Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Frozen-Mary Casanova

Frozen-Mary Casanova

the facts
satisfaction: up
page: 256
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2012
Novel

"Set during the roaring 1920s in the beautiful, wild area on Rainy Lake where Minnesota meets Canada, Frozen tells the remarkable story of Sadie Rose, whose mother died under strange circumstances the same night that Sadie Rose was found, unable to speak, in a snowbank. Sadie Rose doesn’t know her last name and has only fleeting memories of her mother—and the conflicting knowledge that her mother had worked in a brothel. Taken in as a foster child by a corrupt senator, Sadie Rose spends every summer along the shores of Rainy Lake, where her silence is both a prison and a sanctuary."

This rather unique kind of narrative is well executed. The heroine, Sadie Rose, is lovable and you find yourself rooting for her from the first bit. Her silence hides a very strong mind that despite being sheltered is nimble and quick. She seems to be a good example of how stimulation from an early age can produce robust and capable people. Her life however, is and has never been ideal and yet she manages to both be her own person and overcome her problems despite people who approach her with hidden agendas.

The servants, Aasta and her husband, are great characters. Almost more lovable than Sadie Rose, they are fonts of small wisdoms and support. Something that is completely absent from the upper class family that Sadie Rose lives with. There is a distinct bias against the upper class throughout the book since they are the ones causing all the problems, creating situations, are oppressive and have hidden agendas. They all have secrets. In contrast the lower classes, the servants and the love interest are comparatively helpful, supportive, and have only benevolent secrets. The 1920s setting kind of works out like that I guess.

My only problem with it would be that the ending seemed a bit too pat. Everything got resolved too easily and too neatly...it works but is a bit offputting given that the rest is so well done.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bull of Mithros-Anne Zourodi

The Bull of Mithros-Anne Zourodi

the fact
satisfaction: up
page: 320
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

"It is summer, and as tourists, drawn by the legend of a priceless missing artifact, disembark on the sun-drenched quay of Mithros, the languid calm of the island is broken by the unorthodox arrival of a stranger who has been thrown overboard in the bay. Lacking money or identification, he is forced for a while to remain on Mithros. But is he truly a stranger? To some, his face seems familiar. The arrival of the investigator Hermes Diaktoros, intrigued himself by the island's fabled bull, coincides with a violent and mysterious death. This violence has an echo in Mithros's recent past: in a brutal unsolved crime committed several years before, which, although apparently forgotten may not yet have been forgiven. As Hermes sets about solving the complex puzzle of who is guilty and who is innocent, he discovers a web of secrets and unspoken loyalties, and it soon becomes clear that the bull of Mithros may only be the least of the island's shadowy mysteries."

Written as part of the Greek Detective Mysteries, this takes the place of sloth. I've not read any of the others and that's okay because this is a stand alone crime novel. The atmosphere of Mithros is well constructed and brought to life. The language brings everything to vividness and situations like with the army conscripts seem very, very real. There is a large cast of characters from the island itself and they're all interconnected in various ways (it's a small island after all) which gives rise to several little mysteries as side plots. What could be a very shallow crime is instead told with depth and tenderness.

The main character, the detective Hermes Diaktoros, is a strange man who is not quite beholden to anything really. There's no indication of whose authority he operates under and he is referred throughout as the fat man. That kind of annoyed me, there was no need for it. As someone somewhat otherworldly, Hermes has the ability to talk to people amiably and gain access to buildings and museums. He's old fashioned in a way but that suits him because part of his information gathering takes place in the kafenions which is of course where the older members of a community have got together and gossiped for decades. I've worked in small town Greece so I can attest that indeed, if you want to connect older events with current events, that's who you've got to talk to.

My only real beef with the book is that some of the mysteries got solved via visual cues but not the ones the reader is informed about. I guess that makes Diaktoros more effective as an other worldly detective but I personally like to be able to guess at the solutions to mysteries when I'm reading. I nevertheless enjoyed the novel so don't let that get you down.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Corrections-Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections-Jonathan Franzen

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 653
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2001
Novel

After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson's disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.

