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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Downtown Owl" by Chuck Klosterman

Downtown Owl was certainly a better place to be than wherever I was in my last book. I'm still struggling with ambivalence about the ending (I think it ought to have made me feel something; is it okay that it didn't? I'm not sure if that says something about me or about the book) but I enjoyed the meandering journey it took to get there.

Set in a small town in North Dakota, we know from the outset that the citizens of Owl have a "killer blizzard" in their future. But when we're taken back to the beginning of football season the previous August, we quickly forget what Owl doesn't know is coming. In this town where all 850 residents seem to know everything about each other, we become privy to many of their stories and some of their secrets.

Owl is full of intriguing people (would a random selection of Americans really be this interesting?), and Klosterman manages to avoid the trap of creating characters who are quirky merely for the sake of being quirky. Somehow everyone in Owl is believable and even somewhat normal, all without being boring.

Klosterman also seamlessly blends reality and fiction. Owl does not exist; the blizzard (which hit on February 4, 1984) really happened. The characters who narrate the story are made up; one who everyone in town seems to obsess over, but who we never meet, is an actual historical figure (Gordon Kahl).

Klosterman is 2.5 of 2.5 with me. Sam did a great job by choosing this book for my birthday!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin

Was I the only person in the world who didn't
know how this book ends? Just in case I wasn't, I won't give any spoilers, but... 'NOOOOOO!' I yelled, as I reached the bottom of the final page. I turned to Kathy: 'Did you know that she...?' 'Uh-huh,' she nodded cheerfully. 'It's about the only thing I remember from that book.'

I hope it won't be the only thing I remember from this book, because it was mostly wonderful. But what a terrible ending! Not terrible in a literary sense - I mean, it was beautifully written and had been nicely foreshadowed in the book's early pages and all that - but this was far more than just a literary experience for me. And hey, I'm not even a woman!

Yes, I know this is supposed to be one of those books - like Sylvia Plath's The Bell-Jar - that is immune to male opinion. In fact, its reputation as a feminist masterpiece almost put me off reading it (I was half-imagining some neo-hippie manifesto or how-to guide on yoga and masturbation), but I'm very glad it didn't.

Purely as a work of fiction, The Awakening is superb: the writing is amazingly vivid and sensual, the settings (Grand Isle and New Orleans) atmospheric, the characters all living, breathing creatures, and the story - after a gentle, uneventful first 50 pages - had me in its grip. As soon as Robert left for Mexico and Edna (if only Mrs Pontellier had been given a less old-ladyish first name!) realized what she felt for him, I was really, really unwilling to put this book down.

But it also felt very personal to me. Not because I saw myself in Edna, of course - I may do a lot of housework and know nothing about cars, but I'm not that in touch with my feminine side - but because I saw elements of Kathy, from when I first met her. There were certain passages that might almost have been about her, and the fact that this was written nearly 120 years ago didn't lessen its relevance: in terms of its moralizing views on men, women and marriage, early 21st century Texas is, scarily, not very different at all from late 19th century Louisiana.

So I loved it, but I wanted (and even expected - so blindly was I reading our story into it) a happy ending. What I got seemed unjustified, unnecessary, ludicrous, melodramatic, devastating... too much symbolism and poetry and not enough life. But maybe I'll come round to it in time. It was certainly memorable. Now I really want Kathy to read this novel again, because I think it will mean much more to her now than it did the last time she read it, in her previous life.

In the meantime, whatever mistakes I've made in life, I'm just really glad I never wrote anything as stupid as 'Good-by - because I love you'.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Blindness" by Jose Saramago

Get me out of here was all I could think through most of this book. The hopelessness, the degradation, the ubiquitous excrement, the cruelty--I didn't want any part of it, but the fastest way out of it was through it. Unfinished books haunt me, and I think this one would have been worse than most.

This is the story of an epidemic of white blindness. It begins with one man who is stopped at a traffic light and suddenly finds that he sees nothing but whiteness. The blindness quickly spreads to others. The government first hopes to contain it with a quarantine, but their plan fails and societal breakdown follows with relentless rapidity. We first see it on a small scale, from inside the abandoned mental institution where the blind are confined, but life as we know it is dissolving outside those walls, too.

