Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Beekeeper's Apprentice (by Laurie R. King)*

Delightful on audiobook, the first of a series about a young feminist who is taken under the wing of Sherlock Holmes. And either there is some sexual tension there, or I have daddy issues. (I can hear Jenfu now, saying, "Or both!")

I think this has been recommended a few times to me since I do occasionally like mysteries, but all the ones I like have women as protagonists, and I'm also a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. Then Beth said the audiobook was good, and I was sold. Indeed, the audio version is great; I love the narrator, Jenny Stirlin.

It's a little meandering at points (the momentum slows way down during an interlude in Jerusalem, for example) but I love the characters, love the relationship between Holmes and Mary Russell, and overall loved the feel of the book. So glad there's more than one in the series; I've already downloaded the next one!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Savage Detectives (by Roberto Bolaño)

Thank god this is done. Our book club book, 650 pages long, and it felt neverending. It's broken into three parts, and the first and the last are narrated by this 17-year-old boy. Then the middle is narrated by something like 50 people over the course of 30 years.

I had two main issues with it, both relating to the long central section narrated by a bunch of different characters. The narrative thread that links it all together is the story of these two guys, Ulises Lima and Arturo Bolano, founders of the "visceral realist" poetry movement. Tons of other characters are either heard from or introduced, just name after name after name. But these are the two main ones.

My first issue is that in spite of 650 pages ostensibly about these two guys, I never got a real feel for their characters. Perhaps that was the point--all these people interact with them in different circumstances, so their characters shift. But it was difficult to care about them, because they're ciphers. And the one character you really do care about after the beginning, the narrator of the first and last section, isn't mentioned in the middle part. I think maybe there's one reference to him at the end.

Also it's unclear who the middle stories are being told to--at one point it's clearly Belano, but then elsewhere Belano is being referred to in the third person. Of course now that I think about it, I bet it's Garcia Madero, the character who disappears from the first part. I feel like I ruled that out at some point though. I'll have to see what my book club thought. Anyway. Issue one: I don't get a clear sense of these characters.

Issue two is that some of the stories in the middle section are legitimately gripping and moving and interesting, and Bolaño does a great job of getting us to care about them, but they mostly all disappear. So again, it's hard to invest emotion in the stories when we know they will likely never be heard from again, and they're only important in how they illuminate the two central characters, who we don't care about...

The more I write about this the more I think Roberto Bolaño knew exactly what he was doing. I guess I just wish it had been edited down by about 200 pages. It was a big investment of time, that central section. But I liked the payoff; I liked the ambiguity of the ending, and I felt like enough mysteries were solved in the end for me to be overall happy with it. But in the middle, trying to keep track of something like 50 characters who disappear and sometimes reappear but mostly disappear... it was frustrating.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Game Change (by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin)*

Oh, I remember the days of the 2008 presidential campaign, when I was refreshing FiveThirtyEight obsessively all day long and couldn't stop reading campaign news. But I didn't know most of what was in this book, a behind-the-scenes look at the Clinton, Edwards, McCain, and Obama campaigns (with a little Giuliani thrown in for fun).

We listened to this on the drive to and from L.A. and we were just riveted. It made the drive home, in particular, go by like nothing. So much juicy gossip and campaign details, so much fun to read. And the narration was pretty good too!

My one pet peeve is that the narrator kept mispronouncing words, most notably (and repeatedly) calling Caroline Kennedy "Carolyn" and pronouncing the Latin word cum in the porn way instead of in the summa cum laude way. My sister's name, as you may know, is "Caroline" and so that "Carolyn" thing drives me extra crazy. THOSE ARE DIFFERENT NAMES, AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR.

Other than that, completely highly recommended for political junkies or lovers of political gossip. I'll never look at any of the candidates quite the same way again.

Oh, and also, I continue to hate, loathe, and despise Joe Leiberman.

Blue Shoes and Happiness (by Alexander McCall Smith)*

I have to give a shoutout to Lisette Lecat, the audiobook narrator of all the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, who does such a terrific job with the voices. This is the seventh book in the series, and it continues to be charming.

That's really the best word for these books: charming. They aren't fast-paced, a lot of the action happens off-screen, there's a lot of plots and subplots that come and go, and things are sometimes resolved super quickly. In this one especially, it felt like it could have been more cohesive.

