Monday, October 24, 2005

The Penultimate Peril (by Lemony Snicket)

These books take about seven seconds to read, don't they? Probably not many people have read it yet, though, since it just came out, so I will refrain from excessive spoilers, just must say I love the Hotel Denouement and wanted to see much more of it.

I feel like I missed some important clues along the way. I don't really feel like I understand the VFD, but reviews I have read are talking about how much is explained in this book. This is what happens when you skip half the books. (The early books are too formulaic for me to read.)

Anyway I liked the last one because stuff happened in it. I liked this one, I think, because stuff also happened. I like that the lines between good and evil are getting a little fuzzy; moral ambiguity is always good. But I don't know, it wasn't very satisfying. It was more like a setup for book thirteen, god only knows when that one will show up!

Out (Natsuo Kirino)

Recommended by a colleague of mine, this Japanese "murder mystery" is so much more than that. Evokes a mood, sort of like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but better, since the plot actually has momentum.

It's about four Japanese women in various stages of desperation who work the night shift at a factory making boxed lunches. Then gruesome things begin to happen, along the lines of dismemberments and disturbing sex murders. The story focuses on the characters mostly, it's not gratuitous or all-encompassing, but the gruesome stuff is really quite disturbing and will linger in your mind as you read. The Japanese seem to be more ready to explore deviant sexuality (at least judging by the octopus rape anime stuff). So be forewarned!

The characters are vividly drawn and psychologically three-dimensional, even the minor characters. The book pulls you into its dark world along with the characters. The focal character, Masako, is fascinating. She's got this amazing detachment as she allows herself to be drawn deeper and deeper into her own hidden darknesses (to what extent you buy her complicity towards the end is an interesting question).

My only issue--and really it's not much of one--is Kuniko. She's a great character, vivid and plausible and you love to hate her, but there's a lot of fat=ugly, fat=lazy, fat=no self control stuff going on in the book, and while it works for this particular character, the way that the author relied on her weight or her eating to define her so negatively was kind of troubling. Still, she works wonderfully as a character, so like I said, not much of a complaint.

On the whole--if you don't mind a very dark story--I recommend it!

The Sun Also Rises (by Ernest Hemingway)

I'd been resisting going back to Hemingway, since I didn't care for A Farewell to Arms and obviously, I hated The Old Man and the Sea. I had halfway written Hemingway off as another misogynistic dead white guy who was undeniably influential but not actually enjoyable to read (see Lawrence, D.H.)

Imagine my surprise: I absolutely adored The Sun Also Rises. It is a fabulous novel. I love the sparse prose, the characters, the story, the understated theme, the Lost Generation, the whole Hemingway "thing." I even appreciated the bullfighting, which I find totally brutal and barbaric, and was another thing that put me off of reading the book. Somehow, Hemingway makes it beautiful.

I'm once again grateful for this reading project; I might have gone on forever with the wrong impression of Hemingway! I strongly advise you: before you make a final judgment on Hemingway, read The Sun Also Rises. If you decide you hate it, well, then, there you have it.

"You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see. You hang around cafés." (Page 115)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

When We Were Orphans (by Kazuo Ishiguro)

I found this one at a rummage sale for a dollar, and since Remains of the Day grew on me so much, I figured I should try one of his other books. This one has another Stevens-like unreliable narrator. There's clearly something off about him, and it's sometimes a little frustrating being inside his mind. I don't think the reader is quite allowed to get at the truth enough. He's supposedly a "great detective" but there's no indication of why. Maybe the thing with his parents is a blind spot (why on earth would he not consider that they might be dead, or long gone, after twenty years) but there's no indication of his "detective" ability anywhere in the book, except that people talk to and about him as if he's Sherlock Holmes--is he deluding himself entirely, or do these people really expect something out of him?

The backdrop of this book is the Chinese-Japanese war in the '30s and the opium trade in China, which is compelling. The narrator is an Englishman who grows up in Shanghai, with a friend named Akira, a loose end at the end of the book. The resolution of the plot (although depending on a number of unlikely coincidences) was kind of interesting. But I don't know, the book was weird. It was hard to extract some understanding of "reality" from the narrator, and it seems a little derivative of Remains of the Day in terms of the main character.

