Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Everything Austen Challenge

Stephanie of Stephanie’s Written Word has started a reading challenge with the simple theme of Jane Austen. Between July 1st and January 1st, all you need to do is complete six Austen-themed pieces. They can be Jane Austen books, books based on Jane Austen books, Austen movies, Austen-based movies. There are so many options depending how much you want to read or watch. This gives me a great chance to read/watch some things I always say I’ve been meaning to read/watch.

My picks for the next six months are as follows:
  1. The BBC’s Pride & Prejudice mini-series
  2. Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley (to compare)
  3. Becoming Jane with Anne Hathaway
  4. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
  5. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (because I remember nothing about it from senior year summer reading)
  6. Austenland by Shannon Hale
I also want to watch Emma and Clueless to compare, but I’ve already seen both of them, so they’re not making the official cut. My picks are subject to change if I read a review by another participant that just seems to good to miss!

Review: Viva la Bicycle!

I chanced upon Jeff Mapes Pedaling Revolution while scanning the titles in the NYTimes Book Review, and I am pleased because I’ve reconsidered some of my anger towards inconsiderate drivers. Mapes analyzes the current popularity of cycling in American cities and how cyclists (and alternative transportation methods) are responsible for the direction of urban development. As an avid cyclist, Mapes has an obvious agenda, but as a middle-aged man, he doesn’t promote the riffraff that many young cyclists seem to embrace.

Amsterdam seems to be the benchmark for urban cycling as a popular form of transportation. Mapes, who travelled to Amsterdam and interviewed various local officials, finds that cycling is an efficient and safe means of traversing the Dutch capital. In the Netherlands, few people wear helmets, and intersections often garner yield signs as opposed to full stops; yet accidents involving bicycles are much lower than in the United States. Crowded streets are often lined with cycletracks that run parallel to the streets designed to keep cars and cycles separated. These cycletracks keep bikes away on congested streets but still visible to motorists who may be sharing the road with them on the next street.

Mapes follows his study of Amsterdam with case studies in Davis, California, Portland, Oregon, and New York City. Each city has a distinct method of dealing with cyclists, but Mapes stresses the need for more educated drivers and cyclists. Young cyclists seem to ignore traffic laws out of rebellion—you might have seen these riders each month as they crowd the streets during Critical Mass rides. Critical Mass comes from the idea that Chinese cyclists crowd busy intersections until there is a critical mass of riders large enough to stop the flow of opposing traffic. Throughout America, Critical Mass riders take to the streets in protest of what they deem unsafe riding conditions, but many riders drink and party on the route which sends the wrong message.

Cycling culture is growing and is affecting the way cities are being designed. Roads are being redesigned with green boxes in front of traffic lights which create space for cyclists to line up in order to avoid right-turning vehicles. Other changes involve attempts to prevent suburban sprawl by seriously limiting development beyond certain distances from city centers. The hope is that within a certain number of miles people might be more included to bike or use public transportation.

What I felt was missing throughout this book was an account of the policeman who violently shoved a rider during Critical Mass ride. Maybe the story was only news in NYC, but I still thought it perfectly exemplified how when cyclists and the public are at odds no one wins.

This review might feel more like an essay, but I think Pedaling Revolution touches on very important subjects. This is a worthwhile read for anyone in a city who either rides a bike or has been angered by an aggressive cyclist. No side is right and no side is wrong.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Review: Rumble, rumble

Tony Johnson dreams of attending university while living with an unemployed father, a submissive mother, a gangbanging brother, and a younger sister dealing with teen promiscuity and its consequences. Tony’s bright future grows dim as all the people in his life begin falling apart making Tony choose between his family or his future. Oh, I almost forgot, the Johnsons are black and they live in the Bronx.

