Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Friends Book Report

Tonight was the second meeting of the Friends Book Group.  We had 9 people at the meeting tonight to discuss Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah, and 7 of us had finished reading the book.  On the whole, we liked the book, with just two people who didn't really care for it.

It was sort of crazy: This book group actually spent most of the time talking about the book.  In my other book group, we always discuss the book for 20 minutes or a half hour, and spend the rest of the time gossiping.  This group is focused. 

An interesting perspective that came out of our discussion was that Meredith's dad was selfish in being the sole provider of love in the family, and should have forced or at least more strongly encouraged Anya to be a better, warmer mother.  I was surprised that a number of people at the meeting felt that the sister relationship in some ways mirrored their own relationships with their sisters, with some of the Friends being the responsible Meredith, and some being the fly-away Nina.  I sort of thought I was the only one who would recognize herself in these characters.  Maybe I'm more normal than I give myself credit for being.

Our next book will be Left Neglected by Lisa Genova, but we won't meet to discuss it until September.

Still reading (and loving):  All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz

Listening to:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  I tried listening to The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, but the reading was so campy that it drove me crazy before the end of the first disc.  I will keep the book, and try reading that instead of listening to the CD.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Squatter Park

I'm not sure why I decided to read Sunset Park by Paul AusterThe NYT review is not great.  I somehow had the impression that Sunset Park would be a novel of the new recession, like The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter.  True, the protagonist is working as a person who cleans out foreclosed homes at the beginning of the story, and becomes a squatter later on.  But  even with those facts, Sunset Park could have been based in any time, and didn't really speak to the financial downturn as I expected it would. 

When I picked up the CD, I was excited because the author, Paul Auster, reads Sunset Park himself, like Aimee Bender did with The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeBut where Lemon Cake needed Bender to read the story in order to get the proper inflection and make the story believable, Auster seems uncomfortable with his novel, and reads almost without fluctuation in tone.  Now I'm not saying that I want him to invent Disney-like voices for each character, but while listening to Sunset I had the impression that Auster felt like he was standing at the front of his writing class, reading to his peers while shuffling his feet, refusing to meet their eyes.

I really wanted to like Sunset, but at the end, it just sort of annoyed me.  This is something of a spoiler, but it was almost infuriating that the characters who were squatting felt indignation at being forcibly evicted from their "home" after receiving several notices.  The character who was writing her dissertation didn't have it on a flashdrive at another location when she knew the police could come and throw her stuff on the street at any time?  Really?  I'm sorry, but I couldn't find sympathy for these squatters who considered their action a social experiment. 

Next up on CD:  The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Still Reading:  All is Vanity  by Christina Schwarz

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dear Gentle Reader,

As I have mentioned, the premise is this:  Jonathan Safran Foer took a book by Bruno Schulz called Street of Crocodiles, cut it apart, as if with an exacto knife, and created a whole new story, which he calls Tree of Codes.  This is what one page looks like:

That's my lime green paper behind the page, so that you can see better.  The book is extremely delicate, and must have been very difficult to make.  I first ordered Tree of Codes on February 22, from  At that time, it was not available on Amazon, unless I wanted to pay two times the list price from "these sellers".  Borders expected to ship it in 2 weeks.  A month later, I contacted Borders to see where the book was, and was informed that they didn't have it, and that if they didn't have it in another month, they would cancel my order.  Another month went by, and they made good on their promise.  Throughout April and May, I kept checking Amazon to see if they had gotten copies in.  Finally, in desperation, I just googled the name of the book, hoping to find it at a reasonable price at some independent book store, anywhere.  Then Amazon had it.  I ordered, and it arrived - about 4 months after my original order, just like Amazon predicted when the book was first released!

When I say that this book is delicate, I mean that it is only for gentle readers.  As careful as I was, I almost tore a page a couple of times.  This is what 4 pages together look like, to give you an idea:

The words on one page can easily get stuck on the next.  I love libraries, but Tree of Codes is not an appropriate library book - it would not make it through more than 2 or 3 checkouts.  This means that if you want to read Tree, you probably will have to buy it.  I have heard a rumor that JSF made the book in this delicate manner in order to defeat the e-readers, and get people to buy paper books.  I mean obviously, he could have blacked or whited out the words, and made it much easier to publish.  I have to say that the kindle people could probably figure out a way to put the book in electronic form, but I am guessing that it might involve taking a picture of each page, with a blank page behind it. 