Man, I don't know. I guess the bottom line is that while I enjoyed reading this book, I expected to be less confused after I'd finished reading it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Time's Booklist

Oh no, it's another booklist! 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. And I've only read 38 of them. (Although I did promise my fiance that I would soon read The Crying of Lot 49.

I've read: Animal Farm (two days ago, heh); Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (kick ass); Beloved; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Lolita; Lord of the Flies (ugh); The Lord of the Rings; Midnight's Children; Brideshead Revisted; Catch-22; The Catcher in the Rye; A Clockword Orange; The Corrections (hell yes); Mrs. Dalloway; Native Son; 1984; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Pale Fire (yay); A Passage to India (bleh); Possession; Death Comes for the Archibishop; The French Lieutenant's Woman; Go Tell It on the Mountain (one of my colleagues made a case for this as the Great American Novel); Gone with the Wind; The Grapes of Wrath; Rabbit, Run; Slaughterhouse-Five; Snow Crash (cool choice); The Sound and the Fury (the best Faulkner); The Great Gatsby; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; Invisible Man; Their Eyes Were Watching God; Things Fall Apart; To Kill a Mockingbird; To the Lighthouse; Tropic of Cancer; White Noise (woo); and Wide Sargasso Sea (not woo).


Sunday, October 16, 2005

Animal Farm (by George Orwell)

Can you believe I'd never read Animal Farm? I was always scared it was going to be horribly traumatizing. (That's the same reason I avoided Watership Down for years.) But of course it was nothing like I expected. It's too obviously allegorical to traumatize me.

I had to go and check Sparknotes to make sure I was right about the whole communism thing. I mean sure it's obvious, but what if I was wrong? What if it was too obvious? That would have been embarrassing. I actually don't know enough about Trotsky to have figured out that he was in there, but I did get the whole Stalin thing. Ten points for me. Also, killer ending; loved the last line.

It's good timing, this book, because when we talked about symbol and allegory in the lit class I'm teaching, we had an interesting discussion about which we preferred. Some students like allegory better; these tend to be the students who get frustrated when they don't know the "right" way to look at a poem, so they enjoy having a right answer that they can puzzle out. Symbols, on the other hand, don't have such pinned-down meanings; they tend to be more expansive and open to interpretation.

I have to say that I fall on the side of enjoying symbolism more than allegory. (Although I am not putting the allegory lovers down at all; I loved their take on the whole debate.) The first example that comes to mind is Moby Dick. The fact that it (the whale) is a symbol that can mean so many different things is so fascinating to me. Whereas with Animal farm you go, okay, Russian Revolution, communist propaganda, totalitarianism... and then that's it. It's an entertaining story and an interesting allegory, but it funnels down into a point and there you are. Whereas symbols start with the point, and expand upwards into the funnel, and you can play with them forever.

I possibly am not explaining this well. But it did reinforce the fact that I like symbols more than allegories. I still enjoyed reading Animal Farm though, as a story, because it was excellent. Certainly didn't take as long as reading Moby-Dick, either.

"Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe either that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work. Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go on as it had always gone on--that is, badly."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Best American Poetry 2005

I just bought this book, and I’m doing what I always do: looking at the table of contents to see what names I recognize. Thrilled to see James Tate and Amy Gerstler and Linda Pastan and Stephen Dunn, four of my favorite living poets, represented. Not so thrilled to see Charles Bukowski. Not because I don’t have a soft sport for Bukowski, because I totally do, but he’s been dead for eleven years. I refuse to concede a space in a volume that’s supposed to be about this year’s poetry to a long-since-dead guy. I actually don’t care how good it is.

More when I've actually read, oh, say, at least one poem in the book.

Okay, it's slightly later. I'm up to the D's and I have to say I'm not impressed so far. A lot of mediocre stuff. However, there's a prose poem in here from Sentence, which is a fabulous magazine that is publishing two of my poems in about, oh, a year and a half. Best American Poetry 2007, here I come!

Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell)

Cloud Atlas was my California book club selection this month, and Weetabix and I are running a satellite book group, so we read the book too. I don’t know what the Californians thought about the book, or what Weetabix thinks either, for that matter, since I’m writing this before anyone has met to talk about it. But I read it, and I want to talk about it before I forget what I want to say.