The whole premise sound incredibly trite. It is incredibly trite, but the writing of Roy Pickering makes Patches of Grey an extremely worthwhile and compelling read. Pickering’s characters are so deep and fleshed out that they don’t fall into horrible clichés. We are lead to believe that Lionel, Tony’s father, is a stereotypical underachieving urban father with a drinking problem. But quickly Pickering delves into Lionel’s past and things aren’t so easy. Lionel is haunted by his past and the feeling that he has always been inadequate for the ones he loves. Instead of explaining this to his family he beats them down with verbal and physical abuse in hopes of lowering their expectations in a “white man’s world.”

The plot moves with incredible swiftness. Though we may know where it’s all going on the outset, Pickering’s love for his characters makes us empathize with all of their plights. By the second chapter we are engulfed in a world of gang violence and broken hearts; it appears sappy but it isn’t. Patches of Grey reminds me of The Outsiders. Pickering mirrors S.E. Hinton; each author has a deep understanding of the culture they are representing.

I want to call Patches of Grey a young adult novel, but I don’t want to diminish its power and quality. I only label it so because its themes are important for teens to read and analyze. Pickering doesn’t pander to his readers; he presents all the information through his character’s commentary of situations.

Patches of Grey is only available on Amazon at the moment, but hopefully we’ll find Pickering’s work on the summer reading shelves of B&N soon.

Review copy provided by author.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: The Vampire-Human Conundrum

When a book garners as much attention as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, I find it necessary to read just to find out what all the hype is about. I was a Twilight virgin. I haven’t seen the movie, and I knew little beyond the fact that Edward Cullen is a vampire and has a forbidden love affair with a human, Bella. It sounded all too familiar, as I had an unhealthy obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in my teenage days, but I took the trip back to adolescence none the less.

I pretty much just summed up the plot for you, but I will get a bit more detailed for review sake. Seventeen-year-old Bella moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her dad and is immediately intrigued by the Cullen family, particularly the youngest, Edward. Edward is unnervingly gorgeous and suave, and, for some reason, seems absolutely disgusted by Bella. Eventually Bella learns that Edward and his family are vampires. So much for the normalcy of small-town life. Of course the disgust doesn’t last long, and Edward reveals he has never been drawn to anyone like he is to Bella (and vice versa), and so begins the human-vampire relationship.
Now, I have read a lot of commentary on this book. Sci-fi enthusiasts angry that Meyer changed the traditional characteristics of vampires; feminists angry that Bella has a dependency on Edward; and lots and lots of female fans raving about how Edward is the definition of “The Perfect Man.” It is easy to get frustrated at times, but remember what it is: YA fiction intended for pre-teen and teenage girls.
Bella is a pathetic character who has no sense of self-worth and absolutely no self-confidence. She gains these only when Edward expresses his undying love for her (and even then, her confidence is questionable). But her emotions appeal to the sappy side of girls who just want someone to love them unconditionally that will always be by their side. It’s not a terrible quality, as long as it’s not one’s only quality. Edward was the most likable character by far, for the sole reason that he’s a witty smart ass (a characteristic they apparently replace with “brooding” in the film).
Meyer’s writing seemed typical for its audience, though oftentimes pages are filled with only dialogue and the reader is left to decipher who said what. Bella and Edward speak in very subtle terms, never completely revealing, in so many words, exactly what they are talking about, and sometimes I just wanted to yell, “SEX.  YOU MEAN SEX.” Other times, I was so confused that I just gave up on trying to figure out what they were hinting at. The structure is also questionable. We hear Edward and Bella pine for each other for the first 350 pages, and then it’s as if the author forgot she needed dramatic action, which she then uses to fill up the last 150 pages. There were many questions left unanswered, which I can only assume were there to set up the next three novels.
Twilight isn’t a terrible book–it definitely kept my interest so that I finished all 500 pages with lightning speed. It just has a specific audience. I think many people expect it to be on level with Harry Potter, a children’s book that seems to be appropriate (and enjoyable) for all ages. But when the plot focuses more strongly on the love story than the magic, a lot of people are going to lose interest.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review: It’s all a facade

