Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Summer House with Swimming Pool" by Herman Koch

What would you do to protect your family? Koch explored the same theme in his book The Dinner.

SHWSP is a story about Marc Schlosser, Dutch doctor to the stars. He has built a general practice on the notion that patients want to be listened to, so rather than scheduling as many patients as possible every day, he sees a limited number and allows them each a full 20 minutes of his time. He gives them exactly what they want: a listening ear and a prescription. (And sometimes a rectal exam, which he is loath to do, but the patients seem to expect it.)

With this method and word of mouth he has accumulated a loyal following of well-to-do creative types: actors, authors, artists. As a result he is often invited to art shows and opening nights of plays (all of which he also finds loathsome, but he goes anyway). Slightly less ordinary is the invitation he receives to join famed actor Ralph Meier and his family at their rented summer home. Despite Ralph's blatant leering at Marc's wife Caroline (as well as any other woman who crosses his path), the Schlossers end up visiting the summer home, where Marc privately loathes Ralph and hits on his wife Judith.

But the story hasn't even begun by this point. The real issue is the harm that comes to the doctor's family, and what he does about it. Who is at fault? And what sort of revenge is deserved? As blanks are filled in (or not) and secrets are revealed (or kept secret), Koch develops a strong cast of complex characters the reader can never fully denounce, even in the face of some rather questionable decisions.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This book first caught my eye at Books-A-Million because, well, why wouldn't it? It's called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. How can you not need to know the end of that story? So I did the dip test (opened the book to a random page and sampled the writing quality), which it passed. And then I did what any other bibliophilic cheapskate of the 21st century would do: whipped out my phone--right there in the store--and ordered a used copy from Amazon. This made me feel slightly guilty (especially after my husband said it was almost like shoplifting--which it WASN'T!!) but I figured instant gratification is the reward for paying full price, and I was willing to delay my pleasure.

This collection outwardly reminded me of Palahniuk's Haunted (in that both books contain disturbing short stories), but whereas I believe the stories in Haunted had one superficial purpose (to disturb), these scary fairy tales (which might more accurately be called folk tales, as I don't recall a single fairy in these stories, but somehow just calling them fairy tales makes them more appealing to me, so I'll stop complaining) had deeper meaning. Though, to be honest, I'm not absolutely certain I always grasped the significance on every level. Sometimes it's easy to be carried along by the story and forget that there are depths to plumb.

In my experience with short story collections, the stories are usually mostly good, with a few clunkers, and a small handful that stand out and stick in my memory. That's not really the case here. Even though I just finished this book, like, thirty seconds ago, I can't say there's one story that rises above the rest. This book is more like a strand of matched pearls than a necklace with one dazzlingly jeweled pendant. But I feel like I can't end this post without giving a synopsis of at least one of the stories (all of which I would describe as odd, desperate, somewhat nightmarish, and not very ethereal or magical). SO I have randomly chosen "Two Kingdoms," where a woman named Lina takes a long flight with her new husband Vasya to a magnificent city for post-operative treatment and healing. (When I put it that way, it's not hard to see what the title of the story refers to, but--surely this wasn't just my stupidity?--it wasn't so obvious while I was reading it.)

Monday, September 5, 2016

"The Interpretation of Dreams" by Sigmund Freud

I've always found dreams fascinating. Their strangeness, their mystery, their odd combination of the bizarre and the mundane; and how quickly they can slip through the fingers of your consciousness and disappear forever if you're not quick to grasp them after waking (and sometimes even then). So it's not surprising that a book about dream interpretation would interest me.

However, I think I picked the wrong book. What I really wanted was a kitsch, pop-culture dream dictionary--yeah, the kind Freud would despise. You know, something with alphabetized entries like "Cat, ill: dreaming about a sick cat means you need to listen to your intuition more," spoon-feeding interpretations to the reader. This book was certainly not that. Instead, Freud gives the skeletal framework for a method of finding meaning in dreams, but leaves it up to the interpreter to fill in the blanks.

