Monday, November 30, 2009

Review & GIVEAWAY: Totally killer, dude

If you’ve graduated from college in the past couple of years and are living in New York City, there’s a very good chance that life sucks for you right now. Why? The economy. Kinda seems like a cliché reason, but it’s true. Huge numbers of recent grads are unemployed or holding a part-time job that pays minimum wage and has nothing to do with that degree they just spent thousands of dollars on. But guess what? You’re not the first group this has happened to! Back in 1991, things were just as bad—back when a Bush was in office, the US was involved in another war in the Middle East, and NYC was just a little seedier.

This is the historical setting for Greg Olear’s debut novel, Totally Killer. The story focuses on Taylor, a 23-year-old single and jobless graduate from Missouri. We hear the story, however, from Taylor’s roommate Todd, who tells us in the very beginning that Taylor is dead and we’re going to learn why. Taylor comes to the Big Apple with glitter in her eyes, and she’s anxious to live the New York City dream. After months of searching for a job and nothing to show for it, Taylor is understandably frustrated. When an invitation for a mysterious employment agency called Quid Pro shows up in her mailbox, Taylor figures it can’t hurt to give them a call. Quid Pro Quo proves to be quite different from any other employment agency Taylor has visited—a nice building, expensive decor. She easily lands a perfect job and, even better, a perfect boyfriend, but [as the publisher blurb states, and I have to steal its dramatic teaser] “perfection has its price.”

Totally Killer is essentially a piece of historical fiction, just using a history that isn’t too remote. The author does a fabulous job of setting the scene as New York in 1991. I didn’t live here then [I was six years old], and neither did Olear, but I certainly got a feel of the setting from his descriptions—sentences that reiterate how there was no email or internet or cell phones, and how employment agencies and classifieds were the main ways to find a job. It reminds you that not only has technology changed, it has certainly hugely changed the way we function as a society.

This is book is one part thriller (who killed Taylor??), one part satire built around the following idea: recent grads can’t find a job because baby-boomers are still in the workforce. So what’s the easiest way to fix that? Kill them off, of course. Olear creates a story in which the outlandish becomes almost justifiable, and it’s peppered with lots of themes and pop culture references that make this book almost as relatable today, though it’s set almost two decades ago.

I enjoyed the perspective from which the story was told. While I got to know the characters, I never felt I had the time to decide if I liked them or not. It’s one of those stories that just carried me along as one event flowed into another. Olear did an excellent job of simultaneously working through the setting and characters and plot, and I had a hard time putting this one down.

Greg has generously given me ONE copy of his debut novel to share with one of our readers. This contest is open internationally. For one entry each:

  1. Comment on this post with your email address.
  2. Tweet about this giveaway (Totally Killer giveaway from @booknerds!

Deadline is Monday, December 14th at 11:59PM EST. The winner will be announced the following day. Good luck!

Tune in tomorrow for a guest post by author Greg Olear.

Totally Killer was released in October by Harper Paperbacks.
Review copy provided by the author.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Movie Review: Pride and Prejudice (2005)

So, I believe I have officially decided to watch Austen-based movies for the rest of the Everything Austen Challenge. I have waaaaay too many books in queue that I just don’t know if I’ll get around to reading anything else, and with my handy new Netflix subscription, it makes the movie-viewing so much easier. Technically, this is my 5th item in the challenge; I watched Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility while drugged on Theraflu, and wow, I don’t think I have ever been so groggy. I say that I remember it all, but really I probably just pieced together the segments I did see in between dozing off with the story I know from recently reading the book. Needless to say, I will not be writing a review of it unless I try watching it again.
Anyway…normally I don’t really like to compare things [ie: an author’s books, versions of a movie], because I feel that any work should be able to stand on its own. However, I viewed 2005’s Pride & Prejudice mostly to compare to the 1995 BBC version I watched a couple of months ago. At this point I am very familiar with the storyline, so I was able to make some observations and comparisons outside of the basic plot.
  • I thought this movie was cast very well. The ages of the characters made more sense to me. Keira Knightley was 19 when she made this movie, the age Elizabeth is in the book (I believe). Plus, Knightley is my age, so it just made sense to me and seemed more like a peer in the role. While Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth were both excellent in the BBC version, the fact that they are a generation older than me just automatically put their characters as older in my mind. Also in terms of age, I liked this version of Mr. Collins. Because he seemed closer to the Bennett girls in age, his personality was the biggest turn-off about it.
  • The first half seemed rushed. I understand that was necessary to make it a studio movie rather than a miniseries, but I thought it took away from the full effect of story’s development. I never got the same feeling of disdain that Lizzy had for Darcy.
  • One of my favorite characters in the BBC version was Mr. Bennett. He was fantastic with his subtle, sarcastic remarks. I don’t think Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennett had as large of a role and he was nowhere near as funny with his sarcastic, under the breath remarks. Not his fault…the production just cut back on that character. I did like him in the end as he showed fatherly emotion.
  • I thought Keira Knightley did an excellent job. She created (to me) a more realistic Elizabeth. Her emotion and cadence seem more believable and relatable, instead of trying to be 19th century proper.
  • The ending! Completely different! No wedding was shown, but I enjoyed the brief scene of Elizabeth and Darcy post-wedding. Nice little romantic bow to tie up that two hour-long package.
While I thought this was an excellent movie, I think I prefer the BBC version for the sole reason that because it was longer, I was more involved and engrossed in the story. Plus, Colin Firth.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Impending Showdown of Kari vs. the eReader

