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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

"Euphoria" by Lily King

I really enjoyed reading this book. Lily King has a gift for subtly evoking settings and characters so it seems you're really there, in the book, an anthropologist on the Sepik river in the years between the two world wars. 

Anthropologists Nell Stone (loosely based on Margaret Mead) and her husband Fen are transitioning from their largely unsuccessful study of the Mumbanyo in New Guinea when they cross paths with fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. This intersection brings both a professional collaboration and a personal connection (more commonly known as a love triangle). Each character has a slightly different attitude to their work, and to each other, and the pages crackle with the resulting tension.

I can't remember why, but as soon as I finished reading the entire book (which, of course, included the Reader's Guide at the end), I turned back to the beginning and reread the first chapter or so. It was interesting to see how different an experience this was. The first time around, the characters had a clean slate. The second time around, I could see the quiet clues that later added up to the negative slant of one main character. I think I was even more impressed with the book after seeing this evidence of how carefully and delicately King had crafted her characters and plot.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

"A Widow for One Year" by John Irving

Literary amnesia notwithstanding, I remember that years ago I read The Cider House Rules, and I remember that I liked it. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to find that I didn't especially like the writing style in this John Irving book.

Where to begin? Annoyance. I was annoyed by all the italicized words. (I'm perfectly capable of using the correct emphasis as I read.) I was annoyed by all the brief, inconsequential jumps into the future ("so and so would go on to do such and such") that seemed less like intriguing foreshadowing and more like pointless, truncated rabbit trails. The story loses immediacy that way. And, erm, I was annoyed by all of the parenthetical asides. (I mean, who would do that in a novel?) I was even annoyed by the title, which I will explain later.

And then--beyond my annoyance with the writing style--I didn't really like any of the characters, or even believe in most of them. Quite a few of them seemed amorphous in my mind; I couldn't picture them, and didn't have a firm grasp of their personalities or mannerisms. I guess it's debatable whether that's Irving's fault or mine.

Finally, at times the plot felt so aimless and meandering that I decided Irving must be one of those authors who just "waits to see what the characters will do" as he writes. So it was really weird to read in the author interview at the end of the book that I was completely wrong. He basically plans his novels out in minute detail before writing them. He told his characters exactly what to do in every situation, not the other way around. So I don't know why the book seemed to have a weird "Hmm, let's see what happens next" structure. Not to mention the fact that the plot doesn't feel nicely balanced; in the first part, the two characters who I would have considered the main characters end up being of little consequence in the rest of the book.

The weirdest thing of all is that, despite all of my complaints, I didn't hate this book or find it boring or dread picking it up to read it. It certainly never reached critical mass, and I obviously didn't love it, but I've read much worse. The first part focuses on an affair between 39-year-old Marion and her husband's 16-year-old assistant, Eddie; the rest of the book is taken over by Marion's daughter Ruth, who was a child in the first part but is a grown woman during the remainder. Marion, Eddie, Ruth, AND Marion's husband/Ruth's father Ted are all writers (which was another little tidbit I found hard to believe).

And as for why I found the title annoying: it's a nice title, but it doesn't really exemplify the book the way a title should. Yes, Ruth does end up being a widow for one year (which happens after she publishes a novel by that title), but the book hardly touches on that year--it's certainly not about Ruth's year as a widow.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

"The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

Sam came across this book first, having chosen it last summer in Emerald Isle. The blurb really appealed to him (if not to me), and we'd both read Under the Skin by the same author (which we both enjoyed). But when Sam finally read Strange New Things last month and found that he couldn't put down, I knew I wanted to read it too. (I had to time it wisely, however; Sam had actually said that, while he read, the story seemed more real to him than real life. I decided that I needed to wait for some vacation time  before reading it myself.) And it's a good thing I chose to read it . . . it's possible that, if I hadn't read it of my own volition, Sam's head would have popped right off. He was pretty eager for me to experience this book. 

The Book of Strange New Things tells the story of Peter Leigh, an English pastor chosen to be a missionary to . . . wait for it . . . aliens on a distant planet. There's more than one thing in that sentence that I have no interest in reading about, and mashing them together doesn't make it any more enticing. Not to mention that it sounded strangely similar to The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. But Sam was right--this book was utterly compelling, and I didn't want to put it down. I actually found myself torn between finishing it in a marathon reading session, and deliberately slowing myself down as I read (you know, so it wouldn't end.) 

The book focuses on Peter's relationships: with the Oasans (aliens) and the other humans who had been transported to Oasis before Peter, but mostly with his wife Bea, who he'd left behind--light-years away!--in England during this temporary stint in a galaxy far, far away. Peter and Bea are able to communicate through email-like letters to each other, but something emerges that neither could have predicted: the choice to travel to Oasis has set Peter and Bea on such different paths that the emotional distance between them soon seems to yawn even wider than their physical distance. It became frustrating to read all of Peter's missteps--as he said all the wrong things and left all the right things unsaid--and to watch his marriage deteriorate. It was also slightly depressing to read about how the world was falling apart back home--not just Bea's world, but the entire world--because it all sounded really, really awful, and too plausible. But despite the frustrations and discomfort the book aroused, it was completely absorbing. Great book!

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.