I put this book on my TBR list in June of 2010 when I heard that Saramago had died. I didn't even know who he was until that day (and I should probably be embarrassed about that, considering the fact that he was a Nobel prizewinner and the back cover of my copy of Blindness shouts "THIS IS AN IMPORTANT BOOK,") and I don't regret reading this book (finally! you don't know how many times I've almost read it but have chosen something else instead), but I don't feel driven to add any of his other works to my TBR. I'm sure some of you reading this pity me because of this choice, but I'll survive.

The book wasn't boring, the writing wasn't bad (though the overuse of commas in place of full stops annoyed me a bit), and Saramago had some interesting things to say about morality and society and perspective, but I was (forgive me) blinded to these deeper meanings by my impatience to get to the end of the book. I don't even want to see the movie, which is highly unusual for me--I'm normally very eager to see movie adaptations of books I've read, to experience someone else's visualization--but not this time.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Climates" by André Maurois

I first heard of this 1928 French novel a month ago, when I was translating a book of short stories about adultery. Each story was prefaced with a quotation from a famous French author, but the epigraph for the book itself was from André Maurois's Climats, which was completely unknown to me. There was nothing special about the quotation - 'What are you complaining about? That your husband's unfaithful? But men are never faithful...' - but I was intrigued enough to look the book up, and interested enough by what I read about it to buy a copy.

I bought it in a recent translation by Adriana Hunter (who also translated Amélie Nothombe's Fear and Trembling, among many others) and read it in less than a week, which is unusual for me these days. It is 350 pages long, but does not feel it. The story is not especially compelling, but it is written (and translated) in such a fluid, breezy, conversational style that the pages just kept turning themselves.

It is a book about love and marriage, strongly based on the author's own life and experiences - though with several important differences, as Sarah Bakewell's excellent introduction makes clear. It consists of two 'letters', the first written by Philippe Marcenat to his friend and future second wife Isabelle de Cheverny, about the obsessive love he felt (even then) for his first wife, Odile Malet, and the second written by Isabelle de Cheverny to Philippe Marcenat (who had died three months earlier), about her love for him.

According to the introduction, Maurois summarized his book as:

Part 1. I love, and am not loved.
Part 2. I am loved, and do not love.

This is very neat, but not entirely true. A more accurate précis might be:

Part 1. I am in love with her, but she is not in love with me.
Part 2. She is in love with me, but I am not in love with her.

Really, it is a book about all those flawed romantic relationships (the majority, perhaps?) where there is no balance between the two lovers, where there is always one dominant partner and one meek follower. In many ways, the world of 1920s haute-bourgeois Paris is remote enough from our own (or from my own, at least - maybe you, dear reader, are independently wealthy and spend all your time at parties, discussing science and history and pursuing passionate and barely concealed love affairs with your friends' spouses - who can tell?) that it would seem to have no universality. In most respects, despite being 20th century, the world of Climates is closer to that of Dangerous Liaisons or Anna Karenina than any work of fiction from the past 70 years or so. And yet, love is love. So, while I couldn't honestly see myself, now, in any of those people or situations, there were still feelings and moments that I could recognize from past experience.

And, let's be honest: a happy, balanced, perfectly fulfilling romantic relationship does not make for a good story. I'm incredibly grateful that I've found one, but I wouldn't want to read - or write - about it.

So Philippe's deeply imperfect character - always in search of a 'queen' whom he worships and who tortures him into jealousy by being endlessly coquettish with other men - is kind of engrossing, even if it makes you want slap him around a bit. The book is a pleasure to read for two main reasons:

1. It is full of quotable little epigrams about love and marriage (the one quoted in the book of short stories was not one of the best). For example:

"Should we always hide what we feel in order to keep what we love? Do we have to be cunning, must we devise and disguise just when we want to let ourselves go?"


"We love people because they secrete a mysterious essence, the one missing from our own formula to make us a stable chemical compound."


"To her, he had all the prestige of those we do not know well, and, their charms not yet exhausted, they seem rich with previously unimagined possibilities."

