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

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"The Winter People" by Jennifer McMahon

I enjoyed reading this story, but I spent most of the first half comparing it to Stephen King and wondering why it didn't feel like a guilty pleasure. (Pleasure, yes. Guilty, no.) It's the same sort of suspenseful thriller with a supernatural element that King might have written. Weaving together storylines of characters from different periods of time, The Winter People tells about sleepers, dead loved ones who are temporarily brought back to life.

Why do Stephen King's books feel like a guilty pleasure to me? I'm a bit ambivalent about the author. The good: he is a skilled storyteller who comes up with some CREEPY and unique subject matter. The bad: I'm not sure I have any solid evidence to back up this statement, but I have this vague idea that he has a higher opinion of his own writing than his writing deserves. (Haven't I read disparaging comments he has made about other authors' writing? And he actually wrote a book about writing, didn't he?)

Stephen King is obviously a very popular and successful author, but somehow that is also a negative. If so many people are pleased by something, can it really be that great, or mustn't it be a watered-down version of true greatness? Right or wrong, this is obviously not a universal truth. I mean, think of the Beatles, Harry Potter or Star Wars. Just because almost everyone loves them (including me!) doesn't mean they aren't great. Have I merely fallen prey to the snobbish view that Stephen King isn't a serious writer?

I didn't intend to write more about Stephen King than The Winter People. I probably ought to make a few more comments on the book I'm posting about. Sam asked me if I loved it, liked it, didn't like it, or hated it. I liked it. I think it would have seen some improvements if two "info-dump" sections had been reworked, but the rest of it was a pretty captivating read. But (and perhaps this is another reason I'm not a bigger fan of Stephen King?) it did not evoke an emotional response, nor did it encourage deeper thought (beyond trying to work out the mysterious goings-on). And you know what? I liked it anyway.

I still haven't worked out why I feel more respect for Jennifer McMahon than for Stephen King. I suppose it comes down to one of two things: 1) I didn't have preconceived (negative) notions about McMahon before reading her book, and/or 2) her writing is better than King's.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"The Grownup" by Gillian Flynn

Oooh! Oooh! A ghost story? BY GILLIAN FLYNN??? How did my radar miss this one for almost three months???

I was super-excited to read this book. And as it's a super-short story, it went by super-fast. (It arrived on Friday afternoon and I finished it before I went to bed on Friday night. And I did do things other than reading during the evening.) I kind of wish I'd taken the time to savor it but that didn't seem possible at the time.

The Grownup is a novella about a pseudo-psychic who is hired to stop the mysterious goings-on in a house. I feel like I can't say too much more without giving spoilers, but it's a story of suspense with a supernatural flavor.

When I was done reading it, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I almost wanted to re-read it to solidify my opinion. But it turns out I'm more eager to pick up a new book than to re-read this one right away. I bet I'll re-read this one someday--just not today.

My general opinion certainly wasn't one of disappointment. The reason I flew through the book wasn't only due to the brevity of the text; it was also a very compelling story. But I was left with the sense that there was something rushed about the plotting. It's as if the story wasn't polished enough, or there wasn't enough time spent on it prior to publication. Sam (who hasn't read it yet) said it was short enough to be perfect, but I don't think it was quite perfect. It wasn't tight like Gone Girl. Also, it bothered me that the protagonist is presented as having a facility for reading people, but she wasn't as perceptive as that might suggest.

So, I enjoyed this little story, but (possibly due to too-high expectations) it wasn't as great as I thought it would be. Will I still read every single piece of fiction that Gillian Flynn manages to get published? Why, yes. Yes, I will.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"The Bookseller" by Cynthia Swanson

So, I would categorize this one as "women's fiction," which is generally Not My Thing. Dunno why. I mean, I'm a woman, and I love fiction. So why wouldn't I love women's fiction? Somehow I have the sense that it sucks more often than not. Maybe that's an unfair assessment, I don't know. Maybe it results from a small irritation about a specific genre supposedly written for my demographic with an expectation that I will like it because of my gender. Maybe I don't like the idea that I'm typical.