Jonathan Safran Foer’s sophomore attempt is filled with the same chicanery that littered his first novel, but this time sentimentality is poured on with a ladle. Oskar Schell, an overeducated nine year old from Manhattan, narrates as he tries to locate a lock matching a key he found after his father’s death during the 9/11 attacks. Oskar hopes that in finding the lock his father’s death will make clearer sense to him. Foer extends beyond literary conceits and uses images to tell Oskar’s journey through New York’s boroughs.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close feels crowded. Foer tries to manipulate every word of the text so much so that the whole piece becomes contrived and false. It takes too much time to sift through Foer’s tricks, distracting the reader from the story. Instead of growing with Oskar we are forced to witness his journey from a removed point-of-view.

Throughout the novel Foer drops in images of locks, single worded pages, and other distractions that don’t give a greater sense to his story. The entire novel ends with a flip book which attempts to bring the entire piece full circle, but it just feels tacked on. I would like to see a sample of his writing that is completely devoid of any post-modernist tricks; I wonder what the sentences would look like.

My difficulty with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that Foer relies too much on gimmickry and not enough on real characters. Oskar is intriguing with his anecdotes and perspective, but he doesn’t feel like a person. Oskar’s journey is too broad and meandering with no real resolution. The resolution Foer does provide seems watered down compared to the sprawling nature of the rest of the novel.

But if you liked Foer before you’ll probably enjoy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. You’ve likely already read it. He is a polarizing author with an extremely devout fan-base to which I don’t subscribe. I’ve always felt a little cheated while reading his work and that opinion hasn’t changed. Instead of honesty we are presented with a rambling conglomeration of literary tricks and games with no substantial meaning.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: What makes life perfect?

Jessica Shattuck’s new novel, Perfect Life, covers a lot of ground and mixes a lot of familiar themes. Take one part The Big Chill, one part Jodi Picoult, and blend it with women’s fiction, and you’ll start to see what I mean.

Meet four college friends: Jenny, Laura, Elise, and Neil. Gone are the pot-smoking days of simplicity, and welcome to the real world. Elise is frustrated with her partner’s quest to find other children of their child’s sperm donor; Laura has a husband that is never home and questions if she ever really knew the father of her two children.
But the novel’s backbone lies with Neil and Jenny. Two years prior, Neil provided his sperm so Jenny and her husband Jeremy could conceive a child. With this donation, though, he signed away all rights and recognition as the biological father, and he is just now starting to question whether this was a good decision. Neil’s unexpected return to the East Coast sends a shockwave through the group and brings them together in this book about family, friendship, morality, and (as the back of the book states) fertility.
One part Big Chill: I believe the strongest point of this novel is Shattuck’s ability to realistically depict her characters’ relationships and reactions. The plot fundamentally revolves around Neil’s return and how it affects each of the other characters, both within their circle of friendship and outside of it with their own families, and for this reason, it reminds me of The Big Chill. The reader gets a clear and descriptive picture of each character’s personality and problems, so we feel as though we really know them and their relationships.

One part Jodi Picoult: Picoult always writes on the grey area of legality, taking an issue like Neil’s controversial sperm donation and chronicling its impact on her characters. I found Shattuck’s storyline to be very creative, but I don’t believe it was used to its full potential. For once, I wish it had been more Picoult-esque, because the Shattuck’s characters seemed to be very submissive, and somewhat passive, about the whole Neil issue. I understand there is a fine balance between keeping it a character novel and turning it into a legal drama, but it seemed weak as Neil was the only one who seemed to care one way or another about the situation. I was happy to leave the characters at the end because their problems exhausted me.
The back cover synopsis describes this as a “deeply funny and keenly observed novel,” but it certainly is in no way, shape, or form ‘funny.’ This is a serious novel, but not a negative one. You may not chuckle, but you will appreciate Shattuck’s character insight as you ponder how you would react in a similar situation.
W. W. Norton & Co.
320 Pages, Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-393-06950-1
Many thanks to W. W. Norton and LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for providing me a free advance copy of this book.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Naturally selected

Since Ruth Padel received so much press for the controversy over the Professor of Poetry position at the University of Oxford, I figured I’d give her new book of poetry a go, believing that a poet who can cause that much of an uproar must be pretty decent.

