Monday, April 16, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, a review

I just finished reading Julian Barnes's novel, The Sense of an Ending, and I loved how it kept me guessing. I love Barnes's writing, and here he really impressed me with his craftsmanship. It's the story of how a man, Tony Webster looks at his youth through the lens of late middle age, confronting his past, and changeable and unreliable memory, in the process. So as Tony examines his memories, and truths that he never knew about are revealed, the story, in Barnes's somewhat restrained style, becomes a bit of a mysterious page-turner. It was a nice combination of thought-provoking, subtle, and entertaining.

As a woman in middle age, I loved that the book made me really think about aging, regret, and remorse. It also made me ponder the idea that we are, at best, unreliable narrators of our own lives. And the book was disturbing in that it made me think about self-delusion, and how easy it is to think you are one kind of person, when maybe you are not. Ah, human frailty, how universal you are.

I did have one strange thing happen while reading it. I read it as an e-book, and because I was powering through it, I never checked how far I was actually getting in the book, and the ending took me by surprise. It felt a little abrupt, but I don't think I would have felt that way had I been reading a paper edition, and anticipating the ending as it got physically closer. And it was a book that I didn't want to end. Barnes left me there, wondering what effect the knowledge Tony gained would have on the rest of his life. The ending was elegant, and satisfying in that it left me sitting there, staring off into space, putting all the little pieces of the story back together in my head, armed as I now was with more knowledge. But it also left me wanting just a little bit more. And isn't that how the best books are?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

RIP Adrienne Rich

Last week, American poet Adrienne Rich died at 82 of complications from rheumatoid arthritis. She is one of the first feminists I remember reading, and the poem I remember reading first was this one:

Aunt Jennifer's Tigers

Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

Aunt Jennifer's fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring Break Reading

On spring break, my son is madly reading The Hunger Games trilogy before going to see the movie. He finished the first book in a day, and is now chugging through the second. The third is waiting on his nightstand.

I've got a few things picked out for spring break reading, as well.

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese has been on my radar screen for awhile now, and I finally picked up a copy.

My cousin recommended the memoir Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, about a 30-something woman with no direction who hikes part of the Pacific Crest Trail. I've always been intrigued by the Pacific Crest Trail, ever since visiting Yosemite as a child and learning about John Muir and his hiking the Sierras. The 211-mile John Muir Trail overlaps the Pacific Crest Trail for most of its length, but the Pacific Crest Trail stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, along the mountainous crest of the Cascade mountain range and the Sierra Nevada range, and then through the Mojave Desert. Someday I'd like to take on at least a portion of the trail!

And the lovely Ti at Book Chatter reviewed a novel called Heft, by Liz Moore, that I'm now dying to read. It's about an unlikely family formed by an overweight professor, his past female student, and her troubled son. Ti mentioned that it might be a good follow-up to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, which my son and I both enjoyed. It's just about to come out in paperback, fortunately. Ti, I'm on it!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What I've read over the last few months

Here's a list of the books I've read recently:

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta--I really enjoyed Perrotta's writing, and the idea was really original. I liked that he doesn't present easy answers to the dilemma he poses, just lets his characters experience the aftermath of his crazy set-up: that there has been a "rapture", and some of us have been left behind...

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman--I liked this better than I thought I would. It's the story of several women who experience the siege of Masada, in the first century CE. I was impressed with Hoffman's evocation of the historical period, and loved her depictions of the practices of women at this time.

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck--I had read this years ago, and did not remember how good it was. Steinbeck was an amazing creator of characters, and portrays with humor and empathy the wonderfully flawed human beings who live on Cannery Row.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka--Haunting and poetic, this book was a surprise to me. Otsuka somehow makes the plural voice work, and though the reader doesn't get to know the characters individually, it somehow comes together as a sad, intimate portrait of the Japanese picture brides who came to California in the 1920s.

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons--I had seen and enjoyed this movie years ago, so I wanted to read the book. A comic nod to Victorian novels, the adventures of Flora Poste as she sets about to better the lives of her shockingly backward distant cousins are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides--A book group read the group was mixed on. Some beautifully written passages, some complaints about the plot. I liked the ending because it was a nod to Jane Austen, but no fairy tale.

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson--Another arresting premise, about two kids who grew up in a family of performance artists, where they had to participate in their parents' sometimes disturbing stunts. I liked reading it as a giant metaphor for dysfunctional families, and I liked where the plot took me.

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion--Joan Didion's follow-up to her memoir of the year after her husband's sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking, this raw memoir is about the death of her daughter, which she had to endure only two years later. I had to get over the idea that this would be a profoundly depressing read, but Didion's language overcomes the grimness of the subject matter, and her meditations on aging, motherhood, life and death are poetic.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach--Not really about baseball, thank goodness. More about college life, love and friendship. Another book group pick, which everyone liked.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky--(inspired by my 15-year-old son, who read it all in one day) A modern classic of troubled teendom and outsiderhood. This reminds me how much I hated being a teenager. That said, I'm glad my son read it and related to it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day read

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'm beginning John Banville's novel The Sea. It's something I've wanted to read forever, not just because it won the Man Booker, but because so many people say Banville's writing is strange and beautiful.

Also, it's a stormy day here, and I think the book will fit my mood. Maybe I'll bake some soda bread and have some tea while I read.

The first line is pretty good: "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hello again, and the 100 Best First Lines of Novels

So I quit blogging for the last six months or so, not for any terrible reason, but out of inertia. I guess I needed a break, and seem to have lost the urgency previously driving me to write about books. I've certainly still been reading books, and thinking about books--just not writing about them. But I miss my blogging friends, which are really the best thing to come out of blogging, for me, so I thought I would check back in and see everyone.

My wonderful book group just finished The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, which we all enjoyed--much to the surprise of those who thought the novel was actually going to be about baseball. Unfortunately, at our meeting we did not pick a book to read next. If we don't pick right away, it tends to stymie us, and we send several hundred emails back and forth debating the potential pros and cons of many options. I think we have finally settled on Swamplandia, by Karen Russell. I hope so, as it's looking like an interesting novel.

I ran across this article about the 100 Best First Lines of Novels. There is nothing better than a clever or memorable first line in a novel, and this collection was fun to look through.

Number 2 on the list is probably my favorite: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

Five and six are favorites as well:

5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. - Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

There are many other first lines I love on the list, as well as a bunch I didn't remember, or had never even heard of. Tell me some of your favorite first lines! Do you know any by heart?