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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"The Turnip Princess" by Franz Xaver von Schoenwerth

I was excited when I came across this book of all-new-to-me fairy tales (despite the not-quite-appealing artwork). I was slightly less excited after reading the first story, and I put the book down and read several others before picking this one up again.

My initial assessment held throughout the book. I found most of these stories to lack the familiar rhythm of traditional fairy tales. The plots seemed disjointed, often without logical progression. Many were distracting hodgepodges of elements from well-known tales. One story alone might include bits from Snow White, Cinderella, and The Six Swans.

I was left with the feeling that so much more could have been made of this collection of stories--they could have been so much more involved and charming if they were written with more detail and elaboration, and an eye for avoiding irrational leaps. I do understand that the translator's aim was to make the stories available in English in a form as close to the original as possible, so the failure is not with the translation but with the original stories. I am actually semi-inspired to rewrite a selection of these stories (though, truth be told, that will probably never happen) to make them more appealing.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading this book. I even had a favorite: "The Scorned Princess," which had more logical progression, more details, and an ending that took me by surprise. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"The Swedish Cavalier" by Leo Perutz

This book was such an enjoyable relief after so many weeks spent reading (or avoiding) Tinkers. Yes, I really do love to read! And the confirmation of this fact was sweet.

Now that I'm finished reading, though, I don't find myself especially interested in pontificating about the book. So apparently this is going to be a really brief post. One-sentence plot description: A thief steals the identity of a whiny young nobleman and becomes the Swedish Cavalier. The style is part adventure, part fairy tale; the plot is a little bit Mr Ripley (though with a less psychopathic main character). I would read it again--not so much because I think it has further depths I've left unplumbed, but because it was such a pleasurable reading experience.

I think this would make a great movie. From what I can find online, it was supposedly slated for filming less than 10 years ago, but I haven't had any luck discovering whether it was actually made.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Amazing and The Disappointing

Though by far my favorite genre is fiction, I occasionally enjoy dabbling in what I will call Home Books even though I know there is probably a more accurate and widely-recognized name for the category but I am both too lazy and too post-Saturday-afternoon-nap-brain-foggy to either look it up or to try to recall it under my own power. And obviously the same state is preventing me from avoiding babble and run-on sentences. Anyway, in case you don't know what I mean by Home Books, I mean the sort that gives decor advice, and maybe a little about cleaning and organizing too, with lots of pretty pictures of what my house will never look like.

Last year for Christmas my wonderful husband gave me this wonderful book: The Inspired Room by Melissa Michaels. I have literally read it through twice since then (and, the second time around, I was kind of amazed at the number of her suggestions I'd implemented in our house, either without quite realizing or without quite remembering the book was the source of the ideas). 

So when I came across Good Housekeeping's Simple Household Wisdom book while Christmas shopping this year, I felt sure it might be the new Inspired Room

I was wrong. 

Why, oh why didn't I listen to these Amazon reviewers? They're spot on. I did not come away from this book with a single idea of what I'd like to do in my house (unless you count getting an emergency generator so that next time our power goes out we still have water . . . not that that's either pretty or affordable). I didn't even really like most of the pictures.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Tinkers" by Paul Harding

I. Am. So. Glad. This. Book. Is. Over.

Did I actually choose this book myself? I remember it's one we got after browsing in Emerald Isle Books & Toys this summer, and if I had to guess I'd say I first picked it up because the cover reminded me a little bit of both A Meal in Winter and Three Weeks. Of course the Pulitzer prize didn't hurt. And I would have to also lay some blame on Marilyn Robinson for calling it "truly remarkable." But after reading it (as well as while reading, for what felt like an eternity) I couldn't figure out what in the world attracted me to it.

Tinkers was like my own personal dementor, only instead of sucking out my soul, it sucked out my will to read. It's a tiny book--only 191 pages--and it literally took me 8 weeks to read. That's less than 24 pages a week . . . less than 4 pages a day . . . for a book that I could have sucked down in one afternoon, if I had felt compelled.

I'm sure Tinkers is a very good and beautiful and worthy book, but I don't even want to talk about it. I just want to pick up something that reminds me why I love to read instead of making me think I hate it. But I have to at least jot down a few memories so I'm never tempted to pick it up and read it again "just in case" (maybe I missed something . . . maybe I would enjoy it more during another season of my life . . . maybe if I *did* read it all in one sitting it would be great). Because I must admit that early on my reading was so fragmented that I forgot there were two main characters (Howard the epileptic tinker/salesman who abandoned his family, and his son George the clocksmith, who is old and dying) and I temporarily conflated the two and confused myself. There, that ought to be enough.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Summer House with Swimming Pool" by Herman Koch

What would you do to protect your family? Koch explored the same theme in his book The Dinner.

SHWSP is a story about Marc Schlosser, Dutch doctor to the stars. He has built a general practice on the notion that patients want to be listened to, so rather than scheduling as many patients as possible every day, he sees a limited number and allows them each a full 20 minutes of his time. He gives them exactly what they want: a listening ear and a prescription. (And sometimes a rectal exam, which he is loath to do, but the patients seem to expect it.)

With this method and word of mouth he has accumulated a loyal following of well-to-do creative types: actors, authors, artists. As a result he is often invited to art shows and opening nights of plays (all of which he also finds loathsome, but he goes anyway). Slightly less ordinary is the invitation he receives to join famed actor Ralph Meier and his family at their rented summer home. Despite Ralph's blatant leering at Marc's wife Caroline (as well as any other woman who crosses his path), the Schlossers end up visiting the summer home, where Marc privately loathes Ralph and hits on his wife Judith.

