Sunday, July 20, 2008

Officially a Teenage Girl

Okay, I've apparently morphed back into a teenage goth girl. I burned through all three Stephenie Meyer Twilight novels since July 4, listened to all of the Host over the past month while quilting, and am ready to pre-order Breaking Dawn and show up at midnight on August 2 to pick it up. And I signed up for Twitter. I think it was the cute little bird on the Twitterific iPhone app. Good gravy, what is wrong with me? What way is this to begin my book awards challenge? I think I am actually book award challenged at this point. Sigh. Well, good thing it's not August yet (or December, when a Twilight movie is opening!). Now, onto something more educationally uplifting. I think I'll start with Waiting by Ha Jin.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Junk Food

I was at Target today--which is having too many clearance sales, not a good economic sign--and decided to get my daughter a serial novel to jump start her into more big girl reading. She's six and has mad reading skills already, so in my drive to make her the Michael Phelps of reading :), I decided she should try to read a tween junk food novel over summer. She's obsessed with mermaids (Ariel, H2O), so I bought her The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and a little book light for night reading. She was so excited!

In the same aisle, I found the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer and bought the first volume. I'm listening to her book, The Host, while quilting this month; it has an entertaining concept spread thin over many pages (or hours in audioland). I love listening to junk food novels. They're ideal for secondary entertainment. They're typically not very well edited and are written in a way that suggests their authors may have been paid by the word, so I don't even feel bad wandering out of the room periodically while they play on. We're headed to my in-laws for the 4th, so I thought I'd take Twilight along as a guilty pleasure. Apparently, these books are a teen subculture phenomenon for those whose hormones have taken them past Harry Potter (Flowers in the Attic, anyone?).

Plus, I need to get my sugar rush out of the way before I jump into the noble pursuit of award-winning fiction :)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Fresh Start: Book Awards Challenge 2

I'm starting this blog anew with the Book Awards Challenge 2. The challenge is to read 10 award winning books from at least 5 different awards lists from August to June (i.e., 10 months). I tried to scan the lists for books I already own . . . but are sitting unread on the shelf. So, here's my list of 10:

1) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Pulitzer Prize, 2005)
2) Ha Jin, Waiting (PEN/Faulkner, 2000)
3) Seamus Heaney, Beowulf (Costa/Whitbread, 1999)
4) Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (Giller Prize, 1996)
5) Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (James Tait Black, 2002)
6) Michael Chabon, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Pulitzer Prize, 2001)
7) Eudora Welty, Collected Stories (National Book Award, 1983)
8) Kate Christensen, The Great Man (PEN/Faulkner, 2008)
9) Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker (PEN/Hemingway, 1995)
10) Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin (Orange Prize, 2005)

I already own about half of these. Time to get my read on!!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Smile When You're Feeling Blue

First off, let me confess that I did not "read" Smile When You're Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg, I listened to it as I quilted, drove, cleaned house, etc. However, it was the unabridged version read by Ms. Berg, herself, so I feel pretty okay reviewing it. It should be noted that Ms. Berg has a lovely speaking voice.

I really liked this book at the start. This may be my particular overlay, but given the fairly consistent limited omniscient perspective from Kitty's POV (at one point it suddenly and without explanation shifts to Louise then zips right back to Kitty) and given Kitty's predilections and the near saintliness of Louise, I started to pick up a real Austenian P&P vibe. As in, what if the story were told by Kitty. Plus, I liked Kitty. But, as we like to say in our house (a la the Simpsons), then the C.H.U.D.s came.

About halfway through, two distinct turns happened in the book that really pushed me out.

First, Berg begins to rely extensively on letters from soldiers to tell her story. Now, this Ken Burns-ian device can be effective, but the advantage Burns has is that the letters he uses are all actually written by different people. So, the voices in each letter sound different--different tone, nuance, approach, diction, etc. Berg's basically all sound the same--as though they were written by highly educated men with a penchant for 40s slang. And, golly they're long. The extreme length of the letters may not be as evident on the page--where small font, etc., can obscure things--but when they're read aloud, jeepers creepers! It's little wonder the war took so long if the troops were taking afternoons off to write epistolary novels Clarissa-style . Finally, after letter upon letter, the device wears really thin. It takes on a voice-over quality that seems desperate. I would have much rather focused on the inner lives of the Heaney family. I'm certain they have them, right?

Second, suddenly the novel becomes a rehash of American sentimental fiction wherein Kitty moves from Rosie the Riveter to a self-abnegating Little Eva-like character. At every turn, Kitty is punished--in ways both small and large. She breaks her nails and is made filthy at work; she keeps at her job because she's guilted into by her dad; she loses Julian (JULIAN? what kind of name is this for 1940s America?) to Tish; she decides to quit the job she now likes because of Hank; her boyfriend turns from supportive feminist guy to simmering rage jerk; she offers up her fiance Hank to her desperate sister; she lingers for 60 (!!) years longing for the children she never had with the husband she never had--all the while hanging with her sister who has both. And her reward? A dance at her 60th high school reunion with her ex-fiance brother-in-law. Wow, this is just full-on creepy!

All of these issues don't even take into account that the book just seems to lose steam. Key narrative events appear as lacunae. Huge decisions go unexplained. Changes in characters just happen. So much of this novel is on the surface, when it would have been so fulfilling to get a deeper portrait of the girls at home. As it is, the novel is like the cover of 40s glamour magazine--pretty but . . .

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Man of My Dreams

I picked up Curtis Sittenfeld's The Man of My Dreams in the Atlanta airport on my latest trip into the wide, wide world. I was actually drawn in by the paperback's cover, which so captured that moment in the Great Gatsby when Daisy weeps into Jay's beautiful shirts that I was overcome and purchased immediately . . .

