Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Happened in July 2014



The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

Edmund De Waal is a famous twenty-first century potter (did you know that there was one?) who I first read about in this NYT article.  Although the article was intended to be about De Waal's new exhibit, the reporter talked enough about De Waal's family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes that I had to add it to my TBR list. 

What is amazing about Hare is that while it could have been the epitome of vanity publishing, instead it is a really great book, without bragging or pouting.  De Waal's family first made its fortune in Odessa through grain trading.  His great-great grandfather pushed the family into Europe, where they established banks in Paris and Vienna.  De Waal's great uncle was Charles Ephrussi, whose name was familiar to me, but for a while I didn't know why. Charles was the third son, and was able to avoid the family business and do things that were more interesting, like collect art.  He lived in Paris in the time of the Impressionists, and his collection included works by Pissaro, Monet, Renior, Cassatt, and Degas, all in one room of his home.  When De Waal discussed his uncle's relationship with Renoir, I knew why I knew Charles.  Charles Ephrussi is the man in the top hat in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.  Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party is a book that I loved reading, and is on my list of books that I would like to re-read this year.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) I lent my copy to my friend, Kim, so I couldn't take a detour into fiction while reading Hare.

That's OK, because in Hare, the truth is better than the fiction could have been.   When Paris became obsessed with Japanese art in the 1800s, Charles jumped in, and amassed a collection of netsuke.  Netsuke are small, intricately carved objects, made sometimes from stone, ivory, or even wood.  Time passed, and the netsuke went out of style.  Charles sent his valuable collection to a nephew, De Waal's grandfather, as a wedding gift.  De Waal's grandfather went on to live in Vienna, where he ran the family owned bank.  According to De Waal, his grandfather's pre-World War II wealth, in today's dollars, was $400 million.  Unfortunately for the De Waal family, they were Jewish, and living in a Nazi state.  By the end of the war, most of the wealth was gone, but amazingly, the netsuke survived and passed through another generation, before landing in De Waal's capable hands.

While billed as the story of the netsuke, this is really a story of a family living in an incredible time.  It somehow doesn't read as a memoir, so much as a telling of historical events in a new and interesting light.  Definitely worth the read. 

Challenges: I love library books

Tags:  Memoir, Non-Fiction, WWII Civilian Stories, Paris

McSweeney's 44

McSweeney's is a quarterly something that generally includes short stories and articles, and was created by Dave Eggers.  I say that it is a quarterly "something" rather than magazine or journal or book, because it is really none of these.  Sometimes it comes with the stories loose in a box, sometimes it looks more like a magazine.  Usually, it looks a lot like novel, which is the case with 44.  The main contributors to 44 were Joe Meno, Rebecca Curtis, Tom Barbash, Jim Shepard, Stuart Dybek, and Wells Tower.  There was also a 82 page tribute to Lawrence (Ren) Weschler, to which many others contributed.

One of my favorite parts of 44 were the letters to the editor, which were all witty and quirky, and generally what one would expect from McSweeney's readers who are hoping to get published themselves. 

Jim Shepard wrote a particularly un-McSweeny-ish story that I liked called "The Ocean of Air", about the Montgolfier brothers who were the first to invent a hot air balloon safe for human travel.  I also liked Stuart Dybek's piece, "Happy Ending" which tells the story of a man, Gil, attending a party thrown by a mogul who claimed to be unhappy.  Gil shows the mogul how happy he is by inventing a scenario which would make his life much worse.  Another interesting story was "Birthday Girl" by Tom Barbash, where a driver who is possibly (almost surely) drunk hits a young girl, and then tries to make things right.

The story by Wells Tower, "The Dance Contest" is well written and interesting, but also strange.  It is about a man named Osmund Tower, the fictional father to Wells, who finds himself imprisoned in the luxury wing of the Theb Moob Mens' Prison in Thailand, due primarily to his naivete.  While he may be in the best possible part of the prison, it is a prison none the less.  The Captain in charge comes up with the idea of rewarding the prisoners with prizes, based on their performance in a dance contest, as judged by Internet viewers.  Cruel and unusual?  You decide.  What I didn't get about this piece is why Tower wanted to make it seem like his character was his father.  Why not just name him Tom Sutherland or Osmund Miller?