But the story hasn't even begun by this point. The real issue is the harm that comes to the doctor's family, and what he does about it. Who is at fault? And what sort of revenge is deserved? As blanks are filled in (or not) and secrets are revealed (or kept secret), Koch develops a strong cast of complex characters the reader can never fully denounce, even in the face of some rather questionable decisions.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This book first caught my eye at Books-A-Million because, well, why wouldn't it? It's called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. How can you not need to know the end of that story? So I did the dip test (opened the book to a random page and sampled the writing quality), which it passed. And then I did what any other bibliophilic cheapskate of the 21st century would do: whipped out my phone--right there in the store--and ordered a used copy from Amazon. This made me feel slightly guilty (especially after my husband said it was almost like shoplifting--which it WASN'T!!) but I figured instant gratification is the reward for paying full price, and I was willing to delay my pleasure.

This collection outwardly reminded me of Palahniuk's Haunted (in that both books contain disturbing short stories), but whereas I believe the stories in Haunted had one superficial purpose (to disturb), these scary fairy tales (which might more accurately be called folk tales, as I don't recall a single fairy in these stories, but somehow just calling them fairy tales makes them more appealing to me, so I'll stop complaining) had deeper meaning. Though, to be honest, I'm not absolutely certain I always grasped the significance on every level. Sometimes it's easy to be carried along by the story and forget that there are depths to plumb.

In my experience with short story collections, the stories are usually mostly good, with a few clunkers, and a small handful that stand out and stick in my memory. That's not really the case here. Even though I just finished this book, like, thirty seconds ago, I can't say there's one story that rises above the rest. This book is more like a strand of matched pearls than a necklace with one dazzlingly jeweled pendant. But I feel like I can't end this post without giving a synopsis of at least one of the stories (all of which I would describe as odd, desperate, somewhat nightmarish, and not very ethereal or magical). SO I have randomly chosen "Two Kingdoms," where a woman named Lina takes a long flight with her new husband Vasya to a magnificent city for post-operative treatment and healing. (When I put it that way, it's not hard to see what the title of the story refers to, but--surely this wasn't just my stupidity?--it wasn't so obvious while I was reading it.)

Monday, September 5, 2016

"The Interpretation of Dreams" by Sigmund Freud

I've always found dreams fascinating. Their strangeness, their mystery, their odd combination of the bizarre and the mundane; and how quickly they can slip through the fingers of your consciousness and disappear forever if you're not quick to grasp them after waking (and sometimes even then). So it's not surprising that a book about dream interpretation would interest me.

However, I think I picked the wrong book. What I really wanted was a kitsch, pop-culture dream dictionary--yeah, the kind Freud would despise. You know, something with alphabetized entries like "Cat, ill: dreaming about a sick cat means you need to listen to your intuition more," spoon-feeding interpretations to the reader. This book was certainly not that. Instead, Freud gives the skeletal framework for a method of finding meaning in dreams, but leaves it up to the interpreter to fill in the blanks.

Freud wrote a lot about the dream as wish fulfilment, a way for the unconscious to deal with repressed desires. Often dreams include influences from the prior day, but these obvious influences are symbolic of the more deep-seated, latent psychological issues that they disguise. An interesting concept is that if two people or objects with an insignificant link appear together in a dream, look for a hidden, more important link between the two. (OR . . . you may just wish there were another link between the two.)

I couldn't help but laugh when Freud gave examples of dreams that could in no way be attributed to wish fulfilment. He explained them away with the claim that the wish his patients' dreams purported to fulfil was the wish to prove his theory wrong! But surely there are people whose dreams fulfil no wishes and who have no interpreter to prove wrong. What then? It seemed to me that Freud stretched dreams to fit his theories. In short, dreams meant whatever the heck Freud said they meant.

I also found it funny that Freud wrote, "It may be said that there is no class of ideas which cannot be enlisted in the representation of sexual facts and wishes." In other words, everything symbolizes sex. I'd always thought maybe Freud's body of work had been over-simplified for greater ease of use as a punchline, and--well, it probably has, but it wasn't without his help.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Collected Works of Dr Kevin Leman

Ok, so I didn't read all of Dr Leman's books. But I think three is as far as I will go.

I started with Living in a Stepfamily Without Getting Stepped On. My mom gave this book to me five years ago (when I was first forming a stepfamily of my own), but I never saw fit to pick it up until recently. I'm not even sure why I chose to read it now--I think it was out of a sense of duty, and/or trying to rid my shelves of some of the non-fiction my mom has plied me with over the years.

Upon reading it, I found it doesn't really apply to my family; it's mainly for Brady-Bunch-style families where both parents bring their own kids into the mix. It focuses on birth order (firstborns are responsible Type A kids, middle children are easy-going mediators, last-borns are flaky entertainers, and only children are uber-firstborns) and what happens when birth orders from two families are combined. (In a nutshell, kids under the age of 7 end up taking on their new birth order; older kids retain the birth order that was set before their parents remarried, which can cause conflict--for instance, when two firstborns butt heads, or when two babies-of-the-family vie for the limelight).

I was both fascinated and repelled by the way Leman pigeon-holes people with one-sentence descriptions. I'm kind of torn between wishing I was an astute enough observer to have the ability to label people that way, and thinking surely no one can be boiled down to one sentence. (And, just as surely, no one wants to be!)

Next up: Have a New Kid by Friday. Another gift from my mother, which she coincidentally sent me (along with the third book in this post) while I was reading the stepfamily book (even though she didn't know I was reading it). I figured I might as well be on a Leman roll and get these all knocked out ASAP so I could move onto something more interesting.

This book is for parents whose kids are mouthy and disobedient or sullen and disrespectful (read: me). Its major concept: If you expect your kids to do something, say it once, then turn your back and walk away. If the something doesn't get done, either deduct from their allowance, or refuse to give them the next thing they ask for (or maybe both).

I can get on board with a lot of Leman's common-sense suggestions (use consistent action, not words: no harassing, threatening, warning, reminding, or coaxing; encourage rather than praising; use "tell me more about that" to buy time to formulate a response instead of a reaction) but as for the refuse-the-next-thing-they-ask idea, I can't help but see that as a passive-aggressive, sneakily vengeful way of lying in wait for a time when you can pounce on your kids and say GOTCHA! You can't have this because you were bad three days ago! Anyway, this book makes a certain phrase come to mind: If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. The title of this book is obviously meant to sell copies, not something that is literally possible. Raising a child takes a bit more than a week.

