Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rapid Fire Reviews!!!!!

title:  In Red
author: Magdalena Tulli
pages: 158
genre: literary fiction
published: November 2011
source:  New York Public Library

Translated from Polish by Bill Johnson, the main character in Tulli's In Red is the fictional town of Stitchings.  Part portrait, part magical realism, Tulli creates a town from which there may be no escape, chronicling the life and death of an ensemble of the town's figureheads.  Chaotic, claustrophobic, and intensely lyrical, Tulli's strength lies in her insane command of language to create the mood and atmosphere of the piece.  

Rubric rating: 7

title:  There But For The
author: Ali Smith
pages: 236
genre: literary fiction
published: September 2011
source:  New York Public Library

One evening, Miles Garth attends a dinner party at the home of Genevieve Lee, and between the main course and dessert, leaves the table, walks upstairs and locks himself in the Lee's spare bedroom.  And refuses to leave.  For about a year.

Smith tells the story from the perspective of four individuals with varying relationships with Miles, and through each, the reader is able to assemble a portrait of the man that is Miles Garth, and Smith's strength lies in her ability to at once create these personal pictures of each character while at the same time examining the themes of separation and connection.  

Rubric rating: 7

title:  The Psychopath Test
author: Jon Ronson
pages: 288
genre: nonfiction-psychology
published:  2011
source:  New York Public Library

Note to the single ladies:  I happened to have this book with me one Friday night as I waited to meet a friend at a bar, and three different men approached me to flirt/ask about the book.  Apparently, this book is a man magnet.  Unanticipated bonus ;)

While investigating the origins of mysterious packages sent to neurologists around the world, Ronson becomes fascinated with the DSM-V and the characteristics of psychopaths.  He wonders:  could some of the most successful and powerful individuals be, in essence, psychopaths?

I really enjoy Ronson's narrative style.  I felt like I was with him in his head as he discovered new information and revised his thinking, which is something readers don't usually get to experience in nonfiction.  Hilarious, thought-provoking, disturbing and insightful, The Psychopath Test is not to be missed!

Rubric rating: 8

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Coming Soon...

Oh man.  It has been a while...

So many things have kept me from posting :(

1.  ALL of my holds from the library came in at the same time.
No matter where I was on the holds list, Murphy's Law, everything comes in at once.  Leaving me a bit backlogged.  My To Read pile is a bit out of control...

2.  I have massive book ADD.
In EVERY OTHER ASPECT of my life, I'm able to start a task and complete it.  But my raccoon-esque book ADD has been out of control this past month.   And library due dates only enable me.  When I get an email from the NYPL that a book will soon be due, and I haven't started it yet, if it can't be renewed, I end up doing some strategic restructuring of my reading schedule (I'm looking at you, Alice LaPlante's Turn of Mind), leaving me with several half-finished books next to my bed.

Dating in NY, especially dating online in NY, is like having a second full time job.  And unfortunately, my social calendar has, for the most part, been adversely affecting my reading. Although, one thing I did learn this month:  men dig a chick reading books about psychopaths.  One night, I had a copy of Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test with me (train reading) as I waited for a friend at the bar, and three separate men approached me and used the book to flirt with me.  Duly noted...

4.  My freelance photography business is growing!
I've had several gigs, so a ton of photoediting to do.  No complaints here though!  Check out the tumblr if you so desire :)

So, in the next few days, look out for reviews of:
Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife
Graham Greene's The End of the Affair
Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers
Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test
Bradford Morrow's The Uninnocent

I promise to never leave you alone for that long again!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer

title:  Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence
author:  Geoff Dyer
pages:  232
genre:  memoir
published: 1997
source:  New York Public Library

So, I may have a small intellectual crush on Geoff Dyer.

Hear me out.

