Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: ‘Watch the paranoia, please.’

Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland is another psychosexual, psychedelic romp through Southern California – splitting half of its time in the glory days of the 1960s, the other half in the frightening 1980s. The second book in a loose trilogy, following The Crying of Lot 49 (reviewed earlier) and preceding Inherent Vice which publishes next week, Vineland is more outwardly concerned with satire and political commentary than most of the other Pynchon novels I’ve read. Vineland also has a smaller cast of characters and a more linear plot, as linear as Pynchon perhaps possibly can be, to make it one of the easier – although slower – novels this writer has produced.

In short the year is 1984 (a reference to Orwell), and Zoyd Wheeler wakes from a daze. He’s gotten some notoriety in the country from his ‘transfenestration’ acts. Enough attention is brought to his latest jump that his arch-nemesis Federal agent Brock Vond gets wind of it and begins to show up on scene. His daughter Prairie – supposedly born of Zoyd and his ex-wife, the mysterious (because you don’t know which side she’s pulling for) Frenesi Gates, a woman whose troubled past is a huge section of this book – is sent ‘underground’ to a ninjette residency, where she befriends DL (Daryl Louise, a ninjette herself, always wearing a gi) and Takeshi Fumimota, someone that DL had used the Vibrating Palm technique in order to kill him (sounds a lot like Kill Bill‘s five point palm exploding heart technique) but who had survived and now they have made a pact to work together – although with the clause of no sex. Most of the novel itself is a discovery of who these people are, why they are all related, and trying to figure out people’s true identity. It’s a family novel, all in all. Pynchon even dedicated the novel to his mother and father.

The majority of this novel is also spent in flashbacks and memories of the 1960s, when DL ruminates on how she met Takeshi Fumimota; how Frenesi became an outlaw and hunted by Brock Vond, eventually leading to the marriage between Frenesi and Zoyd and the birth of Prairie; how ‘Mucho’ Maas – Oedipa Maas’s ex-husband of The Crying of Lot 49 – becomes a major music producer for Indelible Records, a company that wants to sign up the Corvairs, headed up by Scott Oof (who makes an appearance in Inherent Vice). It’s a nostalgic look at the paranoia of the Nixon era, the counterculture that said era created, and a thankful reminder that we don’t have to deal with that anymore. When compared to the 1980s and Reaganomics and the Cold War, the 60s look easy, much more fun.

The narrator perhaps writes it best: ‘When power corrupts, it keeps a log of its progress, written into that most sensitive memory device, the human face. Who could withstand the light? What viewer could believe in the war, the system, the countless lies about American freedom, looking into these mug shots of the bought and sold? Hearing the synchronized voices repeat the same formulas, evasive, affectless, cut off from whatever they had once been by promises of what they would never get to collect on?’

Really Vineland can be scene as a treatise on parenting and the effects of political parents on non-political children…how much anguish it can cause. Perhaps that’s why this is probably the slowest moving Pynchon novel I’ve tackled. Although always jocular, there is a huge sense of weight to these words. It’s also an amusing take on the television generation, as those of the 60s were the first really to have tv in their homes, those in the 80s were the first really to be brought up with it at birth. There’s a rather amusing subculture called the Thanatoids, who are basically human zombies, slaves to the television – all of their scientific experiments deal with the Tube.

With the standard Pynchon style of a story creating sidestories which create sidestories that become main stories until we get back to the original story, Vineland is an amusing read certainly recommended as it is a very accessible insane novel featuring ninjettes, 24fps cameras, underground movements, Star Trek, and the ol’ O-O (once over).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: The Julie/Julia Project

When I told my mom I was reading Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Kitchen, the memoir behind the soon-to-be-released film, she said, “I don’t think I’d want to read the book; I’d rather just be entertained by the movie.” As I was about halfway through the book, I understood her sentiment and somewhat agreed. It’s not like this is a complex literary novel that requires precise translation between book and film…I’m sure the movie will give you the whole story. But as I neared the end, I was glad I had taken the time to read it, because after all, movies and books have very different voices and very different marketing angles.

In case you haven’t heard of this story (or have been living in a hole and not seen the mass marketing campaign featuring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams), Julie Powell is a married 29-year-old who works as a temp in New York and is feeling a bit of ennui. She decides to embark on a year-long project in which she will cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blog about her endeavors. Obviously, this turns into one of those projects that seemed like a good idea at the time…until egg- and lobster-related disasters leave Julie screaming profanities at anything within vocal range.

At first, I was a bit put off by Julie’s blatant emotional honesty. She screams irrationally at her husband, to the point of me wanting to scream at him, “Please divorce this crazy woman;” her frustrations with work seem a bit selfish when they relate to dealing with the public after 9/11 [she writes the inappropriate thoughts that you may say in your head, but would never say outloud for fear of being labeled cruel and insensitive!]; and she curses…a lot. Which I don’t mind (I do live in New York, after all), but others might find excessive (as did some of her blog readers).

However, I grew to love Julie’s voice. I could care less about cooking, but, though it was the core of the project, it was not the core of her writing. She kept the dialogue interesting and humorous enough by focusing on her life outside of the cooking as well. You really want to cheer her on with this project as she describes all its ups and downs, and you think, “Hey, maybe she’s not so bitchy and obsene all the time,” as she describes how close she is to her husband. The writing is witty and her personality is fiery, to say the least. Plus, she does eventually realize the error of her ways in blog-whining (though it doesn’t happen until 211 pages in).

