Friday, September 30, 2011

Fiction | Sentimentality in Athens

Alright, I am not a sappy person. I am an appreciator of well-written romantic language, but I don’t like the flowery stuff. To me, Simon Van Booy walks a thin line between the two.

In Everything Beautiful Began After, the author’s first full-lenth novel, three young, lost individuals have come to Athens and their paths cross. George, an American from Kentucky with a boarding school past and a drinking problem, has come to Athens to get lost in ancient languages; Henry, from England, is there on a dig as a successful young archaeologist; and Rebecca, French, is an artist seeking inspiration and trying to find herself. The events of their summer together will prove to affect each one of them more than expected and continue to define them.

This is not my first encounter with Van Booy; I read his latest short story collection, The Secret Lives of People in Love, last year and the language was something of which I definitely took note. Like in his short stories, his language, to me, borders on exquisite and trite. I think certain sentences are beautiful and subtly capture a feeling:

Like some devout follower of an obscure religion, he was moved to tears frequently by what he perceived as divine moments—like rain on the window or the smell of apples, or a man reading a book with his daughter in the park; a flock of passing birds. (p. 91)

“How does it feel holding the leg of someone who once lived?”…”I wonder about their lives—not the main events, but small things, like drinking a glass of water, or folding clothes, or walking home.” (p.105)

…and some are overly descriptive, like they’re forcefully trying to make a poetic statement someone will underline:

He would give up his search for the dead. Love is like life but longer. (p.188)

Language is like drinking from one’s own reflection in still water. We only take from it what we are at that time. (p 275)

Van Booy had more room in this novel to fully flesh out his characters than in his short stories, so I found that he relied less on the pithy one-liners to grab the reader’s emotion. In this book, it wasn’t really the language that made me roll my eyes at times, it was the writing style. The Prologue begins with a third-person omniscient perspective on the abstract existence and thoughts of some unknown child; the story continues with a third-person storytelling of our characters; a section later delves into communication between Henry and George strictly through images of fax machine letters (which I quite liked a lot!); and then it goes into the rare second-person perspective of Henry, and this is where I just said, “Oh boy…” Call me unappreciative of fine literary technique, but I just can’t appreciate. This last section struck me as using various writing techniques just for the sake of it; I’m not sure what purpose it actually served and whether the story benefited from it. But at least it didn’t feel too gimmicky.

I think Van Booy is talented with his use of language; he’s mastered his own personal writing style. Nothing against him, but I’m just not sure I have the tastes to completely appreciate it. I roll my eyes at sap; I roll my eyes at 99% of poetry. It’s just not my thing. I can appreciate a lot of what Van Booy says; my inner-cynic just needs it in small doses.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Belated Book Blogger Appreciation Note and Giveaway

I know that Book Blogger Appreciation Week came and went, but you’d never notice it based on this site. That was an intentional choice; between working full-time, grad school, banjo lessons (yes, I’m taking banjo lessons), and other really important things like watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix, this blog often gets the shaft.

As a result, this leaves me less involved in the book blog community than I would like to be. I don’t have as much time to browse all your lovely blogs and check up on what you’ve been reading. Posting on this blog has dropped dramatically since its early days (if I can get something out once a week, I feel I’m doing well) and my posting inconsistency does not, in turn, foster much of a discussion, because I know you blog readers like frequency! 
But excuses aside, I just wanted to say I am VERY appreciative of the book blogging world! I thank you guys for constantly giving me new books to read [Seriously, I used to browse the shelves at the library or bookstores to find my new reads, and I don’t even remember the last time I did that. Now, all the books I read come from other bloggers’ recommendations.] and for taking time to add to the discussion here with your thoughts and comments.
And now, I’m not trying to buy your love…but I have a lot of books on my desk that are duplicates or that I’ve already read (some are ARCs, and they are from Algonquin, so thanks Algonquin!), and I’d like to share them with you. If you’re interested in any of these books, please fill out the form below and I’ll shoot you an email. First come, first serve. Please limit your choice to one title.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reading Anna Karenina: Part II

After a nice two-week break, I finally got back to Anna Karenina and finished it in time for our Idlewild book club discussion last week.