Last (and least), Have a New Teenager by Friday: a rehashing of New Kid with a couple of updates. It covers a few issues that the kid book doesn't cover, but otherwise relates the exact same concepts.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"The Danish Girl" by David Ebershoff

The Danish Girl, though very fictionalized, is actually based on the true story of early-twentieth-century painter Einar Wegener and his marriage to fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb (who, in the book, is an American named Greta Waud). After a number of years together, Greta asks Einar to stand in as a model for the portrait she is painting of a female opera singer. This single occasion opens Einar's eyes to his deepest desires, and he becomes an occasional transvestite, ultimately undergoing a series of sexual reassignment surgeries to become Lili Elbe (or, in real life, Lili Ilse Elvenes).

The book is very well-written and interesting, covering territory that is unfamiliar to me, but I found the strange hybrid of biography and fiction a bit frustrating. I've bemoaned the same thing before with historical fiction (while simultaneously eating it up eagerly), though I can imagine there would be many blanks to fill in, and I have seen before how pure biography can be unfortunately dry and dull. And the author did well with his goal of  "convey[ing] the emotional truth of the story while straying from some of the facts."

I found it sad that Lili never painted. Einar was a somewhat successful painter, but Lili left painting behind, as she felt it was part of Einar's life, not hers. (If that wasn't one of the true parts of the story, I'm not sure I would have believed it; I would think a true artist would always be driven to paint.) And it was interesting that Greta's success relied upon Lili's emergence. She did not sell (or even show) many paintings until Lili became her frequent model and muse.

Surprisingly, I'm not all that bothered about watching the movie. It's not that I absolutely don't want to see it, but I can live without it, which is unusual for me. I generally love to see what someone else's vision of a book looks like. I think the difference with this one is that the story is less visual, less plot-driven; the book has told me everything I need to know about the story, and I don't see what the movie has to add.

Monday, August 8, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne

Everyone who ever reads anything, ever, probably already knows this: a new Harry Potter play has debuted, and its script has been published in book form. And anyone who knows me will probably not be surprised to hear that I have bought the book, and I have read it.

"So, what did you think?" It's like an outline of a really, really good story, and kind of a nostalgia-fest: bringing up old familiar characters and situations in a new and exciting way, mixed in with a few fresh faces.

"You didn't find it off-putting, reading it in play form?" Not at all, though it went by all too quickly, and I did (occasionally and briefly) wish for more depth. Most of the time, however, I was too swept up in the story to mind. And at other times (probably mostly when reading stage directions) it actually enhanced my experience as I imagined what it might be like to see the play performed. In fact, I hope someday I have the opportunity to see it on stage, because I can imagine the play is really exciting and engaging. But as a book, it could have been more fleshed out, like the original 7 books were. There's obviously enough material there.  

"What was your overall impression?" I loved it. I wish the story would continue. And the hope has been kindled within me that perhaps someday it will.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

"A Pleasure and a Calling" by Phil Hogan

Mr Heming owns a realty company. Everyone has seen his signs in town, even if most people don't know him well. But there is one thing no one knows about Mr Heming: he has made and kept a copy of the key for every house he has sold. He often pays "visits" using those keys--uninvited and unobserved--and takes the opportunity to gather interesting information and to right wrongs. This might sound somewhat harmless, if very odd, but Mr Heming is not entirely benign. He is gradually revealed to be more and more creepy, not least due to various questionable situations from his past that float slowly to the surface. His creepy habits are not new.

I enjoyed reading this well-written and suspenseful literary thriller. If I had one complaint about the book, it would be the fact that Mr Heming's success with women defied belief. I'm pretty sure Hogan was aware of this, because just exactly when I got to the point where I was about to roll my eyes and say, Oh, come on, he threw in an explanatory paragraph. It wasn't 100% believable (I can accept that a devious creeper could come across as harmless; I'm not so sure he could be found attractive by many, if any, women), but it was adequate.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"A Pale View of Hills" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a stellar writer and storyteller. I don't think I've ever found cause to complain about the style or quality of his writing. This book was no exception, and I really enjoyed reading it, but... I may have to reread it to fully understand it. And even if I do reread it, I'm not convinced I'd figure everything out. It's a Choose Your Own Interpretation book. This isn't the first book I've compared to a puzzle, but I think this one was actually more like a box containing jigsaw pieces from half a dozen different puzzles, none of them complete. 

This is a dual-timeline story, narrated by Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in England around the time the book was written (1982). Some of the (more minor) action is in the present, consisting mostly of Etsuko's conversations with her younger daughter who lives with her friends in London, but the emphasis is on the other timeline: one hot summer in Nagasaki, not too long after its destruction in the bombing. The focus of that summer was Sachiko, single mother to ten-year-old Mariko, and the time Etsuko spent with them. There are plot elements hinted at but never clearly explained (who was Mariko's father, and what happened to him? How did Etsuko's marriage to Jiro end?) but those questions pale in comparison to those raised in the last few pages: Just what is the meaning of the parallels between Etsuko and Sachiko, and those between Mariko and Etsuko's older daughter, Keiko? And, perhaps less pressing but still unanswered, what was the story behind the brief spate of child killings?

It's not surprising (considering the author) that the plot holes were intentional. (I don't say this because Ishiguro is known for plot holes, by any means; rather, I'm suggesting that he's much too careful a writer to end up with unintentional results.) As evidence, here's an excerpt from an interview:

"In A Pale View of Hills, I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It's about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there's a certain area of her life that's very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection."

You can find a really great discussion of varying interpretations of this book here. Obviously you don't want to follow that link if you don't want spoilers. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Time's Arrow" by Martin Amis

This was a short, fast read based on a clever idea . . . which I hesitate to make clear to you, because I wish I could have read the book with no prior knowledge of the central conceit, or of the main character's background. However, as the first sentence of the blurb on the back of the book gave away both things, I feel OK spilling the beans to you. It's not like I'd be spoiling anything that wouldn't be spoiled for you anywhere else. 