My approach to books has always been one traditional in nature. I’ve never listened to an audiobook. I’ve never read an eBook. I relish in the crinkle of pages, the physicality of paper, the smell that lingers in the creases of old library books. I swore I would never go digital, because I love books too much, slightly worn, accumulating on my shelves.

Well eReader, your time has come.
Recently, Trish @ Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? hosted a contest for a Sony Reader Pocket Edition. Part of Sony’s marketing campaign for the eReader centers around a project called words move me. As heavy readers, we probably get more out of books than the average individual, and this project is about connecting readers to the emotions felt while reading a certain book. On the words move me website, you can search a term and see what comes up, perhaps giving you the next book on your list should you want to feel ‘inspired’ or ‘optimistic’ or ‘humorous’. Bottom line of the story: I won Trish’s contest, and a Sony Reader is on its way to me.
Now is the challenge. Having never anticipated owning an eReader, nor having ever planned on doing so, I’m a bit curious and anxious to see how I actually react to this thing. I don’t plan on replacing my beloved printed page, but surely there is some purpose this can serve me. My boyfriend works at a literary agency, for example, and was given a Kindle to hold the hundreds of scripts he has to read. This makes sense to me; it saves paper.
I am excited to try this out this whole digital thing, but it will never catch on with me if I think of it only as a replacement to my physical bookshelf; it’s going to need to serve some other purpose, and that is where I could use your help.
In what situation will an eReader be beneficial, and what do you think the eReader can do for me?
Again, many thanks to Trish for hosting this great contest!

Review: A Victorian soap opera

For some reason, while reading Middlemarch I felt like I was reading a pastoral version of Shakespeare’s Othello – although of course something much less villainous and without a creature like Iago who stumbles on things to ruin his master and his wife’s love. I say this only because both works are like watching what happens just past ‘and they lived happily ever after’. Before Othello commences, there’s a wedding. Not too far into George Eliot’s sprawling masterpiece, there’s the first of many weddings. And then we’re invited to watch such marriages fall from perfection, fall from idealism, into something much more realistic, unfortunate, and amusing.

Dorothea Brooke perhaps is a proto-feminist. She doesn’t necessarily want to be locked down by the typical fetters that womanhood suggests. Instead of playing house for her husband – making sure that the hired help is doing what they need to do, dressing up the salons so that everyone will comment when they come for tea – she wants to dive headfirst into her husband’s work and become the muse whose inspiration will set his work apart from everyone else’s and put him in the limelight. Instead of marrying James Chettam, her equal in age, she decides to marry the ‘academic’ Edward Casaubon who is much older, perhaps almost double her age. On their honeymoon, they bump into a cousin of Casaubon’s – Will Ladislaw – a struggling artist who is intrigued by this woman.

Meanwhile Dr Tertius Lydgate has newly arrived in Middlemarch and is interested in revamping and -vitalising the medicinal practice in town. It involves a lot of volunteer work, proto-socialised healthcare (?). He decides to marry the mayor’s daughter, Rosamond Vincy, who also happens to be a relative of Mr Bulstrode, a man with a shady past but also a man with money to spend. Here, between Lydgate and Rosamond, is another failing marriage as the wife wants to be bathed all the time in aristocracy, whereas Lydgate is much more interested in his work and not his personal life.

Rosamond’s brother Fred also falls in love with a childhood sweetheart. But Mary Garth won’t marry him unless he abandons the church and settles in a different, more suitable career. Fred also has a bit of a gambling problem that causes him to go into debt and makes him an unsuitable ‘gentleman’ for the Garths.

