Monday, May 30, 2011

Close to Home and Far Away

As I started reading Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah, I was quick to criticize.  The story began with a woman, Meredith, who works with her father in their family business (just like me!), who lives 1/4 mile from her parents (my parents just moved, so they are at least a mile from me now), whose sister has a more glamorous life (duh!) and who is married with two children (ditto).  It is true - there are authors who develop fuller characters than Hannah and who are more convincing with their dialogue.  But some of my initial resistance to Winter Garden may have been more about how closely Meredith's life mirrors mine, and the challenges that she faces, which I could have to face in the (hopefully distant) future.

Winter Garden is actually two stories, one in the modern day, and one in the form of a fairy tale that may touch on some facts from a character's past.  In this sense, it is not unlike Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, but it reads more like something by Jodi Picoult.   The fairy tale is amazing.  I kept promising myself that I would only read to the end of the chapter, then I would go to bed.  But if the next chapter started with or continued part of the fairy tale, I couldn't stop reading.  The ending was a little predictable, but still a welcome resolution.

The fairy tale, while not at first giving dates, soon reveals itself to be the story of a family's struggle to survive the siege of Leningrad.  The Seige of Leningrad lasted from September of 1941 through January of 1944, during which period over a million civilians from Leningrad died. A million.  If you've read other posts, you know that the stories of the civilians of World War II is my favorite genre, and this one fits right in. 

The modern day tale is a story of learning about family members who you thought you knew.  To say that it is about communication within a family is way too simplistic in this case, but it absolutely is about that too.  Some of the blurbs I read about the book mentioned it being about how it is not possible to know one's self until one knows one's mother.  In this case, the daughters do know their mother in the sense that she raised them and they have regular contact with her, but they don't know her thoughts, motives or regrets. 

I never would have read this book if it hadn't been picked for The Friends Book Group.  This is reason #32 why I love book groups - discovering a great book that would have otherwise been missed.

Next up:  The Furies - Book 4 in the Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes.  I've been putting this one off for a long time, since I wasn't too excited to pick up the story where Book 3 left off - with a 10 year old girl who had already been raped, kidnapped, sold to Indians, and was now married.  But, like Meredith, I will face some challenges to get to know my family better as well.  It will all make more sense soon.

Still Listening to:  The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory - I'm loving it!  No surprise there.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Girl

Shocking but true:  The girl in this photo is not me.  But I sort of wish it was.  I'm just not all that in touch with my black thigh highs side. I am in touch with my Murakami side, however.

I first saw this photo when my friend, Jim, told all of his FB friends about a blog that we should stop not reading.  Yes, you got it right, I should stop not reading that blog.  The blog gives a photo credit to, which I guess I should do too.  Here is one of the postings that Jim didn't intend for me to read, but which I really loved.  I am not sure if I should interpret it as a love letter to a girl named Margaret, or as a fishing lure cast out to find a Margaret replacement.  Either way, I'm fine with it. 

I just finished reading After Dark by Haruki Murakami, and I am still in love with the author.  After Dark is a departure from the other books that I have read by Murakami, in that he has changed  his narative form, and instead writes this book almost as a screenplay.  From a lessor author, this may not have gotten published, as one could interpret Murakami's scene setting descriptions as shorthanded laziness.  However, with Murakami, a reader understands that the author truly knows how to set a scene, and that he must be experimenting with just telling the reader what they are seeing straight out, as a new technique.

After Dark is the ideal book for a New York to LA flight (hint to Margaret), as I think that one could read it from start to finish in that time.  It is short, concise, and meaningful.  It is the story of one night in Tokyo, as seen through the eyes of several different characters.  One of the things that I loved about Kafka on the Shore, also by Murakami, was that it told me about a part of Japan that I had never realized existed.  An area with trees and cabins and forgotten libraries.  In my mind, when I think of Japan, I envision action and many people living in a small area.   Bright lights at night time.  After Dark explores that latter part of Japan,and leaves the reader wanting to know more.  I have put Norwegian Wood back on my TBR list.