Aaaaand I said all that only to say that for some reason I actually kind of liked this book. I mean, it wasn't perfect, and it wasn't amazing, but I snuggled comfortably into it, drifting in and out as I found the time, never desperate to read it (which means it didn't reach critical mass) but likewise never having to force myself to read it or wishing I could get it over with already. I doubt this is the kind of book that I will think about far into the future--I'll probably barely remember it--but it was pleasant while it lasted.

The Bookseller tells the story of Kitty Miller, an old maid of 38 living in Denver in the early 60s. She's co-owner of a bookstore with her best friend from high school, Frieda. Kitty's life may not be picture-perfect, but she's happy. Until something strange begins to happen at night. Over and over again, Kitty dreams that she is Katharyn Andersson, wife of Lars, mother of triplets. Katharyn's past and Kitty's are one and the same, but somewhere along the line the dream life of Katharyn diverged from Kitty's existence.

The concept of a dream life intertwined with real life first captured my imagination in 6th grade when we read a short story about a man who had been in a motorcycle wreck; each time he drifts into unconsciousness he is an ancient Mayan, preparing to be sacrificed. Which is dream and which is reality? It was pretty obvious to me that the reality had to be the motorcycle wreck (how could an ancient Mayan dream a motorcycle?) but the way it was written, it was ambiguous. So the concept behind The Bookseller isn't a new one. And I felt it was a bit predictable, if not unforgivably so.

Another good-but-not-great book off my TBR. Maybe my next pick will be incredible?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Vernon Downs" by Jaime Clarke

Here's another book we picked up in NYC. (I can't remember if I realized it when we bought it, but it mostly takes place there, too.) It's the story of Charlie Martens, a rather aimless and unremarkable guy who thinks he can impress his British ex-girlfriend Olivia into coming back to him if he has connections to her favorite author, Vernon Downs.

I wanted this book to be more than it was. I wasn't impressed with the writing (though there was nothing wrong with it), unlike my previous read, and the story fell short of what it could have been. It did almost reach critical mass about three quarters through, and I started to think, Wow, yes, I LIKE this, but then (and I don't think this has ever happened before! I'm not sure I even realized it was possible) it lost it and the pace slowed again. I don't mean to say it ever felt slow-paced or boring, but I never really emerged from my I-could-take-it-or-leave-it coccoon.

It doesn't seem right to have a main character who is completely unchanged by the events in a book. If Charlie has always been "a bit player in an array of people's lives" it would make sense for some sort of evolution to occur throughout the story, but by the end of the book, that's still all he is. At the very least there was a huge opportunity for him to experience a great fall, but instead he compartmentalizes this episode of his life just as he has every other that came before. He has never previously had to deal with consequences in his life, and we don't see him dealing with any consequences from his actions in this book, either. He makes no impact, no lasting impression, on anyone. I know that was the point, but in a book it's unsatisfying.

My overall impression: this book was good but not great. I don't regret reading it and wouldn't call it a waste of time, but it fell short of my expectations.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"The Wallcreeper" by Nell Zink

I might never have picked this book up if I had known what a wallcreeper was. It sounds like something quite sinister or menacing, when it's really just a cute little bird. But I am truly glad that I was slightly misled, because this book is a rare gem. It made me think a silly thought: how is it that some books are so interesting and well-written and others . . . aren't? Of course, some books are just downright bad. Others aren't bad, and I feel I ought to enjoy or appreciate them, but I have to convince myself to do so by making excuses for them. And then there are books that impress me effortlessly. Like this one.

This book is clever and quirky without being coy. The characters are real: nowhere near perfect, but not so imperfect that they are dislikable or unbelievable or revolting. I'm not sure I have any interests in common with any of them, and yet I related to them despite this. The writing is high quality, but not highbrow, by which I mean it's intelligent without throwing it in the reader's face.