When I said I am glad I read the book, it’s for this reason: sweet little Amy Adams is not going to play a character that openly hates Republicans and uses the word “fuck” profusely. It’s just not as marketable. Sure, the basics of the story will be the same, and Julie’s character will keep her “crazy person” quirks, but I have a very strong feeling her personality won’t be exactly the same. And for this reason, I’m glad I know the original voice that told this story. It’s an entertaining, somewhat-inspirational, and very hilarious read.

Julie & Julia will be released in trade paperback on July 1 by Hachette Book Group.

Check out the film-adaptation starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, in theaters August 7th.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday’s Musings

Lots of fun things to start off the week!

First of all, we earned our first award! Thanks to J.T. @ Bibliofreak for awarding us with the Kreativ Blogger award. Upon receiving the award, one must list seven things and seven blogs (s)he likes. I’m not the only voice on here, but since the other writers can’t edit my post with their lists (at least I don’t think they can), this will have to do!
I like:
  1. Summer (I spend 8 months of the year waiting for the 3 best ones)
  2. Sitcoms (except Everybody Loves Raymond and The Cosby Show)
  3. Fountain Coke (cans and bottles, ick)
  4. the South (homeland!)
  5. Road trips (anywhere, any distance)
  6. Ellen Degeneres (I can no longer watch at work due to spontaneous bouts of giggling)
  7. College football (beer and pizza on a fall Saturday is classic)
I’m going to hold off on the blog list for now, because my Google Reader is not too full.

Second of all, It’s Monday! What are you reading? This weekly activity is hosted by J. Kaye.
Books I completed last week:
  • Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper
  • Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment by Julie Powell
Books for this week (so far):
  • The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
I think my list is shorter than a lot of people’s, but I can’t read more than one book at a time!
Also, coming soon is the second annual Book Blogger Appreciate Week, running from September 14 – 18.  BBAW was started by Amy @ My Friend Amy to recognize the hard work and contribution of book bloggers while promoting a culture of literacy and connecting readers to books and authors. There will be guest posts, daily blogging themes, and giveaways. Anyone that blogs about books can register!
Last of all, I just had a fun observation this weekend. In the past, I’ve never been up-to-date on newly released books or what’s “hot” at the moment; I’ve always created my own reading list by browsing library shelves or finding books on sale. Yesterday, however, I stopped in a cute indie bookstore called The Corner Bookstore on my way home from Central Park, and I noticed I had heard of, and even read, many of their new books on display! It made me realize how much writing for this blog and reading other blogs have improved my knowledge of the book world, and I’m pretty happy about that. So thanks for reading, and thanks to other bookworms for writing!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Review: A Colorful Past

When I find a memoir in my mailbox I immediately think of how maudlin the author must portray their own life to necessitate a “memoir.” I am happy to report that my initial scorn of seeing Laurie Sandell’s The Imposter’s Daughter waiting for me was very misplaced. Sandell‘s story feels wholly original and I was excited to follow her along her life’s journey.

The Imposter’s Daughter begins during Sandell’s early years; she recalls her father’s stern attitude and heavily guarded secrecy. But as a child, these traits seem admirable in their intrigue. When her father loses his job—claiming political prejudice cost him his career—Sandell understands that it would be worse for her father to compromise his ideals than to get dressed each morning. During her later years, after a few credit cards come back declined despite her never signing up for them, Sandell begins to realize the father she thought she knew didn’t exist. The second half of the novel follows Sandell as she deconstructs her father’s past as well as her journey confronting her own demons.

The art is colorful, bright, and full of emotion. Using vibrant hues, Sandell crafts a wonderfully touching story of her past. The memories are vividly put to page in a way that reminds the reader that this is her version of the past without distracting from the narrative. Each frame contains a fully furnished image; Sandell adds hints to her own work as well as notes and addenda.

Her life as a celebrity reporter helped make her middle years entertaining instead of just expository. Despite her father’s disappearance for much of the middle of the novel, her storytelling managed to keep the piece compelling and exciting. Name dropping some still relevant celebrities didn’t hurt her either.

Sandell’s case is compelling and I don’t think anyone can judge her negatively considering her circumstances. The mistakes she might have made were her own and she’s obviously begun to come to terms with them. But to watch as she paints energetic images to describe her past is a treat for any reader. This is definitely worth buying, borrowing, or stealing from a friend.

Hachette Book Group
256 Pages, Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-31603305-3

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Homer’s Odyssey (Cat Style)

Gwen Cooper was a 24-year-old single woman living in Miami with her two cats when her veterinarian called with a proposition for Gwen to adopt cat number three—a two-week-old blind kitten. And not only was he blind, he had no eyes at all. 

Now, nothing will put you in the HOV lane towards bonafide “cat lady” faster than living alone with three cats, but Gwen decided to take a chance anyway.

