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

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright

Here's our newest Book Club of Two selection. My husband was frustrated because I started this book just a little bit before he did, and I kept sneaking in a few more pages whenever possible. He was sure he would never catch up. But I couldn't help it! Not only was it well written, full of tension and suspense. Not only did I not want to put it down. It seemed to go even further than that--it was more as if the book wouldn't let me go.

The story is a clever work of metafiction. The main character, Susan, is reading a manuscript (written by her ex-husband) in which the main character is Tony. Tony's story is the more compelling of the two, but Susan's reading of it doesn't dilute the tension of Tony's story. Rather than making us feel removed from Tony's story, Susan's reading of it adds another dimension to it. Susan's reactions, as well as her pauses to ruminate on her reading, intensify the dread of what is coming in Tony's story. 

At first I wanted to call this a mystery, but it's really not. There are no real twists and turns, no need to figure out whodunit, no red herrings (although I kept looking for them, and even thought I'd found a few . . . but I hadn't). It's just a dark trail toward the inevitable, beset with dread. I guess the genre would be considered horror, but Wright seems to dig deeper than King or Koontz usually would. 

This book is a gem, even if the ending left things feeling unresolved. I don't know why I'd never heard of it before. It was well worth the read, though I do have to wonder if it would stand up to a re-read; surely it couldn't have the same effect the second time around. But maybe for a literary amnesiac it would . . .

Monday, May 26, 2014

"The Visible Man" by Chuck Klosterman

This is the story of an Austin, Texas therapist and her treatment of one specific patient: a man who can make himself become invisible. Not a man who thinks he can make himself invisible, or who has delusions of invisibility, but a former scientist who had been part of a now-scrapped government project, and who secretly and unofficially completed the work after the project was discontinued.

Chuck Klosterman comes up with great what-if questions. (Seriously. You should check this out--we've had a lot of fun with it.) So, what would you do if you could become invisible? Would you use your powers for good or evil? The "visible man" strongly believes that no human can honestly and purely behave according to their true personality unless completely alone, and he feels compelled to study people being themselves... by quietly breaking into their houses and observing them in their (supposed) solitude. Somehow he believes this is a good use of his power, but not everyone would be able to see his point of view.

The story intertwines the evolution of an odd patient/therapist relationship with the stories the man tells of situations he has witnessed during his surreptitious "research". He was privy to some unusual scenarios, which seemed only too limited--certainly not in scope, but in number. I wished there had been more! I wouldn't mind reading more Klosterman books, if I can assume his others measure up.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"This is How: Help for the Self" by Augusten Burroughs

My no-fail book selection method has failed me.

When I'm browsing for books (not looking for a specific title or author, but just wandering the bookshop aisles rapturously), first it's up to the cover to catch my eye. It may be the colors, or the artwork, or the words, or all of it together. Next I look at the price. I'm a sucker for a cheap book, and it's pretty unusual for me to pay full price. Then I read the back cover (or the inside flap--wherever the blurb is to be found).

If the book has passed all of these tests to my satisfaction, the last challenge is the Random Text Selection. I open the book to a page decided by fate (though I assiduously avoid the ending--even endings of chapters--in hopes of dodging spoilers) and sample the prose style.  This is mainly to ensure that the writing doesn't suck. I've ruled out book purchases thanks to this sucky-writing-avoidance technique, and in the best cases I am then even more eager to read the book so I can put what I've just read into context. 

Once I've made my choice to buy a book, I feel like I generally have a pretty good idea about what sort of book it is, even if I don't know much about the story or what direction it will go.

I applied all of my usual methods to This is How. And somehow I came away from Books-A-Million with this book and the idea that it was comedy. I thought it was a parody of a self-help book. I thought it mocked the dire situations people can find themselves in.

was wrong. 

This is really and truly a self-help book. I'm sure the cover should have revealed that fact to me--it's pretty plain there--but I thought it was a sarcastic representation. 

It's not. 

So, expectations aside, what did I think of this book? I tend not to appreciate self-help books. I may have an unnecessarily negative view of them, but it seems to me that the majority are very repetitive (to the point that they could easily be distilled into a motivational poster) with an annoyingly and cloyingly perky attitude. Not to mention that they often seem to be full of crap.

This is How is neither easily distilled nor perky. What it has to say is varied and unique. It actually seems to contain some fairly good advice. AND it is humorous in bits, in that dry sarcastic sense that I remember from Running With Scissors. Only problem is that I'm not in any of the horrible situations described in it, and by the time that I am, I won't be able to remember the advice. 

I don't necessarily regret reading this book; it was interesting, and it went by quickly. But, had I recognized it for what it was, I probably never would have bought it, despite its low price and old-West-snake-oil-salesman title font. I should have listened to my husband, who frowned and said, "That's for people who aren't happy." Maybe I would have listened to him if the edition I held had this cover, which looks much more faithful to its contents, if you ask me:

Monday, May 19, 2014

"The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

This is the story of an incredible traveling circus, only open at night, which appears as if by magic and disappears again just as unpredictably. Rather than the usual three-ring spectacle under the big top, full of noise and color, the Night Circus is a more individual experience: an endless-seeming maze of tents which encourage exploration and discovery in shades of black, white and grey. And it is filled with marvels one would never have thought possible.

It was great fun to imagine attending the circus as it was described. I was just barely able to overlook the impossibility of it all in favor of amazement. If the Night Circus could really exist I would certainly be in line to experience it, and I think I might first head to Widget's tent where I could "open what is closed"--at least, that's the tent that sticks in my mind the most. It's full of bottles and jars, each one containing the essence of a different story or memory. Opening one releases specific and distinct sounds and smells and sensations.

Apart from imagining the circus itself (which is truly brought to life in beautiful detail), I'm afraid I don't have much to say about this book. I really love the cover; I bought it for my husband for Christmas, though I didn't have any particular reason for choosing this title; and I enjoyed reading it (though I didn't love it).

Friday, May 2, 2014

"The Magus" by John Fowles

This book was incredible (positive and negative connotations applying simultaneously). It's huge and long and, though I did spend over two weeks reading it, I was riveted. I don't remember exactly when it reached critical mass but it was very likely on page 63, with the words, "But then the mysteries began."

The Magus tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a cynical and directionless young Englishman who takes a teaching post at a boys' school on a Greek island. His surroundings, his job, his very life--all seems barren and dull, and Nicholas is utterly alone even when surrounded by others, until he meets the enigmatic Maurice Conchis.

His new acquaintance draws Urfe's curiosity immediately, but it seems no one question is answered without raising two more; then, more often than not, the new answers disprove the previous one. Intrigue is heaped upon intrigue with increasing intensity, and the reader is trained--along with Nicholas--to accept nothing at face value. The story is like a kaleidoscope: with each turn there is a dazzling display, but just as a recognizable pattern begins to emerge, everything shifts and nothing is as it was.

One might think there could only be two possible literary outcomes when such a tangled web is woven: either what once seemed mystical is revealed to be mundane, or the key to the mystery remains hidden in ambiguity. Fowles hits upon a third outcome: the source of the subterfuge is somewhat absurd.

But if the solution did not live up to the mysteries, neither was it a disappointment. The only part of this book that was disappointing to me was the unforgivable spoiler found on the back of my copy--something that would otherwise only have been made plain quite close to the end of the book--and I'm convinced I never would have guessed it without that blatant hint in the blurb.

Unfortunately I'm afraid whichever book I choose next will be disappointing in comparison, but I suppose they can't all be great.