Out of Sheer Rage is a memoir of sorts as Dyer writes a book about his attempt to write a book on D.H. Lawrence, and it's far less a study of Lawrence and far more an analysis of the author himself.  Unexpectedly though, as I read, I felt myself regressing to a deluded, giggly school girl, gushing every few pages "it's, like, he TOTALLY gets me!"  There were times as I read where I wondered where Dyer obtained the transcript of my inner monologue (though his way with words is far more eloquent than my silent ramblings).  Check out some of Dyer's eerily accurate brilliance:

On getting in our own way/the lies we tell ourselves:  "The perfect life, the perfect one which prevents you from doing that which you would ideally have done (painted, say, or written unpublishable poetry) but which, in fact, you have no wish to do.  People need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted; whereas the life they really want is precisely a compound of all those thwarting circumstances.  It is a very elaborate, extremely simple procedure, arranging this web of self-deceit:  contriving to convince yourself that you were prevented from doing what you wanted.  Most people don't want what they want:  people want to be prevented, restricted....That's why children are so convenient:  you have children because you're struggling to get by as an artist- what is actually what being an artist means- or failing to get on with your career.  Then you can persuade yourself that your children prevented you from having this career that had never looked like working out.  So it goes on: things are always forsaken in the name of an obligation to someone else, never as a failing, a falling short of yourself." (page 126-127)

On freedom:  "Unless, like Thelma and Louise, you plunge off the side of a canyon, there is no escaping the everyday.  What Lawrence's life demonstrates so powerfully is that it actually takes a daily effort to be free.  To be free is not the result of a moment's decisive action but a project to be constantly renewed.  More than anything else, freedom requires tenaciousness." (page 138)

On personal credo: "You'll regret it:  there are worse mottoes to live by.  Successful people say that it is stupid to regret things but the futility of regret only increases its power...Looking back through my diary is like reading a vast anthology of regret and squandered opportunity. Oh well, I find myself thinking, life is there to be wasted." (page 169)

Just the tip of the iceberg.  Funny, personal yet universal, clever, intelligent, challenging:  I couldn't put this book down and, given the massive fine I've incurred with the NYPL, I'll probably have spent the equivalent of two copies by the time I return it.  I regret nothing.

With its focus on process, this memoir serves as almost a pseudo-AA meeting of sorts for the aspiring author: by reading Dyer's account of his struggles with writing made me, at least, feel as if I wasn't the only one having the same day to day issues just trying to write, and to be the version of myself I want to be.

Rubric rating: 8.  I've already scoured the library for everything Dyer's written.  So excited to start The Ongoing Moment, where Dyer tackles photography and photographers.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

title: The Orphan Master's Son
author: Adam Johnson
pages: 443
genre: literary fiction
published:  Due out January 10th, 2012
source:  I received an Advanced Readers Copy from Random House
 in exchange for an honest review.

Close your eyes. Imagine, if you will, a country whose only law is the whim of its leader, a leader so self-aggrandizing and delusional that he would ask his people to believe that even the country's doves are patriotic enough to take a bullet for him.   A country that has installed mandatory loudspeakers in every home, loudspeakers that provide a constant barrage of propaganda and lies.  A country where anyone can be picked up off the street at end time and sent into the fields to perform hard labor.  A country where parents' fear can overshadow the love they feel for a child.  

Welcome to Adam Johnson's North Korea.

In an interview with Richard Powers, Johnson says the following:

"...North Korea is real.  And to read the agonizing accounts of its victims is like swallowing stones.  One of the striking things about these accounts is how much is missing--there's often little emotion, reflection, or expressions of personal desire.  Which brings us back to trauma narratives, a hallmark of which is the way their narrators can get stuck in a kind of survival mode that takes precedence over voice, memory, and insight.  When life is about survival, rather than being human, people are less able to speak in terms of yearning, growth, discovery, change and so on.  How do you gain a deeper understanding of a person who's been taught that expression is dangerous and that emotions can get you killed?  What do you do when the only person who can tell a story is the least able to do so? This is where the limits of nonfiction become visible.  And it's where we must turn to fiction, which focuses on what deprivation does to identity, memory and basic humanity."

The Orphan Master's Son tells the story of the role of identity and memory and it's affect on an individual's humanity, as well as the collective humanity and identity of a nation.  Johnson weaves the tale of the incredible life Pak Jun Do and his trials as pseudo-orphan, kidnapper, soldier, state spy and later, master impersonator.  

