Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Accumulated Memories

"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."

This quote, which the character, Adrian, credits to French historian, Patrick Lagrange, is the centerpiece of Julian Barnes' book, The Sense of an Ending.  The story starts with four friends in high school in England, all with the sense that one of them, Adrian, is inherently superior to them in some unknowable way.  Another of them, Tony, tells the story through his eyes, and through the imperfections of his memory.  Tony's tale is that of the friends drifting apart, of Adrian's failure, and of long past betrayals.

Forty years later, the death of a minor character and the unexpected bequest that she leaves to Tony, cause him to question what he thought he knew about Adrian.  As an estate planning attorney, I love the story of a strange and unanticipated gift in a will.  Tony soon learns, however, that an old girlfriend, Veronica, is holding on to the item that he is supposed to receive, with no intention of turning it over to him.

Veronica shows Tony a side of himself that he had forgotten existed, by sending him a copy of a letter that he had sent to Adrian.  The letter is full of venom and curses, which Tony had forgotten writing.  Tony's words from his youth came true in ways that he never thought possible.  When I was in high school, a boy who I knew told a girl who I knew to go to hell one Friday.   They weren't arguing, it was just something that he said.  The next day, the girl was killed in a plane crash, and the boy was devastated, feeling that he had condemned her.  This is exactly Tony's position, only he didn't realize that his curse might have had any effect until decades had past.

The reviews of The Sense of an Ending are all written in a sort of code, so as not to give the ending away.  In fact, I didn't see the ending coming, and was furious with Barnes, with only a few pages to go, for his treatment of different learners and their families.  I'll discuss this further on my Spoilers Page, for anyone who is interested.  My opinion changed when Tony realized that it wasn't his curse, but the advice that he gave to Adrian that lead to the final results.  I think that it will take some time for me to really think this book through.  I also admit that if I hadn't allowed myself to be sidetracked by my perception of prejudice, I may have found the book more powerful.

Adrian was concerned with what he called "accumulations", which he explains in horse racing terms as bets that roll on the profits from one horse's win to increase the bets on a later horse. The book ends with the statement "There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest."   It will all make perfect sense, when you get to the end.  What Tony forgot, with all of his focus on Adrian's clever words, is that history repeats itself.

The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and was a NYT Notable Book.  At just 163 pages, it was a fast read, and very heavy, without being difficult.

That's one more down for the Support Your Library Challenge!

Next up:  New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander

Almost Done Listening to:  The Russian Debutant's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Good Things Come in Small Packages

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff has made me reconsider my idea of what a short story is.  Up until now, I have always thought of a short story as a starter novel, or if the author is really lucky, the first chapter of a novel.  The idea being that a person couldn't possibly write a novel until she has worn herself out writing short stories, and is ready to move on to a bigger project.  I've read lots of collections of short stories, many of them meaningful enough that I think back to them years later.  One such book is The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel (obviously), from which I retained the "fact" that one doesn't save gas by driving with the windows down instead of using air conditioning.  Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is another great collection of stories, which actually won the Pulitzer Prize.  I sometimes think of one of Lahiri's stories where a couple on the verge of a breakup get to know each other again during a series of power outages.

None of these books, however, changed my perception of a short story being just a beginning.  Then came Wolff, and his collection.  The Night in Question includes several stories that are so powerful, that I've now realized that a short story can't be stretched into a novel.  A short story is, or at least should be, a story of such intensity that the tension could not possibly be maintained for longer than 20 or 30 pages.  The most intense of Wolff's is the namesake of the collection, The Night in Question, in which one of the characters begs the other to stop telling the story that he is telling, because she can guess where it is going, and doesn't want to hear the tragedy.  The reader is right there with her.  My favorite, however, and the one that I think I am most likely to remember is Flyboys

