Saturday, December 29, 2007

3M's Challenge Wrap-Up

Thanks, Wendy, for a wonderful challenge!

I committed to reading ten and finished ten, though I did switch out some titles. I loved the top three, which were truly outstanding books. I'm really glad I read the middle of the pack, and I could have done without the last two.

Here they are, ranked in order of enjoyment:

  1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  2. Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky

  3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  4. The Translator by Leila Aboulela

  5. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

  6. The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

  7. Lisey's Story by Stephen King

  8. Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano

  9. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

  10. Everyman by Philip Roth

Suite Française - 3M's Review

suitefrancaise.JPGSuite Française is the incredible incomplete set of novels by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian Jew who had been living in Paris for 10 years before ultimately dying in Auschwitz. The preface to the French edition states that:
She dreamed of a book of a thousand pages, constructed like a symphony, but in five sections, according to rhythm and tone. She took Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a model.

Sadly, only two of the planned five were completed. In these stories, she creates such vivid characters and situations that it is a shame we never get to find out what happened to them. She was a fine writer. Her characters were so well-defined; I cared about the worthy ones and loathed the loathsome ones. Even in her description of the latter, there was humor to be found. Both good and bad die, and of course the question is always, "Why?" The accounts of the flight from Paris as the Germans descended on them during 1940 were chilling and frighteningly relevant to what could happen today. Then, during the section depicting the occupation of France, I was most surprised at her portrayal of the German soldiers, in which some could be seen as sympathetic.

Her two daughters had kept these stories in a suitcase for years, not even looking at them as it was too painful. When one of her daughters did finally take out the papers to type them, she found this wonderful, incomplete novel and it was published in France in 2004, sixty-two years after her death in 1942.

Highly recommended.

2006 for the English translation, 367 pp.
Rating: 4.5

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Last Evenings on Earth - 3M's Review


Bolaño is a Chilean author whose book The Savage Detectives was also named to the most recent NYT Most Notable list. It seems to be getting a lot of buzz on many 'Best of 2007' lists. Although Bolaño died in 2003, some of his works are just now being published in English.

The settings of these stories are in Chile, Mexico, Spain, and many other countries. It has a very international feel to it. Bolaño's writing is fascinating. Without really enjoying many of the stories, I still felt compelled to read them. There is always something literary going on; perhaps that's why they intrigued me. However, many of the stories just had too much violence and seediness for my taste--otherwise the book would have had a higher rating from me.

I'm curious about The Savage Detectives, though, and I may try to read that one in 2008.

2006 (for the English translation), 219 pp.
Rating: 3.5

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Skinner's Drift - kookiejar's review

Eva is a young woman who returns to the remote South African ranch she was raised on when her widowed father falls into a coma. While at the ranch, she reads her mother's old diaries which take her back to her childhood when she was witness to great violence, including a family secret that makes her question her place in the world.

Lisa Fugard seamlessly weaves the past and the present unfolding the events in a way that keeps you curious about the characters until the final page.

My favorite part was when the black ranch hand, Nkele buys his grandson a comic book, but feels the need to destroy it because it has pictures of AK-47s in it.

"He knew how it would end, who would be killed and who would be saved, and the ease with which 'AK-47' had fallen from the mouths of the children, tumbled out soft as the patter of rain, distressed him."

My only problem with the novel was that although the characters were interesting and their problems were intriguing, I was emotionally disconnected from them. It could have been my own problem, just coming off a reading slump, but I would only recommend this book to people who are fans of novels set in Africa or ones that deal with race relations.

This is my last book for this challenge. Of the 15 I finished specifically for the challenge, I'd have to say my favorite was "Apex Hides the Hurt", but my favorite off the entire list was "The Road". Thank you Wendy for hosting the challenge and thanks to all of my lit-blogging compatriots.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Emperor's Children - Wendy's Review

"Well, then." Ludovic sat up against the headboard, cleared his throat. "As parents, we visit our complexes, whatever they may be, upon our children - our neuroses, our hopes and fears, our discontents. Just the way our broader society is like a parent, and visits its complexes upon the citizenry, if you will." - From The Emperor's Children, page 205 -

The Emperor's Children is an intellectual miasma about the superficiality of the privileged classes - and the subsequent collision of values between the haves and have nots. Set in New York City in 2001, the book explores the lives of five major characters: Marina - a rich and spoiled pseudo-journalist; Julius - a gay, confused free lance critic; Danielle - a television producer with attitude; Frederick "Bootie" Tubb - an idealistic and slightly creepy college drop out; and Murray Thwaite - a middle aged, liberal "emperor" who has made a name in journalism. The novel is narrated in alternating points of view and spans a period of half a year, tying together (with an artistic flair) the rather superficial threads of each character's motivations and lives. None of these characters is especially likable, but all are compulsively readable.

Messud creates a novel about the upper classes: their attitude of entitlement, their petty betrayals, their focus on power. In doing so, she reveals some interesting truths about humanity. I enjoyed her observations about higher education:

The Land of Lies in which most people were apparently content to live - in which you paid money to an institution and went out nightly to get drunk instead of reading the books and then tried to calculate some half-assed scheme by which you could cheat on your exams, and then, at the end of the day, presumably simply on account of the financial transaction between you, or more likely your parents, and said institution, you declared yourself educated - was not sufficient for Bootie. - From The Emperor's Children, page 55 -

...about raising children and giving them everything their hearts desire:

Murray Thwaite had little patience for this. He suddenly saw his daughter as a monster he and Annabel had created - they and a society of excess. - From The Emperor's Children, page 66 -

...and about high tech, computerized corporate America:

The company, it seemed, engaged in middle man activity, the procuring of rights - of abstractions - that permitted, elsewhere, the actual trading of information (also abstract) for huge sums of money. Which was, of course, itself abstract. It was a though the entire office were generating and moving, acquiring and passing on, hypotheticals, a trade in ideas, or hopes, to which value somehow accrued. - From The Emperor's Children, page 60 -

Messud has written a sharp, witty expose that intrigued me. Her writing is observant, her characters complex and well developed. Although this is not the type of book I usually enjoy, I found myself unable to put it down.

Recommended; Rated 4/5.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Wahoo!! I'm done!!

I met my goal of reading 12 notable books this year. Because I joined in June or July I set the bar low and I chose several "lighter" fiction books to finish off the last part of the year. My reviews (and other posts) are here.

I'll see a lot of you on the other blog. I also expect to be reading more of the 2006 notable books in between the 2007 books (and my usual airplane fare) because many of these reviews have interested me. It's great to be part of a group that reads good books.

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn is wonderful! From the very first sentence I was entranced by Atkinson's use of words and her terrific low-key sense of humor. I was surprised to find that the book is actually a mystery, but there is nothing genre-like about it, no standard investigation or even single investigator. I was further surprised to find that it makes use of characters first developed in another of Atkinson's books, again a genre technique. It doesn't matter as we learn what we need to know from this book alone.

The story begins with a "road rage" incident in Edinburgh involving a suspicious name-changing character and a beefy guy who wields a baseball bat. The incident draws together an interesting group of characters, but the story reads rather like strings spreading further and further apart, or perhaps more like a web built by a spider. Each chapter develops the story for one or two of the characters, and only near the end do the paths intersect, in a crazy, hilarious episode, rather like the punchline in a shaggy dog story.

