Monday, December 28, 2009

City of Thieves, by David Benioff

Okay, I'm messing with the dates here - that's what happens when you're vacationing in a spot with only dial-up internet service! Lots of reading, no posting.

David Benioff is living some kind of charmed and charming life. Talented, handsome, well-paid, respected and sought after. And married to a movie star... Well, as I tell my children almost daily, there is no parity in life.

A quick note on the premise of the book: it is not in fact written about the author's grandfather, that is merely a device to get the story rolling.

Where I heard about this book: Kyle, who I work with, raved about this novel recently. I remembered reading about it, as well, so I rushed right out and put it on hold at the library. Lucky for me I was at the top of the list.

What I thought of this book: I loved it. 5 stars. It's the perfect war novel; it contains disturbing scenes of barbarism and despair, and yet somehow leaves you feeling optimistic about the fate of humanity. I'm pretty suspicious of anything that smacks of a happy ending. This book ends on a high note that rings real and true despite being unlikely, but is sad enough to satisfy. Just what fiction is supposed to do! (It's set during World War Two, for heaven's sake. In Russia.)

What this book is about
: Two extremely young men are caught during the Leningrad siege for unremarkable crimes, and instead of being summarily shot are given 5 days to find a dozen eggs. For the wedding cake of a general's daughter. This during a period when the population is living on library paste and sawdust... What follows are their adventures while on this quest. This is really a story of an unlikely friendship, with an exceptionally vivid and well-drawn backdrop.

Here's a great interview with David Benioff about the book, but I'd wait until after reading the novel to peruse it - lots of spoilers.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Book Thief, by Travis McDade

No, the OTHER Book Thief. This one is a true account of a guy who stole a lot of books. And maps, and manuscripts, and letters.

What I thought of this book
: Well, I liked it okay. Maybe about 3 stars. Maybe only 2 1/2. I did finish it, which I won't if I really don't like the book. Except for the chapter which describes, in exhaustive detail, the history and philosophy of sentencing guidelines. I skipped most of that. I think that this would have been a great long article, rather than short book. It also could have used a really talented editor. And maybe a slightly less biased author. On the other hand, this is a really interesting story, one I'm glad to have discovered.

Where I heard about this book
: I saw it in the library catalog as I was placing a hold on the Markus Zusak book of the same name.

What this book is about
: This is the story of a man called, among other things, Daniel Spiegelman. A canny criminal and apparently all-around unpleasant character who managed to steal hundreds of documents from the rare books library at Columbia. The book describes the crime and the efforts of both librarians and law enforcement to determine who he was and how he'd managed to steal so much stuff without detection. A great deal of the book is given over to the sentencing trial, which takes place in several segments over the course of a year. This leads to an interesting discussion of whether rare and ancient manuscripts should be valued above what they could get in the marketplace. Does the theft of these types of items deprive the world of an opportunity for scholarship that outweighs their mere cash value? The presiding judge in this case seemed to think so.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I Am The Messenger, by Markus Zusak

Here's one of the things I love about YA fiction. Being kind of obvious is perfectly acceptable. Not that there isn't plenty of subtlety in this genre, but it's okay in YA lit to state things simply and elevate underlying themes to the surface. I find it both relaxing and refreshing.

What I thought of this book
: 4 1/2 stars

Where I heard about this book: My sister Sarah Jane is the queen of YA literature. Her recommendations are always great. Including this one.

What this book is about
: A 19 year old boy, living in on the wrong side of the tracks somewhere on the outskirts of Sydney. He considers himself hopeless and pathetic and without a discernible future. Through the magic of fiction, he is given the chance to prove that he is in fact capable, compassionate, and basically the kind of guy we'd all like to be related to.

Ed Kennedy may be my favorite character of the year. This book is charming; the combination of hard realism and magical realism is one that works surprisingly well. Although I have "The Book Thief" on my reading list, I'm now even more interested in Zusak's other books, which also feature young down-on-their-luck men.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

MORE Neil Gaiman

Here's a great piece in which my perennial favorite Neil Gaiman tackles the question "Can you say you've read a book when you've listened to the audio version?" He interviews other authors in his quest for the answer, including the always hilarious David Sedaris.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Swimming, by Nicola Keegan

This book has the distinction of having an acknowledgment section which is every bit as entertaining as the story itself. Not to mention thought-provoking - who is this guy she raves about and to whom she promises forever, when her husband gets only a brief mention?

What I thought of this book
: 5 stars!

Well, maybe 4 7/8. I started to slip slightly near the end, but that may be more my pathological hatred of endings than any fault of the author.

