Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Sunday, December 28, 2008
13: Portrait of an Unknown Woman
When you are living in a family with one of the world's leading Holbein scholars, you tend to look at images - even tiny ones - and just know a Holbein when you see one.
I spotted this book on the shelf and reached for it immediately. Holbein! I read the bookjacket and added it to the pile immediately.
Portrait of an Unknown Woman, a work of historical fiction by Vanora Bennett, is a lovely piece that literally takes the reader inside one of Holbein's more famous (but secondary works). Following the family of Sir Thomas More during the Protestant Reformation (and specifically the character of Meg Giggs), Bennett weaves her own version of the story of "the two princes" as England is torn apart by the war between Catholics and Protestants.
I'll recommend the novel to arts students, lit students, and history buffs. And, of course, to members of my family, all of whom need a new Holbein reading this year.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
12: A Mercy
Two-book day! Two-book day! OK, OK -- I didn't read anything yesterday, and I didn't like this morning's read at all, so I kind of HAD to pick up a second novel today. I'm sooooo happy that I did.
So, over the past few years, I've wondered about Toni Morrison. This is not a woman who rests on the many laurels she has received as one of the greatest living writers in America, but (in all candor) I've been left waiting by her past few works.
I consider Song of Solomon and Beloved to me true masterworks, but I've been disappointed more recently.
In A Mercy, Toni Morrison does not disappoint -- not for a page, a paragraph, or a word.
This work is deep, dense and remarkable. When I first picked up the actual book, it felt slight and light in my hands. What I encountered as I turned the first page, though, was a rich and deep narrative, characters that lived both in the page and in the mind, and a sense of survival and passion that is so important to Morrison's work.
I highly recommend A Mercy. It sits near the top of Morrison's illustrious canon.
11: The Gathering
I'm usually a fan of the winners of the Man Booker Prize, and - when I picked up the title earlier in the month - I didn't recall why I hadn't read this work already.
Now I know.
Clearly, during some previous attempt, my local bookseller likely turned to me and said, "You aren't going to like this" and I probably put the title down.
There's nothing really more to say about it. I didn't like it. I was never engaged, I never cared about the world of the characters, and - when it was over - I openly wondered why it had won one of the most prestigious book awards in the world.
Sorry, Ms. Enright, but I'm not recommending the book.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
10: The Spiritualist
Megan Chance has written a dark, mysterious historical novel that works its way through the high and lowbrow worlds of 1850s New York. Evelyn Asherton is caught up in the murder of her husband and uses the worlds of spiritualism, seance (and seduction) to attempt to free herself from the gallows.
Her husband's partner comes to her rescue, as does one of the grand dames of New York society. Now living in the home of her new patron, Evelyn quickly comes under the sway of Michel Jourdain, who is either a brilliant clairvoyant or a charlatan.
What follows is a tale where - as the book jacket suggests - "sometimes truth is the greatest illusion of all."
Chance writes a clear and quickly-paced narrative, with winning characters. I only wish the storyline didn't follow the (somewhat) predicted path that played itself out in my mind about 3/4 of the way through the novel. I also felt kind of stretched by the actions of some of the characters but, even with that said, I enjoyed the read all the same.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
9: The Pesthouse
Just what you want on a 2-book day: another post-apocalyptical novel. Yes, The Road was one of my favorite books of last year, but that was last year. Apparently, though, I'm not quite done with the end of our culture and civilization because I really liked The Pesthouse.
I'd never read anything by Jim Crace before, but I'm looking forward to more of his stuff. There was something altogether poetic and spare about his writing. The Pesthouse brings us to another version of a future America, one in which no one even remembers the largeness of the nation. Lincoln is just a face on a coin -- but there are stories about "Abraham," who will return to them someday. People are trying to head East to get to the shore so that they can somehow cross the sea and get to a land they have been told exists: a new land of milk and honey.
It's a wonderful story, as seen through the eyes of a young woman who awakens to discover that everyone in her town has died in the night. She is almost completely alone.