And so we meet Homer—a cat with a heart full of love and a boundless quest for adventure, despite his lack of vision. Homer’s Odyssey is part biography (of Homer), part memoir (of Gwen), and the result is a heartfelt story of a special cat that teaches his owner more than she expected. Like, how to move forward enthusiastically, even when you don’t know what lies ahead; how to make the best of what you’ve been dealt; how to take a chance on someone because your life may be better with him/her in it than without.
Homer’s Odyssey is comprised of anecdotes and reflections on how Homer affected Gwen’s life, which makes the pace of the novel move quickly and keeps one’s attention by using shorter spurts of storytelling. We read of Homer’s heroism as he scares an intruder out of Gwen’s apartment in the middle of the night, his adjustment to a new space once Gwen moves to New York City, and the panic and emotion September 11th forced people from their homes with the pets left behind. The last couple of chapters were the most enjoyable for me to read, as Gwen described the adjustment she and her cats made as they moved in with her boyfriend (and soon-to-be husband), Laurence.
At certain points in this book, I chuckled at how close to “cat lady” Gwen had gotten herself. She gave in to their every whim! Even though I love my two monster cats, I don’t think I would ever let them determine my living situation as Gwen did (though I have been trying to get them to sleep peacefully with me as Homer did, rather than paw at my face and crawl on me all night. No such luck, so far).  
Overall, the author was able to perfectly describe the personalities of each of her cats and create an inspiring story that teaches us how to have faith in ourselves, explore the unknown, and enjoy the little things. Homer’s Odyssey was very enjoyable for a quick, easy read. 
Many thanks to Random House for providing me with this advanced copy.
Delacorte Press (Random House)
304 Pages, Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-385-34385-5

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: Rendered perfection

Marilynne Robinson’s Home is the most beautiful novel I’ve read in ages. Glory and Jack Boughton are like the older, sadder, more burdensome versions of Scout and Jem Finch. The weight on their persons and their souls is just so poignant, so sharp, so immense that Robinson could not have created a more perfect novel.

Home takes place concurrently as Robinson’s previous novel Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Gilead was a series of letters written by an ageing Reverend Ames to his very young son, with the knowledge that Ames would not live to see him grow up. Home is written in third-person omniscience – which at first seems at odds with Gilead as the narrator is now somewhat removed from the interiority of situations. But ever so brilliantly, Robinson’s narrator is able to weave between persons in order to get closer to them, perhaps even more so than if it were told from someone’s perspective. Characters are fully flesh, fully naked to the world.

Glory comes home to Gilead to take care of her ailing and dying father, Reverend Boughton. She is thirty-eight, a former schoolteacher who gave up everything after she split with her fiancĂ© (who happened to be married). She throws away the four hundred fifty-two love letters written to her and returns home to her father. Glory and her father get on, but there is always a sense of discomfort. It doesn’t seem completely natural. And Glory at first feels resigned to the path life has chosen for her.

Then Jack enters. Jack is the prodigal Boughton son. The one who stole as a child. The one who ran off as a teen, never to come back for twenty years. The one who was an alcoholic. The one who won’t disclose his past. Glory is elated, not seeing her older brother for nearly two decades. Her father, even more so. What follows are pages of missed connections, regrets, coffee brewing, pancake making, baseball throwing, and the most intense, beautiful, and heartbreaking final pages, the likes I haven’t read since William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. At least here there is a pervasive sense of optimism through all the pain.

Home is truly a story of not being able to say what one means to say, the pains of honesty, the intensity of being with family, and the sorrow that comes with living with yourself. One of the more striking and summarising passages happens as Glory ponders the end for all of them in the house: ‘Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.’ There’s the struggle – between remembering and forgetting, of depth and superficiality, of pain and pleasure.

There are tones of Faulkner here – most notably Light in August – and for good reason. The themes of race and the structure of both novels seem to parallel one another (although I most certainly believe that Robinson pulls it off more successfully – I personally did not like Light in August at all). But even to compare this to another piece of literature, even Gilead feels like belittling the novel. Glory Boughton, giving up a life in order to be the overly weeping daughter who cooks and cleans all day, is such a heartbreaking character – as if things truly couldn’t go right with her. And then Jack Boughton is just an amplified version of that. His struggles seem to outdo Job’s.

That is not to suggest that this work is full of melancholy and psychological torture, a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. The narrative is in the hands of a master. Each of Marilynne Robinson’s novels (three novels in thirty years, two within the past five) is well-crafted and intensely thought out. Everything within comes naturally. Every word seems to have been weighed, placed in her hand to be analysed before placed on to the page. Home truly is about the pleasure of the text, and the pleasure of being with characters and company that you never want to leave.

Paperback releases in September 2009 by Picador.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Marc Fitten’s Indie 100

Marc Fitten is an author with a mission. He’s on tour for his new book, Valeria’s Last Stand, but has decided to “spice things up” (his own words) while on the road. Thus was born Marc Fitten’s Indie 100, a look at 100 independent bookstores throughout the country.

Along with the basic facts (address, description, pictures), Marc gives his blog readers some interesting tidbits about the featured bookstore. Like how one hosts school fieldtrips; one started a nonprofit to provide free books and bikes to at-risk youth; one is the oldest bookstore in the state of Virginia. He does a great job of getting to the heart of a particular bookstore and providing a brief image of all it has to offer.
And now I’m curious about the author. Nice marketing style, Marc.
Are there any indie bookstores you recommend in your area?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Recommendation Round-Up

The main purpose of this blog (and, I’m sure, most other book blogs!) is to recommend books and foster a discussion/community with other book lovers. Over the years, I’ve had many people come to me for book recommendations (hence the birth of this blog!) and it recently got me thinking about the books I recommend.