So how's the story?  Dark and gray.  Don't get me wrong, it is typical JSF, with "nothing"s and "everything"s aplenty, which I love.  It's amazing that JSF was able to find his own voice within someone else's words.  But given that JSF started with Schulz's colorful imagery, I was hoping for something completely different from Street of Crocodiles.  Instead, it sort of told a similar story, with more blame on the mother.  Maybe, if I hadn't read Crocodiles first, I would have interpreted Tree of Codes differently.  As I was reading JSF's salvaged words, I was remembering how Schulz's story was progressing at that point, which may have shaped my vision. 

As for the paragraph that I quoted in the last post, JSF didn't use a single word, and cut out the whole thing. I love the concept that JSF used to make this book work.  I would like to try it myself, with the same book, and see if I can come up with a totally different story. Maybe if I can find some spare time I'll buy another copy of Crocodiles, and cross out words with a pencil.  It seems like this could be an online writer's workshop, with the Schulz estate posting an editable version of Crocodiles online, and inspired readers paying a fee to the estate to cut it down to form their own story.  It wouldn't look as awesome as JSF's book, but it would make a great experiment.

Here's my attempt at taking Schulz's words, as edited down by JSF, to form my meaning:

The tree of codes was better than a paper imitation
 Next up:  I'm not sure.  I have A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan on hold at the library, and as of yesterday, they said that I should have it in 2 days.  As of today, they say the wait is "undetermined".  I may go ahead and start All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz while I wait.

Still listening to:  Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Words of Inspiration

When I heard that Jonathan Safran Foer's favorite book was The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and that he had written a new book using some of Schulz's words but die cutting out others, I felt like a literary loser.  How could it be that I had never heard of this renowned masterpiece?  Then I checked at my library, and found that they didn't have it.  In fact, there are very few libraries in Michigan that do stock it.

Schulz was an author and artist who was murdered as a side effect of the Holocaust.  He was working on a painting for one Gestapo officer, when another Gestapo officer got mad at the first, and killed Schulz as vengeance. 

I decided to read Crocodiles because I wanted to read Tree of Codes, which is the book that Jonathan Safran Foer wrote using Schulz's words.  As such, I read Crocodiles knowing that someone else had looked at the narrative, loved it, and cut it to pieces in order to create a new and different story.  In reading Crocodiles it is easy to see how JSF got his idea. 

Schulz uses words in a way unlike any other author I have read.  His sentences are so full of metaphor, that I am actually not sure that I properly understood the story, and plan to read it again.  As an example, this is Schulz describing the work of two seamstresses:

"The girls trod absentmindedly on the bright shreds of material, wading carelessly in the rubbish of a possible carnival, in the storeroom for some great unrealized masquerade.  They disentangled themselves with nervous giggles from the trimmings, their eyes laughed into the mirrors.  Their hearts, the quick magic of their fingers were not in the boring dresses which remained on the table, but in the thousand scraps, the frivolous and fickle trimmings, with the colorful fantastic snowstorm with which they could smother the whole city."

I can't wait to see what JSF does with this paragraph.  He could take these words about seamstresses, and include them in a story about a carnival, rubbish, magic, a snowstorm, or any of 70 or 80 other topics. 

As I understand it, in its most simple terms, Crocodiles is the story of a father drifting deeper and deeper into dementia, as told by his young son.  But there's so much more.  With the story being told in Schulz' language of metaphor and allusion, it twists and turns like a dark fairy tale.  Through it all, the son seeks and finds glimmers of brilliance in his father.

In one such moment, the father is studying the same scientific principles as the brother in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.   I would really like to know if Bender has read Crocodiles, and deliberately modeled her novel as an updated and expanded examination of one of its topics, or if the similarities are purely coincidental.

The version of Crocodiles that I read also includes Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and a few other stories by Schulz.  While I plan to read more of Schulz in the future, I am putting Crocodiles down now, so that I can start Tree of Codes to see where JSF takes Schulz's story while it is still fresh, if jumbled, in my mind.