I'm not giving any of the novel away, but it's a nice pairing with The Road.
8: Join Me!
Um, this book is insane. Danny Wallace, who is now known as the guy behind Yes Man, clearly has nothing to do with most of his life. He took out an ad and asked people to join him, without telling anyone what they were joining.
This book is the story of his adventures as he creates a movement called "Join Me" and gets himself up to 1000 join-ers.
My friend Jen told me that her brother gave her the book and, after reading it, she thought I would like it.
I liked it in the way that I like a puff pastry. I ate it, and now I'm going to forget all about it...with a smile on my face, of course.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
7: Bad Monkeys
Like I said, clearly I'm successful with vacation promises when I read TWO @#$&*% books in a day. Bad Monkeys came on the recommendation of my favorite bookseller, MK, and it does not disappoint.
Matt Ruff is a local Seattle author and, if I use the book to judge his mental state, he is totally OFF HIS ROCKER...in a good way. This work is inventive, creative, and altogether fresh.
We meet Jane Charlotte as she's been arrested for murder, a killing she admits to immediately. She claims, though, to be a member of an organization devoted to ridding society of its "Bad Monkeys" -- those individuals who live on the fringes, committing heinous crimes.
When she meets the psychiatrist in charge of the mental ward of the hospital, however, he challenges her ideas about what is real and what is imagined, and takes the reader down (more than) a number of (mildly confusing, but really intriguing) detours.
The end of the novel is a Chris McQuarrie delight: a twist, a double-back, another twist, and a final gunshot (or, in this case, a CI). The last few pages need to be savored, as you just want a little more -- one final double-back.
It's a quick, wonderful ride... and one that I recommend. I'd love to see this made into a movie, although I can't even picture Jane in my mind quite yet.
6: People of the Book
Again, I'd like to point out that I'm not supposed to be reading on this vacation, and that I've taken "a vow" to not read a book every day. Clearly, I'm successful with these kinds of vows....
People of the Book is really, really lovely. It blends my love for strong characters, multiple voices in a single text, archaeology, and Judaica. It tells the story of a very special Hagaddah -- and all of the people who touched it - and whose lives it touched - along the way.
The book is quite lyrical and mysterious, without being wordy or secretive. It just kind of opened up, slowly, to reveal itself to the reader. I was taken by the "lead" narrator, and her journey of self-discovery as she attempts to unravel the clues left inside the illustrated book she has been asked to clean and curate. As she makes new discoveries about the work, and about herself, we are transported back in time to meet the different people - and the stories of the book - whose journey seems to mirrors that of the narrator.
5: The White Tiger
Today didn't start well. I found out early this morning that my friend Peter died last night. He was so full of life that I thought he was going to beat cancer, altogether. I was pretty lost for most of the morning, and finally decided to dive into a book to help me lose myself.
Aravind Adiga's novel - winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize - is certainly one of my favorites of the year. Sure, the narrator is one of the most interesting characters to be written in the past ten years -- and sure, the location of the novel is one of the most interesting places in the world. But it is more than just those two things.
Adiga's voice is so strong here - and he has such a clear and sharp vision for this world - that the work feels painstakingly researched without feeling like a library.
Truly, the main character is an anti-hero, but he deals with his reality with such strength and purpose that you want him to succeed, even if that means murder. Every quote on the book jacket sets you up for a winner, and Adiga does not disappoint. The novel is a wonder!
Sunday, December 21, 2008
4: Wishful Drinking
Really, if I had told myself that I was going to finish 4 books on the first day of this "abbreviated books" holiday, I wouldn't have believed it. But that's what happened. Someone handed me Carrie Fisher's new work this afternoon and, after popping back The Uncommon Reader before sunset, I decided that I would look at the pictures in Fisher's book and, well, one thing led to another...and I read it.