You know what I thought of Anna Karenina, Parts V-VIII? Mostly…BORING. Maybe it was because I already knew the characters; maybe because Tolstoy seemed to go on endless detailed rants, even more so than before; maybe because I was reading on long subway commutes and was being gently rocked to sleep anyway. But whatever the reason, I was just itching to finish.

My final thoughts on the book are pretty consistent with my original thoughts—more than consistent; those thoughts were completely reinforced!

  • The level of detail that I griped about back during the first half of the book seemed to take over certain sections. Long-winded chapters about hunting trips and dinner discussions and political elections about bore me to tears. I definitely zoned out for all of these sections during those long train rides mentioned before.
  • I thought the book’s strongest point is that Tolstoy handles each character with such detail that they seem realistic—neither one way nor another, neither black nor white. This was particularly poignant in Tolstoy’s treatment of his women characters. Anna is, at one point or another, intelligent, confident, irrational, jealous, passionate, apathetic, and ultimately her hysteria takes control and she spirals out of control, leaving you to wonder what happened to all her strong, independent characteristics.

I know that one of the notable features of Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy does address the issues of society in 19th century Russia, but as I mentioned, they bore me, so I don’t have much to say on those. My favorite feature of the story, though, is how Tolstoy juxtaposes his characters and couples to create a story about relationships and how they are affected by the society in which they are built and by the individual personalities involved. The reader is constantly comparing Anna/Vronksy to Kitty/Levin because their stories are presented side-by-side.

One of the most important things to note upon finishing this book is—why is it called Anna Karenina? Sure, it’s the plot line that everyone knows, the focus of any movie adaptations…but Anna’s story is not the most important one in this novel. Yes, it’s the most dramatic (a love affair, a fallen woman—ingredients for a headlining story), but Tolstoy spends most of his attention on Levin and his own personal awakening. The entire eighth part of the book, in fact, has moved entirely beyond Anna and Vronksy and is devoted entirely to Levin and his own struggle with reason and meaning. It leaves you wondering: What story did Tolstoy intend to write? Was Anna’s only purpose to grab readers with a “dramatic” plotline? And if so, why did he name the book after her?

I never had to read this book in high school, but many other book club members did and noted how different their opinion was this time around as adults—when you understand complex relationships and recognize the grey areas. I have to wonder if I would’ve brushed this book aside ten years ago without thinking further about it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reading Roundup: Fiction for the Younger Set

Last month, I told you about an awesome new children’s series called The Penderwicks about four sisters, their widowed father, and their adventures and hijinks. I loved the first in the series and said it’s just the kind of series I’m always looking for, because it’s lighthearted and fun and perfectly representative of childhood. I’m trying to drag this series out since, so far, it only consists of three books, but I couldn’t resist picking up the second in the series, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, when I saw it waiting on the shelf.

This installment of the Penderwicks brings the girls back to their own home on Gardam Street and back to the routine of a new school year. But things are not all routine; Mr. Penderwick, goaded by his sister, has started dating again, much to the girls’ chagrin. Seeing how unhappy and uncomfortable their father is navigating the dating world, the girls institute the Save-Daddy Plan.

While certainly still enjoyable, I found the second in the series a lot more predictable in the first, particularly because a major plot point depends on the fact that the intended reading audience is most likely under the age of eleven. Most adult booknerds will quickly pick up on the literary clue and realize how the story is going to end. That being said, I still love the daily adventures of the Penderwicks, and I’m going to have to seriously resist picking up the next in the series, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, on my next library visit.


Deb Caletti’s Wild Roses is a book that’s been sitting on my shelf to be read since last year’s BEA and BBC. To be honest, I don’t read much YA fiction, because…well, I am beyond those years. I don’t need stories to connect to as an angsty teen; I don’t need to look back on stories of adolescence with fond memories as I like to do with JUV fiction; and mostly, I just don’t want to read about teenage issues that seem so imperative when you’re a teen but that I’d just roll my eyes at now. Go ahead…call me a cynical, jaded ADULT. However, I’ve been on a kick where I’m trying to read the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever, so I finally picked it up.

Cassie is seventeen and has a stressful home life; her divorced mother remarried Dino Cavalli, a prodigy composer and musician, but also…an emotional time bomb. The talented Ian Waters enters Cassie’s life as he begins lessons under Dino’s tutelage, and Cassie—big surprise—falls in love.

