Mar 29, 2014

The Best American Short Stories 2011, ed. by Geraldine Brooks

So I'm a little behind the times. Luckily, short stories don't go bad, and these truly are some incredible stories. I particularly can't stop thinking about "The Sleep" by Caitlin Horrocks, where an entire town takes to hibernating during the winter months. "Escape from Spiderhead" by George Saunders was also one of my favorites, taking place in a science fiction universe where convicts can opt into serving out their sentence as guinea pigs for drug tests. I really love short stories, and don't read them as often as I should. I think a good short story can be more arresting than a good full-length novel. Such impact packed into only a few pages affects me more than an equally well-written novel. I have an immense appreciation for a good short story, and thoroughly enjoyed reading this compilation.

Mar 24, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

So I guess modern retellings of fairy tales is a thing now, like how Hollywood in the 90s and 00s had a thing with retelling Shakespeare plays. And if my love of The Lunar Chronicles and this positively delicious retelling of Snow White are any indication, I am fully on board with this trend. Boy is our first narrator, a young white woman in her early twenties who escapes her abusive father and hides out in small town New England. Snow is her stepdaughter, breathtakingly beautiful and innocent at seven years old, whom Boy sends away to live with an aunt in Boston. Bird is Boy's daughter, born with unmistakable black features, thus revealing Boy's husband's family to be black Southerners passing as white. You'd think that would be plenty of drama, but the action of "Boy, Snow, Bird" takes place in the unique minds of Boy and Bird. The Snow White references are clear - Boy sometimes catches herself smiling at her own reflection - but in the end, the story is about women coming together for each others' sake. The writing is fantastic, very funny at times and deeply moving. Oyeyemi is a formidable talent, and I'd love to read more of her work in the future.

Mar 23, 2014

I Hadn't Understood, by Diego de Silva

This Italian novel is published by Europa Editions, a press that specializes in bringing exceptional foreign language novels to English readers. It's a wonderful book, funny and moving and existential. Vincenzo, our (somewhat anti-)hero is 42, a struggling lawyer who's been separated from his wife for two years and shares with her a stepdaughter and a son. He's a bit of a bumbler - smart, no doubt, but rather locked up in his own world, and he rarely thinks before he speaks, often surprising himself with what comes out of his mouth. His ex-wife, though she has a live-in boyfriend, still occasionally calls him for sex, which is complicated by the unforeseen and utterly shocking attraction a particularly beautiful colleague shows in him. Add onto this his appointment as the defense attorney for a man involved in the Camorra (i.e. mafia) and a son who keeps showing up to school having been visibly beaten, and Vincenzo is in for a rough week.

De Silva has written other novels, plays and screenplays, and that background shows in this work. It's written a bit like a movie, even referencing how things would have played out had Vincenzo been, in fact, in a movie, or his observation that we seem to instinctively and subconsciously imitate Hollywood in our daily lives. It's a gimmick that mostly works, only falling flat very occasionally. It's a great book, fun to read and with an utterly endearing protagonist, and I'd like to note as well that you really can't go wrong with Europa Editions books.

Mar 16, 2014

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson

I'm not entirely sure why, but I really liked this little novel. Perhaps it's the straightforward writing, the way Thompson says exactly what's happening and what Kemp is seeing and the way he's feeling. Or perhaps it just felt appropriate, given the mini-heat wave we're having here in California. Or maybe it's that I can empathize with Kemp's own particular brand of wanderlust, a need to be elsewhere without actually knowing where or why or what he should be doing. Whatever it is, I really enjoyed this novel of the Caribbean and San Juan, of rum and palms, of racism and imperialism and patriotism. It definitely makes me want to read more of Thompson's work (though I have little desire to see the Johnny Depp movie version).