These stories create something of a soap opera, as we watch people unravel, as we hear subtle arguments, as we watch disappointments and plots against one another unfold. The only thing that’s missing is the supernatural. George Eliot’s style in this book is certainly to have a narrator speak as a god or a Greek chorus, from afar and with tons of sententious and axiomatic remarks, like: ‘For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval.’ Or: ‘We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions.’

Or: ‘The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases. Even without memory, the life is bound into one by a zone of dependence in growth and decay: but intense memory forces a man to own his blameworthy past. With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame.’

It’s almost as if this book is a compendium in competition with Bartlett’s Quotations. That’s not to say that it’s not amusing or touching at times; the language and these huge brushstroke generalisations usually bog down the drama of the novel. But in that regard it makes one feel as if Eliot’s narrator had precisely plotted and executed everything he/she decided to do beforehand, unlike Iago against his Othello.

Friday, November 20, 2009

NEW BOOK! Review: Try your worst

Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family is attempting to do a lot in one novel. It’s about crime, medicine, getting older, and relationships between a lot of different people: parent/child, husband/wife, doctor/patient, neighbors, friends, couples. It even feels somewhat like a mystery in parts. It may sound like a lot on one plate, but I think Grodstein succeeds in creating a very multifaceted novel. This is a pretty complex story, so I apologize the length in setting it up for you.

A Friend of the Family centers around Pete Dizinoff, a middle-aged internist that is so close to having the successful life towards which he has spent years working. He’s been married to his wife Elaine for 27 years, is well-respected as a doctor, and lives in upper-middle class New Jersey suburbs near his closest friends, Joe and Iris Stern. The only thing standing in the way of Pete’s picture-perfect future is his son Alec, who is 21-year-old college dropout with a drug-history and criminal record. Alec is currently living in the studio over the garage where he paints.
Move down the street to the Stern residence and we have Joe and Iris, Pete and Elaine’s best friends from college. The Sterns are very well-off with Iris bringing in $1mil+ a year (though I still have no idea what she does). Controversy surrounded the Stern household years ago as their eldest daughter Lauren got pregnant when she was 17, had the baby premature in a library bathroom, and (supposedly) killed the premie and threw it in the dumpster. Following a lawsuit from the state of New Jersey, Laura spent some time institutionalized and then traveled all over the world, moving from one random gig to the next. Now, she’s back in Jersey and has struck up a romance with Alec, who is 10 years her junior, and Pete is not happy about it. At all.
The structure of the book is what really grabs the reader. With the story narrated by Pete, the reader knows from the beginning that he did something horrible that completely ostracizes him from his friends and family. It takes the entire novel for this to play out as we learn more about the characters and their histories, both individually and together. Grodstein jumps around in time a lot using Pete’s reminisces to give the reader a piece of the puzzle by bringing you into the past, as well as giving you a sense of both dread and urgency as you approach the conclusion.
Thematically, Grodstein gives the reader a lot to deal with. She illustrates how one event of the past has affected so many people and so many relationships. Pete still struggles with the history of Laura and the Sterns, his oldest and dearest friends, and it’s been thirteen years. When his son, for whom he has the highest hopes and highest expectations, is thrown into the mix, Pete’s rationale kind of goes out the window and his emotional instinct takes over. Moreover, Pete wants what’s best for Alec and justifies illogical actions he takes to keep Alec and Laura apart.
This book reads kinda like Roth and kinda like Russo, minus some of Roth’s suicide-inducing negativity and minus some of Russo’s optimism. I was a little disappointed in the ending, but only since it had been built up so much, I expected something sensational. Grodstein, however, opted for realism instead of over-the-top, which probably made the novel more relatable but left me wanting more.
For those of you in New York, Lauren will be appearing at KGB Bar (85 E. 4th St), this Sunday the 22nd at 7:00 pm.

A Friend of the Family was just released last week by Algonquin Press.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: And the tree was happy

I assume everyone has read The Giving Tree. Or at least read a poem from Where the Sidewalk Ends. Everyone from my generation likely knows Shel Silverstein, but what most of us don’t know is the eccentric life he led before becoming one of the most well known children’s story writers of all time.

Marv Gold’s biography Silverstein and Me follows Shel from his rambunctious childhood, through his years at the Playboy Mansion(!), and his ultimate decision to write children’s books. The piece is subtitled “a memoir,” but Mr. Gold makes few appearances—the title of the entire work should really be “My Understanding of the trials and tribulations of Shel Silverstein,” but why split hairs when the subject is so interesting?

Mr. Gold grew up with Shel (then Sheldon) around Logan Square, Chicago around WWII. Both Gold and Shel spent their days getting into trouble and sneaking in movies; each loved to read comics. Gold remembers Shel being a talented and intelligent youth with absolutely no ambition and many lofty dreams. Shel and school never clicked and by his third stint in a college of some sort, he wanted nothing to do with higher education.

