had been published with a less pinky cover so they didn't have to sneak around with it like they were reading porn.
Her earlier books were better; more focused and intense, but The Brightest Star in the Sky wasn't a waste of time and was very comforting in its way.
I'm a big fan of Marian Keyes. Also, I had a friend stay with me right after she broke up with her husband, and she happened to pick up Watermelon which was one of the books in the spare room, and she said that was exactly what she needed to read at that time. What was the programme and is it available to listen again online?
Unfortunately, it was about four years ago and I can't remember what program it was. I would love to listen to it again.
She is a good writer, though, isn't she? I reread Rachel's Holiday every few years.
Back in the early 1990s, I was living in Phoenix when Jana Bommerbach's The Trunk Murderess came out. It told the story of Winnie Ruth Judd, who spent her life in a psychiatric hospital for killing two women and then shipping the remains in two leaking trunks to Los Angeles. The book made me realize that even the newest boom town has a history and Phoenix's past was more than pot shards and the hourly gunfight show out at Rawhide.
Bury Me Deep is a reimagining of the Judd story, keeping only the barest facts, but inhabiting the Phoenix of the 1930s, when it was a haven for the tubercular and in the summer the women and children moved up to the mountains and the men remained behind to work and take summer girlfriends. Megan Abbott writes dark crime novels that read like feminist versions of Chandler and Ellroy and this one is no exception. Her protagonist is a version of Winnie Ruth Judd with an excess of cunning and fortitude.
Sounds fantastic. I've never heard of Megan Abbott before. Any particular books of hers which would be a good place to start?
Queenpin is a good place to start. Abbott has written serious non-fiction about the genre and is a professor at a university in New York, and her books are well-researched without showing that they are.
Just a warning, though, that the cover is straight out of a mid-century detective magazine and is not suitable for, say, taking along to choir practice or when babysitting.
Thanks for the warning! I will be sure only to read it in cover-appropriate circumstances...
Well, my Early Reviewer book, The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard, was a dud this month. It was marketed as a literary mystery, along the lines of The Church of Dead Girls, or The Lovely Bones, but it was really just a formulaic mystery with pretensions. I kept waiting for Pickard to go somewhere interesting (and there was plenty of scope for that), but she stuck with the goodness of her stock characters to the (not very) bloody end. It felt like a very Red State book, although that's not quite right, but it did feel like the kind of thing Lynn Cheney could curl up with of an evening and wake secure in her beliefs the next morning. It wasn't that there were any politics in the book, but there was a "good people" knowing best theme that irked me. Ahh, I'm probably too sensitive and seeing things that aren't there.
>45 RidgewayGirl: Doesn't Pickard set most of hers in Vermont farming country? Shame it was misrepresented, but I'm with Jane, I loved your description (which is why they call them cozies).
So that's a cozy. Good to know. I have no patience with smug happiness in literature. Unless, of course, it's about to be blown to smithereens.
I don't usually read books by the same author close together, but with Megan Abbott I've been unable to stop. My third book of hers in just less than a month's time was Die a Little. It was excellent, but I followed that by reading an interview with her in which she explained that it takes her about two years to write a book.
The Angel of Grozny was written by Asne Seierstad, the author of The Bookseller of Kabul. Here she tells the story of Chechnya, alternating between the broad strokes of its history and politics and the small, personal stories of the broken lives of children raised in a war zone. Seierstad has been visiting Chechnya regularly since the First Chechen War began in 1994, often secretly and always at some danger to herself and those who shelter her. This was a difficult book to read, but an important one. The author must be an easy person to talk to; her interviews include both the puppet dictator of Chechnya and a man who killed his sister in an honor killing.
The unabridged audiobook of Sissy Spacek reading To Kill a Mockingbird was recommended more than once here. I'll have to add to the accolades. Spacek's voice is perfect for the story and although I must have read this book at least a dozen times, hearing it read in her soft, slow voice made me notice things I had never seen before. There's a reason that this book invariably turns up in any list of required American reading and were the library not interested in getting it back, I'd happily listen to it again.
And as for Kate: she is suffering, but how can he protect her from it, how can he even soothe her when he himself is misery's messenger? The unmentionable truth is that he has moved on. No. Worse. He has moved up. He has entered a higher plane of feeling, a higher plane of devotion, and a higher plane of pleasure. How can he make Kate understand this? He is not only leaving her, he is leaving himself, leaving everything familiar behind, he is slipping over the border with only the clothes on his back.
A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer concerns Daniel, a lawyer in a small town a hundred miles north of New York city, who meets and grows infatuated with Iris, the mother of his step-daughter's best friend. She's the only black woman in town and Daniel is fascinated by her. His wife, Kate, knows he's interested in Iris, but trusts him. Iris's husband is too involved in his own life to notice anything.
A Ship Made of Paper tells the story of an affair, how Daniel is willing to throw away everything to be with Iris. It's also a story about race, how we haven't come quite as far as we think we have. Set against the backdrop of the O.J. Simpson trial, Spencer shows how different people framed the story in completely different ways and how those differences fell almost entirely along color lines.
The book is very well-written and I can see why it was a contender for the National Book Award, but it isn't a comfortable read. How does a person justify hurting the people they love?
"You know, Kate says, pouring herself more wine, less judiciously this time, "people think that love is what's best in each of us, our capacity to love, our need for love. They think love is like God, and they worship their own feelings of love, which is really just narcissism masquerading as spirituality. You understand? If we say that God is love, then we can say that love is God, and that gives us the right to all these chaotic, needy, lusting, insane feelings inside of ourselves. We can call it love, and from there it's just a hop, skip and a jump to calling it God. But here's a thought. What if God isn't love? And love isn't God? What if all those emotions we call love turn out to be what's really worst in us, what is it's all the firings of the foulest, most primitive part of the back brain, what if it's just as savage and selfish as rage or greed or lust?"
I just finished Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which is a memoir of the author, her mother and her grandmother combined with a history of China from just before the Japanese invasion to just after Mao's death. It was a substantial book and very, very good. Chang intersperses personal history and events with a clearly written account of the events going on in China at the time. I can now, for example, differentiate between The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution. Without the history, the personal story would have been hard to follow, and without the memoir, the history might have been hard going. The combination was inspired and impossible to put down.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout was a series of connected short stories revolving around a prickly, polarizing woman. It was excellent, well-written and beautiful.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is set in 1962, in Jackson, Mississippi. A white college graduate returns home and becomes interested in writing the stories of the black domestic servants of her friends and neighbors. The Help has been long-listed for the Orange Prize, which it deserves, but I don't think it will make the short-list. This is too clearly Stockett's first novel, but it's worth reading and I look forward to reading her future books.
Hmmm, I just noticed that over 80% of the books I've read this year have had female authors. Go figure. I've just started the new novel by Sebastian Faulks, so that will even things out a bit.
My daughter gave me Olive Kitteridge to read, and I was very impressed. She also told me about the Help and lent me her copy. I'm reading it more slowly. I'm not caught up in it as yet. Wild Swans sounds like something I would really like. I read several volumes of autobiography by a Chinese-Belgium (father Chinese, mother Belgium) woman, Han Suyin, set more in the first half of the 20th century and likewise a compelling mix of personal and history. The first volume is The Crippled Tree. I just put a hold on a library copy of Wild Swans.
What were the Belgians doing with the Chinese back then? I had a seventh grade classmate whose mother was Chinese and father was Belgian living in, of all places, Springfield, Massachusetts. I thought that was pretty cool, but I was too young to realize I would have liked to talk longer with her about it. She was holding back tears as she related the facts.
I'm thinking I may have to give Olive Kitteridge a look. I don't think I've heard anything but praise for it from anybody.
#53 - I read several volumes of autobiography by a Chinese-Belgium (father Chinese, mother Belgium) woman, Han Suyin, set more in the first half of the 20th century and likewise a compelling mix of personal and history. The first volume is The Crippled Tree.
How do you like Han Suyin? I've been meaning to read her, but haven't found the time yet. I have a friend Suyin, named after her. The funny thing is, I'd heard of Suyin before I met her, and living in Vancouver with our significant Chinese population, I assumed this person people were talking about was Chinese. So I was really confused when she turned out to be the lovely woman from El Salvador who I had already met. It turns out that her parents were so enamored with Han Suyin that they named their daughter after her. Obviously she's been translated into Spanish as well as English.
I've been reading two interesting books, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which is written in the first person plural, and A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, a satirical social commentary kind of novel, with an investment banker and a hopeful Jihadist as protagonists. They are well-written and interesting, but both are much more intellect than heart and with Things Going On, I took a break and read something both good and possessing of emotional heft.
When Will There Be Good News? is the latest book by Kate Atkinson. It's every bit as good as her previous novels and continues the story of Jackson Brodie, an ex-private detective with a compulsive need to help people. Atkinson's plots are never simple and here she once again weaves something so complex that I wasn't sure it would come together at all.
I've pulled out another comfort read in the form of Blackout by Connie Willis, a sequel to Doomsday Book.
#56 I enjoyed reading her a lot. It was a while back that I read it, but I remember especially being fascinated by her account of her mother adjusting to living as a woman in China, and also about the way that her father, an engineer was treated - as second class in his own country. She, being half-European, was given more status. Anyway, it was a personal view of China in the midst of revolutionary change.
#54 The Belgiums were building a railroad in China
#43, Queenpin arrived from bookmooch today. I'm very excited about reading it!
I've had a very slow reading month. It's been busy, my mother's had health problems and at the end of the day I would have the energy only for a few book reviews or a DVD. Pan's Labyrinth was excellent, even if it took me two nights to watch it and Sherlock Holmes, the new version with Robert Downey Jr. was truly dreadful, although the scenery was pretty.
I did read Blackout by Connie Willis, which is a loose sequel to her Doomsday Book.
"You like reading, don't you?"
"Yeah, I do."
"Dunno. I s'pose it's an escape from the real world."
"But surely it's just the opposite," said Gabriel. "Books explain the real world. They bring you close to it in a way you could never manage in the course of the day."
"How do you mean?"
"People never explain to you exactly what they think and feel and how their thoughts and feelings work, do they? They don't have time. Or the right words. But that's what books do. It's as though your daily life is a film in the cinema. It can be fun, looking at those pictures. But if you want to know what lies behind the flat screen you have to read a book. That explains it all."
It took me awhile to get through Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December, but I think the fault was mostly my own. I was in the mood for something emotionally resonant, like Birdsong, Charlotte Gray or On Green Dolphin Street, but A Week in December is a much colder book (Ha! See what I did there?). It's a satire of modern life, well done, but it does carry more than a whiff of old man crankiness. Is it possible to write a social satire with heart? Faulks does give a half-hearted try at the end; he's too good a writer to make every single one of his numerous story-arcs end in despair. And he writes fantastically well, so that his biting jabs at what is presented as the emptiness of modern life all hit their targets with wit and accuracy.
Set in London in 2007, the book follows a large cast of characters through their daily lives. There's a soulless investment banker plotting a big trade and a hopeful Jihadist. Would you like to guess which is the bad guy? There's also a bitter book critic, a disaffected young person, and an up and coming Polish football player, among many others, allowing Faulks to lampoon pretty much every facet of modern British society. The book warms up a bit in the final third, as though Faulks had, in the end, found it impossible to avoid all sympathy for his characters and the plot does heat up, but writing about an entirely irredeemable character in a three dimensional way does ultimately prove beyond even Sebastian Faulks's considerable skills.
>60 RidgewayGirl: what do you have to say about Blackout; I've had an arc of that hanging around the dining/living room for months now. It's been ages and ages since I read The Doomsday Book, how close is the connection? Didn't I read something about it being the same people also as were in To Say Nothing of the Dog? Did you really enjoy it? (I fear being disappointed).
Blackout was very good, both as an exploration of what might happen as a result of time travel being over-used (which would totally happen, right? I mean, getting to witness how people actually lived and to see lost buildings and how they looked when they were new, well, I can't blame them.) and as a straight historical novel about London during the Blitz. It's loosely connected to Doomsday Book, with a few characters featuring in a minor way, but not in any way that would make Blackout better having read Doomsday Book. I haven't read To Say Nothing of the Dog, so I can't comment on that.
Yes, I really enjoyed it as escapist literature at its finest.
Cornelia Read's first book, A Field of Darkness, told the story of Madeline Dare, failed debutante, now living with her husband in Syracuse, New York, who stumbles onto an old, unsolved murder in which a relative is mentioned and decides to solve it herself. It reads like a grown-up Nancy Drew mystery, with the heroine grasping for clues, stumbling into dangerous situations she doesn't understand and discovering too late that not everything has a happy ending.
In the sequel, The Crazy School, she and Dean have moved out to a small town where she takes a teaching job at a facility for delinquent youths. She wants to be the cool teacher; she's younger than the other faculty members and she shares cigarettes and trades profanities with her students. But it's unclear whether she's getting through to the kids or is being manipulated by one of them.
What makes Madeline Dare such a good protagonist is that she makes mistakes and misses stuff, but has a good heart. She also seems like she'd be fun to hang out with. She loses some of that approachability in Read's newest novel, Invisible Boy. Madeline's traded her out-spoken nature for brashness and one-up-manship. And since she has the author on her side, she gets all the zingers while her opposition stutters impotently. The story follows Madeline, now living in NYC, as she finds the skeleton of a child in an abandoned cemetery she's helping to clean up. The murdered child is quickly identified, as are the perpetrators. We then follow Madeline as she interacts with her family and old friends, as well as following the case of the little boy as it grinds its way slowly through the criminal justice system.
Invisible Boy is a reasonably good read, I just long for the return of the real Madeline Dare.
That's what he called himself once, the summer he left for the war, and I'd laughed. Glaciologist. I'd never heard the word before. I'd never considered there might be others like him, scientists who studied only glaciers. I thought he was the one man on earth who bothered that much with them, that this science was his alone, that he had invented it. Arcturology. The science of being distant, and receding a little every year.