2. There is a constant fascination in comparing this novel to the author's actual marriages, and in thinking about the fact that his second wife typed it up and helped him edit it. The lines between fiction and autobiography are pleasingly blurred here, stirring up a haze of ambiguity where facts are lost but deeper truths are glimpsed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Bookshop Book" Jen Campbell

This book is a love letter to bookshops all around the world. 
It's practically porn for those who not only love to read but also love to travel. I already had an unwritten list of bookstores I wanted to visit someday (which included Shakespeare & Co in Paris, which is Sam's favorite, and El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, which I'd seen photos of online). Now, I've just finished reading about SO MANY other amazing-sounding bookshops that I am overwhelmed. I can't add them ALL to my list, but I can't think of a single one that I would choose to leave off it. I don't feel like I can even give you the highlights of my select favorites, because they're all my favorites. I'd have to retype the entire book here, and I don't think Jen Campbell would appreciate that.

But I can tell you about one idea I really loved: Shaun Bythell's Random Book Club, "where customers anywhere in the world can pay an annual fee to have a random second-hand book delivered to their door every month." This sounded perfect to me until Sam pointed out it was quite possible that most of the books would suck. (Not in those exact words, but I must admit, there is that risk.) Not to mention the fact that I still own enough unread books that I might as well just make my own personal Random Book Club for myself.

And I can tell you about one story (of many) that I found interesting: the details behind the Keep Calm and Carry On signs. I'd already heard that this was a WWII relic, but what I didn't realize was that this propaganda poster had never actually been used during the war; instead, it had been "kept back, intended to be distributed if air raids further dampened people's spirits. In the end it was never sent out, and hardly anyone saw it," until it was unearthed by a couple of booksellers in Northumberland  in 2000.

I have a few of my own favorite bookstores that I can write about in my own little mini-edition of The Bookshop Book here:

  • I will always have a special place in my heart for my local Books-A-Million. It may be relatively soulless and sterile, but it's still fun to browse, and it's pretty much the only choice where I live (other than Amazon). More importantly, it led me to Sam. 
  • I loved The Book People in Austin, which felt so comfy and homey and provided hours of enjoyable wandering. It actually got a mention in Campbell's book, but the write-up didn't capture the feeling of the place for me, as it seemed to focus mainly on the store's charitable contributions to the world of reading. Admirable, of course, but that wasn't what I loved about my visit to the store. 
  • A new favorite: The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff (Dallas). It's situated in a rejuvenated old neighborhood with a bohemian feel--a nice, if small, area to explore on a sunny November afternoon. WD is really more of a coffee shop cum bar that sells books, and (very odd, for me) I didn't come across anything that I HAD to buy, but I enjoyed the lovely backyard seating area and the bookish conversation. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"hey, dummy" by Kin Platt

At the risk of dumbfounding Anonymous again, I've read another book that was Not Written For Adults. Just to be clear, I am fully aware that it was Not Written For Adults. And I am also clear that I am generally considered An Adult. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, may we begin?

I picked this book up (for free!) at the ever-remarkable Friends of the Library bookstore in Los Alamos. (I think that's one of my favorite places! Good thing I only visit once or twice a year--otherwise I might have to move out of my house, displaced by books.) Theoretically, I chose it for Bookworm Child (who did read it, months ago) but I hung onto it out of a curiosity which I satisfied in my spare time over the past two days.

I'd read other books by Kin Platt back when I was Not An Adult (I have fond memories of Chloris and the Weirdos) but this book was a bit more edgy. It's the story of a 12-year-old boy named Neil Comstock who (kind of, sort of) befriends a boy from his school who is mentally handicapped. It's a fast read, and more thought-provoking than I expected (not a bad thing), although some of those thoughts involved how unlikely Neil's angry, snarling parents seemed, and how the bipolarity of Neil's teacher didn't make that character seem well-rounded so much as it made him seem made up. (Yeah, I know he was made up, but I don't like seeing the seams in the story. Fool me effortlessly, please! I want to become a part of the books I read without having to force my way in. That's not too much to ask, even of a book Not Written For Adults.)