Although I, personally, didn't need such a long, funereal, tribute to Ren Weschler, he seems to be a person I should know more about.   I would recommend starting with the Errol Morris conversation with Weschler, and then skipping ahead to Jonathan Lethem's tribute.   If they leave you wanting more, 44 is well stocked.  As always, I finished McSweeney's feeling a little smarter (and maybe a little more smug) than when I started.

Challenges:  Rewind

Tags:  Keeping it Short, Historical Fiction, Non Fiction

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam is the third book in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy.  The first book, Oryx and Crake, focused on Jimmy, a guy in his early 20s who survived some sort of a plague, and wonders if he is the only human who made it.  He lives among people he calls "Crakers" because they were developed in a lab by his friend, Crake.  Much of that book was told through flashbacks about Crake and their shared love, Oryx.  The second book, The Year of the Flood, was told mostly by Toby and Ren.  They are members of a group, The God's Gardeners, who try to live in a more simple way among the corporations and criminals of the modern world.  MaddAddam again focuses on Toby, but this time the story is more about two other God's Gardeners, Zeb and Adam. 

MaddAddam takes place after the waterless flood of the plague, and begins right where The Year of the Flood ended.  Toby, Ren, Amanda and Jimmy are all in a confrontation with dangerous painballers, who are criminals who have fought to the death and survived.  Toby is happy to be reunited with her old crush, Zeb, and much of the book is Zeb telling about his life as a boy with his brother, Adam.  Adam and Zeb had to flee from their abusive but powerful father, the Rev.  Zeb found adventure slaying bears and impersonating big foot, while Adam went on to recruit like-minded people to become MaddAddams and God's Gardeners.

While MaddAddam brought resolution to the series, I found it a little lacking compared to the earlier two books.  Ren and Jimmy were marginalized and treated like children here, when they had much stronger roles in the earlier books.  At the end of the trilogy, I still don't know what the point of the MaddAddams was.  Was it just to be a  group of people gathering information about the bad things the corporations were doing?  The MaddAddamers don't seem to do anything, although they investigate a lot, and know a lot.  Also I'm totally lost about Adam.  Was he really into his Adam 1 God's Gardeners persona, or did he establish the God's Gardeners just as a front to hide corporate escapees and further the MaddAddam cause?  Much of the plot was also redundant, with Zeb telling his story to Toby, and then Toby telling the same story to the Crakers.

My favorite part of MaddAddam was the Crakers.  When Crake invented them, he intended them to be post-religion, and had no idea that they would come to worship him and Oryx as deities.  He also didn't anticipate Toby teaching one of them, Blackbeard, to read, or the creation of a Craker bible, the Book of Toby.  Atwell was also incredibly timely in describing how the religion of corporations can lead to the destruction of mankind.  In light of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, the world as she predicts it is all the more likely.  In MaddAddam, Adam and Zeb's dad was the leader of the Church of PetrOleum.  As he preaches, the "Petr" is from the apostle, Peter, and the "oleum" is because of all the references to oil in the Bible.  Clearly, God created oil for our use, and any government attempt to regulate the drilling or sale of oil is a violation of the religious beliefs of the Church.  Maybe, just maybe, we could learn from the mistakes that Atwood's characters make in the name of a self serving religious belief.

MaddAddam was a NYT Notable Book for 2013.

Challenges:  I Love Library Books and AudioBook

TagsNYT Notables, Sci-Fi-Ish, Questioning Religions

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

During the early days of  the siege of Sarajevo, in 1992, a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera named Vedran Smailovic, played his cello in ruined buildings and at funerals which were frequently targeted by snipers.  In The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway takes Smailovic's story, and sets it to fiction.  In Galloway's Sarajevo, a young woman who calls herself Arrow is working as a sniper defending the city.  A man with a young family, Kenan, walks from one side of the city to the other in order to fill water bottles for himself and his neighbor.  An older man, Dragan, tries to get to the bakery where he works and where he knows bread is waiting for him.  Each of these characters faces the possibility at every intersection that he or she may be shot by a sniper or hit by a shell.  All of  them are eventually drawn to the cellist.

Sarajevo fell from being the host of the Olympics in 1984, to being a place where a person could expect to get shot while walking down the street just eight years later.  Galloway's characters face their new reality while not quite believing that it could be true.  Each of them refuses to be that person, living in that city.  They believe that if they can hold on to their integrity and standards, Sarajevo has hope of being restored.  Unfortunately the siege and the war waged on for years after this story ends, and after Smailovic left the city.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of life in a war zone, where no one is coming to help.  It tries to be a story of hope, but the reader is left with the feeling that if Arrow, Kenan and Dragan aren't killed on one day, they may be the next.