Love story, thriller, coming of age story, this book was EVERYTHING and has all the elements I look for in my literature: 
  • lyrical prose
  • compelling and dynamic characters
  • strong narrative voice
  • inspiring plot and electric actions
The world Johnson creates is so bizarre, so cruel, so dangerous that it's hard to look away.  I especially loved the second half of the book, where Johnson drops a giant talent bomb on the reader and demonstrates his absolute command of narrative and voice.  Each character, each moment WORKS in a way I haven't experienced in a piece in a long time.  When it comes out in January, move The Orphan Master's Son to the top of your "to read" pile!

Rubric rating: 8.  I will definitely be checking out Johnson's other works: Emporium, a short story collection, and his novel, Parasites Like Us

Saturday, October 15, 2011

So much to read! So little time!

Just got my ARC for Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son in the mail from Random House and man do I have poor impulse control.  I'm like a raccoon sometimes when it comes to books.  (In the way that they're distracted by shiny things.  Not the picking through your garbage kind of way). Sometimes, despite how amazing the book is that I'm reading, when I get a new one from the library or in the mail, I get super distracted by how excited I am to start reading it that I eventually give in and try to justify to myself reading both books at once. So Graham Greene's The End of the Affair has now been downgraded from bedside to commute status (purely a decision based on weight of the book) and dove in.  I'm only about 20 pages in but already SO good.  Expect a full review in a week or so...unless something else exciting comes in the mail...then I make no promises.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

title: Freedom [purchase here]
author: Jonathan Franzen 
pages: 562
genre:  literary fiction
published: 2010
source:  New York Public Library

I've been promising a review of Freedom for the past few weeks and have been negligent in my posting.  It was over 500 pages!  That shit takes a while ;)

As I've previously mentioned, I love me some Franzen, but I was most familiar with his short stories and nonfiction, and this was my first time reading one of his novels.  It did not disappoint.

In the ongoing debate about the future of/the possible death of the great American novel, one thing many agree on is the difficulty of creating characters and plot that are concurrently timeless and relevant. I'm sure I have nothing to add to that debate that would be original or poignant, but that notion kept popping into my head as I read.  I'm sure Franzen has weighed in, and I'd be interested to hear what he said.  In terms of Freedom, Franzen keeps the plot  and characters incredibly current, but there's a universal quality to the relationships he develops.  Timeless?  No.  The next great American novel?  Probably not. But incredibly generous and intelligent, which are qualities worth revisiting for years to come.

Rubric rating: 9.  Love me some Franzen. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

title: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk [purchase here]
author: David Sedaris
illustrator:  Ian Falconer
pages: 159
genre: short stories/fiction
published: 2010
source:  New York Public Library

If Rudyard Kipling and Aesop had been able to spawn, their hypothetical offspring would have LOVED this short story collection. 

Sedaris' short story collection is hilarious and poignant, bizarre and familiar, all at the same time.  A few highlights:
  • The Toad, The Turtle and The Duck:  three title characters wait in line a ruminate over the irritations that accompany bureaucratic formalities.
  • The Parenting Storks:  explores how storks answer the inevitable question:  "Where do babies come from?"
  • The Faithful Setter: deals with infidelity and sexual mores among canines
  • The Grieving Owl: an owl, befriending a hippopotamus with leeches living in her anus, comes up with an interesting solution to her problem, which involves a gerbil...Richard Gere may have been a source of inspiration on that one...
Loved this book.  It was perfect for my morning commute; not only was each story compact, but Sedaris' clever story lines  and sometimes caustic characters brightened my morning mood.

Rubric rating: 8.  Sedaris is one of my favorite New Yorker contributors and I'm definitely looking forward to exploring the rest of his work.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: Burmese Refugees, Letters from the Thai-Burma Border

title: Burmese Refugees, Letters from the Thai-Burma Border [purchase here]
essays collected by: T F Rhoden & T L S Rhoden
pages: 110
genre:  collection of nonfiction personal essays
source:  I received an epub copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

When I received this ebook in my inbox last week, I did something I never do:  I paused my reading of a Jonathan Franzen novel.  For those who know me well, my love for Franzen is not far behind my love for the late David Foster Wallace, and said love and absolute admiration runs deep.  I was that excited for this piece.

