Sunday, April 10, 2011

Great book title challenge!

This cool book title challenge on Midnight Book Girl's site really inspired me!

Here are my entries:

 "In spite of the gods, the diviners speak: ask again later."

"Husband and wife, kiss, kiss, best friends forever!"

"20th Century ghosts march in a perfect world."

So much fun!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Atwood Trilogy!

Hooray!  In an interview with GalleyCat, Margaret Atwood said she plans to write a third novel to form a trilogy with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood.  That is definitely something to look forward to!  In my opinion, you can never have too much post-apocalyptic fiction.

It will also be interesting to see how she moves the story forward in a third novel; Year of the Flood showed the world-changing events of Oryx and Crake from a completely different perspective.  It made me want to go back and read the first novel again, because so much more was going on than was immediately apparent.

That aspect of the books reminded me of The Sparrow, a brilliant novel by Mary Doria Russell.  It was obvious what had happened to the unfortunate first contact team in that story, until you read the sequel, Children of God, and realize how much even the participants in the events of the first book misunderstood and misread what was happening to them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Book Review:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (August 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374158460
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374158460

Jonathan Franzen manages to provoke such strong reactions that it's difficult for me to form an opinion of his work free of the aftertaste of controversy.  This was certainly true when The Corrections came out in 2001; after Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her book club, Franzen made controversial remarks about her viewers and seemed to fear that having an Oprah sticker on the front cover of his novel would drive away his true audience, those who presumably don't watch daytime talk shows.  Oprah subsequently withdrew her invitation.

Franzen's apparent lack of appreciation for all Oprah has done for books and authors annoyed me so much that I actively avoided The Corrections until years later, and only conceded to buy it when I found a used copy for $2.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered a very well written, emotionally engaging account of a dysfunctional family; in other words, a perfect fit for Oprah's book club.  Ulysses it was not.

Fast-forward to the year 2010, when I open my mailbox to see that Time has declared Franzen the Great American Novelist.  Presumably Time made this declaration in large part to stir up controversy and sell magazines, not to actually place the crown of greatness on Franzen's head to the exclusion of all other living American authors.  Still, the cover gave me a knee-jerk sensation of dislike.  Franzen's latest novel, Freedom, wasn't even in stores yet and already I wanted to hate it.  

Just to make things more interesting, a tweet from author Jodi Picoult (with subsequent backup from Jennifer Weiner) took the New York Times to task for giving so much attention to writers like Franzen while ignoring women and genre-fiction authors.  A Huffington Post interview with Picoult and Weiner makes clear they don't have an issue with Franzen specifically, but once again Franzen appeared as the poster child for literary elitism.  Someone even took the time to make a fake Twitter feed under the name Emperor Franzen.

Now that I've read Freedom for myself, I am once again bemused by the incredible amount of attention this author manages to generate.  Don't get me wrong--it's a very good book.  It has believable, engaging characters.  It asks big questions about how to live and how to be a good person.  The story manages to include mountaintop removal, the war in Iraq and the threat to songbirds from non-native house cats, all in a sweeping family epic of disappointment, betrayal, anger and forgiveness.  

Patty, a former basketball star and stay-at-home mom, loves her husband Walter, a Minnesotan with passionate views about social justice and the environment. Richard Katz, Walter's former college roommate, also loves Walter for his goodness; he inspires in Katz the desire to be a better man himself, although clearly it doesn't always work.  Somehow, though, I never loved Walter the way Patty and Richard do.  It became increasingly hard for me to understand or sympathize with Patty and Walter's relationship; not that it wasn't believable, just crushingly depressing and frustrating to watch.  The novel's ending at least offered some solace, but it was hard not to think of those wasted years and cringe.

Is it the great American novel for the 21st century?  If I have to answer right now, I'm going with no.  I liked it, but I'm not sure I'll remember the details by this time next year.  (Barbara Kingsolver's novel Prodigal Summer, another sweeping novel that asks how to be happy while showing the interconnectedness of life and our environment, was love at first read; I still vividly remember the story, right down to the history of kudzu and the death of the chestnut tree in Appalachia.  I recommend the book at every opportunity.  To me, that's the sign of a great novel, American or otherwise.)  