Cloud Atlasfeatures six interlocking stories in different genres (although they are each unique, they are not so different than I found myself thinking “I can’t believe the same guy wrote all of these!”) My favorites were, in order: (1) Sonmi-451’s story, which is set in future Korea, in a corporate dystopia. I thought the world was persuasive and the story compelling and well done--my only quibble is that I don’t fully understand the implications of the ending. (2) Robert Frobisher, who reminded me strongly of Charles Kinbote, although obviously slightly more sympathetic. He’s a bisexual Belgian composer, and the second half of his story is particularly beautifully written. This was pretty close to being #1, except that Sonmi was the one I couldn’t put down and couldn’t get out of my head. (3) The Luisa Rey pulp fiction mystery, which was not brilliant but was compelling, and I liked Luisa as a character, and Bill Smoke as a villain. Also a nice thematic note, contributing the whole. (The theme of the book is, very loosely, the inevitable exploitation throughout history of the weak and poor by the strong and wealthy. In this case, the strong and wealthy is an evil corporation, kind of like I imagine Halliburton to be.) (4) Adam Ewing. The first half has a great payoff in the last (chronologically last) section of the book, and the second half is great drama. I also enjoyed the writing style here, as well as the character of Adam. (5) Timothy Cavendish. I guess many readers found this story funny, but I found most of it to be uncomfortable, and it didn’t start getting funny to me until it was almost over. (6) The Sloosha’s Crossin’ section. I thought it was wonderful the way everything came completely full circle for humanity (the carved wooden idols being the first clue) but the dialect drove me crazy. This was the only part I had to force myself to keep going through; everything else had me hooked.

The book is like a big puzzle, and although I enjoyed the clues sprinkled throughout, I think there are probably as many more that I missed entirely. It really sucked me in and left me wanting more when it was over. A big, juicy read, with something in it for everyone, I’m betting. Marvelous.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Some YA Reading

I checked out some YA stuff from the library including Wasteland by Francesca Liz Block (overly angsty and pretentiously poetic incest book); Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (more of a children's book than a YA book, but some interesting stuff about Denmark in the Holocaust); and The Things I Did For Love by Ellen Conford (not one of her best, weird ending, but still okay). It brings me to 55 books read this year, which seems like kind of a low number. Fortunately I am reading a lot lately, as you can see. I need to get back to my reading list, but Main Street has left me fearful...

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Something Rotten (by Jasper Fforde)

The fourth and last book in the series. Yes, the cliffhanger is resolved and the loose ends tied; in fact, it's pretty impressive that a loose end from book #1 is tied up in book #4. Plus, this book ends with a clever twist (which I really should have seen coming) that makes me want to read #3, in particular, all over again. Oh, very crafty, Jasper Fforde.

I still think #3 is my favorite of the books, and #1 is definitely my least favorite. It took a while for Fforde to get me on his side. But the literary inside jokes and originality of the world and clever humor and references make the series as a whole very charming, so I do give it a thumbs up for those who love literature. (How can you not love a book where one of the characters speaks Lorem Ipsum?) I suggest you think of it as a four-part miniseries instead of, like, a movie and its sequels.

My favorite wink at the audience is the role of the Minotaur in the last book. It's never acknowledged, but there's only one way he could make certain things happen, isn't there? And I still wonder why Landen's books are never a factor... unless.... damn you, Fforde!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Long Way Down (by Nick Hornby)

My first Nick Hornby! I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard about it, because I thought that it was pretty much the best premise for a book that I had ever heard: four people run into each other on the roof of a building, each planning to throw themselves off the top. They make a pact that they won't kill themselves for six weeks, and see what happens.

I read this book in one go yesterday; it kept me very enthralled. I have this vague feeling that it could have had more density to it, because I don't quite trust a book that I can breeze through in a day. But regardless of bad reviews--and I don't know what those reviews say, I'm sure they have a point--I really enjoyed it. I thought the characters were interesting (although the physical descriptions could have been better, maybe, which is also my problem with Thursday Next--I have no idea what she looks like whatsoever, but that's a different story), the story didn't have a too-neat resolution.

Anyway I don't know how it stacks up to his other stuff, but I liked it a lot.