Friday, January 25, 2008

A Dubious Prize--giveaway

Wow, there was unanimous dislike last night at my book group as we discussed Anne Enright’s Booker prize-winning novel The Gathering. And this is a really pleasant group of women, not given to nastiness. They’re all mothers of children around the same age, some of whom I have known for going on ten years, and I would choose to hang out with them whether we were discussing books or not.

It was a dark and stormy night, but my book groupers are intrepid, and they showed up anyway, shaking off rivulets of rain, but ready for the discussion. My very sweet husband had made a fire and some strong coffee, but as usual, most of us chose a little pinot noir to begin the evening. Fortified with the wine, hors d’oeuvres, and lots of desserts, we began to dissect the book. I was surprised that not one of the readers liked this book.

We all agreed that we did not like the narrator much, nor did we like the story. Some objected to the elliptical storytelling, some to the tone, some to the overly familiar themes. But I was surprised at how vehement the opinions were.

On the positive side, some of the readers appreciated Enright’s writing style as poetic and smart. I agreed with that. I found some of her descriptions quite beautiful.

But ultimately nobody cared enough about the characters. This sparked a very interesting conversation about how writers and filmmakers succeed when they make us care about their characters.

After we finish our book discussion, as usual, we turned to other subjects—kids, husbands, politics, movies, you name it. It’s always great talk.

On reflection, we realized we have not had much luck with prize-winning books. We chose two books for next time, a memoir and a novel, both rather short: Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir, and Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name: A Novel.

Which brings me to the giveaway portion of this post. Considering what I’ve written about this book, I guess this is a dubious prize, but three of my book groupers left their slightly used paperback copies of The Gathering for me to dispose of, and I thought I would pass them on to you, if you want them.

So if you want a copy of Anne Enright’s The Gathering, guaranteed to have been read only once, leave me a note in the comments, and I’ll pick the winners out of a hat.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Reading on a Cloudy Day

We're having a little bit of cold weather here in Los Angeles, and I'm realizing that my blood has thinned significantly since I lived in colder climes. Okay, I've never actually lived anywhere really cold. I grew up in the Bay Area, which is rainier and colder than Southern California, but it only snowed twice there in the whole time I was growing up. Still, I used to ski, and I've spent plenty of time on the east coast during the winter. I used to love the cold. Now the thermometer is hitting 55 degrees outside and I'm turning up the heat and wearing my warmest sweater around the house. I'm officially a wimp. And just look what's going on around the rest of the country--check out Stefanie's blog for the freezing evidence.

But this kind of showery, partly-cloudy weather--an "open and shut day", my friend J. would say--is perfect for reading--indoors, curled up on the couch, possibly with a cup of hot chocolate. It's a good thing my morning plans cancelled and I can sit down with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I have not gotten far into this one, but I do like it so far. There's a vaguely menacing feel to the action, however, that has me on edge. I know this isn't going to be a cozy novel.

That's why I keep alternating it with L.M. Montgomery's Anne's House of Dreams (Anne of Green Gables, No. 5), the fifth novel in Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series. These books were a favorite of mine when I was a child, but I never read past the first three books, so I'm picking up where I left off. It's nice to be transported back to Prince Edward Island with feisty Anne, but it's surreal to juxtapose this with Murakami.

My hat's off to my husband, who cleaned out our garage office with a vengeance. Now I have about 25 books to list on BookMooch, and he set up a nice, safe shelf to keep them on so I won't lose the books or ruin them somehow in case a moocher wants them.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

I read The Gathering, Irish writer Anne Enright’s Booker-prize-winning novel for my book group, and I’m just dying to discuss it with them...

The Gathering is the story of the gathering of narrator Veronica Hegarty’s large Irish family for the funeral of her wayward brother Liam, who committed suicide by drowning himself in the English sea. The book centers on the family mystery that might have caused Liam’s alcoholic decline and death at age 40.

I felt this was familiar territory, but maybe this is because I’ve read too many Irish family memoirs. But Veronica says it herself, in an amusing yet touching paragraph, that all big families are the same:
There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift. Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense. We pity our mothers, what they had to put up with in bed or in the kitchen, and we hate them or we worship them, but we always cry for them--at least I do.
This book was a challenge for me in many ways. The themes were familiar and the story quite easy to predict. What was different here was the storytelling, which was lyrical and vague and entertaining and maddening, all at the same time. Enright never tells you anything outright, and her narrator is nothing if not unreliable.

In fact, the narrator was my biggest challenge to liking this book. I admit I have trouble with unlikeable characters. This one did a love-hate dance with me. Prickly is a nice word for her. She proclaims her hatreds honestly, but is not honest about herself. I found some things about Veronica very relatable--her sense of humor, and her observations about her family, for example. She is struggling to shed some of the toxic effects of growing up in her big, poor Irish family, by marrying a solidly middle-class capitalist. But she seems to loathe both herself and her husband, and cannot forgive him for seeming to hate her during the sexual act—she believes he hates her because he wants her. Sex is definitely problematic for her; she is obsessed with it, and more than one reviewer has posited that perhaps what she tells us happened to her brother Liam as a child really happened to her, as abuse might be the only possibe cause of her bitterness.

Enright’s prose is impressive, but sometimes preciously so. I was occasionally transported by the writing, but never the story. I really wanted to like this more than I did. It left me feeling unsatisfied, but certain that I’d like to read what Enright does with another subject.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Shaky Resolutions

My husband is still on strike, and could be for months yet. (For more information on the Writers Guild on strike, read United Hollywood or My Second Strike, blogs on the subject) So this New Year, because he's got time when he's not picketing, we've actually made some headway on one of our perpetual resolutions, to clean out the garage.

And all this cleaning up made me realize I had to make another New Year's resolution--a personal ban on book-buying until I've read some of the books on my huge TBR stack.

I mean, I know we're in desperate need of some bookshelf space in this house, but I'm starting to have nightmares about being buried under piles of books. That can't be good.

And even when I'm not actually shelling out cash for books, new ones still end up on the stack--gifts, mooches, books borrowed from the library. You see? I just can't stop myself...

Here are a few of the books that have made their way to my stack recently, without my having broken my resolution...

Away, by Amy Bloom. A good friend had an extra copy...bonus for me!

Martha Quest, by Doris Lessing. A holiday gift from my sister-in-law.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. Borrowed from a friend.

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. Another gift.

Even without buying, I've already got so many great things to read in 2008. How 'bout you?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End is the story of life in an advertising agency in Chicago, in the post-internet boom years, but pre-9/11, when corporate downsizing was everyone’s greatest fear. The book has been touted as a hilarious look at office life, and it certainly is, but I think Ferris achieves more here—he writes a good story.

Certainly this is the best book about the mind-numbing boredom of office life that I’ve ever read (and I've worked in plenty of mind-numbing office jobs). Which is another way of saying Ferris has converted all of the wonderful, horrible details of life in an office into good entertainment. The tone is pitch-perfect, as Ferris takes a risk and writes in first-person plural, narrating as “we”, throughout, and he relates the best gossipy, petty, and sometimes silly behavior of these office mates with relish and great style.

But though a truly funny book about the politics and pettiness at the office might be a fun read, I also found an underlying depth to the story that made it just a little bit more. Ferris seems to be skimming along, telling the stories of these everymen, these people we’ve all worked with, but actually the stories all become very moving, and I suddenly came to realize Ferris is dealing with all the big issues, too: mid-life crises, cancer, the death of a child, mental illness—it’s all in there.

And the ending, which I won’t give away here, really brings it all together for me. I have to admit I was surprised that this was on so many “top books of 2007” lists, but upon reflection, I see why it is there. While not laugh-out-loud funny, it is sly and smart and a spot-on look at human nature, and there is more here than first meets the eye.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Everybody's Doing It...

Most of my book-blogging buddies have done a recap of their 2007 reading. I wanted to do a little year-end reading wrap-up, too, but I’m too lazy to count up the books I’ve read. However, I admire all you bloggers who have done that—I love poking around your statistics, and wondering at the amazing amounts and variety of books that you all have read.

I’ve had a very satisfying reading year. I’ve read many good books recommended by fellow bloggers. I’ve also participated in reading challenges for the first time, though I’ve yet to complete any of them fully!

Here are a few of my favorite books from 2007, in no particular order.  If I wrote about them, then I linked to my review:

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver

How did your reading go in 2007? What are you looking forward to reading in 2008?

Friday, January 4, 2008

Free Rice

One of the great things about blogging is the unexpected places it takes you. I was checking blogs yesterday, and on stefanie’s site she mentioned bloglily’s site.  While exploring bloglily's excellent blog, which was new to me, I saw that she had been enriching her vocabulary on free rice.

It’s a little game where you test your vocabulary, and for every correct answer, this organization donates 20 grains of rice through the United Nations to end world hunger.

How great to waste a little time on the net improving my vocabulary and feeding the hungry at the same time. I was immediately hooked.

There are 50 levels, but apparently it’s rare to get above 48. I got really cocky when I ran across a bunch of words I learned from reading Jane Austen, and got up to level 47, but then I fell lower and now hover around 45, because I’m sorry, there are some crazy words on this quiz. For example, I’ve never before run across the word “sutler”, and had no idea that it means “provisioner”. But the strange and interesting thing about this game is that you sometimes know what a word means without exactly knowing why—probably because you know the Latin root or carry the word around in the recesses of your brain from some long-ago reading experience--but it’s rather magical when it happens.

So enjoy saving the world, one word at a time!

Update--on stefanie's site today, she has a good review of a book I want to read, The Uncommon Reader: A Novella, by Alan Bennett--check it out.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham

My first book for the Outmoded Authors Challenge was Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (Signet Classics), a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man’s long road to emotional maturity. I really enjoyed Maugham’s straightforward writing style, and I was drawn into the story by Maugham’s finely detailed characterization of Philip Carey, a young man stigmatized by a clubfoot, and looking for the love he never received as an orphaned boy.

I found the book truly compelling, mostly because Maugham creates a main character that is so completely human. His failings are so easy to relate to. I found him likeable even when I was mentally urging him not to make this or that self-destructive decision. And even when I was annoyed with Philip’s choices, they were such great examples of the choices all humans are faced with, the lessons all humans learn or don’t learn over their lifetimes, that I could easily relate to them.

It is fascinating to watch a young man struggle against the conventions and expectations of his time. Philip is a sensitive young man who finds the empty piety of his native religion unbearable, and cannot find a comfortable way to be an English "gentleman". He tries to break away from these conventions of society, but cannot easily find a philosophy or way of living that works for him, or fills the spiritual void he has. And the physical world betrays him, too. He cannot find work that is meaningful to him, and at one point in the book, he nearly starves.

Philip's disastrous relationship with the cruel and vulgar Mildred shows Philip that happiness in love is not the answer to the meaning of life, either. He lets go of that expectation (as a good Buddhist would) and though it doesn't solve all his problems, he comes that much closer to a measure of freedom. In fact, I felt Maugham's presence at my shoulder at times, saying, "Let go, my child, let go." Okay, I added that for effect, but you get what I mean.

Over the course of reading it, I nicknamed this novel “Of Human Frailty”, because all of its characters are so very deeply flawed. Maugham gives us a version of humanity with no sugar coating. As I thought back over the female characters in the novel, and realized they were all either vain, simpletons, fools, cruel or just completely self-centered, I wanted to accuse Maugham of misogyny, but then I surveyed the male characters, and realized I would have to call Maugham a misanthrope instead. But as much as most of the characters were wretched human beings, when Philip does get aid and succor from decent human beings, it is as truly surprising to the reader as it is to Philip, and that makes it all the more satisfying.

With that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Though Maugham’s portrayal of the fallibility and frailties of human beings is rather bleak, he made me truly care about his substitute, Philip Carey. Philip’s journey is mesmerizing—I found myself deeply involved in this book, and thinking about my own ideas about free will and emotional bondage. And though the ending is ostensibly a happy one, this book raises more questions than it answers, which makes it a classic and one that I will read again.

cross-posted at the Outmoded Authors Challenge.