Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nice Enough

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is an exploration of the choices available to young women at the end of World War II, and the consequences of those choices.  Eilis (apparently pronounced "Elle-ish") is a woman from Toibin's hometown of Enniscorthy in Ireland.  Enniscorthy is portrayed as a small town, with very limited options for a smart girl who is not in a rush to get married.  With the help of her sister and a friendly priest, Eilis is given a chance to move to Brooklyn and work in a store while going to school. 

Throughout the story, Eilis makes a ton of life changing decisions, but in doing so, she barely considers the consequences that her decisions will have for her.  She thinks about what the other people in her life would want for her to do, and then that is what she generally does.  Although she is free to make choices, she restricts herself to what people around her would want. 

In the years after World War II, many women must have found themselves in similar situations.  They were encouraged to work, but only until they got married.  If they wanted careers, they didn't look for a husband.  They could live apart from their families, and even in distant countries, as long as they are under the supervision of a mom-like character or a friendly priest.

Eilis is a very pliable character.  When she is in Brooklyn, she likes it well enough.  When she is in Ireland, she might as well stay.  She is struck by how her not-so-exciting life in Brooklyn seems glamorous to her neighbors who have never left Ireland.  All told, while this was a nice story, that's really all that there was to it.  It had the Jane Austen feel of a book without a lot of action, focused on whether someone is or is not in love with someone else.

Brooklyn was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.  It is also another book of my list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next Up on CD:  In the Woods by Tana French

Still Reading:  Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Typical Book Group Report - 14

Last night, The Typical Book Group got together to discuss Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.  The turn out was a little light, with only 6 of us there.  All of us liked the book, and two people had already read the sequel, Winter of the World. 

We were all surprised by how little we knew about World War I.  One person had just finished a Hungarian memoir (Dossier K?) and said that even the Hungarian telling that story was shocked that the murder of Franz Ferdinand was enough to get anyone's attention, let alone to spark a world wide war.

One thing that never crossed my mind, because I am apparently the only person on the face of the Earth who is not watching, is that the story lines in Fall of Giants  are strikingly similar to those in Downton Abbey.  Both stories have someone getting pregnant by the chauffeur, someone operating a clinic, someone named Ethel, and they both are set in the same time and place.  The things one learns at book group. . .

Next month we will meet at my house, and we are going to discuss The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.  I can't wait!

Still Reading:  Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

Still Listening to:  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Just Amazing

It is time for you to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and in fact, I might ask, what has taken you so long?  Amazing was published in 2000, was a NYT Notable Book for that year, and won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2001.  And still you haven't read it?  Neither had I, despite the fact that it had been sitting in my nightstand for 3 or 4 or 5 years, just waiting for me.

Amazing is the story of Josef Kavalier, who starts off as a teenage boy living in Prague as Hitler rises to power.  Josef is interested in magic, and worships Houdini.  His mentor, Bernard Kornblum, teaches him illusions and the tricks of escape artists.  Joe's training is tested when he escapes from Prague and manages to find his way to the United States.  Joe's cousin, Sammy Klayman, is living in New York, where one day Joe appears.  Joe and Sammy are about the same age, and form a quick bond.  Sammy wants to find Joe a job at the Empire Novelty Company, where he works.  Joe has an artistic talent that gives Sammy a great idea.  What if he and Joe could create a comic book that Empire could publish to compete with the new Superman comics?

Joe has never even heard of a comic book before, but he trusts Sammy, and will do what Sammy says to help him get a job.  As Sammy tries to persuade his boss to start a comic book, Joe draws up a few quick sketches of a Golem.  A Golem is a character from Jewish folklore which is formed from inanimate materials, such as sand, but becomes alive and powerful.  The Golem is all wrong as a superhero for America in the 1940s, but with Sammy's boss' tentative approval, they try to come up with something else that the American public will embrace.  And so, the Escapist is born.  The Escapist fights Nazis and other evil forces, and becomes an immediate hit. 