When I think of poetry, I generally believe that it’s the most personal of the creative art forms – the closest to the expression of self through abstractions and highly selective diction, an eye on the I. The paired down language is key; and through metaphors and emotive techniques the poet is able to create an entire world, sometimes in just three lines.

So when I approached Darwin: A Life in Poems, I was a bit jarred. Even knowing that the project was to give the reader a biography on Charles Darwin through verse, it still felt somewhat off that this was not going to have the poet’s personal reflections. (I do realise that many poets don’t necessarily use themselves as the narrators of their own poems, but it’s still quite common.) But it didn’t take long to convince me that this is a highly intelligent and original way to create and reveal a biographical story.

Two hundred years ago, Charles Darwin was born. His story starts like most: He was raised in a small country town in Shopshire; he studied at Edinburgh then Cambridge (ok, that’s not like most) and originally trained to go into vestments (clergy or medical), but decided that the biological sciences were more fascinating; his father disapproved yet accepted the change since the Cambridge dons thought his son was one of the brightest students. Darwin travelled to the Galápagos, observes some birds and beetles, returns home to marry a childhood (and cousin) sweetheart, has a couple of children (some that don’t survive past a year), and formulates a theory that changes the world.

In Padel’s hands though, we are transported not just into these standard facts; she takes us closer to the Darwins’ marriage bed, to the inner mind of Darwin – not just as he was formulating his theory on natural selection, but as he thought of being separated from his wife or of being what seemed deathly ill his whole life. One of the cleverer poems, ‘Survival of the Fittest’, one of the major theories that Darwin is famous for, doesn’t deal just with the cold, scientific facts that brought him to such thoughts; no, it’s much more personal than that: ‘Was it because of him that Annie [his daughter] died? / “My dread is hereditary ill-health. / Are marriages between first cousins doomed / to deformity and illness? Effects / of inbreeding – only the fittest survive?”’ Darwin (and Padel) make it seem that he derived his theory through his family life, not his voyage on the Beagle.

Padel is methodical; her lines are timely and well-timed. There is a wonderful cadence to each verse, as if we’re being read some sort of melancholic bedtime story. Words are to be relished, not to be rushed. Padel makes sure that we understand Darwin from all angles – scientifically, as a son and brother and husband and father, religiously. Emotive effects are strong, especially when Darwin thinks not of his science but of his wife and of his children.

Closing this book, I immediately took an interest in Darwin’s writing. I’d be curious to know whether Darwin was truly as poetic as Padel (his own great-granddaughter) makes him out to be. Her introduction says that most of the writing is his own, but words were changed in order to make it ‘poetry’. But I don’t think that takes away anything from either’s talent.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review: And in this corner, the Herring Wonder!

Where to begin with Jonathan Ames’s new book? The Double Life Is Twice as Good is a fantastic read. Ames has compiled essays and fiction (and in this collection, there really isn’t a difference between the two) in order to create a riotous event. There are no dull moments; there is just pure hysteria. 

Ames seems to represent the age we’re living in: an age of instant honesty, where people/authors aren’t afraid to admitting their quirks and problems and secrets to an audience, where fiction and memoir and journalism don’t have any indelible lines that separate one from the other. He’s blunt with his sexual ‘deviance’ – and his friends’ too.

The first story, ‘Bored to Death’, is a Paul Auster-meets-Raymond Chandler detective tale, where the narrator pretends to be a private investigator to help a young woman find her missing sister. What starts off as a laugh becomes something quite sinister. (It’ll be amusing to see what HBO cooks up for this, as the story is the basis for a new series forthcoming.) This is probably Ames at the top of his game here, mixing all kinds of genres and techniques in order to tell this tale.