Freud wrote a lot about the dream as wish fulfilment, a way for the unconscious to deal with repressed desires. Often dreams include influences from the prior day, but these obvious influences are symbolic of the more deep-seated, latent psychological issues that they disguise. An interesting concept is that if two people or objects with an insignificant link appear together in a dream, look for a hidden, more important link between the two. (OR . . . you may just wish there were another link between the two.)

I couldn't help but laugh when Freud gave examples of dreams that could in no way be attributed to wish fulfilment. He explained them away with the claim that the wish his patients' dreams purported to fulfil was the wish to prove his theory wrong! But surely there are people whose dreams fulfil no wishes and who have no interpreter to prove wrong. What then? It seemed to me that Freud stretched dreams to fit his theories. In short, dreams meant whatever the heck Freud said they meant.

I also found it funny that Freud wrote, "It may be said that there is no class of ideas which cannot be enlisted in the representation of sexual facts and wishes." In other words, everything symbolizes sex. I'd always thought maybe Freud's body of work had been over-simplified for greater ease of use as a punchline, and--well, it probably has, but it wasn't without his help.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Collected Works of Dr Kevin Leman

Ok, so I didn't read all of Dr Leman's books. But I think three is as far as I will go.

I started with Living in a Stepfamily Without Getting Stepped On. My mom gave this book to me five years ago (when I was first forming a stepfamily of my own), but I never saw fit to pick it up until recently. I'm not even sure why I chose to read it now--I think it was out of a sense of duty, and/or trying to rid my shelves of some of the non-fiction my mom has plied me with over the years.

Upon reading it, I found it doesn't really apply to my family; it's mainly for Brady-Bunch-style families where both parents bring their own kids into the mix. It focuses on birth order (firstborns are responsible Type A kids, middle children are easy-going mediators, last-borns are flaky entertainers, and only children are uber-firstborns) and what happens when birth orders from two families are combined. (In a nutshell, kids under the age of 7 end up taking on their new birth order; older kids retain the birth order that was set before their parents remarried, which can cause conflict--for instance, when two firstborns butt heads, or when two babies-of-the-family vie for the limelight).

I was both fascinated and repelled by the way Leman pigeon-holes people with one-sentence descriptions. I'm kind of torn between wishing I was an astute enough observer to have the ability to label people that way, and thinking surely no one can be boiled down to one sentence. (And, just as surely, no one wants to be!)

Next up: Have a New Kid by Friday. Another gift from my mother, which she coincidentally sent me (along with the third book in this post) while I was reading the stepfamily book (even though she didn't know I was reading it). I figured I might as well be on a Leman roll and get these all knocked out ASAP so I could move onto something more interesting.

This book is for parents whose kids are mouthy and disobedient or sullen and disrespectful (read: me). Its major concept: If you expect your kids to do something, say it once, then turn your back and walk away. If the something doesn't get done, either deduct from their allowance, or refuse to give them the next thing they ask for (or maybe both).

I can get on board with a lot of Leman's common-sense suggestions (use consistent action, not words: no harassing, threatening, warning, reminding, or coaxing; encourage rather than praising; use "tell me more about that" to buy time to formulate a response instead of a reaction) but as for the refuse-the-next-thing-they-ask idea, I can't help but see that as a passive-aggressive, sneakily vengeful way of lying in wait for a time when you can pounce on your kids and say GOTCHA! You can't have this because you were bad three days ago! Anyway, this book makes a certain phrase come to mind: If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. The title of this book is obviously meant to sell copies, not something that is literally possible. Raising a child takes a bit more than a week.

