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

Sunday, September 2, 2018

“Burning Bright” by Tracy Chevalier

I didn’t like this book as much as I’ve liked others by Chevalier. At first, something about the writing bothered me. Either that wrinkle smoothed out or I got used to it, but I never really got invested in the story, which is tangentially about William Blake. (He lives next door to one of the main characters). I think I would have preferred to read more (or more directly) about Blake than about Jem and Maggie.

This is the 5th Chevalier I’ve read and I only remember really loving one of them (Girl With a Pearl Earring). That's the funny thing about my memory, though (and the good thing about having a book blog): I re-read my posts on the other four books and found that I definitely liked three and only didn't really care for one. I'd rank Burning Bright as #4 of the 5. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

“The Maze at Windermere” by Gregory Blake Smith

The Maze at Windermere is an ambitious novel that doesn't tell just one story, but five different ones:

Sandy Alison, former pro tennis player who once cracked the top 50 but by 2011 is pretty much a has-been, is also poised to crack his way into a spot with richest families in Newport, Rhode Island. If only he had the killer instinct.

Franklin Drexel, a charming bachelor in 1896 who mingles with the upper echelon but knows he'll soon need to marry into it in order to continue with the life that pleases him, also knows he needs to continue to keep his biggest secret.

A young Henry James, just dipping his toe into his literary career in 1863, struggles with the desire to record life rather than living it.

British officer Major Ballard lusts after the beautiful young Jewish daughter of a Portuguese merchant living in America during the hostilities of 1778, and he is cold and calculating in his strategy for seducing her. And he does have a killer instinct.

Fifteen-year-old Prudence Selwyn finds herself orphaned, in charge of her baby sister and their small household, when their father is lost at sea in 1692.

What links all these stories that are so disparate in time and characters? The maze at Windermere. (Or, more broadly, the town of Newport). Every storyline takes place there. I thought for sure there would be some sort of time travel or the maze would play a larger part, but this isn't that kind of book. Instead, the maze is just a link that loosely binds the stories together in place if not in time.

But (apart from being an ambitious novel) this is also also a novel of ambition. Each character is discovering and recognizing what they want from life, and slowly learning what they are willing to do to realize their dreams.

I really enjoyed reading this book, especially as it took on a breakneck pace towards the end with the stories more quickly interleaved, but I was a little bit sad when I finished reading and didn't really know what the future held for any of the characters! (At least I have Wikipedia to help me out with Henry James.) Each character was left with several options and I don't know which they chose. But although I wanted to know the answers, it's probably better this way. I'm left to speculate and wonder rather than being disappointed or dissatisfied. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

“You Think It, I’ll Say It” by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is one of those books I enjoyed so much that I read it too quickly and now I’m sad it’s over already.

It’s a book of ten short stories, only one of which has a male narrator. Each was basically about relationships (not all romantic), none of which were easy or stress-free—instead, they were so real and honest and full of quietly riveting conflict. The humiliation, the lust, the envy—it was never overblown or melodramatic, it was just fully human. I can’t think of any story in which there was a hero or a villain, characters I felt I was meant to love or hate—just people with both good and bad in them, people who made totally understandable mistakes, people who interacted in ways that made complete sense. People who couldn’t possibly have been made-up characters... but (I assume) they were. 

This is one of the only books of short stories I’ve ever finished reading with the ability of looking at the table of contents and remembering the gist of every story as I run my eye down their titles. It’s also (considering how many unread books remain in the world) added to a very short list of books I would pick up and reread again someday. I think I liked it even more than Rachel Cusk’s Outline, and I’d definitely be interested in reading more of this author’s work.

Bonus: look where I bought it! Fun experience that I highly recommend for any book-lover. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

“The Seas” by Samantha Hunt

The Seas is a nice short absorbing book, weird in an intriguing way. 