The journalism in the book probably is my favourite – although that’s pretty unfair to say, because every piece of writing in this collection is pretty solid. Ames gives us insight into the relationship of Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood, the celibacy and magnetism of Lenny Kravitz, the wonderful questions asked at an oral sex workshop, and the pure absurdity of a corduroy appreciation society meeting (Ames wears corduroy trousers as part of his ‘costume’). And there’s a pretty amusing piece on his boxing experience as ‘The Herring Wonder’, which is a career I hope he revives – although that’s unlikely as his age probably won’t allow for it.

What I found to be rather intriguing was the fact that his fiction, what he labels as ‘short stories’, don’t have the same type of comedy within. They’re actually quite sad and morose – in still a bright way. It’s evident that he’s employing bits of his life when writing his fiction (some of the aspects in the journalism and personal essays sections make their way into the stories) but, in this genre of storytelling, he decides to make said bits to have more of an existential quality. Like in the comic that ends the book, the refrain is ‘I wondered if maybe this time, a neighbor would come check on me. But no one came. Doesn’t anyone care that I’m dying in here.’ It sounds like it’s right out of Dostoevsky.

Ames is one author I would carry everywhere. The Double Life Is Twice as Good made me laugh out loud, so I’m sure I got a few stares on the subway. And since Ames and I are neighbours, I hope to cross paths with him on the street one day. Plus, isn’t the jacket just perfect?

Simon & Schuster (Scribner)
224 Pages, Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1439102336

Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Dewey, the Library Cat

I can’t remember where I first heard about Dewey the library cat, but I know it was during those wintery months of unemployment when my day consisted primarily of both the public library and my cats. It seemed like a perfect fit, though it took four months on the New York Public Library wait list to actually get the book.

Vicki Myron’s Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World is the true story of an orange tabby kitten that was left in the library drop box one frigid January night in Spencer, Iowa. He was then officially adopted as Spencer’s library cat, and there he remained for his nineteen years. As the residents of Spencer discovered, Dewey was a special cat, in that he was incredibly outgoing, enthusiastic, and always seemed to know who needed him the most. 
He became, in a sense, the town’s mascot, boosting morale during the farm crisis of the 1990s and bringing thousands of people to the local library. In fact, Dewey Readmore Books became an international celebrity as he was featured in numerous publications, radio shows, news broadcasts, and even documentaries. Every person who encountered Dewey seemed to have his or her own personal relationship with him.
Some of the most fascinating tidbits from this book are the descriptions of life in midwestern farm country. Corporate purchase and the ensuing construction are the typical trends of development in small towns, where the population grows after a Walmart is built. But in Iowa, land can be sold and entire towns can disappear to create even bigger cornfields.
Let’s get one thing straight: this is not a work of literary fiction. I’m not sure it even contains enough depth for a book club selection.  But, it does go deeper than just the biography of a Iowan cat. Myron uses many examples to illustrate how Dewey affected the mentality of individuals and the town as a whole, which is the real meat of this book. While she herself suffered through a divorce, single parenthood, and a cancer scare, hundreds of other people recognized Dewey as a pleasant distraction from their own troubles or as an unconventional source of support. Dewey is a quick and easy read that will make you think, make you chuckle, maybe make you cry (if you’re a sap like me), and will definitely make you appreciate all that you love.
And look how cute he is in that cover photo.

Review: Where’s the friction?

The pace of You Shall Know Our Velocity is the strongest aspect of Dave Eggers’s first novel. Somehow Eggers is able to keep the action electric, even when he describes people waiting in an airport for a plane to having them dream up conversations they have with the dead. There are some honest and raw moments when the two main characters come to terms with one of their mutual friend’s untimely deaths, but in addition to the whirlwind pace this is about all the novel has going for it.

The narrator, Will, and his friend Hand decide to take – in a week’s time – a worldwide trip with the extra thousands of dollars in cash they have in order to a) see the world and b) travel non-stop and c) dole out their money to those who need it. Of course, as with any roadtrip novel, things don’t go exactly as planned and the boys don’t get to see much of the world at all – West Africa and the Baltics end up being their only stops, even though their main desires included Greenland, Mongolia, and Cairo.

