Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Head Like a Hole

What do I need like a hole in my head?  Another book group.  So what did I join?  I think that's obvious.

Tonight my new book group met to discuss Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  This is a book that I had read a couple of years ago, for my first book group.  When I read it, I was Gruen's ideal reader.  I read along engrossed, and falling for every trick.  I could not imagine how the book could end well, and was totally shocked when it did.  I then told my friend, Kim, who was reading the book, that it had a great ending.  She said she had figured out what was going to happen, and was right.  The only other book that I can recall reading without having any clue as to how it would end was The Hours by Michael Cunningham.  Again, in The Hours, I fell for every trick, and did not figure out how the characters were connected until the very last page.

The meeting tonight included seven people, and we expect the size of this group to fluctuate from meeting to meeting.  We are all members of a group within my school district that supports the families of children who are different learners.  Most of us liked the way that the story was told through flash backs, so that we knew that Jacob lived a long life as we read about his youth.  All but one of us plans to see the Water for Elephants movie. 

We discussed plans for a next meeting, and decided that our next book will be Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.  We also decided that we wanted to include Friends who don't like to read.  As a result, we will be meeting every other month to discuss books, and in the alternate months we'll have a bar night.  This is a book group that I could like!  From now on, I'll call this "The Friends Group", and you'll know what I mean.

Still reading:  Absurdistan  by Gary Shteyngart

Still listening to:  Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Monday, April 25, 2011

Not a Runner, but Liking Run

There are many ways in which one could run.  For instance, one could run fast.  One could run for office.  One could run away from his problems.  In Run by Ann Patchett, all of these ways of running are explored in the microcosm of the Doyle Family. 

Bernard and Bernadette Doyle have one son, Sullivan.  Years after Sullivan's birth, they decide to adopt another, and then are contacted by the adoption agency to see if they would also like the brother of the child who they adopted.  That the babies are African American is of no consequence to the white Doyles.  In Kennedy fashion, Bernard tries to raise all three of his boys to be President one day, and he himself becomes the Mayor of Boston.  But the action in this novel happens one night while the adopted boys are in college, and one of them is injured after attending a speech.  It is then that through a series of unexpected events, the Doyles learn that the birth mother never really let go of her hold on the boys she gave up.

Prior to reading Run I had read Bel Canto by Patchett.  Run  and Bel Canto have a similar feel to them, even though they are based on completely different stories.  Bel Canto is based on the real life Lima Crisis, in which over a hundred people were held hostage in Lima, Peru beginning in 1996, with 72 of them being held for 126 days in the residence of the Japanese Ambassador.  The story in Bel Canto is of how the hostages and the captors got along for those days, and it was a better book than I had expected it to be. 

Note to self:  What is it with the novels based on true crimes?  A new genre to follow!

In Run, two families are pushed together, and co-exist for the length of the novel, which mostly takes place within 24 hours.  Every character in Run is likable, and it is easy to imagine being a lucky child adopted by the Doyles.  The novel is a little bit predictable, but it remains interesting.  The idea of a birth mother keeping track of the children she gave up for adoption is haunting, and makes the coincidences that at first seem contrived more believable. 

I would recommend Run to anyone who liked Bel Canto, and to others who are looking for a "nice" story to read.  I will not be recommending it to my husband's cousin who is white and who has adopted three African American children, because I think it would creep her out a little too much.

Next up on CD:  Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Still reading (and liking!) Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another Perspective on Untrue Crime

Occupied City by David Peace, is a story of a true, unsolved crime, like The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy, but the two novels could not be more different.  Both Occupied City  and Dahlia start with a real murder, and create a work of fiction around it.  But where Dahlia creates a narrative that translated easily to a movie, Occupied City fights the convention of the narrative until the bitter end.

In 1948, someone walked into a Tokyo bank, and convinced the 16 people who were there to drink poison.  There were a few survivors, but most of those poisoned died at the scene.  A well known painter was eventually convicted of the crime, however his guilt has been questioned continuously since he plead guilty.

The "story" in Occupied City is told by several characters, including a survivor of the attack, a reporter, a Soviet war crimes investigator, a US biological weapons investigator, the painter, a police officer, a rogue detective, a parent of one of the victims, and the actual killer.  The stories are combined through the Japanese technique of intermixing occult seances.  However, instead of each character having a different voice, each has a different method of telling the story.  One tells his story only through letters to his spouse and superior.  One tells the story only through fragmented thoughts in a police notebook.  One speaks through a sort of free verse poetry.  Only the killer, and to a lessor extent the survivor and the mother of the victim, speak in a way that could be considered traditional narrative.  The story does not progress, so much as the same event, its effect, and its antecedents are told from different perspectives.

