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

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Book Club Report, Part I

I have watched another book club die. We finally took this one off life support last month and it slipped away unnoticed. Surely someday we'll be part of a bigger book club again, but for now, my husband and I are in a book club of two. We are currently reading The Magus (which is AWESOME). I'm enjoying the new format, because we end up having tons of mini book-club-moments before we even finish the book.

Speaking of mini-book-club moments, while looking over my Must Blog list, I noticed that at least ten of those books were selections for the recently deceased book club. I'm not sure I could write an entire post on any of them, considering how long it's been since I read each one, so get ready for me to knock out a bunch of reviews at once.

I'll start with the most recent: The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan. This was my second book by this author (see Atonement), unless I'm forgetting another, but it won't be my last; I find McEwan's writing pretty unimpeachable. (Maybe not as perfect as Kazuo Ishiguro's, but whose is?) This rounded out an unexpected trio of recently-read books set in England's heatwave of 1976 (see here and here), and it was easily the most controversial of the three: the story of four recently-orphaned siblings (without any of the romantic Victorian notions implied in that phrase) and their decisions and behaviors upon finding themselves suddenly autonomous before their concepts of morality were fully formed. It was unnerving how McEwan made me complicit in the siblings' conduct. Things that should have horrified me were made to seem reasonable through these children's eyes.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber. This story was interesting and unique (a female driver preys on male hitchhikers), although I think Faber revealed the mystery behind the main character's actions too soon. If just one line had been cut (the one about the chef), leaving the word "vodsel" enigmatic for a bit longer, I think it would have been a vast improvement. I couldn't really picture what Isserley looked like, either. Somehow her description didn't sound anything like Scarlett Johansson, but I'm still interested in seeing the movie anyway.

The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg, in which a not-so-bright Nebraska girl leaves her crumbling life behind her and makes a run for Las Vegas. I think I first heard of this book in one of those single-paragraph book reviews in a magazine . . . and I think that magazine was Glamour, if that tells you anything. I wish I could re-read that review now, so I could see what drew me to this book. I'm fairly certain it wasn't anything about penile enlargement surgery, anyway.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  Unfortunately I found this one disappointing when compared to Morton's The House at Riverton. It's the story of a girl who was raised in Australia; on her twenty-first birthday she's told that she had an unremembered childhood in England. There were plenty of secrets and mysteries, but I think the book suffered from my excessively high expectations (the ones that had me thinking Kate Morton's books are great big thick bundles of awesomeness). That's not to say I didn't enjoy it--it was still pretty great--but I didn't love it the way I thought I would.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. LOVED IT. It's the story of a cad whose wife disappears under suspicious circumstances, and it's really just a thriller without any especially literary characteristics (though I have no complaints about the writing), but it was full of twists and turns and suspense. I still remember with startling clarity the shock of the text message Nick receives four days after Amy vanishes. And there was just NO good place to stop reading this book. No doubt about it--this one reached critical mass, and early on. I've since read (and loved) Flynn's other two books, though this remains my favorite of the three. I'm looking forward to the movie adaptation out in September. Ben Affleck will make a perfect Nick Dunne, if I can get over the way he always seems to be spitting while he's talking.

Stay tuned for Part II of The Book Club Report . . .

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Divergent" by Veronica Roth

This book wasn't even on my radar until I started hearing about the movie. That's not especially surprising, since I'm not one of those devours-everything-YA readers. I don't generally seek out YA novels, but when one comes after me I don't kick it out of bed.

We went to see the movie knowing nothing about it, though we had the vague idea that it was in the same vein as The Hunger Games (which, in my opinion, is a complimentary way of describing a book or movie). And it was exactly like The Hunger Games, except completely different. If you know what I mean.

I really enjoyed the movie--it was exciting and clever and engaging--which made me want to read the book. This was partly to savor bits of the movie without committing another two-hour block of time to it, and partly because I thought it might answer a few lingering questions. (Like, was there any significance to Tris's bird tattoo? Yes, there was!)

It also invites a fun new party game. Which faction would you choose? As the author notes in the interview found at the end of my copy of the book, there are actually two questions there: which faction do you have an aptitude for, and which faction would you like to be in? Well, as much as I like the idea of Dauntless (Four's version, not Eric's), I'm pretty sure I would be the girl to splat to my death before the end of the first day. I suppose, being a reader by choice and a science-y person by trade, I have an aptitude for Erudite. But which faction would I like to be in? NONE!! And by this I certainly don't mean I'd like to be factionless. I mean that, as flawed as the real world might be, I'm so glad I don't live in a dystopian novel instead.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"The Mathematics of Love" by Emma Darwin

I didn't expect much from this book. I'd never heard of it, or its author, but there must have been something that drew me beyond its bargain basement price at the Friends of the Library bookstore. Maybe it was the title . . . though it certainly couldn't have been the reference to mathematics. (Math? I hate math. They put me in a room with math once. It drove me crazy.) And love? You know how love stories can make me gag. But the two together? They have some kind of weird synergy.

I meandered languidly through this book over the past three weeks. It tells two stories which are barely more than tangentially related; one is the story of Anna Ware, a teenage English girl sent to live with her uncle at his failed school during the sweltering summer of 1976. (Yes, same summer as Instructions for a Heatwave . . . AND, I think, The Cement Garden which I read in February but haven't had a chance to blog about yet.) The other is the story of Stephen Fairhurst, owner of Kersey Hall and veteran of Waterloo, more than a century and a half earlier.

At first I found myself more interested in Anna's story than in Stephen's. And, though I was enjoying reading, I didn't find the book compelling. Until just a day or so ago. Suddenly, surprisingly, the book reached critical mass, and I realized that both stories (and their tenuous, mysterious links) had quietly and stealthily become fascinating. I finally had the time to finish the book this afternoon . . . but even after I finished reading, I didn't feel like I'd reached the end of the story. It's not that the plot felt unresolved, but I was left with so many unanswered questions.

As I mentally enumerated the remaining mysteries, I tried to convince myself that further elucidation didn't matter (because it would be so freeing if I could just let it go), but the longer I spent in this tally, the more I fretted and wondered, like a dog worrying a bone (or something less clichéd).

My biggest question: What was the deal with Cecil living in Anna's time and yet being seen in by Stephen? Was this just some sort of contrivance added after the book was mostly completed in hopes of making the link between Stephen and Anna seem slightly more substantial and/or interesting? (If so, mission accomplished.) If I knew this was all it was, I could let it go. But I am unable to know and unable to let it go and thus my mind won't stop digging for a deeper meaning.

Another, slightly less captivating question: Who was Anna's father? It is hinted that Idoia is an ancestor on her father's side (she would have been far too old to be Anna's grandmother, but perhaps add a few greats and it might have worked) but it's never made plain, and this is the closest we get to discovering Anna's father's identity. I can see, however, that the fact that Anna doesn't learn more about her father is the less artificial route.

There were many other unanswered questions that aren't quite as niggling, partly because the answers aren't even hinted at and partly because knowing the answers really wouldn't have much bearing on the story. (Consequently--thank goodness!--I feel more able to let these go.) Like: What happened to the school to make it close? Where had Belle been all those years? (I couldn't help but wonder if she'd been in prison for something. But if so, what for?) Who was Cecil's mother, and where was she?

Enigmas aside, I was drawn in to the relationships described in this book. There is something undefined that holds me back from naming this a Must Read, but I can definitely say my expectations were exceeded (and not just because they were low in the first place).