What bothered this reader about the narrative were the conceits of a) the travelogue and b) the first-world characters believing that they should be charitable to the second- and third-world ones. I never enjoyed the antics received when Will and Hand made their way into a new country and had to figure out the locals. I wasn’t sure if this was an honest portrait or if the author just needed a way of exploring ‘otherness’.

Because the characters weren’t able to spend days or even hours in a location, there really wasn’t a development in the secondary people to the story. Therefore the Senegalese children or the Russians in the Baltic nations were never fully explored; they just became caricatures that perhaps were supposed to represent their respective nations’ plights.

Removing that issue though, the novel then becomes a story about a relationship of two friends: the strains that have been put on it, how they grow closer, how one actually learns how to fully trust another. If Eggers was looking to represent that, then kudos. Otherwise it’s a bit bothersome.

(And I did enjoy the following quip: When asked why they [the main characters] were in Senegal, they respond: ‘Because it was windy in Greenland.’ In regards to the book, that’s a pretty hysterical refrain.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Review: If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?

I’m generally not a reader of short story collections, and I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, I finish a story feeling unsatisfied and wishing to know more about the characters that I got to know so well. On the other hand, I understand short stories, from a literary perspective—how all it takes is several pages to make a point. And generally, I remember short stories long after I read them.

I was most excited to meet Jill McCorkle at BEA, as I have read some of her other novels. She has a unique southern voice, one that does not just speak from broad generalizations and stereotypes about how people are in the South. She describes southerners without mentioning they’re southerners. Yet the characters in her newest short story collection, Going Away Shoes, contain a voice that could be any woman, southern or not.
Going Away Shoes sticks to one pretty basic theme throughout all of its eleven stories: women wanting out, or, as the back of the book describes, “women looking love in the face without flinching.” From the opening story of a woman trapped as her mother’s caretaker to the closing story of a woman’s imaginary perfect man, McCorkle describes women—sisters, mothers, wives, divorcees, and singletons—who know what they want and aren’t afraid to hide behind their mistakes.
McCorkle seems to have a gift with American short fiction, as stories from this collection have been featured in the Best American Short Stories series and New Stories from the South: the Year’s Best. She tackles weighty subjects with wit and poise, creating a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy that will keep the reader entertained. And as a bonus, these stories were the perfect length for my daily commute on public transportation.
Two of the stories can be found online:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
272 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-56512-632-9

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review: Youthful sarcasm

James Sveck is snarky. Like a Gawker post. Thus he’s an antihero of our times.

He’s an eighteen-year-old high school graduate who doesn’t like talking. He thinks it’s a waste of time, mostly because the words that come out of his mouth are not the words that fully express himself. So he chooses to be silent.
He doesn’t like associating with other people, mostly because he doesn’t find the conversation gripping and mature enough for him to pay attention to. Therefore, he’s still a virgin and continuously dateless.
He believes that people who go to college are all uninspired and cookie-cutter human beings. And this is why he doesn’t want to attend Brown University in the autumn.
And somehow James Sveck is one of the most compelling narrators I’ve come across in some time.
James tells his story in Peter Cameron’s new novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, which has just been published in paperback. Although marketed as a young adult novel, it’s certainly more than that BISAC label – I was able to read this in one sitting as James is riveting, creating a perfect sense of sympathy, humour, and distaste, allowing the reader to re-feel what it was like to be confused, angry, and apathetic towards life as an adolescent.
The setting: New York City, 2003, summertime.
The core of the novel: Working at his mother’s art gallery (his mother James finds to be a flake as she’s on her third husband who recently stole credit cards from her during their honeymoon), James assists this art school genius John, an Ivy League and Courtauld Institute graduate who basically runs the place. One day James decides to play a trick on him and, using the dating service that John uses, creates a profile of John’s perfect match, captures his older colleague’s attention; and, thereafter, awkwardness ensues.
A collection of characters fully illuminate the problems and predicaments of James’s life: from his all-business lawyer father to his sister’s overly-pretentious and in-an-open-marriage boyfriend Rainer Maria; from his once-famous tender grandmother to his Samuel-Beckett-meets-Woody-Allen psychologist. The dialogue between all of these people runs from being ridiculously hysterical to overtly tragic, and, at least to me, all very worth it. Every statement feels weighed and judged. The prose is spare. The relationships between the characters are all painfully exposing. And the psychologist versus James battles do elicit the dialogue one could pick out of Waiting for Godot or Endgame, without being pretentious or terribly venerating. The novel also brings to mind The Great Gatsby in many ways with its New York summer setting and its own version of youth and self-discovery.
It’s a heartwarming and heartretching tale of first love, personal identity, slow discovery, and hysterical sarcasm, packed together in a 229 page book. James’s distant-yet-intimate style of storytelling snowballs this novel to an end and will be the reason you won’t want to close the covers of his book.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Review: Orpheus and Eurydice

