Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Happened in November, 2014


This month, I have been reading and listening to some long books.  In fact, as the end of November approached, and I realized that I hadn't even done one review, I put down . . .And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer (not for the first time!), and picked up 1Q84 by Haruki Murikami, so that I could read it on paper when I wasn't listening to the audio version, and have at least one book to write about. 

IQ84 is set in Japan in 1984.  Apparently, in Japanese, 1Q84 is pronounced the same as 1984.  There are two main characters, Aomame and Tengo.  Aomame steps out of a taxi in a traffic jam, goes down a stairway, and finds herself in a parallel universe.   At first Aomame can't tell that she is in the wrong dimension, but then she begins to notice subtle clues, like news stories that everyone knows about but that she can't remember, and the appearance of a strange second moon in the sky. 

Tengo was a bit of a child prodigy, who as an adult is making ends meet by working in a "cram school" (tutoring center?), while he struggles with writing a novel.  A colleague who is judging a writing contest brings Tengo a strange offer.  If Tengo will re-write a promising piece that a teenage girl submitted, the colleague is certain that it would win a prize, and possibly become a best seller.  Tengo has already read the entry, and was oddly interested in it.  Despite his ethical reservations, he can't resist.

Aomame and Tengo were friends when they were 10 years old.  "Friends" may be overstating it, but they attended the same school, and sympathized with each other because of their unusual family situations.  Every Sunday, Tengo's father who worked for a broadcast network, would go from house to house collecting fees.  Sort of like if the cable guy came to your house every month instead of Comcast sending a bill.  Aomame's parents were members of a strict religious group, and they took Aomame around with them every Sunday when they proselytized.  The two children would see each other being dragged along by their parents, and feel a kinship.  One day they held hands.  Apparently that was enough for them each to live the rest of their lives thinking about each other.

All of the usual Murakami topics are here - cats, menstruation, classical music, etc.  While thinking about this, I stumbled upon this great page, which graphs how often Murikami mentions 10 different motifs in each of his novels.  I would add a few more to her diagram.  In fact, if you took all of the sentences out of this book where Tengo was contemplating his erection or Aomame was complaining about the size of her breasts or the texture of her pubic hair, I think the book would be 50 pages shorter.

One thing that surprised me and that I haven't noticed in Murikami's other books was that the translation was really horrible.  Murikami has lived in the US from time to time, and was even an associate professor at Princeton, so, I would expect his English to be excellent, and that he would be concerned about the translation.  There were some times when I would have used a different word, like when Aomame asked if she was annoying Tomaro, and she really meant to ask if she was disturbing him.  No big deal.  But it bugged me when they kept saying that Tengo's dad was in a sanatorium when he was clearly in a nursing  home and when Tengo couldn't stop talking about his "older girlfriend".  There must be one word in Japanese that means "older girlfriend" and another that means "girlfriend".  In the translation it was just awkward as Tengo was always thinking about his "older girlfriend" or going to visit his "older girlfriend", especially when the fact that she was older than him was basically irrelevant to the story.

At first, the story seemed overly simple.  At one point, Aomame basically said "Oh, I think I am in an alternate universe now"  which was strange.  But the story wound around like a cinnamon bun, getting tighter as it went, until everything came together well in the end.  In terms of Murikami books, it is still not my favorite, as that position belongs to Kafka on the Shore.  It may come in third for me, behind Kafka and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

1Q84 was a NYT Notable Book for 2011.  It was the longest audio book that I have ever listened to, with 38 discs.  In paper form, it is 925 pages, and definitely a Big Fat Book.

Tags:  Big Fat Books, Sci-Fi-ish, NYT Notable

Challenges:  Rewind, Audiobook, I Love Library Books

Book Group Reports

The Neighborhood Book Group took November off, but The Typical Book Group got together this month to discuss Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  I was glad that we picked this book to read, because it is one that I read a couple of years ago, and still think back to from time to time.   In short, MPLS is about an old retired army officer living in the English countryside, with no intention of challenging the status quo.  Then the Major meets Mrs. Ali, who is a local shopkeeper, and everything changes.  The things that were once important to him seem stodgy and trivial, and he recognizes the unspoken prejudices among his friends and relatives.  Mrs. Ali is of Pakistani descent, but has always lived in England.  Still, to the Major's acquaintances, she will always be foreign.

