Wednesday, August 25, 2010
by Laura Lippman
Once upon a time, Eliza Benedict was Elizabeth Lerner. Elizabeth became Eliza at the age of 15, after she was abducted for 39 days by spree killer and rapist Walter Bowman. She was the only girl who survived. In the years since that autumn, she's carefully guarded her privacy and done everything possible to move on with her life--with more success than most people who have never been traumatized. She's happily married to her college sweetheart, and the contented stay-at-home mom to two.
All of that changes with the posting of a letter. After 22 years on Virginia's death row, Walter Bowman has seen her photo in Washingtonian Magazine, and as he writes, "I'd know you anywhere." This first communication is the beginning of increasingly escalating contact from the inmate and his associates. What really happened all those years ago? And what does Walter want today? These are the questions that Laura Lippman sets before readers in this well-written, richly-characterized novel of suspense. The story being told unfolds beautifully, and as disturbing a character as Walter is, he's equally fascinating. And at times, I wasn't even sure if he was the biggest monster in the book.
After her long, celebrated career, this was my introduction to Laura Lippman's work. It won't be the last novel I read. How delightful to know she has an extensive backlist now waiting to be explored.
|Silencing Sam: A Novel (Riley Spartz)
by Julie Kramer
This is now the third of Julie Kramer's mysteries that I've read, starting with Stalking Susan and Missing Mark. Within the first few paragraphs of Silencing Sam, I had this thought, "Oh, there she is!" The "she" I was referring to was television reporter Riley Spartz, the protagonist of the series. After just a few sentences, I had this overwhelming feeling of recognition. Riley's voice was so instantly familiar and recognizable. It was like getting a call from a friend you haven't heard from in a while. It was nice.
|Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)
|by Suzanne Collins
If The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are tales of a dystopia, then Mockingjay is a slight departure for the series. This final chapter in the trilogy is a war story. Panem is at war. The stakes for Katniss and the band of characters that we've grown to love (and sometimes hate) have never been higher. And while Suzanne Collins' work on this series has been masterful to date, she rises to the occasion to give her story the conclusion it deserves.
As the novel opens, Katniss and hundreds of other refugees and revolutionaries have been taken in by the citizens of District 13. The rumors were true, but District 13 is both more and less than anything she could have envisioned. While safety is a fluid concept in Katniss's experience, she is what passes for safe at the moment. Still, she is tortured by thoughts of Peeta, being held prisoner in the Capitol. And she is tortured by too many ghosts. We're introduced to a somewhat more fragile Katniss in this novel, and she is not the only character in a somewhat diminished state. The events unfolding around them, as well as those of the past few years, have taken a heavy toll.
It is in this final chapter that the surviving characters must wage a battle for the future of Panem. Ms. Collins has never shied away from depicting graphic violence and disturbing scenes, and this novel may be the most disturbing yet. For me, the life and death struggles that occur in a war resonate more painfully than a staged fight to the death. There's no denying that this is a dark tale. It is even more impressive, therefore, that Ms. Collins manages to infuse enough humor into the book to occasionally relieve the gloom, and to remind us why we love these characters in the first place.
This third book is a departure in other ways. The pace of the story-telling wasn't quite as breathless. While still very much a thriller, in some ways Mockingjay allowed itself a bit more time to explore the emotional lives and constantly shifting relationships of the characters, as well as the full ramifications of the dangerous situations in which they found themselves. The emotional aspects of Katniss's tale have never been given short shrift, but there was a greater expansiveness here, perhaps owing to her increasing maturity. Of course, fans are waiting with bated breath to learn the outcome of the Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle. There is a resolution, one that seemed like the only possible outcome to me. The ending of the book is satisfying, not always happy, but deeply satisfying.
Perhaps the best testament I can give Mockingjay is to tell you that this 41-year-old, responsible, gainfully-employed woman read it from cover to cover between 1:00AM and 7:00AM this morning. Not for one minute was I in danger of falling asleep. I think it's going to be a long time before a story inspires me to want to pull a stunt like that again.
Friday, August 13, 2010
by Gary Shteyngart
At one point when I was reading this disturbing, satirical look at a possible American future, I just thought, "Wait! How did we get there from here? How did we get from the America I know to a totalitarian nation on the verge of financial and political collapse?" And in the next moment, unbidden, I thought, "It's a totally logical projection."
Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is provoking some strong responses. It's polarizing. It's disturbing. It is funny, but you know how humor is, so subjective. What I find uproarious, you'll find imbecilic. As a great man said, "So it goes." Perhaps one of the reasons the novel is so provocative is that despite the absurd humor and the extremity of Shteyngart's vision, his satirical eye is dead on. He's got us pegged.
As for the plot, it's an epistolary novel, a romance related from the pages of Lenny Abramov's diary and Eunice Park's emails and instant messages. Poor, sweet, neurotic Lenny. He'll never be the best looking guy in the room, but he has other redeeming qualities. He's kind, sincere, loving, fiscally responsible, a reader and a thinker. Unfortunately, 39-year-old Lenny lives in an aggressively vulgar and illiterate culture that is obsessed with youth, beauty, and consumerism. The object of his affection is the much younger, much hotter Eunice. It's an unlikely match, but I was actually touched as the relationship progressed, all the while fearing for Lenny's tender heart.
There is so much I could write about this novel! The fact that Lenny works in the indefinite life preservation industry, based on the idea that if you're rich enough you never have to die. His boss, Joshie Goldman, is a post-adolescent septuagenarian. The fact that LNWI (Low Net Worth Individuals) have formed a tent city in Central Park, and there are armed National Guardsmen all over the New York. The very idea of privacy is essentially a thing of the past. Everyone wears a device that simultaneously connects them online and broadcasts the most intimate details of their lives, and people--lliterally--feel they can't live without the constant stream of data. The dystopian near future that Shteyngart has created is so rich and fully realized and so worthy of contemplation and discussion. I can barely touch on the ideas he explores in a few paragraphs.
It is worth mentioning just how strong his writing is as well. Even in the midst of the tortured language used by his characters, I found his prose to be a joy to read. There were interesting subtleties to the end of the novel, and I'm not completely sure I understood everything. Rather than weaken the ending, I find this to be a strength. I'll be pondering Eunice's decisions for some time, and look forward to discussing the end with friends. Yeah, this one's going to stick with me for a while.
by Allegra Goodman
One of my favorite things is reading a novel with a setting with which I'm intimately familiar. That was certainly the case with Allegra Goodman's wonderful The Cookbook Collector. In the 90's, I worked for a high-tech start-up in Cambridge, MA. I shopped at Store 24. I lived on Newbury Street. In 2002, I relocated to San Francisco in the very depths of the dot-com bust. I window shop in Palo Alto. I eat at Greens. And I certainly know what it is like to be one of a pair of very different sisters. I recognize Emily and Jess, the sisters at the center of this novel, as they are easily identifiable Bay Area types, and I know the mixture of admiration and exasperation they evoke in me.
As familiar as it all was, Ms. Goodman grabbed me from the opening pages of this beautifully-written novel. And the story she told, a story I was so intimately familiar with, held me rapt, excitedly turning pages, wondering what was going to happen next--even though I knew what was going to happen next. I'd lived these times, but still Allegra Goodman managed to surprise me, as though history would turn out differently in her capable hands.
For what she has written is a story of our recent history, from 1999 to 2002. Far beyond the rise and fall of the dot-com economy, however, this is a novel of relationships. Relationships between siblings, friends, lovers, parents and children, colleagues, competitors, and acquaintances. Some of these relationships are successful, others not so much, but one in particular was utterly delicious. Goodman writes:
"...he longed to nourish her with clementines, and pears in season, fresh whole-wheat bread and butter, wild strawberries, comté cheese, fresh figs and oily Marcona almonds, tender yellow beets. He would sear red meat, if she would let him, and grill spring lamb. Cut the thorns off artichokes and dip the leaves in fresh aoli, poach her fish--thick Dover sole in wine and shallots--julienne potatoes, roast a whole chicken with lemon slices under the skin. He would serve a salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil, Serve her and watch her savor dinner, pour for her, and watch her drink. That would be enough for him. To find her plums in season, and perfect nectarines, velvet apricots, dark succulent duck. To bring her all these things and watch her eat."
I'll admit the food passages were among my favorite, and a seduction over dinner was the most erotic thing I've read in some time.
This is a bittersweet tale about a bittersweet time. Allegra Goodman has done an amazing job capturing time and place and creating some indelible characters and some gorgeous prose along the way. What a joy to read!
It’s the search-for-identity story of Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a young English teacher we see fired in the film’s opening scene. Louis uses the setback to follow his heart to Manhattan , where he hopes to pursue a career as a writer. His first priority is to find a home, which leads him to answer the apartment-sharing ad of the endlessly eccentric Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline). Soon, the introverted Louis gets sucked into Henry’s wacky world, peopled with the likes of elderly billionairess Vivian Cudlip (Marian Seldes) and Klingon-like neighbor Gershon (John C. Reilly).
This is an odd story filled with quirky and sometimes off-putting characters. There’s something anachronistic about Dano’s Louis, exhibited outwardly in old-fashioned manners and vintagey three-piece suits and inwardly in his Gatsby-esque fantasy life. Classic fiction isn’t the only thing Louis fantasizes about, though. In fact, he’s tentatively exploring his sexuality and trying to come to terms with transvestite urges, all while pining for a pretty co-worker (Katie Holmes).
Henry, on the other hand, is larger than life, and Kevin Kline throws himself fully into the role—literally, as it happens, when the character dances. Henry isn’t particularly nice. He doesn’t much like women, and is adamantly against sex. He describes himself as, “somewhere right of the Pope.” His apartment is cluttered and filthy. He’s ethically-challenged and teaches Louis how to scam tickets to the opera and urinate in public. He is not the best role model. And, yet, that is exactly what he becomes, introducing Louis to the concept of “the extra man.”
Henry’s lifestyle is sustained by squiring wealthy elderly woman to their dinners and art openings and vacation homes. And it is Kline’s innate charm, despite the character’s flaws, that makes him believable in the role. It is also Kline’s over-the-top performance that drives the film’s humor. His line readings are priceless, and you simply can’t help but laugh at his antics. In fact, a day after seeing the film, I dissolved into tears trying to describe him attempting to wipe his fleas onto a Yorkshire terrier. Who does that?
This isn’t a mainstream film, and it won’t appeal to every viewer. The humor is smart, edgy, strange, sophisticated, physical, and just weird. But I laughed long and loud. The performances (many by New York stage actors) were excellent, and Kevin Kline’s alone is worth the price of admission. Not every joke lands, and parts of the film are uneven, but I never knew what would happen next. I think The Extra Man will find its audience among fans of Wes Anderson’s quirky, charismatic films. It deserves to find an audience. Take a break from formulaic summer fare and give it a chance.
by Carolyn Parkhurst
Have you ever had the experience of starting a novel and just falling in love with the protagonist right away? This isn't that novel. When we meet first-person narrator Olivia Frost, the best-selling novelist is flying to New York to drop off her latest manuscript at her editor's office. She's a little quirky, a little acerbic. Walking through Times Square, she's stopped in her tracks by a news feed. Her estranged son, the rock star Milo Frost, has just been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend.
So begins Carolyn Parkhurst's latest, The Nobodies Album. It's part conventional murder mystery, part character study, and part rumination on the art and life of a novelist. For me, the book worked on all levels. I won't go so far as to call it a page-turner, but I was engaged by the mystery plot. The dénouement may have been obvious to some readers, but not to this one. I did warm up to Olivia and found her to be an interestingly complex character to build a novel around. But more than anything, I think, I enjoyed the insights into what it is to be a writer:
"I've often wondered if writers are the ones who feel compelled to narrate their lives as they live them, to stand in the shower and wonder whether there's a less predictable word than `lather.' I used to think it made me a good writer--look at me, honing my craft as I stand here to pour a cup of coffee, drafting and revising my descriptions of the mug, the smell, the sound of the hot splatter! Now I just find it tiresome, though it doesn't seem to be something I can stop. An end to narration: that's what I imagine death will be like."
Olivia isn't just ruminating on her writing, however. A significant subplot of the novel is her desire to rewrite the endings of all of her previously published works. (And I don't think you need to be Freud to see the significance in that.) To that end, scattered strategically throughout the novel (in order to create maximum tension and suspense) we are treated to the jacket copy and the original and revised conclusions to Olivia's seven novels. These interruptions are relatively short, and read more like self-contained stories than the true final pages of books, but the overall effect reminded me of Italo Calvino's experimental novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Basically, you'd get caught up in the story snippets and feel slightly jarred when they ended.
Reading back over what I've written, I realize my description of this novel sounds a bit busy and overwrought. On the contrary, I thought it all came together really well. It was both entertaining and illuminating.
Oh, and Ms. Parkhurst, if you're reading this, I'd really like to read the entirety of Olivia's imaginary novel The Human Slice!
by Elle Lothlorien
I don't mind admitting that I'm an unabashed fan of romantic comedies. Good ones are hard to find, but when you do it's a joy. Elle Lothlorien's debut novel, The Frog Prince, is a good one.
We all know there's a formula to these things, and this author is wisely not reinventing the wheel. The story opens with the required meet-cute. Her stiletto heel, his sandaled foot--in the unlikely comic setting of a funeral parlor. That is how protagonists Leigh Fromm and Roman Lorraine first encounter each other. There's an instant attraction, a slight antagonism, and only later does Leigh find out that the annoying hot guy is actually Roman Karl Franz Joseph Max Heinrich Ignatius Habsburg von Lorraine, Crown Prince of Austria. Well, not quite a "real" prince; she soon learns, "Austria's a parliamentary representative democracy. The monarchy was abolished in 1918." But close enough for the paparazzi.
There's nothing wildly original about the set-up above. It's essentially a fairy tale. What sets it apart is the voice of the protagonist. Leigh describes herself as, "a social misfit in a model's body." That's a hard character to bring to life. Well, at least I find myself skeptical about any girl that beautiful being that awkward, but Lothlorien pulls it off. And Leigh's running internal dialogue had me laughing out loud throughout the novel. She's like a character out of one of those classic screwball comedies from the 40's, and you just fall in love with her. It's easy to see why Roman does as well, warts and all.
There's really no need to summarize the twists and turns of the plot further. I will add that Lothlorien brings in a strong cast of supporting characters that add much to the goings on. The panoply of "almost royals" is a hoot. And she does a good job of showing the different facets that keep characters from becoming caricatures. For instance, Leigh's enemy does have her kinder moments.
In the end, I judge a romantic comedy on two things: romance and comedy. The Frog Prince is a winner on both counts. Leigh and Roman are a terrific couple to root for, and I found myself grinning like a sap long after the novel had ended.
by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is one of those books that I've "always meant to get around to." Knowing that the cinematic release is imminent is what finally moved it to the top of my towering TBR pile. I'm delighted to have finally read the novel, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I can't help feeling just a bit let down. I've been hearing raves for years, and my expectations were pretty high.
I don't even know what to say about a book that has already garnered hundreds of reviews. It's got a plot that supposedly has a big reveal, so I want to be careful what I write, but that was also part of the problem for me. What was supposedly the big secret was obvious to me from the beginning, either because I've unconsciously picked up chatter over the years, or, um, it was just obvious.
Anyway, it's a story told in reflection by Kathy, our 31-year-old first-person narrator. She's reflecting on the events of her life, thus far. The first lengthy section of the novel details her upbringing at an unusual British boarding school. There she formed the relationships that were pivotal in her later life, most notably with her best friends, Ruth and Tommy. She continues relating the events of her life after her schooling, and the continually evolving relationships she had with her friends as she slowly learns more about the world they're living in.
That was sufficiently vague. The story is interesting, disturbing, and very, very thought-provoking. There were a few problems I had, but I want to emphasize that despite minor complaints, I thought there was real brilliance to this book. My biggest problem was that every single scene, some of them very emotional, was related by Kathy. And her recounting, in hindsight, was always somewhat flat and removed. An example, "...for a while things were okay between us. Maybe, looking back, there was an atmosphere of something being held back, but it's possible I'm only thinking that now because of what happened next." It was literally a case of being told, not shown. Instead of being directly in a scene, we get everything through the prism of Kathy's eyes. It wasn't that she wasn't a sympathetic character, but somehow I had trouble channeling her emotional connection to the events of her life. I sort of got sick of her deadpan voice, and the constant foreshadowing got a bit old, too.
And my other complaint is related. Mr. Ishiguro is renowned for his beautiful prose. I have no doubt his reputation is justified, and I look forward to exploring more of his work in the near future. However, he so skillfully and consistently narrates in Kathy's voice, that all poetry is lost. That simply isn't who she is, and she tells her story in a straightforward and utilitarian manner.
It's the haunting nature of her story (to us, if not to her) that is so powerfully effecting. I had a friend tell me that he loved the novel up until the ending, but then felt it was a let-down. My feeling was the opposite. Had it gone any other way, I might have been disappointed. There was so much in this book to digest, I'm not sure that I've taken it all in yet. I'll look forward to the film to spark further discussion, contemplation, and debate.
by Paolo Bacigalupi
A unit of energy equal to the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. One calorie is equivalent to 4.1868 joules.
The biggest problem with Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Windup Girl is me, the reader. I'm not a big fan of science fiction due to my own failure of imagination. The further away from reality as I know it, the harder it is for me to get involved in and follow a story.
Bacigalupi's much-lauded and honored debut is set in our world--in Thailand, a few hundred years in the future. But it's a much-changed world. Specifically, it's a post-petroleum world. I started this review with a definition of the word "calorie." In this weight-obsessed time, people have forgotten that a calorie is actually a measure of energy. That point isn't commented upon in the text, but it seems relevant as much of the novel revolves around the Kingdom of Thailand's need to feed its people and power its nation and economy.
It seems a variety of plagues have beset the agricultural world. Some may have been natural, some engineered, and surely climate change has taken its toll. Unfortunately, commerce may have played an even larger role, with sterile, disease-resistant seed stocks being owned by huge multi-national "calorie companies." The powers that be in Thailand seek independence from these monopolies, even as central character Anderson Lake, a "calorie man," investigates the available food sources cropping up outside of Agrigen's control.
This description barely scratches the surface of this complex novel. It is an intriguing exploration of a post-petroleum society with regard to the science, industry, and politics of the time. Internal Thai politics are a big part of the story, as are crime and punishment, social mores, and the often clashing cultures which have been thrust together in a volatile environment. Finally, it is a novel of relationships, human and not-quite-human...
Narrator Jonathan Davies does a good job with the unabridged audiobook. I won't swear that his Asian accents are authentic or even culturally sensitive, but my American ears could understand the dialogue clearly. In fact, I had an easier time discerning the huge cast of characters from the distinct voices he created than I did from the unfamiliar foreign names.
The Windup Girl wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I'm glad to have read it. It's left me with more than a little food for thought.
Monday, August 2, 2010
Yes, I did swoon in the headline above. Have you met David Mitchell? You would swoon too.
For me, it's several things. First, the man is ungodly talented. I've mentioned this before, but his recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the best book I've read in the past several years. Cloud Atlas was definitely the best book I read in 2004. Even my least favorite of the three I've read, coming of age tale Black Swan Green, was fairly magnificent and has really stuck with me in a way that is rare for a girl who writes a blog entitled In One Eye, Out the Other.
In addition to his crazy talent, the guy is completely adorable--not just in the most obvious sense (see photo above) but also his personality. Every time I see him, we seem to have an odd encounter. This started the very first time I met him, back when he was touring for Cloud Atlas.
I don't know why I went to his book signing. I hadn't read him and didn't own any of his books. Perhaps I'd just heard buzz on the book. Maybe I was just bored, and a reading was free entertainment. I don't remember.
Here is what I do remember... I went to A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books straight from work. I was early, so I grabbed a seat in the front row and pulled out the paperback I was reading at the time. Now, people who know me and regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I was reading a mass market trashy underwater fiction horror thriller. It was a creature feature called Sleeper about a water monster type thing in the basement of the Pentagon, and as I recall, it was pretty darn entertaining. Better than one would expect from such a premise. But I definitely didn't want anyone in that fine bookstore and that oh-so-literary crowd to see the trash I was reading, so I sort of had the book's cover pressed against my skirt to preserve the illusion that I belonged. And all was well until I looked up from an engrossing passage to find a handsome young man kneeling in front of me trying to determine the title of the book I was reading. And realized that the person in front of me was none other than David Mitchell.
Why? Why? Why was he so curious about the book I was clearly trying to hide? Apparently he's always like that, and I have to admit that I'm much the same. Whenever I see someone reading a book, I'll do whatever I can to get a glimpse of the title. Still, it was unseemly. I didn't want to show him. I told him it was too stupid a book to be seen with. I asked him to go away. Nothing would get rid of the man! Seriously, didn't he have a reading to prepare for? Ultimately, he said to me that no matter how bad it was, it was better than sitting at home in front of the television. So, that's when I finally showed him the book. And we laughed. The man charmed my socks right off. He went on to do an amazing reading, and I bought a copy of a book that I probably wouldn't have purchased if not for that encounter. Lucky me; it was my introduction to one of my very favorite authors.
I don't think that anything unusual occurred the second time we met, but I was still excited to hear him read at the Booksmith on Haight a couple of weeks ago. He didn't let me down either. It was a packed standing-room crowd. I was there with Jon, and while we were among the standing, we had a great spot. David did a terrific reading, the highlight of which for me was learning the pronunciation of de Zoet. (It's dee Zoot.) As always, he was completely adorable, gradually stripping off layers of clothing in the over-heated store and making jokes about a very slow striptease, to the delight of the crowd. He spent a lot of time answering questions and seemed to enjoy himself. And he expressed what appeared to be a genuine appreciation for San Francisco and its wikipedia-like denizens.
My galley of Thousand Autumns is on loan, but I was happy to buy a hardback copy of the book. It's one of those special books that you just have to have a pristine hardback of on your bookshelf, you know? Plus, I like any opportunity to support independent booksellers and Praveen, the owner of the Booksmith, is becoming a friend. I'd rushed back to the signing line as the Q&A broke up, so it didn't take too long to reach the front. Besides, Jon and I were having fun kibitzing with those around us. I always meet the nicest people at that store.
Anyway, as David was signing my book, I asked him a question. I asked, "What was the deal with the name of that English character, Cutlip? Why were all the Dutch characters so amazed by his name?" And David gave me a strange look. He said, "I can't... I can't... Wait a minute... Come over here." And with that, he got up from his signing table and walked me into a corner and proceeded to crack up. He said, "You really don't know?" And I told him that I'd made the inquiry of a Dutch friend online, but that I had not received an answer. He wasn't surprised. He proceeded to explain that in Dutch, both parts of the name refer to some jocular slang for part of a woman's anatomy. He compared it to the word "Willy" when discussing male anatomy. Meanwhile, there was a fair amount of giggling and blushing from the two of us in the corner of the bookstore as the rest of the people waiting in line looked on. I'm sure they're all dying to know what we were talking about.
After a few moments we composed ourselves and returned to the signing table. As David finished signing my book, I reminded him of how we'd first me, and we'd had a good giggle over that, too.
Suffice it to say, I will drop anything and go see David Mitchell on book tour any chance I get. I never know what the man will do next! Probably all future encounters will be boring and normal, but let's hope not.