This is really a brick of a book-clocking in at 650 pages, it can get a little hard to get through sometimes. Part of that difficulty is that sometimes you feel like the characters are pretty unlikeable embittered upper middle class white people and why should you care? So I assure you, this is a book of anti-heroes.

I kept reading on though because this is one solidly constructed novel. Instead of jumping from one member of the family to one another, he instead focuses on each one. The pacing is well-done and the prose is smooth and precise. There's no real plot to be frank, the theme is really just about attempts to make things right, even if you fail at it. So each character makes all kinds of mistakes and fails to correct them and sometimes actually succeeds at fixing some and that allows the prose to just sprawl all over these people's lives which are more of profiles of these people rather than stories. The sprawl means that stereotypes get trotted out (mostly about Mid Westerners). Despite this I grew to actually care about the characters. Maybe it's Stockholm Syndrome but the more time spent with each character the more I cared about whether they'd be able to recover from their disastrous situations or not.

I guess the real lesson of the book is that life happens and if you're going to correct things-you better be actively participating in it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fog-Caroline B. Cooney

Fog-Caroline B. Cooney

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 153
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1989
YA Novel (Series: Losing Christina)

The Shevvingtons are perfect. Mr. Shevvington is the charming, handsome principal of Christina's school. His wife is a dedicated English teacher. When the Autumn fog rolls over the coast, Christian and Anya begin boarding at the Shevvington's home, where Christina discovers that nothing is as it seems. Anya is slowly losing her mind, and Christina knows the Shevvingtons are behind it.

I've read a lot of Cooney (I was a fan of hers while an actual YA) and this might be my favorite of her work. I actually found this creepy. The descriptions are good in that they seem to concentrate the creepiness of the whole thing. The changeability of the sea is put to good work to build up this murky backdrop against which the sinister Shevvingtons really manage to creep you out. There are a lot of things that don't add up and a lot is left to the imagination but Cooney manages to feed the imagination just enough to keep you intrigued and reading.

The ending is perhaps too strange. The Shevvingtons are left without a single motive except for malice (and I have no idea if that changes later in the series) which doesn't ring true. But you know, enough was left open that I enjoyed wondering what/who were the real villians. the Sea? the House? or the Shevvingtons?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

After the Fog-Kathleen Shoop

After the Fog-Kathleen Shoop

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 212
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2012
Novel

In the mill town of Donora, Pennsylvania, site of the infamous 1948 “killing smog,” headstrong nurse Rose Pavlesic tends to her family and neighbors. Controlling and demanding, she’s created a life that reflects everything she missed growing up as an orphan. She’s even managed to keep her painful secrets hidden from her loving husband, dutiful children, and large extended family. When a stagnant weather pattern traps poisonous mill gasses in the valley, neighbors grow sicker and Rose’s nursing obligations thrust her into conflict she never could have fathomed.

I loved the portrait of a woman in crisis. Her internal crisis is echoed in the family crisis and environmental crisis around her. The prose clearly conveys the dreariness of the poisonous fog covering the mill town and the panic of the town. And even before the fog hits, the descriptions of Rose's work is great at conveying the appalling conditions that the wives of mill workers were living in-a subject too often ignored for the horror of the mills themselves (though Shoop doesn't ignore that either). The historical fiction aspect was truly fantastic-you're drawn into this mill town's crisis and for that I liked reading it.

However, I don't know if I can accept the degree to which Rose is a controlling mess. It sometimes made Rose seem too unreal. It was pretty inevitable that when her kids were not following the paths she wanted for them that she'd have to fall apart. It was just, the degree of drama was incredible. I couldn't believe in the coincidence of all the various dramas. Rose has secrets, finds out about her daughter's secrets, and her husband may be lying to her and her son is definitely hiding something and is hurt anyway, and there's an extended family living with her too AND the entire town is dying off? Oh my goodness, it made for some difficult reading at times because there was so little joy. And then the conclusion comes and there's suddenly joy? After the downbeat drama of the first 180 pages, the conclusion came off as a bit too pat.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Twisted Window-Lois Duncan

The Twisted Window-Lois Duncan

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 172
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1987
YA Novel

When Brad tells Tracy that his little sister Mindy has been kidnapped by his stepfather, she promises to help him locate the child. Tracy is moved by Brad's story and defiant of the aunt and uncle she has lived with ever since her mother was stabbed to death. They find the toddler Brad is searching for, and Tracy arranges to baby-sit for Mindy, then turn her over to Brad.