Answering an advertisement in the paper, Shel met with Hugh Hefner and agreed to draw cartoons for Mr. Hefner’s burgeoning gentlemen’s magazine. Being part of Playboy since its inception granted Shel a few rights—he was able to secure for himself a private apartment in the Playboy Mansion while he drew his cartoons. But ever restless, Shel grew tired of Playboy and asked Hugh for the opportunity to travel. Whilst spanning the globe Shel got into some trouble smuggling hash from Marrakech—two years in jail was his punishment.

That’s one of numerous stories Gold tells about Shel. There’s simply too much information about Shel Silverstein to fit into one review or one biography. There isn’t a lot about Marv Gold in his memoir, but it’s still a worthwhile read if you are interested in Shel. Gold’s anecdotes tell various pieces of Shel’s life, but don’t tell the whole story.

Shel was a favorite of mine growing up. My mother frequently read the poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends to me and I loved the bombastic humor (and I assume my mother appreciated the sardonic undertones). At some point later in my teens I learned that not only was Shel a jetsetting world traveler—I assumed all children’s writers stayed home and tended to children—but also that he frequented the Playboy mansion. Looking at all I know about Shel–much of which I learned through this biography–it seems apropos that my childhood hero was there at the inception of the world’s largest pornographic empire. Nothing is what it seems; perhaps that’s the lesson Shel Silverstein had been proffering through all of those zany poems.

And if you didn’t already know Shel Silverstein wrote the lyrics to “Boy Named Sue.” He did everything!

What’s your favorite Shel Silverstein poem?

Review copy provided by Author Marketing Experts, Inc.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: The English Patience

It was time for a quiet, contemplative read, and after reading Divisidero earlier this year, I was looking forward to settling into another one of Michael Ondaatje’s novels. The English Patient (I’m sure you’ve heard of the movie) won the Booker Prize (whose novels I tend to love), which made it even more appealing.

I wasn’t disappointed. Ondaatje’s style of writing is perhaps the most unhurried that I’ve found that still compels me to keep reading. While many novels are driven by a plot that includes high climaxes and low troughs, his novels remain on an even keel, and unfold almost at the ordinary pace of life. In describing this, I automatically begin to feel like it sounds boring, but the book teems with observations about the interactions between real, fallible humans that we nevertheless fall in love with and believe in, and wish the best for.

In this novel, Ondaatje expertly weaves together past and present stories of the four characters that have come to live together in a half-destroyed abandoned house in Italy that was serving as a hospital while World War II raged around it. We learn bits and pieces about each character from stories in their past that help us understand their interaction. As in Divisadero, Ondaatje isn’t out to write a fairy tale – of all the writers I’ve read, he perhaps is best at aptly representing reality in a way that captures how beautiful and yet desperately lonely it can be.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: In the Epping Forest

I had Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze imported shortly after it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. Foulds’s book is the only one that hasn’t found an American publisher yet (to my knowledge). Perhaps because it deals with characters that are more a part and solely known by the British conscious.

It tells the story of Dr Matthew Allen and his family who run High Beach Private Asylum, in the woods outside of London. The time is around 1840 and two poets happen to be there simultaneously, though never crossing paths: John Clare, the nature and rural poet, and Alfred Tennyson, a man whose poetry will later be known to represent the Victorian age. Tennyson is there with his brother, accompanying him at first under the guise that he doesn’t want to leave him alone. Later he admits that he wants to be admitted for cure of melancholia. (One of his great friends, Arthur Hallam, just died abroad and he has yet to recover. Arthur Hallam is later the subject of Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, which is begun to be penned in the confines of this asylum and this novel.)
Clare is there because he has a genuine multiple personalities disorder, one day thinking he’s a boxer, the next thinking he’s Lord Byron – although I’m sure boxing and Byron go hand in hand. Clare is already feeling that the public has no interest in his poetry any more, which is later quasi confirmed when his submissions to magazines come out fruitless. The spectre that seems to surround him and the novel though is the Romantic critic and great essayist William Hazlitt, wherein Clare uses a tavern from ‘The Fight’ as a stage name for his boxing career. Hazlitt’s clarity of description may be what Foulds himself is trying to summon in his own pages.
The novel has been pitched as a representation of these two great poets; but rather it is truly about the Allen family and how one daughter tries to seduce Tennyson to no avail, how the son is learning the ways of the asylum so that one day he can take it over, and – at its core – how Dr Allen himself is trying to develop a machine that will reproduce master technician’s furniture so that he may not need to work ever again. It’s an interesting comment on the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the mind – both creatively and in business.
However, the prose felt limp and the ideas behind this novel seemed weak. It’s almost summed up when Allen’s daughter Hannah enters Tennyson’s room for the first time: ‘She entered looking hungrily at everything for signs of the remarkable life that was lived there, but found an ordinary vestibule – wallpaper, a table, a mirror. There on the antlers of the coatstand, however, hung his coats and that wide black hat. He twirled the cape from his shoulders and added it. With proper care, with gentle fingers that seem unafraid as he touched her shoulders, he took her coat from her and drape it beside his own.’
Foulds, who is also an award-winning poet, seems to be interested in the flatness of language in this novel. Although every now and again you get a gem like this: ‘Possibly it was a though he could understand, but what she could not begin to try and explain to him was that in Heaven to see and to eat are the same thing. Looking is absorption, is union, without destruction. There is nothing broken. Light flows into light endlessly, in harmony, and is perfectly still.’