I do wonder whether I would have liked this book more if I had never heard of Jonathan Franzen.  Did all the crazy hype raise my expectations to unnatural levels, while his persona of snobbery made me secretly want to dislike the book?  Who knows?  It was interesting, though, to read the description of once-obscure rocker Richard Katz as he reacts to hearing his surprise hit album getting airplay on NPR, perhaps the equivalent of losing your literary street cred by making Oprah's book list.  

This book was also notable for its striking descriptions of depression, in all its possible forms.  Most of the main characters in the book suffer from it at some point.  Katz goes back to deck-building to avoid the banality of success, and notes: "He strongly disliked the person he'd just demonstrated afresh that he unfortunately was.  And this, of course, was the simplest definition of depression that he knew of:  strongly disliking yourself."  It reminded me of a quote from Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza: "Hell is the incapacity to be other than the creature one finds oneself ordinarily behaving as."  Most of the people in this book get stuck in exactly that sort of hell, at least for a while, and don't know how to get free of it without hurting the people they love the most.  

  • Genre:  Aspiring Great American Novel 
  • Read it if: you only read books reviewed at least twice by the New York Times, you have strong feelings about the cerulean warbler, or you are powerless in the face of relentless hype
  • Skip it if: reading about depression makes you depressed, or if your child has ever swallowed a penny and you would like to avoid vividly reliving that sensory experience (this time involving a wedding ring!)
  • Movie-worthy:  Sure.  Cast Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman and it will probably be nominated for an Oscar.
[The next day:  Oprah is reportedly picking Freedom for her final book club selection! A nice twist.] 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: Murder Between the Covers by Elaine Viets

Book Review:  Murder Between the Covers by Elaine Viets

Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Signet; First Thus edition (December 2, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0451210816
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451210814

In this second installment in the Dead End Job series by Elaine Viets, poorly paid wage slave Helen has just started a new job at a bookstore called Page Turners.  Unsurprisingly, someone soon turns up dead and it's up to Helen to clear the name of her friend and neighbor before it's too late.

Flawed, likable Helen and the wacky things she encounters in her dead end jobs make this series so appealing; it doesn't take a genius to identify the murderer before Helen does, but most of the fun lies in vicariously experiencing life as a bookstore clerk.  It also helps that Viets has solidly grounded her character's dead end job experiences in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where wacky things seem disproportionately likely to happen in the first place.  

Check out the author's website for an entertaining interview about the research she did for each book, like working in a Barnes & Noble in Hollywood, Florida.

I've already acquired the rest of the books in this series and plan to read them in between heavier literary meals--they're perfect treats when I need a light-hearted read (or when I start to miss working!)  

  • Genre: Mystery for laughs
  • Read it if: you enjoy both Studs Terkel's Working and drinking box wine by the pool
  • Skip it if: you take your murder mysteries very seriously
  • Movie-worthy: would definitely make a fun made-for-TV movie 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: The Chocolate Lovers' Club by Carole Matthews

Book Review:  The Chocolate Lovers' Club by Carole Matthews

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (February 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312376669
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312376666

Warning: don't read this book if you are a recovering chocoholic.  By the end of the first few chapters I was fending off some serious chocolate cravings and spending way too much time thinking about my perfect chocolate (Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight, with 72% cacao, if you must know.)  

Chocolate is the shared obsession and preferred panacea for the group of friends featured in this entertaining novel:  Lucy, the zany Bridget Jonesy first-person narrator, kicks the story off with the latest antics of her faithless boyfriend and introduces the rest of the cast:  Nadia, a stay-at-home mom with a spendthrift husband; Chantal, an American with a wealthy but distant husband; and Autumn, whose ne'er do well brother has shown up at her door, bringing some serious trouble along with him.  The group has not only a deep love of chocolate, but some serious man trouble in common.

Although the perspective shifts to follow the rest of the group, Lucy is the novel's comedic common thread and ensures that no serious plotline will derail the ultimate (mostly) happy ending each woman deserves.  I finished the book with a smile on my face, wishing only that a delicious place like Chocolate Heaven existed in my neighborhood (although my waistline and bank balance would both suffer for it!)

