Friday, May 31, 2013

German love and guilt

Book: The Reader
Author: Bernhard Schlink
Published: 1997 (Random House, American edition)
Pages: 218

Lives of quiet desperation that explode into unexpected directions make for the best stories because they feel the most real. This story of how a German schoolboy falls in desperate and eventually reciprocal lust with his middle-aged neighbor, only to fall out of touch with her until decades later when she’s on trial for a war crime, is so achingly human in its juxtaposition of the boy’s blunt adolencent emotions against her rigid self-control, and now I’m making it start to sound like a bondage novel, but there is something so matter-of-fact about it all that you can’t help but believe it.

Then he grows up and watches her get sentenced to jail because she can’t read but won’t admit it to the court that convicts her to life in prison, and he comes to slow terms with the fact that he loved a woman who could (maybe – it’s never super-clear) do such horrible things, and then he gets to feel guilty all over again when he starts reading books on tape for her to listen to in prison and she learns how to write but he never sends her any notes until she needs someone to help her on the outside when she’s about to get released.

It’s about growing up and facing change and trying to hold fast to the good you first saw and loved in people, and it’s in such low-key language like a piano piece where the melody is set down low in the left hand that you feel it more than hear it and some deep part of you keeps time until it ends on a minor note and you’re all, “Damn, that was gorgeous. I think I’m gonna go wring my heart out now.”


The for-reals Count of Monte Cristo

Book: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Tom Reiss
Published: 2012 (Crown Publishers)
Pages: 330

My education in classical European literature being sorely lacking, I’ve never read The Count of Monte Cristo or anything else by Alexandre Dumas, but I now know that it was so much less fiction than it was having a really cool dad.

Dumas’s father was a man of color during the French Revolution, which was, weirdly enough, a great place for a man of his ancestry to thrive. Seriously, you guys, the French beat us to racial harmony by like two hundred years, and it totally would’ve stuck except for later when Napoleon came to power, he not-so-slowly eroded racial relations in the French colonies with economies that traditionally thrived under slave labor, and then it was sort of downhill for black people from there.

But before that, the senior Dumas came from slavery to Paris when they were still at the everybody’s-cool stage and trained at a famous fencing academy and quickly rose through the Revolutionary army to have all sorts of swashbuckling adventures that turned into, admittedly, more French military history than I really wanted to know about a real-life basis for a literary figure, but hey. He was damn good at it.

After he fought with Napoleon in Egypt, Dumas got captured and thrown in jail and then when he got out he found out that Napoleon didn’t exactly appreciate him anymore and thanks to slow poisoning during his capture, Dumas died sort of slowly and truly paranoid about all his new enemies.

Not before leaving a big impact on his son, though. Lil’ Dumas wrote his father’s memoirs, then romanced his life even further into popular novels. I liked hearing how this author collected all the information for this book, too. It took him like ten years, and he reflects on how Dumas’s handwriting looks (so elegant it’s hard to read), and he sites primary sources in anecdotes about finding them tucked away in tiny museums that no one visits but are still ardently supported by fans. Those journalistic-process interludes were nice breaks from the military history.

This is the start of my next reading sort of project, which is to say reading all the 2012 Pulitzer Prize nominees (fiction and non-fiction). My Library has a nifty blog post that lists them all, complete with links to find them in our catalogue and float them down to the holds shelf whenever I want. If this was my own book, would I keep it? Yes. Would I re-read it? Maybe, slanting towards probably not, but it’s still a good solid read and I liked having it around the past few weeks.  

More overview with more jumping-off points

Book: The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Three
Authors: various (edited by Ellen Datlow)
Published: 2011 (Nightshade)
Pages: 348

This crash course of horror showcases everything from neo-Gothic formal creepies, to children who don’t even know how bad they are because they aren’t old enough to understand and their parents are too scared to tell them, to what I call grunge horror because it’s all about burnt-out people finding the true evil in life that jolts them out of their nihilism too late to save themselves or what they finally figure out they care about.

My favorites were in the second category, which included a story about a kid who makes friends with the girl across the yard when they start talking to each other through their open windows, and it turns out he can draw stuff and make it come true, and when her parents say she has to move he sneaks her over to his house, draws her resting inside him, and it comes true, but then they wait too long to try to draw her out of him and as he grows up his ability goes away, so she’s still in there.

Or the little girl who tears apart fairies for play. I wasn’t sure what that story was trying to get to, exactly, but it did succeed in being creepier than the stories that spent way too many adjectives on monsters.

My other two favorites were one where an informal but completely self-conscious film club tracks down the second reel of an unfinished cult horror film and end up finding out how real all the footage was, and the last story, which takes a sort of Cabin in the Woods meta-dissection approach to the Small Town with Werewolf story.