Flyboys, on its surface, is the story of a boy who is probably in his early teens, and his choice to hang out with a boy who he considers lucky, instead of one who seems to be cursed.  The "lucky" friend, Clark, is wealthier, and bad things don't seem to happen to him.  However when the main character (who I'll call "Tobias" since he isn't named) returns to the unlucky friend's house, he falls into old habits, and the warmth of a loving, if unfortunate family.  The unlucky boy, Freddy, has a banter with "Tobias", where they trade old sayings like "growing like a weed", "by leaps and bounds", etc.  I think that whenever I hear the phrase "home is where the heart is" I will think back to that story, and know where Tobias' heart should be.  While "Tobias" and the outside world may see Clark as being the lucky one, the reader gets a hint that Clark may be missing some of the things that Freddy has.  If it was possible to turn this short story into a full length novel, it would be Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

My favorite quote from Wolff's book besides "home is where the heart is" is this, from the story called Powder:  "My father in his forty-eighth year, rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor, flushed with certainty."  I'd like to think of the perfect adjectives for my father in his sixty-eighth year, but am sure that I'll never come up with anything as accurate as this character's description of his father driving along a closed road in order to make it home in time for Christmas dinner.

The Night in Question was a NYT Notable Book for 1996.  I got it at the 2010 Typical Book Group book exchange.  Thanks Michele!

Another book finished for the Off the Shelf Challenge!  9 more to go.

Next up:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes  This book won the Man Booker Prize for 2011.  Today the Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced for 2012.  You can find out who was nominated by clicking here.  The only book that I have even heard of is Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which is on my list of Books Waiting for Me to Read Them, to your right.

Still Listening to:  Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Food for Thought

After reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, I decided that while I was not yet ready to become a vegetarian, I was willing to commit to making more conscious decisions about the meat that I would eat.  This led me to buy a 1/4 cow.  Once we had eaten all of the steaks, I started looking for ideas of what to do with the cuts of meat that I had never heard of before.  Like cube steak.  This led me to The Pioneer Woman. 

The Pioneer Woman, aka Ree Drummond, hosts a great website full of recipes, like this one for Marlboro Man's Favorite Sandwich, which has cube steak as the main ingredient.  If you have not checked out her blog, seriously, click on the link above, and do it now.  What I like about her is that she talks in a friendly voice, and includes pictures of every single step, so that you cannot get anything wrong.  At least theoretically.  I found a few favorite recipes on her website, and check back to it from time to time.  In fact, you might notice that there is a link to her website at the bottom right hand side of this blog, so if you are ever wondering what Ree is up to, you can click to her through me.  Yeah, we're pretty tight.

After enjoying the Pioneer Woman's blog, I bought myself her cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks:  Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl for my husband to give me for Christmas.  I was thrilled that it was just like the blog, with lots of pictures of the food items, and of Ree's family.  The book had two disappointments for me though:  1) I tried making her flat apple pie, three times, and it always leaked and stuck to the pan; and 2)  my favorite of her recipes, spaghetti and meat balls, wasn't in the book.  The spaghetti problem was solved when my birthday rolled along, and my sister-in-law bought me Ree's second cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks:  Food from my Frontier, where she included the spaghetti recipe, but used rigatoni instead.  Still no luck on the apple pie.  But my sister-in-law also got me Ree's memoir, Pioneer Woman:  Black Heels to Tractor Wheels - - A Love Story.

In the meantime, Ree started doing a show on the cooking channel, which I DVRed, and sometimes watched.  I found that I liked Ree much better in writing than on TV.  She just seemed to have more personality in her blog than what came through on TV.  So, I put off reading the memoir, thinking that maybe I was over her.

Pioneer Woman:  Black Heels to Tractor Wheels is the story of Ree meeting and falling in love with her husband, who she calls "Marlboro Man".  I was sort of unimpressed with the premise - did I really want to read someone's true love story?  I mean, if it was William and Kate's, I'd read it for sure. And I have read Henry VIII and Anne's love story countless times.  But the love story of a contemporary blogger?  After the first 50 pages, I was hooked.  In fact, I'm thinking that the next time I'm really frustrated with my husband, I should sit down and write the story of how we met and fell in love.  If nothing else, it would probably help me to feel a little more forgiving.