Next up:  Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

Still Listening to:  The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

Monday, May 23, 2011

Two Junes and Several Other Months

I am feeling so uninspired by Three Junes by Julia Glass that I don't even want to write about it.  I've never said that before. 

Three Junes is a set of three stories with overlapping characters.  The best developed story is that of Fenno, a gay man living in New York.  The other stories feature Paul, who is Fenno's father, and Fern, who is a woman who spent brief periods of time with both Paul and Fenno.  There were many ends left hanging, which I don't mind if I care enough about the plot that I create my own endings for them. That was not the case here.

One of the most annoying aspects of this book for me is that I can't identify the three Junes.  The book's premise is that it is the story of three different characters experiencing three different months of June, over a period of about a decade.  Paul and Fern's Junes are clear, but Fenno's story spans several years, and as many deaths.  Maybe if I had read the book in paper form instead of listening to it, the chapter headings would have identified a certain June as the time when Fenno is experiencing the story, with the rest being his reflection on earlier times.  That would be contrived at best, and if I can't tell that by listening to the unabridged version of the story on CD, then it didn't really work. 

Please don't worry about Julia Glass.  She won't starve just because I don't like her book.  I am clearly in the minority.  Three Junes won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2002.  I have read several National Book Award winners, and to compare Three Junes  to a few of the others, I would say that it is not as powerful as The Shipping News by E. Annie Prulx, not as enjoyable as Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and not as memorable as The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  This is not the first time that I have disagreed with the National Book Award, however, and while the presenters may not care, we will have to agree to disagree again in this case.

Next up on CD:  The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

Still reading:  After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cutting Through the Pages

I finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese!  All told, this was a good book, but not one that I am likely to recommend to friends.  For me, I think that there were two problems:  first it should have been a 300 page book instead of 536 pages, and second, I heard about the end at The Typical Book Group meeting, so I wasn't surprised.

Know that I am not opposed to long books.  In fact, I love books that are long enough to sink into my thoughts so that I dream about them.  But this book really didn't have enough story to justify the 500+ pages.  My friend, Romy, sent me a message saying that her jaw dropped on page 509.  I later realized that she was reading the paperback, and that in the hardcover, my jaw should have dropped on page 415.  It did not.  It took a long time to get to know and like the characters, but eventually it did happen.  I also liked reading about Africa again, and was oddly pleased that the characters in Cutting felt the same way about Khartoum as Achak Deng felt about it in What is the WhatAt the end though, Marion, the main character, does things that are entirely inconsistent with the person who we have read that he is. 

If I hadn't heard about the end of the book at my book group, I probably would have found it more powerful.  This has to have jaded my opinion to some extent, so forgive me for being too harsh on this book if you loved it.

Next up:  After Dark by Haruki Murakami.  I've had Norwegian Wood  by Murakami on my TBR list since last June when I was only reading books set in Paris to prepare for my trip.  What does Norwegian Wood have to do with Paris?  Funny you should ask.  One of the books that I read was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry.  Elegance is the story of a woman who is a concierge for an exclusive apartment building in Paris.  When an apartment opens up, a Japanese businessman, Kakuro Ozu, moves in and takes an interest in our concierge.  As I was reading, I couldn't help imagining that Kakuro Ozu was really Haruki Murakami.  So while my more MILF-y friends were fantacizing about Edward from Twilight, I was dreaming about a Japanese writer who is my father's age, and who likes running so much that he actually writes about it.  Huh.  Anyhow, Norwegian Wood was checked out of my library, so I will be satisifying my Murakami craving with After Dark

Still listening to:  Three Junes by Julia Glass

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Typical Book Group Report

I came up with a new name for my first book group. You may remember that I was calling it "The Eclectic Book Group", until I realized that lots of book groups call themselves that. Then, I joined another book group, which I am calling my "Friends Book Group", because the members of that book group are also members of a parent support group called "Friends of Different Learners." People who live or work with different learners refer to kids who you may think of as "normal" as "typical learners" or "typical children". Because the members of my first book group are not united by our parentage of different learners, I have decided to refer to the first book group as "The Typical Book Group".