I heard about this book when it was reviewed in the New York Times.  If you are interested in a book that combines many storytelling techniques, if you are interested in the specific crime that is the subject of this book, or if you are interested in Japan's experimentation with biological weapons during World War II, then this is the book for you.  It wasn't really the book for me, but I don't regret reading it.

Next up:  Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Still Listening to:  Run by Ann Patchett

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Book Group Report - 8

Tonight the book group met to talk about Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann.  This is a really great book, which won the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.  Great World is about fictional events that may or may not have occurred on a certain day in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  There were 8 of us there tonight, and everyone had read the book.

We all agreed that Great World was a thoughtful tribute to the memory of the World Trade Center, and those who died there.  It is really rather remarkable that Philippe Petit is not among those who died at that site, given that he had the audacity to run a tightrope between the two towers, and repeatedly dance across it.  Was Petit the first terrorist at the World Trade Center?  He lied and cheated his way into the buildings for his own end, but his end was not sinister.  Petit was a law breaker, but he didn't mean to terrorize.  He did mean to cause fear.  How could one not feel fear for a person who you happen to notice walking on a tightrope 110 stories above one's head?  I felt queasy in the pit of my stomach just reading about him taking the first step off of the building and on to the wire.  Does that make him a terrorist?  All told, he is more of a mad thespian than a terrorist, as he tried to draw attention to himself for the entertainment of others, and for purely egotistical reasons.   

The book group thought that it was odd that we didn't hear anything about Petit in the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center.  We all sat around our TVs for days in 2001, soaking up anything that they would tell us about the buildings.  Petit was never mentioned that any of us can recall.

Another thing that we talked about was how Great World left us wanting more.  Some of the fictional stories were resolved, while others were not.  The story of Petit was told in bits and pieces, which worked in this case.  If we wanted to know more about Petit, we could Google him and find out.  Some of us had seen the award winning documentary, Man on Wire, which tells Petit's story in full detail. 

Of the fictional characters, Gloria was a favorite, and we wanted to know more about Corrigan. We were glad that some cycles were broken.  In the end, we felt that we understood the characters who we couldn't love.

Next up:  Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Saturday, April 16, 2011


It's opening day of the spring used book sale season!  Today I went to a smaller sale, where books were just one of many departments, but I managed to make a few good finds.

The next book that I plan to read is Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, so I was happy to find his earlier book, The Russian Debutante's Handbook.  If I hate Absurdistan, I'll wind up donating TRDH to another sale, but that's a risk that I'm willing to take.

I also got Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, which I am expecting to be similar to Sarah's KeyAmazon has been recommending this one to me for months.

Then, as a random pick, I got The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho.  This is one that I judged by its cover, and will keep in my nightstand until I decide to give it a try.

Finally, I grabbed a copy of Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman, which is a book that I really liked, and have bought for other people as gifts, but have never owned myself.

Next month, there is a big sale at my library, but as usual, my nightstand is overflowing.  My guess is that there will be lots of books on the floor underneath it by the end of May.

Still Reading:  Occupied City by David Peace

Still Listening to:  Run by Ann Patchett

Friday, April 15, 2011

Finding the What

I have a confession to make.  What is the What by Dave Eggers sat in my nightstand unread for at least two years.  There's a good lame reason for this, and that is that I was sure that the shadowy man on the front cover was going to have his hand chopped off by a government or rebel soldier at some point in the story, and I didn't want to face that.  Guess what?  Valentino Achak Deng survives the story with both hands intact.

What is the What is a novel that calls itself an autobiography in the subtitle.  Confused?  You needn't be.  Valentino Achak Deng is a real person, who told his story to Dave Eggers over a period of years.  Eggers then wrote the story as a novel, so that he could incorporate conversations that couldn't possibly be quoted word for word, even though it is mostly factual.  It was very helpful for me that the story is told through flashbacks, so I knew from the very beginning that Achak lived through the tale.  Also Achak told the reader early on that although horrible things happened, they didn't happen directly to him.

Achak was what we have heard of as a "lost boy from Sudan".  His village was attacked, he was separated from his family, and he found himself walking, and at times running, with thousands of other boys, seeking safety.  Achak is a natural friend and leader, and he is able to achieve a degree of success, even in a refugee camp.  Through his relocations and the different stages in his life, Achak is known alternately as Achak, Valentino, and Dominic.  I (ridiculously) prefer to call him Achak, as that was the name that his family and his oldest friends used.  The title of the book, What is the What, is a question that puzzles Achak through out the story.  By the end, you know that Achak has not only figured out what The What is, but you are certain that he will possess it.

I listened to What is the What  on CD, which was perfect.  While it was more than 20 hours of story, I was left wanting more.  The voice of the reader, Dion Graham, was spot on.  Although I don't know if his accents were accurate, they sure sounded right to me.  I think that listening to it was also helpful because there were so many locations and names that I had never heard of before, which I may have stumbled over if I was reading.