I think that I'll likely get in trouble at Seattle Rep for this, but this book didn't really do it for me. I'm likely in trouble because Ms. Fisher will be performing her acclaimed one-woman show "Wishful Drinking" on our stages this Spring. It's been wildly popular everywhere it's played and, I mean, I can see how this material is funny -- but I just couldn't get around the "I just had electro-shock therapy and I can't remember anything and, my-oh-my, wasn't my life wonderful and weird" conceit of the whole thing.
I've met Carrie Fisher on three or so occasions. I found her to be witty and silly and dry and "spot on" when she took aim at a target. I knew she had problems with alcoholism and pills, etc... anyone who saw Postcards from the Edge knows all about it, but I always thought of her as a creative and real human being.
This book is so cavalier about her experience, and her treatment of the real people in her life is so shallow, that I was just turned off.
And, that said, I can't wait to see how that material translates when she performs the show live at the Rep this season! Go!
3: The Uncommon Reader
So, this is the vacation where I'm only reading 10 books, right? So, this is the first day and I've already read 3, right? So, I've actually read 4 already today - and it was really sunny and I swam a lot, too. And I took a trip to the grocery store to pick-up stuff, too. SO...clearly I'm not keeping this absurd promise.
Anyway, Alan Bennett's book is a gem for book lovers. I'm a fan of great pagination, and I really have to add that the layout of the last page is a knockout. I turned the page, and the end of this book hit me right between the eyes. I'd recreate the wonderful last sentence here, but I'd be afraid that the three of you would be upset with me, as I'd ruin this novella. Suffice it to say that it's a powerful, wonderful ending that does not, in any way, feel forced. Bennett has a wonderful way with dialogue and storytelling (I'm a fan of The History Boys) and knows his way around a castle, as well.
One bit I happen to really like is that, as Bennett points out, it's all the fault of the dogs. And if dogs are to blame, this is my kind of book! If they hadn't been out around the side of the house, then the Queen herself (yes, the Queen of England, you dumbass) wouldn't have seen the book van and gone in to borrow a book. It's the fastest, most lovely 120 pages after that, as the Queen goes on a magical journey, rediscovering herself - and the world around her - through her love for books.
Sounds familiar. Recommended!
2: The Nimrod Flipout
Nuts. That's really the first word that comes to mind when I think about this insane, mind-altering, hysterical, magical, absurd, dynamic, creative and inspiring set of stories written by Etgar Keret.
I could not pick a favorite if I had a year to choose: Fatso, The Nimod Flipout, Eight Percent of Nothing, More Life, For Only $9.99 -- any and all could serve as nominees for favorite piece of short (and in some cases amazingly short) fiction of the year, if not the decade.
This is a laugh-out-loud-is-anyone-looking-at-me read. Keret takes you on a journey that is at times magical, at times tragic, at times life-affirming, and at times utterly bizarre.
I do know this, though: my students will be reading some of these for years to come, that's for sure! And, c'mon: Look at that book jacket and tell me you could possible pass up on that image!
1: Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician
I'm not a huge fan of Daniel Wallace. I mean, I've seen Big Fish and I'm into magical realism, it's just that Wallace has never made me shout out loud or anything. So, I approached this work with a little bit of reservation.
I shouldn't have. It was a delightful read - living somewhere between my love for magic, history, multiple narrators in a single text, and storytelling. It's almost impossible to discuss the plot of the book without tipping a hand, but suffice it to say that the majority of the action takes place in the South as Musgrove's Chinese Circus comes to town, with the worst magician ever as one of its lead performers. And Henry Walker does not disappoint; he's a terrible magician... with a dark past and a horrible secret. Oh, and the devil's in the book, and you know how I love to read about relatives.
The Reading Begins...
The three of you who follow this blog know that - each and every year - I read as much as I can over the winter break. This year, in an effort to prove to others (and myself) that I am a capable parent, I have decided to cut my normal "19 books in 14 days" event in half, thus leaving time for my children.
Really. I swear. I'm only reading, like, 9 books. Or 10. 11 tops.