Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Float Like a Butterfly

I would not have read Little Bee by Chris Cleave if my book group hadn't chosen it.  My friend, Kim, read it, and said that it was awful, and I usually agree with her.  This time, I'm glad I didn't listen. 

Little Bee is the story of a girl from Nigeria who meets a couple from England on the beach while they are visiting.  She later makes it to England, and tries to reunite with the couple.  The reader knows from the beginning that there was an incident on the beach that they all are unable to forget, but Cleave doles out the details slowly.

Like Achak Deng in What is the What by Dave Eggers, the main character, Little Bee, begins the story by saying that although her story is sad, it must be a story of survival, because she is here to tell it.  Unlike What is the What, Little Bee is pure fiction, but is based on the struggle of asylum seekers in the UK.  I would guess though that a reader of either book would like the other.

The characters in Little Bee are not all likable, and they are easy to judge.  But in some of their circumstances it is hard to propose a better solution than the flawed choices that the characters make.  The ending also leaves the reader with a lot to think and talk about, which makes this a great book for a book group.

As I was reading and liking the book, I asked Kim what she disliked about it.  It turns out that she hated the things that happened to the characters.  No reader could like what happens to the characters here, but the story of how one day on the beach sticks with each of them and changes their lives is worth reading. 

Next up:  Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Still listening to:  Swamplandia!  by Karen Russell

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Each year, Michigan State University chooses a book for all of its incoming freshmen to read as part of its "One Book, One Community" initiative.  The idea is that if everyone reads the same book, they will all start the year having that in common, and having something to share with each other.  This year, the book that they selected was my all time favorite, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The choice of this book was brilliant, due to this year being the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Extremely Loud is the story of a boy, Oskar, whose dad is killed in one of the World Trade Center buildings.  At the time of the story, in 2001, Oskar is nine years old.  This means that if Oskar was a real person, he could be a student at MSU right now.

Tonight, Jonathan Safran Foer came to East Lansing to talk about his book.  He was incredible.  He talked a little about his work, and himself, and then opened the floor for questions.  When asked about his writing process, he said that he can't use an outline, because if he did, the best that he would ever get from himself is what he expected to get.  Instead he said that he tries for more.   "I want to do more than what I can do, and I want to write better than I am able to write" is how he explained it.  He also said that the best writers are not the people who start off as the most talented writers, but instead they are those who just keep writing.

At the end of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar receives a heartfelt letter from his idol, Stephen Hawking.  JSF revealed that earlier in the day, an MSU student had asked him if the letter was really from Stephen Hawking.  It took JSF a few minutes to understand that the student thought that the letter may have been written by Oskar's mom, instead of Hawking.  JSF said that he had never thought about that possibility, but now that he considered it, yes, the letter must have come from Oskar's mom.  How cool is that?  He is not only willing to discuss his book and answer questions about it, but he is willing to reconsider what it means.  He compared his books to the scores written for orchestras.  Just as the score needs the orchestra to be fully realized, his books need the readers' interpretations.

JSF was also remarkably generous with his time.  The line of people waiting for him to sign their books twisted and turned, and I have no doubt that some people are still in it.  He signed my son's copy of Extremely Loud, and my copy of Tree of Codes.  Extremely Loud is scheduled to come out as a movie next year.  I will have to see it, because I won't be able to stay away, but I am planning on being disappointed in it.  I just hope I can get my son to read the book before he sees the movie, because once he's seen that, I'm afraid the power of the story will be lost, and he'll never understand why I thought it was such a great book.

THIS JUST IN!  Thorougly unattractive picture of me with JSF!  Love it!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Friends Book Report - 2

Last night the Friends Book Group met to discuss Left Neglected by Lisa Genova.  We were surprisingly harsh.  It seems that the Friends thought that the story all worked out a little too conveniently in the end, and that the side story about a child with ADHD felt contrived.

A few of the Friends had also read Still Alice by the same author, and found Alice  to be the more powerful book.  We decided that Alice had more of an impact on the reader because it is so much more likely that one of us would get early onset Alzheimer's than that one of us would get left neglect.  We also thought that it seemed like Genova had more experience with Alzheimer's, so she was able to show it to the reader more convincingly.

In terms of the narrative, I preferred Left Neglected, but that may be for the very reason that Alice was so powerful, and more than a little frightening.

Next up:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain  This one was next up on my nightstand anyway, so I'm excited to read it!

Still Reading:  Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Still Listening to:  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Proper Choice

From the beginning of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, it is clear to the reader, though not to Major Pettigrew, that he is looking for a new love.  His wife died a few years before the story begins, and although the Major has been keeping himself busy, he is growing a little bored.

