Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Half Time Update

I am now officially half way through listening to Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.  This is the big fat book (BFB) that the Typical Book Group picked to read over the summer.  Right now, the characters are in The Great War, the Schlieffen Plan is failing, England is storming a German entrenchment, and the Lusitania has sunk, but the US has not yet entered the war.  The story is focused on a British earl and his sister, a Welsh family, two Russian brothers, a German who is in love with the earl's sister, and an American who is in love with the daughter of a Russian immigrant entrepreneur.

Follett has allowed the reader to see all of the angles of story of the beginning of World War I, without seeming to choose sides.  All of the key characters are questioning the reasons for the war, and the strategies of their respective countries.  For as much as I am learning about World War I, however, I have to say that the story is a little fluffier than I would have expected.  While I don't think that Follett has actually used the words "throbbing member", the sex scenes are of that caliber, and so far two hymens have been painfully broken.  I know this because those are almost exactly the words Follett used.  Hmm. 

Once I finish reading Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn, I am going to read Fall of Giants in addition to listening to it, which should get me through the second half a little faster than the first.  Not that I'm rushing.

Giveaway Update:  Each time that I give a book away through this blog, I also offer the winner the opportunity to write a review as a guest blogger.  I recently checked in with Mary who received a copy of  Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli, to see how she liked the book.  The news wasn't good.  Mary reported that in her 70 years of reading, she had finished all but a handful of books, but that she couldn't bring herself to finish Glow.  She found it confusing, and wasn't sure why it had received so many "glowing" reviews online.  Oh well.  Hopefully the more recent giveaway winners will have better experiences!

In Other News:  The Man Booker Prize Longlist is out.  The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, which is next on my TBR list, is on the Longlist, and so are a few others that look interesting.  I know it's only a matter of time until I read TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, and I've also read good things about A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.  How can I not want to read a book by someone named NoViolet Bulawayo, especially when it's called We Need New Names?  She certainly does not.  I'll wait for the Shortlist to come out in September to narrow down my choices.

Still Reading:  Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

Still Listening to:  Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Monday, July 29, 2013

Pluperfect Pieces

There are a lot of interesting pieces to talk about in The Last Life by Claire Messud.  Little pieces, that don't quite come together to make an interesting book, unfortunately, but interesting pieces, none the less.

The Last Life is blurbed as being "the story of teenage Sagesse LeBasse and her family, repatriated French Algerians.  It is set in colonial Algeria, the south of France and New England.  . . . When shots from the grandfather's rifle shatter an evening's quiet, their world begins to crumble . . . ."  OK.  Let's start with just that.  It took me until I was half way through the book to be certain that the hotel which Segasse's family owns is in France and not Algeria.  Admittedly, that may be due in large part to my lack of understanding of the conflicts between the native Algerians and the French.  This lack of understanding was central to the narrative, with Segasse's mom not understanding that there had been a conflict, and Segasse's grandparents not understanding what the conflict meant to Segasse's dad. 

Segasse's grandfather does shoot his rifle and injure people at the hotel, but the shooting is sort of a red herring.  It is a part of the story, but not the whole focus.   No one ever stops to ask whyWhy did the grandfather shoot the gun?  We don't know, and no one asks.  Why does Segasse's father betray the family?  No one asks.  Each person in the LeBasse family is so focused on their internal injuries and scars that they don't seem to  know the people around them.  The idea of family is emphasized by the characters as being of great importance, but time and again stories emerge of family members being cast aside for little reason or for no reason at all.

Segasse's brother, Etienne Parfait, is one of the interesting pieces.  Something happened during Etienne's birth that caused him to be deprived of oxygen for so long that he was left "severely mentally retarded", and confined to a wheelchair.  Messud does a great job of describing the challenges that a teenage Segasse would face in introducing her friends to her brother.  Segasse treats it as a privilege and a test to meet Etienne.  If her friends don't react well to him, they are out.  Segasse loves Etienne, and seems to realize that what happened to him could have happened just as easily to her.  She struggles with the question of what Etienne can actually understand, and with him growing older but not improving. 