I always recommend these three, which are included on my Goodreads “all time favorite” list:

Gloria by Keith Maillard – the most under-rated novel of the past few years and my absolute fave. Tells the story of Gloria Cotter, a college graduate in the late fifties, torn between passion and society’s expectations. Set in West Virginia, like most of Maillard’s novels. I’ve read it a couple times (and need to read again!), and I can’t recommend it enough! For some ungodly reason, it is out of print; pick it up at a library or used bookstore.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – a classic, but my favorite classic. Francie Nolan is growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. She is such an enjoyable and heart-warming character to read, and because the novel spans several years, I couldn’t get enough. I’ve only read it once, but I remember it as magical.

A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins – my first foray into travelogues. I went to elementary school with the author’s son, which is how I heard about this book. Apparently it became a NYT bestseller as well! It is about Peter’s walk with his dog through the nitty-gritty of America in the 1970s when the times, they are a changin’. I love the story and the characters he meets. Jenkins has many more books on other walks, but this it the first and therefore (I believe), the best.

My most recent frequent recommendation is Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. It was recommended to me by my friend, former co-worker, and librarian (she also recommended Gloria to me, so I trust her judgment). You can read my review of The Help, because I have nothing but nice things to say about it. It’s been my personal favorite read this year, and I’m sure it’s one of 2009’s best new books. My mom just finished it too, and she gave me such an interesting first-person account of the issues Stockett raises in her narrative!

What are some of your all-time favorite books to recommend? 

Do you have a person you go to for recommendations? 

Have you read something recently that you’ve been recommending to others?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: The death of love in modern culture

Nick Laird is a rather talented poet. Both of his collections, To a Fault (which features the poem ‘On Beauty’, something Zadie Smith – his wife – used in her eponymous novel) and On Purpose (an evolution and growth of the same themes put forth in the former work), are brilliant pieces of wordplay, male anxiety, stunning imagery, and bitter resentment at relationships.

However, Laird also writes novels. And they’re the male equivalent of chick-lit. Utterly Monkey was a quasi-autobiographical caper that had a bit of immaturity running through it. And Glover’s Mistake, although an improvement on prose style and story, still doesn’t hold a candle to Laird’s poetry. His talents certainly lie elsewhere.

Glover’s Mistake is a modernised version of Othello meets The Great Gatsby, in a very loose kind of way, set in the heart of London. David Pinner, a 30-something bitter blogger, falls for his old art school teacher, Ruth Marks, an American 40-something who is having some success in London with her current paintings and exhibitions. They go out on a few dates, sometimes accompanied by David’s flatmate, the religious James Glover, a 20-something who knows how to make people laugh, who is much more physical than the others (he runs every morning, which is how he became fit; formerly he was like Pinner, a bit mushy – his physicality becomes important later). Eventually, what comes as no surprise, Ruth begins to fall for James and both of them move on the fast track, heading to marriage. And what’s no surprise further, David becomes insanely jealous and almost a voyeur, eventually setting up situations much like Iago that attempt to destroy James and Ruth’s happiness. As this narrative is told from (basically) a third-person limited way, through David, he becomes relatively creepy and oily.

Laird’s prose eye in simply not as deft as his poetic one, and unfortunately that makes the writing kind of flat and ordinary. Perhaps in another’s hands, this book would have been relatively exciting; but because expectations were higher for him, he failed to meet them. For example, a couple of stanzas from On Purpose, from the poem ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’, goes:

Sit at the desk. It’s mid-
Your cigarette, neglected,
unthreads air
to ash. The study walls are
strung with hoops of light
thrown by a glass
of water. The sash window
faces perfectly
north-west. You checked.

Laird captures the ordinary here in an extraordinary way. There is a patience pervading this poem; every word is balanced, every image is checked, every emotion is handled correctly. In Glover’s Mistake, however, we get more axiom-like statements and unmemorable prose. ‘Ruth said nothing. Glover’s curse had flavoured the atmosphere, suddenly turning everything a different colour.’ Although statements like that are redeemed further on in the paragraph: ‘David could see the thinness of her shoulders, the tilt of her breasts, then the angle of the lifted arm that brought a glass of water to her tightened, silent, lovely mouth.’ But there just isn’t the same type of electricity infused as his poetry’s.

As Ruth is an artist and David is an English teacher, there is a great deal of discussion on art and artistic theory, which is certainly a plus. But unfortunately David (and Ruth) sadly aren’t compelling enough characters to make you feel for them. David’s decisions aren’t tragic; they’re just sad and misguided. In fact, the only likeable person within is James Glover, who seems to get the short end of the stick. And people within the book, and perhaps Laird himself, wants to make him into a caricature – simply because he’s the youngest character and the one that takes faith seriously. This then begs the question, why is the book entitled Glover’s Mistake? Is his mistake to room with David? Is it that he got engaged to Ruth? Is it that he was too young for all the persons within the narrative? Is it to mimic The Great Gatsby‘s use of the non-narrrator’s name? Even with all these questions that might make one inquisitive enough to dive deeper within the text, the novel isn’t interesting enough to formulate enticing answers.

Nick Laird is certainly an author to watch, and an author who I will continue to read regardless, but I think that he’s proven that he’s much more talented than what this novel suggests.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: A Pondering on Existentialism

I’m not confident I can give a full review of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the 1962 winner of the National Book Award, so this may look and sound more like a “pondering.”