Icefields by Thomas Wharton takes place during the first two decades of the last century in what was to become Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. Byrne, a doctor, was exploring the region when he falls into into a crevasse on the Arcturus glacier. In the time it takes his group to notice his absence and haul him out, he sees something in the ice; a pale figure with huge wings. The image haunts him, even as he is rescued, revived and returned to London. Years later he is drawn back to the glacier and the book chronicles his life studying the ice and the other people who live for awhile at the hot springs hotel built at its foot. Evocative, poetic and strange, this is one of the most interesting books I've read this year.
I will admit to a bias; I spent almost every childhood holiday in the area and have been up on the Athabasca glacier. Every place name was resonant with memory. It's a spectacularly beautiful, fragile area and Wharton's descriptions of the first residents of the region and the conditions under which they lived, a peculiar mixture of Edwardian gentility and wilderness was fascinating. Alongside Byrne, Icefields tells the story of a poet come west to be a guide, a servant girl who takes charge of the running of a hotel and develops a relationship of sorts with Byrne, an intrepid female explorer and a tracker turned entrepreneur who sees opportunity in the coming railway.
Thanks for your comments on Icefields. It went on my wishlist last year when Avaland drew my attention to it. You've reminded me that I must hunt down a copy. Sounds great.
I've got Icefields on Mt TBR - I couldn't remember why I bought it, but it must be Avaland! Your review has made me move it up the pile.
And wow, fabulous quote; makes me absolutely want to read something by Wharton.
The funny thing about work itself, it was so bearable. The dreariest task was perfectly bearable. It presented challenges to overcome, the distraction provided by a sense of urgency, and the satisfaction of a task's completion - on any given day, those things made work utterly, even harmoniously bearable. What we bitched about, what we couldn't let lie, what drove us to distraction and consumed us with blind fury, was this person or that who rankled and bugged and offended angels in heaven, who wore their clothes all wrong and foisted upon us their unsufferable features, who deserved from a just god nothing but scorn because they were insipid, unpoetic, mercilessly enduring, and lost to the grand gesture. And maybe so, yes, maybe so. But as we stood there, we had a hard time recalling the specific details, because everyone seemed so agreeable.
Joshua Ferris wrote Then We Came to the End in the first person plural, an interesting conceit that should have been exhausted by the end of the first chapter. He pulls it off, though, telling the story of a Chicago advertising firm undergoing an endless series of lay-offs from the point of view of its employees. It does take a long section in the middle of the book in which he uses the more traditional third person to find the heart of the novel, but it's an achievement all the same.
That really impressed me about Then We Came to the End. It seems as if it should be really gimmicky, and OK, I guess it is a gimmick, but it works so well that it quickly stops feeling like a gimmick.
#70 - LOL, you aren't the very last - I'm still only about halfway through Oryx and Crake. I like it so far, but I think I prefer Atwood's realistic fiction over her speculative fiction.
Now it begins, the sorting and testing of words. Remember that words are not symbols of other words. There are words which, when tinkered with, become honest representatives of the cresting blood, the fine living net of nerves. Define rain. Or even joy. It can be done.
So, short stories. I do like them, but have trouble reading several by one author as they end up feeling like Faberge eggs. You know, you see one and it's exquisite. And then you see the next one and, hey, it's quite nice too, but by the third or fourth, any elements of surprise are gone and after a half dozen I'm a little bored and looking forward to the cafe. An anthology of some sort is a different matter. Each author spins their perfect little tale and then is finished. I don't become jaded with a dozen instances in a row of subdued disappointment or witty dialogue, but get to be astonished all over again with the next story.
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules is a collection of short stories gathered by David Sedaris. There is the expected Dorothy Parker (Song of the Shirt, 1941), but there's also Richard Yates (Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired), Joyce Carol Oates (The Girl with the Blackened Eye) and Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies). Sedaris favors stories with emotional resonance over clever wordplay, and the best two stories in the book were amazing; Revelation by Flannery O'Connor and Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma.
I loved rediscovering how a short story can compress all the emotion and heft of a novel into a dozen or so pages. I think I may start reading from all those Collected Stories of I have sitting around, but one at a time, with a few months between each story so that I can be newly astonished with each one.
>65 RidgewayGirl: et al. Actually, I have Icefields but have not read it yet. I first read the author's Salamander - an imaginative fable of sorts - and then read his The Logogryph which is a collection of pieces, also very imaginative, about books which don't exist. Last I knew he was writing a sort of standard genre fantasy which I'm not at all attracted to, but I haven't seen the book.
>63 RidgewayGirl: thanks for the tip on Blackout. I read recently in Locus magazine that there also another volume said to be the second half of the same book (not a sequel). I'm currently reading Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley, the sequel to The Quiet War, both are rather elaborate Space Operas. I enjoyed the fact that the two geniuses in the QW were women:-)
Zadie Smith is a British writer who achieved great fame with her first novel, White Teeth. The book was good, but the hype concentrated on the fact that it had been written by a young, beautiful black woman who had grown up on a council estate in Willesden. Her second novel did not do well, and Smith gave a few bitter interviews and then disappeared. She spent that time back in her academic comfort zone (she has a degree from Cambridge) and writing things like movie reviews and magazine articles about her family. She has since brought out another book, On Beauty, which was successful on its own merits and now she has had a book of essays published, called Changing My Mind.
Changing My Mind was a very uneven read, and I think she might have been better served by waiting a few years, until there was a better selection of material to chose from. Many of the essays, the ones that discuss authors and books or the ones that talk about her family are amazing. Then there are a few moderately interesting pieces about Liberia and her own writing methods that are worth reading, but not exciting and then there are the bits from when she reviewed movies for a newspaper. Essays about movies, or Hollywood, can be riveting, but Smith has too sharp a mind and, while she seems to like film, isn't a real fan or expert. So this section consists of describing the plots of various movies and there's a sense that she's looking down on the whole endeavor.
The essays on literature, however, are fantastic. She has the ability to delve deeply into a topic without talking down to her audience or making it too difficult to understand. I did have to pay attention, especially to the essay on David Foster Wallace, but I was never lost. She discusses Their Eyes Were Watching God, Middlemarch, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Kafka, Nabokov, E.M. Forster and Barthes and each essay was a revelation (to me, at least).
I've been reading Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones to my children and last night we finished it. It was hugely popular. A few months ago I had saved the movie version to watch with my daughter and it became a favorite with both children. They've watched it at least half a dozen times since. The book and the movie are only distantly related, but they do enhance each other.
The story takes place in the land of Ingary, where fairy tale rules mean that the eldest daughter will never amount to much, especially one with a young and beautiful stepsister. Sophie isn't content, but she manages to fit into her small place in the world until the Witch of the Waste appears in her hat shop and puts a curse on her. Young Sophie is now very old, with all the aches and pains of the aged. She leaves home and ends up in the moving castle belonging to the Wizard Howl, a fearsome creature said to eat the souls of young girls. There she discovers Calcifer, a fire demon and Michael, Howl's apprentice. And she meets Howl, who is both more and less than she thought.
The story is wonderfully imaginative, where doors don't necessarily lead where you think they will and one of those doors leads to an ordinary neighborhood in Wales.
The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan is set in a comfortable town in Ontario in the 1880s. A family, beset by misfortune, move into a small white house and the father goes to work as an accountant. They may never have quite enough money and there is something wrong with the oldest daughter, but they love each other and seem happy enough. Then the father kills the rest of the family and is found sitting in the woods the next day. The ripples of the murders affect those who knew the family and the book tells the story of what happened through the aftermath.
This is an immensely sad book, full of regret and people making the best of what they have. It's less about that afternoon of violence than about the connections we fail to make with the people we love.
My Early Readers book was one of the best books I've read this year. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a historical novel of almost 500 pages and I would have been happy if the author, David Mitchell had written another 500 pages.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a rip-roaring adventure novel written so beautifully that a painful conflict ensues; the need to read faster and faster to discover what will happen next and the desire to go slowly and linger over the words.
The book starts with a dramatic and dangerous birth, moves quickly to a contentious arrest and continues in the same head-long rush. Set on the tiny Dutch trading colony island of Dejima, outside of Nagasaki, Japan at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the book tells the story of Jacob de Zoet, a young man come to gain his fortune so he can marry back home. He's a man of quiet principle, but quickly finds that it's not always easy to determine the right action to take and he makes as many enemies as friends in his first months on Dejima. I don't want to give anything away, except to say that as soon as I thought I knew what was going on and settled happily down to enjoy it, the plot would twist away in another direction. The language is exquisite, with perfect phrases like lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses or anger and self-pity are lodged in his throat like fishbones. Finally, the story is set in such a beautifully rich time and place, Mitchell clearly has researched extensively, but the knowledge feels natural. I was disappointed to turn the final page and find that the book has ended.
It's been causing a bit of a stir in the UK, apparently:
After your review, can't wait to read it!
Your review and this weekend's Guardian review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are compelling, and I'll order this from The Book Depository. Would it be eligible for this year's Booker Prize?
My children adored Howl's Moving Castle and were pleased to find that Jones has written two sequels. Our library carries the second on audiobook, so we have agreed to save it for the summer when we visit relatives and go to the beach. Nothing like a long drive with silent, concentrating children.
As for David Mitchell, I've read his last book, Black Swan Green, which is a coming of age story set in Thatcher's England. I was very impressed. I have Number9Dream and Ghostwritten and hope to read them soon. Has anyone read him and been unimpressed?
>83 RidgewayGirl: I was going to mention the sequels but you beat me to it!
It took me a week to read Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. It's a short book, but the subject matter had me taking long breaks and reading only a few pages at a time.
Irene hasn't felt the marriage was working since before the birth of their youngest son, Gil is hoping that if he ignores things and gives everybody really good presents and makes nice dinners then everything will revert to normal. Irene has been steadily drinking instead of making concrete plans to leave and Gil wants things to improve, but not enough to control his hair-trigger temper that has him lashing out, both verbally and physically, at any family member who displeases him. All three children are unhappy.
It's at this point that Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary and she determines to use that to manipulate him into agreeing to a divorce. She also begins a second, secret diary, which she keeps in a safety deposit box at a bank.
This is a hard book to read. Unlike the scenarios set out in popular fiction, no one gets to be the good guy. And the three children are complex, interesting people. In the end, the book does feel fragmented, as though the author, in the end, couldn't continue to deal with the subject matter and so let the book go early.
That's interesting about the Erdrich falling apart at the end because that's what i felt about The Plague of Doves, which I thought was wonderful until the last 50 pages or so. How disappointing.
#45 "It felt like a very Red State book, although that's not quite right, but it did feel like the kind of thing Lynn Cheney could curl up with of an evening and wake secure in her beliefs the next morning. "
That is an awesome description of a book....I'm way way way behind, but I had to comment on that.
I've read two books since I last posted here. The first, A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre was a darkly humorous story about a double murder in which the characters all went to school together and the chapters move back and forth between the crime and the back story which takes place at school, beginning with the first day of kindergarten and ending with a dance in the final year. The school's a tough one and the Scottish slang flies around, each segment narrated by a different character. It was brilliant and I plan to track down more of Brookmyre's stuff.
My second book was a dud, finished only because it was an Early Reviewers book. If this is my punishment for getting to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, then I'll take it happily, but Based Upon Availability was wretched. It perfectly enforced the idea that successful career women are all unhappy because they don't have a man to care for them. It's an anti-feminist tale, spiced up with drugs and cigarettes. Maybe I'm just ignorant of the way things are, being forty-one, long married and not living in NYC, but surely some single women living in New York are not living lives of despair because they have to choose what to order all by themselves?
I'm still really far behind (I'm up to post #63 now- mid April), not sure I should bother responding to old posts on RidgewayGirl's thread...RidgewayGirl, apologies if I'm intruding.
#53/56 Solla/Nickelini - Very interesting regarding Han Suyin. A long ago time (1996) I read her biography of Zhou Enlai, Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, which was memorable for several reasons. For one, Zhou Enlai was fascinating. But I was struck by the writing, which was excellent, and also how Han Suyin seemed to know him personally and yet with a sort of an uninvolved observer point-of-view. I never looked it up, but assumed she must not be Chinese because it didn't feel like she was writing about her own people. Again, this was a long time ago - I don't know how far to trust my memory there. Anyway, interesting to see her name pop up.
#55: bragan - I didn't love Oliver Kitteridge...just so you hear something that's not praise. :)
#60 "Sherlock Holmes, the new version with Robert Downey Jr. was truly dreadful" - I couldn't agree more!
No, please, comment away, it's not like the books go out of date.
But I'm sorry that you, too, sat through that Sherlock Holmes movie.
Your lack of love for Olive Kitteridge is actually strangely reassuring to me. I sometimes get nervous about books that are universally lauded.
#92 Well, Olive Kitteridge - the person in the book - is definitely not universally lauded. Her missteps in her relationships are familiar and wrenching. I was impressed by the depiction of a person with many flaws in a way that allows the reader to care about her.
Scandinavian crime novels are my go to genre for well-written escapist reading and Karin Fossum, a Norwegian author, has yet to disappoint. Her latest, The Water's Edge, tackled difficult subjects in a thoughtful way; here pedophilia and childhood obesity, and I appreciated getting a Northern European slant on these issues. it was interesting to note that the countries most often brought up were Sweden and the US. Sweden was an example of a more tolerant society and, well, you can draw your own conclusions as to where the Americans landed.
Fossum's police procedurals are also highly enjoyable, if that's an acceptable reaction to a genre that invariably includes at least one prematurely dead body.
I got Death on the Barrens by George James Grinnell in the mail yesterday and before I quite knew what was happening, I was a few chapters in. I am fascinated by explorers, especially polar explorers, and mountain climbers, mainly because I can't understand why someone would choose to do that to themselves. The book tells the story of an ill-fated canoe trip along along a series of rivers and lakes from the northern edge of Saskatchewan to an RCMP post on Baker lake in Nunavut, near the northwest edge of Hudson's Bay, taken in 1955 by a singularly ill-prepared group of six men.
