Saturday, December 30, 2006

Book 18: The Things They Carried

OK, it's a redo, but I'm counting it anyway. I'm teaching Tim O'Brien's excellent novel The Things They Carried to my Senior English classes this year, so it required a re-read on my part -- a little freshening up on a novel I hadn't read for a number of years.

Many teachers refer to this work as the "ultimate" fictional work on the Vietnam War, and I think I agree. It's a masterwork, and I've yet to meet a high school student -- male or female -- that isn't deeply impacted and moved by the work.

That, my friends, is the end of my holiday reading. I took this afternoon off to enjoy a little more sun, so there is one orphan title on my list. Ah...the new year becons.

Book 17: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer is really, in the end, out of his mind. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is just another example of his madness. It's a brilliant madness, of course, with so much boldness and originality that he kind of reinvents the idea of the novel each and every time he publishes.

I can't say I loved this latest book, but that doesn't mean it isn't incredibly well-written, deftly crafted, and exciting. Narrational shifts are now par for the course for Foer, and -- given his history -- you know better than to believe that anyone is reliable. But, with that said, the story holds together as a young boy (with a key) goes in search of a lock (somewhere in the five -- or six -- boroughs of New York).

This was a two-book day for me again, so my advice may not go over with those of you who will take you time with it, but here goes: Read it...and then take some aspirin.

Book 16: My Sister's Keeper - A Novel

This selection was the final book recommended by my friend Marta this year, and I know why she had this one on the list: My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult, has a wonderful structure, some memorable characters, but its central feature is an ethical and moral dilemma...and she knew I'd bite.

The main character, Anna, was conceived by her parents so that she could be a bone-marrow donor for her sister, Kate. After giving in to 13 years of medical procedures, Anna finds an attorney and goes to court to become medically emancipated from her parents, thus denying her older sister the kidney she needs to live. The story calls into question just who is in charge of Anna's life -- and what role she really plays in a family dynamic marked by looming tragedy (both from the dying Kate and her brother, Jesse).

Picoult uses multiple narrators -- a different person each chapter -- so that readers can get into the mind of each of her main characters. It's not a novel approach, but it is effective. Soon, we are caught up with Anna's attorney and the secondary story of his relationship with Anna's guardian ad litem (and his wily service dog).

Picoult had me...right up until the last 10 pages. After that, I was off the deep end. Sadly, all of the elements that had me turning pages fell out of place so Picoult could put a bow on her story -- and I didn't buy it.

I liked the book, but I just can't recommend it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Book 15: The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel, written by Diane Setterfield, has one of the best openers of any novel in recent memory -- one that makes you really stop and consider some big questions about the nature of storytelling. First, more thanks: Marta recommended this one and even threw in the book.

It's part-ghost story, part-thriller, and all-wonderful. The narrator, Margaret Lea, is the daughter of a bookseller and is hired to write the biography of a reclusive writer -- the Agatha Christie of her time. What she discovers is a remarkable story, indeed. I didn't put it down, which says something for both the author, her remarkable characters, and the story itself.

Best of all, the ending feels both comforting and completely natural -- no false notes.

Highly recommended -- especially for fans of the British novel (and ghost stories).

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Book 14: Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen's novel came recommended by my vacation-friend Marta, who even went so far as to drop two more recommendations on my chaise today. She was right about this one, for sure.

Jacob Janokowski's life journey takes him from his final exams at Cornell through his time travelling with a train-circus through pre-Depression America. It is a lovely story, and it is well-told. We drift back and forth -- first meeting Jacob at a singular moment in his life, and then jump forward 70 years to his "assisted living center" as he is transported back and forth in time through his memories.

Suffice it to say, it's a book about a man, a woman, another (bigger) man, a dwarf, an old guy, and an elephant. It isn't a classic boy-meets-girl, but if you are hungry for nostalgia, then Water for Elephants will take you back to another era.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book 13: State of Denial

For those of you under a variety of rocks, State of Denial continues Carl Bernstein's account of the Bush presidency's actions leading to the invasion of Iraq -- and then takes us beyond...deep into the morass. Specifically, Bernstein proves that the pen is mightier than the sword by using interviews, recreations, documents, and a variety of accounts to SCREW Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the sticking place (where he belongs). This is so unflattering a portrayal that I have to wonder how Rumsfeld can even look at himself in the mirror (if he can even see himself in it at all...but that's another story).

I was angry enough by page 10 to say dreadful things out loud, but so worn down by page 150 that I didn't think I could finish the read at all. In a few hours, I had run myself ragged with frustration, resentment, and anger. By page 470, I couldn't imagine a world that hadn't impeached this President, run Rumsfeld up (and down) the flagpole, and sentenced most of Bush's inner circle to some kind of painful incarceration.

Through it all, Bernstein never lets you forget that Rumsfeld's continual bullying and grabs for power (and Bush's anti-intellectual approach) cost Americans -- and Iraqis -- their lives.