So, big thing #1: the story is written backwards. It starts with the main character's death and works its way back to his birth. But not like in Memento, where each scene runs normally though the movie starts with one of the last scenes and works its way back in time. In Time's Arrow, everything actually goes backwards. Everyone walks backwards, gets younger, extracts shampoo from their hair and then sells it to the store, vomits up plates of food at every meal. If I hadn't already known, I wonder how long it would have taken me to figure out what was going on? I think it would have been really fun to piece it together on my own. Oh well...

Big thing #2: the main character was a Nazi war criminal. This was hinted at throughout the later parts of the main character's life (i.e. in the first half of the book) but I feel like the dawning horror would have been much more effective if I hadn't had this information before I even started to read. I know it would have taken me much longer to figure out the awful source of the gold he was "buying." 

As disappointing as it was to have too much knowledge before reading, let's be realistic: what could possibly be said about this book without mentioning the Two Big Things? I would find it impossible to write a blurb that didn't give either away. 

My brief review: good writing, though the backwards-plot idea really seemed a gimmick more suited to a short story. I found it a pretty unique concept, though the afterword mentions the germ was a paragraph in Slaughterhouse Five (when Billy Pilgrim watched a backwards-run film of planes bombing Dresden), as well as a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (which I haven't been able to find any information about, so if you know it, please tell me!) I would certainly say Time's Arrow is one of a kind, and likely to remain that way; a similar novel can't be written without inviting accusations of stealing the idea from Amis. 

I think I am neither drawn to nor repulsed by Amis. I mean, with some authors I know for sure whether I want to read more of their work after reading one of their books. With this one, I guess I'm not opposed to more, but I won't rabidly seek it out. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

"A Sport and a Pastime" by James Salter

This is the first book I've read by James Salter, and I hope it's not my last. Salter's prose is very evocative--uniquely descriptive without being kitschy or tricksy, and able to bring a setting to life without allowing the story to get lost in the details.

The narrator, a solitary unnamed American temporarily living in a borrowed house in a small French town, tells the story of a season in the life of Philip Dean: a young, good-looking Yale dropout who briefly meets him through mutual acquaintances at a party. Not long afterwards, Dean shows up on his doorstep for a visit, and somehow ends up staying for months, falling in love with a French girl along the way. Lots of the book tells about the meals and window-shopping the narrator imagines that Dean and Anne-Marie enjoy together. Even more of the book tells about the sexual encounters the narrator imagines between the two young lovers (in scenes that are neither pathetically poetic nor embarrassingly explicit). SO this is basically a made-up story about a made-up story about young love and lust. And while I wouldn't want to, say, read this book aloud to my mother, I did enjoy reading it to myself.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"The Coma" by Alex Garland

This was a very short, super-fast read. It's a dream-like string of 42 very brief "chapters," interspersed with atmospheric black and white woodcut illustrations--nothing like the cover, in case you were wondering--by the author's father, and divided into 3 parts. It tells the story of a man who was badly beaten and slipped into a coma as a result. The majority of the text describes his experience during his almost sleep-like state. 

I couldn't help but wonder if being in a coma is actually anything like the way it's portrayed in this book. I guess I've never heard or read an account from anyone who has woken from a coma. (And obvs it goes without saying that I hope I can never answer that question personally, whether from my own account or that of anyone I know.) I would be surprised, though, if anyone waking from a coma could actually remember what it was like. It's rare enough that I remember my dreams after a normal night of sleep.

Anyway, back to the book . . . I have a confession to make. I didn't understand the ending. I was left feeling like everything was ambiguous. So I cheated, and asked Sam what it meant, and he showed me that there was a trick that explained everything. (Too bad the explanation was kind of a grade-school cop out.) And then I was able to go back to the two other tricksy parts of the book and crack the codes (whereas before this I hadn't even realized there was a code). Kind of wish I'd figured it out myself! But simultaneously glad I'm not still ignorant of the solution.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell

I really loved this book. From the very first page, right up until page 402. But . . . it's 624 pages long . . .

David Mitchell's style of writing is flawless. And the characters in the first four sections were really engaging. As the second section started and an entirely new cast of characters was introduced I feared that the links between sections would be too tenuous and enigmatic, as with Cloud Atlas, and that thought bothered me--not because I couldn't appreciate that kind of plot (I did, in Cloud Atlas!) but because I wanted to hear more about Holly Sykes from the first section. (And also a little bit because a repetition of such a device might make Mitchell seem like a bit of a one-trick pony, which surely he's not.) So it was gratifying to see how Holly's story was later woven into the second section, just as in the two following sections.

Each of the first four sections portrays a very human, very flawed character (and when I describe them this way, what I mean is that they were brilliantly realistic, not that they were not well-written) whose stories fascinated me. There's a paranormal element running through each story, but not in such a way that I couldn't swallow it. Instead, I welcomed the bit of mystery it added. We start with the aforementioned Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old English girl running away from home. Next we move on to the despicably-scheming-but-somehow-still-almost-likeable Hugo Lamb, then war reporter Ed Brubeck who is torn between his home life and the adrenaline rush of his job, and finally Crispin Hershey, former bad-boy author extraordinaire who has mostly just become a loser in recent years.

But then . . .
THIS happened.
The fifth section was NOT from the perspective of a "bone clock", and I think this is where the book began to go wrong. It was too "out there" compared to the rest of the book, it showed a little too much of the man behind of the curtain, and it actually seemed like a bit of an info dump at times. AND THEN there was the sixth section, where we get back to Holly Sykes, but she doesn't even really seem like Holly Sykes anymore, and more characters are introduced who I'm pretty sure I was supposed to care about very, very much but I just didn't, and then the last twelve pages happened. Mitchell may as well have had Holly saying she was going to get on this spaceship and go to Blargon 7 in search of alternative fuels--it might have worked better for me.