Last (and least), Have a New Teenager by Friday: a rehashing of New Kid with a couple of updates. It covers a few issues that the kid book doesn't cover, but otherwise relates the exact same concepts.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"The Danish Girl" by David Ebershoff

The Danish Girl, though very fictionalized, is actually based on the true story of early-twentieth-century painter Einar Wegener and his marriage to fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb (who, in the book, is an American named Greta Waud). After a number of years together, Greta asks Einar to stand in as a model for the portrait she is painting of a female opera singer. This single occasion opens Einar's eyes to his deepest desires, and he becomes an occasional transvestite, ultimately undergoing a series of sexual reassignment surgeries to become Lili Elbe (or, in real life, Lili Ilse Elvenes).

The book is very well-written and interesting, covering territory that is unfamiliar to me, but I found the strange hybrid of biography and fiction a bit frustrating. I've bemoaned the same thing before with historical fiction (while simultaneously eating it up eagerly), though I can imagine there would be many blanks to fill in, and I have seen before how pure biography can be unfortunately dry and dull. And the author did well with his goal of  "convey[ing] the emotional truth of the story while straying from some of the facts."

I found it sad that Lili never painted. Einar was a somewhat successful painter, but Lili left painting behind, as she felt it was part of Einar's life, not hers. (If that wasn't one of the true parts of the story, I'm not sure I would have believed it; I would think a true artist would always be driven to paint.) And it was interesting that Greta's success relied upon Lili's emergence. She did not sell (or even show) many paintings until Lili became her frequent model and muse.

Surprisingly, I'm not all that bothered about watching the movie. It's not that I absolutely don't want to see it, but I can live without it, which is unusual for me. I generally love to see what someone else's vision of a book looks like. I think the difference with this one is that the story is less visual, less plot-driven; the book has told me everything I need to know about the story, and I don't see what the movie has to add.

Monday, August 8, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne

Everyone who ever reads anything, ever, probably already knows this: a new Harry Potter play has debuted, and its script has been published in book form. And anyone who knows me will probably not be surprised to hear that I have bought the book, and I have read it.

"So, what did you think?" It's like an outline of a really, really good story, and kind of a nostalgia-fest: bringing up old familiar characters and situations in a new and exciting way, mixed in with a few fresh faces.

"You didn't find it off-putting, reading it in play form?" Not at all, though it went by all too quickly, and I did (occasionally and briefly) wish for more depth. Most of the time, however, I was too swept up in the story to mind. And at other times (probably mostly when reading stage directions) it actually enhanced my experience as I imagined what it might be like to see the play performed. In fact, I hope someday I have the opportunity to see it on stage, because I can imagine the play is really exciting and engaging. But as a book, it could have been more fleshed out, like the original 7 books were. There's obviously enough material there.  

"What was your overall impression?" I loved it. I wish the story would continue. And the hope has been kindled within me that perhaps someday it will.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

"A Pleasure and a Calling" by Phil Hogan

Mr Heming owns a realty company. Everyone has seen his signs in town, even if most people don't know him well. But there is one thing no one knows about Mr Heming: he has made and kept a copy of the key for every house he has sold. He often pays "visits" using those keys--uninvited and unobserved--and takes the opportunity to gather interesting information and to right wrongs. This might sound somewhat harmless, if very odd, but Mr Heming is not entirely benign. He is gradually revealed to be more and more creepy, not least due to various questionable situations from his past that float slowly to the surface. His creepy habits are not new.

I enjoyed reading this well-written and suspenseful literary thriller. If I had one complaint about the book, it would be the fact that Mr Heming's success with women defied belief. I'm pretty sure Hogan was aware of this, because just exactly when I got to the point where I was about to roll my eyes and say, Oh, come on, he threw in an explanatory paragraph. It wasn't 100% believable (I can accept that a devious creeper could come across as harmless; I'm not so sure he could be found attractive by many, if any, women), but it was adequate.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"A Pale View of Hills" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a stellar writer and storyteller. I don't think I've ever found cause to complain about the style or quality of his writing. This book was no exception, and I really enjoyed reading it, but... I may have to reread it to fully understand it. And even if I do reread it, I'm not convinced I'd figure everything out. It's a Choose Your Own Interpretation book. This isn't the first book I've compared to a puzzle, but I think this one was actually more like a box containing jigsaw pieces from half a dozen different puzzles, none of them complete. 

