Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review and Preview

Goodbye 2012!  As far as years go, you really weren't so bad.  Maybe you were even a little good.  For Christmas I got The Patrick Melrose Novels and At Last  by Edward St. Aubyn, which shows that it pays to drop gift hints.  I also got the DVD of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to add to my Jonathan Safran Foer obsession collection.  December is almost over, and as far as I am aware, no one has launched anything as exciting as the OASIS, which is the massively multiplayer game featured in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, that was said to have been released in December of 2012.  I think we are better off without it.  I mean really, we can barely handle Words With Friends.

My favorite books that I read in 2012 are these:

1.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
2. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
4. Stone Arabia by Dana Spoitta
5.  Helen of Troy by Margaret George

in that order.  Your favorite books that I read in 2012 (based on page views) are:

1. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
2.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
3.  Helen of Troy by Margaret George
4.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
5.  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

in that order.  So we almost agree, which is good.

For 2013, I have decided to sign up again for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  The idea of this challenge is that the participants should read books that they already own, in order to move them off their shelves.   This time I am only going to commit to moving 15 books off of my shelf.  Last time I committed to 24, and read 26.  I don't want to commit to that many this year, so that I can feel like I can review books for authors or read books that I pick up during the year, without feeling like I am failing the challenge.  So, here is the list of books that I plan to read in 2013.  As I read them, I will cross them out, and provide a link to my review.

1.  The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott Reviewed 1/26/13
2.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Reviewed 7/16/13
3.  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano Reviewed 3/31/13
4.  Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks Reviewed 2/6/13
5.  The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury
6.  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey Reviewed 11/16/13
7.  My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
8.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon  Reviewed 9/21/13
9.  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
10.  Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
11.  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers  Reviewed 2/14/13
12.  In the Woods by Tana French Reviewed 10/21/13
13.  Happy Families by Carlos Fuentes
14.  The End of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson
15.  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie
16.  Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin
17.  The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
18.  The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings Reviewed 2/25/13
19.  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand Reviewed 3/9/13
20.  The Iliad by Homer Reviewed 11/29/13
21.  The Odyssey by Homer  Reviewed 1/15/2013
22.  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James Reviewed 4/6/13
23.  Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
24.  The Titans by John Jakes
25.  The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella Reviewed 5/2/13
26.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
27.  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy Reviewed 12/16/13
28.  The Last Life by Claire Messud Reviewed 7/29/13
29.  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell Reviewed 5/12/13
30.  We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
31.  The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
32.  The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
33.  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman  Reviewed 6/29/13
34.  The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
35.  At Last by Edward St. Aubyn Reviewed 8/22/13
36.  The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn Reviewed 8/6/13
37.  The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine Reviewed 8/22/13
38.  The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve Reviewed 9/11/13
39.  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin Reviewed 9/26/13
40.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
41.  A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole Reviewed 1/19/13
42.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
43.  Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

There are a lot of great books on this list, and I can't wait to get started!  I'll keep you posted on my progress.

For now, I am

Still Reading:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I am LOVING this book so far!

Still Listening to:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Two Thirds of Cromwell

In 2010, when I finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, I said that I liked it, but that if the sequel was out (Mantel was still writing it at that time) I would not rush to the bookstore on the corner to buy it.  Well, things have changed since 2010.  I no longer have a bookstore on the corner, or anywhere within 5 miles of my house.  Sigh.  And Mantel's sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, is not only out, it is a Man Booker Prize winner, like its predecessor, and a NYT Notable Book.  Mantel is the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice, and it is especially impressive that the wins are for two successive parts of a trilogy.  Expectations are high for the final volume, and I am sure that Mantel will not disappoint.

Mantel's trilogy tells the story of Henry VIII and his marriages through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell was officially one of Henry's chief advisers, holding various titles of increasing importance.  In actuality, he was sort of an evil puppet master, coming up with ways of doing whatever it was that Henry wanted.  To say that Henry VIII was mercurial is a huge understatement.  He wanted what he wanted, when he wanted it, and until he didn't want it anymore.  Unfortunately for England, this spoiled child of a king, with the help of Cromwell, had the ability to change the laws to suit his needs, and to order the deaths of anyone who got in his way.