As I was reading, Sam asked me if The Wallcreeper had a good story. I wasn't sure how to answer that question. It's certainly not the sort of book where nothing happens, but the plot is much less important than the protagonist's internal monologue. At the risk of skimming the surface rather than distilling it down to its essence, I want to try to describe the book, but all I can come up with is "a sketch of a woman's unusual attitudes about her relationships" and that not only sounds like crap, but also could describe half of all the books published these days (most of which either need excuses or are bad).

The things I've said to Sam have intrigued him enough that he wants to read The Wallcreeper next. I'm almost afraid to let him, though. What if he hates it? I, however, bestow upon it a reader's praise in the highest form: I would definitely read it again someday, and not just because it's short.

Friday, January 1, 2016

"New York Stories" (Everyman's Pocket Classics)

About six weeks ago I was mulling over the idea of starting a new, limited-edition blog (New York: What Gives? A chronicle of the good, the bad, and the ugly from our NYC weekend in early November 2015) but that fire has since died. In the meantime, I have worked my leisurely way through this compilation of short stories edited by Diana Secker Tesdell. This was one of a short stack of books we brought back with us, and I selected it due to the fact that its theme made it a memento of our trip.

I found almost all of the stories in the book to be very evocative of the city (mostly Manhattan). Of course you should take that statement with a grain of salt, considering my relative unfamiliarity with the subject matter--one travel weekend and a childhood in New Jersey notwithstanding. But I enjoyed picturing the setting of each story, slotting in my own memories where I could.

Inveterate bookworms that we are, Sam and I made bookstore research a sizable part of our pre-journey preparations. This book was purchased at The Corner Bookstore, a small and cozy nook at Madison and 93rd. (If I ever own a bookstore it wouldn't hurt my feelings if it looked like this one.) If you have some time to kill in NYC and you love books, you won't regret browsing here. On the other hand . . . if those same stipulations apply AND you love a good deal, I would have to recommend The Center for Fiction instead. Their store isn't much larger, but you can find some decent prices on gently-used hardcovers there. Disclaimer: I am sure there are many other worthy bookstores in NYC, but these just happened to be the only two we visited.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Deep Water" by Patricia Highsmith

Sam and I have a weird thing going on with books. Somehow, if one of us reads a book first, generally the other one never gets around to it. It doesn't matter how intrigued we may have been ahead of time. Once one of us has read a certain title, the other of us allows it to drift deeper and deeper into the To Be Read pile until it finally disappears.

There are rare exceptions, however. You may have gathered that The Girl on the Train was a very good example of this, and I'm happy to tell you that Deep Water is another one. This is a compelling and creepy tale, full of suspense in typical Highsmith fashion. It's the story of calm, mild-mannered Vic Van Allen and his attention-seeking wife Melinda, whose hobby is philandering. For years Vic has placidly turned a blind eye to his wife's string of boyfriends. Then, without even making a conscious decision about it, it turns out that Vic has had enough. When talk isn't enough to put a stop to it, he takes action. The last fifty pages had Sam's heart pounding throughout, and that was enough to convince me that I wanted to be sure to read this one too!

Back to our usual "one reads/the other doesn't" habit: I think subconsciously we use each other to weed out the bad, the mediocre, and the not-quite-great. It's quite a useful thing, actually. We all know there will never be enough time to read ALL the books, so guiding each other to narrow the selection to the best ones can't be a bad thing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

We read this together over the past several weeks while we were putting our littlest one to bed. I think the story suffered somewhat from the fragmentary nature of reading it in such small increments but Sam disagrees, so for the first time we're going to write a joint blog post.

