Jul 31, 2014

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

This is the first, and last, Stephen King book I will read. Some people get a thrill reading about gruesome murders and horrific rapes; I am clearly not one of those people. This is a collection of four short stories, novellas, really, though I could only read three of them and had to skip part of one of those. Graphic violence really does nothing for me. I've heard a lot of people really love King's writing, and while I did think the first story was well-written, the other stories didn't stand out to me. I can't even really remember the third, and I read it mere days ago. Fantasy or sci-fi violence doesn't affect me the same way modern violence does; chopping off heads with swords isn't something I would read in the newspaper, whereas King's stories seem totally plausible. But reading is my escape, and I have no interest in reading about something in my spare time - and for pleasure - that sounds like it could actually happen. I know that horrible people do terrible things to each other, but I don't want to think about it any more than I absolutely have to.

On a similar note, I also tried reading Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent," which has been recommended to me on several occasions. I got about thirty pages in before running into the same problem: I just don't want to read about a public prosecutor being raped and murdered in her own home. There's nothing titillating or interesting about that to me. So I think I'll stay away from horror and mysteries from now on.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

I really enjoyed this book that has become a teen classic over the last 14 years since its publication. I think it may be "The Catcher in the Rye" of our generation, only with a far more likable main character. Fifteen-year-old Charlie is a precocious, lonely boy with a whole lot of brains and a whole lot of feelings. He befriends (or is befriended by) a group of older teens who come to love Charlie's awkwardness because they see the wonderful intent behind it. Charlie just wants to be a good friend, though sometimes he takes that a bit too far, a potential flaw that his older crush points out. He wants to please everyone so badly that his own needs and desires become background noise. This, and other emotional issues, are explained towards the end of the book in a slowly dawning, yet still shocking revelation. It's an ambitious novel, both in subject and in form (Charlie tells his story in letters to an unnamed "friend"), and Chbosky's ambition pays off in a big way. I can understand why this book has touched a lot of people and continues to be a well-read staple of teen literature.

Jul 23, 2014

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris

David Sedaris really is a magnificent essayist. There's not a single one of the chapters in this book that isn't funny and poignant and expertly crafted. He has the kind of writing skill (and memory) that booksellers dream of: oh, the stories we could tell about our bookstores, if only we could write as well as Sedaris. I had the distinct pleasure of hearing him speak at my college several years ago, and hearing his voice and delivery in my head while reading his essays only makes them better. His essays definitely have a pattern - funny story about himself or a family member, then incredibly touching and insightful denouement at the very end - which with other writes would seem trite, but with Sedaris, the knowledge of what will come at the end increases one's anticipation of it, as well as the humor of the rest of the story. I need to read his work more often.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

A group of us at the bookstore (employees and customers) decided that we'd always wanted to read "Anna Karenina" but never quite got up the motivation to do so, and that scheduling a book club to discuss it would provide the proper instigation. Having finished this tome of 19th Century Russian literature, I'm still a little unsure of what to say about it. I enjoyed it, but without having read much else that was contemporary, I can't tell what is distinctly Tolstoy and what is merely cultural. As a history major, I definitely liked peeking into a society and time so very different from my own: Russian society is a fascinating subject, and the length of the novel allows one to become almost familiar with it.

At several junctures, I pondered why Tolstoy chose to call it "Anna Karenina," since the eponymous character is really only one of several main characters. Towards the end of the book, I realized that it's because her actions produce a profound effect on each of the other main characters' lives. Also, I'm pretty sure she is bipolar, or manic-depressive, or suffers from some such kind of mental illness. Anna is capricious and even cruel at times, violently self-centered and needy. As the book goes on, reading her sections becomes rather more painful, whereas the sections focusing on Kitty, Levin, or Oblonsky are far more pleasing. I suppose this is the point.

I'm interested to hear what the others have to say about it, though I think "War and Peace" would have provided us more fodder for discussion. I've heard many people list it as one of the best, if not the all-time best, novels ever written, so that will definitely have to be tackled at some point.

Jul 11, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

I picked up the advanced reader's copy of this book with some trepidation, though the premise intrigued me: "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932" is built around a famous photograph of a lesbian couple at a nightclub known for its boundary-pushing clientele, and was taken by a young Hungarian photographer. The picture can be seen at https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRYxWtsv4-ZdiVMzbSDfxOdABsxOeJd8pZHfm3a8xKInXeG7qmI. Sorry for the website gibberish. Prose doesn't just write a novel, she uses several different invented mediums to tell a fascinating story. The book centers on Lou Villars, a champion race car driver and butch lesbian who becomes an informant and torturer for the German occupiers of France during World War II (yes, I've read of lot of WWII books lately, I think I'll hold off on more of those for a while). We read from a biography of Lou written by the grand-niece of an acquaintance of hers; we read letters from the photographer sent to his devoted parents back in Hungary; we read from published and unpublished memoirs of ex-pat writers and French industrialists. All of these people circle around Lou in some fashion, and each has a distinctive voice.

Prose's accomplishment is incredible. I had thought of her as sort of a thinking woman's chick lit writer, but this book proves me very wrong (and I'm not sure how I even came to that assumption in the first place). Her writing is hilarious in many places, poignant in others, and she demonstrates a remarkable ability for concocting many different voices convincingly. It really makes you think about what convolutions a person's brain will twist into in order to justify his or her actions, and whether evil is really so simple a concept as it seems. I was enthralled by this book, and am left with a sincere desire to read her previous works as well.

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

I've been hearing for months about this book, with other booksellers saying it's one of the best books they've read in a long time. This is extremely high praise from booksellers, so I had very high expectations for this novel. "All The Light We Cannot See" takes place before and during World War II. We follow Marie-Laure, a Parisian girl who goes blind at age six, and whose loving father constructs a model of their neighborhood so she can confidently get around on her own. Her father is also the locksmith at the natural history museum, and most of the action revolves around the possibility that, on the eve of Germany's invasion of Paris, he is entrusted with a priceless gem from the museum's collection. At the same time, we follow Werner, an orphan in Germany who has a particular genius for radios. He's drafted into the Hitler Youth, then quickly sent to the front to help triangulate insurgent radio transmissions. The chapters are very short, and we bounce back and forth between these two characters, with a couple of additional points of view thrown in every now and then. My favorite parts were Doerr's description of Marie-Laure's blindness, the way she experiences the world: in sets of numbers, in sounds and feelings from her deft fingers. It's a beautiful book, and astonishingly well-researched. I wouldn't say that it's one of the best books I've read in a while, but I certainly think it's very good, and would readily recommend it to most readers.

Mirrored Time, by J.D. Faulkner

Full disclosure: Faulkner is a very good friend of mine, so I've tried to remain unbiased while reading this, her first self-published novel.
"Mirrored Time" is a fantasy novel about a criss-crossed timeline and a young woman trying to find her place in life. It's a good first effort, fun to follow, with a clever backstory and premise. Like most first novels, it's a bit choppy at times, and (though this may be only because I know the author well) I thought her writing voice sounds a bit too much like her speaking voice. Every writer has his/her particular style, and I'm certainly not saying that she should erase hers, but I expect that over time, it will develop itself more fully and become less recognizably "her." The twist at the end was great and a good cliffhanger, while remaining satisfying, that makes us want to read the next installment. I look forward to reading more of Faulkner's work and watching her writing develop.