The writing is superb. The insights into character are well-informed. The humor is delicious.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Digging to America, by Anne Tyler

Two families wait at the gate in the Baltimore airport for the same flight, which is carrying their newly-adopted Korean babies. One family, fully American, has made an event of it. Everyone is wearing labels ("Mom", "Grandpa") and the family is filling the waiting area, almost forcing out others, making a party of it. The other family is transplanted Iranian and has made no fanfare of the arrival of their new baby.

Bitsy, the American mom, eventually invites Ziba, Iranian mom, to join an invented "arrival" celebration of the two infants, and the two families are thus joined. The differences in the families pricks at the edges of each encounter, with members of both families trying - or not trying - to understand the other. Throughout the book the individuals seem unable to keep from generalizing, the Iranians finding the Americans laughable, crude, at times overbearing, the Americans finding the Iranians stiff, sometimes unresponsive, perhaps "too good" for them.

Ziba's mother-in-law, Maryam, is perhaps the most reluctant Iranian. She was at peace with her widowed existence, her proper life, and she has no need for the sometimes overwhelming assault of well-meaning friends. She is proper and polite, often seeming cold because of her reserve, so she does join the parties because it would be rude to refuse.

Although we get into the minds of almost all of the many characters, ultimately it is Maryam who takes center stage. Through her thoughts and actions we begin to understand how difficult it must be to live in such a foreign culture, unable to join it. She admits to herself, though, that she had differences in Iran as well, and we begin to grasp that it may not be so much the differences in cultures that affects these clans so much as the differences in individuals.

The book is so easy to read that it is easy to miss its complexity, its quiet effects on our thinking. I felt at times that there was too much generalizing but those who read carefully will see that the generalizing came from individuals rather than from Tyler herself.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is a funny, insightful book about a 13-year-old boy, told in the language of a 13-year-old in England in 1982. The book spans one year of Jason's life, through the Falklands war and within the Reagan-Thatcher years, into a dip into the pond of "girls" and the unintended viewing of a coupling in the countryside, in the village of Black Swan Green (a village where there are no swans, black or otherwise).

Jason is addicted to contractions the like of which, the extent of which, I have not seen before. We go way beyond "could've" into "...our marines'll..." and "...with any luck, my strategy'd clear some spaces..." and "..the talk'd shifted..." and so much more. The contractions alone had me laughing right from the first page.

Jason, like so many adolescent boys (and girls), struggles most of all to fit in. He hides his propensity for writing poetry, turning in poems to a local magazine under a pseudonym, which later leads to his making strange and secret visits to an elderly woman living in the vicar's quarters, who offers advice about life - and poetry - that ultimately Jason takes to heart. Jason gets sorted this way and that from his mates, from bullies, from teachers and his parents, as he tries to find his place, and somehow emerges a little wiser and ready to be fourteen.

At first I found the book simply funny, and that was enough. Over time, though, I was won over by the compassion and sense of realness Mitchell gives to his hero. It's a lovely slice of England. And of adolescence.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

One Good Turn reviewed by raidergirl3

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
New York Times Notable Book 2006

I like books like this: a murder mystery, with a seemingly unconnected cast of characters. The first half of the book is spent setting the stage and I felt like a juggler keeping track of all the people and motives and backstories. And then, gradually, people become connected and the story really picked up.
Jackson Brodie is the main character, I suppose, and according to the back cover, he was the investigator in Atkinson's last book, Case Histories. I would mention that it wouldn't be required to read the first book, as I didn't feel I missed any back story in reading the sequel, but I would be very interested in seeing what happens with Jackson next. Jackson witnesses a road rage incident that sets off the chain of events and characters. A meek writer, an obnoxious comedian, a dirty rich developer, his fed up wife, and a few Russian immigrants round out some of the characters, along with a tough female detective for Jackson to butt heads with.
Although it felt a little long, the action is continuous and a thread of humor is woven throughout so that I enjoyed reading it a lot. The summer arts festival in Edinburgh provides the background, and Atkinson kept my interest with so many different characters.
also posted on my blog here

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Joy Completes Challenge!

I'm having difficulty posting, so here's my list of books with links for this completed challenge:

New York Times Notable Book Challenge

I will be doing a synopsis of the challenge at the end of the year.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Lisey's Story - 3M's Review

liseystory1.JPGIt had been over 20 years since I had read a Stephen King book. I used to love horror and love his books. I really, really did. That changed and I don't like horror at all now. I like scary, suspenseful stories-just not horror. I think I had convinced myself that surely there wouldn't be that much horror because he put so much of his wife/marriage into the story. I guess there probably wasn't as much as in his other books, but it was still too much for me.

Stephen King had said that he wrote this after considering what could happen to his wife if he had died in the car accident that he had. I do think he put quite a bit of himself and her into this story. I liked the beginning of the book very much, but then in the middle there was a little too much of the horror element for me. Lisey's husband Scott flashes back to a horror-full childhood. There were some crazy things that happen to Lisey as well that bothered me because I kept thinking, "How can he think of these things happening to his wife?"

Anyway, it was a good book to also use for the R.I.P Challenge, but I don't think I'll be reading another King book for awhile. If you know of one that is very tame, I might try it. Otherwise, there's just too much horror in King for this wimpy woman. I really wish I would have thought to read The Inhabited World instead.

2006, 509 pp.

Rating: 3.5

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma

"When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you." ~The Omnivore's Dilemma, page 3

This is not a book you should read if you are not prepared to take a long, hard look at what you eat. In this book the author leads us through four meals: industrial, big organic, sustainable, and The Perfect Meal.

The industrial meal follows a steer from birth, death to it's presumably winding up in a typical fast food meal. This section was very shocking to me and helped me to understand why animal rights people would be outraged at the treatment of these animals. It is horrifying. Worst of all, it's only for money. Obviously, it is of no benefit to the animal and it actually makes their meat less healthy for us to consume.

Big Organic farms are better in that the animals do not have steroids or antibiotics and are not fed animal by-products but the treatment of the animals is not more humane. As for organic produce, it may be more healthful(no pesticides, better vitamin content, etc.) but it is not without cost to the environment. In short: This method's heavy reliance on fossil fuels for processing and transportation makes it unsustainable.

As for the sustainable farm, the guiding principles that they follow are best outlined on their own site: Polyface, Inc.

I have to admit that this book has sparked an intense interest for me to find locally grown meat and produce and the metropolitan buying clubs. I had already been very interested in minimizing the processed food in my family's diet. I just didn't understand exactly how far the processing went.

The Perfect Meal is the one that Pollan hunts and gathers himself. He says that the meal is not perfect because it has the best taste. It's perfect because it is the one which caused him to work the most both physically and intellectually for his food. He knows where it all comes from and exactly what went into processing it and bringing it to the table.

I can't say that I enjoyed every section of this book. Some of it was difficult to read. But it was very eye-opening and worth the effort.(4.5/5)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun - 3M's Review

halfyellowsun.JPGA beautifully told story of a savage civil war, Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun definitely deserves the 2007 Orange Prize and to be on the NYT Most Notable list.