At first, I was not a fan of the Major, and thought that he would be well suited to a crotchety, self righteous woman like Olive Kitteridge.  I kept reading though, and realized that the Major really wasn't so bad, but was just hung up on his ideas of what was "proper".  This made him a good match for Mrs. Ayers from The Little Stranger.  But soon, it became clear that the Major was meant only for Mrs. Ali.

In MPLS, the Major is a stodgy old Englishman, who surprises himself by falling in love with a woman, Mrs. Ali, who was born in England, but is of Pakistani descent.  The Major doesn't think that he has prejudices, but he knows that Americans are crass and annoying, and that an English gentleman really can't become involved with a foreigner, even if she was born in one's own country.  He doesn't struggle with his beliefs so much as he looks at them in fresh light, and slowly realizes that what he thought he knew was not his own belief at all.

MPLS looks at the parent/adult child relationship from the less explored perspective of the parent.  The Major realizes, without blaming himself or his wife, that his son, Roger, has grown to be a person who he really doesn't like.  It is refreshing to see the parent having to show the adult child why he should be more accepting of others.  So often it is the stereotype to have a prejudiced, out of date parent refusing to accept the person the child is dating.  Roger, who is obsessed with his image and quite convinced that his dad is old fashioned, is willing to accept Americans, but sees the English born Pakistanis, including Mrs. Ali, as foreign and below him.   

The Major taught me a new word, which I really should have known before now.  The word is "patrimony", which is defined as "an estate inherited from one's father or ancestor" or "anything derived from one's father or ancestor."  As an estate planning attorney, I bet that I could use a phrase like "he's in it for the patrimony" on an almost daily basis.  The Major's son is absolutely in it for the patrimony.  The Major realizes with some embarrassment that the love of patrimony is a trait that Roger inherited from him.

Ultimately, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a very sweet, memorable love story.   The Major learns that the people he loves don't have to be the people he is tied to by blood, but that the ties of blood complicate each person's life, and add fullness to it, nonetheless.

Next up on CD:  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Still Reading:  Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Typical Book Group Report - 3

The Typical Book Group met tonight to discuss The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova.  Normally, there is a lot of discussion about acquaintences, teachers and Hollywood stars, and not so much talking about the book.  That was not the case tonight!  We all wanted to talk about The Swan Thieves.

There were 7 of us there tonight, and only one person hadn't finished the book.  On the whole, the group loved Swan Thieves.  I was probably the person least excited about it, as you might have guessed from my spoilers.  We talked a lot about the parallels between the historic story and the story told in the modern day.  One person felt that Robert, the modern day artist, was Olivier, the old artist uncle, reincarnated, which I have to admit is a thought that crossed my mind.  We also wondered whether Marlowe, the psychiatrist, actually was jealous of Robert, and was trying to replicate his life.

Three of us had read Kostova's earlier book, The Historian, which seems to have received better reviews than The Swan ThievesThe Historian has a woman as the main character, and spends a great deal of the story focused on the legends of vampires and Vlad the Impaler.  We all agreed that the story of Swan Thieves had a better flow than The Historian, but we disagreed about which was ultimately the better book.  I'm on Team Historian.

I brought up most of my questions about the story line, and for the most part, they were easily brushed aside.  We did feel though that Kostova was not consistent with Olivier's age, which was a little confusing.

Next up:   Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The Art of Fiction

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova is a complicated but interesting story.  On its face, it is the story of a twenty-first century artist who tries to attack a painting at the National Gallery, and of the psychiatrist who treats him.  Quickly though, the story of our doctor moves from professional treatment to amateur investigation.  The doctor discovers that the artist, Robert Oliver, has become obsessed with painting a certain woman who is unknown to his friends and family, and thinks that finding the identity of this woman is the key to Robert's recovery.  He sets off on a quest to find her and hopes that she can explain why an artist would attack a work of art.

The story shifts from modern day Robert, to a little known fictional artist working in the midst of The Impressionists in France.  This artist, Beatrice de Clerval, exchanged letters with her husband's uncle, which Robert reads continuously.  The letters give way to narrative, and we learn the story of Beatrice and her daughter, Aude, as well.

A common thread throughout the story is the forbidden May-December romance.  I count 5 of them, if we include Robert and his obsession. 

I am interested in how this story took root in Kostova's head.  The book itself begins with a painter working, and ends with the identification of the resulting painting as one by Alfred Sisley.  I would have loved it if Kostova started her story with the one person in an obscure painting, and created a ficitional world around her.  However, the online consensus is that Sisley didn't paint anything like the painting Kostova describes.