In a coastal town far to the north, a 19-yr-old girl lives with her mother and grandfather. Her father, who disappeared (or died?) eleven years ago, used to tell her she was a mermaid. And, for whatever reason, she’s just detached enough from reality that she believes him. Her best friend is Jude, a veteran of Iraq who is almost twice her age. It just so happens that she’s also in love with him. I don’t think I consciously noticed this as I read (probably because I was too engrossed in the story), but the book and its characters felt very real and believable, despite the fact that I didn’t especially identify with the narrator. 

I must admit I’m not even really sure what happened at the end. But I think I’m not supposed to be sure. It’s just odd, though—in the rest of the book, there were muddled and vague passages, but things eventually became clear (in a satisfying, not annoyingly or insultingly obvious way). The ending never really clarified itself and left me wondering. I’ve enjoyed ruminating about the possibilities.

An interesting side note: I finally got around to watching The Shape of Water recently (and really enjoyed it, too) and I think if I weren’t too lazy I could draw a lot of parallels between that movie and this book. Definitely not saying the two tell the same story but they certainly have some similar themes.  

Sunday, July 22, 2018

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera

Here’s a book that’s been on the periphery of my awareness seemingly forever without actually directly penetrating my consciousness. Which is to say I’d heard of the book (and the movie) but didn’t know anything about them. 

Now that I’ve read the book, I’m still not sure I know anything about it. I mean, I definitely got the surface plot. (Minimalist as it is... although I must admit I’m not sure where Franz came from. I can’t remember if I forgot his introduction, and thus his link to Tomas, or if the more tenuous link that I do remember—Sabina—is the only one. Anyway...) It's mainly the love story of Tomas and Tereza, told against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Prague during the late 1960s.

But the book is full of symbolism and philosophy and I’m not sure I grasped all the deeper layers. I bet this book is perfect for studying in English class. But most of the time I have to have the hidden meanings pointed out to me. 

In a way it reminded me of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist (deceptively simple and full of quietly confident philosophical statements), but whereas I found Coelho’s statements often did not withstand scrutiny, I thought many of Kundera’s did. 

For example, Kundera states that “we all need someone to look at us,” thus he divides humanity into four types of people: 
  1. Those who “long for an infinite number of anonymous eyes” (fame)
  2. Those who “have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes” (esteem) 
  3. Those who “need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love” (love)
  4. Those who “live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present” (dreams)
Assuming this is true, which one are you? (I’m #3)

I’m interested in seeing the movie. So much of the book is internal—how did they externalize it??

Thursday, July 19, 2018

“The Art Book” (Phaidon)

I don’t think this is necessarily the type of book that’s meant to be read cover-to-cover. It’s kind of a coffee-table-style book (though my copy was a small paperback) and I think of those as books to flip through or dip into occasionally. However, perhaps due in large part to my completist tendencies, I really wanted to read it straight through, so that’s what I did (though admittedly I took my time with it—kind of like a book of short stories, the format is well-suited to picking it up and putting it down as time allows). Right down to the glossaries in the back!

The book has a one-page entry on 500 different artists, showing a representative work by each, with a few short paragraphs of facts about the artist’s life and style. It’s organized alphabetically by the artist’s name. It doesn’t include every artist I’ve ever beard of (no Henk Chabot, August Macke or Grandma Moses) but all the big ones are there (and lots I don’t remember hearing of before). 

Alphabetical order often resulted in an odd juxtaposition...

On the very next page, you would see this.

On one page, you would see this . . . 

I found myself wishing I could rearrange the book using a variety of different categories: by the date each work was created, by nationality of the artist, by artistic movement, etc. I don’t think I would have wanted to read an electronic version of this book... but it would have been convenient to have an electronic version I could restructure at will.  

Unfortunately I must admit I probably didn’t retain much of what I read here. It’s a broad (albeit shallow) wealth of art history which should have really enriched my knowledge of art, but I would probably fail a test based on this book. So I’ll just have to be glad I don’t have to take a test, and focus on the fact that I enjoyed reading it. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

“Paris in Stride: An Insider’s Walking Guide” by Jessie Kanelos Weiner & Sarah Moroz

This is a charming little book. I love it as a mere object, with its beautiful watercolor illustrations and the way it just feels good in my hand. I also loved reading through it. I think it would be a lovely book even if only to read and dream over, but it’s even nicer using it to plan.