As far as YA fiction goes, I think Wild Roses hits the mark. It deals with teen issues like relationships, family drama, divorce, depression, responsibility, and that big scary “future” with grace—never in your face, never over the top, never too much. There are many things for teens to relate to in this story, whether it be situationally or emotionally. I did have some issues—the basis of a relationship between Cassie’s mom and the emotionally abusive Dino seemed unrealistic to me; the fact that more time was spent on chronicling Dino’s decline than delving into the depths of Cassie’s thoughts; that the teenage first romantic encounter is the be-all, end-all love story. Maybe my reaction is just influenced by my own teen experiences, because while Wild Roses may stand out to its intended audience, it was just a typical YA novel to me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

World Party: Contemporary Thailand through many sets of eyes

Thailand was August’s country of choice for the World Reading Challenge, and I chose some contemporary fiction—Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap.

Sightseeing is a collection of seven short stories that touch on issues like family tension, generational division, and cultural differences. These stories all felt very raw. They all focused on one particular moment of life—an encounter with an foreign tourist, a trip abroad with a parent, a man’s experience with the draft, an encounter with a refugee neighbor—but none of these moments, these stories, felt particularly optimistic. The voices in the stories all felt…not defeated, exactly, but perhaps disenchanted. It may have something to do with the perspective of the stories’ narrators. Several of the stories were written in the past tense, as if the narrator was reflecting on this past incident or moment. Maybe this is why the voices sound so detached; maybe these are memories the narrators would rather not remember.

It’s also worth noting that all of Lapcharoensap’s narrators—except the narrator of the final story, “The Cockfighter”—were male, and I wondered why this was. Did culture play a role in that decision or was it purely the whim of the author? Though these stories, as I mentioned, weren’t very happy, I found myself sympathetic with all of their narrators. I couldn’t quite figure this author out after reading a couple of the stories. Sometimes, when you start a short story collection, you quickly pick up on the author’s style and realize that all the stories have similar endings—a happy ending, a bittersweet ending, an unhappy ending. For example, when I read Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love, I quickly learned that all his stories end with some little catch, some little amount of pain that keeps the ending from being completely “happy.” Well, Lapcharoensap isn’t that easy to categorize. Some stories ended bittersweet, some happy, some poignant, and some just ended without much conclusion. Overall, these stories served more as introductions to characters than conclusions. The endings were mostly open-ended, which makes these characters memorable as you wonder what happened to them.

A good selection for the World Reading Challenge, and a good collection of short stories for readers interested in exploring unfamiliar (or at least, different) cultures.

Only one month left in this year-long World Reading Challenge, and I have to pat myself on the back here for successfully keeping up with it! September’s country is India, and I haven’t chosen a book yet. Any suggestions?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How the west was won by some modern ladies

Dorothy Wickenden’s Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West went on my to-read queue thanks to a feature on NPR, but it’s apparently been getting quite a bit of buzz lately on its own accord.

Authored by the executive editor of The New Yorker, Nothing Daunted tells the story of two women who head west from upstate New York in 1916 to teach school in the wilderness of Colorado. These were society girls, lifelong friends and recent graduates of Smith College, that were never expected to work, much less work in a remote mountaintop schoolhouse thousands of miles away. Life out west obviously took some adjusting—riding miles on horseback to school no matter the weather, clothing kids without the resources to keep themselves warm in the winter—but Dorothy and Rosamund were the adventurous type, embraced the lifestyle, and won the hearts of the community.

This was a fun book for me, as someone who has shows like “The 1900 House” on her Netflix queue and relishes storytelling that gives a glimpse of life in the past. Not only does it give a detailed account of Ros and Dorothy’s experiences, Wickenden wrote this book with context; we learn about western railroad expansion as we read anecdotes about the role it played in daily life in the tiny town of Elkhead.

I can’t decide what this book made me want to do more, go out west or go back in time. But it definitely ignited my sense of adventure.

Ultimately, Nothing Daunted is an ode to an experience. It doesn’t end with any real overt message or lesson to learn. Instead, it chronicles this experience of Dorothy and Ros and reminds the reader that some are the kind never to be forgotten.

And hey! This fulfilled one of my missions to read about the western experience!