Good overall introduction to the genre, but I think getting more targeted will be a lot more immersive. This one’s going back to Virginia, too, because it rode back in my suitcase along with Clive, so you all look for some returned (and new!) property to head your way this upcoming week.   

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Culture clash really isn't so different

Book: Polite Society
Author: Melanie Sumner
Published: 1995 (Houghton Mifflin)
Pages: 204

White girl joins Peace Corps, Peace Corps sends white girl to Africa, white girl falls in love with her African French tutor, white girl eventually stops caring what her boyfriend/French tutor thinks of her or how many other girls he’s seeing while still claiming romantic authority over her.

It’s a love – no, a relationship story skewed just this little bit by cultural differences, but not different enough to escape being super familiar and slightly tedious. There is no big epiphany about how lust/love is colorblind or translates across all nationalities and colors, no sweeping romance of the uptight lady being able to unleash her true romantic side in the equal wilds of her new exotic setting.

And I do actually appreciate that. The best part of the book was the protagonist’s utter lack of idealism about anything she’s doing. She keeps a realistic perspective (and a legful of mosquito bites) on her new setting, which means we get a rounded view of the interesting and the bad sides of the culture she’s trying to fit into because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. She sees through all the false charm of the place to start and still has to learn how to not get robbed or malaria.  

She doesn’t pretend that her boyfriend treating her like crap is a charming cultural clash that deep down really reveals his tender feelings for her if only he’d learn Western ways of expressing them – and at the same time, she doesn’t disguise the fact that she doesn’t like him even though she wants him. Those two emotions can be completely exclusive of each other, and she seems to take advantage of the fact that this new culture treats this as a blatant fact of life so she can fit in quicker.

In the end, she is settled, just that, but what I want to know is what the hell happened to the rich lady we meet for like two alternate-viewpoint chapters, getting a new dress made to catch her ambassador husband’s wandering eye and failing? There is literally no more story about her, and I would’ve loved the contrast between slightly cynical peace worker scrambles her way into the local economy with rich established oblivious couple gets pulled into reality really hard.

Oh well. I think I’ll still keep this on my bookshelf. The details about modern African society and how outsiders try to fit in to it are interesting enough before the lovers get too familiar with it and each other. 

Better than expected book but not going to test the accents

Book: One Day
Author: David Nicholls
Published: 2009 (Vintage)
Pages: 435

You guys, this was so much better than I thought it was going to be. It’s funny! Hot damn, do you know how rare it is for a lit fic romance to not take itself so seriously? Or go in the opposite direction and stay so bubbly it’s like that diet Coke I dropped down like three flights of stairs the other day – basically all foam, no substance?

I mean I don’t have the exact statistics on me, but I feel pretty confident saying One Day is above average in that genre. (The full, fridge-chilled, can-didn’t-move-an-inch diet Coke. But not a Vanilla Coke Zero. It’s not THAT good.) Mostly because the two main characters have flaws that help them grow up and perfections that keep them stifled. Like, the girl is too self-conscious to rely on the good looks that everyone’s always telling her she has, so she concentrates on her artistic-y literary work and eventually it pays off because she becomes an author like she always wanted (of splashy teen books instead of Serious Fiction, natch). The few times she does use her looks, she ends up disappointed that they can’t get her nearly as far as she’d hoped (love affairs with her middle-aged married principal boss, a long-ish term boyfriend who is an unfunny standup comedian), and then she feels guilty about that and gets back to work.

The guy, her best friend since a one-night almost-stand their last day of college, sort of has the opposite problem. His good looks and charm let him race hard through life until he starts tripping over stumbling blocks of his own irrelevance and gets overwhelmed at trying to find something more substantial. He does eventually, but he never makes peace with what he has to settle for when he uses work rather than other people’s opinions to define himself.

And the narrative conceit of checking in on them both on the same day of successive years, using just the one date for each chapter, helps a lot in filtering out what could become way, way too much yearning or catalogs of mindless self-indulgence.

No, I don’t like how she [SPOILER ALERT] dies on her bicycle so abruptly after they get together. But that’s really my only complaint. And no, I’m never ever going to see the movie because if Anne Hathaway’s accent is as atrocious as all the reviews said, I won’t forgive her for bringing this book back down to my pre-reading judgy levels.


Moar creepize, pleez

Book: The Hellbound Heart
Author: Clive Barker
Published: 1986 (HarperCollins)
Pages: 164

Goddammit, Clive Barker, give me more story! Gah!