Etienne leads to another interesting piece.  His name, according to Google Translate, means "Stephen Perfect".  Of course, when Segasse's parents named Etienne, they already knew that he would never be "perfect", but they stuck with the name that they had chosen.  Segasse calls him "plus-que-parfait", which she translates to "more than perfect" or "pluperfect".  Messud plays with the pluperfect tense throughout the novel.  At one point, she describes it as being "the tense where there had been a future", and by implication, where the future no longer exists.  This tense is applied to the LeBasse's life in Algeria, where they thought that their future was, but of course, it was not.  In Part Nine of the book, Messud writes whole chapters in the pluperfect, describing the brother that her father never had.  I like the idea of the pluperfect tense as Messud uses it, and marveled that anyone ever learns to speak English with all of the ridiculous tenses that I must use, but have never even heard of.   When I looked up the tense in Wiki and in Merriam Webster, I found that it just means "past perfect" (ex:  "had thought"), which is no where near as intriguing as "a tense where there had been a future."  I propose a new definition.

The last interesting piece is Messud's writing style.  The first thing that threw me was her love of the run on sentence.  Now I'm a lawyer, and I didn't think anyone liked run on sentences more than we do, but clearly I was wrong.  One that I noted (page 116, if you don't believe me) has 102 words, 12 commas, 4 semi colons, 1 colon, 1 set of parentheses, and finally, 1 period.  Yes, I noted this because it was long even by Messud standards, but it was not crazily different from any number of other sentences.  Messud also seemed to try to use words in their less common meaning.  For instance, she used the word "bluff" 4 times that I noticed in the novel, but never as either a fib or a geographic feature.  "He was bluff, but not convincingly so. . ."  " . . .my father's humor, easy, bluff, rolled into our evening. . . ."  I was tempted to buy the book on Kindle just so that I could search for certain words to see where and when they were used, but it wasn't available.

I have read The Emperor's Children, which is also by Messud,  but was written later.  Although The Emperor's Children wasn't one of my favorite books when I read it, there are two characters who are still with me.  The first is the pretentious Julius, who pretends that his only suit is his "signature suit", to explain why he is always wearing it.  The second is the lost Bootie, whose poverty in New York City, when finally discovered, is shocking to the self absorbed relatives who thought that they were supporting him.  I don't remember the run on sentences or the odd usage of words in this later book, and I'm not sure whether to attribute that to Messud's maturity, or her effort to use that style in The Last Life to create a voice for Segasse.  I will be interested to see if The Last Life sticks with me like The Emperor's Children has.

The Last Life was a NYT Notable Book for 1999.  It is also my penultimate book for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next Up:  Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

Still Listening to:  Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Strike Two, I'm Out

Last year, I read Emma by Jane Austen, and recommended the movie, "Clueless" instead.  My sister insisted that Jane Austen was a great author, and that I shouldn't give up on her.  Obviously, the majority of readers in the world agree.  So, I decided to try Pride and Prejudice.  According to my sister, my problem is that I didn't realize that Jane Austen is funny.  She is convinced that if I had read Emma as a comedy, I would have liked it.  OK, fine. 

I did everything different with Pride and Prejudice.  I listened to the audio version instead of reading.  I tried to remember that it was funny (really - should I have to "remember" that it's funny??).  But still, I felt nothing of the love of Austen that most everyone else seems to feel.

When I picked the audio version, I had two choices.  One that was 9 discs, and about 11 hours long, and the other which was 11 discs, and about 13.5 hours long.  Yes, the readers were reading the same book.  It's just that some audio book readers read the book faster than others, and some try to read in a leisurely, dramatic way.  I picked the 9 disc version because I expected a faster reader to have better comedic timing, and of course, I would be done with it sooner if I hated it. 