Mar 15, 2014

Mount Terminus, by David Grand

I tried, I really did. I fell in love with the first few pages of this book, but then it gets bogged down and I'm embarrassed to say I couldn't get past 150 pages. It took me a long while to figure out that it's about the beginning of Hollywood, an oversight that's understandable given the crazy backstory we get at the start of the book. At first, I was charmed by Grand's lush writing, but the depression his character Rosenbloom wraps himself in seems to seep through the pages, and I could barely read five pages without my eyes drooping. I love the story, I really do, but there's very little dialogue and what little there is lacks quotation marks (perhaps this is a trait only of the Advanced Reader's Copy I have, I'll have to see whether they're added into the final version). There's just far too much description and not nearly enough plot to keep me interested in all 365 pages of the book. It's a true writer's book, meant for someone who spends their time and makes their living studying language and writing. I, alas, am not such a one, and I can only wish I had the patience to get through it.

Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore

I love the characters Christopher Moore creates. They're absurd and hilarious, heartbreaking and relatable. This is one of Moore's most popular books, a clash-of-cultures/true-love tale of Samuel Hunter, a fast-talking insurance salesman, who was born Samson Hunts Alone, a full-blooded Crow Indian with a dark secret in his past. His spirit animal, unfortunately for him, is Old Man Coyote, the trickster of the Indian pantheon. The beginning of the story finds Sam meeting Calliope, an incredibly beautiful young woman who is exactly how you'd imagine someone who's mother switched religions at a prodigious rate during her childhood. Sam falls head over heels, even as Old Man Coyote manages to destroy the last twenty years of Sam's carefully constructed life in the course of a single day. This book isn't as uproariously funny as some of Moore's others, but it's one of the best written. Like "Sacre Bleu," it's a bit more subtle, with characters you really come to care about instead of merely laugh at. I'm having a great time discovering all the different modes of Christopher Moore, and as always, look forward to reading more.

Mar 13, 2014

Cress, by Marissa Meyer

The third installment of The Lunar Chronicles is based on Rapunzel, and it's fantastic. Meyer got back to a good balance between action and introspection as we follow Cress's escape from her prison-like satellite onto Earth. Suddenly faced with the vastness of a planet after seven years in what essentially amounted to solitary confinement, Cress is a believable mixture of excited, terrified, and curious. We alternate her story with Emperor Kai and Cinder's. Just as exciting as the first two, "Cress" was hugely enjoyable to read, and I'll be awaiting #4 with great anticipation.

Mar 9, 2014

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

Well, this was certainly a challenge. It took me two days to get through the preface alone, and I'll admit I merely scanned the appendix. This is Eggers' first book, a memoir (mostly) that launched him onto the national literary stage. Most of the praise is deserved; it's completely unique, a look inside someone's brain where that brain doesn't work quite the same way as most. Or maybe it does, we just aren't self-aware enough to have the ability or courage to write it down and publish it. It's overwhelming at times. Imagine spending a week inside someone else's mind, hearing all their thoughts, their paranoia, fantasies, fears. Then imagine that person being a bit too smart for his own good, a narcissist with a fatal mixture of low self-esteem. Add onto that the fact his parents both died of cancer within five weeks of each other and, at the age of 23, he's raising his 7-year-old brother. The book is pretty much the definition of metacognition, an act of literary masturbation in which Eggers alternately tries to convince himself that he is a terrible parental substitute and his brother will inevitably end up dead, or that he's the most amazing parent who ever lived and his brother is incredibly lucky to have him. It's a very interesting read, but I'm glad Eggers now sticks to fiction, because I don't think I could handle another heartbreaking work, be it of staggering genius or not.

Mar 5, 2014

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

We're reading this for my bookstore's book club this month, which I think is a great pick since so many people either have never read it and only seen the Disney movie or read it when they were children and haven't revisited it since. I'm in the latter category, and was surprised at how little I remembered of the book but how much I remembered of the movie. The aspect of "Alice" that strikes me most is how close an approximation it is to a child's imagination. I remember, as an only child, having parties with my dolls and stuffed animals, voicing all the characters and having full discussions, even arguments between them. My plastic indoor play structure became a castle more times than I can count. And Alice's characteristic of always trying to show off all her knowledge and how clever she is (when she usually gets it wrong) is classic child behavior. It's really quite amazing, how Carroll - who had no children of his own - captures the imaginative ramblings of youth. There is, of course, all the speculation about whether Carroll was in fact a pedophile, mostly encouraged by his numerous pictures and paintings of young girls, though it's something no one has been able to prove for sure. Either way, this should be an interesting discussion at our meeting.