Want to know how immature Henry VIII was?  Here is a picture of his suit of armor that I took when I visited the Tower of London a few years ago. 

Yep, that is what you think it is, coming out of his mid-section.  One would think that this suit was designed by an optimistic 12 year old boy rather than by a reigning king.

After reading Bring Up the Bodies, I would suggest that a person should not try to read it without having read Wolf Hall first.  And I take back my earlier words.  If you can start reading Bring Up the Bodies as soon as you finish Wolf Hall, you absolutely should.  Mantel assumes that the reader knows a lot about the sixteenth century British royals.  If you allow too much time between the books, it will be harder to remember who the players are, and why Cromwell has grudges against some and wants to protect others.  Mantel's style is unusual.  The narrator's voice is incredibly passive for such an active story.  Many, many, many sentences include the words "he, Cromwell" as in "So the bargain is struck and sealed:  he, Cromwell, is to assist the old families . . . " on page 218, or as a variation, "This time he does go; but giving him, Cromwell, a sort of mock salute . . . " on page 217.  Even though I was really interested in the action of the story, and liked the tone of the book, I found myself falling asleep with the book in my hand more often than I would have expected, lulled by the narrator's voice.

Mantel is working on the final volume now, and it is presently titled The Mirror and the Light.  If I could start reading right now, I would! 

Next Up:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I was planning to read The Odyssey by Homer next, but then I got an email from my library saying that Gone Girl was available, but that I could only have it for one week.  Homer has already been waiting 2,500 years more or less for me to read his poem, so I guess one more week won't make much difference.

Still Listening to:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Historical Fact

I started listening to Cleopatra:  a Life by Stacy Schiff with some trepidation.  I knew I liked the subject, but I wasn't sure I could handle listening to a biography on audio book.  The first time I heard a footnote, I almost ejected the disc.  So that you understand where I am coming from, this is what a footnote sounds like in audio form:  "Footnote:  This is an example.  End of Footnote"

Part of me thought "It's Christmas time and I am crazy busy.  I should listen to something light and fluffy".  The rational part of me thought "It won't kill me to get some historical facts, since my brain is growing mushy with all this historical fiction."  The first part of me argued that I didn't need any more real history after 21 years of public school education.  The rational part of me laughed out loud at that one.  And so, I kept listening.

My previous knowledge of Cleopatra came from Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which is, of course, historical fiction.  When I read Memoirs, I felt really stupid, because I had no idea that Cleopatra had a child with Julius Caesar.  However, since all of my Caesar knowledge comes from Shakespeare instead of from history classes, and since Shakespeare kept his Caesar and his Cleopatra in separate stories, I would guess that I am not the only one who never made the connection.

I learned more about Cleopatra in Schiff's book, as should be expected.  One thing that surprised me was that in Cleopatra's time, the Sphinx had already been buried in sand for a thousand years.  Another was that Cleopatra lived just one generation before Jesus was born.  Cleopatra died in 30 BC, and Jesus was born sometime around 4 BC.  In fact, one of Cleopatra's most reliable biographers, Plutarch, was writing about Cleopatra at the same time that some of the New Testament gospels were being written.

Cleopatra: a Life is a very good biography.  It was a NYT Notable Book in 2010.   My library has picked it as a book group book for February.  It seems like an odd choice at first, but I could see how this particular biography would appeal to people who normally prefer fiction.  Schiff researched her subject thoroughly, and throughout the book, she tells the reader whose story she is relying on for certain facts, and why she determined that one author might be more reliable than another for specific issues.  I liked how Schiff said things like "Cleopatra probably did this" or "It is likely that this happened in this way"  without being stubbornly definitive.  History is, of course, written by the victors, and Cleopatra was ultimately a loser.  She should have been relegated to being a footnote herself, but her reputation was so intriguing that even her contemporary conquerors couldn't keep from writing about her. 