Monday, November 16, 2009

Back to School: Idealism in the slums

I last read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn back in the 11th grade. I remember absolutely loving it, to the point that it immediately and has subsequently held the top position on my list of favorite books. But junior year of high school was seven years ago, and I couldn’t remember exactly why I loved it so much, so it was time for a re-read. I was a bit nervous that it wouldn’t hold up to my memory, but I am happy to say that it was just as good the second time around.

Betty Smith’s classic is the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, a young girl living in Brooklyn in the pre-WWI 20th century. It’s the Brooklyn you can only read about—an immigrant population, tenement housing in Williamsburg, penny-pinching, and all the stores “down the street” (such as, “Francie, run to the butcher/apothecary/grocer down the street…”). Francie possesses the perfect blend of her mother Katie’s realism and her father Johnny’s idealism. Katie works as a janitor in their apartment building in exchange for rent, and Johnny is a singing waiter with a bit of a drinking problem. Along with her brother Cornelius (“Neely” for short), Francie struggles to remain idealistic amongst poverty and the normal ups and downs of life.
This was the first story I ever read that really got me into a style of novel that I love; it’s not so much a book with a plot, rather a portrait of a life and a time. To enjoy this kind of novel, you must love the characters, and it is easy to love the Nolans. Once I started reading, I immediately remember why I loved it so much; Francie is one of the only characters I’ve ever read that I immediately understand. I get her, and I get her way of thinking. She’s thoughtful, in a contemplative way. She has a kind of optimistic realism about her, and she finds joy and beauty in the smallest things. Her character perfectly illustrates what it means to grow up. 
Rather than rattle on and on, I’m going to keep this review short and leave you with some of the passages that exemplify what I mean and why I love this book. Out of 31,841 ratings on Goodreads, its average rating is 4.24 out of 5. That says something. Just read it.

“Don’t say that. It’s not better to die. Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there from the grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

“Oh, I wish I was young again when everything seemed so wonderful!”

“Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be happy; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well-dressed. Let me be sincere- be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: A family wreath

AS Byatt’s Angels and Insects is a collection of a loosely connected pair of novellas that centre around a shipwreck (which feels reminiscent of an incident of Bleak House). In the first tale, ‘Morpho Eugenia’, we are told about a survivor of this shipwreck and how he comes to enter a family that suspiciously feels very insect-like. The second tale, ‘The Conjugal Angel’, is focused around an odd group of friends that hold a séance, one that seems to elicit perhaps much more than they bargained for. Byatt’s project feels quirky, but it bound together quite firmly: echoes of themes, a dialogue between the two novellas, creates conversation on life and – perhaps above all – science in the Victorian age.