I'd given myself permission to not write about this book if I got to the end and found I had nothing to say, but when I actually reached the end of the book, the completist in me wouldn't let it go. (Plus, as you know, I did think of a few things to say). Anyway, I need the record so I can know if it's worth re-reading someday. The verdict: it's short enough that it wouldn't hurt to read it again, especially if I have someone with whom I can discuss it and pick it apart. But the weight of my TBR pile--and all of the superior books (For Adults!!) on it--prevent me from the certain knowledge that I will revisit it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

This book was nothing if not fanciful and entertaining. It's an urban fantasy set in London Below (found in the Underground tunnels and sewers beneath, you guessed it, London Above). Peopled by an eclectic and unique cast of characters, none of whom are remotely boring or mundane, the boring and mundane Richard Mayhew of London Above finds his eminently normal life turned inside out when he renders aid to an injured girl from Below. Richard loses everything he had in his dull, comfortable life Above, as if he never had it in the first place, and has nowhere to go but the less-than-comfortable dank darkness of London Below. Adventures, betrayals, courage, and deaths ensue.

I was surprised to learn that this book is a novelization of a 1996 TV miniseries. (This is not obvious, even in retrospect. It's very well-written, unlike the usual Cash In on the Hype novelizations.) It was also performed as a BBC radio drama starring Mr Tumnus and Sherlock (among others), which I think would be fun to listen to if I had 3 1/2 hours free. Maybe on my next road trip?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"The Quickening Maze" by Adam Foulds

I picked this book up because I liked the trees on the cover and the mysterious, poetic title. I knew nothing about Adam Foulds (other than the fact that The Quickening Maze was shortlisted for the Booker Prize) nor about John Clare (who is now considered one of England's greatest nature poets), and very little about Alfred Tennyson. So discovering that the story of this novel was based on those two poets' stay (Clare as a patient, Tennyson providing company to his mentally fragile brother Septimus) in a lunatic asylum in the 1830s did not increase my eagerness to read it. In fact, I toyed for an evening with reading a biography of Mick Jagger instead.

But, odd as it may seem, this story very soon proved the more compelling of the two. Partly that is down to the prose. Adam Foulds writes as beautifully and truly as any contemporary novelist I can think of. He is a poet, too, which explains the perfectly weighted rhythms and the carefully selected (and often nicely surprising) diction, but unlike some poets' prose, his is not so showily centred on its own eloquence and lyricism that it loses sight of its purpose: to tell a story.

And there is a story here, even if it is not a tightly plotted or obviously appealing one. At times it is grim, at times funny, at times moving. I wished there were more to it, but the narrative is never less than taut and strangely suspenseful. The characters all feel like real people (and not merely because they are based on 'actual persons'), and the events and dialogue ring true. But Foulds' most notable achievement, for me, is the way he gets into his characters' heads. The internal monologues are things of wonder.

Ultimately, I can't think of a better way to convey this novel's near-perfection than by quoting a few lines from it, and hoping that the lack of context doesn't leave it flopping, suffocated, like a fish out of water. This is a short scene in which the first glimmers of the poem 'The Passing of Arthur' (about King Arthur) come to Tennyson from amid the clouds of his grief over his friend Arthur Hallam:

'He had not lit the lamps and in the gloom of the early winter evening his long fingernails shone with the fire's red, a warmer red than the sunset's crimson, which, if he turned, he could see broken by tree shapes, blotting the surface of the frozen pond. Gules, he thought, all gules. That heraldic blood-red. That was something. His mind moved towards it. On the forest floor the shattered lances. The shattered lances lay on the hoof-churned mud. An ancient English wood where knights had ridden, where Queen Elizabeth hunted, where Shakespeare rode, according to the doctor's daughter, to play out his Dream in an aristocrat's hall. Twilight in that place, soft decay, the soft sun finding some scattered remains. There was something there: an English epic, a return of Arthur. An English Homer. Blood and battle and manliness and the machine of fate. He could hear its music, ringing, metallic and deep with inward echoings. His mind approached it, felt along the flank of this thing. It would be worth the attempt, if he ever had the strength. The logs hissed and smoked. The forest outside was again dreary, darkening, factual. There was nobody there.'

Anyone who's ever written a novel, or a poem, or a song, or created any kind of art, will probably know how that feels: the inward flight, the distant shining vision, then the return to the present, to ordinary reality. I've never read a better conjuring of it than this.

All in all, I would say this is a very good novel by a potentially great writer. If he can find a bigger - or less obscure - story to tell, and tell it with the same sort of intensity and truthfulness, Adam Foulds could create something magnificent.