Sadly, I must highly recommend this book for all to read. I wish it hadn't happened at all....

Monday, December 25, 2006

Book 12: The Book Thief

And then, one afternoon, you put a book down and announce (to no one at all): "Book of the Year!" It's that moment when the utter euphoria of a title just bursts forth and you want to buy 100 copies and just hand them out all over town.

And, oh yea, the narrator is Death.

The Book Thief is a wonder. Written by Markus Zusak, who writes Young Adult novels, this fabulous book is usually found in the YA section of most bookstores. It doesn't belong there sitting close to the floor (the author's last name begins with a "Z" and means that it is all the way at the end); frankly, I think it belongs in those big-ass displays in the front of stores in the "Best of 2006" section.

The work is extraordinary, the writing is superb, the tone is wry, funny, sad, and magical all in one breath. And the narrator is Death. I've said it twice, but he's such a wonderfully drawn figure, he stays with you, well, forever. Don't laugh.

I give many thanks to my vacation-pal Marta for the recommendation.

I highly recommend it! Go! Buy it!

Book 11: Ordinary Wolves

A strong recommendation brought me to Seth Kantner's novel, Ordinary Wolves. I had been standing in my favorite indy bookstore, looking at the purple hues of the cover art (eh), and couldn't decide. MK (the bookseller) decided for me and added it to my pile of stuff. I'm glad she did.

"Ecological Fiction," as it is now called, isn't really my cup of tea. I live in the Pacific NW, so I get to see nature...I didn't think I needed to read it. Boy, was I wrong. It's hard to describe, in detail, the little details that Kantner includes to bring us into the life of Cutuk, the main character, and the family that surrounds him. Suffice it to say that the book is a remarkable gift to those of us who live in cities. In describing Cutuk's encounter with "the city," when he finally reaches it, we get to see just how far we are from the world around us.

I look forward to passing this book on to some of my peers when I get back from this book-y vacation that I'm on.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Book 10: Kafka On The Shore

This book actually travelled with me all summer, and I never so much as cracked it open. It was giving off a vibe that said "don't read me until you are ready to read me." Now I know why.

The novel is a dual story -- a kind of dueling Odyssey -- between a 15-year old runaway and an elder man. It is both epic and metaphysical (don't even ask what Colonel Sanders is doing in the novel), and Haruki Murakami is an inspired and wonderful writer.

With that said, Kafka On The Shore felt incomplete to me. Don't get me wrong, Murakami is a freaking genius and his creativity seems boundless, it's just that I felt unresolved. There is a loneliness that pervades every character -- people in search of something that seems unknowable and outside of reality; but there is also a sense of fate -- that things are all coming together. And they don't.

So to say that I'm unresolved after 480 pages means that something is still missing for me. Or that I have more thinking to do. Which is likely the case....

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Book 9: The History of Love

This morning, I spent a few (too brief) hours with Nicole Krauss' lovely novel, The History of Love. According to the reviews on the book jacket, the book is "marvelous" and "astonishing" and "ingenious" while also being "brilliant" and "hilarious" and "heartbreaking." Really: Who am I to argue with reviewers when they are right.

I loved it and -- like many great works this week -- only wished to spend even a few more pages with the characters Krauss created. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Book 8: Suite Francaise

Even though I put Suite Francaise down several hours ago, it is still very much alive in my mind and in my heart. I'm so glad that I waited to read it until late in the year, because it is, in my mind, the Book of the Year. Irene Nemirovsky wrote this masterwork in the early stages of WWII, and the book only saw the light of day after her daughter decided to donate her mother's papers to a museum. In an effort to make her mother's notes more clear, Nemirovsky's daughter began the painstaking process of going through them. In doing so, she discovered that what she thought were notes were, in fact, two completed works and notes for the rest.

Suite Francaise is a multi-character novel that carefully spans the word of Paris as the German army arrives. Nemirovsky captures the madness, the horrific decisions that every citizen was forced to make, the passion, the hunger, and the daily struggle that was France during this awful period.

The work is a masterpiece, and I grieve for the parts that are lost to time -- the parts that the reader can see, but not read, as Nemirovsky was taken away by the Nazis and killed before completing her work. Highly recommended!

Book 7: The Seville Communion

As I read the Captain Alatriste series by Arturo Perez-Reverte, I noticed the name of this novel on the author's list of titles. I had never read it and got lucky when the local indy bookstore here had a copy.

The Seville Communion is another wonderful book by Perez-Reverte. Set in the modern era, the book deals with a crisis of conscience for a priest sent from Rome to Seville to deal with a church "that kills." The building, set to be torn down, is believed responsible for the death of two -- with more on the way. The priest, whose good looks are a source of attraction for the local women, gets more than he bargains for in his relationships with the people he meets, including an older priest and a young woman of "some fame" in Seville.