Where I heard about this book
: I can't remember! It was on my goodreads to-read list, so probably one of my friends recommended it.

What this book is about: A swimmer. A very, very good swimmer, who encounters more than her fair share of personal tragedy at a young age. It's about her growing up, about the people who help her grow up, and about how she manages the complicated reality of being grown up.

Swimming is a near-perfect combination of character, story and style. In a speech about the book, Nicola Keegan says that she tried to hate one of her characters, but that an "underlying rushing river of goddamn compassion" overtook her. Which to my mind is how authors should feel about their characters: it is what keeps them (the characters) from being two-dimensional. The story is engaging and feels to me like real life, with all its attendant stops and starts and wonderings and frights. It is the writing that shines above all - Keegan has a truly unique voice - I could have read this book for weeks.

Here's a piece she wrote about writing the book. That's convoluted, I know, but it will give you a sense of her terrific style.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Labor Days: An Anthology of Fiction About Work, David Gates, Editor

4 stars!

This is a really fun book I came across while trying to fill out November's books about work series. I did manage to finish it on the 30th, so the month timed out just perfectly.

This is a collection of stories and book fragments, all taking place at or centered around work. A departure from the purely office fiction of the rest of the month, these pieces look at all kinds of work, much of it physical labor. They span time periods, class and styles. I read most of them, skimmed a few, skipped a couple. I was reminded of some old favorites and read a few authors whose work I'd like to pursue - the ultimate joy of anthology.

Here's what I learned about work this month:

1. Everyone has to do it - even those who don't really seem to work at all have at least to manage those who do the work.

2. Even if you don't feel that your job defines you, you do spend the better part of your waking life at it. Ultimately that has an enormous effect on the hours you spend living your "real life".

3. The people you work with often have a greater influence on you than the job itself.

4. Most people consider their work to be important, no matter what it is, and derive a great sense of pride and worth from accomplishing it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris

3 1/2 stars

4th in the novels set at work series. You will feel like you are working with these people, for better or for worse.

This first novel generated a lot of buzz before it ever came out. A lot of that buzz centered on the fact that it is written in the first person plural. This 'we' is appropriate to the denizens of the office, though I think that to some extent it kept me from really forming an attachment to many of them. There is also no back story to any of the characters - we just jump into their lives midstream. Again, this is very effective in demonstrating the notion that we don't really know our colleagues as entire people, we just know their at-work personae.

I wanted to love this book, but found that I couldn't quite get there. Pretty much everyone who reviewed it raved about it, which always makes me think I must be missing something if I don't, too. It is entertaining. I was slightly relieved by the middle section, which is told in the third person and is plot-driven - regular novel style. When I came to the end, I found I cared more for the individuals than I would have originally believed.

Here's an interview with Joshua Ferris about the book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Office of Desire, Martha Moody

4 stars!

#3 in my 'books set at the office' series.

This book has it all! Religious fanaticism, odd sexual pairings, death, betrayal, amputation... Somehow Martha Moody manages to make all of these elements seem pretty reasonable despite them all happening to a mere 6 people in the course of about a year.

Told from the perspectives of two of the characters, this is a fun and quick read. I like that these co-workers are intrinsically wound into each other's lives, but have almost no relationship outside of the office. It explores the idea that the people one works with and the atmosphere of the workplace have a huge impact on one's life, without necessarily having much influence at all after 5 0'clock.

Martha Moody is a physician as well as a writer - a combination I always find devastatingly seductive. She has also found the energy to raise four sons - proving yet again that doctors are confirmed overachievers.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland

4 stars!

#2 in my 'books set at the office' series

Book two in the November 'novels set at work' series. Leave it to Douglas Coupland to write from the heart of the zeitgeist. What should seem like satire in his hands reads like realism. And so we find our two characters, unlikely allies, working at a Staples 'office superstore', and pretty much hating life. The cast expands to include family members and so-called friends, and there is also a novel-within-the-novel, which mirrors the, um, outer novel.

The entire book is told through letters, diary entries, and chapters of the protagonist's own book. This kind of self-evaluative narration works really well. The characters are allowed to speak for themselves with unsophisticated, bitter honesty.

They are, in fact, are so eerily real and devastatingly unhappy that I was ready to down a few thousand vodka tonics myself just to keep up. Luckily, Coupland skillfully pulls us all back from the brink without giving in to a pat and happy ending. Everyone experiences a little redemption, but we're all still broke and unsatisfied, living in soulless modern western culture... A good book to read during misery-inducing November.