George James Grinnell was one of those six men and struggled for half a century to write the story down. It's also the story of his life and his deep dissatisfaction with the wealthy, privileged society he was born into, which was more concerned with amassing even more wealth and power than it was with improving the world. There's a history of mental instability in his family as well, and he was kicked out of Harvard at the same time that his father committed suicide. Searching for meaning, George joins the expedition, led by its oldest member, 36 year old Art Moffat, and they set out weeks later than originally planned. What's more, since their food supplies had not been delivered on time, they purchased what they could find at their departure point.
The arctic summer is short, but the group quickly lost all sense of urgency. Their leader liked to sleep in and then begin the day with a pleasant walk to watch the birds. The weather often deteriorated later in the day, so that the best traveling time was wasted. They also began to take frequent holidays from the arduous task of canoeing and going slowly on the days they did move. George, like most of his fellow adventurers, looked on Art as their spiritual guru, seeking to follow his one with nature style, and as Art lost his momentum, so did they, loitering even as they watched their food supplies dwindle. It was only at the end of August, the beginning of the arctic winter and finding themselves only halfway to their destination, that they began to hurry.
The amazing thing about their journey is that it took so many blatant errors to get them into a life-threatening situation. In the end, Art dies as a result of a culmination of those many mistakes, but the remaining men manage to reach the RCMP post. Grinnell has spent half a century trying to give meaning to Art's needless death and to understand why they dawdled when they should have hurried. The book ends up being a little self-indulgent as the author tries to convince us that Art's fatal lack of leadership ability was really spiritual maturity and that the mental fog that descended upon them that summer was really enlightenment. But he does try explain the why as well as the how and for that the author should be commended.
Was that an ER book? I think I remember seeing that or something similar on one of the recent lists. It looks interesting, although the conclusion on "spiritual maturity" seems suspect!
Finally caught up, great stuff here. Jacob de Zoet and Icefields are now on my wishlist.
This second half of May has been a bit of a bust, reading-wise. By night, I'm too tired to concentrate properly and during the day, reading is snatched at short stretches. So I've put aside everything of value (primarily, Suite Francaise and The Children's Book) in favor of escapist literature.
When Gods Die is the second installment of a frothy mystery series set during England's Regency era. No substance to speak of, but well researched and fun.
Scaredy Cat is also the second installment in a mystery series, but of the noirish police procedural type. This one featured the standard loner detective and was good, but lasted fifty pages too long and had a disturbingly mean sub-plot involving the only female constable on the team.
Haunted Land involved the finding of a head in an Irish bog sandwiched with a modern day hunt for a missing woman and child. The bits about Irish culture, music and history were fantastic, but the characterizations were standard issue and the mystery was fine until the too obvious culprit was caught and instantly confessed exhaustively, even using the phrase "if it weren't for that meddling pair" which took me right out of the story and off looking for Scooby and Shaggy.
even using the phrase "if it weren't for that meddling pair" which took me right out of the story and off looking for Scooby and Shaggy
HA! too funny.
eta: Reminds me of an apparently innocent line of dialogue, "Alice doesn't live here anymore," in the English translation of The Solitude of Prime Numbers. I have to wonder if there's intention in these lines? An inside joke/wink to readers? Or homage? Otherwise, how do they get past first-readers, editors, and translators?
even using the phrase "if it weren't for that meddling pair"
oh dear! I really hope that was intentional and the author really needed every single reader to conjure up an image of the dangling SD dog tag.
So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwartz was a short book with two story-lines, one in the present, one set in 1963, and a large cast of characters. As a result, it felt rushed and sketchy. The main plot dealt with infidelity, which is rarely looked at straight on, and I was interested to read a book that looked at it from the point of view of the three participants as well as the friends drawn into the drama. Schwartz gets a good start and developing all three people involved, but then the book ends, before much happens or the reader gets a chance to understand anybody in more than a cursory way. As for the 1963 tale, it was completely unnecessary and should have been omitted.
I wanted to like this book much more than I did, just because it's unusual to find a serious treatment of infidelity that avoids judgments and explains why it happens in a thoughtful way.
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young was just a fun look at the modern publishing industry in New York, where journalists have traded their integrity and independence for access. This could be mean spirited, but Young reserves the harshest criticisms for himself.
It was while I was reading this that Toby Young appeared on a panel on a BBC Radio4 program. He was introduced as Toby Young came out (and I thought "well this puts a whole new slant on events described") earlier this year as a capital c Conservative.. Oh well. At least in Britain conservatives are allowed to have a sense of humor (exhibit A: Boris Johnson, who is pretty much Bertie Wooster as a politician).
I've had Rain in the Distance by the Australian writer Suzanne Falkiner on my bookshelf since at least 1990. I was going to live for a year in Paris and was reading anything even remotely related to that city in preparation. The cover features a very eighties kind of girl sitting with the Eiffel Tower in the background. There are, in fact, two chapters in the middle of the book set in Paris, but it's not about Paris, by any stretch.
Here in my room, in the silence, I look at the last entry in this battered exercise book. I am looking for a pattern. But no pattern emerges, no structure. There seems to be so little to catch hold of, only the things that happen.
The Unnamed narrator of Rain in the Distance travels around Europe and South America. She remembers fragments of her childhood on an Australian sheep station, her years in a grim boarding school and time spent in the Sydney family home. She's aimless and isolated and although she's traveling through Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Salvador during times of great upheaval and terror she misses it entirely.
This book reads more like a memoir than a novel and there's a feeling of detachment that makes everything feel less important than it should be. Falkiner does describe Paris and South America beautifully, not in the sense of pretty vistas, but the cheap hotels and travel ennui are well rendered.
I read Suite Francaise more and more slowly as I went on. There's nothing that I can say about this amazing book that hasn't been said, and I'm one of the last people to read it.
Alas, I haven't read it (Suite Francais) yet, though it sits atop my TBR. Will be interested to read your response to the Children's Book.
I picked up Fingersmith because of the Read a Tome theme and the Orange July posting last week. And, once again, I can't believe that I had this book for months before I read it. It was glorious, a great, meaty novel with a twisty plot and a Victorian setting that moves back and forth between Dickensian and Gothic. There's a great house, crumbling down and an asylum and babies being fed spoonfuls of gin to keep them quiet. Just perfect.
>95 RidgewayGirl: Loved the comments on why you read about explorers and polar exploration: because I can't understand why someone would choose to do that to themselves. I have the same fascination, especially about Antarctic exploration. My hero is Sir Douglas Mawson, who lost both companions and spent 6 weeks alone on the ice in Antarctica trying to get back to his camp (1912-1913).
Actually, I feel the same way about The Strongest Man Competition, which I watch whenever I see it on TV: I can't believe they are doing that to themselves!
I can, at least intellectually, understand what drove explorers, especially with the lure of the Northwest Passage calling to them. What I find incomprehensible, and fascinating, is the drive to climb mountains, especially ones already summited by many others, like Everest. This season a 13 year old boy reached the peak and I can't figure out why his parents would allow him to take such a ridiculous risk and why they could not have put the $40,000 or so it costs to better use.
108/109 - I'm fascinated by polar explorations as well. I recently finished an ER book True North, a travel memoir of a former ad executive and his wife tagging along on a trapper's winter hunt in Labrador.
>102 RidgewayGirl: Is this the same Christina Schwartz who wrote All is Vanity? I read this and thought at the time that it didn't get the attention it deserved. If I remember correctly, it packed quite a punch (and a twist) at the end.
>107 RidgewayGirl: well we are both reading contemporary Victorian for the tome read. You, Sarah Waters, and me, JCO!
avaland, yes, it's the same Schwartz. I think that I'll probably return to her at some point. I just think that she rushed So Long at the Fair.
I enjoyed Fingersmith so much that I'm eager to read more set in that era. I have Slammerkin sitting around here somewhere.
The Children's Book is set almost forty years later, but some of the same themes prevail, such as the great disparity between the rich and poor. I'm halfway through that and Foucault's Pendulum and so it will be some time before I have a book finished. But you can't say I haven't embraced the Read a Tome theme.
The sign of a good series is that a new reader can pick up the latest one and not feel lost, while the faithful reader is not bored with long descriptions of events he has already witnessed. Stettin Station by David Downing is the third in a series of four books (so far) and I found it excellent, despite having never read the previous books.
Historical fiction, and especially stories that take place in Hitler's Europe as this one does, often fall prey to several common pitfalls. One, the protagonist understands the long-term implications of current events or predicts with startling accuracy what will happen next. Another is the cardboard Nazi. People can be nuanced and complex creatures until they join the Nazi Party and become EEEEEVIL. And, finally, the tremendously noble hero. In contemporary thrillers the protagonist can be flawed, but when it comes to WWII, the main character is often altruistic to the point of idiocy, and that the author allows them to save beautiful Jewish girls from rapacious SS Officers on a regular basis while carrying important secret documents.
Happily, Downing avoids all that. John Russell is an American of convenience, his British passport would no longer allow him to live and work in the Berlin of 1941. His connections and political sympathies lie far to the left and his only concern is getting his son, girlfriend and himself through the war and he's willing to do business with Nazis and to avoid helping the Americans to do so. He's not without principle and is trying to discover where the train loads of Jewish Berliners are going, but knowing who to trust and who is compromised is an impossible task.
Downing weaves a complex story of conflicted loyalties in a vividly rendered wartime Berlin. I'm looking forward to reading the other books in this excellent series.
It's been a slow reading month and Foucault's Pendulum is a densely packed book, necessitating a slower reading pace than I'm used to.
I'm still working my way through Foucault's Pendulum, but I paused to read my Early Reviewer book which had been hanging around for just long enough to start nagging me.
Blood Harvest is a British suspense novel that reminded me of Simon Beckett and a bit of Ruth Rendell's novels. It's set in a small village and features a vicar, but it's the opposite of a cozy. It was a good summer book and now I've plunged back into the Eco tome.
Happy Canada Day, everyone.
Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle is a group of short stories about young people, from children through young adulthood, whose families have broken down in some way. A few are unbearably sad and a few have moments of hope at the end.
The most poignant tells of a nine-year-old whose mother left and now her father has brought home a girlfriend. The best of the book was a story called Economics, in which a college freshman watches another girl crumble under the weight of familial expectation. It has the most gorgeous and unexpected ending, not happy by any stretch, but hopeful.
There's a bit of an MFA/writer's workshop feel to these stories, and a chatty tone which feels very much like a bloggy personal essay, but these aspects don't overshadow the quality of these stories.
I've been hunting down attractive copies of the books I loved as a child, for my own children to discover. Have you noticed how some children's books have jackets and blurbs that are designed to appeal to parents rather than children? I keep finding wonderful books that my daughter would not touch with a stick, let alone read, because the books are so unattractive to kids used to movies and games designed to appeal to them. They're just not so stuck for reading material that they'll be willing to crack open a book with an old-fashioned cover and copy that emphasizes the book's literary merits.
So, I found a pretty copy of Black Beauty and my kids were eager to have me read it to them. I loved this book as a child and it was fascinating to find that scenes that I hold vividly in my memory were much less colorfully described in the book, and that I had entirely forgotten long, exciting segments. And I discovered that Black Beauty is a fine example of Victorian propaganda. Not only is it a sermon on the way to treat your horse, with especial vehemence reserved for something called the curb bit, but there's a lot about the evils of drink and an undertone of class snobbery. My kids loved it.
Ooh, 'Black Beauty' is one of very few books I'm pretty sure I read as a kid (although I'm not 100% sure I did read it). I'm making a note to try it out with my kids sometime.
I have fond memories of this book as well. You know there is a sequel?
You know, I am wary of sequels. At least ones written in response to the popularity of the original. Even worse are the sequels written by other writers, as though they couldn't come up with there own characters. Although Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a bit different. I wonder if there's a Black Beauty mash-up destined for bookstore shelves?
I spent much of June working my way through Foucault's Pendulum. I had read this book originally not long after it had been released; I was living on a student's budget in Paris and buying books strictly on a value for money basis. I read FP then like a great, silly thriller and may have enjoyed it more that way, as a sort of excessively erudite and tongue in cheek Da Vinci Code. The main character, the descriptively named Casaubon, is a perennial grad student, in love with sitting in bars arguing on obscure philosophies with equally opinionated companions and that seemed pretty much the best of all possible worlds to me, especially if the bar was warm and dry and had cheap drinks on offer.
This time I took it seriously, and while I was impressed with the sheer immensity of Eco's intellect and his ability to dance and weave with words, it was much harder going this time. I was hampered by my utter and complete lack of interest in either conspiracy theories or esoterica. The history bits were interesting, especially when Eco showed how fiction turns to fact over time, especially when prejudices are being catered to. We see that all the time, even now when we should really and truly know better.
John Banville writes popular novels set in a 1950's Dublin under the name Benjamin Black and I adore them. They aren't really mysteries, although the protagonist, Quirke, a part-time pathologist and full time drinker, always works away at a mysterious death at the center of these bleak, dark tales. In Elegy for April, a friend of his daughter's has disappeared and her prominent family is forcefully covering things up. Quirke is trying not to drink, or to sink into despair. And Dublin is grey and rainy and cold. I do love this series.
Black Beauty was a favorite of mine too. I was probably about 7 or 8 when I read it.
Vacation is normally when I pull out some huge monster of a book, or something in German and dig in happily. This year, in the aftermath of Foucault's Pendulum, I opted for the traditional beach read.
I would have set aside The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton after the first few pages were it not for the positive reviews I read here. The language, especially the dialogue, is mannered and stilted. It all makes perfect sense in the end and it really couldn't have been written in any other way. The Rehearsal tells the story of the aftermath of a sex scandal at an all-girls high school and of the near-by drama school, whose freshman class decides to put on a play based on that scandal.