Kinda nifty, though, that this book was a tangentially-related prequel to Slade House (which I really, really enjoyed and didn't have any complaints about).

Monday, June 6, 2016

"Strangers" by Taichi Yamada

An odd little book. It was clear from the beginning (actually from before the beginning, as it was mentioned on both the front and back covers) that this was a ghost story, and I think I might have appreciated it more if I'd come to that realization myself as I read. Despite praise by David Mitchell and Bret Easton Ellis, the writing did not blow me away; however, the story was compelling enough to be enjoyable.

Narrated by Hideo Harada, a middle-aged, recently divorced screenwriter in Tokyo, the story begins by underlining his isolation. He lives in an apartment building that is mainly rented out as office space, so the majority of it is uninhabited at night. He meets one of the only other twenty-four hour residents, a woman named Kai, and begins to build a relationship with her, but one day he is drawn back to the place of his childhood, Asakusa. And there he sees his mother and father, which would be lovely, except for the fact that they died when he was twelve years old . . .

Friday, June 3, 2016

"The Last Time They Met" by Anita Shreve

This was a re-read from my First Saturday Book Club years (which, if I had to guess, were 2001 through 2006, but I could be off a bit). I picked it up again recently because I hoped to flip through it and find a specific passage that I remembered, but I could NOT find it, no matter how much flipping I did. Which led me to contemplate my memory (or lack thereof), and to reminisce about other times my memory of literature failed me (I was sure Sylvia Plath wrote a poem that contained the phrase "tiny starfish hands"; apparently not. I just KNEW Elie Wiesel wrote a scene with the repeated phrase "it was not a bird" in Night, but I've never been able to find it again).

I did not re-shelve Shreve's book, and after a few days of allowing it to silently mock me and my miserable memory, I realized what I really wanted to do was to read the entire thing again, so that is what I did. 

And I enjoyed it very much. The quality of writing surprised me--not that it was bad in my memory, but I didn't remember that it was actually quite good. The story works its way backwards through the relationship between Thomas Janes and Linda Fallon, whose lives intersected when they were 52, 26 and 17. That's a really vague synopsis, I know, but I don't want to give anything away.

So after I finished this book today, I decided to read my old blog post about it... only to discover there wasn't one. So of course I am compelled to make one. Though I neither have the desire nor the energy to make it very detailed or interesting. 

Oh, and by the way--that passage I'd tried to find (but failed)? I happily succeeded in finding it during my re-read:

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

I feel really behind the times, only just now reading this book. It's not like one of those hundred-year-old classics where any time in your life is acceptable for reading it (as long as you finally do); this is a classic of my own lifetime. Why didn't I read it sooner?

Once again I was amazed--though by this time I'm no longer surprised--by the exquisite precision of Ishiguro's writing. Not a word out of place, every phrase turned perfectly. Well, hang on, that's not entirely true. I did see two or three things (which I didn't note down, so of course I've forgotten the specifics by now) that I would have considered minor grammatical errors, but I was able to forgive them with the thoughts that 1) maybe a relatively uneducated butler, despite his pride in speech and usage, was making an honest mistake, or 2) maybe it's correct in English, just not in American. But my overall opinion still stands--Kazuo Ishiguro writes with excellence.

One of the many impressive things about this book: How is Ishiguro able to completely inhabit the mind of an English butler of the mid-20th century? Mr Stevens seems the epitome and embodiment of his kind. He thinks in a way that most people don't. Of course my next thought is to realize it's entirely possible that no butler was ever like this, with the stiffest-of-all-stiff-upper-lips--after all, this is a fictional character, and Ishiguro could have been using great exaggeration. But if so, it's only a further testament to his skill that he could do this and make it so believable.

Now I really want to see the movie. (Because, in keeping with my aforementioned behind-the-timesness, I haven't done that before, either.)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"The House on the Strand" by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier writes books I can get lost in. I mean that in an entirely good way, of course, unlike with some books. (Ahem, Ulysses? I still haven't fought my way out of that one. But I still earnestly intend to do so. Someday.)

The House on the Strand is kind of a sinister time-traveling mystery. That ought to be enough to grab you right there, but I'll give you a little bit more: Englishman Richard Young allows his lifelong friend Magnus Lane to use him as a guinea pig. Professor Lane has been concocting a drug that allows the user to temporarily experience life as it was hundreds of years ago. Young takes several trips to Cornwall of the fourteenth century, where he is able to observe (though not interact with) the lives of a handful of the county's former residents. With each visit he becomes further invested. But surely such an amazing drug can't be without side effects . . .

It's funny that I previously mentioned my lack of faith in DdM's ability to pull off a convincing ending. This book grabbed me until its very last, perfect sentence.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

"Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape" by Jenna Miscavige Hill

This is SO not the sort of book I usually choose to read (non-fiction, co-written) but the weirdness of Scientology is something I've always been curious about, like Nostradamus or the Bermuda Triangle or roadkill. While I probably would not have intentionally or directly sought out such a book, it was lying around in close proximity over the past few weeks and I just couldn't help but wonder what it said. So I found out.

This is the story of a girl who grew up in Scientology because her parents were members of the Sea Org (which, as the book's glossary explains, is "the inner core of the Scientology parish"). She spent most of her childhood separated from her parents, and her experience with the "church" was one of control freaks restricting her at every turn. Her life was in some ways improved--but in most ways made worse--by the fact that she is the niece of the head of the church (who is the control-freakiest freak of them all).

This book does not explain to me what I am most curious about (which is this: how does a normal human adult hear about Scientology and actually end up joining the church instead of laughing--or shuddering--and walking away?) because this, of course, was not Jenna's experience. But it did fill in enough blanks in my knowledge about Scientology (which was next to nothing prior to reading this book, and is still sketchy now) that I don't need to hear any more about it.