One of my favorite characters in Ree's true story is her brother, Mike.  While she never says what it is about Mike that makes him a different learner, my guess is Down's Syndrome.  The story of Mike, and how he reacts to the changes in Ree's life, such as telling everyone in a mall that she is getting married, is hysterical.  There is a group home near my house with 5 developmentally disabled adult men living in it, and I could imagine each of them reacting to news of a sibling getting married in a similar way.  Begin the sibling of a different learner can be a tough row to hoe.   Ree gets flustered by Mike's demands and expectations, but loves Marlboro Man even more when she sees how well he treats her brother.  I don't recall any mentions of Mike in the cookbooks, but I think I will go back and check out some of her shows that I DVRed and never watched to see if he makes an appearance.

Another great thing about the book is that at the end, Ree includes the recipes for most of the meals that she mentions in the story. I liked that about the last book that I reviewed, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris too, so I've decided to add a new tag - "Recipes Included". 

Black Heels to Tractor Wheels ends just after Ree's first child is born.  I was expecting to hear more of the story of how she started blogging, why she decided to home school, and how she got so great at photography.  The point of the title, if not the book, was to illustrate what a huge change it was for Ree to move from her posh life in the suburbs to Marlboro Man's Ranch, but I can't imagine her any place else.  If a "Book 2" comes out, I will be sure to pick it up.

Next Up:  The Night In Question:  Stories by Tobias Wolff

Still Listening To:  The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bridging the Gaps

A week ago, I started reading a 420 page book by Kristina McMorris, called Bridge of Scarlet Leaves.  Today I finished it, and it only took that long because I forced myself to put it down and get some sleep last night.

Like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves  is the story of an interracial couple living on the West Coast of America during World War II.  In Hotel, the couple consisted of tweenagers, one Chinese and one Japanese, but both American nonetheless.  In Bridge, the couple is a little older, and is made up of a Japanese American man, and a Caucasian American woman, Lane and Maddie.  Lane and Maddie get married against their families' wishes, on the day before Pearl Harbor is bombed.  Instantly, Lane and his family are targeted as enemies.  Shortly thereafter, they are uprooted and moved to an internment camp.

In Hotel, the internment camp is painted as being a pretty nice place, given the circumstances, and the perspective of a young girl.  Bridge tells a more historically accurate story, conceding that due to the hostility of other Americans, the Japanese at times may have felt safer within the camps, while still portraying the camps as a place where a person would want not to be.  The idea of a white American choosing to live in a camp in order to remain with her spouse, even with the sparse accommodations and tense atmosphere, was an interesting twist, about which little has been written.

Bridge also tells the story of American and Japanese soldiers fighting at the Pacific front.  Maddie's brother,  TJ, and Lane both enlist in the army, but they have different opportunities based on their races and the prejudices of those around them, both friend and foe.  Eventually another character is introduced who is an American born man who found himself in Japan on the December 7, 1941, was not permitted to go back to America, and was forced to enlist in the Japanese army.  These three men make tough choices and realize that while they need to look out for themselves, sometimes there are risks worth taking.

All told, if you liked Hotel, but would prefer a little more action, Bridge is the book for you.  The author, McMorris, is half Japanese herself, and meticulously researched the story.   Bridge  is a great book, and a fast readAs an added bonus, McMorris includes a number of Asian fusion recipes after the story ends.  The recipes are a combination of Western and Japanese dishes, including Wasabi Mashed Potatoes, which I just have to try.

In the interest of full disclosure, Tyson Cornell of Rare Bird Lit  asked me to review this book, and sent me a free copy.  I promised him that I would read the book and write about it, and nothing more.  Really, Bridge deserves all of the praise that I have given it.  It's just my kind of book.

Next up:  The Pioneer Woman:  Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond

Still Listening to:  Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

Friday, July 6, 2012

Color Me Bored

Half way through My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, I was excited about it.  A murder had just been committed among artists illustrating a book in the 16th century.  The master artist and a new comer, Black, are charged by the Sultan with the task of discovering who the murderer is, within 3 days.  If they cannot determine who committed the killing, Black and the other artists will be tortured until one confesses.  That sounds pretty good, right?  And then the second half of the book began.

It is soon discovered that an earlier murder victim had died with drawings in his pocket, which he didn't draw.  Black and the master artist decide that the two murders must be connected, and that the way to find the murderer is to identify who made the drawing.  The problem is that it was the goal of Ottoman artists at that time to  avoid using any style which could identify them as being the artist of a particular work.  So, the master artist convinces Black that they must research books of art from the preceding several centuries in order to trace the murderer's influences.

