Friday, October 24, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (by Karen Joy Fowler)

This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I've had it on my radar for a while. When I was looking for a novel to read on my recent business trip, I decided to take a chance on this one. (I always indulge in novel-buying when I travel. Formerly this was a $16 book purchased in an airport gift shop, now it's "Buy With One Click!" on my Kindle or Kobo app.)

This book is excellent--gripping and thought-provoking, with a fabulous protagonist. It's narrated by Rosemary, who paints a realistic portrait of a dysfunctional family. She had two siblings, we are told, but as the book opens ("in the middle" of the story as Rosemary says) they are both missing. Rosemary is clearly somewhat broken and not fully reliable, which she admits in several meditations on the nature of memory and truth. But I really enjoyed her as a character.

The plot is page-turning, even though (or maybe because) it's related out of order, with several jumps in time. I had to keep going until I was done to find out what became of everyone. It wasn't until the book's final quarter that I started to be bothered by some flaws: it gets a bit didactic towards the end on the subjects of politics and animal experimentation. ("Corporations are people, but animals aren't!") I bought that Rosemary would feel this way, but the way it's presented didn't feel organic. There are also some developments at the end that seem unlikely and somewhat unbelievable, perhaps because the dots aren't quite fully connected there. But I'm being vague so as to not spoil anything.

Speaking of vague, it's hard to discuss this book without revealing the big secret as to why the narrator's sister Fern has disappeared. I also need to mention somewhat of a trigger warning in that Bad Things Happen to Animals. This is something I actually can't stand, in general, and I think at one point I'd heard about the Bad Things and decided to avoid the book. I had forgotten, however, and the novel sucked me in with the wonderful writing and propulsive plot and I couldn't have put it down even if I'd wanted to. I'm still very glad I read it, because it's remarkable. Worthy of the accolades it's gotten, for sure.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Isla and the Happily Ever After (by Stephanie Perkins)

This is another novel in the Anna and the French Kiss series by Stephanie Perkins. (It follows Lola and the Boy Next Door, which I actually have on my Kobo app, but I've forgotten my Kobo password and thus have not yet read it. So it goes.)

Like Anna, it's set in a Parisian boarding school for rich American students. The main characters of Anna and Lola make extended, somewhat awkward cameo appearances. But otherwise it's a great read: Isla is a delightful character, and the progression of her romance with Josh isn't formulaic or predictable, so it feels fresh. The obstacles in the way of their relationship make perfect sense and again, aren't predictable.

I also loved Isla's friendship with her best friend Kurt; it's a relationship unlike any I've read about before in the genre. And her bitchy sister is a little over the top but still fun. Overall I think I preferred it to Anna and the French Kiss; a fun read.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reread: Appointment in Samarra (John O’Hara)

Memory Reaction:

I remember this as something of a companion piece to The Great Gatsby, covering similar themes. I also of course remember the parable that the title is taken from. I did not remember anything about the plot.

Reread Reaction:

How on earth did I forget about all the sex? This book contains a lot of sex. The plot is simple: it recounts the downward spiral of a rich alcoholic named Julian English. But that belies its complexity, in what it's saying about the world in which its set--this is the kind of book that makes you (okay, me) want to go read some juicy literary criticism about it. I feel like the writing is incredibly inventive too, as it shifts perspectives and uses stream-of-consciousness incredibly effectively. It feels incredibly modern for something published in 1934, and I can imagine it would have felt revolutionary at the time. 

A friend of mine recently mentioned that she enjoys the genre of "rich people behaving badly," and as soon as I started rereading this I was like, yep, this book fits in that genre alright. Honestly, this book should be more widely read than it is; I continue to think it's an absolute classic.

Previous Review:

It's here, and I think my first paragraph is a good summary! I'd probably also throw in Under the Volcano and Revolutionary Road as comparisons.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Station Eleven (by Emily St. John Mandel)

This is one of those buzzy books that I've been hearing about here and there, a post-apocalyptic novel focusing on a traveling band of Shakespearean actors and musicians 20 years after a pandemic flu wipes out 99% of humanity. There's a new generation growing up who have never seen a world with air travel, electricity, or the internet.