It was another wonderful read -- and I recommend it!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Book 6: The Anthropology of Turquoise

Two-book day alert! Yes, the pleasure was all mine. The Anthropology of Turquoise is exactly what you might expect from a book that has the following two stickers on the front cover: "Pulitzer Prize Finalist" and "Book Sense 76 Pick".

At first, I didn't know what to make of it, but I faded into the book over the course of about a half-hour, and soon began to see each description, each beat, as a special moment.

Ellen Meloy has written a novel-form poem to the landscape; each beat -- each item she encounters -- takes her back into her journey of family and self, as she explores the beauty that surrounds us. It is, at turns, surprising, delightful, and heady. I kept having to put it down to remind myself of the landscape I was absorbing the book through.


Book 5: The Brooklyn Follies

In The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster has created a Brooklyn wonderland inhabited by our narrator, a retired life-insurance salesman (who isn't dying anymore), and his cohorts who include, but are not limited to: his nephew, a drag queen book clerk, their ex-con boss, a sometimes mute little girl, a jewelry-maker, a waitress with a domineering husband, and -- no, wait for it -- some people who own (but don't run) a B&B. It's wonderful, funny, touching, and remarkable -- and I wish it went on for 200 more pages.

Buy it now, read it tomorrow. You won't regret a minute of it, until it's over and you want to read it again.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Book 4: Utterly Monkey

So, a two-book day is supposed to be a celebration of the possibility of completing over 20 books over the course of a vacation. As I approached Utterly Monkey this afternoon, then, it was with the veil of optimism and a strong recommendation by a friend.

And...I was disappointed. After it was over, I remembered the characters, but wondered why in the hell they were doing what they were doing. Our lead, a young lawyer in London, makes some odd and unsupported choices that made the end of the novel rather defeating, which was in direct opposition to the action. Our tale is told in just a few days, and that's what it feels like. Yes, we are meeting people in what could be the most important moments in their lives, but I was left wanting more.

I hate it when I look at the dustjacket afterward, read the description, and think, "Huh? What book are they writing about?" Described as "a beautifully intricate dissection of the corporate world, and a hilarious depiction of modern male friendships" I found it to be...well, neither. It felt like half of a Mike Newell movie, if that makes sense.

The title comes from a dirty tale that one of our characters tells about another at a party. I can't recommend this one, much as I liked some of the elements. Nick Laird can write, that's for sure, but I wasn't impressed with the breadth of this and I was left lost by some of the immediacy of the choices.

Book 3: Purity of Blood

Mmmmm. So after devouring the first book in the series, I was really excited to read Purity of Blood, the second in the Captain Alatriste series. I wasn't disappointed. While it was short of the sweeping action of the first book, the simplicity of the plot here really was served by the depth of the character development. We learn more about the nature of the relationships here amid the backdrop of the Inquisition, which plays a decidedly more important role than in the first novel. Our hero is heroic, but this tale really seems to belong more to our narrator and to the supporting characters, including the arch-villian of the series, who we are sure to hear more from. Still recommended!

Book 2: Captain Alatriste

Arturo Perez-Reverte has been responsible for some of the most joyous beach-reads I've ever had, so I've been saving Captain Alatriste since this summer. When the sequel came out, I had even more reason to save it, so I could read them together. It was worth the wait.

Set in 17th Century Spain, Perez-Reverte's hero (Diego Alastriste) is a man of the old-world: a swashbuckler and former soldier with a moral code driven by his need to stave off hunger and debtor's prison. His friends are a motley crew of poets and priests, and the narrator -- a young boy taken in by the Captain -- participates with a sense of both grandeur and awe at his elder's exploits.

Fast-moving and rich in both historical detail and a great sense of character, Perez-Reverte has started a great series, one I'm looking forward to continuing...tomorrow! I love it when I save two books that turn out to be winners!

Vacation Book 1: The Foreign Correspondent

For those of you not familiar with the great book race, my friend Bruce and I vacation together every year. During that time, I read about a book a day, and Bruce stares at the same chapter from the new James Patterson novel for about a week. One year, someone asked me what I read over the break. In an effort to remember all of my books, I decided to blog them a little, so students and friends could follow along.

With that introduction, my first book on the vacation was Alan Furst's The Foreign Correspondent. I'm a big fan of Furst, but brought this one along because my father -- who lives in Europe -- wants to read it and is too cheap to buy it on Amazon. So, I'll ship it to him when I'm done (oh, dutiful son).

Another in the series of Furst's excellent espionage novels, The Foreign Correspondent is a little more hopeful than some of his other books. I was particularly engaged when I realized that characters and beats from Furst's other novels were working their way into this one. Set in Italy and surrounding nations, we follow the editor of the leading underground newspaper through pre-WWII Europe and watch, sadly, as small pieces are put into place that will lead to disaster for many.

Recommended! Look for it in a small package on its way to Europe....