Douglas Coupland's new book Generation A is going to hit bookstores soon; I'm adding both it and Generation X to my list. A is not so much a sequel, apparently, as a similarly structured story set 20 years after X.

I found this on Coupland's homepage:
Douglas Coupland has no facebook or myspace page.

He does, however, have a twitter account. Here's my favorite post:

Hit by scary mood jitters that come every fall/winter; the seasonal depression thing. That it's predictable makes it somehow stupider.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Personal Days, by Ed Park

3 stars

I'm devoting November to books that take place primarily in offices. First up: Personal Days, by Ed Park.

Richard Russo, who is one of my very favorite authors, recommended this book in some interview or other, so of course I was determined to love it. Which serves as a reminder that taste is a strange and subjective thing.

This book is divided into three parts - the first is the blog I would like to claim authorship of if I worked in soulless corporate America (which thankfully I do not). The second is slightly more story-driven, with longer entries, for lack of a better word. This section features a Byzantine outline formula that I was completely unable to fathom (perhaps because I am wholly unfamiliar with office-place organizational practices). The last section is a rambling stream-of-consciousness email from one character to another.

The changes in narrative style are, I think, where I got lost. Google reveals that most reviewers of this book loved it, and pretty much everyone but me thinks it is a kind of fable of the lay-off era. I found the all-is-revealed final chapter incredibly far-fetched. I suppose this is common in fables, but for me didn't really work in this otherwise just-like-your-job-but-worse chronicle.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, by Evie Wylde

5 stars!

This was an impulse pick - I chose it for the title, and because it's set in Australia. What an incredible find! It' a first novel, described by the author herself as a "romantic thriller about men who don't talk". That's a fairly apt description; these men don't talk much, but they sure do feel.

The story moves back and forth between father and son. This is a construction that in my opinion can be very confusing and interrupting, but here it really does serve to illustrate a generational legacy of sorrow and isolation. I was riveted.

Here is a clip of Evie Wylde talking about the experiences she had as a child visiting family in Australia, which inspired the book. It's about 5 minutes long; she is charming.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley

4 1/2 stars!

I started reading this book to my 8 year old daughter, a chapter at a time before bed. Soon she was so engrossed that she started reading ahead whenever she got the chance. Two days later she was done and I was dying to know what happened to the plucky heroines!

This is a great twist on the orphaned children genre. Not only does it feature a pair of self-sufficient girls brimming with chutzpah, but there is magic aplenty. (I think that's a required ingredient for kid's lit these days.) Buckley has the tone down perfectly - the book is just scary and complex enough for an audience of children, and never patronizing. He manages to set the stage for a whole lot of sequels without leaving his audience hanging.

This, however, may be the greatest thing about the Grimm sisters series - they have a theme song! This may be the direct result of the movie making machine that will soon engulf this lovely group of books. I am generally not a fan of making terrific kids books into movies, because I have such a strong bias about reading versus watching. This book, however, would make a really great movie in the hands of a good director.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is dishy, talented and prolific. He's one of the guys responsible for making geeky the new sexy. Think of him as a handsomer, less creepy Stephen King.

What I thought of this book
: 4 stars!

Where I heard about this book: My friend Mark recommended it to me a year or so ago, and then, as often happens, it kept coming up at odd moments. I found a used copy while shopping for a birthday present, which just goes to show that I should go to book stores more often.

What this book is about: A man leaves prison, and seems to hover between life and death as he is shuttled about by gods trying to reestablish their shattered domains in the new world.

Check out this video of Neil on the Colbert Report. He's self-possessed and funny.

And have you seen his bookshelves? Look at his personal library and swoon!

I have a tiny pet peeve about books set in places that are not native to the author. Often when I read books by British writers that are set in America, I catch little Britishisms that, like catching your sweater on a splinter, interrupt the flow of the book. In the nearly 600 pages of American Gods, I didn't find a single one. A small thing, I know, but it really sums up what makes this book so good - the story and the characters stay true to themselves and don't go wandering off where they have no business.

Shadow, the protagonist, is a hero by any definition. He's exactly the guy you'd want by your side in any conflict - large, strong, clear-headed, unafraid of pain or death. And he has an unwavering moral compass. His apparent lack of faults isn't annoying because he's so busy being kicked around that you forget that he's nearly perfect. That, and he doesn't seem all that happy, which pretty much makes up makes up for his having no irritating personal habits.

I love the idea that America is a bad place for gods, and that while most immigrants thrive and prosper here, gods are doomed to be first marginalized, and then forgotten altogether. This is a story that examines modern American culture without anyone ever turning on a laptop or sending a text message! And it's a page-turner - despite its length it's a quick and satisfying read.