The best word to describe this book may be “meandering.” The setting, the language, the characters…they all just seem to kind of wander. Percy tells the story of Binx Bolling, a 29-year-old New Orleans stockbroker who is semi-bored and searching for…something (religion? redemption? meaning?). The story focuses on the week prior to Binx’s thirtieth birthday, which proves to be the week that shakes things up in his life. He’s fallen into a habitual lifestyle that includes work, frequent romps with his secretaries, and going to the movies. During this week leading up to his birthday and Mardi Gras, Binx is on a quest for fulfillment that ends up angering his family and jeopardizing the safety of his manic-depressive step-cousin, Kate.
On the one hand, this book was boring. On the other hand, I know it requires (at the very least) a second reading [the first time I read The Great Gatbsy, I hated it. The second time, I loved it].
This is a theme-driven, not plot-driven, story. Percy uses a rambling prose (which I quite liked) to explore Southern religion, family, civilization, society, humanity (etc, etc, etc) from a completely existential perspective. I’m sure there are hundreds of analytical essays written on The Moviegoer, but to me, it seems as though Binx summed it up in one line:

“We’re human after all!’

I look forward to reading again in the future.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: The protean figure of god

Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God details what you’d think it would. Looking at how the concept of god has changed from ‘western’ polytheism to Judaism to Christianity to Islam, Wright investigates the way perception of deity (or deities) have influenced the world. In sometimes entertaining and colloquial prose, this tome adds some interesting characters to the religious debate.

As Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have received praise for their fervent atheism, Wright takes a more agnostic stance. Although he himself may not believe, the book itself looks at the arguments for the case of god in a scientific way, without meddling with the author’s own feelings and inclinations.

Wright brings to light a few personalities that I had hitherto not heard of. Philo, a Greek Jew, tried to piece together the majesty of the Grecian gods with that of the Jewish one; he revealed to the forum-going populace how these religions weren’t all that different from one another. (Judaism originally had several gods, which should not be a surprise to anyone; just at some point, as the ancient state of Israel was being formed, someone had a fantastic idea to either unite them into one or get rid of the excess and have one God with a capital G.) Wright explains how Paul, the epistle writer of New Testament fame, was really like a CEO or ambassador, trying to reign in all the different sects of Christianity springing up so that there was some centralisation.

Unfortunately the Islam section doesn’t seem as well researched as the other sections. It’s quite cursory in comparison, making more sweeping brushstrokes than specific and pointed ones. The focus is on Mohammad’s rise to fame, ability to create armies, and his legacy – it doesn’t discuss any real major theories or texts about Islam instead. There isn’t a thorough discussion on Sunni versus Shi’ite Muslims. Thus, it felt more like a history lesson than a true analysis. There was also more contemporary discussion on the effect of Islam (ie: a chapter devoted to the jihad) than that of the time Islam was born, which was a shame since the Islam part should have been the most fascinating and enlightening section of the book (or at least the section of the book that most ‘western’ readers are going to read this for). It was interesting to note though that the Qu’ran is much more poetic than the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, poetic mainly in the sense that it has rhymes and rhythms.

Some of the major weaknesses with Wright’s argument, which also happens to be that of the many of Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, is that a) he doesn’t really discuss any ‘eastern’ religions and b) he really is preaching more to the choir, those that are religiously curious. I feel that Hitchens would be ineffective in a dialogue with a ‘true believer’; I don’t think that would be the case with Wright. But I do think that, although Wright argues the evolution of god relatively methodically and scientifically, there are some hurdles that faith won’t overcome – which is in essence what faith is. One cannot fault him for that, but one wishes that there was some give and take.

On the other hand, I thought the greatest strength of this book was the revelation on how economics and economic theory really played a role in shaping the concept of god. God is shaped into what his believers need him to be: the concept that if we were horses god would also look like a horse. Wright goes into game theory and how religion was also (and of course still is) a business, be it an economic or a political one. He also details the importance and controversy of translations and interpretations. Each religion has its issues when it comes to figuring out what its sacred texts really mean, and Wright does an absolutely wonderful and thorough job looking at how words have multiple or layered meanings, as well as how Allah, Yahweh, and Jehovah are even all linguistically related.

Although this is unfortunately a cursory look at Wright’s book itself, The Evolution of God was a very good read, well argued most of the time and fascinating or refreshing every chapter. Weaknesses aside, it was good to be reminded of the powers of religion and how similar the major monotheistic religions really are, as well as their intense and bloodied histories.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review: Death, be not expensive

In Losing Mum and Pup Christopher Buckley details the experience of losing both his mother, the socialite Patricia Taylor Buckley, and his father William F Buckley Jr, founder of the modern conservative movement, in whimsical but touching, name-dropping but natural prose. Unlike Joan Didion and her recent work, The Year of Magical Thinking, Buckley’s narrative doesn’t rest on unrest. (Didion’s story was much harder to tell: that of losing her quirky and devoted husband, as well as watching her daughter slip away before her very eyes. Didion’s daughter actually died after the book was finished, an update to her theatrical adaptation that ran on Broadway. She was played magnificently by Vanessa Redgrave.) Instead, Buckley almost creates caricatures of his parents in order to detail the stresses of putting one’s parents to rest.