After I had listened to about half of the discs, my sister came into town, and asked me how I was liking Pride.  I asked her what the funny part was.  Ba-dum-dum.  That's my rimshot, in case you missed it.  She said that it is a "comedy of manners", meaning that it satirizes social classes and includes stereotypical characters.  So, I thought that maybe I like Austen just fine, but that I don't like those types of comedies.  But, when I looked at the Wiki page for "comedy of manners", the examples that they gave included some Oscar Wilde stories that I liked.  I'm not familiar with the 20th century examples of comedies of manners that  Wiki listed, but I would suggest that A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which I liked, and the TV show, "The Office," which I loved, were both more modern comedies of manners.

Coincidentally, in this week's NYT book review, Jess Walters reviewed The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman, and described it as a modern day comedy of manners, involving the Brooklyn literary set.  Given that I love both Jess Walters and the Brooklyn literary scene, this one is going on my TBR list for sure.  So here's the test.  If I love Nathaniel P., then that means that it's not comedies of manners that I dislike, but just Jane Austen.

Sorry Mr. Darcy, you just didn't do it for me.  But you seemed like a nice enough guy.

That's number 13 for the Off the Shelf Challenge

Next up on CD:  Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Still Reading:  The Last Life by Claire Messud

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Patrick at 30

So, when we last saw Patrick Melrose in Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn, he was just boarding a plane, with his father's ashes in hand and his next drug binge scheduled.  Miraculously, 8 years later, Patrick is still alive for the third book of the series, Some Hope

In Some Hope, we revisit almost every single character from Bad News and the first book in the series, Never Mind.  Bridget, who was dating one of Patrick's father's friends in Never Mind is now married to someone else, and hosting a party for Princess Margaret.  Everyone who Bridget knows seems to be invited, which is how St. Aubyn arranges the character reunion.  I tore through Some Hope, and really enjoyed catching up with people who I remembered from 8 and 25 years earlier.

St. Aubyn released Some Hope two years after first two books.  He then released the three together, as a trilogy two years later, and I think that it was his intention to end it there.  It is widely known, and St. Aubyn has admitted, that Patrick Melrose is based on St. Aubyn's life.  At one point in Some Hope, Patrick tells his best friend that he had been raped by his father as a child.  Patrick is hoping that by telling someone, (not a therapist but a real person) the truth, that he will feel a catharsis. Instead, he is somewhat let down that he didn't feel the relief that he expected.  In publishing Some Hope, I think that St. Aubyn was looking for the same.  He hoped that by telling the story, and wrapping up all of the loose ends, he would be able to move on with his life. 

Unfortunately, one loose end had completely unraveled.  Patrick's mother, Eleanor, was not a guest at Bridget's party, and was hardly mentioned.  The fourth book in the series is called Mother's Milk.  My hunch going in is that St. Aubyn realized that he wouldn't find his peace until he dealt with all of his issues, including his mother.  We'll get to that topic, and that book, shortly.

WINNER ANNOUNCED!  The Winner of the My Education  giveaway is Deborah!

Next up:  The Last Life by Claire Messud

Still Listening to:  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Monday, July 8, 2013

Reader, I Grew Up

Regina Gottlieb is a 21 year old college graduate who knows EVERYTHING!   She is just starting her graduate degree program, and has been listening to the gossip about a professor, Nicholas Brodeur.  Brodeur has a reputation for being sexist, which somehow makes him so irresistibly sexy that Regina signs up for his class even though she is totally unprepared for it.  Regina manages to catch Brodeur's attention, lands a job as his TA, and that's when things get a little out of hand.  I know what you're thinking and you're wrong.

My Education by Susan Choi is the story of Regina, and her self righteous quest for love.  As a 21 year old, she thinks that she understands life's complications and all of the choices that are available for responsible adults, like herself.  Unfortunately, the professor who she seduces is much older, and is at an entirely different place in life.  Regina can't, and really doesn't even try, to understand the differences between grad school responsibilities and real life. 

Choi is exploring a difficult issue through her characters.  Are you who you were when you were 21?  Should you be?  If you could go back, would you and should you?  Is there actually a way back?  Is young love, with its intense focus a truer love, or just a love that can only happen when one doesn't have much else to do?  At one point, Regina describes the dilemma, by saying that she feels grief not for a lost lover, "but for all my lost selves, which I liked to imagine were still somehow there, waiting for my return."