"They sat on wooden planks and the weak morning sun streamed into the roofless class as she unfurled Odenigbo's cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future."

I resisted reading this book because I really just don't like war stories at all. I wanted to give it a chance, though, because so many bloggers had said they appreciated it. They were right; it's a very special book. Based on the conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960's, it not only depicts the horrors of war, it also hauntingly and lovingly depicts the lives of the participants. Apparently many of the characters were based on real people in Adichie's family history, and this authenticity very much shines through.

There were some content issues for me in the book, but I'm very glad I read this story. I look forward to reading Purple Hibiscus and other books of hers to come. If you decide to read the book (and I highly encourage it), afterwards you might want to go to her website where you can find a lot more information about the true story.

2006, 541 pp.
2007 Orange Prize
Rating: 4.5


Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Road, reviewed by raidergirl3

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Better late than never. I went back and read everyone's reviews last night after I finished, and I wish I had read it when everyone else did, because there are some things I would have liked to talk about.

My review is at my blog here, although I didn't review it so much as just make some comments. This book was so sparse and so well written, and as I'd read many reviews beforehand, I was prepared for the punctuation issues, or the lack, and it didn't bother me. I had a terrible pit in my stomach for most of the books, and tears at the end.

I'm glad I read it, and I won't forget it for a while. Could I do it? Could I survive like that? What exactly hapened in that world? So many questions to think about. Thanks for all the discussion that went on last spring - I enjoyed it last night.

After This, by Alice McDermott

After This is a beautifully written book. It begins and ends in a church, and takes us from the marriage of Mary, a 30-year-old woman, through the birth and growth to adulthood of the four children she has with her husband John. The working-class family lives on Long Island during the middle-to-late decades of the twentieth century, riding out the storms of change in the culture, their lives, and in their church.

Although religion is a big part of their lives, I wouldn't call this a "religious" book. Rather, McDermott shows how the church and the family's beliefs affect - or do not affect - how they live. Mary in particular takes her church's teachings to heart, lighting candles during the two wars she experiences, attending mass regularly, insisting that the children attend Catholic school. We watch, too, as John lies in bed with a slipped disk, thinking of how his life might end, how it might not be as he had imagined, in bed, tended by a priest, but may be as unexpected as falling down dead in the street.

We see segments of each family member's life in vivid color, with light sketches in between phases. Thus we are treated to details of a dinner conversation or a night with a lover and then we may not hear much of that person until he or she is much older. Yet it works. I didn't feel cheated. Many of the moments are deeply moving by themselves, the more so because the moment is not over-labored.

I couldn't help comparing this book to a couple I read recently by Anne Tyler, both of which covered much of the same era in our history. Tyler's books seem, to me, more mocking, more like throwing a veil between the writer and the subjects, while After This is more intimate and touching.

And what is "after this"? From early on I suspected it was "after life". What then? After all that Mary and her family has done and gone through, what then?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Eight down, four to go

More to keep myself straight than for any other reason, I am reporting that I have read eight of the twelve I committed to reading. I am well into the ninth and partly into the tenth (I always read more than one book at a time) so I believe I will reach my goal!

I think this challenge has been excellent because the books are not just anything you happen to like. These are all good books and worth our time.

The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel

This book is Amy Hempel’s life work. Of course there is the odd story here and there that did not get in here but essentially this is it. In 404 pages she tells her own story in the form of short fiction, 49 stories in all. Most are shorter than most short fiction, one consisting of just one sentence and another just one page.

In this way, and in the language itself, these stories are much like poetry. All of them distill moments and thoughts economically, making much out of few words. Character is sketched in a phrase, and that’s all that is needed. Because of this depth it may take longer to read these seemingly simple stories than you might expect.

The elements also repeat themselves in a way similar to the film “32 short films about Glenn Gould”. We read about the lover of an artist, an artist who perhaps has many lovers. We hear about time in an institution. We read about dogs and cemeteries. Not once but many times, slid in between lines or used as the whole, layers or whole pies. I am sure that these elements come from Hempel’s real life, although the incidents probably did not happen to her exactly as written. In their way, skewed or direct, they tell us about this writer and the way she sees. It’s a beautifully-written book, full of images and feelings.

**Note to members of this group: If you would like to have this book contact me (judith at judithlautner dot net). I have registered it with so all I ask is that you make a journal entry there when you receive it (and preferably when you've read it, too). I'll be happy to ship it to the first person who asks, for free (outside the U.S. I'd want to split the postage).

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Laura's Challenge Wrap-up

The New York Times Notable Books Challenge was one of the first I joined this year, egged on by challenge host Wendy (aka Caribousmom). I was a little embarrassed that I'd heard of so few of these notable books, and set about to correct that by reading a dozen of them. The books I read for this challenge were:
  1. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell (read in 2006)
  2. The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
  3. Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
  4. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (completed 3/26/07)
  5. Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (completed 3/31/07)
  6. Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala (completed 4/13/07)
  7. One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson (completed 5/25/07)
  8. The Translator, by Leila Aboulela (completed 5/28/07)
  9. Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali (completed 6/17/07)
  10. Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury (completed 7/25/07)
  11. Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes (completed 8/26/07)
  12. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (completed 9/2/07)
  13. A Woman in Jerusalem, by A.B. Yehoshua (completed 10/7/07)

Favorite Book of the Challenge: This is a real toss-up. I enjoyed Suite Francaise, Half of a Yellow Sun, and The Road the most.

Least Favorite Book: One Good Turn. This crime mystery was a pretty light read compared to the others on this list.

What I learned through this challenge: Every one of these authors was also new to me, and many of them are from outside the United States. This challenge really opened my eyes to the wealth of great literature in the world, and has inspired me to continue seek out authors from around the world.

Laura's Progress Report & List

Here's my list!

    Completed (with links to reviews):

    1. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell (read in 2006)
    2. The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
    3. Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
    4. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (completed 3/26/07)
    5. Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (completed 3/31/07)
    6. Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala (completed 4/13/07)
    7. One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson (completed 5/25/07)
    8. The Translator, by Leila Aboulela (completed 5/28/07)
    9. Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali (completed 6/17/07)
    10. Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury (completed 7/25/07)
    11. Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes (completed 8/26/07
    12. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (completed 9/2/07)
    13. A Woman in Jerusalem, by A.B. Yehoshua (completed 10/7/07)

    Laura's Review - A Woman in Jerusalem

    A Woman in Jerusalem
    A. B. Yehoshua
    236 pages

    First sentence: Even though the manager of the human resources division had not sought such a mission, now, in the softly radiant morning, he grasped its unexpected significance.

    Reflections: An anonymous woman is killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, and her body lies unidentified and unclaimed. A recent pay stub is found among her belongings, and a news weekly publishes an article, calling the company uncaring and negligent. The elderly owner calls on his human resources manager to uncover the truth and salvage the company's reputation.

    The human resources manager, recently divorced, is dealing with problems of his own. But he has no choice. Researching personnel records, he discovers the woman was an immigrant from one of the countries in the former Soviet Union, and had come to the city for religious reasons. Although trained as an engineer, she was employed as a cleaning woman on the night shift. She was recently let go, but an apparent clerical error resulted in her continuing to receive wages. The human resources manager meets with her supervisor, learns some interesting details, and finds himself personally committed to locating the woman's family and making arrangements for burial. This becomes a journey of atonement and, while it was initially intended simply to clear the company's name, the human resources manager begins to view it as a personal quest, even though he did not know the woman personally.

