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

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).

Monday, June 6, 2016

"Strangers" by Taichi Yamada

An odd little book. It was clear from the beginning (actually from before the beginning, as it was mentioned on both the front and back covers) that this was a ghost story, and I think I might have appreciated it more if I'd come to that realization myself as I read. Despite praise by David Mitchell and Bret Easton Ellis, the writing did not blow me away; however, the story was compelling enough to be enjoyable.

Narrated by Hideo Harada, a middle-aged, recently divorced screenwriter in Tokyo, the story begins by underlining his isolation. He lives in an apartment building that is mainly rented out as office space, so the majority of it is uninhabited at night. He meets one of the only other twenty-four hour residents, a woman named Kai, and begins to build a relationship with her, but one day he is drawn back to the place of his childhood, Asakusa. And there he sees his mother and father, which would be lovely, except for the fact that they died when he was twelve years old . . .

Friday, June 3, 2016

"The Last Time They Met" by Anita Shreve

This was a re-read from my First Saturday Book Club years (which, if I had to guess, were 2001 through 2006, but I could be off a bit). I picked it up again recently because I hoped to flip through it and find a specific passage that I remembered, but I could NOT find it, no matter how much flipping I did. Which led me to contemplate my memory (or lack thereof), and to reminisce about other times my memory of literature failed me (I was sure Sylvia Plath wrote a poem that contained the phrase "tiny starfish hands"; apparently not. I just KNEW Elie Wiesel wrote a scene with the repeated phrase "it was not a bird" in Night, but I've never been able to find it again).

I did not re-shelve Shreve's book, and after a few days of allowing it to silently mock me and my miserable memory, I realized what I really wanted to do was to read the entire thing again, so that is what I did. 

And I enjoyed it very much. The quality of writing surprised me--not that it was bad in my memory, but I didn't remember that it was actually quite good. The story works its way backwards through the relationship between Thomas Janes and Linda Fallon, whose lives intersected when they were 52, 26 and 17. That's a really vague synopsis, I know, but I don't want to give anything away.

So after I finished this book today, I decided to read my old blog post about it... only to discover there wasn't one. So of course I am compelled to make one. Though I neither have the desire nor the energy to make it very detailed or interesting. 

Oh, and by the way--that passage I'd tried to find (but failed)? I happily succeeded in finding it during my re-read:

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

I feel really behind the times, only just now reading this book. It's not like one of those hundred-year-old classics where any time in your life is acceptable for reading it (as long as you finally do); this is a classic of my own lifetime. Why didn't I read it sooner?

Once again I was amazed--though by this time I'm no longer surprised--by the exquisite precision of Ishiguro's writing. Not a word out of place, every phrase turned perfectly. Well, hang on, that's not entirely true. I did see two or three things (which I didn't note down, so of course I've forgotten the specifics by now) that I would have considered minor grammatical errors, but I was able to forgive them with the thoughts that 1) maybe a relatively uneducated butler, despite his pride in speech and usage, was making an honest mistake, or 2) maybe it's correct in English, just not in American. But my overall opinion still stands--Kazuo Ishiguro writes with excellence.

One of the many impressive things about this book: How is Ishiguro able to completely inhabit the mind of an English butler of the mid-20th century? Mr Stevens seems the epitome and embodiment of his kind. He thinks in a way that most people don't. Of course my next thought is to realize it's entirely possible that no butler was ever like this, with the stiffest-of-all-stiff-upper-lips--after all, this is a fictional character, and Ishiguro could have been using great exaggeration. But if so, it's only a further testament to his skill that he could do this and make it so believable.

Now I really want to see the movie. (Because, in keeping with my aforementioned behind-the-timesness, I haven't done that before, either.)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"The House on the Strand" by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier writes books I can get lost in. I mean that in an entirely good way, of course, unlike with some books. (Ahem, Ulysses? I still haven't fought my way out of that one. But I still earnestly intend to do so. Someday.)

The House on the Strand is kind of a sinister time-traveling mystery. That ought to be enough to grab you right there, but I'll give you a little bit more: Englishman Richard Young allows his lifelong friend Magnus Lane to use him as a guinea pig. Professor Lane has been concocting a drug that allows the user to temporarily experience life as it was hundreds of years ago. Young takes several trips to Cornwall of the fourteenth century, where he is able to observe (though not interact with) the lives of a handful of the county's former residents. With each visit he becomes further invested. But surely such an amazing drug can't be without side effects . . .

It's funny that I previously mentioned my lack of faith in DdM's ability to pull off a convincing ending. This book grabbed me until its very last, perfect sentence.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

"Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape" by Jenna Miscavige Hill

This is SO not the sort of book I usually choose to read (non-fiction, co-written) but the weirdness of Scientology is something I've always been curious about, like Nostradamus or the Bermuda Triangle or roadkill. While I probably would not have intentionally or directly sought out such a book, it was lying around in close proximity over the past few weeks and I just couldn't help but wonder what it said. So I found out.

This is the story of a girl who grew up in Scientology because her parents were members of the Sea Org (which, as the book's glossary explains, is "the inner core of the Scientology parish"). She spent most of her childhood separated from her parents, and her experience with the "church" was one of control freaks restricting her at every turn. Her life was in some ways improved--but in most ways made worse--by the fact that she is the niece of the head of the church (who is the control-freakiest freak of them all).

This book does not explain to me what I am most curious about (which is this: how does a normal human adult hear about Scientology and actually end up joining the church instead of laughing--or shuddering--and walking away?) because this, of course, was not Jenna's experience. But it did fill in enough blanks in my knowledge about Scientology (which was next to nothing prior to reading this book, and is still sketchy now) that I don't need to hear any more about it.

I couldn't help but wonder how pervasive Scientology is in Hollywood. I mean, everyone knows that Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and John Travolta are Scientologists, and I did find an online list of others, but it actually wasn't as long as I'd expected--my assumption at this point, though, is that the list wasn't that long because whoever made it doesn't know about all of the Hollywood Scientologists who are private about it. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe I'm formulating a paranoid conspiracy theory? But I get the feeling that more California actor-types are Scientologists than are not. Because Scientology sounds like the modern equivalent of selling your soul to the devil for fame and success (but since your soul isn't valuable enough, you also have to pay lots of money for the privilege).

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.