Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore (by Robin Sloan)

Loaned by aych and read on a plane, this book got me from SFO to MSP. It's a charming story set in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, about a guy who gets a job at a 24-hour bookstore and realizes there's more to it than meets the eye.

The book doesn't have a ton of depth, and parts of it feel like a setup for satire that never pays off. (For instance, the main female character works at Google and is obsessed with Google in a really unhealthy way, but her obsession is treated with absolute sincerity. Google = God, apparently.)  But the characters and story are charming, and it made for a fun and fast airplane read.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reread: Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell)

This is the first of the year's planned rereads. For this project, I chose books that I particularly loved and wanted to experience again.

Memory Reaction:

I'm stealing this format from BSC Revisited, where Kristen used to kick off her reviews with what she remembered about the book. What I remembered about Cloud Atlas: its structure, obviously. Its shifts into different voices, which are also different from his other books and impressed me as a tour de force. I remembered my favorite section being Sonmi's, with Frobisher or Luisa Rey as the runner-up. I did not remember Timothy Cavendish at all, and I recalled vague annoyance with the middle Sloosha section, possibly because it came after my favorite part. I remember being blown away.

Reread Reaction:

Sonmi's section was still my absolute favorite, especially the first half.  I found Frobisher to be quite Kinbotean (always a compliment) and  I loved the resolution to that story, I got into the middle section a lot more than I remembered having done before, and I still enjoyed Luisa Rey. The only section that I can't really figure out is the Timothy Cavendish section, which screws up the reincarnation timeline in addition to not really adding much that I can see. (Thoughts on this are welcome.) 

I had forgotten how explictly the parts of the book were linked, in terms of Frobisher finding the journal, Luisa finding the letters, Timothy reading the manuscript, etc. (It's also interesting how each section is told in a different way: a journal, letters, a novel, a movie version of a novel, an "orison," and an oral history.)

This time around what really struck me was Isaac Sachs's meditation on the nature of history. "The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent." This seems to directly connect to the book, where each section is seen as both the alive present (when you're reading it) and as constructed history (when the other characters find it). It transmutes, but it also contains truth. It's really quite wonderful.

It's true that some of it is a little heavy handed, such as the comet birthmark and the name Adam and even the explicit connections between the sections. But I loved digging into it thematically: the ascents and descents, the idea that other characters are involved (Frobisher's mentor dreams of Sonmi, for instance) and the parallels that can be drawn between the characters. Enjoyed it just as much the second time around.

Previous Review:

I waited until typing the above before going back to read my previous review, to see how they match up. Here it is, from October 2005. Wow, that long ago?

Ha, I ranked the sections almost identically, and even made the Frobisher = Kinbote connection. As predicted, Sloosha was my least favorite last time, but I had fewer issues with the dialect this time, and Cavendish has moved into that slot. Otherwise, my rankings would be the same.

Still an A+ novel, and happy that I reread it. My next reread: Brideshead Revisited. 

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Sanditon (by Jane Austen and "Another Lady")

[Note: This is a completion of Jane Austen's novel fragment Sanditon, done by Marie Dobbs and published in 1975. There are a few other continuations and completions out there, but this is the one people seemed to like the most.]

This was super, super enjoyable.  The first 11 or so chapters are Austen's rough draft and scene setting for the novel, and after that, Marie Dobbs picked it up. I have to say that this worked remarkably well for the most part. The setting (an up-and-coming seaside town) is weirdly un-Austen-like, with its talk of bathing machines and such, but that was set up by Austen herself and makes for a really interesting complement to her other novels, where people talk about going to Bath or Brighton but we rarely get to see what goes on there. (Persuasion still seems quite drawing roomy to me, whereas in Sanditon everyone is always hanging out on the beach or in tea rooms.)

There is some stuff in the second half that Austen would never, never do. The Sir Edward plotline goes off the rails totally when it starts to get rapey. Charlotte loses her head far more than any of Austen's other heroines. But the story in and of itself is great fun, the romance is satisfying, the characters are terrific, the actual writing is smooth. I love Austen, and obviously nobody can truly compare to her. But I am really really glad I read this. And it would make an excellent movie. 

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Monday, February 17, 2014

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (by Italo Calvino)

This book was highly and repeatedly recommended by Ian, and I finally read it. It's a postmodernist novel that's really the beginnings of 10 other novels, with an extremely Nabokovian streak to it (and I am not the first person who recognized this, either--Calvino was apparently influenced by Nabokov, and Pale Fire is mentioned on the Wikipedia page for this novel). For a sense of it, read the first chapter here. I love this first chapter. I kept sending paragraphs to a friend of mine because they were so deeply delightful. And the ending is so, so wonderful, the penultimate chapter's meditation on what it means to be a reader especially.

I was reading this while also re-reading Cloud Atlas, which made for a really interesting back and forth. The Calvino novel, like I said, is made up of a meta plotline interspersed with the beginnings of other novels in different genres and styles. Cloud Atlas is a series of interlocking stories where first you get all the beginnings, then all the endings in reverse order. The reading experience was so similar and yet so different, I just loved going from one to the other.

Of course, then I finished the book and immediately went to the internet, and the very first thing I found was an essay by David Mitchell where he said If on a Winter's Night a Traveler blew his mind when he first read it at sixteen. He writes, "My curiosity got stung to its core by the question, 'What would a novel where interrupted narratives are continued later look like?' I've just spent three years delicately extracting that sting by writing that very novel." The novel he was talking about is, of course, Cloud Atlas. WHAT.

So to sum up, this novel is the bridge between Pale Fire and Cloud Atlas, two of my favorite novels. I finished this novel and found that out, and my brain basically exploded with postmodernist glee. Definitely recommended if you enjoy metatextual stuff; I've never read anything else quite like it. But almost.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Goldfinch (by Donna Tartt)

I haven't read The Secret History or anything else by Tartt, but I read too many great things about this novel not to give it a try. (Plus it's a Tournament of Books finalist, unlike basically every other book I predicted would be there.) Then I got hooked on the free sample from Kindle, and the rest is reading history! Or at least, a blog post's worth.

The novel is a bildungsroman centering around Theo, a boy who has a lifelong connection with the eponymous painting "The Goldfinch" after a childhood encounter that I won't spoil. (The first awesome thing about this for me is that I saw this painting on exhibit not long ago. I've never been to Den Haag, where the painting is, but the Mauritshuis was undergoing renovation last year, and sent out a traveling exhibit that I saw when I was unemployed. The main attraction was "The Girl with the Pearl Earring," but I was struck by a number of smaller pieces, among them "The Goldfinch." I love that not only did I see this painting, but I vividly remember standing in front of it, having a similar experience to Theo's. I could easily have breezed by it, but the subject matter of a little chained-up finch was very striking to me. Now we have a goldfinch feeder outside our window and see them all the time. Serendipity.)

The novel is a coming-of-age story told in a series of novella-length vignettes, covering different periods in Theo's life. (I loved the one set in Vegas the most, I think.)  The whole novel is 775 or so pages long, so there's a lot of meat there.The characters are rich, the description is wonderfully vivid ("When the wind blew, the umbrella by the pool snapped with a gunshot sound"), and Theo is a sympathetic antihero, which I always enjoy. I feel like she could have done better by the female characters, but I enjoyed Kitsey and Pippa throughout, in different ways.

This book is an investment of time, but I would say well worth it for a compelling and propulsive story, interesting characters, gorgeous writing, and a meditation on the nature of art and our relationship with art that will stay with you. Recommended.

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