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

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"84, Charing Cross Road" by Helene Hanff

This is the charming (and true!) account of the correspondence between an American woman and the staff of a British bookshop, which I heard about here. First published in 1970, it is an epistolary novel that begins in 1949 and spans twenty years.

The majority of the letters focus on the titles of books Helene Hanff (the American) hopes to buy--quite an eclectic selection!--though everything from baseball to royalty is worked in along the way. It may not be the most eventful book I've ever read, but somehow it's still engaging all the way through, managing to draw the reader in easily. And it's really short, so it just flies by.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the difference between the American and the British voice. From the very beginning, Helene writes to Marks & Co with a bold familiarity couched in humor and mild, good-natured castigation, whereas the British writers (most often represented by Frank Doel) are very business-like and proper at the beginning, slowly warming up to Miss Hanff as the book goes on.

In 1973 Hanff published a follow-up memoir entitled The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Have you read it?

Monday, April 18, 2011

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

I read Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, in February 2005. (Pretty sharp memory for a literary amnesiac, eh? Well, it helps when I have something to tie it to, like my friend CR . . . have I really not seen her for more than six years??)

For me, The Kite Runner was a lot like the movie Saving Private Ryan: very well done, but I never want to see it again. (I really didn't even want to see it the first time but I was forced to.) Too much horribleness for me. So when I heard about A Thousand Splendid Suns, I wasn't especially interested in reading it. I'd had enough of Hosseini's Afghanistan, no matter how good I heard the book was.

Then it was chosen for book club. Oh joy. (It wasn't my month to pick the book, can you tell?)

As it turns out, though, I'm glad to have read Suns. It wasn't as unpleasant as I'd been expecting. It's the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, and the ties between them. Conflict in their personal lives is set against the backdrop of the constant turmoil in their country.

Sure, the story has its share of nastiness and brutality, but you know what the difference was between this book and Hosseini's first one? In The Kite Runner (as with Saving Private Ryan) so much of the cruelty--during the parts that stand out in my memory, anyway--was intentional. People did awful things to other people, and they did those things on purpose.

But in Suns the majority of the awfulness was just part of the situation in Afghanistan.  It was cloaked, in a way, by the anonymity of modern war. That's not to say there was no personally-directed viciousness, because there's quite a lot of horrifying Taliban-sanctioned oppression and abuse of women. But there was more of a sense of hope, and of the strength that helped these people through terrible situations. At the core of the book is this truth: "Every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet people find a way to survive, to go on."

I can't help but wonder what the Taliban have against parakeets.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel García Márquez

Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.

That quote could apply quite well to Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza, which he keeps alive through constant rebirth for over half a century. Too bad I didn't like Fermina, and I sure didn't care for Florentino. I didn't even enjoy their love story after its first few years. I ended up rather unimpressed by Florentino's persistence and pseudo-fidelity. But there must be some sort of synergy at work, because it's still a really good book.

One major advantage the book has is its writing, which is absolutely beautiful (and I must give kudos to translator Edith Grossman, who did a brilliant job). García Márquez's lush descriptions are incredibly vivid and expressive, and his characters--though often possessing an almost Dickensian grotesqueness--are somehow also intensely lifelike. This book is meant to be savored, based on the writing alone.

Judging by the book's title, I was sure both love and cholera would play a big role in the story, but cholera is only mentioned around the periphery. It's really all about love. It could have been called Love is a Disease like Cholera, though. García Márquez examines a remarkable array of love relationships with an odd sort of realism and honesty, never idealizing any romance for very long.

The story was not quite what I expected (as I expected the chronicle of a heroic and tragic love story that spans decades . . . well, I got the "spans decades" part right, anyway) but what I discovered instead is  well able to stand on its own merit.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"The New York Trilogy" by Paul Auster

Between the siren song of my garden during this beautiful spring weather, and unexpectedly finding the wind knocked out of me more than once during the time I was reading it, I fear I've made the mistake of waiting too long to post about Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. If my thoughts were chaotic and disorganized upon completing the book, my literary amnesia has done nothing towards unifying them in the space of a week. It doesn't help that the stories have already begun to fade from my memory.

While my procrastination might be unfortunate in any case, it's quite a shame with this specific book, because it was AMAZING. I do remember that much.

This trilogy contains three novellas, each set in New York City. (Would you ever have guessed?) The stories are not obviously related in the sense of belonging together as a series, but there are tenuous links between the characters from one story to the next, and the similarities in themes are conspicuous.

In each story Auster gives us a sense of a writer who is isolated from those surrounding him, living as a quiet spectator rather than a participant. All three novellas are mysterious, but they can't be considered mysteries in the traditional sense. As Auster himself puts it, “Mystery novels give answers; my work is about asking questions.” Though each of the three stories could stand alone, they are well-matched in theme with a main character in the midst of an investigation, writing down all of his observations as his obsession with his subject grows. Auster examines solitude and the introspection it invites, dissolution of identity, and descent into madness.

This book is definitely a keeper. I certainly will want to re-read it some day. You'll find it lacking if you're a reader who needs all the answers, but for me it was an entirely satisfying read. And if you've read and loved this trilogy, you should really read The Amnesiac. It's a similarly mysterious story with more questions than answers, but it's also more fully developed than these three novellas of Auster's, and its comparably ambiguous ending is carried off more effectively.