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.