SAM: I've now read all of Kazuo Ishiguro's books - he's one of my favorite writers - and this was one of his most ambitious and unusual novels. Where Never Let Me Go ventured into science-fiction territory, this is a similarly bold and risky step into fantasy. In tone, it's somewhere between Game of Thrones, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Lord of the Rings, and A Once and Future King. And yet it is very definitely a Kazuo Ishiguro book. It's something in his voice and in his obsessions, I think. The themes of amnesia, of an imperfect but enduring marriage, of parents separated from children, longing, sadness, hope, are all here, just as they were in When We Were Orphans, for example. But here, we are in England in the Middle Ages - just after the reign of King Arthur - instead of Hong Kong in the 1950s. I don't want to say too much about the plot because, like most Ishiguro books, it is a delicately constructed mystery with no obvious solutions, not easily reducible to a synopsis, but in spite of reading only a few pages each night (while getting our two-year-old ready for bed) I found it quietly fascinating and compelling.

KATHY: Well, I did too, of course. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy it because we only read little bits every night. However, I am saying that the reading experience might have been improved with a better reading schedule. As it was, every evening when we picked the book up we felt a little bit lost and needed time to re-orient ourselves. Or maybe it was just the mist of Querig clouding our minds?

SAM: Yeah, I think listening to it read out loud (because Kathy was the designated reader) made it slightly more difficult for me to get my head around switches in viewpoint and jumps in the timeframe. But that would have been true for almost any book. This was also a very allusive novel - to the point where I almost wondered if it was an allegory - and had me thinking about it for days after I read it. There was one passage (the one near the end about the buried giant) where I said, 'wow, is this about ISIS?!' And Kathy said she'd just been wondering the same thing. Though of course she can't remember that now. Querig again... I do feel pretty sure the boatman would have let us go to the island together, don't you?

KATHY: I'm sure he would've, Querig or no.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

"The Distant Hours" by Kate Morton

The sad day has come. My illusions are dispelled. I officially no longer find Kate Morton magical. Each book I've read since The House at Riverton has speeded my realization. Yes, her books have intricate plots, great stories, and I love the secrets and mysteries, but they no longer float above the regular bookshelf rabble; they have come down with a thud.

I loved The House at Riverton and it made me expect great things from Morton's other books. But I'm not sure I can say Riverton was the best of the four I've read, or even that it's really my favorite. Maybe if I'd read Hours first it would have had the same effect on me as Riverton. I do think, though, that I've found Morton's four books to be too much of the same thing. An older generation with terrible secrets, a younger generation prying their way into the past. Different characters and slightly different settings, and of course different secrets, but somehow nothing new.

That's not to say it wasn't fun! I have read books I've had to force my way through, and this certainly was not one of those. Morton's stories grab me the arm and whirl me into a vortex. Hours mostly takes place in a castle, with three old spinster sisters whose father had penned The True History of the Mud Man years earlier. There is madness, and destroyed love, and death, and betrayal, covered by layers of lies meant as protection of loved ones. And there is a young woman with her own link to the castle who is peeling back those layers. Even so, I was left thinking I probably wouldn't bother reading any more of Morton's books. (Though I would love to read The Mud Man!)

Only I just noticed that Morton had a book out this year called The Lake House, and I feel my resolve beginning to crumble . . . time will tell if I'll be able to resist it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Haunted" by Chuck Palahniuk

What a great title for this month, and how fitting that I am posting about it on Halloween! I was selecting my next read based on the books I could see from my reclining position in bed. I briefly thought I might pick up Children of God by Mary Doria Russell, but when my eye fell on Haunted, I decided that sounded perfect for October. It's just too bad I don't have time to squeeze Christopher Moore's Bite Me into the month as well. Maybe next Halloween.

Anyway. Back to Haunted. Did you know the cover glows in the dark? I'm a sucker for gimmicks like that. And this time I was pleased to find that the cover wasn't the best part of the book.

Haunted is basically a novelized short story collection. There are 23 mostly-unrelated stories linked together by a writer's workshop. (And that summary of the book could be likened to describing Adolf Hitler as the leader of Germany during World War II. It's a true statement, but it leaves a LOT out.) So here are the details.