According to T F Rhoden, this collection of personal essays started as an assignment where the refugee students in his English enhancement class were asked to write three paragraphs about their past.  He was moved by what his class produced and felt compelled to do more to understand their experiences.  What the Rhoden brothers propose to do with this collection is, by bringing to light the conditions (both past and present) faced by the Burmese refugees waiting for resettlement, rally others to their cause and affect positive change on their behalf.  I can absolutely get behind that.

In terms of content, the stories from the refugees themselves are incredibly moving and inspiring on several levels.  I used to teach ESL students myself, and have experienced how challenging writing honestly and accurately can be in a language that's not your first.   Kudos to the essayists for bravely taking on that challenge.  I would venture to guess that if I attempted the same assignment in, say, French, the result would not be nearly as successful.  Though their narratives can be at times choppy and awkward, what shines through in many is remarkable: the will not just to stay alive, but to live life fully. A theme that repeated itself in several of the essays was the desire of the authors to eventually, after resettlement, return to Burma and/or to affect change for the people in their community from abroad.  The passionate, determined voices of the refugees are absolutely the book's strength.  Reading their accounts, I was seething thinking about all of the injustices, major and minor, the authors had been subjected to living under an oppressive military junta.  And if you can get past my criticism below, the book is worth picking up just to read their stories.

Unfortunately, there's a lot to sift through to get to these potent firsthand accounts. In fact, I only got through about half of the book before I got so fed up with T F Rhoden I had to stop reading.  In the interest of brevity,  here are my two biggest problems with the text:

1)  Basic spelling, grammar, usage and structural errors:  the text is positively rife with them.  T F Rhoden's introduction alone is abominable.  In affecting a "writerly" voice, he constructs some of the most awkward, roundabout sentences I've ever read.  T F Rhoden seems to have no clue who is audience is, and though he apes a scholarly tone at times, this book is clearly not research-based enough for academia.  In fact, I can't imagine the brothers hired a fact checker if they clearly didn't bother to hire a copy editor, or even pass the manuscript off to a friend to proof read for that matter.  In addition, content wise, there are multiple superfluous details throughout the introduction that any editor worth their salt would have cut in favor of flow.  T L S Rhoden fares far better in his introduction, which is much more concise and clear, though he confuses "affect" and "effect."  All in all, these sloppy, easily correctable mistakes are incredibly disruptive to the reader and ultimately distract attention from the important part of the book:  the Burmese people and their stories.

2) T F Rhoden's ego: I felt two kinds of anger as I read.  The first was on behalf of the many essayists for the oppression they faced.  The other was directed toward T F Rhoden, who inserts himself into this text far too much.  At the end of each essay, T F Rhoden adds several paragraphs of what he views as exposition, which he claims are there to help provide context.  And the fact-based parts of said paragraphs are, actually, very helpful.  Unfortunately, Rhoden then proceeds to give us his characterization of many of the essayists and comes off as incredibly condescending.  For example, one of the essays was penned by a math teacher who described her background and role in the 8/8/88 protests.  When sharing his impression of her, T F Rhoden writes:

"She reminded me, if anything, of just your normal modern woman; or, I suppose, that is what she would be if she had grown up in a prosperous civil society."

What lies underneath statements such as these (and there are many), the implication that because the essayist didn't have a Western upbringing she can't be considered modern, is downright insulting.  T F Rhoden is so entrenched in (and potentially unconscious of) his white male Western worldview that many of his musings on his former students smack of condescension stemming from an inherently imperialist mindset.   The essayist was a woman who graduated high school with distinctions, held a BS in mathematics, a MS, and started her own tutoring company.  Yet T F Rhoden was pleasantly surprised to find her "modern" and "normal." His statement implies that her cultural difference makes her backward and somehow less than, and through his backhanded praise, are we then supposed to laud him for seeing her in such a favorable, benevolent light?