    Yehoshua's prose is terse and understated. The characters do not have names. Yet I found myself caught up in the story, sympathizing with the human resources manager, and mourning with the woman's family. I couldn't put this down and finished it in an afternoon. ( )

    My original review can be found here.

    Saturday, September 29, 2007

    The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

    An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.

    It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.

    Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.

    How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.

    The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.

    Monday, September 24, 2007

    A Woman in Jerusalem - A.B. Yehoshua

    Title: A Woman in Jerusalem
    Author: A.B. Yehoshua; translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin
    Country: Israel
    Year: 2004
    Rating: A
    Pages: 237 pgs.

    First sentence: Even though the manager of the human resources division had not sought such a mission, now, in the softly radiant morning, he grasped its unexpected significance.

    There was a lot of hope for the future of the Middle East when the Oslo accords were first signed. However, as many of you probably know, with both sides disappointed in the implementation of the accords, the fall of the Oslo peace process in September 2000 was marked by the start of the second Intifada, the second wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis since 1967. The violence did not begin to abate until the death of Yasser Arafat at the end of 2004, and the relative success of the Sharm el-Sheikh peace summit in February 2005. Marked by Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem and other cities, and Israeli military excursions into West Bank, Gaza, and other Palestinian settlements, more than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in a seven year period.

    A Woman in Jerusalem, a novel by A.B. Yehoshua, takes place in Jerusalem around 2002. An immigrant woman is killed by a suicide bombing at her local market. Her body lies unidentified for a week, the only clue to her identity a bloody pay stub from a local bakery. After a tabloid newspaper article is written about the bakery's callousness towards her death, the human resource manager is sent on a mission to identify the woman and return her body to her family.

    The only character that receives a name in the story Yulia Ragayev, the cleaning woman from the bakery who was killed. All other characacters are referred to by their positions: human resources manager, owner, office manager, consul, ex-husband, young son. It is a technique that works extremely well for the style of the novel. I especially liked the italicized inserts of the thoughts of random bystanders to the story line: the bakery's shift workers, Yulia's neighbor's, her mother's fellow villagers.

    The story line certainly sounds dreary and depressing, but it is ultimately a story of hope and humor. The final scenes may not appeal to many readers, but I felt they were perfectly appropriate to the characters Yehoshua created. This is the first of his novels I have read, it will certainly not be the last.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007

    The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

    The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a rare, beautifully-written book that explores a fundamental theme: where the choices we make in our lives take us.

    Sukhanov, a 56-year-old art critic in Moscow in the mid-1980s, who long ago "sold out" to have a financially comfortable life in a country that does not respect true art, finds that his walled-off past is starting to invade the present. Little by little, triggered by incidents in the present day, he faces the choices he has made over the years. The wall does not come tumbling down neatly, brick by brick, but rather like it has sprung occasional leaks. Sukhanov races to repair the damage again and again, reasserting his stuffy, arrogant self each time.

    The attacks from his past come in the form of dreams, both while he sleeps and when he is awake, and without warning. The drifting into dreams become more frequent, and eventually we begin to enter Sukhanov's mind ourselves, as the third-person narrative increasingly slides into the first.

    While the dreams threaten to take over, the present does not stop trotting along, plunging Sukhanov into a world he had for so long tried to avoid. Assailed from the present as well as the past, Sukhanov eventually finds escape.

    In addition to exploring Sukhanov's personal demons, Grushin brings us into the world of art, particularly surrealist and impressionist art. As other reviewers have noted, the writing itself is often impressionistic and nearly surreal. Just as the great impressionist painters were able to bring their visions to a diverse audience, so is Grushin able to paint so that we understand, and at the same time we sometimes gasp with wonder.

    Friday, September 14, 2007

    After This - kookiejar's review

    This book truly was a 'challenge'. It was a challenge to stay awake long enough to finish it.

    I know I shouldn't say things like that, but it's the truth.

    Here we follow the courtship and then marriage of John and Mary Keane. They end up having four children and we see little vingettes of their lives as they move through the landscape of 50's and 60's America.

    The children grow and struggle as we all do and people will continue to do until we are extinct. Therefore, what is the new ground being broken here? None.

    What is gripping or interesting or thought provoking about this novel? Nothing.

    Someone else, with a different perspective needs to read this and tell me I'm wrong, but until then I'm giving this book 4 yawns.

    Monday, September 10, 2007

    Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski

    Metromix has posted this interview with Mark Z. Danielewski. In part, the interview explores his unusual way of relating the story:

    Sam and Hailey, two teenage lovers, race through history and across America, while their distinct voices gather in a geographic fashion on different parts of the book’s pages, forcing the reader to turn the book, quite literally, upside-down and sideways to keep up. What to make of it? We spoke with Danielewski—who reads at Skylight Books on Thursday—during a recent sweltering afternoon in Los Angeles.

    You’ve spoken about the “wonderful analogue qualities of paper, especially paper that is bound together in book form.”
    Definitely. A book, I maintain, is still the most efficacious way of communicating and translating information. There’s an enormous amount of information available from a book. Images provide a certain type of information, but it tends to be just static information. You can see what Iraq looks like to no end in sight, but when you’re reading a book on the Iraq war, you’re getting a far denser amount of information.

    There is some interesting stuff on Only Revolutions.

    Thursday, September 6, 2007

    The Echo Maker - Wendy's Review

    All the humans revered Crane, the great orator. Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes - Ajijak or Businassee - the Echo Makers. The Cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together. Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes' leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker. -From The Echo Maker, page 181-

    Richard Power's novel - The Echo Maker - is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award. Beneath a simple story lies complex questions about self and memory. How does memory define who we are? Is our sense of self and the larger world just a series of synapses and neurons firing or is it something bigger?

    The novel begins with a horrific car accident along the Platte River during the annual crane migration. Mark Schulter survives the crash, but is left with a rare and devastating brain injury called Capgras Syndrome. Believing his sister, Karin, is really an imposter who is pretending to be his sister, Mark's recovery from his injuries takes the reader along a winding path of self-discovery, misidentification, conspiracies, and the complex and sometimes fragile nature of relationships. Powers constructs the novel around four major characters: Mark Schulter, his sister Karin, a renowned scientist named Gerald Weber, and Barbara Gillespie - a nursing home aide who is surrounded by mystery. It is not only Mark who struggles with his identity. Karin, a woman who has tried unsuccessfully to shed her past, finds herself searching to re-define it.

    When Mark was himself again, she would restart them both. She'd get him on his feet, listen to him, help him find what he need to be. And this time she'd take him away with her, someplace reasonable. -From The Echo Maker, page 26-

    Making herself over, personality du jour. Imagination, even memory, all too ready to accommodate her, whoever her is. Anything for a scratch behind the ears. Scratch from anyone. She is nothing. No one. Worse than no one. Blank at the core. She must change her life. From the mess of her fouled nest, salvage something. Anything. -From The Echo Maker, page 407-

    Gerald Weber is shocked to discover that perhaps he is only defined by the way others perceive him - that perhaps his life's work is no more than a critics review: He'd let his critics convince him. Something had eroded, the core pleasure in his accomplishment. - From The Echo Maker, page 315-

    This novel is meant to be read slowly - it is a thoughtful novel, and one that is challenging on an intellectual level. Powers deftly constructs a story which questions the very core of who we are and how self is defined - a fascinating treatise about what makes us human. The backdrop of Nebraska and its incredible crane migration - an astounding feat of migratory memory and ritual - is a fitting symbol of the novel's thematic content. With a surprising twist at the end, the novel is ultimately a satisfying read.