The Typical Book Group met tonight to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.  There were 8 of us at the meeting, including 5 who had finished the book.  Despite my best efforts, and reading for many hours over the rainy weekend, I went to the meeting with 103 pages left to read.  The people who had finished Cutting loved it, but the people who had not were less enthusiastic.  Apparently, an incredible amount of action happens in the last 100 pages of the hardcover book, (maybe the last 150 of the paperback?) and everything is tied together in the end. 

I will keep reading, as I've finally gotten to a part where the book is hard to put down.  It seems strange that a book should take 400 pages to get to that point though.  If this wasn't a book club book, I would have given up before now.

Next up:  Our BFB for the summer is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery.  Each year we chose a Big Fat Book (BFB) to read over the summer.  We'll meet next in August.

Still Listening To:  Three Junes by Julia Glass

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Russian Rapper

Picture an obscenely overweight rapper in New York City.  Now picture him white, and from Russsia.  Now picture him with full access to his Beloved Papa's bank account, which is full of Papa's post-communist, new-capitalist/gangster riches.  Now picture him surrounded by women who want him.  And there you have Misha Vainberg.

Misha is the well intentioned protagonist of Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.  Misha wants nothing more than to get back to New York and his ghetto girlfriend ("ghetto" intended as a complimentary adjective here), but his Papa has insured that the US will not issue him another visa. To avoid this obstacle, Misha attempts to become a Belgian citizen, but on the way, finds himself stuck in Absurdistan.  Republika Absurdisvani, as it is formally known, is a country created by Shteyngart, which is located somewhere between Russia and Belgium, but near Iran. 

In Absurdistan, Misha learns more about his Papa than he probably wanted to know, and confronts some issues that he had buried deep inside his toxic hump of flesh.  The country, in a parody of our Iraq war, is run by Halliburton (known to the Absurdi as "Golly Burton") and other defense contractors, with the ultimate goal of getting the US and its funds more financially invested. 

All told, I really liked this book, and especially the character of Misha.  As I was reading, I couldn't help but think that this will be made into a movie starring Zach Galifiankis.  IMDb, however, says that a movie named "Absurdistan" came out in 2008.  From reading that plot line, they either completely slaughtered Shteyngart's book, or it is based on an entirely different story.

Next Up:  Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.  This book has 536 pages in the hardcover version (more in paperback!) and my book group meets on May 17 to discuss it.  The odds that I will be done by then are quite slim . . .

Listening to:  Three Junes by Julia Glass

Saturday, May 7, 2011


My library's semi-annual book sale was last night, and I did pretty well!  The five titles that I'm most excited about are:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  Since reading What is the What I sort of want to read everything Eggers has ever written.  That will be very difficult since he has written so much outside of the typical novel format.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  When I picked this up, I actually had confused it with The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, which came out about the same time and has a similar cover, but I'm excited to read Major Pettigrew nonetheless.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.  I was turned off of Chabon after trying to read Summerland with my son, but after reading Fountain City, I'm back!  I also picked up The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Chabon.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. I really liked The Little Stranger by Waters, so I am interested to read this one too.  In searching for information about TLS online, I stumbled onto some reviews that seemed to imply that Waters is a lesbian author, meaning an author writing for lesbians, regardless of the author's personal preferences.  Velvet has two naked girls on the cover, and the summary says that it is the story of one falling in love with the other.  I guess we'll see how it goes!  I finally got a copy of The Little Stranger too.

And finally, The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory.  Yep, I needed more historical junk food.

I also picked up The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, since I liked Parrot and Olivier in America  by that author, People of the Book  by Geraldine Brooks, since I seem to talk about that book constantly, Three Junes by Julia Glass, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo, and I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. 

Now it is clear that if there is an epidemic affecting Beverly Hills, Michigan, so that we cannot leave our home for a month, or six, I will not run out of books to read.  Hopefully someone will deliver food.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thinking Nice Thoughts While Cooking

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is billed as the story of Rose, a young girl who can taste people's emotions in the food that they prepare.  One can guess that she would taste her mom's cake and see feelings that a 9 year old daughter would not expect, or that she would taste something that a stranger prepared and gain a new perspective on that person.  That's what I thought I would get, but I was pleasantly surprised when it got all Time Traveler's Wife-y on me.

