Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fiction | The story of the Puzzle King

I’ve been waiting for just the right moment to read The Puzzle King for quite a while. You know how sometimes you want to read a book, but you just know you need to hold off for a little while? Maybe you just read something similar or maybe you’re just not in the right mood…I want to urge you to follow my new rule for reading: DON’T FORCE IT! Because a book will probably be better if you wait!

I picked this up at just the right time—after some non-fiction and before my (possibly) depressing book club selection. The Puzzle King is just serious enough to make the story feel worthwhile without bogging my mind down with depressing thoughts. The story begins with a 9-year-old boy named Simon whose mother has put him on a ship alone to start a new life in America. Basically the only thing he has going for him is his artistic talent; he’s a fabulous drawer and earns a reputation as such, even as a kid. A decade later, Simon meets Flora, a German immigrant who has been in the States for four years. As their relationship blossoms, the world gets complicated. As Simon and Flora’s life prospers in America,  Jewish relatives in Germany are suffering under Hitler’s rule. In case you can’t tell, The Puzzle King has got a lot of dimensions to it…

First of all, the characters are fabulously developed. They each have their own defining belief system, sometimes conflicting with other characters and sometimes creating an internal conflict. These conflicts between characters are representative of much bigger conflict in the story. Carter creates a divide between one’s history and one’s present. As anti-Semitism is developing worldwide, characters in the US are torn between their European roots and their current situation in America—much of a “need we worry about what’s happening there when we’re here” mentality. Characters question what defines them as individuals—”am I defined by my country though it’s turned its back on me?”

Carter knows how to tell a good story. And the exciting part is that it’s based on her own family legend and lore! She has created her own puzzle in the narrative of The Puzzle King, interlocking family and identity with past and present. The sense of time and place is so distinct…and really troubling—the idea that you can work hard and create a successful life but knowing that others won’t have that chance, that you’re still hindered by where you came from.

My only complaint is that the story seemed to end rather abruptly. I had twenty pages left and couldn’t even imagine how the author was going to wrap it up so quickly, and I was left wondering how things turned out for several of the characters. But, maybe that was intentional—the same uncertainty that many characters like these had to live with at the time. This is the exact kind of book I’d recommend to my mom (and I will! If you’re reading, Mom, HI! Read this!). It’s more substantial than light reading but light enough to be enjoyable and give you something to think about.

Note: I found this similar in tone to Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. So if you liked that, you’ll probably like this.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nonfiction | Lost in the Amazon

After a long Anna Karenina-filled end of summer, my Idlewild book club decided on something a little lighter for our October meeting. Enter, the nonfiction bestseller, The Lost City of Z by David Grann. Grann is a writer at The New Yorker, and this first book of his led him deep into the Amazon to investigate the 1925 disappearance of explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett.

Fawcett’s story is notorious. One of the last “gentlemen explorers” of the 20th century, Fawcett was a member of the Royal Geographic Society, an organization that sent explorers to map unknown parts of the world for the advancement of geographical sciences. First of all, take that in for a minute. Less than a hundred years ago, there were still parts of the world unmapped. It’s not a fact easily comprehendible, when we live in a world in which I can currently perform a live street view search via Internet on my suburban house 800 miles away.

Fawcett took several trips to and through the Amazon in his day to map its unchartered abyss, but his 1925 expedition is unquestionably his most famous…because he never returned. Accompanied by his son Jack and Jack’s lifelong friend Raleigh Rimmel, Fawcett entered the forest on a quest for Z, a lost city of grandeur he believed to have been hidden deep in the Amazon.

Imagine this: no phones, no satellites, no GPS, no Gore-tex, no Off, no modern gadgets for ease and convenience. You have none of these things and you’re entering an unmapped territory, populated by possibly hostile natives, where nature rules. And let me tell you, Grann makes it clear that nature is nothing to mess around with—so many bugs that can invade your skin and body, viruses and bacteria that invade your body and mind, things so disgusting that you’ll cringe as you read their attacks on explorers. WHY WOULD YOU SUBJECT YOURSELF TO THAT?

Fawcett wasn’t the first to quest for a lost city. The legend of El Dorado long preceded Fawcett and his crew, but Fawcett believed he’d found proof, had faith, and was just antsy enough to keep trying. A lot of worldwide speculation has been made since Fawcett began his trek in 1925 and never returned—did he die of hunger? Was he killed by natives? Has he been held hostage? Did he decide to stay in the jungle? Grann uses our modern tools of the 21st century to try and follow Fawcett’s path, find out Fawcett’s fate, and see if there ever was a Z that existed.

That all was more of a summary than a review, but that’s kinda how it goes with this book. It’s a fascinating piece of ‘armchair travel’ nonfiction, one of those stories that’s gonna make you want to Google everything and find out more information as you read it. It’s got some good ideas to discuss…like what drives a person to such a quest? And can man ever really conquer nature? Does it need to? Should it? Living in a world that feels pretty domesticated, we’re reminded by The Lost City of Z that nature is King. It’s no joke; it can chew us up, spit us out, and make it look like we never existed—an idea further explored in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.

Anyone else read this one?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Reading Roundup: Eclectic set of fiction

October is here in full force, and it’s already been a busy one! I spent six days in Nashville, wrote a paper for class, sped through my book club book, and celebrated my birthday—all in the past ten days! Thus, a reading roundup is necessary to get myself caught up and let you guys know what I’ve been reading!