The epigraph of the book comes from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Taking Wilde’s quotation to heart, Buckley pithily describes the end of both parents, which happen within a twelvemonth time. He first details his mother’s unlikely background, from a farming family of British Columbia who goes to Vassar College in order to escape the mathematics requirements of Canadian colleges, who ends up marrying the brother of her college roommate. In one of the more humorous moments, the author reveals the mystery of why Patricia never finished college: ‘Pup [his father] and I hear her give various reasons for this over the years: She had to return to Vancouver because her mother had broken her back while writing; because her brother Firpo had broken his back riding; because she had broken her back riding. One night, after imbibing about two acres’ worth of vineyard grapes, she informed Pup and me–us!–that she had, in fact, left Vassar “to go back to Vancouver and save my parents’ marriage.” This revelation was as rococo as it was flabbergasting.’ Patricia’s apt for storytelling shows how she was a respected socialite.

The rest of the book details the death of Christopher’s father, whose memorial is a bigger shrine if only because in the public eye he had many more followers and devout critics. Without going into much detail of William’s final days, I found it fascinating to note that English was his third language – like Joseph Conrad, whose writings and quotations Christopher enjoys using when discussing his father. The author’s portrayal of his famous father made me laugh several times, thinking that the founder of modern conservatism was winsome as his wife. For example, when the Buckleys would host the National Review Christmas party: ‘Never to waste time, Pup kept to a simple recipe: one quart milk, one quart rum, one quart ice cream. He might, just for the heck of it, empty an entire (large) bottle of vanilla extract into it. The effects of this milky elixir upon the conservative movement were quite galvanizing. Pup would play Handel’s Messiah at full blast on the phonograph. By the time the final joyous hallelujah trumpet blasts sounded, the entire conservative movement was passed out, comatose. The wonder is any of them made it home alive. How different history might have been.’

There are some great moments, especially when the author speaks directly to the reader on advice for preparing parents for death. One of the highlights was certainly when the insurance company sent the following letter after Patricia had died. ‘Dear Mrs. Buckley, Thank you for sending your death certificate. The raised seal on it is not sufficiently raised. Please send us another death certificate with raised seal and we can then be able to begin processing your claim. I’m surprised they didn’t add a P.S.: Have a nice day!‘ Christopher details the price of coffins, of cremations, of renting projectors and ‘labour’ to do Power Point presentations (about $20,000, if you’re interested) – and how all of this runs to the extremely absurd. He knows that his parents are mocking him from heaven.

Losing Mum and Pup is a fast, amusing read, even when there seems to be too many people running around in the narrative, a large and famous cast of characters that no doubt graced the Buckleys’ home but also seemed to be used to show off their connections to the political and artistic worlds. Like Oscar Wilde, Buckley’s narrative almost rests on fantastic anecdotes and biting one-liners, which I hope this review pointed out. It’s a very refreshing and reassuring look at death and how wild – in both good and bad ways – it can be.

Friday, July 10, 2009

JULY Booking Events: New York

Seeing as how we’re based in the Big Apple, the capital of the publishing world and a hot-stop for many author tours, I’ve decided to start posting a monthly list of author or book events at local bookstores, libraries, or parks.  I’ll try to keep it well updated throughout the month and will announce anything new on Twitter.

Be sure to send me any exciting events you hear about, since I know I’ll never be able to catch everything by myself!
Sun 7/12, 12:00 pm: “Basketball, Brunch, and Books” w/ Dave Reidy, WORD Brooklyn
Mon 7/13, 7:00 pm: The Art of Racing in the Rain” w/ Gareth Stein, McNally Jackson Books
Tues 7/14, 7:30 pm: Irreverent Curiosity w/ David Farley, B&N Greenwich Village
Tues 7/14, 7:30 pm: Best Friends Forever w/ Jennifer Weiner, B&N Lincoln Triangle
Wed 7/15, 7:30 pm: Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer w/ Tim Stark, B&N Greenwich Village
Thurs 7/16, 6:30 pm: “Mystery Night: Jack Reacher Comes to New York!” w/ Lee Childs, Madison Sq. Park
Thurs 7/16, 7:00 pm: “The Winter Vault” w/ Anne Michaels, Strand
Thurs 7/16, 7:00 pm: The Double Life is Twice as Good w/ Jonathan Ames, BookCourt
Sun 7/19, 6:30 pm: The Show That Smells and Blue Boy w/ Derek McCormack & Rakesh Satyal, WORD Brooklyn
Mon 7/20, 7:00 pm: “Glover’s Mistake” w/ Nick Laird, McNally Jackson Books
Tues 7/21, 7:30 pm: The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream w/ Patrick Radden Keefe, B&N Greenwich Village
Tues 7/21, 7:30 pm: “Hot and Wicked Botanical Book Night” w/ Margot Berwin, Amy Stewart, and Andra Miller, WORD Brooklyn
Tues 7/21, 7:30 pm: Defector w/ Daniel Silva, B&N Lincoln Triangle
Wed 7/22, 12:30 pm: “Word for Word” w/ Frank Delaney, Bryant Park Reading Room
Thurs 7/23, 6:30 pm: “Food as Fuel and Memory” w/ Moira Hodgson & Tim Stark, Madison Sq. Park
Mon 7/27, 7:00 pm: “American Nerd: The Story of My People” w/ Benjamin Nugent, McNally Jackson Books
Wed 7/29, 7:00 pm: “Old Girlfriends” w/ David Updike, McNally Jackson Books
Thurs 7/30, 6:30 pm: “Cheever: A Life” w/ Blake Bailey, Susan Cheever, Bret Anthony Johnston, & Max Rudin, Madison Sq. Park
Thurs 7/30, 7:00 pm: “Once You Go Back” w/ Douglas Martin, McNally Jackson Books
Thurs 7/30, 7:30 pm: “YA Not?” w/ Sheba Karim & Abeer Hoque, WORD Brooklyn
Does anyone know of anything else?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A History Lesson (and Contest!) for Booknerds