Speaking of that, I should add The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger to my Favorites list.  (Done!) 

Rose feels very alone with her "gift" and doesn't talk about it very much.  Communication and the lack thereof within families is a favorite theme of mine, and there is a gaping hole within Rose's family, where words should exist.  As always, if the family had talked more, the individual members would have felt less alone.  Rose finds a good listener in one of her brother's friends, who is a science geek, and is willing to suspend disbelief in order to trust his findings completely.

It's really hard to make you want to read TPSOLC without giving too much away.  There are several questions that remained unanswered at the end of the book, especially involving Rose's mom's relationship with her own mom, Rose's mom's role within the family, and why Rose's mom does some of the things that she does.  This would be a good book group discussion book, if anyone is looking.

My favorite part of listening to TPSOLC on CD is that the author, Aimee Bender, read it herself.  I really appreciated having a competent reader reading to me, rather than an actress.  And who better to know the proper inflections than the author herself?   If this had been read differently, like with a dreamy, "soothing" voice, it would have sounded too hokey and unbelieveable.

Next Up on CD:  I'm not sure yet, but I'm headed to the library tonight.

Still Reading:  Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.  I have no idea why it is taking me so long to read this book!  It is really good, and I enjoy reading it, but I seem to only be able to read 10 or 20 pages a day.  I still have 100 pages to go!

Monday, May 2, 2011

How Much Will You Give Me?

When I started reading Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, I was expecting to compare it to Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriett Scott Chessman.  However, in the first chapter, I realized that Hyacinth was the story of the owners of a picture as opposed to the story of the creating of a painting.  This led me to hope for something like Great House by Nicole Krauss or People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.

Great House is the story of a many-drawered desk that was owned by a series of writers through decades, with very little obvious connection.  People of the Book is the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah that passed through the hands of unrelated people of varying faiths through centuries.  Compared to the others, I found Hyacinth lacking.  In Hyacinth, the numerous owners of the painting all recognized that it was beautiful, said that they loved it, and then all converted the painting to cash.  To me, it read a little like the story of a dollar bill. 

In Great House, the desk figured in the story, but was not the very meaning of any of the individual stories.  It was a cherished, appreciated piece of furniture, and it passed hands through generosity and trust, but never for money.  In POTB, the Haggadah was considered precious, and was guarded, but was actually more of a liability than an asset in most of the eras in which it existed.  If it had been discovered, it would have been destroyed, and its owner may have been killed.  It was also interesting that each owner put his or her own mark on the Haggadah while owing it.

It seemed simplistic that every owner  in Hyacinth recognized the painting as valuable, and sold it or gave it away to relieve an obligation.  It wouldn't have been much of a stretch for an angry wife to throw the painting away, and then for some lucky person to find it in the trash, love it, and then keep it until giving it to a favorite niece for a wedding present.  The only time it even passed through a will was when the owner knew that it was a recognizable piece of stolen art, and that he would be arrested for trying to sell it.

It also surprised me that Vreeland would invent an unknown Vermeer.  In other (fictional) books that I have read, there have actually been questions about whether Vermeer painted all of the works for which he has credit, rather than claiming that he may have painted even more.

One thing that Great House, People of the Book, and Girl in Hyacinth Blue all have in common is that the prized possession changed hands during the Holocaust.  There had to have been other ways to lose family heirlooms in the 1940s.  In Hyacinth's defense, it was written before the other two, and couldn't have copied their device.  In Great House, the Jewish faith played a key role in the stories, so the Holocaust was obvious as a reason for the transfer of treasures.  The story of the Sarajevo Haggadah in People of the Book  is based on truth, and in that case, the story of its possession (but not its ownership) during the Holocaust is unavoidable.

Next up on CD:  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Still reading:  Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.  Don't rush me!
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