    Recommended; Rated 4.5/5; read my original review here.

    Wendy's Preliminary List

    Books completed are highlighted in red. This is my preliminary list (subject to change of course!):

    Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Completed January 7, 2007. Rated 5/5)
    Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky (Completed February 17, 2007. Rated 5/5)
    The Translator, by Leila Aboulela (Completed March 23, 2007. Rated 4.5/5)
    Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (DNF - horrible book)
    The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (Completed March 16, 2007. Rated 4.25/5)
    Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (Completed May 29, 2007. Rated 3.75/5)
    Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala (Completed March 5, 2007. Rated 3.75/5)
    All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P. Jones
    Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury
    Lisey's Story, by Stephen King
    The Inhabited World, by David Long
    The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (Completed May 17, 2007. Rated 5/5)
    The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud (Completed December 12, 2007. Rated 4/5)
    Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell (Completed March 26, 2007. Rated 5/5)
    Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta (Completed May 22, 2007. Rated 3.5/5)
    Digging to America, by Anne Tyler
    A Woman in Jerusalem, by A.B. Yehoshua
    Alentjo Blue, by Monica Ali (Completed February 22, 2008. Rated 4.5/5)
    One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson
    The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers (Completed September 6, 2007. Rated 4.5/5)
    Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes (Completed April 30, 2007. Rated 4/5)

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    Amy's Progress

    I didn't manage to get any books read for this challenge in August. However, I have two sitting here that I hope to get to in September:

    The Omnivore's Dilemma - Pollan
    Half of a Yellow Sun - Adichie

    I have completed:

    The Ghost Map- Johnson
    The Keep - Egan
    The Inhabited World - Long
    The Road - McCarthy

    Hope to read yet this year:

    The Translator - Aboulela
    Black Swan Green - Mitchell
    A Woman in Jerusalem - Yehoshua
    The Inheritance of Loss - Desai
    Suite Francaise - Nemirovsky
    Alentejo Blue - Ali

    As you can see, I am hopelessly behind but I will keep plugging along.

    Sunday, September 2, 2007

    Laura's Review: The Road

    The Road
    Cormac MacCarthy
    241 pages

    First sentence: When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

    Reflections: A man and his son set out on a journey across a country which has been destroyed in some kind of apocalyptic event. This event apparently took place several years ago, but everything is still covered in ash. No life remains in the towns, and there are usually signs of a hasty departure, of townspeople fleeing to safety. Very few were spared; bodies appear in buidings, and even in the middle of the road. It is not clear how or why the man and boy survived up to this point. Now they are on their way south, hopeful of finding a better place.

    Survival skills are paramount. Bands of robbers roam the land, looting and killing. Survivors often resort to cannibalism. The contents of homes and stores have usually been ransacked by travellers and bandits. Yet the man and boy explore every building they come across. Occasionally they find something: blankets, clothes, or food. At the same time, MacCarthy's describes in great detail these once-fashionable houses, in a way that made me question why we place so much importance on our homes and other material possessions.

    The man's deep love for the boy permeates every sentence in this book. The emotional intensity is evident both in their will to live and in the ways they care for one another. MacCarthy manages to convey this deep feeling through the most basic dialogue, as in this example when they have just come across a bountiful store of food:

    Go ahead, he said. Don't let it get cold.
    What do I eat first?
    Whatever you like.
    Is this coffee?
    Yes. Here. You put the butter on your biscuits. Like this.
    Do you think we should thank the people?
    The people?
    The people who gave us all this.
    Well. Yes, I guess we could do that.

    The most haunting aspect of this book was the boy's mother's death. She apparently committed suicide when it became evident the world as she knew it would be destroyed. She preferred to end her life; the man chose to remain with his son and try to survive. When considering what path I would choose, I realized how difficult this decision could be. There really is no correct answer.

    This is a beautifully-written book that will remain with me for a very long time. ( )
    Original review can be found here.

    Thursday, August 30, 2007

    My First DNF for this Challenge - Wendy's non-review of Only Revolutions

    There are very few books I do not finish. Mark Danielewski's Only Revolutions is one of them. Unfortunately I bought this book off of Amazon before going to the bookstore and thumbing through it (my usual routine). Had I read even one page, I never would have wasted my money. I've never read a Danielewski book before so I don't know if this novel is representative of his usual style...or if he was just tripping on LSD when he sat down to write it. I couldn't make any sense of the book - there are multiple threads of writing (both forwards and backwards and in the margins) and it is just a jumble of words. Why this book was chosen as a NYT Most Notable is beyond me. I can't even imagine anyone actually reading the whole thing. What a disappointment. Now I have to decide what to do with it - any suggestions?

    Wendy's July/August Update

    August 30, 2007: You're off the hook, Kookie! I didn't even get 10 pages into Only Revolutions before I gave up. I'm faring better with The Echo Maker...I MIGHT get through it before the month ends!

    August 7, 2007
    : Well I did not read even one of these books in July ... sigh ... I am sinking fast with my challenges lately. Too busy. And I hate that. BUT, I refuse to give up and hope I can get to at least a couple of these books in August. Kookie - if I manage to get through Only Revolutions, I expect a party *big grin*

    Oh, this has been a heck of a summer for me. I'm not really complaining - but, my consulting business has suddenly gotten very busy (I picked up a new HUGE contract and will be doing some consulting for the State of California on top of that). I am sad to say, I am falling behind in some challenges. I had planned to read several NYT Most Notables in July and probably will not even get to one. At any rate, I have these as my next "picks" to read:

    1. Only Revolutions (which I half expect to be a DNF given the crappy reviews it has seen) DNF - hated it; I rate it a big fat zero
    2. The Emperor's Child
    3. A Woman in Jerusalem
    4. Gate of the Sun
    5. The Echo Maker If I'm lucky, I'll finish this one before the end of the month!
    Wish me luck!!!

    Sunday, August 26, 2007

    Laura's Review: Arthur and George

    Arthur and George
    Julian Barnes
    441 pages

    First sentence: A child wants to see.

    Reflections: This book was a Booker Prize finalist, and a 2006 New York Times Notable Book, so what took me so long to read it? It kept calling to me everytime I visited a bookstore, and after a while I finally gave in and bought it in a "3 for 2" sale at Borders. Even then it took a while to reach the top of my TBR pile, but I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Arthur and George is the story of two men from very different backgrounds, whose lives become entwined in a most unusual way. Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. George Edalji is a solicitor who is wrongly imprisoned for crimes committed in his village. The characters are first introduced as boys. Arthur is the son of an alcoholic father, who is largely absent. His mother figures prominently in his life, and Arthur seemingly wants for nothing. George, the son of a vicar, grows up in a repressive environment with virtually no friends. Arthur moves through education and military service with ease, marries, and joins London society. George struggles to establish himself as a solicitor in Birmingham, while continuing to live with his parents. George begins to receive anonymous, threatening letters, and at the same time village livestock are being brutally murdered in the middle of the night. George is accused and convicted of these crimes, and serves a 3-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, Arthur leads a prosperous life, although his wife has become an invalid and his true love waits patiently for the inevitable to occur.