As T F Rhoden spent time in the Peace Corps, I was a corps member with Teach For America, and have worked in low income communities throughout NYC for the past 6 years.  One of the things Teach For America at least tries to do is, through continuous coursework, start a discussion around white privilege, issues of cultural bias, kind-hearted prejudice, inherent and unconscious Western mindsets, etc and we spend a lot of time thinking about how our views of race, culture and class, etc were shaped, how they shape us, and how they might impact how we affect change in our classrooms.  I'm not by any means stating we all walk out of these courses freed of all of our failings, but at least questions have been asked and a dialogue has been started and many corps members are thinking about race, culture and privilege in ways they might not have before.  I can't imagine that the Peace Corps doesn't have similar coursework or readings to prepare its volunteers to enter diverse communities across the globe.  What boggles my mind is how out of touch T F Rhoden's comments (such as the one I quoted) are, and how they reek of an assumed inherent superiority.  The impression I was left with of T F Rhoden is that what he really wants out of this book, whether consciously or not, is for the reader to see him as a benevolent, altruistic presence...and what comes across loud and clear is that he values been seen this way far more than he values the people whose cause he's purportedly attempting to advance.

I would love to be proved wrong in my assumptions about T F Rhoden. My advice (as a writer, an educator, and someone who works at a multicultural publisher specifically with social justice themed books everyday): If Rhoden really wants this book to serve as a platform for the Burmese refugees, he needs to take himself out of it.  He needs to come to terms with the fact that the book isn't about him.  If he wants to write a memoir about his experiences and impressions of the people he met, that's a different book.  If he really is aiming to act as a loudspeaker for the voices of those he met, he needs to

1) hire a GOOD copy editor

2) hire a fact checker or a research intern, do some additional research, re-interview the essayists if necessary, and cite all sources; tons of statistics are quoted with absolutely no back matter/footnotes/etc to support any of it beyond his own experience.

3) think more like a journalist than a diarist, and revise the expository paragraphs at the end of each essay to be just that: expository as opposed to editorial. Include facts that answer the following types of questions only:  Where is the essayist now?  What/how are they doing?  What other challenges/obstacles did they face that they didn't include in their essay?   Objective observation is fine.  Subjective assumption is not; that's the stuff of memoir.  There are examples of paragraphs where he does just this and they work.  As the reader, I don't want the editor to opine on what types of people he gather the essayists to be (regardless of whether I find those opinions offensive or not).  I want to hear it from the writers.

Rubric rating:  2.  Reads like a first draft of a manuscript and not as a published piece, and absolutely does not do justice to the voices of those it alleges to advocate for.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review: Pym by Mat Johnson

title: Pym:  A Novel [purchase here]
author:  Mat Johnson
genre: literary fiction
pages: 322
originally published: 2011
source:  New York Public Library

First person narration can be tricky, but Mat Johnson has a sense of voice that rivals Junot Diaz. So clear, so compelling.  As I read, I wanted to follow Johnson's main character, Chris Jaynes, anywhere he went.  Until he decided to leave the States (and reality) far, far behind...

The premise of this book is really quite genius: the self-described token black professor at a small, predominately white liberal arts college finds himself without tenure after favoring teaching Edgar Allen Poe to authors of color.  The object of Jaynes' fascination is Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  Johnson does an amazing job of allowing us into Jaynes' psyche as he deconstructs Poe's novel, which he sees as part of the "intellectual source of racial Whiteness."  In this part of the book, Johnson soars as Jaynes takes us through Poe's work and explains its literary and institutional significance.  Strong voice, compelling argument and raw social commentary. Near perfect.  Up until this point in the narrative, I was in love with this book.

Then we go to Antarctica.  Through a turn of events (which I won't cheat you out of discovering on your own), Jaynes is lead to believe that the incidents outlined in Poe's novel may not be so fictitious after all.  Given the opportunity to, in part, retrace Pym's journey and go to Antarctica, he accepts in hopes of finding Tsalal, an island of pure blackness (which Poe described with much terror) which Jaynes imagines to be the "last untouched bastion of the African diaspora."  Unfortunately, once the ship docks, Johnson loses me a bit.