The novel opens on an actor who dies of a heart attack (during a performance of King Lear) the same night the pandemic hits North America; many of the characters' lives intersect with his, and there are flashbacks and flash-fowards that cover the history of the characters, the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, and 20 years later. There's a dark period in the middle that, it is implied, was basically Cormac McCarthy's The Road and gave everyone PTSD which, if you've read The Road, is understandable.

The title refers to a series of comic books about Dr. Eleven, who lives on some type of planetoid space station and who has faced a similar apocalyptic event, so the ironic parallels abound, even though I never quite understood the concept of Station Eleven as well as I'd have liked. In flashbacks, we learn who created these and why.

I enjoyed many things about this novel: the lovely prose, the originality of the premise, the shifts in time, the strong female characters, and the meditations on modernity, on memory, on a world we take for granted. I also didn't mind all the intersections and coincidences; this was part of the enjoyment for me. I did have some quibbles: I wanted to understand Station Eleven better, I wanted a little more detail about why and how the Traveling Symphony was traveling, and I wanted a bit more characterizations of the members (we only learn about a handful). In fact, a number of the storylines and characters felt like I could easily have read twice as much about them. But that feels like a compliment to Mandel's storytelling more than a flaw.

Overall I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nocturnes (by Kazuo Ishiguro)

I am not really a short story person, which is something that has pained many people who have tried to get me to read Birds of America or any given America's Best Short Stories collection. I often am left wanting more at the end of a short story, and feel jarred by the shift from story to story. In keeping with the theme of this reading year, I have made peace with this. There are also some explicitly farcical moments in a couple of the stories.

All that said, this short story collection is by Kazuo Ishiguro, so you know I had to get it. Of course then it languished on my bookshelf because.... short stories. I have to say that Ishiguro's style, which always leaves you wanting more, is very suited to the short story style. These stories are thematically linked by music and nightfall, as well as an Ishiguroian sense of regret.

My favorite story was probably the first one, about a musician in Venice who runs into a famous over-the-hill musician and helps him serenade his wife. But I enjoyed them all, and found this collection very easy to read. Knowing Ishiguro, it's also going to have an immense re-readability factor--I find his novels get better the more you read them, and I'm betting his short stories are the same.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Give-Up Books

Well, Proust finally did it; he broke me. I started on part two of Swann's Way and was just, like, why. Why would I keep going when this has been slow torture? So I threw the book aside and enjoyed the dual feeling of failure and liberation that washed over me. Flibberation.

I don't know why, but for some reason, this novel was so difficult for me to stay focused on. My mind constantly drifted. I think in part it's the description thing--Proust does a lot of describing of scenery, and I always tune out lengthy descriptions of scenery. The writing isn't particularly difficult; his meditations on memory and time are beyond lovely, even. But I don't know, I think it came down to this was not to my taste, in the way that Henry James is to my taste, and maybe that's enough.

I think one of the interesting things I've gotten out of my reading goal this year is this idea that I can decide life's too short and move on to read something else. This is the fourth give-up of this year. It's a little more difficult when it's "literature" that I feel I "should" read, but this is a good lesson too, I think. Here are my give-ups to date for posterity:

I gave up on Slam by Nick Hornby when I realized I didn't really care about the travails of a whiny little white lad enough to read it, and the writing was average. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon actually shocked me with how poorly written it was. It was painfully awful and I made it through two pages before calling it quits. Maybe from page three onward it's a masterpiece but.... no. I didn't even open The Brothers K, I know it's a wonderful book, but I just admitted to myself finally after having it on my bookshelf for years that it wasn't gonna happen, I was never going to feel like reading it. And with Swann's Way, I gave it my best shot, but in the end, decided to bail.