There was some controversy about Galloway's use of Smailovic's actions in this book.  Galloway defends his story as being fictional but inspired by Smailovic's public acts.  Smailovic apparently was not told about the book before it was published and felt exploited by it.  However the story came to be told, it is worth knowing.  

Challenges:  Rewind, I Love Library Books, Audiobook

Book Group Reports

The Neighborhood Book Group Neighborhood Book Group met in June to discuss This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.  I was a lame book-grouper, and had to leave after only half an hour to go play bunco instead.  Life in suburbia!  Luckily, this book group is all business, so I actually got to do some book discussing before I left.  With the movie coming out this fall, we talked a lot about the characters and the stars who will play them.  Although I love Tina Fey, I just can't see her as Judd's sister, Wendy.  Like 90% of the characters in this book (Am I underestimating?  Is it 100%?), Wendy is having an affair, and her life is just basically  sad.  Maybe Tina will make her situation seem less pathetic.  We also talked about who was the most dysfunctional.  This discussion could last hours.  Most of the group sided with the mom, Hillary, or the younger brother, Phillip.  And, this is where I left them, so I'm not sure where the conversation went from there. 

Next month they (we?) will discuss The Vacationers by Emma Straub.  I'm so bogged down in The Typical Book Group's summer BFB, that I don't think I'll have time to get to this one.

 The Typical Book Group

The Typical Book Group never meets in July, but in June we pick a Big Fat Book (BFB) to read all summer long.  This year we picked . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  Talk about a BFB.  My copy is 1184 pages, and it's actually a little uncomfortable to hold. After two weeks of reading, I am only 200 pages in.  I'll have to pick up my pace if I'm ever going to make it through this!

Tags:  Book Group Reports, Big Fat Books

In Other News:

Local Libraries

Are these cute neighborhood libraries popping up near you? 
My friend, Debby's father-in-law installed one in his front yard.  There's another one in the park at the end of my street.  They are the cutest things.  The idea is, you can pick a book to take, and leave a book for someone else to read.  No sign out slips, no late fees.  It's the honor system at its best.  Debby's F-I-L lives in a bit of a hoity-toity neighborhood, but in an area where lots of people walk, so I think his library will get lots of action.  Doing my best to convert young future Republicans to a more reasonable party, I deposited a copy of The Believer, which is a book review magazine by the McSweeney's people, as well as a cookbook, and my copy of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.  In exchange, I took a copy of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which has been on my TBR list since it became a NYT Notable.  Score!

Winner, Winner, Goldfinch Dinner

Guess what?  I won a copy of The Goldfinch audiobook by Donna Tartt.  Remember way back when when I was giving away a copy?  No, I didn't enter and win my own contest.  Because The Goldfinch won two Audies, there were two copies to give away, and I entered the giveaway on Wholly Books.  And I won!  I can't wait to get it and start listening!

Loss of a Legend

On July 3, we lost Louis Zamperini.  The real story here is not that a 97 year old man died, because really, what more could we expect?  What is remarkable is that Zamperini was still alive.  Zamperini was a former Olympic athlete who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II, and then taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese.  His story is told in Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, which Angelina Jolie has turned into a soon to be released movie.  Here is a link to the NYT Obituary.

Man Bookered

On July 23, the Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced.  This was the first year that authors from everywhere around the world were eligible, rather than just authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth.  So, with Americans now eligible, 5 made the list.  The only author who made it this year who I have read is Joshua Ferris, and the reviews of his recent book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour have been pretty mixed.  Some might have expected The Goldfinch, which already won the Pulitzer, to edge out a few of the lesser known picks.  However, it was no surprise that Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn didn't make the cut.  Lost for Words is a thinly veiled satire of the Man Booker Prize, and it would have been a shock if the Man Booker judges were thick skinned enough to select it.  The Shortlist will be announced on September 9.  My money is on David Mitchell's new book, The Bone Clocks, even though it hasn't been released or reviewed on this side of the pond yet.

August Preview:

In August, I hope to review the following books:

The Circle by Dave Eggers
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - I'll only get started on this one - it's 32 hours!

Traditional or EBooks
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks (IF I make it through Ladies)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson  (OK - this will be a stretch!)

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