My problem is not with the journey; my problem is not even with the sequence of events that border on science-fiction/disaster porn.  My problem is with the way the characters react (or don't) to these events.  Typically, when an author decides to dive into the realm of science fiction or adventure, as Johnson absolutely does in the last half of his book, either:
  • the story takes place in a world where a specific set of magical/heightened/supernatural/etc rules and conditions are consistent and we, as readers accept them as the reality of the story OR 
  • the story takes place in reality as we know it and something unusual/strange/supernatural/world-shattering happens, and the characters react accordingly.  
A beautiful example of this is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski:  when the house starts shifting and changing, people freak out, then adapt, then re-approach their new reality.  In Johnson's story, when reality as Jaynes knows it is turned on its head, the characters just seem to keep moving through the plot without much reflection, except in terms of considering potential profit.  In addition, some pretty major occurrences are mentioned and then never reacted to thoroughly or revisited...which I think, in the end, is not a problem of story as much as an issue with character development.

Jaynes is a wonderful character.  Consistent.  Complex.  Evolving.  But he was the only one flushed out and developed to that extent.  The rest of the cast of characters seemed to be more like different sized shadows of people rather than fully realized individuals, with only 2-3 defining characteristics, as opposed to the dynamic, compelling personality given to Jaynes.   When they stand side by side as the same bizarre events unfold, it's hard to completely give yourself to the world Johnson creates given their reactions (or lack thereof).  

But back to Johnson's genius:  he crafts the story utilizing the same structure as Poe's Narrative.  As I read, I kept noticing how Johnson took some of the most salient story elements from Poe's piece and reappropriated them for Jaynes' journey (if you're curious as to which story elements he chose, message me, as I don't want to give away any major plot points here!).  Super clever, and done in such a subtle way that it's in no way gimmicky or forced.

Rubric rating: 7.  I would love to read more by long as it's set north of Antarctica.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reader poll: Favorite natural disaster reads?

Sorry for such a lapse between posts!  We've had quite the crazy week here in NYC.  Tuesday, as I'm sure you've heard, we felt Virginia's 5.8 magnitude earthquake here in Manhattan.  I was sitting at my desk on the 12th floor of our building and we could feel the building literally sway back and forth a bit.  Very disconcerting.  And as if an earthquake weren't enough, we're now bracing ourselves for Hurricane Irene, slated to run smack into us sometime late tomorrow/early Sunday.  So, I can't help but asking:

What are your favorite natural-disaster related reads?

Review: Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov

title: Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle  [purchase here]
author: Vladimir Nabokov
genre:  literary fiction
pages:  606 
originally published: 1969
source:  New York Public Library

A few days ago I finished Nabokov's longest novel, Ada, or Ardor.  Full disclosure:  I am, thus far, a Nabokov fan.  Despite his preoccupation with "budding nymphettes," (and by preoccupation, I mean full blown obsession) his prose is positively beautiful, rife with lyricism.  A joy to read, even when the story can't really be described as such.  Ava, or Ardor follows the life and loves of one Van Veen, as, at the tender age of fifteen, he meets and falls in love with the woman that will consume his every thought for the remainder of his life.  And the woman happens to be his sister, Ada.  

Told as a memoir as Van, in his nineties, looks back over the highs and lows of his love affair with Ada.  As if the family tree of the Veens weren't complicated enough, Nabokov sets this piece in a sort of bizarro-world, like earth, but not.  It's as if history's very timeline were picked up and deposited farther in the past.  God is called "Log."  Movies exist in the late 1800s.  The book is chock full of anachronistic cultural allusions.   Such a fun read in terms of the way that Nabokov creates the world of the story.

So, the prose was beautiful, the world of the story what about the whole incest thing?  It's funny: I got swept up in Van and Ada's passion for each other.  I found myself rooting for them to be together, until I remembered that they're brother and sister, then it gets a little complicated internally...truth be told, there were several pages in the book that made me squirm a bit (ex:  Van's graphic and detailed description of his first sexual encounter with Ada). BUT if you can get past the incest aspect, it's a really riveting story of all-consuming love and heart-breaking passion.  

Rubric rating:  8.  Made me want to reread Lolita.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

title:  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [purchase here]
author: Jean-Dominique Bauby
genre: memoir
pages: 132
originally published: 1997
source:  New York Public Library

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, then editor at French Elle, was taking his son to see a play when he suffered a massive stroke that left him completely and utterly paralyzed.  Diagnosed with "locked in syndrome," this basically meant that the only part of his body he could move was his left eyelid.  Utilizing an alphabet that arranged the letters in frequency of occurrence, Bauby dictated this memoir. By blinking.