And, then I looked inside. I hesitate to call the book a novel because it strikes me as a succession of character moments in the protagonist's life. They are connected more by the thread of her existence than by any real plot or momentum. Now, this may be the point, as Hannah herself seems stuck as the emotionally remote, psychologically scarred child, but if this is the case, it makes better structural theory than structure. Nothing makes this clearer than the end, which is basically a stopping point rather than anything that suggests the book had an arc.

To wit: at the end, there's this kind of Lifetime movie letter to the now-we-see-her, now-we-don't therapist who's been in and out of the book rather randomly. The letter is a sadly overdetermined, "I'm over him, I swear" creation that in real life would be about 30 typed pages--which immediately pushes it into the realm of seriously and/or cry for help. In effect, the letter acts as the "Angels talk to Charlie" end to this episode and wraps up the novel just about as well. This is especially true because the letter seems to harken back to the undergrad Hannah, not to the slightly more adult Hannah seen just a few pages earlier. But, we never learn why she regressed or if she had never progressed or why we're still supposed to be reading.

Having said all this, Hannah is interesting largely because she's all inner life separated from any expressed emotion or engagement. But, this kind of character is more short story interesting than novel interesting. And, few of the other characters sustain interest at all: Fig is a tiresome and stereotypical queen bee; Michael is a passive loser; Allison seems brought on stage left for dramatic tension and then forgotten just as quickly when the need for her plot point vanishes; Elizabeth and Darach could be intriguing but they disappear. We never see enough of Hannah's mom or dad to get what exactly is going on, etc. If they were all drawn more fully, we might care, but they aren't.

Beautiful cover, though.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Brief History of the Dead

I grabbed Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead off my husband's night stand before a flight to Texas because it was slim enough to fit in my bag. I had just started the latest Jane Smiley, but it was too thick. I didn't really know anything about it other than it was about some kind of afterlife waiting room. I got a bit worried when I read that Brockmeier was a McSweeney, as this is really more my husband's cup of tea than mine. But, what a great book! I had it finished by the time I hit Austin.

Okay, here's my question: why wouldn't Coke stop this book from being published? I'm not going to give away any big secrets--not that I have a bunch of readers who would be disappointed by spoilers--but Coke is not presented in the best light in this book. And, this less-than-best-light seems to fit just fine. I was just really surprised that the book wasn't squashed or squished or buried under antarctic snows.

But, given that it wasn't, I really liked how the stories are woven together with the dropped hints about connections. I was also surprisingly affected by the way in which relationships supersede all else in the city--how all the dross falls away from the Byrd's relationship and how Minny connects with Luka and so on--and in Laura's own life as it hurtles to its end. Brockmeier's descriptive touch is also solid. I could feel the cold, see the colors, and hear the heartbeat.

I also appreciated the subtle way in which we're placed in the future. It is a place similar to our own in so many ways (e.g., crappy business meet and greets; egg sandwiches; and, of course, Coke), but the world has just enough techno changes to make it clear we're in the "not now." This is the way the future is coming at us--not with flying cars and jet packs but with BlackBerries, corporate mergers, and bioengineered waters--so it all seemed very real.

If I had any criticism, it is that the last section of the book, as Laura fades away, goes on a bit too long. I had too many, "I got it, already," moments that I didn't earlier on. So, it didn't end as strongly as it should have. Still, a real surprise that makes me rethink my next visit to Atlanta.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Suite Francaise

I took a break to defend my dissertation and actually finish my degree. Woo-hoo! So, now, I get to go back to novels rather than policy and data (though, I'm wonky enough to like those as well).

So, the first book I picked up upon finishing was Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. As probably everyone knows by now, this work is actually two chapters of a planned novel by Nemirovsky. However, her plans were interrupted by those of the Third Reich. I had read a brief sketch of the horrifying events of her life before reading the book--and intentionally didn't want to read the more detailed recounting that is part of the ancillary materials in the book before reading the two chapters: Storm in June and Dolce. I didn't want my opinion of them to be overly colored by her biography. I needn't have worried.

Suite Francaise is an achingly beautiful book. Nemirovsky's narrative voice is sharp and cold in its pitiless assessment of the foibles of the rich and privileged that frequently spell their doom. She is particularly harsh on the upper class, whose emotional range seems to have been as neatly trimmed and trained as its carefully manicured gardens and as dulled as its dusty drapes. An example . . . The head-spinning turn of Madame Pericand in a moment from self-righteous self-declared exemplar of noblesse oblige to wild-eyed hoarder is wonderfully drawn to both show the horrors that the war is bringing and distance the reader from any moment of sympathy for Pericand.

At other times, Nemirovsky can paint a reasonably unsympathetic situation in a cautiously warm glow all the while suggesting the dangerous sadness that war both creates and reveals. When Lucile engages in her platonic romance with Bruno, Nemirovsky manages both to play with the romantic conventions and then to shatter them as foolish delusions destined to lead to tragedy. In these first two chapters, her own heart is reserved for the characters stuck in the middle (like Lucile or the Michauds or even Bruno), those whose own goodness and kindness seems to arise in spite of their surroundings. War, the book suggests, doesn't produce "the greatest generation"; it simply makes each of us even more of what we really are, which--for most of the characters--is not very pretty.

I had never heard of Nemirovsky before reading Suite Francaise but the talent that exudes from the pages and the sheer beauty of so many of the sentences makes me want to read more. Her anger and the vengeance that she clearly desired comes through the weaponry of her words, and I am intrigued to see how her voice plays out in her earlier works.

Read this book. It will break your heart--for all the right reasons.