I’ve been trying to get into Salman Rushdie for quite some time now. Freshman year, I began reading Midnight’s Children, but as it was a required book for a painful class, I naturally never completed it. Then, a year ago, I picked up Shalimar the Clown, and though I loved the beginning, I quickly tired of of style and found myself simply turning the pages in order to discover what would happen to the characters that I had developed a modicum of affection for.

Still, almost all of the people whose book recommendations I trust continually sang the praises of The Ground Beneath Her Feet. They told me, if you read one Rushdie book, make it this one. From the first page, I immediately recognized Rushdie’s style – sentences teeming with pop culture, historical and literary references, first person narration neglecting to omit even the most intimate details, complete with allusions to future plot twists that compel us to continue reading.

It took me a little while to settle into this style, much like it might take a coddled western teen to settle into India’s densely humid spring monsoon season. Each paragraph can dissected on its own as a fully prose poem, which, while invoking a considerable amount of awe, isn’t a style that I typically enjoy. Still, the novel grew on me, and I found myself becoming rather attached to the unapologetic, reflective, oft hilarious narrative voice and the mythical characters and story it was retelling. Rushdie rewrites the classic Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, casting them as rock gods in a contemporary global setting. We follow Vina Aspara and Ormus Cama through the eyes of Rai Merchant, Vina’s faithful, doting companion from childhood (naturally also in love with her), as the two rockstars captivate the world with their tale and their music.

Though still not a favorite book of mine, I still somehow feel like this is a must read, if only to sample Rushdie’s unique style and perspective. I’ve resolved to read it again, more patiently this time around.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Review: Dark Beginnings

Black and white static images with numerous dark corners make David Small’s Stitches into a terrifying retelling of a disturbing childhood. Small revisits his sordid past with his family in a way few can. Without holding back, Small depicts his formidable years as ones filled with echoless silence. Stitches is a graphic (literal) memoir about growing up in hell.

Small is still haunted by the first sixteen years of his life when he lived in fear of an oppressive mother who considered strict silence the mark of a good home. Small’s father, a physician, tries his hand at taking control of family issues only with disastrous and life threatening results. After a botched surgery leaves young David with almost no voice, home life nearly disintegrates until David finally emancipates himself from his captors.

Stitches is told in a gothic and macabre manner. Distinct blacks and whites throughout the images give the impression that Small sees his past in a similar fashion; there are good moments and bad moments and nothing in between. Other reviews seem to consider Stitches “redemptive,” but I only found anger poured into every page. I don’t get the sense that Small has truly come to terms with his past; he has, however, found an avenue to tell his readers about his origins.

David Small’s artwork is masterful. Each page clearly depicts the haunting images of Small’s memories. Many of the drawings seem akin to Eisner which is probably the gold standard for autobiographical artwork. Negative space, which is used abundantly, makes single moments extremely powerful and resonant.