The National Book Foundation has impressed me with a very cool concept! To celebrate the 60th year of the National Book Awards, the NBF has started a book-a-day blog that will chronicle the previous 59 Fiction winners. The blog will run until September 21st, at which point you’ll have the opportunity to vote for the BEST of past years and win two tickets to the 2009 National Book Awards.  

What a great way to learn about some of history’s best books!

I just started Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer this morning! Have you read any National Book Award winners?

Review: The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds

When someone recommended E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks to me, it was described as “Harriet the Spy meets Prep.” I still hold onto my childhood obsession with Harriet the Spy, so I said, “Count me in for this one!”

Meet Frankie – a sharp-witted, buxomly 15-year-old who would have been classified as a mildly geeky “Bunny Rabbit” just one year ago. Sophomore year at Alabaster prep school is determinedly different than Frankie’s freshman year. She is no longer “Zada’s little sister” and she’s landed a senior boyfriend – Matthew Livingston, the most popular guy in school. But Frankie is determined to be viewed as more than just arm candy to the senior crowd. She wants their respect as an equal, and gosh darn it, she is going to get it!
Now, Matthew turns out to be one of the Kings of the all-male Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, a secret organization that has been around Alabaster since the 1950s and one of which Frankie knows bits and pieces (thanks to her Basset Hound-member father). Unfortunately for the present day Basset Hounds, Frankie knows more about the organization than its members, and she immediately determines this as her opportunity to get “in.” Determined to not be underestimated, Frankie begins anonymously plotting a series of practical jokes that will return the Basset Hounds to their former pranking glory.
Frankie is such an enjoyable character to read.  She’s clever, intelligent, and strong-willed, yet she still possesses those girly qualities that worry about fitting in and having a boyfriend. She has her quirks, like using “imaginary neglected positives” – words that have a negative prefix (like un- or dis-) and a root that is not really a word, such as (im)petuous, (dis)turbed, and (in)ept. And one of my favorite conversations in the novel is a discussion on why tomato is the best fruit because it has versatility. At times, Frankie may seem like an overbearing girlfriend, but on the whole, the novel ends painting Frankie as a YA heroine (albeit, the message is blatantly stated on the last page). I think these contradictions just makes her a multi-dimensional character.
I generally find prep school novels enjoyable, because they place raging teenage emotions in an adult, college-like world. Thus, drama will always ensue. This book is most definitely a light and entertaining read that will have you hooked for the couple of hours it takes you to finish.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Review: Life Isn’t This Bad

I have to say, I opened Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth with quite a bit of excitement. Interpreter of Maladies, her first short story collection is perhaps my favorite short story collection of all time (bold, I know). With her second novel, the Namesake, I was frustrated because it seemed like a collection of short stories that was just trying to be a novel. Thus, when I heard she’d produced more stories, albeit longer in length, I was eager to plunge in (though I had to wait for it to hit paperback, as I shun hardcover novels, for better or worse).

First thought – her style of writing hasn’t changed, and it’s a good thing. She has an incredible way of giving every object in her stories some kind of history – a person doesn’t lay their bag on the floor or fill a glass of water without it somehow conveying intimate details of their past – I’ve always admired this about her writing.

The problem? Well, effective as this is, she doesn’t mix it up at all! The entire book, unfolds in almost the exact same patient style, to the point where I was almost longing for short, meaningless spurt of dialogue. Perhaps it’s the Digital Native in me.

Lastly, the thing I really had trouble getting over, is that…well I can’t imagine how terribly her life or the lives of people she loves must have been in order for her to produce this collection of depressing stories. I understand that things don’t always go well, the world doesn’t always turn, but gosh – they don’t always go awfully either! It feels like an odd complaint somehow, but there you are.

A more reasonable complaint perhaps is that…well the flaws in the characters that cause the conflicts appear to always be the same – someone is too traditional and can’t get past it, another character is too unforgiving and unforgetting, a third keeps secrets against all good judgment – then rinse and repeat. I felt like she told the same sad story in six different ways, and by the end, I was happy to get back to sweet, sweet reality.

Review: A World of Contradictions

Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor has a premise that just seems too entertaining to pass up. 

It’s 1985, and fifteen-year-old Benji Cooper spends most of his year as one of the few black students at an Upper East Side prep school, attending bar mitzvahs and the roller-disco. But during the summer months, he and his brother Reggie spend three glorious months of freedom in Sag Harbor, a nook of Long Island where affluential African-Americans have built their own beach community.
Contrasts define the foundation of this novel, summed up in an early statement by Benji:

“According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses.” 

