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

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Famous Writers I Have Known" by James Magnuson

This was another fun read (if not quite as much fun as Slade House). And, other than a few annoying errors*, it was well-written. I think this is another one I picked up at The Center for Fiction in New York . . . though with my memory, who knows.

This is the story of a small-time New York City con artist who suddenly finds that he needs to relocate quickly in order to save his own skin. He lucks into his next scam: impersonating the famous but reclusive author (like J.D. Salinger?) of one single highly-revered novel (like Harper Lee? Because from what I've heard, her second novel doesn't count) who has been asked to spend three months leading a writer's workshop for a handful of university students in Austin, TX.

The story was sly and amusing and flirted deftly with implausibility--just enough to keep it fresh, while managing to avoid making itself ridiculous. And, though I'm not sure the entire thing would play well on the big screen, it would be fun to see the conman/author doppelgangers. In my mind they looked like Michael Madsen (except from ten, or even twenty, years ago).

*Are you curious about those annoying errors? I didn't actually write them down, and it seems like there were three or four, but I can only remember two: 1) At the beginning of the book the narrator sees someone at LaGuardia. At the end of the book the narrator mentions that the last time he saw this person was at Kennedy. Ehhht (that's a buzzer sound in case it didn't translate well). 2) Someone is scheduled to pick the narrator up from his house at 6pm. When the narrator shows up on their doorstep two paragraphs later (at 7pm), they are annoyed because "we were expecting you a little earlier." I notice these little tidbits and collect them as if they were clues. After turning them around and around trying to figure out where they fit in, I finally realize they're not even from the puzzle I'm putting together. Anyway . . . I was able to enjoy the book in spite of them. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

Ohhhh, I did not want this book to end. And yet I couldn't stop reading. And as it's a relatively small book, end it did. But what a satisfying ending!

Slade House was what The Grownup tried (and failed) to be: a magical, creepy haunted house story that is tight and polished and solid. It is unpredictable and exciting and atmospheric. Sam said it was like Harry Potter for adults. (Wait, what? Harry Potter wasn't for adults?!)

This is the story of Norah and Jonah Grayer, who are twins, but I don't want to tell you more about them because I'm sure it will be much more delicious if you taste it firsthand. They live in Slade House, the entrance of which is a small iron door into a garden. But often when people try to find that door, they can't. Each chapter of the book tells of a person who did manage to find the door . . . and then see their own portrait hanging on the wall inside the house . . .

This one's a keeper. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson

This was, if you can believe it, my first Kate Atkinson book. Which I found to be a lot like those of Kate Morton's (young Englishwoman tangentially experiences World War I, feels the impact of World War II more directly, and has various life experiences in between) except with a more unique twist: every time Ursula Todd dies, she ends up right back where she started: her birth on a snowy evening in 1910. 

This was definitely a fun read, and--kind of like The Time Traveler's Wife but, of course, very different--not just the usual old thing. Not that the usual old thing (meaning a good book) is bad, but a fresh take never hurts. 

However, I have to express the most spoilery of spoilers (don't say I didn't warn you): if you've read the book, you know it ends with her birth (yet again). I found this EXHAUSTING. I was sure at some point she would "get it right", would somehow snap out of the cycle, but the idea that it just goes on ad infinitum--or ad nauseum--was too much to bear. Of course, Sam was right; any sort of resolution would probably be a disappointment. But that didn't stop me from wishing for one, if only for Ursula's sake. Oh, and am I the only one who found myself eagerly awaiting her escape out of certain of her lives--the more awful ones, of course--so that she could start fresh and have a better life the next time?

Overall, my impression was distinctly favorable. Despite my complaints about the ending, we are already slated to read A God In Ruins. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett

I wasn't especially interested in the subject matter here (scientists in the Amazon) but my opinion of Patchett's writing is high enough that I was able to overcome my distaste for the bugs and the humidity and the mud of the jungle. And I was not disappointed.

Dr Annick Swenson has spent years researching the fertility of the Lakashi tribe in Brazil. The pharmaceutical company that employs her sends Dr Anders Eckman to get an update from the uncommunicative Swenson . . . and he ends up dead. Now it's up to his coworker, Dr Marina Singh, to find out what is going on. (And by the way, this is much less of a murder mystery/detective novel than my synopsis makes it sound; it trends more towards The Poisonwood Bible without missionaries.)

Though I did find myself quite thankful that the plot didn't actually move to the jungle until about halfway through the book, once "we" got there, it wasn't as bad as I expected. I suppose my indifference to the jungle is due in part to its strangeness to me--it seems too foreign for me to relate--but it's also in large part because the thought of being there damages my pride. I know that I would not handle the jungle well. I would not be capable and tenacious. I would not adapt and rise to the occasion. I would wilt and be discouraged and cry. I would be crabby and irritable and a nightmare to be around. But Patchett, though her writing made the setting feel real and immediate, magically allowed me to read about the jungle without feeling like I was suffering for it. I didn't feel detached from the story, but somehow it managed to not subject me to discomfort. And, just as I found in Run, there were surprises and plot twists that crept up and were suddenly just THERE without manipulating my emotions or annoying me with obviousness. Some scenes (especially one towards the end of chapter 8) were so powerful that I had to put the book down and take a deep breath before going on. I am amazed at Patchett's ability to convey such intensity while remaining relatively subtle and understated.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"The Fates Will Find Their Way" by Hannah Pittard

I found the beginning of this book so oddly familiar that I even checked to see if I might have read it before. I confirmed that I hadn't; it was first published in 2011, and I haven't blogged about it until now. And anyway, once I hit the middle of the book, the deja vu was gone--although the story did remind me a bit of The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve.

In Fates, a group of teenage boys collectively tells the story of their classmate Nora Lindell and the effect she (and her disappearance) has on them into adulthood. They never know for sure what happened to her, but they never forget her and never stop speculating. Some questions are never answered . . . which is a bit frustrating because I am sure Sissy (or Danny, through her) have several answers; they just never see fit to share them with the reader. On the other hand, I can see that being left to wonder might possibly be more satisfying than the truth would actually be.

One of the strengths of this book is the characters (if not their descriptions). I hardly know what the characters look like, but I know what they are like, and they are real and three-dimensional, like living, breathing humans. I would like to see this story as a movie, if only to see how the characters appear on screen. But alas, no movie version is appearing on the horizon.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"The Cry of the Owl" by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith is the master of dread. Not in the over-the-top way of King or Koontz, but she forms subtle, understated suspense in such an everyday way that you hardly realize every muscle is tense and you're holding your breath as you read. In this book in particular, for the first half my apprehension built because it was clear something was going to happen--it just hadn't happened yet. Then. When things begin to happen, the plot speeds to a breathless pace and the tension (but how could it possibly?) increases even more.

Another impressive quirk of writing that Highsmith perfected: developing a main character who is simultaneously so weird and yet so sympathetic. She did it with Ripley, and again in Deep Water, and Robert Forester is no exception. He's obviously a bit off, but I still rooted for him with no qualms. Well, maybe I should say few qualms.

This is the story of a man who likes to watch a young woman through her kitchen window, for entirely asexual (but still abnormal) reasons. I know what you're thinking: That can't be a good start to a friendship, right? Yeah, you're right. And the dread begins to build.

I really enjoyed this book (except for an overly melodramatic bit at the end). It had a very satisfying conclusion (almost too satisfying, because of its neatness and completeness), but it wasn't until the very last line that I could breathe a sigh of relief.

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.