I couldn't help but wonder how pervasive Scientology is in Hollywood. I mean, everyone knows that Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and John Travolta are Scientologists, and I did find an online list of others, but it actually wasn't as long as I'd expected--my assumption at this point, though, is that the list wasn't that long because whoever made it doesn't know about all of the Hollywood Scientologists who are private about it. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe I'm formulating a paranoid conspiracy theory? But I get the feeling that more California actor-types are Scientologists than are not. Because Scientology sounds like the modern equivalent of selling your soul to the devil for fame and success (but since your soul isn't valuable enough, you also have to pay lots of money for the privilege).

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Famous Writers I Have Known" by James Magnuson

This was another fun read (if not quite as much fun as Slade House). And, other than a few annoying errors*, it was well-written. I think this is another one I picked up at The Center for Fiction in New York . . . though with my memory, who knows.

This is the story of a small-time New York City con artist who suddenly finds that he needs to relocate quickly in order to save his own skin. He lucks into his next scam: impersonating the famous but reclusive author (like J.D. Salinger?) of one single highly-revered novel (like Harper Lee? Because from what I've heard, her second novel doesn't count) who has been asked to spend three months leading a writer's workshop for a handful of university students in Austin, TX.

The story was sly and amusing and flirted deftly with implausibility--just enough to keep it fresh, while managing to avoid making itself ridiculous. And, though I'm not sure the entire thing would play well on the big screen, it would be fun to see the conman/author doppelgangers. In my mind they looked like Michael Madsen (except from ten, or even twenty, years ago).

*Are you curious about those annoying errors? I didn't actually write them down, and it seems like there were three or four, but I can only remember two: 1) At the beginning of the book the narrator sees someone at LaGuardia. At the end of the book the narrator mentions that the last time he saw this person was at Kennedy. Ehhht (that's a buzzer sound in case it didn't translate well). 2) Someone is scheduled to pick the narrator up from his house at 6pm. When the narrator shows up on their doorstep two paragraphs later (at 7pm), they are annoyed because "we were expecting you a little earlier." I notice these little tidbits and collect them as if they were clues. After turning them around and around trying to figure out where they fit in, I finally realize they're not even from the puzzle I'm putting together. Anyway . . . I was able to enjoy the book in spite of them. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

Ohhhh, I did not want this book to end. And yet I couldn't stop reading. And as it's a relatively small book, end it did. But what a satisfying ending!

Slade House was what The Grownup tried (and failed) to be: a magical, creepy haunted house story that is tight and polished and solid. It is unpredictable and exciting and atmospheric. Sam said it was like Harry Potter for adults. (Wait, what? Harry Potter wasn't for adults?!)

This is the story of Norah and Jonah Grayer, who are twins, but I don't want to tell you more about them because I'm sure it will be much more delicious if you taste it firsthand. They live in Slade House, the entrance of which is a small iron door into a garden. But often when people try to find that door, they can't. Each chapter of the book tells of a person who did manage to find the door . . . and then see their own portrait hanging on the wall inside the house . . .

This one's a keeper. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson

This was, if you can believe it, my first Kate Atkinson book. Which I found to be a lot like those of Kate Morton's (young Englishwoman tangentially experiences World War I, feels the impact of World War II more directly, and has various life experiences in between) except with a more unique twist: every time Ursula Todd dies, she ends up right back where she started: her birth on a snowy evening in 1910. 

This was definitely a fun read, and--kind of like The Time Traveler's Wife but, of course, very different--not just the usual old thing. Not that the usual old thing (meaning a good book) is bad, but a fresh take never hurts. 

However, I have to express the most spoilery of spoilers (don't say I didn't warn you): if you've read the book, you know it ends with her birth (yet again). I found this EXHAUSTING. I was sure at some point she would "get it right", would somehow snap out of the cycle, but the idea that it just goes on ad infinitum--or ad nauseum--was too much to bear. Of course, Sam was right; any sort of resolution would probably be a disappointment. But that didn't stop me from wishing for one, if only for Ursula's sake. Oh, and am I the only one who found myself eagerly awaiting her escape out of certain of her lives--the more awful ones, of course--so that she could start fresh and have a better life the next time?

Overall, my impression was distinctly favorable. Despite my complaints about the ending, we are already slated to read A God In Ruins. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett

I wasn't especially interested in the subject matter here (scientists in the Amazon) but my opinion of Patchett's writing is high enough that I was able to overcome my distaste for the bugs and the humidity and the mud of the jungle. And I was not disappointed.

Dr Annick Swenson has spent years researching the fertility of the Lakashi tribe in Brazil. The pharmaceutical company that employs her sends Dr Anders Eckman to get an update from the uncommunicative Swenson . . . and he ends up dead. Now it's up to his coworker, Dr Marina Singh, to find out what is going on. (And by the way, this is much less of a murder mystery/detective novel than my synopsis makes it sound; it trends more towards The Poisonwood Bible without missionaries.)

Though I did find myself quite thankful that the plot didn't actually move to the jungle until about halfway through the book, once "we" got there, it wasn't as bad as I expected. I suppose my indifference to the jungle is due in part to its strangeness to me--it seems too foreign for me to relate--but it's also in large part because the thought of being there damages my pride. I know that I would not handle the jungle well. I would not be capable and tenacious. I would not adapt and rise to the occasion. I would wilt and be discouraged and cry. I would be crabby and irritable and a nightmare to be around. But Patchett, though her writing made the setting feel real and immediate, magically allowed me to read about the jungle without feeling like I was suffering for it. I didn't feel detached from the story, but somehow it managed to not subject me to discomfort. And, just as I found in Run, there were surprises and plot twists that crept up and were suddenly just THERE without manipulating my emotions or annoying me with obviousness. Some scenes (especially one towards the end of chapter 8) were so powerful that I had to put the book down and take a deep breath before going on. I am amazed at Patchett's ability to convey such intensity while remaining relatively subtle and understated.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"The Fates Will Find Their Way" by Hannah Pittard

I found the beginning of this book so oddly familiar that I even checked to see if I might have read it before. I confirmed that I hadn't; it was first published in 2011, and I haven't blogged about it until now. And anyway, once I hit the middle of the book, the deja vu was gone--although the story did remind me a bit of The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve.