The Typical Book Groupers all loved the Major.  He reminded us of Harold Fry from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Both the Major and Harold opened their minds when they were old enough to be set in their ways.  We also talked about what event was the Major's "last stand".  There were so many possible choices, and we each seemed to come in thinking that the last stand was something different from what the others thought.

Next month we'll discuss The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Tags:  Book Group Reports

In Other News


My expectations were low.  There was nothing that I wanted.  I didn't even go on the premier members only night.  And still, I found some great books at my library's semi-annual used book sale.  The only book that was even on my radar as something that I sort of wanted was Middlemarch, since I got My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead at the last sale, and knew that I wanted to read the original first.  That one was easy to find. 

Then, I stumbled upon Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, which The Neighborhood Book Group is thinking about reading as part of our "foodie" genre.  Next, I found The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.  Two of my friends, Kim and Ann, have read this one recently, and they both loved it.  Usually, I like what Kim likes, but Ann and I can be polar opposites in what we think makes a good book. Still, I'm looking forward to reading this one, and I got a great hard cover copy.

My coolest find was an obviously never before read copy of  Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, in French.  One of my neighbors who went with me to meet JSF a few years ago was in college working on her French minor at the time.  I think she'll be happy to get this one.
I also picked up Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus which I have had in my hot little hands at earlier sales and put back down.  However, this book, like . . . And Ladies of the Club covers the Civil War and a long period thereafter.  Also like . . . And Ladies, Oldest Living  was published in the 1980s.  This book is also almost as long as . . . And Ladies too, weighing in at 718 pages.  I may not rush into this one.
My nightstand now includes Mary Called Magdalene by Margaret George, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Secret Ingredients:  The New Yorker Book  of Food and Drink. 
All of these, plus 2 for my husband for a total of $17.00.  Not bad at all!

December Preview

NYT Notables - It is November 30 today and the NYT Notable Books list for 2014 is no where that I can find!  It will surely be included in my December newsletter.
I plan to read these books in paper form:
The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, if I can get it, or Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen, if I can't.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
(Sounds a lot like last month's preview - doesn't it!)
I plan to listen to these books in audio form:
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, if it's easier to get on audio

Saturday, November 1, 2014

What Happened in October, 2014


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Ever since Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer, there has been an awful lot of Goldfinch bashing going on.  The prime complaints seem to fall into one of two categories, the first being that Tartt needed a more cutting editor, and the second being that Tartt's characters spent too much time talking about drugs.  I, on the other hand, am in the camp of The Goldfinch defenders, which I sort of didn't expect. 

The Goldfinch is a long book, at 771 pages, but that alone does not mean that Tartt needed a better editor.  I can't say that not a single word could be cut, but neither I could cite many examples of areas where I was bored.  For the most part, the parts where one could think that an editor was needed were times were Tartt was deliberately prolonging the story to show how time was dragging on for the main character, such as at the engagement cocktail party, or while he was alone in Amsterdam.  I loved every page, and wish for another hundred or two.  As for the drugs, if this was too much for you, please don't read Edward St. Aubyn. 

Lest you think that I entered into this book with rose colored glasses, I have never been Donna Tartt's biggest fan.  Time and time again, I tell people that if they liked Tartt's Secret History, they will love Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marissa Pessl, which is similar, but in my opinion, better.  I rarely even talk about Tartt's The Little Friend, as it was really not that great of a book, but for some reason, it is one of those books that sticks in my mind with images reappearing constantly.  In The Goldfinch, Tartt hits the mark, and earns her reputation.