Benji’s life seems to be full of contradicting elements. Sag Harbor versus Manhattan; white versus black; childhood versus adulthood; social acceptance versus…well, the guilty pleasures that Benji can’t seem to let go. Benji is a conflicted character but has decided that this summer is going to be different, because everything will fall into place and go according to plan.
Colson Whitehead is one of those authors that reviewers can’t wait to read, because his style of language fosters such a unique brand of novel. He is incredibly descriptive, often using pop culture references to liken a certain mood or tone (ie: “We were a Cosby family, good on paper”). His writing is dappled with declarative statements that explain a much bigger phenomenon, like, “Binoculars: a device that facilitates looking down on people.” His vantage point covers past, present, and future, as he gives the reader just a bit more of the picture by adding retrospective comments about how things ended up after the summer of ’85. 
Each chapter of Sag Harbor is almost like its own, self-contained story that chronicles one aspect of Benji’s summer lifestyle — a feature that gives the reader an intimate portrait of Benji and the people around him. For me, the lack of a distinct plot caused the novel to drag at parts to where my only motivation to keep reading was curiosity at what Whitehead would say next, but it is definitely worth it to keep going. 
Sag Harbor is a witty and affectionate coming-of-age novel about a kid that is having a hard time figuring out where he fits in. It is both hilarious and heart-breaking as Whitehead follows the teenage psyche in the unique setting he created. This book is by no means theme-less, as he carefully addresses the topics of family, friendship, race, and adolescence. I suggest reading this book in as large of chunks as possible, so you can really settle into the groove of Whitehead’s writing and enjoy it.
Colson Whitehead’s other books have been finalists for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and have won numerous other awards.  Visit his website.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Review: Youthful Summer

Generally, it seems pretty easy to determine if a book fits into the YA genre, but Silas House’s new novel, Eli the Good, threw me for a loop. His writing is carefully crafted to set the tone of any given scene, and the main character, Eli, seems to think in prose. I had no idea that this novel was, in fact, House’s YA debut until I did a bit of research about the author.

The year is 1976, and Eli Book is ten years old. With the book told entirely from his perspective, the reader learns first hand why this summer is different than all the others. The story starts at the beginning of the summer, when a ten year old’s world is suddenly graced with freedom and responsibility is out the window. Days consist of bike rides, swims in the lake, and not much more.

When we meet the other characters, we discover the conflict present in Eli’s seemingly paradisaical world. His beautiful mother seems distant, preoccupied with smoothing ties between his Vietnam traumatized father and his sister, a former Vietnam protester that has taken up residence in the Book house. Eli’s older sister Josie is in a spree of rebellion, questioning all she was taught to believe and clashing with her parents who just doesn’t understand her way of thinking. Edie is the girl next door and Eli’s best friend, but she turns inward when her parents decide to split up.

Eli is stuck in the middle of it all, as he watches the people he loves tear at each other. But he always remains on the perimeter, usually eavesdropping.

This book was much more than I expected at first glance. It is incredibly heartfelt, and Eli is one of the most likeable characters I have encountered in a while. He possesses a deep understanding of what is happening around him, much more than anyone would guess. The narrative is a nice mix of what’s going on both inside and outside his head. I was reminded of how much thought goes through a ten-year-old’s mind–observing, analyzing, pondering life’s events. House gives us the full story by using the adult Eli to recount the summer from his ten-year-old perspective. The situations beyond a child’s understanding are explained by this older voice.

Eli the Good had me crying at the end. Not out of sadness; but it just seemed so poetic. I remembered the complexity of being a child–figuring out the world and how it all worked, and holding on to little moments and feelings that you want to last a lifetime. Eli has profound little one-liners that are sprinkled throughout the book, but the most telling of his story is this:

“Whole scenes of your life can slip away forever if you don’t put them down in ink.”

This instantly became an all-time favorite, and I highly recommend it.

Candlewick Press
304 Pages, Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-7636-4341-6

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Review: Starting Over

If you take one thing away from Heather Barbieri’s The Lace Makers of Glenmara, remember this: “You can always start again; all it takes is a new thread.” Kate Robinson grew up hearing this advice from her mother, which was drilled into her head during sewing lessons. Like her mother, Kate possesses a gift with a needle and thread, and their creative passion formed an impenetrable bond between them. But after a series of emotional blows leave Kate gasping for air, she discovers that her mother’s advice serves a much bigger purpose than a simple sewing lesson.

Overwhelmed and exhausted, Kate escapes her heartbreak and struggling fashion career with a trip to her ancestral home of Ireland. She stumbles upon the quaint coastal village of Glenmara and befriends a group of local lace makers. As Kate learns the secrets of their traditional craft, she finds the inspiration that has eluded her for so long—and soon the women are working together to create a line of exquisite lingerie. But not everyone is enamored with these new ideas. Kate’s presence in Glenmara has sparked controversy, and the women must summon the courage to face opposition and confront their own personal troubles. As they work together, the lace makers gain the determination to achieve their own goals and face their long-standing demons. 

Barbieri found inspiration for this, her second novel, on a trip to the Irish coast and a New York Times article about Polish lace makers. Despite a fairly predictable plot, she has created an interesting story using exceptional characters and the dynamic backdrop of Glenmara, a traditional town trying to balance old world values with modern practices. Barbieri weaves together stories on life, love, friendship and family to create a multifaceted novel, where personal histories define her characters and influence their decisions.

In her affinity for literary patchwork, Barbieri has created an entertaining novel by blending a thoughtful story with a light read, perfect for this summer’s vacation.

-As featured in the July issue of BookPage magazine

288 Pages, Hardcover
ISBN 978-0061721557