Let me reiterate: He wrote this book by blinking his left eye.  BLINKING HIS EYE.  WROTE A BOOK.  WITH HIS LEFT EYE.  This memoir is the best kick in the pants any aspiring author could ask for.  Feeling uninspired?  Mundane distractions of day to day living stealing your attention?  If Bauby could write a book BY FREAKING BLINKING HIS LEFT EYE, there is now ABSOLUTELY NO VALID EXCUSE for not writing.  None.  Consider yourself inspired.

And it's a good read.  Quick, simple, but incredibly moving, Bauby relates with such clarity and lyricism what it feels like to become a prisoner inside your own body.  The most heartbreaking parts for me came when Bauby reflects on the things he misses he had once taken for granted.  Since Bauby can no longer eat (remember: he can't swallow.  Only blink his left eye and write better than most can hope), Bauby relates which meals and smells he misses the most (like french fries).    He misses grabbing a glass of scotch and taking a long bath with a good book.  He misses being able to reach out and ruffle his son's hair.  Those simple images were the most beautiful, most universal, most honest, and the hardest to read.

Rubric rating: 8.  If Bauby had lived long enough to have written more, I definitely would have sought it out.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Writers on Reading, Writers on Writing: Jeffrey Eugenides

"What I want in a book is a refuge from the noise and confusion, plus a reminder that another human being is on the other end of the exchange, someone who isn't peddling me false consciousness but is bringing, or at least attempting to bring, things into light...To be different without being confusing, to be radical without promoting a scorched-earth policy, to be intellectual while remaining emotional and to be emotional without succumbing to sentimentality, to find a new form that is immediately negotiable--these would be the aims I'd shoot for, in our drear day."    ~Jeffrey Eugenides 

Read the exchange between Eugenides and Jim Lewis in Slate on the legacy of James Joyce

Review: Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey

title: Observatory Mansions [purchase here]
author: Edward Carey
pages: 356
originally published: 2000
source:  Barnes and Noble, Union Square

Full disclosure:  If you haven't gathered as of yet, I'm a bit of a book snob (in the words of my mother).  I'm expect a lot from what I read and sometimes I have a hard time keeping an open mind when reading new authors and new genres based on what I think I might or might not like.  That being said, I'm also a book jacket designer's dream, because I have been known to buy books based solely on an awesome cover, which is exactly what I did here.  

Good call on my (completely shallow and aesthetically motivated) part! Gothic horror is not usually my genre de preference, but I was pleasantly surprised.  The characters that Carey created have stuck with me for months.  

The story takes place in Observatory Mansions, an apartment building converted from a mansion owned by the Orme family where Francis, his mother, and his father still reside.  Utilizing a series of memories, letters, first person narration and lists, Carey introduces us to the Mansions' residents and to the buildings apartments, which almost act as characters themselves. 

Haunting story filled with love, loss, eccentricity, stillness, loneliness, connection and existence that examines how what remember (and what we forget) can shape who we are.  Eerie, disquieting, and at times, heartbreaking.

Rubric rating:  7.  I'm definitely going to check out Alva & Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

title: Year of Wonders [purchase here]
author: Geraldine Brooks
pages: 308
genre: historical fiction
originally published:  2oo1
source:  New York Public Library


So, if you recall, I wasn't too enthused about People of the Book.  I thought the plot just came together far too easily, which made it hard to stay in the story.

Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer for christsake.  There has to be SOMETHING I'm missing.  I'm determined to like's just not going so well so far.

As far as Year of Wonders goes, the plot worked far better.  It's set during an outbreak of the plague in a small village in1600s England. I liked how she started near the chronological end of the action, then looped back and filled us in.  She made some really strong choices in terms of foreshadowing.  For example, you find out in the first few pages of the book that Anna's mistress, the rector's wife, has passed away during the previous year, the subsequent action of the book to follow.  The thing that kept me reading was wanting to know how it happened and when.  But that was pretty much the only thing that kept me reading.

In a novel set during the plague, one would think there'd be soooo much material to draw from that it would be impossible for the story to would think.  There are only so many times you can be engaged by page after page after page of Anna tending to villagers' bursting plague sores.  There were some engaging events, but they weren't spaced well.  