Sammy and Joe's boss becomes incredibly wealthy from the success of the Escapist, and even Sammy and Joe are making more money than they need.  Joe saves every penny to try to help the rest of his family escape from Prague before it is too late.  The juxtaposition of the golden age of comics in the US versus the oppression of Jews in Prague is stark, and leaves Joe feeling lost and conflicted. The years go by, and the cousins grow up and grow apart, while always remaining connected by one woman, Rosa.  Rosa is the inspiration for their most successful female character, Luna Moth.  The love triangle between Joe, Sammy and Rosa is entirely unconventional, but it works. 

There are a couple great quotes in Amazing.  The first that I loved is when Joe is explaining that he's not satisfied to write the Escapist in more commercially viable terms.  He says "I'm tired of fighting, maybe, for a little while.  I fight, and I am fighting some more, and it just makes me have less hope, not more.  I need to do something . . . something that will be great, you know, instead of trying always to be Good."

Another is explaining why Joe loved comic books, even years after he had quit working for Empire:  ". . .he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lubrications of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could dream for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art."

A few years back, when I was reading McSweeney's 36, which included Fountain City:  A Novel Wrecked by Michael Chabon, I mentioned how he had given us such intimate details of his writing process and personal life, that I knew that he slept in the nude, which was maybe a little more than I wanted to know.  In Fountain City, Chabon comments about how although he hadn't realized it, other people had told him that in his novels he seems to have a thing about sleepwear.  I laughed the first time that I noticed a detailed description of pajamas on page 471 of Amazing, but by the end of the book I had turned down the corners on 4 more pages of PJ descriptions.  A thing indeed.

I have often wondered, and complained to anyone who would listen, about why Carter Beats the Devil by Glenn David Gold has gotten so little attention, when it is a truly great book.  I have attributed its lack of acclaim to the fact that it was published less than a month before The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen which was ridiculously (but deservedly) hyped, and also less than a month before 9/11.  It seems obvious now, that while Gold and Chabon likely took years to write their respective books,  it was really unlucky for Gold that Chabon was able to publish a great book also focused on magicians just before Gold's book hit the stores.  While the stories are entirely different, there may have been a little bit of magic burn out in 2001.  But, if you do read and like Amazing, I recommend that you also give Carter a try.

I am adding The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to my Favorites list.  At 636 pages, it is also a BFB.  Amazing is the last book that I need to complete my revised goal for The Off the Shelf Challenge.  This is THE book that has made doing the OTS Challenge for the last 2 years worthwhile for me.  I never would have gotten around to it if I hadn't had a goal of trying to get through the books that had been crowding my nightstand.  In its honor, and since it's only September, I think I'll extend my goal by another 5 books, to 25.

Next Up:  Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

Still Listening to:  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Friday, September 20, 2013

Doing What Dad Did

For years, Amazon and GoodReads have been recommending that I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  At first, I thought that it was a newly released book.  Then, I noticed it in the "classics corners" of used book sales. Finally, I had seen it enough times, and I had to pick it up.

Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, who is an honored man within his village.  Okonkwo has a few wives and many children.  He lives in his fathers' village and worships his fathers' gods.  I didn't misplace my apostrophe.  In Okonkwo's world, the man always lives in his father's village, and his father lived in his father's village, and so forth, so that many generations of men before Okonkwo were living where he lives in very much the same way that he is living.  Okonkwo's time is different from that of his fathers though, because villagers are beginning to see white men.  At first, the white men are thought to be albinos, or possibly even lepers.  All too soon it becomes clear that these white men are not just people from a nearby village with a disease or a skin condition.  They are people from another country, intent on converting Okonkwo's people to Christianity.

While reading Things Fall Apart, I was never sure of when the story was supposed to have been taking place, or where it was set.  Most obviously, Okonkwo's village was called "Umofia", and I could tell by the tone of the story, the names that were used, and the fables of the villagers that Umofia was in Africa.  I knew that the book was published in 1958, but because of how the villagers referred to the passage of time, it was not clear what decade they were living in.  According to Wikipedia, it was set in the 1890s, which I probably would have realized if I knew more about the colonizing of Africa.  Wiki also says that Umofia was supposed to be in Nigeria.