This is a 560 page book, which is a lot, but the ending seems rushed and unbelievable.  I would have preferred for Kostova to take another 40 pages, (I mean really, at that point, what's another 40 pages between friends?) to tie together some loose ends, in order to reach a less contrived conclusion. 

I had to rush to finish The Swan Thieves, as The Typical Book Group will meet to discuss it in a few hours.  I have some questions, which I will put on my spoilers page, and which I hope the other book groupers will want to discuss.

Got to go!

Next Up:  We'll see what the book group decides

Almost Done Listening to:  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  I didn't like this book at first, but I seem to have fallen for Major Pettigrew.  Now I am actually delaying driving, to try to make it last longer.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Any Many Convincing Voices

After reading Great House by Nicole Krauss, I could not imagine how it missed out on winning the 2010 National Book Award.  The award went to Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, which didn't even make the NYT Notable Books list.  I added Lord of Misrule to my TBR list, confident that I would be berating the judges after I read it.  After reading, I have no such complaints.

Lord of Misrule is the story of a race track, set vaguely in the early 1970s, and the characters who inhabit it.  The book is divided into parts named after horses, but the horses serve primarily to unite the people who care for them and bet against them.  It is the development of these characters that won Gordon her prize. 

In reading Lord, I couldn't stop myself from comparing it to Great House.  Oddly, both books are divided into four parts.  Lord has its four separate stories involving most of the same characters in each, while Great House  has four stories with characters who may or may not overlap and are united by a desk.  Additionally, both books touch on complicated relationships within Jewish families.  But more than Great House, Lord reminded me of The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Gordon's best character voice is that of Medicine Ed, who is an older black man who has lived around race tracks for most of his life.  Medicine Ed speaks of "any many" colored hair, and can't just use the word "but" as a conjunction, using instead "yet and still".  His voice is enthralling and true, like that of Aibileen in The Help.  It is interesting that both Kathryn Stockett and Jaimy Gordon, who find these great African American voices, are themselves white.  It would have been taboo, or at least disrespectful, for a white person to purport to be able to speak for such a character not so many years ago, yet Stockett and Gordon both were rewarded with popular and critical success.  Let's hope this is a sign of a more color blind or blended world to come.

I, personally, preferred Great House, but I am so biased toward Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer that my opinion should be read more like an article in People than in Consumer Reports.  My friends who generally like the same types of books that I like were not impressed by Great House, and didn't quite understand my strong endorsement.  My hunch is that they would agree with the National Book Award judges, and give the award to Lord of Misrule.

Next Up on CD:  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Still reading:  Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova.  I am reading this book at a pace of about 50 pages a day!  The cultural references make the book feel like it was written just for me.  The story starts off a week after the Columbine shooting, progresses to focus on the Impressionist painters, with special mention of Luncheon of the Boating Party and Mary Cassatt, and has a character reading Thackeray.  What more could I want?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Real Shakespeare

When I read about Contested Will:  Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro, on the NYT Notable Books List, I was interested.  I knew that I had read somewhere that Shakespeare may have been Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate son, and I wanted to uncover the real story.  Shapiro was ready for me, and prepared to dispel my every misconception.  In fact, I was still in the Prologue, when he reminded me, accurately, that I had read about the Queen Elizabeth connection in the children's mystery, Shakespeare's Secret, by Elise Broach. 

Shapiro starts off by telling the reader that he believes that Shakespeare's works were written by (gasp!) William Shakespeare.  He is open to and embracing of the idea that Shakespeare may have collaborated with others on certain pieces, but is mystified by the historians and celebrities who have argued for centuries that someone else must have been the author.  A strange thing about the Shakespeare controversy is the vast array of celebrities who have felt the need to weigh in on the issue. From Helen Keller to Mark Twain to Sigmund Freud to Charlie Chaplin to Malcolm X, everyone has an opinion.

Apparently, much of the controversy about whether or not William Shakespeare could have been a great playwright stems from his will, where he apparently didn't leave his books to anyone, and is said to have spelled his name wrong in one signature.  His detractors say that this helps to prove that the person named Shakespeare was illiterate, and could not have written the plays.  There are two candidates who the detractors put forward as the most likely true authors, and Shapiro addresses the likelihood of each being the "real" Shakespeare, dismissing them with persuasive authority.

If you are looking for juicy 17th century gossip, Contested Will is probably not going to hold your attention.  However if you are really interested in the authorship controversy, Shapiro is very convincing.

Next up:  Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Almost done listening to:  Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon 
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