‘Morpho Eugenia’ is a slow, methodical story. Etymologist and perhaps slight anthopologist William Adamson was studying plant life in the Amazon, collecting specimens to study and to sell to scientists back in England. But the wreck of his ship he looses most of his specimens, and therefore his life is in disarray. Hoping to come back and live off the sales of his finds, he now finds solace under the Alabaster house, the patriarch taking him under his wing (for he too is an etymologist). William falls in love with one of his daughters, Eugenia, who has the name of one of the sole butterflies he was able to salvage from the wreck – one of the most beautiful butterflies at that: ‘A remarkable creation,’ his patriarch says. ‘How beautiful, how delicately designed, how wonderful that something so fragile should have come here, through such dangers, from the other end of the earth. And very rare. I have never seen one. I have never heard tell of anyone who has seen one. Morpho Eugenia. Well.’
William sets on winning Eugenia’s heart, and in order to do so, he creates a sea of butterflies that flutter around her: ‘the creatures came out of the foliage, down from the glassy dome, darting, floating, fluttering, tawny orange, dark and pale blue, brimstone yellow and clouded white, damask dark and peacock-eyed, and danced around her head and settled on her shoulders, and brushed her outstretched hands.’ She becomes enamoured and she becomes William’s. It’s just odd that this is where the fascination with Eugenia ends, and Williams sets his focus on his etymological work, and his erudite, Platonic relationship with his female research assistant.
I focus on this tale only because it has the bigger pay off (‘The Conjugal Angel’ feels a bit too heavily centred on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and, more so, Lord Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam, AHH’, where it feels about a quarter of the novella is based). ‘Morpho Eugenia’ is interested in intertextuality – the blending of fictions composed by other writers as well as characters within the story itself, in addition to scientific texts and observations made by Darwin et al. Byatt is careful not to berate you terribly with obvious allusions and imagery; the epiphany / dénouement, which is somewhat wild, isn’t hitting you over the head too hard with the 2×4 of morality and symbolism. It’s a balanced tale, and an intriguing one if you can roll with the texts provided.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

GIVEAWAY Winners: Sex, Drugs, and Gefilte Fish

Time to announce the winners of our first giveaway, Sex, Drugs, and Gefilte Fish. Many thanks to Hachette for offering five copies to our readers!

The winners are:
  1. Dreamybee
  2. Sara
  3. Ms Jenna
  4. Comicspott
  5. Rebecca
  6. Kristen
Congratulations! The winners have been notified by email and must respond with their mailing address within 24 hours.
Also, thanks to the many responses when I inquired what gefilte fish is exactly, I have deduced that this pretty much sums it up:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Back to School: The “grotesque” of Southern Gothic

My main reason for starting the Back to School Reading Challenge was to give myself an opportunity to read all of those classics from high school I remember nothing about. I haven’t read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird since the 8th grade (and I shudder to think that was 10 whole years ago), and it’s very different than I remember.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer in 1961 and even earned Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 (yes, she is still alive!). The novel takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression (1935, or so). It’s the kind of setting that defines the story and all of the people in it. The story is told from the perspective of 6-year-old Scout Finch as she lives and learns about life and reality for a couple of years. It’s a coming-of-age story, just using a much younger age than usual. Scout and her brother Jem (four years her senior) are the two children of a widowed defense lawyer, Atticus. The story begins with the childhood innocence of a new summer as the Finch kids and their friend Dill try to coerce Boo Radley, the town recluse, out of his house. Over the next two years, however, Scout and Jem learn more about the real world than they expected as Atticus defends a black man against a rape charge in a racially charged Southern town.
I don’t know if anyone else likes to do this but when I’m reading books like this one that have such renown, I like to Wikipedia- and SparkNotes-search them so I get the full picture—the history, the context, the little-known facts. This is one of those classics that has so much behind the story that it’d seem a shame to simply read the book without Google-searching it as well.
I love Scout. It is hard to fathom that what you’re reading is supposed to be the voice of a six-year-old, but I don’t think the language used requires a completely realistic interpretation. Lee uses a child’s voice to get her point across which is this: children aren’t naive just because they don’t know the way of the world yet. They notice behaviors; they notice language; they notice injustice. The unique thing about Scout (and Jem) is that they each have a mind of their own. They notice things, but instead of just accepting actions and behaviors as the “way things are,” they question what they see. They ask “why?” and they form their own sets of beliefs. 
I read another reviewer state, “[Scout] wanted to be a person first and then a girl,” which is a mentality I am sure stemmed from the kids’ relationship with their father. Atticus is older than most other fathers, more serious, less gloat-worthy (the Finch kids have never been able to brag about his shot or athletic ability). In the two or so years spanned in this novel, Jem and Scout learn more about their father and his rules on life than they probably ever expected. Atticus teaches by example, not by words. He feels a moral obligation to defend Tom Robinson against an unjust charge, even though race relations determined his fate before the trial even began. He teaches Scout and Jem that some things are worth fighting for because they are right, even if they may be a lost cause. He treats his children with respect and earns theirs in return.
I know there are dozens of themes and motifs and symbols that one could analyze during and after reading this book, and that’s part of the fun upon finishing it. If you finish the last page and put it back on the shelf, you’re missing half of it. You wouldn’t know how the story is partly autobiographical or that it was never expected to sell. But as you read the story, savor it, and save the analysis for the end.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Really Cheap Books

I recently heard a segment on NPR about some pretty ugly price wars on upcoming best-sellers by three huge online retailers: Amazon, Walmart, and Target.