    Arthur and George do not meet until more than halfway through the book, when Arthur becomes interested in George's case, and begins to investigate what really happened. While initially a character study, at this point the book begins to read more like a detective novel, and I was unable to put it down. Barnes held my interest throughout this book with his deft turns of phrase (my favorite: "They squelched through the consequences of a herd of cows..."), and his use of authentic letters and newspaper accounts from the period. Highly recommended! ( )

    Friday, August 24, 2007

    Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala - Sally906's review

    Review also posted here

    This is my seventh book of this challenge - which is 3 more than I planned to read. I am going to say that I have met this challenge now. BUT I know me too well and am sure to read more books from this list as they become available to me. So while the pressure of "the challenge' is off - you will still get the odd review or two from now until the end of the year.

    Finished: 23/08/07
    Genre: Fiction
    Pages: 177
    Rated: A
    Cover: Paperback

    Opening Sentence: "...It is starting like this..."

    It was very hard to read this book for a couple of reasons. Firstly I did not like the grammatical way it was written - I know what the writer was trying to do. This is the story of a young boy, who, although bright, was not well schooled - so it was written in the way such a child would speak, think and write. The second reason is the horrific content. Having said that - both of the reasons I found the book hard to read are the reasons I have given it an A.

    Agu is a small boy who is forcibly, and violently coerced into joining a rebel army in an unnamed African country. Later in the book we find out that he has just seen his father killed by the same group of men. Through Agu's eyes we are given a horrific glimpse into what the life of a child soldier, with all of its responsibilities and humiliations, might possibly be like.

    Soon after he joins he is told to kill or be killed. Killing will make him happy, like making love, neither concept fully understood by a young boy of nine. What he does understand in his terror, is that by doing as the Commandant demands - he may just live another day. So he does what he is told he— hacks people to death, he burns houses, shoots, rapes, maims - basically kills — without complaining.

    He endures hunger, disease and the nightly sexual molestations of the Commandant, because he is simply too young to know how to get out of it. He thinks of his mother and sister, who were evacuated to safety by NATO, constantly, apologising in his mind to them for the things he does. He was brought up with Christian values, so he knows the life he is living is totally the opposite to how a Christian should live. He sobs to God that he is a really good boy, on the outside he is a doing bad things, but really inside where it counts, he is a good boy.

    Agu tells us his story in a mixture of local language, biblical imagery, childish thinking and military slang; and it just breaks your heart. We see his confusion, his shame, his fear, his occasional bravado and pride, but most of all, we see his unrelenting horror.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    Everyman by Philip Roth: Dewey's review

    Cross-posted at my blog.

    Everyman is the first Roth book I've read, and it definitely makes me want to read more of his work. But it was terrifying. It begins with the funeral of the main character, then flashes back through his life, ending with his death. I'm not uncomfortable with the idea of death -- I've worked in a funeral home. But I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the increased health problems that often become the focus of life as one ages. The unnamed main character, like Roth himself, finds himself suffering repeated hospitalizations. I found the detailed descriptions of the illnesses of this man in his 70s frightening and disturbing. His death almost came as a relief for me, as I imagine it does for many chronically ill people. By the way, mentioning his death isn't a spoiler; the book opens with his funeral.

    The main character's life is fairly empty due to a lot of burned bridges with his family members and the loss of connection with his friends once he retires. He's been married (and divorced) three times, and his two children from his first marriage, angry their entire lives about the divorce, aren't on speaking terms with him. He does have a close, rewarding relationship with his daughter from his second marriage, but he's very aware that being the only person she's close to may be somewhat a burden for her. He has very little or no contact with his former wives; his parents are dead; and his brother, though probably the person he's cared most about in his life, has a very active life rich with family on the other side of the U.S., and the main character feels a bit disconnected from him and his children. He's a lonely man, as many older people seem to be.

    He doesn't seem to have much to do during the day; he keeps active, exercising twice a day, but that's about all he has planned for each day. He used to paint and even give painting classes to other retirees, but gave up on it. He doesn't seem to read. Unlike most of the elderly neighbors I've had, he doesn't spend all day watching TV.

    I guess I've always expected to be an older person much like Wallace in Wallace and Gromit. I expect to have a companion, though preferably a human (my husband, I hope!) instead of a dog. I expect to have passionate interests, such as Wallace's mechanical contraptions, his gardening, and his self-employment. I've assumed my interests as an older person would be pretty much the same interests I have now. But in Everyman, the main character seems to lose interest in what he used to love, even in what he had spent his younger life assuming he'd pursue during retirement, his painting. I'm not sure that's true for everyone; I have friends and acquaintances the age of the main character who still keep active and busy.

    I marked a few favorite passages:

    "There's no remaking reality," she told him. "Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes."

    I both love and loathe this passage. I love it because it's the main character's daughter, at his funeral, repeating a maxim she'd heard her father use many times in the past. I loathe it because it's so resigned, so defeatist, such an assumption that life will always be a trial.

    It was inexplicable to him -- the excitement they could seriously persist in deriving from his denunciation. He had done what he did the way that he did it as they did what they did the way they did it. Was their steadfast posture of unforgivingness any more forgivable? Or any less harmful in its effect?

    This is the main character thinking about his broken relationships with his sons. He goes on to think that as he had never abused them or even been strict, they shouldn't hold a life-long grudge against him because he could no longer tolerate marriage to their mother. I like the spirit of letting go of grudges here. I agree with the main character that one should save long-term unforgivingness for more heinous transgressions such as abuse.

    Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn't stand the complete unadultness -- the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.

    This passage is part of the section that Roth chose to read aloud in an NPR interview with him, and I appreciated being able to hear him expand upon his feelings about religion. Although I like to consider myself more tolerant of others' beliefs than the main character of Everyman is, I do share his puzzlement about it. Roth's interviewer seems to find herself puzzled by Roth's descriptions of religion as "irrational" and "delusioned," since she brings the topic back to religion a couple times in the interview, seemingly trying to get him to admit that he does have some sort of religious beliefs, or at least that he does understand why others do. He remains polite but firm in his stance.

    I think this firmness is one of the things I found most interesting in the novel. I kept expecting the main character to develop religious convictions as I've seen some of the older people in my family do after a lifetime of indifference to it. I've always assumed that this is driven by a fear of death, of wanting to reconcile with whatever higher power one might meet after death. But the main character (and Roth himself, exactly the same age as his character) remain secular as mortality approaches.

    At the same site where you can hear Roth's NPR interview, you can also read the first chapter.

    Reading a Guardian interview, I came to the conclusion that Roth would despise this post, and probably book blogging in general. He says:

    I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    The Possibility of an Island --kookiejar's review

    It is the distant future and humans have more or less (through war, famine and apathy) died out. The only hope for mankind is the 150 clones who have been charged with keeping the story of our lives alive.