In Other News:  Valentino Achak Deng accepted my Facebook Friend Request!

Next Up, obviously:  Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

Still listening to:  Sunset Park  by Paul Auster, which also has had me thinking of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. This is strange, because Sunset Park has very little in common with Crocodiles.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We Hold These Truths to be Unavoidable

The struggle to avoid becoming one's own parents is classic.  We all swear that we will never be the same way that our parents were, and will never make the same mistakes.  We may quote them, and think that we are being funny.  But then we find that we are using their words when we aren't joking.  We may remember the judgments that they passed on the neighborhoods of choice, the right schools to attend, and the types of friends we should have, with a certain degree of resentment.  But we remember the judgments nonetheless.

How to avoid becoming his parents is the dilemma faced by Griffin in That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo.  Griffin thinks that he is living his life in opposition to that lived by his parents, when in fact, he is replicating their every move.  Eventually Griffin begins to realize that he is only able to live his life in a different and healthy way when he admits that in some respects, becoming his parents is unavoidable. 

At one point, Griffin confronts his mother about some particularly scarring memories.  He is utterly shocked when his mother does not defend her past actions, but instead remembers the whole situation in an entirely different way, with enough supporting facts to make Griffin question his recollection.  As a parent, I wish that I could have a role in shaping my kids' memories.  If I could just press "record" when everyone is getting along, we're smiling, and the sun is shining, I would absolutely do it.  I would also press "delete" on those days when I scream and we're late for everything.  But those aren't really the memories that I worry about.  I worry about the random events, conversations and mishaps the kids will remember, which I think are completely minor, but which may actually help buy their future therapist a new car.  This story has been written hundreds of times, but Russo has a way of delving deeper and getting to the heart of Griffin's relationship with each of his parents that really works.

I would not call That Old Cape Magic a page turner, but in terms of the parent-child relationship, it is a really solid book that is worth the read. 

Next up on CD:  Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Just Started Reading:  The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

Monday, June 13, 2011

Back to the '70s

The year is 1976.  I am riding my "Spirit of '76" AMF two wheeler with a banana seat around and around my block.  Everywhere, parents are reading.  Don't get me wrong.  The moms are sipping chablis, and the dads are drinking Strohs from the can, but even Mrs. Matthews, the mom who wears short shorts and subscribes to Cosmo instead of Good Housekeeping, is reading.  What could possibly attract this much interest from suburban thirty-somethings of the 70s?  The Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes. 

The Kent Family Chronicles is a series of 8 books, that tracks the Kent Family from its beginnings in France in the 1700s through its journeys to England and then America.  The first volume, The Bastard, was released in 1974, and the final volume, The Americans, was released in 1979.  The series is so ingrained in my recollection of the 1970s, that a few years back, I asked my mom for some of the volumes for Christmas.  Now my parents are generous people, and Christmas is always a many-packaged holiday, but I am having a hard time describing how surprised and excited I was when I opened a box that contained all 8 of The Chronicles.  I started reading right away, and I got through the first two volumes at a brisk pace.  However, the third volume, The Seekers, was a disturbing disappointment, and left me reluctant to continue with the series.

Recently I was talking to my parents about books that we have read more than once, and The Chronicles came up.  I don't think that either of my parents re-read any of the volumes, but they kept their copies for decades, just in case they ever wanted to.  That the books meant that much to them, and admittedly, to me too, encouraged me to pick up the fourth volume, The Furies, and give The Chronicles another try.

It was horrible at first.  Really, it was.  I kept thinking that the cliche that everyone had awful taste in the 70s must be the only explanation for The Chronicles' popularity.  But that seemed too . . . too. . . um. . .cliche.  So I kept reading, to try to find the attraction, and I think that I succeeded.

The story in The Furies is shallow and predictable.  The dialogue frequently consists of one character asking another what the news is, and in this way, the news of the day is conveyed to the reader.  The coincidences are ridiculous, and have a Forrest Gump-like quality.  For instance, how likely is it that one character, Amanda, would be at the Alamo with Davy Crockett, stake a claim in the gold rush, become a friend to Frederick Douglas, discuss the first elevator with Mr. Otis, and participate in the underground railroad?  Not very.  But then it occurred to me.  Forrest Gump came out after The Chronicles.  Could it be possible that the writers of Forrest Gump saw how successful The Chronicles were and tried to take it a step further?  Unlikely. 