So there are lots of spoilers online for this book-watch out for those but in a way, it's difficult not to give it all away. It's a suspense thriller and there are twists and turns almost every chapter. Duncan never lies to you but rather jumps to conclusions that are in the wrong direction.

I don't know, I found myself tired of all the twists and turns midway through-I mean that some of the twists didn't seem to need to be twists at all. I had my suspicions of what was going on way earlier than Duncan wanted me to which made it all seem strangely simplistic despite the complexity of the narration. Part of the complexity was the shifting point of view between characters which struck me as a too obvious plot device that often didn't really move the plot along and thus was a too simplistic way of conveying information.

Ok, now that I've been Miss Negative over here, I have to applaud Duncan for not giving into what must have been a temptation to give you one of those wrap up chapters. This is something Duncan does super well and I'm glad her style stayed true. This is also a very nonjudgmental book- there's no stigmatizing language or behavior which is awesome!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

American Pastoral-Philip Roth

American Pastoral-Philip Roth

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 423
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 1997
Novel

Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him.

I know Newark, NJ fairly well but the Newark I know is from the 1990s and 2000s and is dominated by Iberians. It is a city struggling to semi-rebuild and rebrand itself while shootings still occur on the sidewalks adjacent to a primary school. American Pastoral takes place in an older Newark-the beginning of Newark's downfall when it still remembered its glory days. Roth's evocation of that Newark is beautiful and tragic with strong prose. I have to say, that was above all my favorite bit of the book. The plot was good but I adored how the setting was brought to life. I also enjoyed the ramblings Roth went into about the process of glove making and industry.

I actually own this book and I intend on trying to hold onto it because I greatly enjoyed it. There are moments of great bewilderment (echoing Swede's) as you try to figure out how anyone could get into such a mess (the bizarre Rita character) and pain when you wonder how anyone could handle such a devastated daughter (nearer to the end). There are moments of pleasure and some very nicely turned phrases. And above all, I kind of adore books when the American Dream implodes for a white person so really, I was going to like this book no matter the skill of the author. It was somewhat hard to get into because Zuckerman is a bit of an annoying narrator in that he's constantly obsessed with Swede and likes to extrapolate from little information these grandiose ideas. It really got rolling when Zuckerman shut up and Swede's story was just let to unfold and implode and keep imploding and then it was quite difficult to put down. 

It's long and it's dense but it's masterful and I can now see why it's such a contribution to Roth's reputation (I've not liked my prior Roth reads). 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fear of Flying-Erica Jong

Fear of Flying-Erica Jong

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 340
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1973
Novel

"the ground-breaking, uninhibited story of Isadora Wing and her desire to fly free caused a national sensation—and sold more than twelve million copies. Now, after thirty years, the iconic novel still stands as a timeless tale of self-discovery, liberation, and womanhood"

So I get it how this could be ground-breaking. I mean, female sexuality? Say it ain't so! We still need a little bit more recognition of this today and so yeah, a book that frankly acknowledges sexuality and women enjoying sex would be groundbreaking after decades of shame and hiding.

But for me in 2012, there was a bit too much gratuitous sex. I mean, it was like I get it, she is a sexual being. SEXUAL BEING! But you know what, so am I and I have no need to be so crude because that's what Isadora was, crude to the extent that it wasn't sexy anymore. It instead was often awkward like hearing your gynecologist abandon scientific names for everything. Nor, let me tell you, do I think so constantly about it. It seemed that Isadora thought about nothing other than sex and psychology for 'chapters' at a time. What a one dimensional way to live life! It kept making me think about how men are accused of just thinking about sex every five minutes...is having a female character do the same really that interesting and groundbreaking? Or it is just as destructive to the idea of a sexual being as the male assumption is? It's like, hey, women have all these stereotypes about our sexuality-let's just adopt male stereotypes into a female character because we're just assuming that men have all the good things about life. It's not really ground breaking, it's depressingly patriarchially status quo.