First, about the title itself. I was kind of expecting ghosts and supernatural phenomena. I was wrong. We're looking at a different type of "haunting"--the kind that comes with unsettling, could-be-true stories that imprint themselves on your mind and stick there forever. So, really, this book wasn't especially Halloweenie. But (despite my misinterpretation of it) the title certainly wasn't false advertising.

Second, the stories. They're definitely Palahniukian. All the way through, I was thinking what a disturbed (but inventive!) mind the author must have. This book is full of the sort of thing you come across on the internet and then wish you hadn't--like that gruesome, sordid, indecent news piece you might, in hopes of attenuating its effect on you, try to tell yourself was made up or exaggerated. And then I read the Afterword, where Palahniuk refers to these as "mostly true stories." Seriously?? That knowledge makes me less fearful of what he might come up with next (or what he might do) and more unsettled by the stories themselves.

Third, the matrix for the stories. I found it the only disappointing part of the book, as it was inferior to the stories themselves. The things that happened during the "writer's workshop" were too obviously present purely for shock value, seeming pointless and impossible to relate to. But it was interesting that this part was written in first person plural. I expected the narrator to eventually be revealed as a specific member of the workshop and was somewhat disappointed that that never happened.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Bloodroot" by Amy Greene

This was another excellent book--one that I wish I could still be reading right now. I'm sad that it's over, but I can put a positive spin on it: I feel lucky when I have the opportunity to experience such a good book.

Speaking of good books . . . Why does it often take me so long to get around to reading them? I've had this one for five years, and I'd heard it was great before I bought it. So I've had Expected Awesomeness on my bookshelf for five years without doing anything about it. It probably has something to do with fear of disappointment, and it's also related to Obligation Reads (which was more applicable back when I was in a book club). I think in this particular case it was also because several years ago I suggested to Sam that we should read this together, but he refused because he hated the title. (Now that I've read the book, though, I know it was by far the most fitting title possible.)

Bloodroot is a multi-generational story of a cursed family. Six narrators share their points of view, from the oldest (Byrdie) who is a great-grandmother to the two youngest (Johnny and Laura). All of the characters are tied together by Bloodroot Mountain in eastern Tennessee. We hear how each woman falls in love, and then we watch the tragedy-tinged direction each love takes.

I'm not sure how I feel about the epilogue. In a way it was satisfying--it answered every question--but somehow being left with no ambiguities is disappointing. It's not that the answers themselves were disappointing, but that I was left with nothing to wonder about.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Baudelaire Poems

I've had a cute little "Everyman's Library Pocket Poets" edition of Baudelaire's works as (ahem) my restroom reading for the past few months. (In case you haven't yet discovered this, poetry is a great format for quick visits. It eliminates all the fuss about trying to remember where you were in the plot--since there isn't one--and you rarely end up hanging around longer than necessary in order to see what happens next. I have just realized, by the way, that it's a good thing I didn't start reading The Girl on the Train while I was sitting on the toilet. I wouldn't have gotten up for two days straight, my feet would have gone so numb that they would never have recovered, and I would have been fired for job abandonment. But I digress.)

I've no idea where I got this notion, but I somehow expected Baudelaire's poems to be romantic, albeit in a sort of erotic and edgy way. Well, I got the edgy right. And a lot of them are about love, but I definitely can't call them romantic. Like the one where Baudelaire describes roadkill in detail before addressing his love and basically saying, "My Beauty, someday your lovely body is going to rot just like that!" That poem, by the way, is aptly titled "Carrion".

A word about translation. I'd often wondered what I might be missing by not reading Baudelaire's poems in the original French. (The short answer: not much, because my French isn't good enough. I personally would miss more by trying to read it in French.) But a translation can certainly make a difference. Look here to see four prior English translations of one poem in this collection. It's amazing how varied they are! And Richard Howard's version in my Pocket Poet book gives it yet another individual twist. It's also, I think, more natural-sounding and fluid than any of the other four. The only thing Howard doesn't do is attempt to replicate the rhyme scheme of the original, but I think he was right to abandon the restriction of rhyme in favor of retaining the sense of the original with lyrical expression.