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.