This is a dual-timeline story, narrated by Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in England around the time the book was written (1982). Some of the (more minor) action is in the present, consisting mostly of Etsuko's conversations with her younger daughter who lives with her friends in London, but the emphasis is on the other timeline: one hot summer in Nagasaki, not too long after its destruction in the bombing. The focus of that summer was Sachiko, single mother to ten-year-old Mariko, and the time Etsuko spent with them. There are plot elements hinted at but never clearly explained (who was Mariko's father, and what happened to him? How did Etsuko's marriage to Jiro end?) but those questions pale in comparison to those raised in the last few pages: Just what is the meaning of the parallels between Etsuko and Sachiko, and those between Mariko and Etsuko's older daughter, Keiko? And, perhaps less pressing but still unanswered, what was the story behind the brief spate of child killings?

It's not surprising (considering the author) that the plot holes were intentional. (I don't say this because Ishiguro is known for plot holes, by any means; rather, I'm suggesting that he's much too careful a writer to end up with unintentional results.) As evidence, here's an excerpt from an interview:

"In A Pale View of Hills, I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It's about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there's a certain area of her life that's very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection."

You can find a really great discussion of varying interpretations of this book here. Obviously you don't want to follow that link if you don't want spoilers. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Time's Arrow" by Martin Amis

This was a short, fast read based on a clever idea . . . which I hesitate to make clear to you, because I wish I could have read the book with no prior knowledge of the central conceit, or of the main character's background. However, as the first sentence of the blurb on the back of the book gave away both things, I feel OK spilling the beans to you. It's not like I'd be spoiling anything that wouldn't be spoiled for you anywhere else. 

So, big thing #1: the story is written backwards. It starts with the main character's death and works its way back to his birth. But not like in Memento, where each scene runs normally though the movie starts with one of the last scenes and works its way back in time. In Time's Arrow, everything actually goes backwards. Everyone walks backwards, gets younger, extracts shampoo from their hair and then sells it to the store, vomits up plates of food at every meal. If I hadn't already known, I wonder how long it would have taken me to figure out what was going on? I think it would have been really fun to piece it together on my own. Oh well...

Big thing #2: the main character was a Nazi war criminal. This was hinted at throughout the later parts of the main character's life (i.e. in the first half of the book) but I feel like the dawning horror would have been much more effective if I hadn't had this information before I even started to read. I know it would have taken me much longer to figure out the awful source of the gold he was "buying." 

As disappointing as it was to have too much knowledge before reading, let's be realistic: what could possibly be said about this book without mentioning the Two Big Things? I would find it impossible to write a blurb that didn't give either away. 

My brief review: good writing, though the backwards-plot idea really seemed a gimmick more suited to a short story. I found it a pretty unique concept, though the afterword mentions the germ was a paragraph in Slaughterhouse Five (when Billy Pilgrim watched a backwards-run film of planes bombing Dresden), as well as a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (which I haven't been able to find any information about, so if you know it, please tell me!) I would certainly say Time's Arrow is one of a kind, and likely to remain that way; a similar novel can't be written without inviting accusations of stealing the idea from Amis. 

I think I am neither drawn to nor repulsed by Amis. I mean, with some authors I know for sure whether I want to read more of their work after reading one of their books. With this one, I guess I'm not opposed to more, but I won't rabidly seek it out. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

"A Sport and a Pastime" by James Salter

This is the first book I've read by James Salter, and I hope it's not my last. Salter's prose is very evocative--uniquely descriptive without being kitschy or tricksy, and able to bring a setting to life without allowing the story to get lost in the details.