    Daniel1 is a comedy writer in our present day who feels doomed by his fast approaching golden years. He has a much younger girlfriend who hasn't told anyone (including her sister) of their relationship. Daniel1 asks her why...

    "She replied after a few minutes reflection, in a pensive voice: 'I think she is going to find you too old...' Yes, that was it, the moment she said it I knew it was true, and the revelation caused me no surprise, it was like the echo of a dull, not unexpected shock. The age difference was the last taboo... In the modern world you could be a swinger, bi, trans, zoo, into S & M, but it was forbidden to be old."

    Daniel1, feeling more and more despondant takes up with a cult called the Elohim who promise everlasting life. They are correct to a point. They have figured out how to clone humans. These clones are then charged to study the lives of the clones who preceeded them.

    The novel is told from the point of view of Daniel25 as he looks at not only his own life, but the life of the original Daniel.

    As I was reading, questions kept popping up, the hows and why kept me guessing. I was sure there would be no concrete answers but to my delight there were. Every question was answered to my satisfaction and the final two chapters made me glad I finished this challenging, and at times frustrating novel.

    You don't need to enjoy science fiction to like this, but I must warn you that there is lots of (at times) graphic and gratuitous sex that will turn off certain readers.

    Friday, August 17, 2007

    What's it REALLY like to be a 13-year old Boy?

    Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (294 pgs, Random House) answers that very question. I choose this book to read as a part of the NY Times Notable Challenge, and I'm certainly glad I did!

    Black Swan Green is the name of the small village in Worcestershire where 13-year-old Jason Taylor lives. It's a sleepy little village minus the swans. The year is 1982, and Jason is trying to navigate his way through a maze of difficulties: bullies at school, trying to blend in, overcoming a stammer that could label him forever, parents at war with each other, an older sister that calls him "The Thing", a war in the Falklands, and gypsies that have taken up residence is the village. Can life really be so difficult at 13? You bet it can!
    Eliot Bolivar is a poet that submits his writing to the local parish magazine. He is talented and writes eloquently. And he is actually Jason Taylor, our 13-year-old antagonist. But really, could a kid hold up his head in school if he admits to being a POET? I think not!

    This book is chocked full of insight. It is exactly one year in the life of Jason Taylor. Mitchell's writing is so fantastic, you can actually see through the eyes of this boy. At first, it was a bit difficult to understand some of the British phrasing and terms, but that didn't stop any enjoyment I felt reading this book. When Jason was called on to read aloud in class, I actually could FEEL his fear in the pit of MY stomach. Trying to navigate through school without being seen, not popular enough to be part of the in-crowd, and not detested enough to be one of the lepers, Jason tries hard to fit in. And he has to fit in in a way that lets him live with himself.

    One of my favorite passages in the book comes right at the end: "The world's a Headmaster who works on your faults. I don't mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you'll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step! Everything that's wrong with us, if we're too selfish or too Yessir, Nosir, Three bags full sir or too anything, that's a hidden step. Either you suffer the consequences of not noticing your fault forever, or , one day, you DO notice it, and fix it. Joke is, once you get it into your brain about THAT hidden step and think, Hey, life isn't such a shithouse after all again, then BUMP! Down you go, a whole new flight of hidden steps. There are always more."

    The entire book is filled with this type of writing and insight. The characters are all well-rounded, simple yet complex. This book will make you laugh and it will make you cry. And it will make you exceedingly glad that you never have to go through that horrible time in life again. I would recommend it whole-heartedly! 4.5/5

    (this review was orinally published on my blog, Stephanie's Confessions of a Bookaholic)

    Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    Giving Up

    Originally posted here.

    I am about 50 pages into "Eat the Document"and I once again find myself avoiding reading. So, I am calling it quits. It really is too bad because at first I was interested but the book keeps switching around and I haven’t ever really caught on to what’s going on. This may be one I come back to when I am in a different mood.

    On a different note, I have joined the Book Around the World Challenge and I have added some books to my list that fit that challenge and this one. Here are my added titles that I hope to read yet this year:
    • Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie
    • The Translator - Leila Aboulela
    • Black Swan Green - David Mitchell
    • A Woman in Jerusalem - A.B. Yehoshua
    • The Inheritance of Loss Kiran Desai
    • Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky
    • Alentejo Blue - Monica Ali
    This makes me feel better since 3 of my4 DNF's for this year are NYT Notables. It can only get better, right?

    Saturday, August 11, 2007

    The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

    After reading The Great Influenza I became newly interested in the way diseases are spread. That book details not only the lives of the many persons involved in research and public health responses to the influenza of 1918, but also details the lives of the virus itself. I was interested in another outbreak, this time of cholera, in London in 1854. Specifically, I was interested in The Ghost Map. [links are to my amazon store]

    The cholera outbreak lasted just about a week, the worst of it anyway, but it was horrifying in its proportions. It also was hardly the first or last time the disease devastated a city. This time, according to Steven Johnson's uncomplicated telling, science ultimately got the better of it.

    The two principals responsible for discovering and alerting the health boards and the population to how the disease is transmitted were John Snow, physician, and Henry Whitehead, cleric. Both were young at the time and both observant and given to a questioning state of mind. They ultimately clashed with the popular theory at the time that diseases such as cholera are spread by "miasma" - smells in the air. The worse the smell, the more saturated is the air with disease. Snow suspected, instead, that water carried the disease, even though at the time there was no germ theory and he had no idea what form it took. Whitehead used his social skills and observant mind to bring together the closest to absolute proof that Snow was right.

    The story doesn't end with this discovery. All do not live happily ever after.

    The public health response was less than ideal, and it was several years before Snow's theory was accepted and acted upon. The response was remarkable, though. A major sanitary sewer project was undertaken that is still in use today. When it was complete the citizens were no longer drinking each other's bodily waste. And cholera could no longer get a foothold.

    The real thesis of The Ghost Map is not the telling of this story. It is the implications for urban life today and in the future. Before Snow burst on the scene cities were reaching such proportions that residents lived in daily fear for their lives. It was commonly assumed that large cities would reach some critical mass when the numbers could no longer sustain themselves, spelling the death of the metropolis. Dealing with the daily waste of large numbers of persons appeared an impossible task that would ultimately limit the viability of the city itself. Snow's discovery and the construction of a workable sewer system changed all that. Which is why Johnson's position is that science can conquer almost everything.

    It is only in the epilogue that Johnson's short, readable book that this thesis comes to life, rather like an indomitable puppy dog, expecting only the best. He expounds briefly on how viruses and bacteria mutate rapidly (within a day a virus can go through thousands of variations) and then blithely states that our masses of scientists, with our modern technology, can surely keep ahead of this curve.

    Even if it were true that scientists are even now creating every possible variation on a virus and finding a vaccine for each, he ignores another significant element: the public health response. We have seen in this book that public health officials held the old-line views on miasma and hindered rather than helped the response in 1854. Similarly during the Katrina hurricane response we found that although the science was there it was not in use.

    I can't buy Johnson's cheery prognosis. He ignores the far more complicated science of these disease elements that is described in great detail in that other book, The Great Influenza. He largely ignores the ignorance of the public at large and its alarming attachment to the supernatural. Most importantly, he ignores the political animal that determines how a health crisis will be met.