There is something about Achak that radiates success.  I did some Googling after finishing the book, and was not surprised at all to find that he and Dave Eggers have created the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.  The Foundation has recently opened a school in Marial Bai, Achak's village.  Even after making it out of Sudan and to America, Achak has found a way to help his village and make a difference for others.  I wish that I could know Achak personally, but for now I will have to be satisfied with the Facebook Friend Request that I sent. 

Next up on CD:  Run by Ann Patchett

Still Reading:  Occupied City  by David Peace

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Open Your Head

A few years ago, my sister introduced me to McSweeney's when one of her friends had a story published in  Issue 23.  To me, it seemed like McSweeney's was an ultra hip collection of short stories, that felt like a magazine, but looked like a book.  Caren Beilin's story in Issue 23, I'm the Boss So Do What I Say, was fantastic.  I think that even now, 4 years after it came out, I could quote passages from that story, because the imagery was so specific.

This year, when I was searching for other things online, I kept stumbling into McSweeney's Issue 36.  And really, looking at it, how could one not be intrigued?  Here it is:

The box opens, to reveal the contents of this man's head:  A (bad) screenplay, a chapter from a novel, cool post cards, fortunes to cut and insert into cookies, a play, an unfinished novel, a couple things too short to be short stories, and then a book that is more like Issue 23, with short stories by 4 or 5 different authors. Everything was packaged in a clever way, with the screenplay being bound like a real screenplay (or how I would imagine one would look), inside of a plain brown envelope.  The other parts were separately bound with colorful covers, except for the fortunes, which are rolled.  Here is a picture that includes the contents:

I started by reading The Instructions by Adam Levin, which is a  seemingly random chapter from a long novel.  I moved on to Jungle Geronimo in Gay Paree  by Jack "L.P. Eaves" Pendarvis, and Bicycle Built for Two by Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington.  At this point, I almost closed the head and gave up, feeling that I was clearly not hip enough to appreciate McSweeney's.  But, instead, I decided to look at it like a magazine instead of a judgment on my life, and determined that it was OK if I didn't like every piece, just like I don't ever like every article in Vanity Fair.  I'm glad that I didn't give up, because the best was yet to come. 

As I mentioned last post, Michael Chabon's unfinished novel, Fountain City was great.  I also really liked The Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali, which is a play about a Muslim American family that is actually more functional than it realizes.  Probably because I am listening to What is the What by Dave Eggers now, I also appreciated Ma Su Mon which is a non-fiction story of a woman's struggle for freedom in Burma.

All in all, it is absolutely amazing that you can get all of this for $17.03 as of today on Amazon.  Additionally, and even better, it is awesome that McSweeney's is creative enough to come up with this collection.

Next Up:  Occupied City by David Peace

Almost Done Listening To:  What is the What by Dave Eggers

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Novel, Wrecked

Generally speaking, when a person who I don't know very well confides that he sleeps in the nude, I'm going to edge away.  In this case, however, I will forgive Michael Chabon.  As a part of McSweeney's Issue 36, Chabon included a discarded, partially finished draft novel, along with his detailed notes about what didn't work, and why.  This work is called "Fountain City:  a Novel, Wrecked by Michael Chabon". 

There is something about Chabon's writing that makes me think that I too could succeed as a writer.  It's not that he's so bad that I'm sure I could do better, either.  Both his novel Wonder Boys and Fountain City deal with the struggle of a writer to write.  The challenges that his characters in Wonder Boys, and he, himself, in Fountain City face are exactly the things that keep me from trying to write in earnest.  These include hating your novel, being sure that it will never work, incorporating your personal past, bringing in characters from your own life, and trying too hard to make your likes and dislikes those of your characters as well.  In this way, Chabon does not exactly make writing seem effortless, but he does make it seem like something anyone could do.  This is incredibly generous of him, and certainly not true.

Fountain City, as included in McSweeney's, should be required reading for introductory writing courses.  As it is written, the right hand page is the text, and the left hand page is notes about what certain words are referencing, Chabon's ideas on where the character was supposed to be heading, and his insight on why the particular twist or idea didn't work.  It's really interesting to see his thought process, and even how he is embarrassed looking  back on what he had written.  The sleeping nude fact is just one tidbit of Chabon's analysis of his own writing.  Specifically, he questions why he spends so much time talking about characters' sleep wear when he doesn't wear any.  He also candidly questions and attempts to explain his need for gay characters and his recurring topic of suicide.

Chabon ultimately gave up on Fountain City after years of trying to sculpt it into a novel, but that's really too bad.  One can see glimmers of great characters and plot lines that he could certainly complete now that he is more experienced as a writer and a person.

So far, this is my favorite part of McSweeney's Issue 36, but I will certainly write more once I get through it all.

Still listening to:  What is the What by Dave Eggers
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