I checked out Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt from the library and downloaded to my eReader for a day at the beach day back during Labor Day weekend (so long ago!). In case you don’t recall, it got quite a bit of buzz in the blogosphere back in the Spring of last year. Well, I finally got around to reading it! It was perfect for a beach read, because I read the whole thing in about 5 hours sitting in the sun.
Twelve-year-old CeeCee has a big burden on her shoulders, and that burden is her mother. With a distant father that’s always traveling for work, CeeCee has become the main caretaker of her crazy mother—a woman who thinks she’s winning a Georgia beauty pageant in 1951, even though it’s 1967 and they’re in Ohio. After tragedy strikes, CeeCee finds herself living in Savannah with a great-aunt where she can finally be the one looked after, instead of doing the looking after. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is sort of a coming-of-age tale for CeeCee as she adjusts to her new life in a new part of the country, new social issues, new relationships, and finally has room to discover herself.

The cast of characters was amusing and diverse in scope, and this was an enjoyable read—great for the beach. And…just that. I bet it was a big book club choice for 40-something Southern women. Similar to The Help in that it has a real easy writing style, reflects that Southern vibe, and sorta touches on social issues but not in a really gritty, intense, profound literary way. In that way, it makes both these books and any similar seem kinda formulaic. But I mean, I still enjoyed it.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy was a book that I’ve been wanting to read for months (maybe even a couple years?) and just never got around to it. Finally after one book club meeting, I decided to buy it on a wine-influenced whim (is that why wine is served at our meetings?). I read Dundy’s other novel, The Old Man and Me, last year, and supposedly The Dud Avocado is the better one (though they both have their cult following). In Dud, Sally Jay is an American that’s headed to Paris in the 1950s to live as one of those “lost youth” so prevalent in literature at the time. She’s witty and charming and sometimes a little crazy like any good young ingenue. 
Well, here’s the thing. I read this so long ago, and this whole time I’ve struggled on what to write about it. I had the same issue with The Old Man and Me. And because the writing is just so full of subtle wit and a highly developed (in terms of writing) and complex character, I feel I can’t do it justice by just reading it once. So I’m not going to say much more about it, except this: The Dud Avocado and Dundy’s works require more than a single light reading, and I hope to give them that…at some point.
My hiatus from the Penderwicks didn’t last long, because I picked up the most recent in the series the last time I was at the library. The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is the third in the series by Jeanne Birdsall that follows the adventures of the Penderwick sisters and their friend Jeffrey. This time, Daddy is on his honeymoon in England, Rosalind is vacationing at the beach with a friend, and the rest of the Penderwicks (and Jeffrey) have headed to Maine with Aunt Claire. 
I liked this better than the last one, and I appreciated the details that made it a small departure from the previous two. Skye’s character was developed and came into her own as she performed the role as the Oldest Available Penderwick; Jane experienced her first real disappointment with love and a more grown-up world; Jeffrey was finally a leading man rather than just supporting cast as he got his own unique storyline; and the girls all had learning, growing experience when Daddy wasn’t there to fix everything. 
I don’t think the Penderwicks series has quite as much depth as some of my other childhood favorites, like Anne of Green Gables or Betsy-Tacy, and part of that may be due to its ensemble cast as opposed to a single main character. But, Birdsall has created characters and stories that are fun to follow and are pretty timeless experiences of childhood and adolescence.

Monday, October 3, 2011

World Party: An Uninspired Conclusion…

Well folks, September has come and gone, which means that the 2010-2011 World Reading Challenge has officially come to a close. I am proud to say I kept up with this challenge all year! Except for….now. At the end. Right at the last month.

I sorta failed.

September’s month was India, and I chose to read Salman Rushdie’s well-known Midnight’s Children. Originally published in 1980, it won the Booker Prize in 1981, the Booker of Bookers Prize in 1993 (a special award celebrating 25 years of the Booker Prize), and the Best of the Booker in 2008, celebrating the Booker’s 40th. I’d never read Rushdie and I had nothing else in mind for India, so why not go with something so prestigious? (Plus, it was available as an eBook through the Brooklyn PL, once again saving me a physical trip to the library.)

Well…this is not a quick read. The story focuses on Saleem Sinai, born at midnight on August 15, 1947, his birth coinciding with the birth of a new, independent India. Rushdie’s novel is divided into three “books,” and Saleem is the narrator of the story. The first book serves as an introduction to Saleem’s own life—stories of his grandparents and parents, of a prophecy made about him before his birth. Then narrator Saleem slowly introduces his own birth and childhood, interactions with family and peers, with the spectacle of India’s independence happening all the while in the background. Most notable about Saleem is his “special power” that allows him to enter the mind of all the other thousand “midnight’s children.”

I know that Midnight’s Children is notable for its unique use of language, an Indian perspective on the English language. Likewise, it contains elements of magical realism and is often compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude. So language, structure, and flow may or may not be to blame here when I let you know that I DID NOT FINISH either of these books.

It is extremely rare that I start and book and put it down without finishing it. I can only think of one other book I’ve done that with in the past decade, and that, coincidentally (or not?), is Marquez’s classic, which I started and gave up on about two years ago. But this is what happened with Midnight’s Children: I was about 250 pages in with over 300 left to go, my eBook check-out expired today, and I just was not into the story enough to dedicate another week or more to this book. The structure of the story takes time; the language has a specific style and pace, one which takes focus. I’ve got a busy schedule and list of exciting things I want to read, and frankly, I decided this wasn’t worth my time struggling. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, but for now…sorry, India. I let you down in this challenge.


I am very pleased I chose to follow this challenge over the past year. It’s actually something I have told many people about and have promoted as a good way to broaden your reading horizons. For the most part, I am happy with my reading choices. I chose some because I felt like I should read them and some because they were easily accessible. Persepolis and The Reluctant Fundamentalist were my favorites; Three Cups of Tea was inspiring at the time but has had interesting developments since I read it; and some (read: Wolf Hall) were just too smart for me. I’d like to do a similar challenge again someday, but for now I’m going to take a bit of a break from a reading schedule!

The World Reading Challenge Year-In-Review: