Friday, April 29, 2011

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

I've been told before that I needed to read Roth, and I may have never gotten around to it... if, again, it wasn't for my Pulitzer Prize endeavor. My only complaint pertains to Nathan Zuckerman as the narrator for the first (I guess) half of the book. I do however appreciate his role as a witness to the Swede's picturesque past and development of  Swede's facade.

Roth delivers a picture of America so vivid and lush; the Swede's Norman Rockwell-esque childhood in post-war New Jersey gave the reader hope for our protagonist, filled you with Zuckerman's pride in this All-American couple. The rant's of Roth and his impassioned detail for all of the Swede's and Zuckerman's remembrances made the downward spiral of the Swede's composure that much more tragic.

Spoilers beyond the break! Beware!

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

Completed in 24 hours... that's a new record for me. I guess I just really wanted to experience this book for the sake of my own two dogs. I know it's just a novel, but reading a book from a dog's perspective really did mean a lot to me. Life appreciation lessons couldn't come from a more apt teacher!

I really felt emotionally connected to it from the start, and probably because of the gimmicky cute fluffy puppy. So sue me. Stein may have banked on everyone grabbing a hold of his protagonist because no non-animal lover would read this to start with, but I didn't feel that he crutched on it when formulating his story; and that's a big compliment. Gimmicks are easy; give a kid a fatal illness, or mean parents, and of course you find yourself all ready sympathizing. Enzo the dog wasn't described as a fluffy puppy; he wasn't detailed in his young puppy glory getting into typical, enduring puppy shenanigans that made you squeal. It was nonchalant, which made the story more about his watching Denny's experiences than about Enzo's "dog-ness."

Through watching the Swift family grow and slowly fall to tragedy, emotions beautiful and oftentimes heartbreaking were enhanced by the wisdom within Enzo's narrative. He's a philosopher, as I feel most dogs have the ability to be. Stein's story shows that "man's best friend," however sexist a phrase that may be, really does share sympathy, love, faith, and perseverance with their soul mate, as Enzo did with Denny.

I appreciated what this novel said about grief and healing, too. I don't really know how to formulate my feelings about that aspect presently. Perhaps it's too soon since my own personal tragedy. When our family dog passed, a friend gave me a poem that says that our pets don't really leave us. They wait for us on a rainbow where all the animals can be happy and celebrate their joys while awaiting their humans to join them, as companions into Heaven. I love the thought that maybe you can be with your loved ones again (I'm trying to keep my personal spirituality to a minimum  dear readers, just bear with me here). I suppose reading this helped remind me that I pray to see my loved ones again, at peace and happy.

This is a book full of heart and passion for living, through the puddles and storms that dampen. You may cry. I nearly did. I stopped on a number of occasions that night, put the book down, and hugged my dogs. I highly recommend it to the animal lovers; someone who enjoyed The Alchemist, or even The Time Traveler's Wife.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt

This book didn't really impress me as a travelogue or true crime. In fact, the pairing of the two felt forced. Amidst trying to incorporate so many different facets of the town, Berendt seeks to show so many varying characters, that sometimes they come across as a bit unreal.

The portrait of Savannah as an eccentric, unmodernized time capsule of Southern heritage is very accurate; I read this book during the whirlwind of family drama and preparations for a weekend in... Savannah, GA. I'm that person. 

"The book," as locals now refer to this piece of non fiction, attempts to focus on the trial surrounding Williams' shooting of his employee/lover, and does air on the side of journalistic prose when detailing the court case and investigations. The asides about other Savannah folk never seem to fit well with the drama surrounding the shootings; a voodoo priestess and a poison-toting insect expert? It's almost too random to be real. I love that Berendt wanted to show the glory of so many people that feel like they could only come out of Savannah, but the problem was it didn't come together for me.

I loved the scene at Williams' Christmas party after the shooting, when all of the rich white people are gossiping and ruminating on what they think happened and why; that's the South I know. Voodoo and mass murder by poison though? Not so much. Sometimes whimsy can lead you astray or off track, and it definitely kept this book feeling a little too choppy, and less like a realized whole.

As for our trip to Savannah... it was amazing! Having some of the history and geography of the area detailed truly enhanced the experience! We roamed the Riverwalk, took a carriage tour with horses named Murphy and Guinness (Irish-haven that Savannah is) through Historic Downtown, creeped around Bonaventure Cemetary, and relaxed at Wormsloe State Historic Site, Saturday alone! Sunday had us cruising up the Island Expressway to the picturesque Tybee Island and Lighthouse! I'd love to go back, but I won't be reading anything else by Berendt any time soon!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pulitzer Winners Announced, 2011

The excitement of the month for literature fiends is that the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced this afternoon! Book lover, news enthusiast, or photographer make sure you take a look at winners! You can bet you know what novel I'll be reading this week!

Movie Monday#3: The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper

This is another book that I am astounded I haven't previously thought to read. Cooper's action-adventure is narrated in uber-romantic 18th century style; I was only a few chapters into it when it dawned on me that it's Ann Radcliffe for men.

The environment of frontier America is described tenderly with patience: Cooper's homage for the wasted landscape that can never be returned. Indeed, it's more of a tribute to the American landscape and geography than it ever could dream to hold up as that of Native American heritage; talk about ouch. Cooper was writing as Andrew Jackson was victimizing thousands with his Trail of Tears. Anthropological objectivity isn't exactly part of the agenda here. Nor is it in most action-adventure novels from this era. Despite it's overly dramatic, (often times insulting) picture of Native culture though, it is entertaining and full on in its romantic sensibilities. Again, Radcliffe for men.

The only thing it may have going for it in the vein of historical accuracy is the play of English vs French and the manipulating of all the varying tribes amongst the two; it makes for some really confusing alliances.

Cooper also isn't lacking in suspense! The action keeps the pace flying, but never lets go of the gentlemanly dialogue amongst our band of heroes! It's exactly the sort of entertaining classic I love to read; while lacking in the humor department, I comfortably compare my enjoyment of this novel to that of The Three Musketeers!

The film, on the other hand, didn't leave me as excited as it left my father... I loved the cinematography. Of course. The beautiful vistas featured are landmarks of my own neighborhood! The acting was great; Daniel Day Lewis never ceases to amaze me, he's one of my all time favorite actors. I just felt the changes to the plot weren't necessary. I appreciated what sacrifices Cooper's characters made in the book (no spoiler, phew), but Michael Mann (director) puts a much larger emphasis on the romance. I won't reveal more, for I'd like you to read the book, watch the movie, and let me know what you think!

The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
ISBN: 0553210548

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Beauty, Zadie Smith

This novel did for culture and race what I felt The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst did for class and socio-economic status. Smith's sophomore novel is pure genius, and this novel is incredibly loaded with issues and questions. The prose is so pointed and loaded with intent; all descriptive details shape the irony and emotive force behind her elegantly crafted family, the Belseys.

Such a portrait of a multiracial family could not have been created at any other time in our social history, and Smith captures it beautifully. The nuances of each family member feel so perfectly concocted; each individual comes with their own different baggage. Mother, father, and three children all have varying perspectives on race and social identity. The family of five feels at war with their seeming opposites, the Kipps, only to realize that both families are internalizing similar uncertainties and problems.

Alongside the ongoing racial dialogue exists the mesmerizing family drama. Certainly the existential crisis suffered by Howard (father) spurns most of the issues, but the entire cast's constant bickering about white vs. black, rich vs. poor, liberal vs. conservative forces each character to grab hold of what they covet most and attempt to establish an individual identity untouched by the dynamic issues that have made them all so troubled. They all get taken out of their elements and forced to reexamine, and by the end of the novel you feel that perhaps this family can find some strength and integrity.

Again, this novel is loaded with intellectual dialogue and major social issues; it's ironic and sarcastic about so many notions and stereotypes. The beauty for me was in the honesty. All the characters had their flaws, but in the Belseys at least you could empathize. The argument between Kiki and Howard in the middle of the novel broke my heart, it was so realistic. I had to put my book down and look at my husband; I could see so much of our own lovers' quarrels in that dialogue, just enhanced by Howard's horrible betrayal. It was painfully realistic and simultaneously, brilliantly analysed. Then again, so was the entire novel. A must read.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith
ISBN: 0143037749 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Martin Dressler, Steven Millhauser

Millhauser's book was an interesting read. I must admit, that I'm just generally fascinated by the amazing period of transition that was American at the end of the nineteenth century, which may explain my enthusiasm. Millhauser writes with such an eye for the details of Dressler's visions... but sadly not for his characters.

Indeed, the world of the hotels that Martin dreamed of were described to such a full extent, that the rest of New York City life felt abandoned. Martin's parents are left by the way side right off the bat, and I would have been intrigued by a father/son dynamic in this novel of achievement; so many of our other Pulitzer winners have allowed for wonderful reading experiences because of the dualities in old and new, and given that Millhauser supplies us with a business minded parent, it would have been interesting to see what Martin's father thought of The Grand Cosmo. Martin's motives are rarely examined, and aside from his determination and ambition, felt one dimensional.

Millhauser's novel was bereft of any real variety in characters. Harwinton and Arling, as well as the Vernon women don't really offer the diversity of characters that one would expect from NYC at the turn of the century; what about all the immigrants flooding the city, the business giants? I would have thought a Pulitzer winner would have had a much broader scope; Dressler isolated himself in his dream yes, but did the reader have to feel the limitations so keenly?

I'm slightly embarrassed that my problems with a novel made for the bulk of the review; I did enjoy the book, albeit not with my typical enthusiasm. I guess I wish more had been made of Martin's experience, a potential epic, and that's what frustrates me. It's a wonderful story... it just didn't have the surge of emotion to power the determination.

Martin Dressler, Steven Millhauser
ISBN: 0679781277 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Double Trouble: Nick Hornby

Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby
ISBN: 1594488878 

I read this as a pre-release from work, and knew I'd get through it in about two days (amidst all the other weekend mucking about). Hornby's books are always so amusing in their scenarios and character development, that you can't help but have a great time reading them. His prose really delivers incredible humorous characters, and this latest is no different!

Annie's fed up with her Crowe-crazed boyfriend and their fifteen year long indecision on whether the relationship is even worth the minute amount of work they put into it; Crowe is the very same musician that said boyfriend is enamored with, although he's as cowardly and spineless a man as can be (don't get me wrong, I liked him... he reminds me of all of those friends you have, that are so talented and smart yet never seem to do anything). In all of the hectic events circling both of these characters, they manage to meet, make things worse, and force a little bit of growing-up upon each other in true absurd Hornby style!

How to be Good, Nick Hornby
ISBN: 1573221937

I suppose I read this hoping it would be a funny look at marriages, the good guy/bad guy dynamics in relationships, and fidelity; but it was a three hundred page analysis of a woman's good deeds versus her bad deeds, and the excuses she makes that Hornby assumes we will all relate to.

Usually Hornby describes a likable if not muddled character who finds himself muddling up the lives of those he/she cares about, whilst trying to figure themselves out and growing in some way as a person after some giggle inducing madcap adventure; Katie was not likable, and the scenarios Hornby tries to make funny come off a bit depressing.

Hornby's typical rants of internal analysis aren't usually the bulk of the book, which makes for more amusing dialogue than we have here, as well as more chaotic WTF moments (that make the reader laugh, and the protagonist rethink their perspective); not here, however. David's sudden personality switch would have been more amusing if he had slipped periodically throughout, rather than in the last chapter suddenly admitting he wanted to get shot of GoodNews. I guess I just didn't find the characters' reactions that believable. It felt very forced by the end.

Points for demonstrating that smug righteousness is incredibly annoying, though! Thank God the son had some balls, too.

PS: Why am I more articulate when I find issues?!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

Admittedly, I bought into all the praise this book was getting by picking up this book: on the Indie Top 10 List for weeks, New York Times Notable Books of 2010, blah blah. I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Maybe not the emotional powerhouse I was expecting, but Tom Rachman is certainly an author I'll read in the future.

What's special about this novel is the delicate way in which Rachman shows how this group of people struggle to balance their personal lives amidst such a demanding work environment. Within twenty pages, you can feel that tension; that you get to experience that for so many different characters within such a slim novel is amazing. Rachman's very sharp with how he presents people. Each character's baggage unfolds quickly, and without prejudice. The array of people covered in the varying vignettes covers all manner of adult emotional sin: loneliness, ambition, selfishness, etc.

I felt like one of the common threads throughout the different chapters was that everyone seemed to be watching the world go by from that office room, and their lives right along with it. Each character suffers from a disconnect with one or more of his/her loved ones. It's heartbreaking, but beautifully crafted.

Again, Rachman doesn't sweep you with some enormous tragic circumstances, but rather shows the tragedy from one person to the next, until an interesting sampling of relationships and emotions has been evoked. It's quite lovely, and dare I say I'm content that this has been lauded as it is!

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman
ISBN: 0385343671 

PS: When searching "The Imperfectionists" on Google Images for a suitably sized image of the cover, this is how I was rewarded: I am baffled that this could be considered imperfect! 

Friday, April 1, 2011

"One more bookcase, and we'll have to sleep on top of them..."

There's a secret issue which many readers suffer from without necessarily having to address it at book club meetings, the library, or purchasing your long awaited favorite author's latest at your local bookstore... buying too many books too fast.

I went three months without purchasing a single book once. I was trying to be economic for the sake of our  upcoming wedding. This is a long time ago, as I've been married nearly a year now... since then, I'm sure I have tripled my book ownership. Out of that immense stack of books, I can say I have read maybe a third of them. That's right. I foolishly own probably three hundred books I  haven't even read yet. Insanity.

OK, so I work at a used book store. It's the best place on earth for someone like me, but the worst place on Earth for my wallet. I'm limiting myself recently to one purchase a paycheck, and it had better be either classic literature, a Man Booker winner, or a Pulitzer winner. Hey, at least it sort of follows my agenda!

So, where the heck do I put all these books? Well, I'll tell you. I have four bookcases. On the bookcase my father built me when I was in college, I have all books pertaining to mythology, history, and science. I have a fiction bookcase that I recently purchased at Target ::sigh:: I love that bookcase! I have a two shelf bookcase in my bedroom for my Man Booker winners and photo albums (because I scrapbook like I read, and it's quite honestly equally out of hand), and a fun four shelf Soho bookcase from World Market for my darling Pulitzers... phew!

I still have a stack of graphic novels and biographies that are homeless. My husband gives me a look periodically that says "you can't have my closet where my comics live." Fair enough! At least he has his own collection!

I realize how obnoxious this habit of mine has made me. I also see that I sound like a pretentious tart with too much disposable income. I love to read. As a kid, we moved all the time (military brat). International moves were the worst because of the weight limits put on our container for a family of four's furniture and possessions. I had to give a lot of my books to local charities for the sake of staying within limits. Don't get me wrong, I'm a serious advocate for cleaning out and being less materialistic. I just don't know if I'll be able to find another $3 copy of a Man Booker winner! MUST BUY!

I hope to be able to share a love of literature and learning with my children, should God grace me enough with the gift of motherhood. I'll be able to hold their hands and walk them over to the complete Chabon or Woolf, however their personal tastes take them. That's my excuse!

Reader Response Time:
What makes for a purchase-worthy book? If you have a ton, where do you keep them? Do you have a local used bookstore you trade at? You tell me!!