Friday, February 18, 2011

The Story of the Monster

The story of how Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was conceived has always interested me.  Long story short, Mary Shelley who was very young and educated, but unpublished, was with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend, Lord Byron, who were both poets of differing degrees of fame.  They decided to try to write scary stories, and then share them with each other in a sort of friendly contest.  Although no one expected it, one of the best known stories of all time was born of that challenge.  What those who have not read Mary Shelley's novel generally don't realize is that it is the doctor who creates the monster who is named Frankenstein, rather than the monster himself.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd was written almost two centuries later, but overlaps Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and tells the story from the perspective of history and Dr. Frankenstein.  In Casebook, true biographical events are woven into the story, such as Percy's first marriage, and the night on which the more famous Frankenstein was written.  The standard English class question of "who is the real monster?" is the primary theme of this novel, with the subtle suggestion that, at least as far as Percy's first wife was concerned, the real monster may have unwittingly been Mary Shelley. 

Casebook was a NYT Notable book for 2009, and the more thorough NYT review is here.

Next up:  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Still listening to:  Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

All is Fine in India

Have you noticed that at the bottom of my last 4 posts, I have said "Still listening to:  The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai"  without further comment?  That's because I was trying to hold my judgment.  The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, so I was expecting a great book.  Unfortunately, what I found was a book that was fine.  Not good, not bad, just fine.

Inheritance is set in rural India, where a girl, Sai, is being raised by her grandfather and his cook.  The grandfather is a former judge, and is quite proud and distant, both from his granddaughter and his fellow Indian people.  There are some kind neighbors, who are the most likable characters in the book.  The story takes place during a time of revolution, and the main characters are not interested in losing their current way of life, but are not exactly fighting to keep it either.

I have read other books set in India over the last couple of years that were also fine.  Sister of my Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was a sweet, but predictable story of two girls being raised by their mothers after their fathers are killed while hunting for rubies.  The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan was a long, generation spanning story of a mother's efforts to raise her children into "proper" adults after her husband dies young, with caste rules, customs, and superstitions dictating her every action.  Both of these were pleasant books, like Inheritance, but they just didn't move me.

So the search begins:  There must be a great, powerful, moving book set in India, which I have missed.  Any suggestions?

Next up on CD:  Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Still reading:  The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More, Please

After reading page 289 of Nicole Krauss' new book, Great House, I greedily turned to the next page.  And found it blank.  I flipped through the next few blank pages too, searching for words.  Then, desperate, I considered turning back to page 1, and starting all over again.  This is definitely a book that I will read again, and I'm not really a person who has time to read books twice.
I finished reading Great House while on a break during a seminar.  Once the seminar resumed, I couldn't help myself from disturbing the people around me by pulling the book out to confirm dates, to see who had blue eyes and whose were black, and to try to make the connections that I know I missed the first time through.  The next time that I read it, I will try to pay more attention to the paintings mentioned in each story. I'm wondering if they give hints to what will happen either in that story or in one of the others. I also want to think about the piano. It seems like it must mean something that two characters play a grand piano. Finally, I will notice what each character is writing - there is a writer in each story, and their work could offer hints. I may also be tempted to write a timeline and insert births, deaths, and important events to see how they all fit.

Great House was a finalist for the National Book Award for 2010, but the final award went to Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon. Now I will have to add Lord of Misrule to my TBR list, just to compare.

Yes, I admit it.  I am obsessed with Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, who are pictured on your left.  They are my favorite literary couple, with Glen David Gold and Alice Sebold a solid but distant second.  When I pick up one of NK's books, I do so with the assumption that it will not be as good as the last book that I read by JSF.  But on my list of my 10 all time favorite books, Nicole Krauss is the only author with 2 books on this list, with both The History of Love and Great House.

For me, the sign of a really great book is that I want to talk about it as soon as I finish reading it.  To that end, I have added a page of "spoilers" to this blog, where I have posted  my ideas about how certain characters are connected, and how I wish (and have decided in my own mind) that others are.  To bring you up to date from the last posting, however, I will say that the second half of the book revisited each of the four stories that were in the first half, and most of the questions were answered.  The unanswered questions are the most tantalizing, because I think that they probably really were answered, and that I just missed it. 

Go. Get. It. And. Read.        Now.

Next Up:  The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

Still Listening to:  Inheritance of Loss  by Kiran Desai

Friday, February 4, 2011


 I hope that I don't jinx the book by saying this, but I am LOVING Great House by Nicole Krauss so far.  The book was billed as the story of different people whose lives are tied together through their ownership of a certain desk over many years.  I expected it to be similar to People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, in which the lives of the various characters are unified through their ownership of a specific book.  I was even more convinced that Great House would be like People of the Book after reading that Nicole Krauss' husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, was working a version of a Haggadah, since the book that POTB featured was a very special Haggadah.

However, now that I am half way through Great House, it is reminding me of several books that I love, but not POTB.  The first chapter is about a woman living in New York and a man from Chile.  Without going into too much detail, it reminded me of The Tree of Red Stars by Tessa Bridal, which is set in South America, and in which several key characters "disappear" at the hands of a cruel and paranoid government. 

The chapters of Great House could each stand alone as short stories.  The second story/chapter, called "True Kindness" may be the best short story that I have ever read.  It shows with a simple, concise clarity the factions created in a family when one child meets a father's expectations, and the other, while successful in the world, does not.  This story made me think of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. 

The fourth story/chapter includes brother and sister characters that reminded me of those in The Secret History by Donna Tartt.  Additionally, the house in which they live is on the verge of becoming a crumbling British estate, so of course I am also reminded of the siblings in The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  There's also the rumor of sibling incest, which makes me think of The Thirteenth Tale  by Diane Setterfield.  The image of a grand piano suspended from a high ceiling in place of a chandelier from this fourth story is stuck in my head and not likely to leave any time soon.

The second half of the book is promising to bring all of the story/chapters together, and I can't wait to read more.  I read over 100 pages today, and I almost want to slow down so that it lasts longer. 

Still Listening to:  The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How to Read Leaves

Last year, while I was reading The Aurora County All-Stars by Deborah Wiles to my daughter, I realized that I had missed something in my education.  In All-Stars, the characters are all brought together through the book, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and various verses are quoted.  It seemed ridiculous that I had never read Leaves of Grass, so I put it on my TBR list.

Before I started reading Leaves, I wondered if I was going about it all wrong.  If instead of reading the book cover to cover, I should keep it around and read a verse or two every day, to allow them to properly sink in.  However, when I started reading Leaves, I realized that both the way that I was actually reading it (i.e. 20 minutes to a half an hour each night) and the way that I thought I should have read it were both wrong.  I think that the way one should really read Leaves is to devote an afternoon to it, and read it all the way through in one sitting, with pen in hand for underlining.

Was it life changing?  No.  But if I see it at a used book sale, I will pick it up so that I have a copy to keep.  However, it was on my TBR list for over a year, and I was at plenty of used book sales during that time.  I think that like The Bible and The Prophet, people who own Leaves of Grass keep it.

Next up:  Great House by Nicole Krauss

Still Listening to:  The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
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