At first, I thought that the story was becoming a 16th century Ottoman detective novel, and I liked the feel of that.  Soon though, the monotony of discussing the old drawings overpowered me.  I did trudge through the book, which I actually listened to on CD, because it wasn't until the 12th or 13th disc of 16 when I realized that this was no Encyclopedia Brown story.

It was interesting that the story was told from strange points of view, including that of a gold coin, a tree in a painting, and the color, red.  Each character introduces him or herself at the beginning of his or her chapter.  The human characters make multiple appearances, and carry the story along.

In Pamuk's later novel, Museum of Innocence, which I read before My Name is Red, Pamuk inserted himself, or at least a character with his name, as a wedding guest.  In Red, Pamuk names the most important female character "Shekure", which is the author's mother's name, and names her two sons "Orhan" and "Shevket."  Shevket is, of course, Pamuk's brother's real name. Shekure is complicated and scheming, albeit beautiful and devoted to her children, making me wonder if it is just the name, or the character herself, that Pamuk takes from his mother.  I would be interested to know if Pamuk always gives a character his name in his stories, but I'm not sure that I am interested enough to dive into another of his novels any time soon.

Pamuk's details about the style (or lack of style) in the work of the artists in the 16th century must have been painstakingly researched.  For instance, he explains how artists at that time thought that it was a sacrilege to paint a tree as being larger than the Sultan.  The Sultan is the most important figure in the painting, because he is closest to Allah, so he must be the biggest, and in the center.  The whole idea of perspective was scorned.  This information is crucial to the story as it explains why the artists were murdered, but I would have preferred the Cliffs Notes version.  The critics are on Pamuk's side, however.  My Name is Red was a NYT Notable Book for 2001, and won several  awards.   Additionally, Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years after Red was translated to English. 

That's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and one more for the Support Your Library Challenge too, since I checked out the audio version from the library!  10 more to go.

Next up on CD:  The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

Still reading:  Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

For Better or for Worse

11/22/63 by Stephen King is a long novel about a man named Jake Epping, who is introduced to a bubble in time through which he can pass at will.  The idea is that Jake can travel back in time, as many times as he wishes, but each time he goes through the portal, he will land on September 9, 1958.  From then, he can stay as long as he wants, and he will age one day for each day that he passes in the 1950's, but when he comes back to 2011 only two minutes will have passed. 

With his knowledge of what will happen in what he thinks of as the past, but the 1950's residents think of as the future, Jake realizes that he has the opportunity to improve the lives of some people who he knows by changing things that happened to them while they were young.   With some hints from his friend, Al, he realizes that he could even save President Kennedy, if he can stay in the past long enough. 

Stephen King's time travel bubble is a strange portal, through which things like money and clothing can pass.  Jake quickly learns that the reason Al's restaurant has such low prices is that Al is able to buy the same meat again and again, all at 1950's prices.  Each time the traveler passes through the bubble, there is a "reset" and anything that the time traveler "fixed" in an earlier trip will be undone.  Money deposited in a bank account will no longer be there.  A life saved is again vulnerable.  King explains why things can be brought back from the past, but things left in the past are lost by saying simply that the past is strange, and that's just how it works.  Coincidences abound, and King's mantra becomes "of course".  As in why would this person have the same name as that person?  Of course he would.  Why would those people dance like the other people?  Of course they would.  From a lessor author this would not have worked, but with King, the reader follows along, saying "Yes, of course, I should have expected that."

King's past is obdurate (Jake's word, not mine), and does everything that it can to keep Jake from making changes.  Additionally, Jake is aware of a butterfly effect, whereby every little action that he takes imposes changes, some small and some significant, on the future.  Ultimately, 11/22/63 poses the question of if you could change the past in order to change the future, should you?

If you, like me, have not read anything by King in the last 10 or 15 years, it just may be time to give him another chance.  Clearly he is more than just a guy who writes scary books. 

That's one more down for the Support Your Library Challenge!  11 more to go.

Next up:  Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris

Still listening to:  My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.  OK.  I'm over this one.  Hopefully I will be done listening to it soon.
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