But the characters are charming, the narration is charming, and the slice-of-life in Botswana is charming. Definitely worth it on audio. I've probably already said this ten million times, haven't I?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank (by Willy Lindwer)

I finished this a few days ago, strangely, on the day Miep Gies died.

These are the stories of a group of women who met Anne (and Margot and Edith) Frank at Westerbork, Auschwitz, and/or Bergen-Belsen. You get immersed in how their stories touched hers--so briefly--but also in each individual story and different perspective. (I particularly was moved by Bloeme's story; she's a psychologist and has a unique take on the psychology of what happened to her.)

I always get caught up in the same Catch-22 when I read about Anne Frank. I desperately wish she could have survived, but it's her death that made her diary possible, and it's the waste of her potential and her life that brings home the senseless tragedy of the Holocaust. The fact that it was silenced is part of what makes her voice so powerful.

Actually had I read this book before I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, I could have visited the barracks where Anne and Margot were kept. Then again, I don't think anything could have made that visit more deeply affecting. Anyway. The book is troubling, and gripping.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Year of Yes (by Maria Dahvana Headley)

Another "do blah-di-blah for a year and then write about it" book, but I can't help it; these fluffy little books go faster than the giant tomes I am concurrently reading.

At first I was put off by this book a little. The writer is very self-conscious and self-indulgent--her acknowledgments are three pages long, each chapter has a heading and a subheading, and there is tons of literary name dropping. There are also some embarrassingly torturous metaphors. You can tell she wants to be taken seriously as a Writer, when I wish she would just tell her story. From page two, to give you an example:

The noises of NYC had ceased to metamorphose into the hopeful bird trills and tender love songs I'd imagined when I'd first arrived, a year before, and instead sounded like what they were: garbage trucks, honking horns, and the occasional cockroach scuttle. Granted, my last doomed relationship had been significantly more crow than canary, and more Nirvana than Sinatra.

She also name-drops, within the first two pages, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Aeschylus, Wagner, and Dorothy Parker. It is quite frankly exhausting.

When she settles into it (or when I got used to it) I was able to enjoy the story for what it was--an honest and interesting memoir about a year spent saying yes to anyone and everyone who asked her on a date. And ultimately she did seem like a cool, risk-taker type person, who has a good heart, but maybe needs to dial down the Writerly Affectation a little. So I did like it okay in the end. But I have to say I liked Julie & Julia better.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dear American Airlines (by Jonathan Miles)

I do so enjoy a good novella--Shopgirl and Last Night at the Lobster come to mind. I think it's the slimness of the volume that makes me conscious not to read it too fast, which in turn makes me slow down and savor the words. I'm currently also reading The Savage Detectives (650 pages) and War and Peace (1300 pages) so I appreciate your brevity, Jonathan Miles!

So in case you haven't heard of this one, it's essentially this guy's life story in the form of a complaint letter to American Airlines. His flight has been delayed (for many hours) and he spends the time writing about how much he had riding on this one flight--to get to the wedding of his estranged daughter. (This information comes early on; not a spoiler.)

Very charming, touching, funny, delightful little book, has more depth than you might expect. Thumbs up!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Julie & Julia (by Julie Powell)

We saw the movie, I visited the blog, I read the reviews of Cleaving, and I got the book for Christmas. And I read it! Um, obviously.

It's impossible to read this without a consciousness of the New Julie Powell--we all know she goes on to cheat on Eric and work at a butcher shop, and that her new memoir lacks the self-awareness that it needs to make sense of these events. (And yet I still want to read it.)

And so this version of Julie, the Old Julie Powell, seems a little unhinged when viewed through that lens. She throws a lot of temper tantrums, and seems snobby about "trailer trash" and the mentally ill. Her writing struck me initially as trying too hard at times to be witty. But I liked the book, ultimately--couldn't put it down--and am making my way through her blog archives and finding myself charmed and entertained. I like her willingness to be honest, even to a fault, about her own flaws.

So, I don't know. Somehow between the blog and the book, I ended up liking Julie Powell a lot. Maybe it's because she's a Buffy fan?