The Goldfinch starts with Theo and his mother visiting a NYC museum exhibit of Dutch artists, where a girl with red hair catches Theo's eye.  Theo is drawn to the girl, who is at the museum with a man who appears to be her grandfather.  He follows them, when suddenly a bomb explodes, and Theo's life is forever changed.  Theo becomes an unwitting art thief, and spends the next 20 years  hiding his treasure.  Theo's mom is killed in the explosion, and as a result, he moves in with his wealthy friend, Andy, and his family.  As might be expected, Theo's deadbeat father reappears, and whisks him off to Las Vegas.  In Vegas, Theo meets a new friend, Boris, whose life is at least as dysfunctional as his own.

Theo is charmed in that he has amazing people in his life.  Boris, flawed as he may be, is just what Theo needs, right when he needs him, time and time again.  Hobie, who Theo meets while trying to figure out what certain things that happened at the museum meant, shapes Theo's life, and gives him all of the stability that he was missing. Andy and his family, the Barbours, give Theo the illusion of normalcy, while also giving him a place to belong, if he wants it.

I listened to The Goldfinch on audiobook.  It was read by David Pittu, who won two Audies for his performance.  He should have won even more - as many as were available.  There had to have been at least 30 characters, all of whom had distinctive voices and accents.  The voices for Hobie and Boris were my favorite.  Pittu made Hobie seem old, dignified, and somehow more affluent than the customers who shopped in his store.  He made Boris sound impulsive, risky, shady, and yet still trustworthy and loyal, all with a Russian/Austrailian/Ukranian accent. 

I loved The Goldfinch, and will happily read it again, hopefully in the near future.  I am adding it to my list of Favorites.  The Goldfinch was a NYT Notable book for 2013.

Challenges:  Audiobook Challenge

Tags:  Big Fat Books, Favorites, Pulitzer Winner, NYT Notables, Awesome Audio,

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey is the story of an ex-pat experience, as told by a husband who felt that it was a complete success, and a wife who felt miserably out of place.  George and Sabine Harwood moved to Trinidad in 1956, just as the colonial rulers are losing power.  The new Prime Minister, Eric Williams, promised to change the country and free its true citizens from the control of outsiders.  George loves Trinidad, and loves the ex pat lifestyle, so much that he never wants to leave.  Sabine sees Trinidad with more weary eyes, and is hopeful that the people will find the leader who they are hoping for in Williams, even if he scares her with his anti-establishment promises.

There are a couple of stories that are going on in White Woman.  The first is that of a revolution, as seen through the eyes of an outsider.  Sabine, the only white person at the rallies supporting Williams, is hopeful for him and his followers, and would be more than happy to leave Trinidad to them.  When he gains power, and fails to make the changes that were promised, she sees him falling into the ways of the former rulers, and is disappointed that he is letting his people down, even if she was never an intended beneficiary.  While reading this, I couldn't help thinking about Kwame Kilpatrick.  As a person who lives near but not in Detroit, I was excited for Kilpatrick to be elected.  He was young and Detroit and whole metro area was ready for someone fresh to make a change.  Instead, the Detroiters who elected him were rewarded with scandal, corruption, and outright theft.  Like Sabine, I was on the outside, looking in, but hoping that the new leader would make a difference, even if the changes wouldn't directly help me.  Also like Sabine, I was disappointed and disillusioned with the results, even if a part of me knew that I was foolish to hope for more.

Another story that unfolds through out White Woman is that of people who catch each other's eye in a crowd, and never quite let go.  One day, while she is riding her bike, Sabine and Eric Williams lock eyes.  While they don't know each other, they feel a connection.  Over the next several years, they run into each other from time to time, and fall into conversations as if they have been speaking daily, saying things to each other that no one else would say.  While it could never happen in America, Roffey makes it seem completely reasonable that the Prime Minister of Trinidad would speak freely with a woman who he has only briefly met, but who looked really cute while riding her bike.