I thought a lot about what, exactly, makes Things Fall Apart a "classic".  Judging by the standard of whether it was published before my parents graduated from high school (check) and whether it is likely to appear on my son's high school required reading list (check), then it is a classic.  I've complained about my son's required reading lists to my son, saying that he should be reading more modern works.  While he likes contemporary fiction, he doesn't feel that anything new is likely to ever qualify as a classic.  It's tough to think of anything, even books that I love, that are going to be discussed and relevant in another 20 or 50 years.  As much as I would like for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer to become a classic, it may not translate well to people who weren't alive on 9/11.  Some of the other books that I've loved that are set in a less specific period and may remain relevant longer, like The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen or Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin are simply too long for required reading lists.  Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is a solid candidate that has been suggested by others with voices louder than mine, and I have noticed that my son will be seeing some Barbara Kingsolver on his lists in his junior and senior years.  But what makes a classic?

As I was reading Things Fall Apart, I was sort of thinking of it in comparison to Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Both stories are set in a time in the past, and paint vivid portraits a certain  community during that period.  A person in Africa reading Grapes of Wrath and thinking that they have a good understanding of America in 2013 would be just as misled as a person in America reading Things and thinking that they understand the modern tribes of Africa.  There are great books set in Africa that could give a reader a better grasp of what it is like now (or at least during my lifetime), including The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and What is the What by Dave Eggers.  However, like those books mentioned above, these are also a little long for reading during a high school trimester.  Things' short length, at only 209 pages, may be what has kept it on the reading lists, which is sort of sad.  Maybe spending a longer amount of time on a longer book, rather than trying to fit a set number of books into the trimester would allow our kids to stop the cycle of reading the books that their fathers read, for the sake of reading what their fathers read.

Next Up on CD:  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

STILL Reading:  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.  I have no excuse as to why this book is taking me so long to read!  I am really liking it, and even considered whether it could be considered a modern classic.  But if it is taking me this long, how long would it take a distracted high school student?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Weighed Down

Given a real life murder, with a question as to whether the person executed for the crime actually committed it, combined with a modern day love polygon, what could go wrong?  Sadly, more than you might think.

The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve is the story of Jean, a woman who is doing a photo shoot on the island of Smuttynose, off the coast of New Hampshire.  What intrigues Jean and her editor about Smuttynose are the murders that were committed there in 1873.  At that time, according to Shreve, only one family lived on Smuttynose, but the family included quite a few people.  The house belonged to Maren and her husband, John, but John's brother, Maren's brother, Maren's sister and her sister in law were all living in the same very small home. 

Shreve cleverly mirrors the tight quarters of the house in modern times by having Jean, her husband, her daughter, her brother in law, and his new girlfriend visit the island on a 41 foot sailboat, where they stayed for the duration of their trip.

In 1873, Maren's sister and sister in law were killed one night while the men were off the island.  Maren escaped by hiding in the rocks near the ocean.  A man who had stayed with the family as a lodger was accused of the crime, and was executed despite proclaiming his innocence.  Shreve takes some liberties with recreating the crime, which I'll discuss more on my Spoilers Page, because I'm a little critical of her choices, but don't want to spoil the story for anyone who is still interested.

Meanwhile, on the boat, Jean begins to suspect that her brother in law's girlfriend may have more of a connection to her husband than anyone has revealed to her.

All told, this should make a great story.  For some reason, it didn't.  I listened to the book in audio form, and as much as I sometimes rave about how the reader makes the book, this time I have to wonder if the reader didn't do the book a disservice.  The story is told primarily through the voices of Maren and Jean.  Maren uses very stilted language because she is supposed to be a Norwegian immigrant in the 19th century.  It is less clear why Shreve chose to give Jean such a pretentious voice.  Maybe it is that she is married to a poet, and wants to appear to be highly educated at every opportunity.  I think that if Jean had used a more conversational or friendly tone, the story might have been more interesting, and Jean would have been more sympathetic. As it is, Jean and Maren are very similar in the lack of empathy that the reader feels for them.

Well, I can't love them all.  At least that's one more off my list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

In Other News, the Man Booker Shortlist was announced yesterday.  The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin is still in the running!

Next Up On CD:  Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Still Reading:  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.  I am really liking this book, and it's crazy that it is taking me so long to read it.  I'm torn between wanting to rush to see what happens next, and wanting to slow down and make it last longer.
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