But was I on to something?  I started paying closer attention to the information that was conveyed in response to a character's question, "What's the news from Philadelphia?" or "What is the gossip in New York?"  In response to questions like that, the reader learned endless trivia.  Q:  What was the only thing John Jacob Astor would ingest at the end of his life?  A:  Breast milk, from a woman hired to provide the same.*  Q:  When was the safety pin perfected?  A:  1849.*  Maybe the readers of the 1970s were willing to overlook flaws in the story, if they felt that they were brushing up on history, and picking up trivial facts at the same time.  So let's take this to the next step.  Q:  What year was the board game "Trivial Pursuit" invented?  A:  1979 - the same year that the last volume of  The Chronicles was released.**

*Answers according to Jakes' characters, and may or may not be true.
** Answer according to Wikipedia, and may or may not be true.

All told, The Chronicles were wildly popular for a reason.  The story is light, predictable, and unrealistic, but interesting nonetheless.  Along the way, the reader learns the facts and trivia of the era.  The Furies covers the period from 1836-1852.  Jakes is leading the reader up to the Civil War, and he's got my interest, now that I get his style.  I haven't read historical fiction from the Civil War era other than Gone with the Wind and Rhett Butler's People.  I'm a little excited about reading about the era from a Northern perspective, which I think I will get, based on where the characters are living in the 1850s.

There's a new book, that The Times just reviewed, A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles, which made me think of The Chronicles.  I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but from the sound of the review, it shares The Chronicles' Forrest Gump-ish-ness, and is also billed as an epic but enjoyable read.  Interesting. . .

Next Up:  Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.  Amazon assures me that Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer is on the way, so I have to hurry to read SOC to prepare.  I first ordered Tree of Codes from Borders on February 22, so I'm very glad to be finally receiving it!

Almost Done Listening To:  That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Monday, June 6, 2011

One Queen, Two Queen, Red Queen . . .

In March, I wrote about historical junk food, or more properly, my favorite guilty pleasure, historical fiction.  At that time, I was blogging about The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory, and I guessed that the only thing better could be the other side of the story.  The Red Queen, also by Gregory, is just that:  The other side of the Cousins' War.  The White Queen tells the story from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, who is King Edward of York's wife.  The Red Queen is the same story, as told by Margaret Beaufort, who is King Henry VIII's grandmother.

As history tells, Margaret Beaufort wins this war, and sees her son, and later, her grandson, take and hold the throne.  Margaret believes that she is guided by Joan of Arc, and that God speaks to her.  Her piety makes Margaret a hard character to like, as she is convinced that she is entitled to more than others, and is better than them, because she prays more.  Her third husband, Lord Thomas Stanley, wryly observes that God always tells her "to strive for power and wealth" and asks if she is sure it's not her own voice that she hears.  Whoever she is listening to, Margaret gets good advice.  Her best move of all was to marry Thomas Stanley.

As far as stories go, I liked the story in The White Queen better than that in The Red Queen.  Elizabeth Woodville is much more likable, which helps that story along.  I also like how The White Queen leaves certain mysteries unsolved.  The Red Queen  offers a solution to one of the key questions involving the princes in the tower, which seems like a stretch, since historians don't even agree on the answerThe Red Queen also covers decades longer than The White Queen, which is necessary in telling the story of Margaret Beaufort, but that story is not exactly action packed.  Some of my friends have also read both books, and we wondered if we preferred  The White Queen only because we read that story first.  I really don't think that's the case.

It seems that Gregory also agrees that Elizabeth Woodville is an intriguing character, as Wikipedia reports that Gregory is currently writing books about Elizabeth Woodville's daughter and mother.  As for me, I'm a little burnt out on British historical fiction for now, but I doubt I'll be able to resist Gregory's next book when it is released.

Next up on CD:  That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo.  I've started listening, and I like the tone of this one so far.

Still reading:  The Furies by John Jakes   How 'bout those 1970s?  More about this one later!
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