In Fates, a group of teenage boys collectively tells the story of their classmate Nora Lindell and the effect she (and her disappearance) has on them into adulthood. They never know for sure what happened to her, but they never forget her and never stop speculating. Some questions are never answered . . . which is a bit frustrating because I am sure Sissy (or Danny, through her) have several answers; they just never see fit to share them with the reader. On the other hand, I can see that being left to wonder might possibly be more satisfying than the truth would actually be.

One of the strengths of this book is the characters (if not their descriptions). I hardly know what the characters look like, but I know what they are like, and they are real and three-dimensional, like living, breathing humans. I would like to see this story as a movie, if only to see how the characters appear on screen. But alas, no movie version is appearing on the horizon.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"The Cry of the Owl" by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith is the master of dread. Not in the over-the-top way of King or Koontz, but she forms subtle, understated suspense in such an everyday way that you hardly realize every muscle is tense and you're holding your breath as you read. In this book in particular, for the first half my apprehension built because it was clear something was going to happen--it just hadn't happened yet. Then. When things begin to happen, the plot speeds to a breathless pace and the tension (but how could it possibly?) increases even more.

Another impressive quirk of writing that Highsmith perfected: developing a main character who is simultaneously so weird and yet so sympathetic. She did it with Ripley, and again in Deep Water, and Robert Forester is no exception. He's obviously a bit off, but I still rooted for him with no qualms. Well, maybe I should say few qualms.

This is the story of a man who likes to watch a young woman through her kitchen window, for entirely asexual (but still abnormal) reasons. I know what you're thinking: That can't be a good start to a friendship, right? Yeah, you're right. And the dread begins to build.

I really enjoyed this book (except for an overly melodramatic bit at the end). It had a very satisfying conclusion (almost too satisfying, because of its neatness and completeness), but it wasn't until the very last line that I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"The Winter People" by Jennifer McMahon

I enjoyed reading this story, but I spent most of the first half comparing it to Stephen King and wondering why it didn't feel like a guilty pleasure. (Pleasure, yes. Guilty, no.) It's the same sort of suspenseful thriller with a supernatural element that King might have written. Weaving together storylines of characters from different periods of time, The Winter People tells about sleepers, dead loved ones who are temporarily brought back to life.

Why do Stephen King's books feel like a guilty pleasure to me? I'm a bit ambivalent about the author. The good: he is a skilled storyteller who comes up with some CREEPY and unique subject matter. The bad: I'm not sure I have any solid evidence to back up this statement, but I have this vague idea that he has a higher opinion of his own writing than his writing deserves. (Haven't I read disparaging comments he has made about other authors' writing? And he actually wrote a book about writing, didn't he?)

Stephen King is obviously a very popular and successful author, but somehow that is also a negative. If so many people are pleased by something, can it really be that great, or mustn't it be a watered-down version of true greatness? Right or wrong, this is obviously not a universal truth. I mean, think of the Beatles, Harry Potter or Star Wars. Just because almost everyone loves them (including me!) doesn't mean they aren't great. Have I merely fallen prey to the snobbish view that Stephen King isn't a serious writer?

I didn't intend to write more about Stephen King than The Winter People. I probably ought to make a few more comments on the book I'm posting about. Sam asked me if I loved it, liked it, didn't like it, or hated it. I liked it. I think it would have seen some improvements if two "info-dump" sections had been reworked, but the rest of it was a pretty captivating read. But (and perhaps this is another reason I'm not a bigger fan of Stephen King?) it did not evoke an emotional response, nor did it encourage deeper thought (beyond trying to work out the mysterious goings-on). And you know what? I liked it anyway.

I still haven't worked out why I feel more respect for Jennifer McMahon than for Stephen King. I suppose it comes down to one of two things: 1) I didn't have preconceived (negative) notions about McMahon before reading her book, and/or 2) her writing is better than King's.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"The Grownup" by Gillian Flynn

Oooh! Oooh! A ghost story? BY GILLIAN FLYNN??? How did my radar miss this one for almost three months???

I was super-excited to read this book. And as it's a super-short story, it went by super-fast. (It arrived on Friday afternoon and I finished it before I went to bed on Friday night. And I did do things other than reading during the evening.) I kind of wish I'd taken the time to savor it but that didn't seem possible at the time.

The Grownup is a novella about a pseudo-psychic who is hired to stop the mysterious goings-on in a house. I feel like I can't say too much more without giving spoilers, but it's a story of suspense with a supernatural flavor.

When I was done reading it, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I almost wanted to re-read it to solidify my opinion. But it turns out I'm more eager to pick up a new book than to re-read this one right away. I bet I'll re-read this one someday--just not today.

My general opinion certainly wasn't one of disappointment. The reason I flew through the book wasn't only due to the brevity of the text; it was also a very compelling story. But I was left with the sense that there was something rushed about the plotting. It's as if the story wasn't polished enough, or there wasn't enough time spent on it prior to publication. Sam (who hasn't read it yet) said it was short enough to be perfect, but I don't think it was quite perfect. It wasn't tight like Gone Girl. Also, it bothered me that the protagonist is presented as having a facility for reading people, but she wasn't as perceptive as that might suggest.

So, I enjoyed this little story, but (possibly due to too-high expectations) it wasn't as great as I thought it would be. Will I still read every single piece of fiction that Gillian Flynn manages to get published? Why, yes. Yes, I will.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"The Bookseller" by Cynthia Swanson

So, I would categorize this one as "women's fiction," which is generally Not My Thing. Dunno why. I mean, I'm a woman, and I love fiction. So why wouldn't I love women's fiction? Somehow I have the sense that it sucks more often than not. Maybe that's an unfair assessment, I don't know. Maybe it results from a small irritation about a specific genre supposedly written for my demographic with an expectation that I will like it because of my gender. Maybe I don't like the idea that I'm typical.