The narrator, a solitary unnamed American temporarily living in a borrowed house in a small French town, tells the story of a season in the life of Philip Dean: a young, good-looking Yale dropout who briefly meets him through mutual acquaintances at a party. Not long afterwards, Dean shows up on his doorstep for a visit, and somehow ends up staying for months, falling in love with a French girl along the way. Lots of the book tells about the meals and window-shopping the narrator imagines that Dean and Anne-Marie enjoy together. Even more of the book tells about the sexual encounters the narrator imagines between the two young lovers (in scenes that are neither pathetically poetic nor embarrassingly explicit). SO this is basically a made-up story about a made-up story about young love and lust. And while I wouldn't want to, say, read this book aloud to my mother, I did enjoy reading it to myself.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"The Coma" by Alex Garland

This was a very short, super-fast read. It's a dream-like string of 42 very brief "chapters," interspersed with atmospheric black and white woodcut illustrations--nothing like the cover, in case you were wondering--by the author's father, and divided into 3 parts. It tells the story of a man who was badly beaten and slipped into a coma as a result. The majority of the text describes his experience during his almost sleep-like state. 

I couldn't help but wonder if being in a coma is actually anything like the way it's portrayed in this book. I guess I've never heard or read an account from anyone who has woken from a coma. (And obvs it goes without saying that I hope I can never answer that question personally, whether from my own account or that of anyone I know.) I would be surprised, though, if anyone waking from a coma could actually remember what it was like. It's rare enough that I remember my dreams after a normal night of sleep.

Anyway, back to the book . . . I have a confession to make. I didn't understand the ending. I was left feeling like everything was ambiguous. So I cheated, and asked Sam what it meant, and he showed me that there was a trick that explained everything. (Too bad the explanation was kind of a grade-school cop out.) And then I was able to go back to the two other tricksy parts of the book and crack the codes (whereas before this I hadn't even realized there was a code). Kind of wish I'd figured it out myself! But simultaneously glad I'm not still ignorant of the solution.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell

I really loved this book. From the very first page, right up until page 402. But . . . it's 624 pages long . . .

David Mitchell's style of writing is flawless. And the characters in the first four sections were really engaging. As the second section started and an entirely new cast of characters was introduced I feared that the links between sections would be too tenuous and enigmatic, as with Cloud Atlas, and that thought bothered me--not because I couldn't appreciate that kind of plot (I did, in Cloud Atlas!) but because I wanted to hear more about Holly Sykes from the first section. (And also a little bit because a repetition of such a device might make Mitchell seem like a bit of a one-trick pony, which surely he's not.) So it was gratifying to see how Holly's story was later woven into the second section, just as in the two following sections.

Each of the first four sections portrays a very human, very flawed character (and when I describe them this way, what I mean is that they were brilliantly realistic, not that they were not well-written) whose stories fascinated me. There's a paranormal element running through each story, but not in such a way that I couldn't swallow it. Instead, I welcomed the bit of mystery it added. We start with the aforementioned Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old English girl running away from home. Next we move on to the despicably-scheming-but-somehow-still-almost-likeable Hugo Lamb, then war reporter Ed Brubeck who is torn between his home life and the adrenaline rush of his job, and finally Crispin Hershey, former bad-boy author extraordinaire who has mostly just become a loser in recent years.

But then . . .
THIS happened.
The fifth section was NOT from the perspective of a "bone clock", and I think this is where the book began to go wrong. It was too "out there" compared to the rest of the book, it showed a little too much of the man behind of the curtain, and it actually seemed like a bit of an info dump at times. AND THEN there was the sixth section, where we get back to Holly Sykes, but she doesn't even really seem like Holly Sykes anymore, and more characters are introduced who I'm pretty sure I was supposed to care about very, very much but I just didn't, and then the last twelve pages happened. Mitchell may as well have had Holly saying she was going to get on this spaceship and go to Blargon 7 in search of alternative fuels--it might have worked better for me.

Kinda nifty, though, that this book was a tangentially-related prequel to Slade House (which I really, really enjoyed and didn't have any complaints about).