Rubric Rating: 5.  Wonderfully researched.  Some very compelling moments but weighted down by too much repetition.  So maybe too historically accurate ;)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review: Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

title: Stone Arabia [purchase here]
author: Dana Spiotta
pages: 239
genre: literary fiction
originally published: 2011
source:  New York Public Library

Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta's third novel, follows Denise as she tries to gently hold together the pieces of a family as it drifts slowly in different directions.  Her mother suffers from a dementia she is adamant she doesn't have and Denise must come to terms with something more scary than becoming her mother:  becoming her mother's parent.  Her brother Nik, a *fascinatingly* complex character, lives by the mantra "self-curate or disappear," and has amassed an enormous collection of documents, recordings, etc, referred to as "the Chronicles," all fictitious, chronicling life how he sees it?  how he wishes it was?  And how does Denise deal with the pressure?  Displacement.  She begins to have excessively empathetic reactions to items in the 24 hour news cycle.

Spiotta's novel is riveting, refreshingly of the moment but at the same time, timeless in terms of the lives of the characters and the challenges they face.

One scene that I thought worked incredibly well was a scene in which Denise learns her mother has tried to shoplift and then refers to the cop as a "mick," behavior completely opposite of her character.

"Where in her brain was this coming from?  The doctor wasn't sure of the nature of her dementia, or how fast it would progress.  He just called it likely Alzheimer's.  He couldn't tell me what I could expect.  Anything was typical.  Anything was possible.  At first I didn't think it really mattered--they were all equally untreatable.  What difference did it make if it was this or that part of the frontal lobe?  But I wasn't quite prepared for this latest sign of deterioration.  It wasn't just forgetting the past or repeating the same thing over and over.  It was actually remixing and changing the wiring.  It was creating new things, it was changing her in real ways.  She wasn't just losing her social inhibitions, nothing as benign as that.  She was starting to get paranoid, and it made her someone else, someone a little mean.  It just didn't seem fair." (Spiotta, pgs 139-140)

Rubric rating:  8.  I can't wait to read Eat the Document and Lightning Field.

Monday, August 1, 2011

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

title: People of the Book [purchase here]
author: Geraldine Brooks
pages: 372
genre: literary fiction
originally published: 2008
source:  New York Public Library

Oh, Ms. Brooks.  I had *such* high hopes for this book.  I mean, Pulitzer Prize winning author.  Renown journalist.  I had heard her interviewed on the Diane Rehm show and she spoke with such grace and authority.  All the things that I love love love in an author are all there!  I *really* wanted to enjoy this book...

...but the story was just so easy!  It fit together just too damn well and I had a hard time staying in the story.

The premise of the book is incredibly compelling:  Hanna, who specializes in the preservation and restoration of ancient manuscripts, is commissioned to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah, an intricately illustrated Hebrew text, which Brooks spent time researching for The New Yorker.  The story Brooks creates hinges on discoveries Hanna makes as she examines the haggadah:  a white hair, a wine stain and a fragment of insect wing provide the jump-off points for Brooks to relate how each became a part of the book, thus telling the stories of the "people of the book."  

What I liked:  this book was incredibly well researched.  Brooks' journalistic background infuses each sentence with credibility and weight, which should make it easy for the reader to be drawn completely into the world of the story...

...but, as I said before:  every aspect of plot, every twist and turn is just too perfect.  I could see what was coming next from a mile away, and I, personally, *hate* that in a book!  I want to be challenged when I read.   I want to be surprised.  I want to be completely taken into the world of the story, and it's hard to do that when the plot moves like a kindergarten child's jigsaw puzzle. 

The worst part was, there were moments of description and action that were positively beautiful, incredibly transportive...and then I would be jerked back to reality by easy, obvious plot choices.

I'm not ready to give up on Brooks. I have March sitting on my nightstand, which is the novel she won the Pulitzer for.  I also started Year of Wonders on the train home from my weekend in Baltimore.  

Rubric rating:  5.  It was ok.  It would have been far higher had Brooks made less obvious, easy choices with regard to the plot.  But I'm determined to keep an open mind as I approach her other work.