Lost at Sea tells of the dangers of commercial fishing in the Bering Sea brought about because of a criminal lack of regulation through the story of two sister ships, sailing from Anacortes, Washington, that are lost at sea on their first day of crab fishing. This book is similar in tone to The Perfect Storm.
Dogtown tells the stories of a selection of dogs who found their way to an animal sanctuary in Utah. They're the cream of the crop of animal rescue groups and take in dogs that other rescue groups are unequipped to handle. They have taken in dogs from Michael Vicks' dog-fighting ring, refugees from hurricane Katrina, dogs from the streets of Los Angeles, Puerto Rico and Lebanon. The book is not particularly well written, but if you're the type whose interested in animal rescue, you're not reading it for the elegant prose stylings.
Still Midnight is Denise Mina's weakest book to date. That said, it's still excellent. Morrow is a jaded, prickly detective, unable and unwilling to get along with others or to play the politics that would get her a promotion. When kidnappers grab an innocent old man, the story dives into the Glasgow underworld, Scottish Muslim society and an old man's memories of Uganda. The book ends simplistically and without the usual nuance that characterize Mina's writing. The rest was highly readable and well-done; it was as though she ran out of time and inspiration at the end. I'd highly recommend her astonishing Garnethill trilogy instead.
And what's more escapist than Alexander McCall Smith's cozy mystery series about Precious Ramotswe and her detective agency in Botswana? I read Teatime for the Traditionally Built, which was exactly like the previous nine novels.
"which was exactly like the previous nine novels": Sometimes that's the best kind of series!
123 - Have you seen the Dogtown show? It's a guilty pleasure of mine.
No, I haven't. But ever since the opening credits for Emergency Vets caused a pavlovian weeping response, I've steered clear of watching anything involving unhappy animals. I enjoyed the book, though. And cried only a reasonable amount.
I read Property by Valerie Martin for both Orange July and the Reading Through Time Forum's TIOLI themed read on Freedom. Manon is married to a Louisiana plantation owner. Sarah belongs to Manon, but Manon's husband has fathered Sarah's child. It's an almost unrelentingly grim story about how slavery taints everyone who comes into contact with it. It was beautifully written and Martin's portrayal of the difficult Manon was masterly, but this was never a book to enjoy, nor given the subject matter, should it be.
The Day the Falls Stood Still, the debut novel by Canadian writer Cathy Marie Buchanan was an out and out melodrama set in Niagara Falls during the construction of a large hydro-electric plant. There's everything from whiskey-soaked ruin to desperate suicide to a romance across class boundaries. It was a lot of fun to read.
I've just finished The Children's Book, Byatt's latest and a Booker Prize finalist. Wolf Hall better be pretty damn good, is all I'm saying.
The Children's Book is what is generally described as "sweeping". It covers twenty years in the lives of the members of a large family, the Wellwoods, as well as various other friends and relations, from a few years before the turn of the last century to the end of WWI. It opens with two boys discovering a third, who has been camping out in the museum that will become the V&A. How cool is that? The trespasser is Phillip Warren, who is fleeing the poverty and hopelessness of the lower working classes. He has a passion for pottery and the Wellwood family takes him under their distractedly benevolent wing as they prepare for their annual Midsummer's party. This party is lovingly, exhaustively, described by Byatt, from the preparations and arrivals through every conversation and event. The author jumps about, telling in detail of some events, skimming over others, with plenty of the historical detail, both political and artistic, added as the years progress.
The Arts and Crafts movement is beautifully detailed here, both in the setting up of the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the pottery and literature of the time. Charles, a son of the London branch of the Wellwoods, goes to Munich and experiences the vibrant artistic and political life in Schwabing. Another daughter involves herself in the suffragette movement. If the social history of the Edwardian era interests you, then you'll love this book. If William Morris and the Suffragette movement make you yawn, you might not want to read this one.
What if I don't know who William Morris or what the Suffragette movement or what the Edwardian era is?
Well, it's not an introductory class in the era, but anyone with a general grasp of history should be able to follow it, in as much as anyone can follow any historical novel. Byatt doesn't exactly write for the Dan Brown crowd, but she's not purposely obscure. I did dig out a book I have on the Arts and Crafts movement partway through the book, just to look at the pictures, especially of the pottery. I found The Children's Book much more accessible than Possession, whose characters I had trouble warming to. I will say that there was one very prominent character that I frequently wanted to shake some sense into and I did cry once, which I don't often do.
RG - Thanks. It was meant to be light question. I'm very interested in the book, but slightly intimidated by the slow pace I've heard it needs to be read. Your review is terrific.
Hmmm, maybe now would be the wrong time to mention that it took me a few months to read? Although I have a very hard time seeing how the fearless reader of Proust and Wallace could be intimidated by any book.
Slammerkin, like Sex and the City, is less about sex than it is about clothes, and the desire to have something pretty to wear. Mary is a girl living with her family in a two-room flat near Charing Cross in 18th century London when she is kicked out because of the allure of a bright red ribbon. Her path is never easy, but she remembers the three rules laid down by a friend; Never give up your liberty, clothes make the woman and clothes are the greatest lie ever told.
Mary's story is never boring. She may not have any material advantages or anyone to look out for her, but she's resilient and resourceful, quick and tough enough to survive anything. She's learned that compassion and pity are weaknesses to be both feared and exploited. Slammerkin reminded me of Fingersmith. It lacks Fingersmith's twists and turns, but both vividly evoke an England where only the strong survive.
It used to be that a good mystery was a good mystery and literary fiction and it's attendant awards were another world. Then authors like John Banville and Kate Atkinson wrote mystery novels and a new creature was born; the literary mystery. Of course, they've always existed. What else is Crime and Punishment or Murder in the Rue Morgue or any number of classics with a hint of suspense or crime? There have always been mysteries that had something out of the ordinary to say, or told the story in a different way, but now marketing's on to them and the possibilities of additional sales to book clubs or the promise of the publicity of awards.
As someone who loves a good mystery and relies on the shortlists provided by various awards to find new authors doing interesting things, I'm a likely target for the literary mystery label. It sucks me in every time.
The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge by Patricia Duncker begins in a very promising way. A group of bodies are discovered by hunters in the snow. They've arranged themselves in a semi-circle, with their dead children at their feet, all poisoned except for the central figure who was shot, the weapon nowhere to be found. A French commissaire and a judge who specializes in hunting down cults are called out. There had been a similar incident in Switzerland, but the authorities there had hushed it up, but this murder/suicide happened in France and Schweigen, the cop, and Carpentier, the judge, are determined to bring the guilty to justice.
This was a solid beginning, with characters who could be complex and interesting and a story that could be exciting and involved. All that potential is wasted, however. Schweigen is a direct descendant of Larry, Curly or Moe, only without the nuance. He messes up every interrogation he takes part in and reacts to everything without regard for appropriate behavioral norms. Carpentier is absolutely perfect. She's stunningly beautiful, charismatic, intelligent, tiny and every character in this book falls madly in love with her, from her administrative assistant, to the commissaire, to the people she investigates for murder. It's boring. At one point it's mentioned that she doesn't like music and I grasped this as the sole indication that the judge was human. Of course, she then is then moved to tears by Wagner.
The writing is also problematic. No one walks or drinks; instead they ooze and guzzle. The judge, we are often reminded, is wee. Everyone she speaks with looms or towers or bends over her. The simpler verbs are ignored. Here is a discussion in a kitchen:
He bulged into the entire space between the freezer and the door, like the gigantic symbol of the Macrocosm. She found herself smiling back at his candour and impertinence. The Judge knew, she always knew, when a man was lying; she had a nose for perjury, and this man was made of truth.
Oh, and that intriguing beginning? We only ever learn anything about one of the dead bodies. The rest are forgotten. As is the plot. At the very end things are tied up briefly and in passing.
Have you ever gotten a bit of a crush on an author after reading a few of his books? Have you ever thought that someone who write with such insight and compassion must be a truly kind person? And have you then, having attended a lecture or read an interview of the author, found out he was really kind of a pretentious jackass? The opposite thing happened to me as I read Manhood for Amateurs. I've read a few of Michael Chabon's books and formed an image of him, not of a pretentious jackass, but of being a guy's guy and somewhat testosterone-fueled. Not quite Hunter S. Thompson, but moving in that direction. Which, it turns out, is utterly the wrong impression.
Manhood for Amateurs is a collection of Chabon's personal essays, in which he talks about childhood and marriage and having children of his own. In Willam and I he talks about his reaction to being commended on his parenting skills by a stranger:
I don't know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child with simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks' worth of healthy but appealing breaktime snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr.. In a grocery store, no mother is good or bad; she is just a mother, shopping for her family. If she wipes her kid's nose or tear-stained cheeks, if she holds her kids tight, entertains her kid's nonsensical claims, buys her kid the organic non-GMO whole-grain version of Honey Nut Cheerios, it adds no useful data to our assessment of her. Such an act is statistically insignificant. Good mothering is not measurable in a discrete instant, in an hour spent rubbing a baby's gassy belly, in the braiding of a tangled mass of morning hair. Good mothering is a long-term pattern, a lifelong trend of behaviors most of which go unobserved at the time by anyone, least of all the mother herself.
So I'm not sure how I'll view the next novel of his that I read. I'm sure it will be just as full of male protagonists behaving like guys and engaging in manly adventures, but I wonder if I'll be reading it a bit differently, knowing that the author is a guy who cooks the meals and loves his family. Then again, maybe I'll run into an interview with him on Larry King or npr and discover that he actually is a bit full of himself. I hope not.
#137 That's a great excerpt, I'll have to share that...actually the whole post is quite entertaining.
137 - have you read The Yiddish Policemen's Union? That's very far from macho, despite some themes which might at first seem that way (noir thriller, alcoholic cop). It's a great read - maybe you could try that for your next one.
The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh is his first novel, isn't it? I was not very impressed by it - I don't think he'd really found his voice yet.
I'm feeling a little mean, here, what with me giving every other book I read an emphatic thumbs down. I picked up The Girl She Used to Be, the first novel by David Cristofano, from the new releases shelf at my local library because of the ecstatic blurbs on the back, the mention of he having a short story published in McSweeney's, and the plot summary.
The book is about a young woman who has spent her life from the age of six living in the Federal Witness Protection Program because of a mob murder witnessed by her family twenty years earlier. Her parents having been found and murdered, she lives her live both bored and afraid. She longs for relationships, but how can she connect with another person when she can't tell them the truth. Then she meets the son of the mob boss who had her parents killed and she is drawn to him, mainly because he knows who she is. I was intrigued, but in this case the whole adds up to much less than that idea.
Melody, who has also been known as Michelle, May and Anne, has a good sense of how unfair life is. She's hard to get to know, beyond her constantly renewed sense of grievance. In the course of being relocated, once again, by seriously the most incompetent federal agent not played by Chevy Chase, she encounters Jonathan and thus begins a trite, chick-lit style story that takes over anything interesting that had been developing. It's full of new clothes, which are miraculously a size smaller than she previously wore, and a carefully detailed day at a spa. Oh, and she falls in love with the violent man who nabbed her. Oh, and despite her desperate need to connect with anyone and her habit of parading naked in front of whoever's in charge of her, she's still a virgin. This is chick-lit written by a man and, boy, did it bring out my inner feminist. Jonathan is violent, but he has good reasons and he (and every other guy in the book) thinks she's really beautiful. She also needs a lot of rescuing. The emphasis on her "purity" really bothered me, especially when the sexual lives of the men around her are never an issue. And while I know that this is fiction and willing suspense of disbelief and all that, but every government agent as well as the entire government in general, is so incompetent as to boggle the mind. My cat could do a better job. There was a sub-text here that I really felt uncomfortable with. At the end Spoiler Alert she is still safely a virgin, and now she's wearing a purity ring, which is much more important in the world of this book, than believable plot, original sentences or a strong woman leading her own life. Blech.
OMG - that sounds absolutely awful! I hope you've copied that review to the book's page and given it a big fat half-star rating. I feel like going to take a shower after just reading your review!
Edited to say: just checked and the book has lots of 4 and 5 star reviews here at LT. I think you really need to copy that review over . . .
143 - Please, please copy your review to the book page. One, I want to thumb it just for Chevy, and two, the review there are far too bubbbly.
I went and posted that review, although I still feel mean.
For those of you who have liked Tana French's first two books, I am happy to report that she gets dramatically better with every book and Faithful Place is her best yet. The main character, Frank Mackey, is a detective running undercover operations in Dublin, Ireland. He cut ties with his family twenty-two years ago and once you get to know them, you'll understand why. There's a mystery about a girl who went missing the night he left, but the real story is about a dysfunctional family and how family ties exist even when there's abuse. French's portrayal is pitch perfect and I'm hoping she's working hard on her next book.
Ridgeway Girl, in 143 I think you are giving the real government and its agents too much credit.
OMG from me too! -- and that's because I read it last year and have no recollection of such a virgin emphasis and definitely didn't SPOILER! give the ring a purity interpretation but rather a larger romantic/emotional nod. Interesting take. Implausible and a definite diversion from my usual, but enjoyable enough.
You should put a big fat plot spoiler right in the middle of the review to mess up future readers of such trash.
Woo hoo! Your review of the Girl She Used to Be is a hot review today! Well done.
I always feel mean when I give a bad review too, and, especially when it is somethings others really liked. Then I feel like perhaps I have been superficial and missed something - definitely not the case for you. Part of that is knowing how hard it is to write. But poor writing is different from a poor (disempowering) spirit which it sounds like the author of your book had.
For me at least, it's harder to write a review for a book I really liked than for one I hated. What's interesting about someone going on and on about how really great a book is and how they really, really love it a lot? So, please take it as given that I really, really liked The Marriage Bureau for Rich People and add superlatives as appropriate.