Aaaaand I said all that only to say that for some reason I actually kind of liked this book. I mean, it wasn't perfect, and it wasn't amazing, but I snuggled comfortably into it, drifting in and out as I found the time, never desperate to read it (which means it didn't reach critical mass) but likewise never having to force myself to read it or wishing I could get it over with already. I doubt this is the kind of book that I will think about far into the future--I'll probably barely remember it--but it was pleasant while it lasted.

The Bookseller tells the story of Kitty Miller, an old maid of 38 living in Denver in the early 60s. She's co-owner of a bookstore with her best friend from high school, Frieda. Kitty's life may not be picture-perfect, but she's happy. Until something strange begins to happen at night. Over and over again, Kitty dreams that she is Katharyn Andersson, wife of Lars, mother of triplets. Katharyn's past and Kitty's are one and the same, but somewhere along the line the dream life of Katharyn diverged from Kitty's existence.

The concept of a dream life intertwined with real life first captured my imagination in 6th grade when we read a short story about a man who had been in a motorcycle wreck; each time he drifts into unconsciousness he is an ancient Mayan, preparing to be sacrificed. Which is dream and which is reality? It was pretty obvious to me that the reality had to be the motorcycle wreck (how could an ancient Mayan dream a motorcycle?) but the way it was written, it was ambiguous. So the concept behind The Bookseller isn't a new one. And I felt it was a bit predictable, if not unforgivably so.

Another good-but-not-great book off my TBR. Maybe my next pick will be incredible?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Vernon Downs" by Jaime Clarke

Here's another book we picked up in NYC. (I can't remember if I realized it when we bought it, but it mostly takes place there, too.) It's the story of Charlie Martens, a rather aimless and unremarkable guy who thinks he can impress his British ex-girlfriend Olivia into coming back to him if he has connections to her favorite author, Vernon Downs.

I wanted this book to be more than it was. I wasn't impressed with the writing (though there was nothing wrong with it), unlike my previous read, and the story fell short of what it could have been. It did almost reach critical mass about three quarters through, and I started to think, Wow, yes, I LIKE this, but then (and I don't think this has ever happened before! I'm not sure I even realized it was possible) it lost it and the pace slowed again. I don't mean to say it ever felt slow-paced or boring, but I never really emerged from my I-could-take-it-or-leave-it coccoon.

It doesn't seem right to have a main character who is completely unchanged by the events in a book. If Charlie has always been "a bit player in an array of people's lives" it would make sense for some sort of evolution to occur throughout the story, but by the end of the book, that's still all he is. At the very least there was a huge opportunity for him to experience a great fall, but instead he compartmentalizes this episode of his life just as he has every other that came before. He has never previously had to deal with consequences in his life, and we don't see him dealing with any consequences from his actions in this book, either. He makes no impact, no lasting impression, on anyone. I know that was the point, but in a book it's unsatisfying.

My overall impression: this book was good but not great. I don't regret reading it and wouldn't call it a waste of time, but it fell short of my expectations.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"The Wallcreeper" by Nell Zink

I might never have picked this book up if I had known what a wallcreeper was. It sounds like something quite sinister or menacing, when it's really just a cute little bird. But I am truly glad that I was slightly misled, because this book is a rare gem. It made me think a silly thought: how is it that some books are so interesting and well-written and others . . . aren't? Of course, some books are just downright bad. Others aren't bad, and I feel I ought to enjoy or appreciate them, but I have to convince myself to do so by making excuses for them. And then there are books that impress me effortlessly. Like this one.

This book is clever and quirky without being coy. The characters are real: nowhere near perfect, but not so imperfect that they are dislikable or unbelievable or revolting. I'm not sure I have any interests in common with any of them, and yet I related to them despite this. The writing is high quality, but not highbrow, by which I mean it's intelligent without throwing it in the reader's face.

As I was reading, Sam asked me if The Wallcreeper had a good story. I wasn't sure how to answer that question. It's certainly not the sort of book where nothing happens, but the plot is much less important than the protagonist's internal monologue. At the risk of skimming the surface rather than distilling it down to its essence, I want to try to describe the book, but all I can come up with is "a sketch of a woman's unusual attitudes about her relationships" and that not only sounds like crap, but also could describe half of all the books published these days (most of which either need excuses or are bad).

The things I've said to Sam have intrigued him enough that he wants to read The Wallcreeper next. I'm almost afraid to let him, though. What if he hates it? I, however, bestow upon it a reader's praise in the highest form: I would definitely read it again someday, and not just because it's short.

Friday, January 1, 2016

"New York Stories" (Everyman's Pocket Classics)

About six weeks ago I was mulling over the idea of starting a new, limited-edition blog (New York: What Gives? A chronicle of the good, the bad, and the ugly from our NYC weekend in early November 2015) but that fire has since died. In the meantime, I have worked my leisurely way through this compilation of short stories edited by Diana Secker Tesdell. This was one of a short stack of books we brought back with us, and I selected it due to the fact that its theme made it a memento of our trip.

I found almost all of the stories in the book to be very evocative of the city (mostly Manhattan). Of course you should take that statement with a grain of salt, considering my relative unfamiliarity with the subject matter--one travel weekend and a childhood in New Jersey notwithstanding. But I enjoyed picturing the setting of each story, slotting in my own memories where I could.

Inveterate bookworms that we are, Sam and I made bookstore research a sizable part of our pre-journey preparations. This book was purchased at The Corner Bookstore, a small and cozy nook at Madison and 93rd. (If I ever own a bookstore it wouldn't hurt my feelings if it looked like this one.) If you have some time to kill in NYC and you love books, you won't regret browsing here. On the other hand . . . if those same stipulations apply AND you love a good deal, I would have to recommend The Center for Fiction instead. Their store isn't much larger, but you can find some decent prices on gently-used hardcovers there. Disclaimer: I am sure there are many other worthy bookstores in NYC, but these just happened to be the only two we visited.