I, personally, preferred George's telling.  But then, why wouldn't I?  Since she was writing fiction, George could invent juicy dialogue, and be creative with any "facts" that true historians now question, such as the method of Cleopatra's death.  Schiff is a Pulitzer winning biographer (for her biography of Nabokov's wife, Vera), and she manages to tell a story full of historical facts and details in a way that is interesting, and almost conversational.  Given her unbiased treatment of Cleopatra, I would like to propose another subject for her - Jesus.  If anyone could take apart the propaganda and the edits that were made after the fact to get to something as close as is possible to what really happened, that person would be Schiff.  I for one would read it, footnotes and all.

One thing that the "light and fluffy" part of me found really funny about the audio book, was that the reader pronounced Caesar and Cleopatra's son's name, Caesarion, as "Cesarean".  I am sure that she pronounced his name correctly, but if I had been reading it, I would have contorted it in some way to sound less like the medical procedure.  With the reader's pronunciation, every time I heard his name, I wondered if he was still hanging out with his friends, Epidural and Episiotomy.  Yep.  I'm that easily distracted this time of the year.

Next up on CD:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Still Reading:  Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Typical Book Exchange

Tonight was The Typical Book Group's annual book exchange!  There were nine of us there, and by luck, I got to pick first.  I exercised impressive self restraint (if I do say so myself), and left with only 3 books this year.  The ones I picked are The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve, and The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  I have somehow not read anything by Henry James, so I am interested in that one.  The Dante Club is a mystery set in Boston in 1865, and featuring detectives who study Dante's Inferno. I'm thinking that this one might be a little like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

We were meant to talk about The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey tonight, but the group was just getting started on the discussion when I had to leave, after being there for two hours.  I listened to the book in audio form, but my friend, Nancy, who read it, wanted me to ask the group what they thought about the conversations with Faina not including quotation marks, when the conversations with the other neighbors were properly punctuated.  We felt that stylistic choice contributed to the question of whether Faina was a "real" girl or whether she could possibly be a snow girl, which really is the central issue of the narrative.

Next month we are going to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I was surprised to see that I was 7th on the wait list for 11 copies of the book when I tried to request it from my library.  Hopefully I will get it in time to read it before the next meeting!

Still Reading:  Bring up the Bodies  by Hilary Mantel

Still Listening to:  Cleopatra:  A Life by Stacy Schiff

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Tis the Season

It's that time of year again, when the classic holiday special, Frosty the Snowman, is appearing on television screens everywhere.  The idea behind that story, in case you have somehow missed the point, is that children build a snowman who then comes to life.  The snowman wants to be just like the other kids, but finds that he can't do some things without putting his snowy body at risk of melting away.  In The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, the reader learns that the story of Frosty is actually based on a Russian or Eastern European fairy tale, which has several different variants, all of which involve a childless couple building a snowman that comes to life, but also comes to a tragic end. 

In The Snow Child, Jack and Mabel are just such a couple.  They moved to Alaska in the 1920s, and are trying to create a life for themselves in the wilderness.  Although they are living together with no nearby neighbors, they are also living apart, with each of them keeping secrets from the other.  Their existence is very lonely, with not even each other to confide in or depend upon for help.  One night, in a bout of uncharacteristic playfulness, they build a snow girl together.  They dress her in a scarf and gloves, and think nothing of it when they go to bed.  But the next morning, the snow girl is gone, along with the gloves and scarf. 

Soon thereafter, Jack and Mabel separately catch glimpses of a child in the woods, who appears to be wearing the scarf, and who also seems to be all alone.  Each of them questions whether they are really seeing what they think they are, as it seems so unlikely that a child would be near their home in the middle of winter.  Eventually, they learn that the child is a girl named Faina, but they still don't know why she is in the woods that surround their cabin. 

Throughout the story, Jack and Mabel wonder if Faina could possibly be the snowman that they made, brought to life.  Each finds reasons to believe that Faina is just a normal child living on her own in the woods, but still they wonder.  Because of the lack of communication in their relationship, they don't share their ideas or the facts that they have uncovered in support of those ideas with each other.  Wherever Faina is from, they want her to stay.  Mabel keeps her mind on the fairy tale, but comes to believe that for some stories, a person can write their own ending.