Here’s the deal: Walmart, in an attempt to compete with Amazon, decided to cut its online pre-order prices of upcoming best-sellers to only $10. Amazon then immediately followed suit and cut their prices to $10 as well. Then Walmart dropped it to $9. Then Amazon did the same. Then Walmart dropped it to $8.99. THEN, Target joined in and dropped it to $8.99, too. Then Walmart dropped it to one more penny to $8.98.
Publishers are angry, as you can imagine. Indie bookstores are angry, because they can’t compete with those prices. Publishers fear this is the beginning of a trend, as consumers will come to expect these low prices and the business of publishing will be forever changed. Some critics believe this is the beginning of the end for book publishers, as prices are cut on the ten or so titles a year that keep publishing companies afloat. And despite James Patterson being a money-maker, he’s actually AGAINST this trend, because it could go in the direction of film, where pricing ultimately affects what is produced.
And now the American Booksellers Association is getting into the mix by asking the Justice Department to investigate what they call “predatory pricing” by these three retailers.
I find myself pretty split between sides. On the one hand, I am generally behind publishers 100%, because I hate eBooks and I never want physical copies of books to disappear. Also, I don’t ever read the Patterson-type bestsellers, but if those don’t sell a lot, publishers aren’t going to have the money to publish the books I do read. Face it. The Dan Browns and Nicholas Sparkses of the publishing world are so lucrative that they pretty much fund publication of everything else in a publishing house. How profitable do you think literary fiction is [unless it wins the Pulitzer or National Book Award, of course]?
On the other hand, I’m broke and therefore cheap. For example, a Walmart is being built here in NYC at Union Square where the Circuit City and Virgin Megastore used to be (both of which have gone bankrupt and closed in the past year). Some may complain about how Walmart is a corporate monstrosity that treats its employees poorly. But, I’m going to choose to pay 30 cents per roll of toilet paper at Walmart rather than over a dollar per roll at the bodega or Duane Reade down the street. Likewise, charging $35.00 for a new book (as Ted Kennedy’s autobiography is priced) is absolutely ridiculous. Add tax and that’s around $40! I could go see three movies in an over-priced Manhattan theater for that! I would think lower prices from the publisher would inspire more individuals to buy the book rather than check them out at the library, so maybe the publishers are just angry they didn’t think of this first.
Are you outraged? Worried? Or heading to to pre-order your copy of Going Rogue (ha)?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Back to School: A Victorian faerytale

I had debated whether or not I should count this towards my Back to School challenge, since I’ve already read one Dickens, but in the end I thought it best to tack it on as it was 1,000 pages long – and a damn good novel at that. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is an intricate and immense look at the court system of London in the 19th century, a fascinating analysis on the effect of class on day-to-day activities, and a document that showcases women’s independence and forthrightness even before they had suffrage.

In short – although no Dickens novel can really be described in short – it is the tale of Esther Summerson, a woman who is raised not knowing who her parents were. As she is told incessantly by her original guardian, ‘Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.’ Chance bestows her though when her guardian dies and she’s brought under the auspices of a Mr John Jarndyce, an amiable man who sole intent is to make his companions happy. Living in Bleak House – a wonderful place despite the name – he attends to Esther and her two companions, Ada and Richard, cousins and wards of court.
And court is central to the story as Ada, Richard, and John are all tied to the outcome of the most infamous case in Chancery Court’s history: Jarndyce and Jarndyce – a case that has ruined lives and has cost more than it’s worth. Richard slowly becomes more involved as he sees his aspirations tied to it; whereas John Jarndyce has distanced himself from it entirely so as not to become bogged down, villainous, moneyhungry, or lecherous.
Even now to describe this I’m realising that I can go on and on, as Dickens captures so many intricacies, so many locks and just as many keys, to Victorian society. There are scores of characters, each with a strong identity. And above this all sits Lady Dedlock, a mysterious, somber woman who holds many secrets and many answers to the situations at hand. Her secrets though are being pulled out into the open by her husband’s lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn, who is uncovering something that could tear the Dedlock name.
This is a much more mature narrative than that of Nicholas Nickleby, which was my last Back to School book. The characters aren’t as hot headed, their decisions are poignant – whether for good or ill. There is idealism, as Richard shouts, ‘I will begin the world’ while he plunges further into his case and thus into madness. There is romance, satire, intrigue, detective plots (with arguably the first detective in all English literature), and spontaneous combustion - all of which creates a story of the highest order with characters completely memorable and relatively three-dimensional. Lady Dedlock remains to me one of the more vivid creations I’ve come across in my reading.
Dickens, when it doesn’t feel like overdone pathetic fallacy, aptly captures all the information we need to know from each scene; his description of the fog that pervades this entire narrative is masterful. (One would even like to say that it might have influenced TS Eliot when he wrote ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’.) For instance, the novel slowly begins with a journalistic description of London, autumn’s coming to an end, and it seems like some elephantine mythical beast is roaming the streets of London. Then: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty city). Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships…’ It goes on for several lines, but it reminds us that we cannot escape one another, that each deed we do affects the next, that atmosphere does seep into our skin whether we want it to or not.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Movie Review: Becoming Jane