Hopefully this means I have a shot at completing my reading goal; I have two reads and four re-reads to go.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Reread: Go Tell It on the Mountain (by James Baldwin)

This was on my reread list for the year, and also the League of Unreliable Narrators book club selection. (We've decided to take turns choosing a book that we have read, but the other person hasn't. Next up, Chris has chosen Wise Blood, which I am super stoked about.)

The discussion we had truly elevated my experience of this novel. All I remembered about it was its musicality, its religious themes, and its homoerotic subtext. I'd forgotten almost everything else. So it was a delight to go through and unpack some of the subtleties that make this such a masterpiece. (It may be nominally a "coming-of-age" story about a fourteen-year-old, but it's squarely an adult novel, with stories of John's mother, father, and aunt filling out the narrative.)

I felt like I was coming back to it as a totally different person--further removed from my Catholic upbringing, more informed about issues of race, and obviously, older--the first time I read it was almost exactly 14 years ago. (I just went back and read my original review, and my take on race was truly embarrassing, so I guess "more informed" is right.) For such a small novel, it covers a lot of ground--one generation removed from slavery, the experience in the north vs. the south, domestic abuse, sin and imperfection, complex familial relationships, and of course, the nature of religion and its role in the African-American community, both good and bad.

Definitely glad I came back to this one after so many years; and it made for an excellent book club discussion. Chris's awesome-as-always Goodreads review is here.

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Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Engagements (by J. Courtney Sullivan)

Bought this based on a rave review in Entertainment Weekly, a source I apparently really trust since I did the same thing with The Miniaturist. I unreservedly loved this one!

This is four interlocked (very loosely interlocked) stories on the theme of marriage spanning many decades, starting with the story of Frances Gerety, the real-life copywriter who wrote the slogan "A Diamond Is Forever" and never married. Four other stories of marriage are interspersed with the story of Frances's professional career, and the novel also includes memos about diamond advertising (the slogan, the "four C's," the two-months salary thing... all the ways in which we've been so cleverly suckered).

Evelyn is a happily married woman with a romantically tragic past whose son is on the brink of divorce; Delphine has left her husband in France for a brilliant American violinist; James is an EMT on a 24-hour shift who can't provide for his family the way he thinks he should; Kate is a liberal who hates the idea of marriage and the diamond industry (and is kind of a pill, which is fun) but who supports her cousin (finally legally able to get married) on his wedding day.

I enjoyed all of these stories roughly equally, and all of them felt well-researched and fully inhabited, spanning time and class and profession and gender and age. It isn't a David Mitchell style tour de force, but it's a really solid, very enjoyable piece of literary fiction, excellently crafted, and one of my favorite reads of this year.


Friday, October 03, 2014

One Plus One (by Jojo Moyes)

Another "vacation read" that I failed to read on my vacation due to technical difficulties. My tag for this one is "romcom," which I use instead of the irritating term "chicklit," but in this case, there may not be enough comedy to make that label feel accurate. This is not a criticism by the way! This "romcom" is above average; I would put it a notch above Marian Keyes,in fact.

Our protagonist is Jess, a single mom with two kids (the characterization of those two kids--who sometimes narrate--is the best) and they are really struggling to make ends meet. On the other end of the spectrum we have Ed, who is in trouble for insider trading and may go to prison. They meet cute when Jess turns out to be Ed's housecleaner, and later bartender. (Yep, she has two jobs.) Their fates intertwine.

The poverty issue is not glossed over, and Ed is not treated as a knight in shining armor, all of which I appreciated. The kids' father (Jess's ex) is also in the picture, and complicated emotions arise there as well. There is also some bullying that Jess's kids face in school, some of which gets legit frightening. Basically, this is not a frothy romcom. I was very invested in the story, particularly Tanzie getting her dream of going to private school on a math scholarship.

All in all I'd definitely read more Moyes. I recommend her to those of you who are Keyes fans, and I'd be curious to know if anyone has read more by her and would recommend anything else.