Okay, that out of the way, Isadora is nevertheless a timeless character. She is human. A human female full of contradictions, uncertainties, fears and fantasies. This book is a product of its time with the strong threads of psychiatry throughout which was so heavy handed. I'm talking at least one heavily patriarchal psychology 101 theory every 5 pages. I hope that if this were written today, we'd not have that so much. It's Isadora's internal monologue (when she's not just thinking about sex) that's timeless with many "aha, that's true!" moments. Her actions though....could not relate to them at all especially since there was no attempt to not make Adrian a total douchebag. I suppose he's an acceptable character by 1970s standards (I'm in my 20s, what do I know about the '70s) but nowadays? Just grow up! He's soooo annoyingly immature. There was also no real plot, the book just kept going. It was as immature as the characters.

Quite frankly it was all a bit sordid and depressing. I mean, adult relationships were painted in such a pessimistic light! I still enjoyed it for those passages that really were timeless and you know spoke to me but those moments were few and in between. And the more I think about it after reading, the more I kind of hate the book.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Never Mind-Edward St. Aubyn

Never Mind-Edward St. Aubyn

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 181
gender: M
nationality: UK (Cornwall)
year: 1992
Novel

"At his mother's family house in the south of France, Patrick Melrose has the run of a magical garden. Bravely imaginative and self-sufficient, five-year-old Patrick encounters the volatile lives of adults with care. His father, David, rules with considered cruelty, and Eleanor, his mother, has retreated into drink. They are expecting guests for dinner."

I liked Patrick but really I'm a terrible audience for 'modern classic' British novels or 'possibly autobiographical' stories about the upper class. They just leave me so cold and antagonistic which may be the clearest sign that I ought to move. My favorite character was the American who gave us some humor and the rest of the characters are British to the core: from the precocious child to the utterly cruel father. I mean, David Melrose's utter horribleness might be a satire but it is not that far off from certain people whose acquaintance I've made.

Oh my goodness, what a ghastly set of characters being so dreadfully fashionably British! So pompous and upper class, their very existences are twisted by tedium and boredom with that barrage of mockery and insults that characterizes far too many British friendships. A self-inflated ego that matches nothing of the reality of their behaviors. If you could see my face, it'd just have the same disgusted screwed up expression. And you know, since I was so horrified by the entirety of the novel, the moment of child abuse didn't even register as a shock...I thought he such a horrible human being, it was not a surprise he'd do that.

The writing is clear and simple which probably doesn't help endear it to me but it floats other peoples's boats.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Our Kind of People-Uzodinma Iweala

Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, A Country's Hope-Uzodinma Iweala

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 219
gender: M
nationality: Nigeria
year: 2012
Non fiction

"HIV/AIDS has been reported as one of the most destructive diseases in recent memory—tearing apart communities and ostracizing the afflicted. But the emphasis placed on death, destruction, and despair hardly captures the many and varied effects of the epidemic, or the stories of the extraordinary people who live and die under its watch."

A not-depressing book about HIV/AIDS in Africa? Say it isn't so. The point was to counter prevailing white people ideas about the poor suffering promiscuous Africans with nuances and first hand stories giving an indication of the variety of experiences that exist. At times it was mostly just a calling out of the attitudes Western media really tries to keep strong but it also provided a better framework to understand, for example why HIV spread so dramatically perhaps due to the prevalence of polygamy. But rather than leave it there, Iweala provides a cultural primer to understand better what the African practice of polygamy entails rather than just assuming that there's a cross-cultural understanding. Which is great because my idea of polygamy doesn't exactly jive with the African practice and so I found it invaluable. Iweala puts the blame on everyone-the delayed governmental response, the conservatism that has naught to do with realities, and the stigmas placed on the ill.