I decided to watch Becoming Jane as part of the Everything Austen challenge, but I’m kind of struggling in deciding what to say about it. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. It just gave me a bit of amusement for a couple hours.

For those of you that haven’t seen it, Becoming Jane stars Anne Hathaway as a young, pre-fame Jane Austen. She lives in the English countryside (surprise surprise!) with her parents and sister, and she’s working on the manuscript for First Impressions, the novel that will later be known as Pride & Prejudice. She strikes up a very Elizabeth/Darcy-esque affair with a young Irish man named Tom (James McAvoy), who is a bit rough around the edges and nothing like Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Having just watched the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between Becoming Jane and any other Austen work. But, of course, that is the point. You’re supposed to see how this way of life and these events served as inspiration for Austen’s characters, settings, and plots. 
My favorite part, by far, was the cinematography. It was the first thing I noticed and the aspect of the film that really stood out to me. I think it’s almost safe to say that most Austen fans dream of the simplicity, tranquility, and beauty of 19th century English countryside, and Eigil Bryld (the Director of Photography) did a fantastic job of highlighting the setting. It reminded me occasionally of Terrence Malick films—long segments of one scenic shot after another. The film opened with such a montage, and I think it did a great job of setting the scene.
While Austen’s writing has a great grasp on human emotion, I can’t say the endings to her novels are always realistic. She writes the ending you want to read; things work out and people end up happy, almost a fairy tale ending. I like that this movie, because it was a bio-pic of sorts, stayed realistic, yet it points out that this is the point of books and stories—to escape reality.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: The minor fourth, the major lift

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest outing in fiction, a collection of loosely connected short stories that revolve around similar themes: the breaking of a relationship, the art of constructing music, and musicians unable to fit in the world they’re currently in. A sense of motion and lingual accent pervades the text in subtle ways, which makes the book feel very cosmopolitan even when the setting is the Malvern Hills.

It seems, however, that the book is mistitled and misleading: there really isn’t anything nocturnal about it; it doesn’t have the dreamy qualities of Never Let Me Go or even When We Were Orphans, where Ishiguro focuses on narrator’s threshold perceptions of reality. It reads more like a flat fugue that unfortunately can’t lift itself on its own themes. It’s as if each tale is afraid of becoming too bare, too humorous, too sorrowful to allow us really to care about the characters (who are a bit tinny and one-dimensional) and their plights.
‘Crooner’ reminded me of a This American Life programme, where David Berkeley describes a similar event: where he was invited to sing for a couple about to break up, which is indeed what happens in this tale, set amidst the canals of Venice. ‘Nocturne’ is a story which re-uses one of the characters in ‘Crooner’; the protagonists here are plastic surgery patients who are unable to see one another’s faces, who sneak around a hotel and get into mischief. It quite possibly may be the funniest piece of writing this author has ever bestowed on us.
The star stories though are ‘Malvern Hills’ and ‘Cellists’, and it’s difficult to think which shines more. I think these stand out because they are as close to music and music theory as Ishiguro can possibly get. In ‘Malvern Hills’, adult musicians help a budding one as he plays his music – like Elgar – on the hills of Malvern. ‘Cellists’ has a former cellist comment and critique an amateur into professionalism, but has a wonderful and fantastic trick ending that makes you appreciate the critiques even more than before.
Even though no tale here ends cheerfully, there is a sense of optimism that pervades the collection:
“Never be discouraged. He would say, of course, you must go to London and try to form your band. Of course you will be successful. That is what Tilo would say to you. Because that is his way.”
   “And what would you say?”
   “I would like to say the same. Because you are young and talented. But I am not so certain. As it is, life will bring you enough disappointments. If on top, you should have such dreams as this. . . . But I should not say these things. I am not a good example to you. Besides, I can see you are much more like Tilo. If disappointments do come, you will carry on still. You will say, just as he does, I am so lucky.”
At the very least, this is an interesting but somewhat barely cooked collection of stories of music, something that perhaps a budding artist would produce rather than an established novelist. But the slight experimentation in the shorter form, in the epiphany, is perhaps worth the read.