  • Genre:  Choco-chick lit
  • Read it if:  you love Bridget Jones, chocolate, and comeuppance delivered with maximum comedic effect
  • Skip it if: you insist all fiction conform to reality
  • Movie-worthy:  could be a very fun flick, but only if they handed out free chocolate at the door

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Book Review:  The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Night Shade Books (April 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597801585
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597801584

In this stunning vision of an all too plausible future, Bangkok is a city under siege.  Only a series of levees and coal-powered pumps keep the rising oceans from drowning the Thai capital.  All the things we take for granted--oil, free flowing electricity, abundant food--are distant memories.  Genetically engineered foods are both a constant threat, presumed to be the source of horrific plagues, and the only hope for survival.  Thailand has refused to allow the multinationals to take over its food supply, relying instead on a secret cache of seeds; it stands alone, the last unconquered country.

Against this backdrop of sweltering heat and constant threat, humans scheme and plan, oblivious to the larger forces at work.  An ethnic Chinese refugee from genocide in Malaysia, plotting to regain some sliver of the status and power he once possessed; an undercover "calorie man," seeking out Thailand's genetic secrets; an incorruptible Thai officer and his unsmiling deputy; and finally, the "windup girl" of the title, a genetically-engineered woman, created by the Japanese as the ultimate servant, hard-wired to obey.  

For three years, I lived as a farang in Bangkok, and to my inexpert eyes, Bacigalupi does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of Thai culture as it might become in some dystopian future.  More importantly, he creates believable characters who elicit our sympathy despite their deepest flaws. With this book, the author has captured something about the human spirit, the will to survive even when death might be preferable, the urge to strive for something beyond mere survival.  

On the cover of my copy, a blurb from author Lev Grossman declares "I hope he writes 10 sequels."  So do I!

  • Genre: Futuristic tropical dystopia
  • Read it if:  you love Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Blade Runner, or Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
  • Skip it if:  you are squeamish, don't believe in global warming, or dislike seeing lots of foreign words in italics.
  • Movie-worthy:  Yes!  If Christopher Nolan directed, it could be the Blade Runner of the 21st century....

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Book Review:  The Passage by Justin Cronin

  • Hardcover: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; First Edition edition (June 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345504968
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345504968

The moment I heard The Passage described as "The Stand but with vampires," I knew this was a book I had to read.  The end of the world?  Viral vampires?  It sounded like good cheesy fun.

In fact, this was a 100% cheese-free thrill fest with surprising emotional impact, definitely worthy of comparisons to Stephen King's classic.  Cronin sets up a classic horror film conceit, but his literary skill and genuine compassion for even the most villainous characters allows the story to aspire to a higher level of meaning.  Clearly, Cronin hopes to engage the reader in some spiritual thought-provocation; Biblical references crop up regularly, and the vampires roam the Earth in a state of anguish that could easily qualify as damnation.  Only Amy, the unfortunate little girl who is introduced on the very first page of the book, has the power to save them and possibly save the world.  (And isn't the root of the name Amy love? Hmmm...)

Be warned, though:  despite its epic length, The Passage is just the beginning of a longer journey.  The ending leaves no doubt that a sequel (at least) is required to explore the history of life on Earth after the vampires arrive, and the author has mentioned plans for a trilogy.

Justin Cronin has been seemingly everywhere.  Check out a few of the following sites for interviews:  PowellsBooks Blog, Book Page, NPRGood Morning America (Stephen King phones in to praise The Passage during this interview with George Stephanopoulos!)

One sidenote:  relatively early in the story, the Memphis Zoo is described in terms that would make no sane person (or animal lover) want to go there.  For the record, that must be the future pre-apocalypse Memphis Zoo, because the present day zoo is AWESOME.

  • Genre:  Post-apocalyptic vampire epic
  • Read it if:  you love The Stand by Stephen King or World War Z by Max Brooks
  • Skip it if:  you think all vampires should look like Robert Pattinson or Alexander Skarsgard
  • Movie-worthy:  this would make a brillliant movie--if they could do it justice.