    This book is an engaging story of one outbreak. It is well-written and informative and it includes genuine heroes. Read it for that story. For any theory of the future it would be better to read a more thorough discourse on public health issues, including The Great Influenza.

    Friday, August 10, 2007

    "Black Swan Green" reviewed by Ariel/Sycorax Pine

    [Review originally posted at Sycorax Pine]
    Once a poem's left home it doesn't care about you. (146)

    Jason Taylor is a thirteen year old bastion of early 80s suburban torment, child to sniping parents, terrified into sullenness by his own stammer, desperate to maintain his middle-ranking status at his comprehensive school (not cool enough to hang out with the bullies, not geeky - or noticeable - enough to be consistently targeted by them), and excruciatingly baffled by his own sexuality.

    Eliot Bolivar, by contrast, is a dashing poet, published in the Black Swan Green parish newsletter, capable of transforming the torture of Jason's daily social encounters into the meat of poetic observation.

    And no one knows that these two people are in fact the same - or so Jason believes.

    Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - whose Cloud Atlas was so acclaimed and has sat neglected on my shelf for too long - is a detailed study of the mundane events of Jason's youth: the slow disintegration of his parents' marriage, his fear of their judgement, his daily struggle with thuggish brutes who either want to coopt him or pummel him, and his encounters with a series of flamboyant teachers. Most notable of these teachers is the forceful Madame Crommelynck, an aggressive bohemian who promises to nurture him as a poet. He is entranced by her artistic background, complete with a romantic genius of a father, a suicidal lover, and a flight from the Nazis, and pores over the artefacts and photographic remnants of that past:
    A bride and groom pose outside a flinty chapel. Bare twigs says it's winter. The groom's thin lips say, Look what I've got. A top hat, a cane, half fox. But the bride's half lioness. Her smile's the idea of a smile. She knows more about her new husband than he knows about her. Above the church door a stone lady gazes up at her stone knight. Flesh-and-blood people in photographs look at the camera, but stone people look through the camera straight at you. (157)

    You can see here the spareness of Mitchell's language, but also a playfulness with both word and image that we see more often in poetry than prose. Does the groom's "Look what I've got" encompass the bride, or simply the trappings of privilege - the hat, cane, fur? Is the half fox merely an item, or is it a description of him, the equivalent of her "half lioness"? The inanimate eyes of the statue can see through history straight into Jason's secrets, as if bodies that have never lived are exempt from the strictures of time and pretense.

    For a time it seems that we know what kind of a coming-of-age story this will be - a tale of mentoring, in which the quirky guidance of the epigrammatic Mme. Crommelynck will guide Jason into a more honest sense of self. But then Madame is whisked away, a victim to her own secrets, and it becomes clear that in Black Swan Green as in Harry Potter, teachers can't do the working of growing up for you.

    Primary school seemed so huge then. How can you be sure anything is ever its real size? (226)

    At first the youthful concerns of the novel (bullying, nascent sexuality, parental approval, being perceived as cool), its diction that perches precariously between surly catchphrases ("That's epic!") and self-conscious poetry, and its gleeful insistence on reminding us just what 1982 looked like culturally, may fool you (as it did me) into thinking that it is a surprisingly slight book. But oddities recur with literary frequency. Ringing phones haunt the households Jason occupies and visits, the unheard and ignored voices on the other end implying the mundane catastrophes that lie in wait for the houses' secrets to be made known. Secrets are the core of this novel, and, it reveals, at the core of virtually every YA novel, after-school special, and coming-of-age story. Puberty is the time when, new to the capacity for certain types of abstract thought and awoken by sexuality to new dimensions of social belonging and exclusion, we are forced to make decisions (seemingly final, but not truly so) about our identity, both about how we see ourselves and how we wish others to see us.

    In one of the novel's most delightful scenes, another of Jason's many teacher-figures gives her class a truly brilliant lesson on secrecy, beginning with this exchange:
    "But what is a secret?"
    It takes everyone a bit of time to get going after lunch.
    "Well, say, is a secret a thing you can see? Touch?"
    Avril Bredon put her hand up.
    "A secret's a piece of information that not everyone knows."
    "Good. A piece of information that not everyone knows. Information about ... who? You? Somebody else? Something? All of these?"
    After a gap, a few kids murmured, "All of these."
    "Yes, I'd say so too. But ask yourselves this. Is a secret a secret if it isn't true?" (264)
    Reputation and the construction of identities is at the core of all this secrecy. Jason's stutter is among his biggest secrets, but it quickly becomes obvious that only he considers it so. But this is because it is something he believes both defines him and should not define him. What will happen, he has to ask himself, if the bullies at school find that he is Eliot Bolivar? They will exclude and persecute him; he will never belong. But does he want to be a poet or does he want to be a bully?

    There is a wooded area of Black Swan Green, a town that is a transitional hybrid between a yuppie suburb and a farming community, where the kids go to play out games of violence and connection, and to which Jason flees whenever he wants to escape the pressure of quotidian secrecy. This is truly a "green world" in Northrop Frye's usage, a liminal space to play out forbidden struggles with eros and thanatos, a parallel reality that both defies the structures of normalcy and order and provides its citizens with a place to purge iconoclastic impulses, enabling their safe return to the status quo (A Midsummer Night's Dream, by the way, is the most frequently cited example of a "green world").

    The novel in fact begins in this green world, when a pond amidst the trees freezes over and Jason, left alone there, becomes convinced that he can sense all the children who have ever drowned in its waters. He seeks shelter in a cottage straight out of Germanic fairy tale, where he has an encounter so surreal it feels truly baffling, as if we really had suddenly plunged into a folkloric world of magic and madness.

    And then the chapter ends, and the incident evaporates as if it had never happened. The only evidence that remains of it is a broken watch, left to Jason by his grandfather, that our hero has smacked against the ice. [My review may contain some SPOILERS about the formal construction of the novel from this point onward.] This is a frequently used strategy of the novel's: chapters end on almost cliffhanging notes of drama, and new ones begin on the next page in an entirely different mental and narrative state. Mitchell repeatedly denies us the satisfaction of resolution and anti-climax over the course of the novel, a device that I found at first disorienting and manipulative.

    As the novel progresses, however, we become aware that these narrative disruptions are at least in part a result of the fact that Jason is writing this story, cathartically transforming his painful, mundane life into the stuff of folktales and adventure stories. This is a thrilling realization and it underscores the lightly experiment nature of the novel's construction. The possibility that some of the tale might be fiction and some reality, and that we as readers will never be fully aware of which is which, speaks to all the books most beloved issues of identity-creation and secrecy.

    In the final chapters, however, the plot-lines that unraveled so marvelously after each of the abandoned cliffhangers are all tied neatly together. I have to imagine that this is the same feeling Jason got when he discovered, towards the end of the novel, that the forest, his rampaging and chaotic green world, is in fact about the size of a small field: the deflating knowledge that convention has triumphed over the creative richness of uncertainty.

    Despite this final feeling of slight deflation, this was a novel that won me over quickly with its wit and readability. In its aftermath, I found myself wishing that I had anything even half as gripping to read. But, alas, once a book has left, it doesn't care about you.

    Black Swan Green (2006)
    David Mitchell