Mr. Ali is retired and bored. His wife is frustrated with his continual presence disrupting her long-standing routine. So Mr. Ali sets up a small business as a marriage arranger to keep himself busy. He's soon busy and his wife finds him an assistant to help him. The story line is pleasant to read, but not slight. While the emphasis is on the light-hearted joys and tribulations of finding the right matches for his clients, Farahad Zama doesn't shy away from the more difficult aspects of Indian society. Mr. Ali's son is involved in protests around a planned industrial park and his assistant, Aruna, as well as his maid, have problems produced by poverty. Mr. Ali is a stubborn man, more so when he knows he is in the wrong.
The best thing about this book is the effortless way that it gives the reader a peak at daily life and marriage customs in India. Zama is Indian, but has lived for sixteen years in Britain. He understands what benefits from a brief description and writes well enough that those explanations flow naturally within the story. He writes vividly of the what, adding bits of why as needed. From a trip to shop for a new sari, to attending both a muslim and a hindi wedding, the reader is given a valuable and entertaining glimpse into another culture.
I have mixed feelings about Susan Casey's newest book, The Wave. She's the author of one of my favorite non-fiction books last year, The Devil's Teeth, which was one of those scattershot approaches to science and history that are so popular right now. You know, the kind of book which gives you a bunch of fun facts and exciting anecdotes about a subject, without going into too much detail or challenging the reader with difficult bits of the science. It sounds terrible, but when it works, it's entertaining and gives the reader a good jumping off point for further reading. In the case of The Devil's Teeth, Casey took the Farallons, a group of hostile islands west of San Francisco, and created an enticing mix of history and natural science (birds, sharks and currents) that was hard to put down.
She's less successful in The Wave and I'm not sure whether it was that the topic was too broad to be handled as the stream of consciousness of someone who is easily distracted, or because the heart of the book was not in a place that interested me. The concept of the book is that until recently it was believed that waves of 100 feet or more were simply impossible from the point of view of basic physics; the weight of the water would cause the wave to collapse upon itself before it grew that high, and eyewitness accounts (which are rare, for reasons of drowning) were overstated due to understandable excitement. Then an 850-foot long cargo ship went down in a storm and the wreck showed damage high up on it's structure. An oil platform was also hit by a rogue wave of over 100 feet high and damage to the structure proved the oil workers were not making things up.
Half of the chapters are about how scientists are studying the physics of waves, how global warming is influencing the size of waves (hint: they are getting bigger), describing instances of giant waves and their aftermath and in discussing how we are reacting to the challenge of rogue waves. This was all excellent, although I would have liked a great deal more. She only describes one event in any detail and the book would have benefited from describing more dramatic events and with paying more attention to them. I would have also liked more of the science, which seems to be complex and speculative.
The other half of the book, told in alternating chapters, was a sort of sports article about a year in the life of surfing king Laird Hamilton, who developed something called tow-surfing. As waves get bigger, they also get faster, so that traditional surfing, where the surfer paddles out to the wave and "catches" it no longer works. Instead, the surfer is chauffeured out to the wave on a jet ski and sort of flung at speed onto its face. The jet ski then drives round the wave to rescue the surfer at the end of his ride. This would have made a great twenty pages or so, but Casey looooves the daredevil romance of it all, in which Hamilton and his entourage of fellow surfers and photographers travel the world to ride the enormous waves generated by storms at sea, and describes day after day of Hamilton's surfing exploits in Hawai'i, California, Mexico and Tahiti. Frankly, Hamilton comes across as an entitled asshat and I quickly grew tired of his complaints about how surfing is no longer the pure sport he practices (as supported by his corporate sponsorships), or how he hates competitions (as he travels with photographers on hand to film his majestic rides) and anyone surfing where he wants to surf. I'm not someone who would pick up a sports biography, so I'm clearly not the right person to comment on that half of the book, but it became a little repetitive over time.
Still, the central topic is fascinating and anything written about our changing oceans is worth a read.
Just curious, when you say hostile islands off San Francisco, are you referring to the environment?
The Devil's Teeth describes them as a group of jagged rocks with no natural harbor, dangerous currents and a population of angry, breeding birds, all this patrolled by one of the largest populations of great white sharks in the world. Actively trying to kill you may be a better descriptor than merely implying the presence of guys with guns.
What was it, Andrew often wondered, about book people that made them so neglect personal hygiene? Other types of obsessive managed to change their underwear, brush their teeth, and utilise modern, effective deodorants, so why not book collectors? Books themselves, of course, could often smell so perhaps there was some semi-conscious attempt at empathy? A brotherhood of mustiness and sticky crevices?
Alice's Secret Garden by Rebecca Campbell begins like a fairy tale. Although set in a failing auction house in contemporary London, the main character, Alice, falls under a spell. She was already somewhat passive; now she sleepwalks through her days barely acknowledging the people in her path. Her co-worker, Andrew, has a crush on her, but he wouldn't mind shagging the office beauty, a mean girl named Ophelia. Andrew also has a friend, Leo, an odd looking professor who hides his loneliness behind belligerence and a quick wit. Alice, surprisingly, also has friends, especially Odette, who works in the City. A minor member of the nobility has a first edition of Audubon and Alice and Andrew are sent out to appraise it. If it's authentic, it could save the auction house. The book and its owner live in a modern glass house in the middle of the countryside, miles from anywhere and strangely gothic despite its clean lines and bright spaces. The owner is a brooding, Heathcliff-like guy who is drawn to Alice.
The story keeps its distance for the first half, sounding more like a tale than a novel. It eventually picks up, although the central story is never quite the most interesting thing. The characters are interesting, even Alice warms up as things get going, but it's the secondary characters who shine in this odd book. There's one quite unfair moment when the author hides the true state of things from only the reader, a cheap stunt to artificially create suspense, but on the whole, I liked it.
The Quarry by Damon Galgut is set along the South African coast, in a desolate town and the nearby even bleaker township. The main character is an unnamed fugitive who eventually catches a ride with a minister traveling to take up a new post in the township. The minister buys him a meal, but when he pulls off the road at a disused quarry near his destination to propose repayment, the man kills him. The man takes on the identity of the murdered pastor, but not in a clever or devious way; it's only the inattention of the people around him that allows him to get away with it for a time. The township is a wretched place, where anything of value is vandalized and anything of beauty is eroded by the harsh landscape.
The language Galgut uses is both terse and beautiful. There's not a wasted word, making the book reflect the paucity of its setting. I look forward to reading more by this author (I have The Good Doctor around somewhere), but will wait until I've read a few relentlessly cheerful books.
I'll first admit that Geraldine Brooks is not one of my favorite authors. People of the Book was a perfectly nice book, but it felt slight and insubstantial to me and I disliked Year of Wonders since it did the unforgivable for me in historical fiction; the good guys were modern people of liberal tendencies, just dressed in medieval garb and the bad guys were the ones who reflected a bit of how a person of that time would actually think and react.
March, on the other hand, was pitch perfect. It tells the story of the father in Little Women who goes off to the Civil War at the beginning of that book.
How often it is that an idea that seems bright bossed and gleaming in its clarity when examined in a church, or argued over with a friend in a frosty garden, becomes clouded and murk-stained when dragged out into the field of actual endeavor.
March is a man of high principle, living in Concord, Massachusetts, among such other idealists as Emerson and Thoreau. He's a vegetarian and an abolitionist and when the young men gather to march off to war, he feels morally bound to accompany them. War is not a place to keep one's principles and beliefs unsullied and March struggles with the task of behaving morally in a place where the right thing to do is not always clear or possible. Brooks also delves into the stress that a war-time experience places on a marriage in which the two people once sought to share everything, and how we misconstrue the actions and motivations of our partners.
March sounds fascinating, RG. I've never thought much about Mr. March's experiences while his "little women" kept the home fires burning. I know what you mean about authors of historical novels making their good guys share our modern sensibilities. It's annoying because it really dumbs down the history and the plot. My favorite historical authors are the those that can create characters who are entirely believable for their period but who share something a little more fundamental with us. Rosemary Sutcliff is the best example of this that I can think of — she's brilliant.
Andrew Pyper is a Canadian writer who excels in describing Canadian places, from small towns along the northern spine of Lake Superior to the big city of Toronto. In The Wildfire Season he moves west to the isolated community of Ross River, separated from the south by the St. Cyr mountains and lots and lots of space. People who live here refer to everywhere else as Outside. The scenery is gorgeous, but dangerous, the town is a dingy and battered collection of trailer homes and pre-fab buildings. There's a bar attached to a motel for hunters and a Chinese restauarant, but the town's employer has always been the government. Five men make up the forest-fighting team located here, but although the summer's been dry and wildfires are raging all along the west coast, there's been nothing here and with no fires, even these jobs will disappear.
I spent a little time with that Google Earth thing were you can wander around at street level while reading this book and I have to say that it was clear why even Whitehorse is considered an alien land. As a dark thriller, this was a good summer read, but the real strength was its depiction of rural Yukon Territory.
It took me a day and working against the will of LibraryThing's Will-I-Like-It, but The Wildfire Season is now on my wishlist.
Nickelini, considering the havoc you have played with my wishlist over time, I can only be happy to have exacted a modicum of revenge.
tomcatMurr, certainly not! And the occasional mustiness is hardly discernible.
Mr.Durick, you are indeed brave to go against LT's version of the Magic Eight Ball.
Remember what an amazing book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer was? Yes, that book, the one about the disastrous climbing season on Everest in 1996. So Dark Summit by Nick Heil is about the disastrous climbing season on Everest in 2006. Things have changed on the highest mountain on earth, but not for the better. For one thing, it's become really big business, with tons of money to be made ferrying aging cardiologists and hedge fund managers to the top. Base camp now features enormous pavilions that, while temporary, feature things like large screen TVs and jacuzzis. 2006 saw about 400 climbers on each side of the mountain. The south side, in Nepal, is the one where Krakauer set his book, but the north side, in Tibet, was mentioned, remember? That's where a team of Japanese climbers walked by three dying Indian climbers, despite having been asked for help. And it was shocking because although events on the other side were dreadful, no one thought that getting to the summit was worth more than the lives of three guys.
So times have changed and Everest is big business and your profits next year have everything to do with how many of your clients summit this year. In a nutshell, if you stop and help that guy, you might not be in business next year. Besides, that guy's someone else's responsibility and there are dozens of other climbers in front of you and behind you. It's not like if you don't act, this guy is certain to die. Also, the special challenges faced by your clients are getting larger every year. Among the climbers in 2006 were a double amputee, a fifteen year old boy and a technically blind guy as well as lots of clients who are simply not mountaineers at all, but reasonably fit middle-aged guys who could afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars and expected value for money.
I'm not saying that the romance is gone, it just takes a break for most of the month of May around Everest. With so few days where the weather allows climbers to summit and so many climbers, people are held up all along the mountain as inexperienced climbers struggle through the more difficult bits of the climb. Time at the summit is limited and there's a line at the top waiting their turn at the top of the world. Also, since bodies don't decay in that cold, dry world, the number of corpses each climber passes increases each year.
Dark Summit was interesting, in its way, but sad and depressing too.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen is set in Estonia between 1939 and 1992, a time span in which Estonia was occupied first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, then, for a much longer time, by the Soviets again, to eventually achieve independence that brought with it the emergence of criminal gangs. Aliide has lived in a village in western Estonia throughout those turbulent times and she's survived horrible things, things which have made her a survivor. Now she's hanging on, hated by her neighbors and hoping to get her family's land back. Zara shows up one morning in her yard, filthy and frightened. Aliide is worried that Zara's been sent by a criminal gang, but she takes her in nonetheless and a guarded friendship builds between the women. They both have a lot to hide and things to hide from and as their relationship develops, the story moves back and forth between their present and the pasts that they're trying to bury.
Purge is an excellent and nuanced story of a place and time that would challenge anyone. Oksanen writes eloquently of rural Estonian life among the birch trees and cows and fear, where what a family member did can destroy your life unless you do what you need to do to preserve it. This wasn't always an easy book to read; Oksanen doesn't linger over the atrocities, but neither does she brush over them, but it was a compelling and important book about a place and time I know too little about.
I picked The Profiler by Pat Brown up off of my library's new release shelf on a whim and, boy, do I regret it.
Pat Brown was an ordinary home-schooling stay-at-home mom when a woman was murdered in her neighborhood and just four weeks earlier her family had rented a room to an odd man. Coincidence? She thought not and "investigated" her boarder, bringing the police a box of evidence along with her request that they question him about the murder. The police were strangely unimpressed and declined to follow up. She was surprised, but undaunted. How could it be, she thought, that I can find murderers so much better than the police? Her husband thought she should forget about their now ex-boarder, so she divorced him and carried bravely on. When she discovered that to become the sort of profiler recognized by law enforcement would take too long and involve boring years of work, she taught herself how to profile and set herself up as an Investigative Criminal Profiler. Despite not charging the families of the victims who ask for her help a single dime, not even expenses, she's managed to make a nice living. The key, of course, is television.
The first half also features a little too much information. I'm not sure how the fact that she breastfed each of her children for two years, for example, ties into criminal profiling at all.
The second half of the book is a collection of her accounts of her best work, and where the whole thing breaks down, credibility-wise. Does it not seem odd that when she has her long and illustrious career to look back on, that in all the profiles she put together not one led to an arrest? I may be nit-picking here, but how can she be sure that she's found the true culprit in all of these cases when her conclusions are never tested and the police don't agree with her? She believes that powerful people have vested interests that they're protecting. Maybe, but every time? Also, she admits that she receives very little cooperation from law enforcement and so bases her profiles on much less than an examination of all of the evidence. She does talk to family members and the witnesses willing to talk to her and she does visit crime scenes (thus accounting for the "investigative" in her job title), but often years after the crime. The reader is only privy to her thoughts and reasoning on any case, so it always sounds plausible, but plausible in the way that any viewpoint sounds good when it's the only one you've heard. In high school I had a wacky history teacher who showed us the Zapruder film several times while explaining that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone. We all believed him. We were a group of Canadian high school students who had never given it any thought at all, so we swallowed his point of view. That's what this book felt like. With nothing to judge her conclusions against, they sound perfectly plausible. But if she's so good, shouldn't at least one of her suspects been arrested? Why couldn't she get a single member of law enforcement to believe her?