As mentioned in David Ulin's LA Times review of My Education, the book is divided into two parts: the 1995 young Regina in love, and the 2007 Regina who is wondering if she is in love or not. The two sections read completely differently, and I preferred the later section. In the first part, the focus on the affair is intense, like a story of young love should be. The 2007 section is hectic and fast paced, with stories of how and why the 1995 characters grew and, yes, changed.

While reading My Education, I kept my dictionary close at hand.  At first I thought that Regina was using big words as a way of being a pretentious grad student.  After looking up a few of those words, however, I realized that there are more precise words for things that I have tried to describe, and that Choi knows them all.  Each word that I had to look up was exactly fitting, and a word that I really should have known already.

My Education has echos of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen in the complicated love triangles.  The 9/11 scenes could have been cut from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, for being too brutal.  Foer's readers in 2005 were probably not ready for the honest story Choi's characters can retell 8 years later.  The love scenes were just slightly less explicit than those in Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, but the point of Choi's story wasn't the shock, but the differences between the lovers.  One could not wait to be older and wanted to play house, while the other only wanted to be 21 again, and able to run away.  If  you check out my Favorites page, you will realize that these are huge compliments, as The Corrections and Extremely Loud are on that list, as is another by Sarah Waters.  Additionally, My Education is blurbed on the back by Michael Cunningham and Jennifer Egan, both of whose names grace my page of Faves.

Some of the reviews that I have read claim that Regina is unlikeable.  I guess that what would say in response is that I don't have to like a train crash to know that I won't be able to look away.  I hope to see My Education on this year's NYT Notable Books list.  If it doesn't make the list, and Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld does, then I promise not to link that list to this blog.  Do you hear the sound of NYT editors scrambling to make me happy?  Me neither.  But in this case, I hope we agree.

GIVEAWAY!!  I read this book at the request of Catherine Boyd of Viking/Penguin Books, who sent me a free copy.  Other than that, no promises were made, and no payments were received.  If you think that you would like to win a copy of My Education, please submit a comment to this post, or email me at before July 13.  For your comment, tell me the age that you would go back to, if you could.  As a fair warning, if you think that you might be offended by lesbian sex scenes, this isn't the book for you.

LEGALESE: One entry per person, and there will be only one winner. Numbers will be assigned to each entrant, and the winner will be randomly picked by number. If you choose to comment as "Anonymous", please leave your first name at the end of your comment, so that you will know who you are when I announce the winner. The winner must then contact me via email with his or her U.S. mailing address (not a PO Box), within 7 days. If the first announced winner fails to respond within that time, the book with go to the second place winner, and so on and so forth. Got it? If you have questions please email me. Good luck!

My next "industry requested review" will be The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice.

Next Up:  Some Hope by Edward St. Aubyn

Still Listening to:  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Patrick at 22

In Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn, we revist Patrick Melorse, who we first met in St. Aubyn's earlier novel, Never Mind.  Patrick has aged 17 years, and has traveled to New York to collect his father's ashes.  Patrick has mixed feelings about his father's death, meaning that although he is not at all sad about his father dying, he's not sure if the occasion calls for cocaine, heroine or quaaludes.  In the end, he decides not to decide, and goes with all three. 

Bad News is the story of Patrick's drug binge, and his limited attempts to hide his state from his father's friends.  The only character besides Patrick who appears in both Bad News and Never Mind is Anne, who has now married Victor.  The most conspicuous absence is Patrick's mom, Eleanor, who had divorced his dad years earlier. 

The third book in what was originally the Patrick Melrose trilogy (it is now a 5 book series), came out 2 years after Bad News.  That would have been a long time to wait.  Bad News leaves the reader wanting to know what will happen next, and how much longer Patrick can possibly live.

Did I love Bad News?  No, but I don't think it was intended to be loveable.  I am looking forward to the next  in the series, "Some Hope", which I am hoping will lead Patrick to a less self-destructive course.

Next up:  My Education  by Susan Choi.

Still Listening to:  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
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