The book is divided into seven main chapters, each proposing a walking route through one or two arrondissements (though it skips nearly a third of them; I don’t know Paris well enough to be sure of this, but I assume the features of the skipped ones are of less interest to a visitor than the ones in the book).

One quibble: the authors could easily have included the distance of each walking route. With the help of a Maps app I’m sure I can calculate the distances myself, but it would have been much simpler for me if the distances were part of each chapter. Alas, this is not one of those very specific guide books. It doesn’t give the dollar sign symbols to tell you how expensive restaurants are, or the hours of operation of the businesses, and the maps (as with all the other illustrations) are hand-drawn. It gives more of a general feeling of each place than a compendium of details. Which makes it much more fun to read through!

See how pretty?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

“The Night Bookmobile” by Audrey Niffenegger

I read this graphic novel about a month ago and never got around to writing about it. I know I enjoyed the story, which turned out to be a bit darker than I expected (not a bad thing). I must say I was less than impressed by the artwork (that's not to say I could have done better . . . although someone could have) but luckily that didn't detract from the story.

I really liked the premise of this book: everyone has a "magical" traveling library that holds every book they've ever read. The more they read, the more books are added. Although my blog obviously doesn't go all the way back to my Dr Seuss days, it's kind of like my very own Night Bookmobile from 2009 on! And much easier for me to find.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

“Outline” by Rachel Cusk

It's happening again. I'm reading faster than I'm blogging and I'm getting behind. Yeah, I know, I have that rule that I can't start another book before I've blogged about the last one . . . well, I broke the rule a few times. Oops.

It's really unfortunate in this case, though, because I thought Outline was a great book, and now I won't be able to do it justice because I finished reading it weeks ago. If I'm honest with myself, though, I may not have been able to do it justice even if I'd blogged about it right after I finished reading . . . at least now I have an excuse.

This book's structure kind of floats somewhere between short stories and a novel. It seems like each chapter could stand alone as a short story, but the chapters are linked more than those in the usual book of short stories, and various characters appear and reappear (and the narrator remains the same throughout).

The general background of the book (I don't feel like it can be called a plot, and I don't know what else to call it): an English writer travels to Athens for a week (or was it a month?) to teach a writing course. The book is entirely composed of conversations the writer has (with her seatmate on the plane, a few friends, and the students in her class). I fluctuated between disbelief (that people would actually open themselves up enough to have such deep, meaningful conversations with practical strangers) and envy (that people have such intelligent conversations and I don't . . . though it made me feel better to remember this is fiction, after all), but despite disbelief and envy, these conversations were pretty intriguing. And it was really interesting to get a brief glimpse into the life of each student in the writer's class (in the first chapter where they are introduced) . . . but frustrating to come back to them a few chapters later and have to flip back in the book to match up the new stories with their old ones. 

So . . . I can't remember anything else I wanted to say about this book. But I am looking forward to reading the following book, Transit.

Friday, May 18, 2018

“A$$holes: A theory” by Aaron James

This book was less fun than I expected. It's a slightly tongue-in-cheek but mostly serious philosophical work (or as serious a philosophical work as I'm ever likely to read, considering that I graduated from college during the previous century . . . not that graduating from college in the previous century precludes me from reading philosophy--I'm just saying I would probably only read philosophy if I had to for a class, and that's not going to happen). I think the majority of its light-hearted feeling stemmed only from its repeated and frequent use of words like "asshole" which (I assume) are not likely to appear in most serious philosophical works. I had the feeling that the author was reveling in this fact, maybe even giggling about it at times. 
As for the actual content beyond the giggles, it was interesting to watch James polish his definition: what exactly is an asshole? Not just a jerk or a bastard, but an actual, honest-to-goodness asshole? James gives a fairly specific and limiting definition. Apparently the state of being an asshole is a constant state, based on entitlement. An asshole systematically allows himself special advantages over others and is immune to any resulting negative reactions. (Notice how I said "himself"? James covers that in the book too.) And if you're worried that you might be an asshole . . . well, no need to worry. True assholes would have no such worries. 
I suppose I gave some extra thought to the distinction that an asshole is always an asshole, whereas others might just act like an asshole sometimes. When the asshole (or not) is someone you have a brief encounter with, how can you determine whether that individual is, in fact, an asshole and not just acting like one in that moment? In fact, what difference does it make to the "victim" in that moment? 