Purge sounds like a good read, and I will avoid the Profiler. I am curious about the area of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania during the Soviet era and before.
By the way, you are in an interesting position - your thread I mean. You are now the last on page 1 when you order by topic. I was in a similar position, when someone added a new thread I was knocked off the page but did not appear on page 2, as if there were one slot reserved for oblivion. If this happens to you, order by something else and you will reappear.
Hmm, although it might be interesting to be sent to oblivion for a short time. Is it a musty chaise-longue located in the drawing room of a fin-de-siecle apartment in a country that doesn't exist anymore? I'll bet absinthe is served.
Can you tell things are busier than I'd like them to be?
I'm not sure where the drawing room is. I can't see out. But there is this odd little pool where I keep tossing pebbles and they make no ripples.
Ah, I saw her on television once long ago and liked her. Sounds like a good book, (or two). Nice review Tomcat.
I've added it to my wishlist. I wonder what the bookstores are like here. Warrens of unsorted books, I expect.
Returning from Oblivion now, having added Hav to my list of books to read tomorrow.
I was agast when The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt did not win last year's Man Booker Prize. I won't say that I wept, but there was some gnashing of teeth and I instantly took against Wolf Hall, on principle.
Also, I will admit that I enjoy getting worked up over books. They should incite passion and, in the best of all possible worlds, running street battles. (Yes, I am thoroughly loving the current love/hate thing going on in the media over Jonathan Franzen's new book. It sure beats blogs and articles about Sarah Palin or Kayne West any day.)
So now I have to eat my former thoughts (hopefully I did not say too many of them aloud). Wolf Hall deserves its golden accolades. It is the best book I have read this year, in a year that has brought me both the aforementioned The Children's Book and also The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
There is a sequel planned. I can only hope that Mantel will be a little speedier than Vikram Seth is being with his sequel to A Suitable Boy.
Good to see. I have a copy of Wolf Hall right here, just arrived a few days ago from the LT Early Reviewers. I'm going to read another book first, though...at least that was my plan.
books should incite passion and, in the best of all possible worlds, running street battles.
lol hear hear
I have a great fondness for noirish crime novels set in the north, so when I snagged Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason from the Early Reviewers program I was enormously pleased. Indridason is an Icelandic author and this book, one of a series of police procedurals, is set in Reykjavik in the winter. In Arctic Chill, the body of a boy is found near the apartment building in which he and his mother and brother live. His mother is Thai and although his father is Icelandic, the suspicion of the police is that this was a racially motivated murder.
The investigation is led by the dour and unfriendly Erlender, a man who is less lonely and wounded than asocial. He's an interesting variation on the usual loner detective and although his behavior is partially explained by events in his childhood, he is an unpleasant guy. He is haunted by an earlier missing woman case and can't let it go.
The novel's setting is an integral part of the story and, in the course of the investigation, Indridason explores the impact of immigrants, primarily from Asia, on the small Icelandic population. In comparison to events in the United States (where I am) the racism is mild and calmly addressed, but what really struck me about Indridason's Iceland is the isolation in which people choose to live. Marriages break up with very little thought and children are abandoned by their fathers who leave without having to support their offspring in any way and people live next to neighbors they never get to know. All this is amplified by the early dark and relentless cold of the Icelandic winter.
>179 RidgewayGirl: Nice review. Is this the first Indridason novel you have read? While Arctic Chill is the latest to come out in the US, Hypothermia is the one after that and out in the UK. His forthcoming book in the UK - something with Napoleon in the title, isn't part of the mystery series. Erlandur does evolve somewhat if you read him from the beginning, Jar City (different title in the UK), especially since you don't know his background until he's ready to deal with it, but yeah, he's still pretty anti-social. And I love your word "dour", I think I might have called him "morose" - he makes Wallander seem positively angelic! Do you read Yrsa Sigurdadottir also? Also set in Iceland, the protagonist is a single mom, female lawyer. Not quite so urban, more pulls in more history than contemporary issues.
I'm going to be in Reykjavik in November for a couple of days stopover and am psyched.
Arctic Chill is my first Indridason. I have Jar City and will read it soon. I had a similar thought--that I could imagine knowing Wallender, but wouldn't want to have Erlendur over for dinner.
I'm jealous! I spent time with Google Earth exploring Iceland during the reading of this book and was struck by the wildness of the land, but also that it's an island, and not a particularly large one, that holds a country with its own language and culture, with only 320 thousand inhabitants.
I've really enjoyed catching up with all your reviews. Your thread is an example of why "reading" LT is nearly as good as sitting down with a good novel.
Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists revolves around an international newspaper based in Rome. Each chapter is a story about a member of staff, with another story about the founder of the paper set in pieces throughout the book. The newspaper is losing money and has done for years, even as it refuses to modernize in any substantial way and it's filled with a motley group of ex-pats and malcontents.
The Imperfectionists is cleverly written, so much so that I had to reread occasional paragraphs, just to enjoy the use of language. Each story, no matter how light and subtly humorous it is, has a melancholic edge. I read this based on what a few people here commented about it, not occurrence by any means.
I think I'll put The Imperfectionists on my wish list. I may be going way off base here, but your review (as well as others of this book) reminds me of why I can, say, get hooked on a really stupid reality show--I just like to watch/listen to people--to maybe see what they don't always see about themselves. There's always that aspect of *my* story, *your* story...that makes a show or a book with overlapping stories interesting. Actually, that's what I often enjoy on LT--listening to other people's conversations. (People are just so clever/funny here!) OK, now I'm making myself sound weird, so I'm just going to slink away. Thanks for the review--thumbed it. Oops! I tried to, but couldn't find it.
I got into a spirited discussion with an old friend over the bias in publishing that only allows male authors to be "serious", as exemplified by the recent canonization of Jonathan Franzen as the Great American Novelist. We eventually agreed that the bias is real, but that Franzen's not personally responsible. He did, after all, complain that "male is the default position" and his female characters are well-rounded and sympathetically portrayed; which is more than can be said for any of the last group of writers that vied for that title (but especially Phillip Roth). All that discussing led to me picking up The Corrections for a second time.
It's worth rereading. There's so much there and I found new connections and insight (I didn't have children the last time I read The Corrections) and enjoyed revisiting the Lambert family. There's not a sympathetic member of that family, and Franzen shows them at their petty worst and then manages to make the reader understand them.
She'd never really known her father. Probably nobody had. With his shyness and his formality and his tyrannical rages he protected his interior so ferociously that if you loved him, as she did, you learned that you could do him no greater kindness than to respect his privacy.
There's a marvelous section which begins with
It was true that Al had asked her to move the jars and magazines, and there was probably a word for the way she'd stepped around those jars and magazines for the last eleven days, often nearly stumbling on them; maybe a psychiatric word with many syllables or maybe a simple word like "spite." But it seemed to her that he'd asked her to do more than "one thing" while he was gone. He'd also asked her to make the boys three meals a day, and clothe them and read to them and nurse them in sickness, and scrub the kitchen floor and wash the sheets and iron his shirts, and do it all without a husband's kisses or kind words. If she tried to get credit for these labors of hers, however, Al simply asked her whose labors had paid for the house and the food and linens? Never mind that his work so satisfied him that he didn't need her love, while her chores so bored her that she needed his love doubly. In any rational accounting, his work canceled her work.
and concluding with
There was something almost tasty and almost sexy in letting the annoying boy be punished by her husband. In standing blamelessly aside while the boy suffered for having hurt her.
What you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn't always agreeable or attractive.
Here's a final quote. If this repels you, maybe don't read The Corrections.
Her fear, as she descended the stairs, was like a fear from the unhappy year of her childhood when she'd begged for a pet and received a cage containing two hamsters. A dog or a cat might have harmed Enid's fabrics, but these young hamsters, a pair of siblings from a litter at the Driblett residence, were permitted in the house. Every morning, when Denise went to the basement to give them pellets and change their water, she dreaded to discover what new deviltry they'd hatched in the night for her private spectation--maybe a nest of blind, wriggling, incest-crimson offspring, maybe a desperate pointless wholesale rearrangement of cedar shavings into a single great drift beside which the two parents were trembling on the bare metal of the cage's floor, looking bloated and evasive after eating all their children, which couldn't have left an agreeable aftertaste, even in a hamster's mouth.
You scared me for a moment. I thought the last paragraph might be about child abuse or wife beating. I can handle the hamsters.
No, there's lots of shouting and a dinner of revenge featuring both mashed rutabagas and fried liver, but no actual child abuse or beatings.
Well, I like liver, and mashed rutabagas don't sound so bad, but maybe that's because I don't exactly know what they are, I'm imagining something like turnips, which I also haven't eaten.
I enjoyed your comments about and excerpts from The Corrections. I'm currently reading his latest novel, and I'm enjoying it so far.
"Franzen shows them at their petty worst and then manages to make the reader understand them."
That's what I felt he did in Freedom, which I enjoyed, though the characters were more or less the kind of people I've tried to avoid in my life. I've got The Corrections on my shelves and hope to get to it in the next few months. Thanks for the interesting take on it.
Those quotes were great and that last line was hilarious--I'm still laughing! His new book is a good excuse for finally reading Corrections, which I already have on my shelf.
I've read a few books since, two mysteries, To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman and The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt. Both were well-written (although at one point Blunt describes something as being pale white which I'm still wondering about.) and gave a real sense of their settings, in Lippman's case, Baltimore county and the middle of Ontario in Blunt's. Entertaining trifles that were a pleasure to read, but I don't expect to remember them in a few years.
The Roaring Girl was the title of a book of short stories by Canadian author, Greg Hollingshead. They were interesting, with a purposefully vague sense of geographical location and a way of describing events that set me at a distance from each story, even when they were told in the first person. Most concerned the odd way children understand adult events or dealt with how badly people communicate with each other. The best story concerned a box of supplies intended for Sudan, but due to carelessness by pretty much everybody, ends up donated to a local charity.
I started The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby a few weeks ago expecting a good noir-style mystery set in an exotic place. I got so much more. The Master of Rain does read like it could be filmed in black and white; it's filled with men in suits wearing fedoras and smoking, there's a beautiful woman with secrets and a hero feeling his way through treachery and intrigue, but at heart it's a dense historic novel.
It took me only a few pages in to realize how very little I knew about Shanghai in the 1920s. It was a big Chinese city, but at the centre lay an area controlled by American and British Commercial interests, called the International Settlement, bordered on one side by the French Settlement and surrounded by a China in turmoil as Mao's forces destabilize the country and leave plenty of room for criminal forces to take control of the Chinese parts of Shanghai. The city is also flooded with Russian refugees in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
Into this comes Field, a Yorkshireman hired as a policeman and assigned to the special forces, that is, to the political branch of the police. Immediately, he is called out, with an American cop, to the scene of a murder; a Russian woman found brutally slain in an apartment block owned by the Chinese mob boss who controls much of the city. And so begins a fast-paced and complex story that swings from the upper echelons of expat society to the desperate world of emigre Russians trying to survive in a hostile city.
sounds fabulous. I love 1920 SHanghai and that whole scene. Have you seen the John Cusack movie Shanghai?
I always like books that serve up a little history And culture along with a good story. I'll have to check out Master of the Rain when I'm looking for a mystery. Did you think the movie was good, Tomcat?
Few books are ever translated into English, so for years I've been enjoying the increased number of dark Scandinavian crime novels translated into English thanks first to Henning Mankell and more recently to Stieg Larsson. From Karin Fossum, to Karin Alvtegen to Hakan Nesser and on and on, they've all been very good. So it was inevitable that those northern European countries would eventually run out of amazing writers of crime fiction and the not-so-talented authors would get there chance at the American book buying public.
The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg is not a terrible book. Erica, the author of a series of biographies of Swedish women, returns to her hometown, a small coastal village, upon the sudden deaths of her parents. She's going through their things and working on her latest book, when she finds the body of a childhood friend. The mystery of Alex's death, who killed her and the unraveling of her final hours interests Erica, who sees a book in it. Did Alex really have a romantic relationship with the town drunk? And how is the most powerful family in town involved?
There could be a good crime novel here, but the book is let down by the sloppiness of the writing. In one scene, the police officer realizes that he's been wearing the same clothes for three days, because he has just started a steamy relationship with Erica (and, seriously? Five times a night?). In the following scene, Erica sends her sister up to her room and then is embarrassed because her new lover has left his clothes scattered everywhere. It's things like that that make me think I'm reading a first draft and to wonder why I should take the time to read the damn thing when it's clear the author didn't.
There's an alarming veer over into chick-lit when Erica meets Officer Patrik and begins to worry a lot about what underwear to wear and how many weight watchers points are in any given food. Oddly, her new love echoes her concerns and spends loads of time choosing outfits and bemoaning the size of his ass.
The secondary characters are paper-thin caricatures with women often portrayed as ice-cold bitches or gold-digging tramps and the men as abusers or careless philanderers.
And, finally, the mystery is held together by a series of documents whose contents the people in the book are privy to long before the reader. If the mystery could be cleared up using knowledge held by the main characters, I call cheating. I was surprised to read on the flap that Lackberg is a ginormous bestselling author in Sweden, but then again, I'm often surprised by what makes the lists here.
Freedom is much like Jonathan Franzen's last book, The Corrections, only more so. If you liked his story of a dysfunctional family from the midwest, you'll love his new tale of a liberal, midwestern family with issues of their own.
The book begins with a summary of the life that Walter and Patty Berglund built for their young family in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. It shows how neighbors saw the nice Berglunds, but quickly moves on to Patty telling her own story in the third person, a very different tale altogether.