Unless you are intrigued by Small’s artwork I don’t recommend reading Stitches. Memoirs are profuse among the bookshelves, and David Small adds another work to that already long list. Though I empathize with Small’s unfortunate upbringing, he doesn’t craft a singularly impressive composition that merits everyone’s attention. Perhaps, he has simply released the demons that plague his thoughts. And to that, bravo!

NOTE: Seeing as I am the one who reads comics I will try to write reviews of them when I can, but I plan on limiting my coverage to singular novels. Following serials would be too time consuming and often repetitive.

W. W. Norton & Co.
344 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-393-06857-3

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review: Better Late Than Never

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is old news at this point in time. Very old news. Regardless, I am one of the few that has never seen the movie, read the book, nor read any reviews about it, so my knowledge of the story upon picking up the novel was embarrassingly rudimentary. I barely had familiarity of the plot and luckily was not tainted by the movie to the point of picturing the faces of the actors while reading. Despite the fact that everyone else in the world probably knows this story, I am going to review it anyway–partly because I like writing reviews so that I myself remember what I read, and partly because there may be some other lost soul on the planet that is as oblivious as I.

Thirteen year old Briony Tallis, aspiring writer, thinks she’s a lot older than one barely out of her preteens. But as she witnesses the flirtatious relationship between her older sister, Cecilia, and the son of their servant, Robbie Turner, in the summer of 1935, she cannot fully grasp the complexities of adult relationships. Her imagination takes control and she tells a lie that wrongly accuses Robbie of rape. The rest of the novel follows the repercussions of Briony’s crime, spanning from World War II to the end of the twentieth century.
McEwan has been celebrated for his ability to tap into human psychology, citing this book in particular. While I believe that to be true, I thought that the organization of this novel detracted from the full emotional impact of Briony’s actions. The story is told in three “books” that are so different, I found it hard to remember they were related–the first book gives first hand accounts of the fateful summer from various perspectives, and, boy, does it start out slow; the second book tells the story of Robbie during the war; the third book describes Briony’s work as a nurse during the war, five years after the incident. The novel then ends with a short chapter of Briony’s perspective from 1999, serving as the story’s conclusion.
I can understand why McEwan is praised for his understanding of the human psyche, especially that of a thirteen-year-old girl. While Book One gives the backdrop to the story, Books Two and Three serve the sole purpose of demonstrating how Briony’s actions affect those that were involved, both situationally and psychologically. Cecilia and Robbie try and maintain a relationship during the war, and Briony tries to reconcile with her sister. McEwan does a good job of illustrating how much of an effect one small detail can have, though it takes many pages in each book before the incident is even referenced.
Overall, I wasn’t too impressed by the story, and, though McEwan does carefully detail emotion, I wasn’t blown away by it like most reviewers seem to be. The whole time I was reading, I was actually considering how the story would be edited for the silver screen–how the timeline would be adjusted, how Cecilia would play a bigger role for Kiera Knightly screen time. However, the last small chapter of the novel, the one written by Briony in 1999, is definitely the most important part of this story. After finishing the book, I could genuinely praise McEwan for his originality and for writing a brief ending that truly makes the reader think.

Monday, June 1, 2009

BookExpo America 2009!

I was lucky enough to attend BEA using one of my company’s passes, and it was pretty much just heaven for a booknerd like me. At least, it seems to be heaven if you don’t have to work the company booth. In that case, I hear it’s rather boring. Anyway, I attended some of the pre-conference panel sessions on Thursday and returned on Friday afternoon to check out the exhibition floor in full swing. And wow. Every kind of book, publication, and publisher you could imagine was present. The best part was, of course, the free books you could get through author signings, and most of these were ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) that don’t hit the shelves til late this year!

From my three-hour stint at BEA, I came home with a good collection of books to read. I spoke to several of the authors, all of whom seemed excited to meet people who were clearly avid readers. So look for early reviews of the following books in the coming months.
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
Eli the Good by Silas House
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Stitches by David Small
Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle
Beg, Borrow, and Steal by Michael Greenberg

Also, the Times wrote an interesting article about BookExpo and what it showed about the future of publishing.