This is The Typical Book Group's pick for December, so I'll talk more about it next week when we meet.

Next up on CD:  Cleopatra:  A Life  by Stacy Schiff.  I'm not so sure about listening to a biography on audio book, but we'll see how it goes!

Still Reading:  Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Friday, December 7, 2012

How to Read Clouds

For years, my sister has been recommending that I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  In my defense, I tried.  In fact, I think that I gave it about 215 pages before giving up, which is pretty generous.  When I last tried reading it though, my daughter was just going through her testing for dyslexia, and I had a lot on my mind, other than trying to piece together the tangled web that Mitchell was weaving. 

This past Christmas, my sister bought me Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green by Mitchell.  She knew that I had tried CA before, and gave up, but she thought I should give it another try.  I wasn't exactly in a rush.  But, then I read Black Swan Green, and really loved it.  So, I agreed to give CA another look.

Even the second time around, Cloud Atlas was not an easy read.  Part of the problem is that for the first half of the book, the reader is trying to figure out what is going on.  But this time I realized that if I would have just hung in for 20 more pages the first time, I probably would have been hooked.  So, if you are interested and want to know how to read the book without getting frustrated, keep reading.  On the other hand, if you want to be surprised about how the book works, stop reading here.  I'll insert a nice picture of the CA movie poster, so you don't have to read more than you want.

OK.  For those who are still with me . . . see that tag line above?  "Everything is connected"?  Yes, it is.  To prepare yourself for reading CA, start with the back cover.  On the back of my copy, Michael Chabon describes the book as "The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes. . . "  Remember that.  Then, look at the names of the chapters.  You have "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing", then "Letters from Zedelghem", then "Half Lives:  the First Luisa Rey Mystery", then "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish", then "An Orison of Sonmi-451", then "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After".  Halfway though Sloosha's Crossin', you are halfway through the story of the book.  From that point, you will revisit the characters from the earlier chapters, in reverse order, starting with Orison of Sonmi, then Timothy Cavendish, etc.

Each chapter seems to be entirely unrelated to the others, with different characters, taking place in different periods of time.  The chronology, as it is, begins with Adam Ewing during the California Gold Rush.  It then progresses in each chapter, with the Timothy Cavendish chapters being the closest to modern day, and Sloosha's Crossin' being in the (hopefully) very distant future.  After the Sloosha's Crossin' chapter, time goes backward again until we return to the 1800s. 

Knowing this, I think you are now prepared to read CA.  The first time I tried it, I just didn't get why we were ending each chapter in the middle of a story, but never getting back to it.  You will get back to each story, but it will take a while.  As I read, I tried to look for the connections, and had corners turned down in my book all the way through the first Sonmi chapter, marking where I could look back to the precious hints I had recognized.  After Sloosha, however, Mitchell hits the reader over the head with the connections, in a way that ties everything together.

There are recurring themes, and Mitchell explores how each plays out in the different eras.  The battle of good versus evil begins with bullies as the bad guys, progresses to corporations as evildoers, and then progresses into the future even further, where we return to bullies. 

Mitchell has a couple of great and timeless quotes.  The first that I really liked, possibly because it could have fit just as well in Black Swan Green was "Prejudice is permafrost", which is in the first Sonmi chapter.  The second, which doesn't blog as well as it read, was from Sloosha,where two characters were talking about what separates the civilized societies from the violent ones.  The more optimistic character says that in the violent societies, there are savages with beautiful hearts, who might make a difference one day.  The doubting character says "'One day' was only a flea o' hope for us."  "Yay" says the other character, "but fleas ain't easy to rid."

Cloud Atlas is a good book, with a lot to discuss when it is finished.  Why are there two characters named Adam?  Do the birth marks mean what I think they do?  What caused the Fall?  Do the Henderson Triplets create the Sonmi culture?  But it would be a lot for most book groups to digest. 

Cloud Atlas was a NYT Notable Book in 2004.

Next up:  Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  Yep, I managed to get it, even after it made the NYT Notables!

Still Listening to:  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
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