Franzen's not one who will amaze the reader with the beauty of his prose or the delicate intricacies of his language. Where he excels, and excels in a startling, astonishing way, is how he can write simultaneously with contempt and with great compassion about his all too human characters. He also is able to detail the way family members love each other and yet can't communicate or willfully miscommunicate with each other. And even as the Berglunds royally mess up their own lives, he allows them moments of forgiveness and grace.
I really bristle at writers who let their contempt show--it's "hot button" for me, but I'm going to finish Corrections (realistically, some time next year) because of your reviews of both his books.
I've never been a fan of James Ellroy's noir-tinged novels set in post-war Los Angeles. He's got the hard-boiled patter down, but the stories never felt real. Twenty years ago, however, he wrote a book about his mother and, despite the unrelenting patois, the book sizzles with dysfunction and a reconciliation forever lost. In My Dark Places, Ellroy revisits his mother's murder from the direction of a cold case. He'd been ten years old at the time, his parents were divorced and his relationship with his mother was not great. He had wished her dead just three months earlier. My Dark Places is an amazing book. It's not particularly well-written, Ellroy can't leave the detective magazine lingo behind and refers to his mother, somewhat disconcertingly, as the Redhead throughout the book, but it resonates with emotion and regret.
The Hilliker Curse is his follow-up memoir and in it he attributes his string of failed relationships to his abruptly truncated relationship with his mother. He's not without self-awareness, something that is usually missing in books about infidelity (see Julie Powell's Cleaving): I always get what I want. I more often than not suffocate or discard what I want the most. It cuts me loose to yearn and profitably repeat the pattern. He's selfish to an astonishing degree, driven, self-obsessed and deeply religious (the justifications for breaking up marriages, his own and those of the women he meets are a little shaky).
Ellroy begins with his own parents' marriage. They divorced when he was young, or as Ellroy put it: My parents split the sheets later that year. Jean Hilliker got primary custody. She put my dad on skates and rolled him to a cheap pad a few blocks away. Ellroy's father gets him back after his mother's murder, but isn't what could be even loosely termed a good father. Ellroy ends up in a wretched basement apartment, hooked on Benzedrex inhalers and any pills he finds in the Hancock Park homes he breaks into. He has, not surprisingly, trouble finding a girl willing to go out with him.
Surprisingly, Ellroy's odd pulp-fiction language serves this book well. It would just be too intense without the distance of obsolete idioms. He gets clean, using AA as a support and a place to meet women: Only lonely and haunted women would grok my gravity. They were sister misfits attuned to my wavelength. Only they grooved internal discourse and sex as sanctified flame. Their soiled souls were socked in sync with yours truly.
As Ellroy's fortunes improve, it becomes more apparent what an ass he is. All the heavy lifting in relationships is done by his partners. When married, he does not do any domestic chores, but needs to eat well and live in nice surroundings. He prefers solitude with his partner of the moment and so discourages any sort of social life in his wives. He hates other places. Amsterdam is described as Truly Shitsville and he leaves sightseeing in Paris for the geeks, freaks and fruitcake artistes.
What saves this book in the end is Ellroy's honesty and a sense of fair play toward the women in his life. The relationships may have all soured, but he's willing to put the blame squarely on his own shoulders, and even figures out toward the end that his mother was not the bad guy in his story.
>196 RidgewayGirl: Have you tried Asa Larsson? I have liked her mysteries. I've enjoyed Mankell, Fossum's work (I've read 3) doesn't grab me, and I just read 2 of Alvtegen's psychological suspense novels (liked "Missing" more than I did "Betrayal") and liked them well enough. Have you wandered over to Iceland yet? Indridason & Sigugardottir?
I like Karin Fossum, although she is quieter than Henning Mankell. I've read a few of Karin Alvtegen's books and they remind me of Barbara Vine, all psychological suspense.
I read my first Indridason last month and liked it, I have a Sigugardottir on my TBR. I haven't read any Asa Larsson, but I think I have one of hers in a german translation. I'm stuck midway through a book by Hakan Nesser and will need to finish that before jumping into another. The Lacksberg book was just a reminder that just because all the books I've read so far of a certain kind were good, it doesn't follow that that will always be the case.
>200 RidgewayGirl:, I recently listened to a podcast with Ellroy talking about this book. I certainly didn't warm to him!
I read The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen, which was a light, enjoyable read. Allen writes gentle romance novels set in North Carolina in which she inserts touches of magic realism. This should be the exact type of book that makes my eyes roll upward, but there is a genuine charm here that makes it impossible for me not to enjoy them. In The Sugar Queen the town tramp moves into the closet of a woman dutifully looking after her elderly mother and pushes her into forging a more independent life. Another character has suitable books appearing next to her when she needs them.
Then there was The Devil's Rooming House, which could more accurately be called The Devil's Assisted Living Care Facility but I can see why they went for the somewhat snappier title. This is a book in the mold of The Devil in the White City, combining the story of a serial killer with a larger event, although this one was a bit of a stretch, using a twelve day long heat wave as the framing event.
I enjoy social histories, with their emphasis on how ordinary people lived. When they are done well, they are riveting, as in the aforementioned The Devil in the White City and in The Worst Hard Time. The Devil's Rooming House is not one of the good ones, however. The story concerns one of the first retirement homes in the United States, set up in Windsor, Connecticut a hundred years ago, set up to provide a place to live, meals, assistance and a funeral for those elderly in need of a home. The owner, Amy Archer, allowed inmates to pay monthly, but the real bargain was a lifetime residency for a thousand dollars. It took a surprisingly long time, several years in fact, for the unusually high death rate in the Archer home to be noticed and even longer for enough evidence to be collected to arrest Archer. She might have continued for decades had not many inmates had relatives greedy for any money left over.
Which makes the framing device of a heat wave less than effective. There were chapters devoted to what should have be a magazine article at best. It was interesting, but didn't fit the book. Also distracting was the author's disinterest in the mechanics of the poisonings. Whenever another disease was blamed for a death the author would define the disease using an internet based definition and move on. A stronger book could have been written using the murders as a frame to discuss medical care and common illnesses of the time, but the author chose to quote from dictionary.com and move on before things could get interesting. This left very little book, so he filled pages with the making of the play Arsenic and Old Lace.
Well, neither of those books sound all that good to me, but your reviews are always entertaining, so I'm happy. :-)
The Cruel Stars of the Night by Kjell Eriksson is a Scandinavian crime novel very much in the manner of Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum and Karin Alvtegen. A tired and lonely detective, an odd series of murders and a close look at people who fail to connect. It was an interesting story, with a troubled woman whose depiction reminded me of Barbara Vine at her best. The story lost a little credibility at the end, but I'll be looking for other books by this author and adding them to my pile of dark, Nordic books which have the odd effect of being comfort reads.
Remember when they caught the BTK killer? How he disappeared for years until he was just another lurid cover in the true crime section at your local bookstore, but then he resurfaced, still in Wichita, to send notes to the cops until he was caught? And then it turned out that he was a church deacon and a husband and had a family? Well, the idea that a serial killer, an especially brutal one at that, was able to conform so completely to society is fascinating, isn't it? I'll confess that I read a book about it and that it was just about as unilluminating as you might expect. Except that there was one little sentence in that badly written book that has stayed with me. A throw-away sentence that says only that this guy's wife knew nothing about his activities and is completely innocent. Think about that. Could you be married for decades and not know that about your spouse? How much do you think you know? How much do you really know?
Antonya Nelson has written Bound, in which she explores this somewhat obliquely. Catherine grew up in Wichita while the BTK killer was roaming the streets. Her best friend lived three doors down from where the first of his victims were murdered. Now she's married and the BTK killer has begun sending messages to the cops again. Catherine's the third wife of a successful businessman, who is falling in love with whom he hopes will be wife #4. Catherine then gets word that her childhood friend has died, naming her as the guardian for her teenage daughter.
I thought it was clever the way Nelson used a philandering husband, rather than a murderous one to explore the themes of secrets and how the past impacts our present. Oliver, the husband, guards his privacy well, even the things that he doesn't need to keep secret from his compliant wife.
She was going to turn from an unattractive teenager into an unattractive woman, large-boned, unsmiling, unflustered, skeptical--a prison guard, a Mother Superior, a landlady. Oliver liked these qualities in men, but in women he preferred a bit of nervous laughter, a tentative element of inquiry, hesitation, and the capacity to blush or jump in alarm. the gestures of low self-esteem, that charming hardship, that sexy chink.
He picked the name himself--it stood for "bind, torture, kill". He was in Wichita, KS in the late 70s, stopped killing, then started sending messages to the police in the 90s. He was caught when the police reassured him that a floppy disc could not be traced. He'd used his church's PC.
Not entirely sure why I know all that.
Thanks, I'd never heard of this before. Interesting how these things make such an impression on us.
The Lost Child by Julie Myerson tells the story of a mother whose son stops going to school, who becomes a different person. It takes the parents months to realize that more is going on than just teenagerhood, that their previously happy, well-adjusted son has become a drug addict. Then there's the longer stretch where they discover that love and support aren't going to help him, and finally the point, after he's stolen and lied and intimidated and hit her, that he has to leave for the sake of the remaining family members. Then they let him return, because they miss him, because the thought of him sleeping in a doorway or going hungry is intolerable. This story is raw and honest and powerful. It's well worth reading, whether or not you have children, just to understand a little of what so many people go through.
This is, however, a relatively small part of the book. The larger portion is where Myerson researches the life of a nineteenth century family, and especially the second youngest child, who dies young. They were an ordinary upper class family, and the details are sometimes sketchy. One gets the feeling that Myerson is using this research as a way of retreating from her son's story; it's certainly how this is used in the book. As the situation at home intensifies, she pulls the reader away to the slow process of research, dusty documents and bemused decedents. It's interesting, but in a slower, subdued way. It doesn't mesh with the wrenching drama of the modern segments.
The book ends when it ends, without resolution. Myerson's son is still out there, denying his problem. Myerson includes several of her son's poems and they are exactly what one would expect from a self-pitying teenager.
This book is flawed, but it's important, being an honest and raw account of how a parent feels and adapts to losing a beloved child to addiction. It's not a misery memoir or a how-to guidebook. It doesn't preach or whine, but simply lays out a good parent's anguish at discovering that one can provide all the love and security in the world and still be unable to protect the very person one loves the most.
Michael Cunningham's newest book comes out about five years too late. By Nightfall concerns Peter Harris, a SoHo loft-dwelling art dealer married to Rebecca, an arts magazine editor. Their lives are just how they want them to be, allowing them to look on everyone richer, poorer or not living in the right parts of Manhattan with a sort of amused contempt. They do have problems; a moderately estranged child who didn't finish college, but dropped out to bartend, Peter's a little tired of the art scene and Rebecca's little brother has come to visit and may be doing drugs again.
The rich can have problems, there's no question of that, but wealth can smooth the edges and consequences in a way that does make it harder to sympathize. When Rebecca's brother, Mizzy, who has dropped out of Exeter and Yale several times, complains that his family doesn't have the money to put him into the comfortable kind of rehab that might tempt him to stay, it's hard to find much sympathy. And when Rebecca and Peter laugh mockingly about the possibility of any sort of art existing in Billings, Montana, they lost the small amount of sympathy they'd built up with me. Not because I have any particular fondness for Billings; I've never even been there. It's just hard to pity characters who are charmless snobs.
The story itself is slight. Mizzy comes to stay with Rebecca and Peter and Peter, tired of his job, becomes involved in Mizzy's life in an unwise way. The characters are, as mentioned above, unlikeable in the way that Anna Wintour is unlikeable; not through their own personal afflictions, but because they are so contemptuous of those they perceive as beneath them. But the writing is lovely. There's a passage where Peter explores Manhattan at night that is perfectly written and even the more ordinary chapters are beautiful.
They were in what the Taylors called the junk room, because it was the only room except Cyrus and Beverly's that had a double bed. It had once been a guest room but, the Taylors having more use for junk than they did for guests, had long been devoted to storage, with the understanding that the occasional guest could always be installed there, with apologies.
Some--many--would have found this room disheartening, would in fact have been unnerved by the Taylors' entire lives. Peter was enchanted. Here he was among people too busy (with students, with patients, with books) to keep it all in perfect running order; people who'd rather have lawn parties and game nights than clean the tile grout with a toothbrush (although the Taylors' grout could, undeniably, have used at least minor attention).
In 1985, Jan Morris visited the imaginary Mediterranean country of Hav and stayed several months delving into the geography, culture and history of this tiny, and somewhat isolated, country. It's an odd mix of cultures as Hav was deemed of symbolic strategic importance now and then, so there's a mix of Arab, Turkish, Russian, Chinese, French, British and German influences. It's all a bit tatty and run-down, but not without a great deal of charm.
Morris returns to Hav twenty years later, after the military takeover known as the Intervention, to find a new Hav, commercial and tightly controlled, built over the rubble of the country she'd known.
This was a slow read for me; since Hav is imaginary I felt free to build my own mental image of it as she described things. I grew fond of the decaying peninsula with its sea urchin soup and out-dated idioms. Morris is an excellent travel writer of the old school; she's not seeking spiritual enlightenment from the natives, nor is she seeking to change them in any way. She goes to observe and to get to know the people and the place and then she writes gorgeously about it. I think she had a great time inventing her own country, with it's legendary roof-race and mythical snow raspberries.
I have to thank TomcatMurr for his mention of this book.
Morris is an excellent travel writer of the old school; she's not seeking spiritual enlightenment from the natives, nor is she seeking to change them in any way.
spot on. you're welcome.
I think that I will have to put it on my wishlist for comparison with Black Lamb and Gray Falcon.
PS But it turns out not to be available from BN.COM nor even listed as a paperback. I'll look around.
I periodically toy with the idea of buying a copy of Hav but now it's definitely at the top of the list.
I have a cold and so am only able to feel sorry for myself and read escapist literature.