He drew me right in with his rococo first chapter of summoning forces of unimaginable pleasure that, guess what, will cross the threshold to pain and back so many times the two will forever be fishhooked into the bodies of those that dare find it—

And then we spend the rest of the book watching a marriage deteriorate in a crumbly house and those are both the perfect settings for this, but I really wanted to actually go into the world of the Engineer and explore for, like, Stephen King lengths of time. There are tantalizing glimpses, thanks to a brother who wants to get the hell out of, well, hell and has found a way to try through the discontent of his brother’s wife, and some really cool body-soul-pleasure-pain-regeneration-deterioration exchanges that just piqued curiosity in me that wasn’t satisfied with the teases of another world that’s never explained more fully.

Should I watch any of the Pinhead movies to get a better picture?

This book will be going back to its Virginia bookshelf to rest in the kindly lent horror collection of some cool people up there. Thanks for the loan, guys! You are excellent guides past the Stephen King interstates into the horror roads much less traveled.


A bran-raisin muffin of a classic

Book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Published: 1943 (Harper’s)
Pages: 493

I am disappointed.

This book is so stuffed with sentimentalism, I mean the real, always-a-right-and-wrong, all-the-noble-intentions-ever, golden-past-and-brilliant-future, facing-advisory-with-determination-and-thus-always-winning-out-over-it-except-when-tragic-deaths-are-more-dramatic stuff, that as hard as I tried to like a nice thick coming of age in New York story, I didn’t.

It was like buying a giant muffin to eat for dinner and then once you bite into it, realizing what you took for brown sugar is bran and what you thought were chocolate chips are actually raisins. It will give you very roughly the same experience, but it won’t be nearly as sweet going down or remembering it. Am donating.

A tasty ride through the human insides

Book: Gulp
Author: Mary Roach
Published: 2013 (W.W. Norton and Company)
Pages: 327

Mary Roach makes science fun. I bet that is in 100% of the reviews of this book. Because it’s 100% true. She’s got a humorist’s knack for pointing out unexpected weird gaps between truth and expectations combined with a true nerd’s thoroughness of obsession. Put that together and you have a very enjoyable tour of the digestive system.

She focuses heavily on the front and back ends and makes me envy her job by describing everything about her research travels – not just the scientific bits about the experiments, or their contributions to human existence and all that jazz, but also how unnerving it is to see her own spit flying around in a centrifuge, or explaining why a professional beer-quality-tester prefers to drink Bud Light above a lot of other things when she has a choice, or how she got invited to a party with excrement-themed snacks by a doctor.

It’s good science writing because it’s accessible. The only reason you know about all the research Roach has done, as opposed to just sitting you down and telling a yarn about your stomach off the top of her head (so to speak), is she makes occasional self-depreciating jabs at how she’s the only non-research scientist to subscribe to Colon Cancer Monthly, or whatever. And it’s all infused with a sense of wonder tempered by a finely tuned sense of fun. We all work like this so why be grossed out or snobby about it? Mary Roach says there’s no reason to be, and I totally believe her.


Marriage and divorce, Irish-style

Book: In Sunshine or In Shadow: Stories by Irish Women
Authors: various
Published: 1999 (Delacorte Press)
Pages: 316

Did y’all know that divorce was illegal in Ireland until the 1990s, and they had several big nation-wide debates and votes on it until it finally passed? Okay. Now you do. That is the most I took away from this collection of short stories.

That is the central theme, and while I admire cohesiveness in anthologies, this one might’ve been a wee bit too narrow, because despite spanning a few decades to either side of the decision, all the stories were either about families/couples who were like, “It’s about damn time” in varying degrees of loudness or single women hopeful that the decision would push along their love lives. It was either Kramer vs. Kramer or Sex and the City, more or less.

Donate. I don’t really want to, because I love the idea of the collection and I always want to keep any short stories I can get my hands on (and look at that title!), but none of these stood out as inspiring or re-readable. 

We're only human (including doctors)

Book: Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
Author: Atul Gawande
Published: 2002 (Picador)
Pages: 252

This is a well-written collection of anecdotes that shows just how mysterious working on the human body is. Dr. Gawande divides his exploration of his profession’s failures into sections on human errors, weird coincidences, and things medicine doesn’t have an answer for, but everything overlapped and can’t be neatly divided and so the whole book ran a fluid spectrum of why going to the hospital is scary.

But not, he never explicitly expresses but lets the circumstances he describes say for themselves (hear that, fellow writers? It works!), any more dangerous than all the other everyday experiences we put ourselves in. Life is mysterious, and the only way we’re going to make things better and get more answers is to let curious, compassionate people like him poke around at it for awhile and fail and make things worse for a few people before stumbling on the thing that makes things better for everyone else afterwards.

Good details about procedures and how/why (if it’s known) they work, just enough to picture exactly (too exactly…) what he’s doing but not too much med talk to feel like a textbook at any point. He must have a really good bedside manner with people he has to tell complicated stuff to.  

Brave new world, eh? Bookshelf.