Ok so maybe this was most informative because I'm a little white girl who has lived in the United States for most of my life and not exactly ground breaking but I thought it great for anyone who recognizes the giant gap that exists within our first world perceptions and the reality of life. The humanization of the problem allows for the hope of a gradual solution.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Diving Belles-Lucy Wood

Diving Belles-Lucy Wood

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 223
gender: F
nationality: UK (Cornwall)
year: 2012
Short Story Collection

"Straying husbands lured into the sea by mermaids can be fetched back, for a fee. Trees can make wishes come true. Houses creak and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A mother, who seems alone and lonely, may be rubbing sore muscles or holding the hands of her invisible lover as he touches her neck. Phantom hounds roam the moors and, on a windy beach, a boy and his grandmother beat back despair with an old white door."

I loved these stories to bits and pieces. Wood blurs the line between reality and myth taking many of her cues from Cornish folklore. Lovely and haunting language permeates these stories that manage to be contemporary with a timeless decidedly old style voice. Each story is self contained-the narrator's voice changes and the tones shift to match the mythical beast. Sometimes too much is left to the imagination and occasionally the allegory is heavy handed but nevertheless, wholly recommended.

Ok listen, it's hard to write about books so lovely. The stories are other-worldly but grounded in reality. There's also a great thread of humor such as the nursing home for witches but it's well balanced by mystery and wonder. The descriptions are clear and precise when Wood wants them to be because above all the characters are developed.

There are other reviews who'll take you through the symbolism and allusions of each story out there but I just found most of the stories so lovely I just fell underneath their spells and tried not to let myself over analyze and just suspended belief. Wood's stories lend themselves to that.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ghosts of Spain-Giles Tremlett

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past-Giles Tremlett

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 454
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2006
Non-fiction

"The appearance, more than sixty years after the Spanish Civil War ended, of mass graves containing victims of Francisco Franco’s death squads finally broke what Spaniards call “the pact of forgetting”—the unwritten understanding that their recent, painful past was best left unexplored. At this charged moment, Giles Tremlett embarked on a journey around the country and through its history to discover why some of Europe’s most voluble people have kept silent so long. In elegant and passionate prose, Tremlett unveils
the tinderbox of disagreements that mark the country today. Ghosts of Spain is a revelatory book about one of Europe’s most exciting countries."

So what was this? A book on Spanish culture or a book on Spanish silence? I was never quite sure and the dodging back and forth to these two ideas of what a book could encompass really weakened my opinion on Tremlett's book. As a book on silence, this was actually quite good if you took out several of the middle chapters. As a book on culture, it was pretty lacking. The overall thesis was pretty weak and really, there was far too much emphasis on terrorism and Madrid. If you're going to talk about Spanish culture as a whole and claim that you give an outsider's objectivity then really, don't give me yet another precis on Basque terrorism. That's Madrid I hear, not objectivity.

Also, the chapter on Galicia was absolute rubbish. Tremlett seemed to have only gone to Á Coruña once and maybe stopped over in Santiago de Compostela-hardly the comprehensive travel he'd obviously done on the Mediterranean coast. The chapter was too confused and bemused and lost to really warrant inclusion into the book at all. Way to just propagate the Spanish stereotype that Galicia is a weird, otherworldly place that can't be understood so don't bother with it. Since I'm half-Galician, I don't really understand why Tremlett even bothered to talk about Galicia if the treatment was going to be so poor. It was actually worse than the Basque chapter focused entirely on terrorism with a few diversions.

Nevertheless, there were interesting anecdotes and I got directed to a few good references. Some of his insights were also very good such as his chapter on group mentality which is when I thought he shined.

But there was too much hair pulling from this semi-Spaniard to deal with so overall dissatisfaction.

If you want a book that portrays Spanish culture better, may I suggest Hopper's The New Spaniards? That also lacks a nuanced view of minority cultures in Iberia but it also doesn't aspire to be more than it is.