World War Z by Max Brooks was perfect. It's an oral history of the recent zombie wars; meticulously researched, it presents the experiences of survivors and soldiers all over the world. If you'd like to bone up on what really happened at the Battle of Yonkers or would like to know exactly why Iceland remains infested to this day, this is the book for you.
I'm now reading Mirror, Mirror, another of Gregory Maguire's interesting fairy tale adaptations.
You can't say I wasn't warned because right there on the front cover of No Door, No Windows were the words Joe Schreiber, author of Star Wars: Death Troopers. But I picked it up anyway and read the first few pages, which portrayed a tender scene of a boy and his uncle playing catch. It was nicely written and felt real and I thought, hmmm, this looks like it could be good.
Well, it wasn't. Not because it wasn't scary or atmospheric, but because there was no internal cohesion holding the story together. A novel creates a world and, no matter how fantasy-based that world it, it needs to obey a set of rules, laid down by the author. A far-fetched idea like the one behind World War Z works so well because the author took the time to inhabit the world, to think of the details and to stick to them for the entire book. In 8637780::No Doors, No Windows, Schreiber throws out all his rules in favor of making it scary. It would have been a great deal scarier if he hadn't had all the characters behaving randomly at the end, so that I kept pausing to wonder if I'd gotten someone mixed up with someone else. And while the main character is well developed (although he will behave as randomly as the others at the dramatic conclusion), the secondary characters are two dimensional scraps of stereotype. If any backstory is assigned to them, they will shed it as soon as it becomes easier for the author.
On the other hand, the first half of the novel was going somewhere interesting and appropriately creepy. Scott Mast returns home when his father dies and finds that his father had left behind a half-finished manuscript about a haunted house. When Scott finds the house described in his father's book, he decides to rent it and finish his father's story. Things do not go well.
>203 RidgewayGirl:, 207 I just finished the Princess of Burundi by Eriksson and liked it well enough. I thought he did a good job making his characters credible, but not sure I cared for the climax-as-ending bit. Still, I have his next two in the pile; I also have a Nesser waiting, and while in Iceland over the weekend, I picked up Yrsa Sigurdadottir's 3rd, Ashes to Dust (I forgot to check a London bookshop while there, so I was glad they had Icelandic authors in English in the bookstore in Iceland).
>212 solla: solla, have you tried Åke Edwardson? He has 4 or 5 out now. I like them. I'd recommend reading them in the order written, not the order of when translated.
Five years ago, This is Not Chick Lit was printed in large, hot pink letters across the cover of a book and featured copy that reviled the prevalence of "chick-lit" on bookstore shelves. A reaction book, This is Chick Lit was quickly assembled and the battle lines were drawn between the smart "literary" girls and the popular "chick lit" girls. Its an unfortunate thing altogether. There were no complaints about escapist reading written by men, making the argument into an unpleasant girl fight, when women, if they can't be actively supportive of one another, should at least not tear each other down. Emotionally, I come down squarely for the chick lit authors, although the book they put together was not at all good, somewhat proving the point of the literary side. There was one well-written story, by Karen Siplin, about a black girl attending a bris, so it wasn't an entire waste of time.
So then I read the book that spurred the creation of This is Chick Lit, This is Not Chick Lit. This was a very good collection of short stories that were ill served by the title and marketing of the book, which ensures that most guys won't pick up a copy and many women won't either. The person who would be drawn to the title would be drawn to any book of well-written short stories by women. I was reluctant to carry it around, what with its angry, shouty hot pink title.
The content was, however, fantastic. There's a mixture of established authors (Mary Gordon, Francine Prose), up and coming stars (Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) and unknown, but promising new writers (Dika Lam, Holiday Reinhorn). The stories were varied and gorgeous, with a few that were astonishing. My favorite was The Seventy-Two-Ounce Steak Challenge by Dika Lam, a writer who, five years after the publication of this book, still hasn't had her book published.
My other niggling complaint about this collection is that the best stories are all up front, with the lackluster stories grouped at the end of the book. I had to remind myself how the excellent outweighed the mediocre at the end. Still, a collection well worth reading, if you're interested in short stories or in finding new and interesting authors to explore.
Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg was a pitch perfect police procedural. Set in a busy and multicultural Toronto, it begins with Kevin Brace, the beloved national radio talk show host, meeting his newspaper delivery person early one morning with bloody hands, telling him that he killed her. And with that, the story is off and running.
There's a huge cast of characters and, to Rotenberg's credit, they are all complex and easy to tell apart. The central crime was well thought through from the beginning and the setting atmospheric. There's a lot to be said for a crime novel that provides a roller coaster plot without descending into unbelievability. Toronto is vividly described, the story taking place while the Maple Leafs look like they finally have a shot at the Stanley Cup. I'll be looking for this author's next book.
I suspect that those of you who enjoy Scandinavian crime fiction might enjoy this Canadian offering.
Thanks for the review of This Is Not Chick Lit. I"m one of those women who wouldn't have picked it up based on the title, but now I'll certainly look for it, especially for the new-to-me authors.
I've been reading books lately that I would not ordinarily have chosen and it's been great. Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez was recommended by someone here and I found it an astonishing read.
Both of Cole's parents died in the flu pandemic that caused havoc all over the world, but especially in the US. He recovers and is rescued from an orphanage by a childless minister and his wife and taken to live in the small town of Salvation City. The book moves between Cole learning to live in this new environment and his memories of life with his atheistic parents.
What makes this book so interesting is less the new, dystopic world Nunez creates, but in her examination of religious belief. She manages to look critically at both fundamentalist belief and liberal atheism without making either out as good or bad. It's a nuanced performance and very honest. The story itself is fairly simple and while the ideas are complex, they're ones that anyone who has seriously considered their religious beliefs (or lack of same) has already considered. The book does read like a YA novel in language and presentation. The story itself is very easy to read, even as it made me think and think and think.
My one criticism of this book is that, at the end, Nunez drastically changed the behaviors of a few of her main characters, giving Cole an easy out to the dilemma he faced. It just didn't fit and felt like she was trying to get the book somewhere it didn't want to go. Despite that, Salvation City is a book well worth reading, and enjoyable too.
Ridgeway - you might be interested in my interview with Sigrid Nunez from the Sept/Oct issues of Belletrista.com: http://www.belletrista.com/2010/issue7/features_1.php
I was very interested in how sympathetically she drew the fundamentalist couple, but it sounds like that wasn't her natural tendency!
#223 Yes, I've read Åke Edwardson, all of them I found in the library, 4 or 5 sounds about right. His work is among the best or maybe the best mystery writing I've read.
Lillian had been four years old when her father left them, and her mother, stunned, had slid into books like a seal into water. Lillian had watched her mother submerge and disappear, sensing instinctively even at her young age the impersonal nature of a choice made simply for survival, and adapting to the niche she would now inhabit, as a watcher from the shore of her mother's ocean.
And so Lillian turns to cooking, learning through experimentation, since she prefers not to read. She opens a restaurant and holds a cooking class that meets once a month. The book follows the people taking the classes, and each section follows the life of one of the students. There aren't any recipes included, which suits Lillian's aversion to the written word, but each lesson is thoroughly described and somewhat inspirational. There isn't really a plot here, although several of the characters do reach conclusions or find comfort along the way. Mainly, Bauermeister creates an atmosphere and writes beautifully about the ability of well-prepared food to comfort and enrich more than our physical bodies.
If you know who Tim Gunn is, then telling you that Gunn's Golden Rules is like sitting down to a cup of coffee with Mr Gunn and listening to him talk will give you a very clear idea of what this book is about. In chapters loosely organized around various "rules", Gunn tells us about his life, dishes a bit about the excesses of the rich and famous (especially those who work for Conde Nast) and shares his approach to life, which can be summed up by take the high road, good manners never hurt anyone and, of course, make it work.
Gunn comes across as a man comfortable in his own skin, but having had to struggle to reach that. He reveals details about his own life that could fuel a pretty good misery memoir, but he's good-hearted and optimistic and doesn't dwell on any of it, but moves directly on to fun stories about the fashion industry or a bit of gently delivered advice. This is one of those books that is easy to read and makes the reader feel happier and stronger for having read it.
When The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte was first published in 1848, it created a scandal and was a runaway bestseller, out-selling her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights. Her sister Charlotte condemned it as overly realistic (which makes me wonder about Charlotte who was also critical of Jane Austen's gentler offerings).
To the modern reader, the scene that sparked the scandal might fly past without notice; when the husband of our heroine, Helen, gets drunk and verbally abusive, she goes to her room and locks the door against him. Outrageous, eh? Much more shocking to me was an early scene where Helen and her five-year-old son visit her new neighbors and they offer both of them a nice alcoholic beverage. When Helen refuses on the part of her son she is given a lecture by the mistress of the house on how boys need to learn to drink from an early age.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen, her disastrous marriage to the dissolute Huntingdon and her subsequent flight to the run-down Wildfell Hall, where she lives in a few rooms alone with her son and a single servant, and of how her presence in a quiet, rural area excites the attention and then the gossip of her neighbors. Bronte is a master of characterization, especially in the form of Helen's husband, who enters the story as the witty, Byronic hero (also, he is hot), and then develops into someone very different. Helen's a bit of a damp squib, what with her firm belief in her duty to let everyone around her know when they are falling short, morally speaking, and in her determination to revel in her misery, but one can't but admire her fortitude and strength of will. And Gilbert, well, I'll let you draw your own conclusions about Gilbert.
Awesome review of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Helen was a bit of a damp squib, wasn't she! (not that I'm sure what that is, but it sounds right). I said in my review that anyone living with her might be driven to drink.
As for the cheery, positive sister Charlotte, well, Virginia Woolf said about her that she was angry with her lot. Mind you, if I was her, I'd probably be angry with my lot too.
RG, I must know your conclusions about Gilbert. I've read the book three times, so you can't prejudice me! He's a selfish, sentimental, melodramatic twerp in my opinion, though that's not to say I don't like him, because I do. And I find Anne's take on the inner mind of a Man rather interesting.
You can PM me if you like? Or put it here? Pwease? I want to know why you put it that way in your review?
I think that's a very good description of Gilbert. I think that he was very comfortable in his life where the women of the family were at his beck and call and he was the village stud. And then Helen forced him to examine how things were. Also, that last mad rush was designed for a Hugh Grant movie, wasn't it?
A guy who buys books for the woman he's in love with has to have something there, doesn't he?
I can't review All Clear by Connie Willis at all, it being the second half of the book begun in Blackout. You try reviewing the second half only of the last book you read, without spoiling any future reader's enjoyment.
It was excellent, but I recommend having both books on hand when you start the first. It really is a single book. Intelligent, enthralling and well written--if you liked Doomsday Book, or interesting ideas about time travel, or historical novels about London during the Blitz, you'll probably like this one.
Miss Lizzie by Walter Satterthwait tells the story of Amanda, a teen-ager spending the summer of 1921 on the Massachusetts shore with her family. The infamous Lizzie Borden has taken the cottage next door and before too long, Amanda is sneeking over there every afternoon. When someone in close proximity is found hacked to death, suspicion falls on the old lady no one really thought was innocent of those earlier crimes.
This book was a lot of fun; a cross between a traditional mystery novel and something more serious, Satterthwait painted a vivid picture of American society just after the First World War.
Glad to hear you thought so highly of the Connie Willis books! I really love Willis, particularly her short stories, but find that her novels can be a bit hit and miss. (Passage, for instance, was several times longer than it really needed to be, in my opinion.) But this sounds like her at her best! I have both books, and can hardly wait to read them, but they're sharing shelf space with a number of other books about which I could say the same thing...
Yes, I may have some experience with that particular problem. Whining about it, however, is as wrong as complaining about the vastness and quality of one's wine cellar or travel plans.
Isn't a vacation that includes time to read fantabulous? I've been happily reading, mostly nothing of substance, for the past week or so, mainly crime novels of various sizes and shapes.
Everybody has their guilty pleasure and Lee Child's Jack Reacher books are mine. The newest one, Worth Dying For was entirely like the others and so very satisfying.
Starvation Lake by Brian Gruley is a crime novel set in a struggling small town in Northern Michigan, where hockey rules and nobody gets to forget their past sins. Gus blew an important game as a teen-ager and left determined not to return until he was a successful journalist. He's now returned to work as the editor at the very small, failing local newspaper. When evidence surfaces that his former coach's death may not have happened as reported, he begins to look around--much to the discomfort of the citizens of Starvation Lake. It was a well put together novel, reminding me a little of Forty Words for Sorrow in atmosphere and I've ordered the sequel.
Missing was different in tone to Karin Alvtegen's other crime novels. Despite a homeless protagonist whose parents were both neglectful and controlling, the tone of this book was guardedly hopeful.
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor was my Early Reviewer book from November's batch. Set in eighteenth century Cambridge, a college student goes insane when he encounters the ghost of a recently dead woman. A widower and book seller is hired to evaluate the college's library and to find out what really happened. I'd never read anything by Andrew Taylor before, but after this excellent historical mystery I plan to read more.
After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell is one of the best books I've read this year. Alice is hit by a car and lies in a coma in a London hospital. Her story, and that of her mother, is told in flashbacks and segments, slowly putting together a reason why Alice might have stepped in front of that car of her own volition. There is so much raw emotion in this novel that it sometimes felt closer than my own life.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas was my last book of the year. I need to think about it a bit before saying anything about it.
I read 124 books this year, a vastly larger number than I had anticipated, and many of them were excellent. Thanks to everyone here who added to the stacks of books threatening the structural integrity of my house and to everyone who dropped in now and again to comment.
See you over at next year's edition of the Club tomorrow.
the stacks of books threatening the structural integrity of my house
Oh, I can help you with that! You just have to move the books away from the centre of your house and move them to the walls. Bookshelves along the outer walls are handy, but not necessarily necessary. Your books have just turned from a hazard into extra insulation, thus saving you money on heating and also saving your structure.
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