Apr 30, 2014

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I read this for my bookstore's book club and absolutely loved it. It's the story of Ursula, born in England in 1910; plain enough, but there's a twist: when she dies, she goes back to her birth and lives another life. Sometimes she dies as a baby or a child, sometimes as an old woman, sometimes as a young woman, and every time she lives, her life is a little different. It's a study in what-ifs, a paean to our human propensity to hypotheticals. I loved Atkinson's writing; her characters are just so very British, and she does an amazing job describing situations as unthinkable as the London Blitz, or the Allied bombing of Berlin. It's a long book, but took me only a few days to read because I couldn't put it down. I was worried about it being repetitious, but the perspectives are so different each time that it wasn't boring at all. This novel definitely makes me want to read Atkinson's other books.

Apr 23, 2014

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen

I have never read Matthiessen before, though I know his work, both fiction and nonfiction, by reputation. He just passed away a week or so ago, so close to the publishing date of this book. It's not normally the kind of book I pick up, but I now know his reputation to be quite justified. He's known particularly for his nature and adventure writing, but wrote several novels as well. "In Paradise" is the story of Dr. Clements Olin, a Polish-born American professor who travels to Auschwitz in search of answers about his past, and loosely attaches himself to a spiritual retreat there, the first of its kind. I tend to stay away from WWII books, but I'm immensely glad I read this one. The people on the retreat are raw, angry, not the beatific presences one expects from the word "retreat." The different nationalities bite at each other, as all try to comprehend the unutterable evil of the Holocaust. Some of the participants are downright disgusting, but it forces the reader to question whether s/he would react any differently. What can one do, in the face of all that? Olin's struggle, that of one among the many, becomes representative of how we each must deal with that history on two levels: the universal and the personal. Even then, comprehension is elusive. This book impressed me deeply, and I will surely be picking up his earlier works to read.

Scatterbrain, by Larry Niven

"Scatterbrain" is a collection; there are a couple short stories and excerpts from Niven's novels, but mostly it's full of random pieces. There are essays, recollections, email exchanges, lists of rules. To anyone who isn't a Niven fan, it's basically gibberish, but it was fun for me to read. I especially found interesting his comments on collaboration, since I have never been as much a fan of his collaborative works as of his solo writing. It's a cool little book for Niven fans, though I wouldn't recommend it for anyone else.

Apr 16, 2014

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers

I read this novel in one day flat, which I can't remember having done in forever. I don't think that is because it's an amazing book, though I did very much like it. Mostly it's just incredibly readable: the spacing is wide and dialogue is marked by long dashes instead of small quotation marks, each chapter starts halfway down the page with a blank page facing it. Usually plot-driven books read quickly, though this isn't really that. We spend most of our time in Alan's head, as he remembers the missteps he made while encouraging American companies to move their manufacturing to Asia, or when he met his ex-wife, or composing letters to his college-aged daughter.

Alan is in Saudi Arabia with three much younger colleagues. They represent a company that is submitting a bid to do IT for a new city, one which is rising from the desert, much like Dubai. He's excited by the prospect, the effort to create something great from nothing, but he has no real place in this new world, an old-school salesmen like him. Aside from his daughter, his life is empty, he's made bad decisions, his redundancy is a direct result of his own work. I really did enjoy reading this book - something about it spoke to me - but I have a feeling either it works for you or it doesn't. I can see the sparse language and quickness of the story failing to hold some people's attention. For me, though, I continue to enjoy Eggers' fiction, and look forward to reading more of it.

The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld is, among other things, a journalist who focuses on death row and the death penalty. Her message in this book is obvious: the penal system is horrific, and desperately needs reform. It's an important message, and I think choosing fiction as her medium was a smart way to get it noticed, but I feel rather bashed over the head with it. The writing itself is good, particularly in the parts in which we follow "the lady," a woman whose job is to find enough evidence to get a reprieve of the death sentence for her clients. But the prison parts are just awful. I guess that's the point, and perhaps it's willfully naive of me to rebel against reading such terrible things as repeated prison rape, guard corruption, and almost laughably substandard medical care. There are few people I could suggest this book to, few customers I know who would be able to handle the horror contained in this little novel. And it's a shame, because Denfeld is trying to make a very important case, and she clearly has the skill to do it. But reading is my escape, just as it is for our death-sentenced narrator, Arden; I get enough horror in the daily news, I don't want it from my fiction as well.

The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings

We've all been there: caught up in a conversation, you accidentally trip up on your own tongue and use the wrong word, or conjugate the verb incorrectly. The point you're trying to make is all but forgotten as your conversational partner gets hung up on your silly mistake, and you can practically feel the judgment radiating from them. Hitchings' book is about the history of just that situation, how people obsessed with proper language are not a new phenomenon. But language, Hitchings points out, is hardly static. It is in flux constantly, as evidenced by the words we now have in our dictionaries that did not exist two hundred years ago, or words that existed as recently as fifty years ago that have now fallen out of normal usage and will probably leave the English language soon. Grammatical rules have changed greatly, as well, though some have hung on tenaciously, like the dreaded double negative. Hitchings explores the way language theory has developed, arguing that those who make any comment about usage are often buying into a particular notion of socio-economic class. Derision over language is used to mock those in the upper echelons as well as the lower classes, with no attention paid to the fact that language is as changeable as the people who use it. It's a very interesting book, quite funny at times and illuminating something we use everyday but think about very little. I even learned a few new words, myself!

Apr 2, 2014

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

I am not, apparently, a big fan of incomplete sentences. They're distracting, taking me out of the flow of the writing and making me reread what I just finished in case the lack of grammar was all in my head. That's my only real complaint about "The Flamethrowers," however, my bookstore's next book club selection.

The novel is broken up into two alternating stories: first we have a girl known only by the nickname Reno, a young woman who moves to New York in the 1970s to try to become a serious artist. Then we have Valera, the Italian father of Reno's older boyfriend, who lived through two world wars and came out at the top of the industrial and socio-economic pyramid. It's a brilliant juxtaposition and interaction, the heady art scene of New York and the socialist uprisings of Italian youth. Which is more real? Which is more important? People die, and dissimulate, and deceive, for all kinds of reasons. Kushner's writing is extremely deliberate, creating a dense reading experience that is sometimes a bit difficult to push through, but well worth it. I wouldn't call this book a favorite of mine, but I do appreciate its artistry and the way it makes me think about topics I'd otherwise skim over, and it will undoubtedly make for a fascinating discussion.