Challenges:  Rewind

Tags:  British Stories

Yankee Broadcast Network by John F. Buckley and Martin Ott

Although I haven't done any Industry Requested Reviews in a couple of months, I still get requests every day.  One request that caught my attention was that of John Buckley and Martin Ott, who wanted me to review their book of poetry about television.  While they were really straight forward about what their book was, I guess that I was a little surprised that literally every poem related to television.  My fault - not theirs.  What disappointed me though was that while they think about television enough to want to write a book of poetry inspired by it, they seem to really hate it.

For most of us, television is a guilty pleasure, but for Buckley and Ott, the pleasure is all gone, leaving nothing but guilt, and a dash of disgust.  One of the things that caught my attention when deciding to accept the review request was their poem called "The Real Housewives of Wayne County."  Wayne County, in case you don't know, is the county where Detroit is located.  However, it's also the county where Grosse Pointe (remember "Grosse Pointe Blank" starring John Cusack?) is, which makes Wayne County an area where extreme wealth abuts complete poverty.  The poem that Buckley and Ott wrote relied only on the Detroit brand names and stereotypes, and missed the opportunity for a study in contrasts.  In fact, they could have renamed it with the name of any county, and inserted the names of products made in that county, instead of "Better Made" and paczki.

My favorite poem was "Burn'ded" which was obviously a satire of Ashton Kucher's show, "Punk'd".  In the Buckley and Ott version, there are many people playing ever escalating "pranks" ending with a home grown terrorist who eventually sees the episode in which he stars with his fellow inmates.

Yes, Yankee Broadcast Network was exactly what it promised it would be.  I just didn't like it as much as I hoped I would.

Tags:  Industry Requested Reviews

Book Group Reports

The Neighborhood Book Group met to discuss The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.  There were 8 of us who met, and only 4 had finished the book.  2 more were not quite finished, and the other two of us (I was in this group) never picked the book up.  At the beginning of the meeting, I would have said that of the people who read it, half liked it, and half didn't.  Unfortunately, after discussing various unlikely twists and coincidences, the people who had started off saying that they liked it changed sides.  I think I won't bother trying to pick this one up. 

We chose to discuss Sweetness because we are trying to read something from various genres, and this one was chosen as a mystery.  In December we will meet again to discuss The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which we have classified as science fiction.

The Typical Book Group met this month to discuss . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  We picked this book as our summer Big Fat Book (BFB) in June, and delayed meeting until October to discuss it.  Even with this delay, of the 9 people at book group, only 2 had finished the book.  There were 3 more of us who had started it and were in various stages of progress, but the rest didn't even give it a try.

I talked about . . .And Ladies in my August and September wrap ups.  Basically it is an 1100+ page book about a book group that formed in the late 1800s, and the course of the lives of the original members.  As I've mentioned, I frequently fall asleep after reading only a few pages.  The two groupers who finished the book said that somewhere around page 500, the story picked up so that they could easily read 50 pages at a time, and that they thought about the book all of the time when they weren't reading it.  I'm somewhere around page 700 now, and I am not experiencing that at all, but then again, I've been putting it down for 2 or 3 weeks at a time and coming back to it, instead of immersing myself in the story.  Maybe this month I'll stick with it until I'm done.

All told, the people who finished the book liked it, and thought that it was worth reading.  I did notice though that one of them only gave the book 3 GoodReads stars.  So, while I'm now expecting something worth finishing, maybe I won't expect it to be life changing.

Next month we'll read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.

In Other News

The Man Booker Prize was announced on October 14.  This year's winner was The Narrow Road to the Deep North  by Richard Flannigan.  Based on the Amazon reviews, this sounds like a really good book.  The main character is an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.  I'll be keeping my eyes open for more on this one.

November Preview

People, I am burnt out on blogging, and almost even dreading it.  So, I'm not making any promises about even doing a monthly summary for November.  But in case you are interested in what I am planning to read and listen to, here you go:

In Paper Form:
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  Yes, I promise to finish this book in November.
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, if I can get it, or Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen, if I can't.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

On Audio Book:
1Q84 by Haruki Murikami
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
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