Anyway . . . I'm not sure I retained much about what you can actually do about the assholes in your life. Did the book say "avoid them as much as possible, because you can't change them," or is that just my own philosophy intermingling with my memory of the book? I guess I'll never know. I do know, however, that I don't like using the word asshole on my blog. It's unprofessional. So, you know, if you're offended, my apologies. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

“The Hand That First Held Mine” by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve been impressed with Maggie O’Farrell ever since I read After You’d Gone and haven’t been disappointed by anything of hers that I’ve read . . . until now. Ok, maybe that’s a bit more harsh than necessary, because I still ended up enjoying the reading experience. It just wasn’t up to the standard that I’ve come to expect.

I think the problem was the characters. They just didn’t seem real to me. The more developed characters floated just outside the realm of believability, and the rest seemed amorphous and faceless. (Except for the babies! I could vividly picture their movements and behavior.) This had the unfortunate consequence of failing to make me care about any of the characters in the book, which means the occasional tragedy seemed like little more than a blip. 

This is one of those parallel stories (half of the plot is in the past, half in present day) with two completely different sets of characters (well, for the most part; the whole point of the book is the slow reveal of how the two stories are interlinked.) Plot A centers on Lexie Sinclair and begins on the cusp of her escape from her mundane post-war life in the English countryside. She shocks her family and moves to London and then has jobs and is slightly immoral and blah blah blah. Plot B is about Ted and Elina and their new baby and how difficult parenthood is, mostly for Elina at first, but then moreso for Ted. I won’t tell you how the two plots are linked because that would  just be mean, but I will say... if you read a more detailed blurb about the book and then have a guess, you’ll be right. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

“Girl in Snow” by Danya Kukafka

I’d never heard of this book (and haven’t heard anything about it since, come to think of it) before Sam gave it to me for Christmas. He liked the image on the cover, and the similarity of the author’s last name to Kafka; and the endorsement by Paula Hawkins on the front cover didn't hurt.

Girl in Snow is definitely in the same category as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (and not just because it has the word "girl" in the title). All three are well-written, tightly plotted mystery/thrillers that are definitely fun and worth reading. If I had to rank them I think I'd say this one isn't as good as GG but is slightly better than TGotT. (Is Gone Girl inflated in my memory? Because no thriller seems to quite compare to it anymore.) 

The story here is a murder mystery told from the perspective of three different characters. Two are teenagers who attend the same school as the girl who was killed, and one is a cop who was with the phalanx who first responded to the murder scene. There's a little bit of Northern Exposure going on here, as all three characters are almost a little bit too quirky to be true . . . or maybe everyone is really that quirky on the inside, and we just don't have the opportunity to realize it the way we do when we're reading someone's innermost thoughts?

Lots of parallels were drawn between characters (art, ballet, people with fathers who are were policemen--maybe there were more similarities than this, but I'm too lazy to search for others) which was *almost* (but not quite) enough to make things a little confusing sometimes, but was definitely enough to be interesting and make me think about the connections between people and how similar situations can affect people in different ways. 

I have only one complaint, which isn't really much of one. Once again I guessed the solution early on. I first wondered on page 50, first suspected on 142, my suspicion deepened on 299... and the actual revelation wasn’t until 305. At least this wasn’t a case where all the characters were being stupid because the clues were too obvious, or a case where it was annoyingly easy to guess the killer. It was both satisfying and frustrating to crack the case early. Maybe I’m just too good at it! I guarantee you, though, I would NOT be good at solving real-life murders. I’m sure the criminals would never be as accommodating in handing out clues as authors are.