Sunday, September 27, 2009

Book Review: On Beauty

Anyone who even tangentially follows book news will remember that when Zadie Smith's On Beauty came out a few years ago, it was basically hailed as a masterpiece. It made all sorts of "Best of" lists, and I think it won some awards, too. So when I was looking for a book to read at Charles de Gaulle airport this summer, before a long flight home to the States, I picked this one up. (Also, I had a few euros I needed to get rid of.) I anticipated a reading experience that would knock my socks off.

Not so much.

I truly, honestly think that I am not intellectual enough to "get" this book. The reviews on the cover and all that talk about how funny and hilarious it is. Uh, not funny. Not hilarious. Apparently it's a satire. Of what, I'm still not sure, but I think maybe intellectuals and intellectualism. I am not an intellectual. I will admit that without hesitation. So I think that's why I wasn't able to pick up on the satire.

Zadie Smith, however, is an incredible writer. There's nothing I hate more than reading a book where the author's efforts are so obvious. Good writing is effortless, and Smith's writing is effortless. Unfortunately, I just didn't care about the people she was writing about. The book centers around a family in Massachusetts—the Belseys. The father, Howard, is an art professor at a small college in the town where they live. The mother, Kiki, is a nurse/health administrator. Their three children are Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Everyone has their own story in this book, and most of them are interconnected. I liked Kiki and the kids, but Howard... gross. No. Didn't like him at all. I think he was being satirized, but like I said, if you don't know what is being satirized, it's not funny. (Like that whole New Yorker cover of Michelle Obama during the campaign.)

I read a lot of reviews of this book on, and a lot of people seemed to agree with me that this book was not all that and a bag of chips, as the industry reviews would have led us to believe. So it's nice to know that I'm not the only one who found this to be a rather forgettable book. I guess that in the end I'm not sorry I read it, though. Maybe someday I can have a pseudo-intellectual conversation with someone about how I'm not intellectual enough to enjoy it.

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Earlier this year I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and as one would expect from the title, it was amazing. When people expressed puzzlement over what the book would be like, I responded with, "It's Pride and Prejudice. With zombies." And a big part of what made the book so enjoyable was reading familiar dialogue that had a whole different meaning. For instance, my favorite example of this is when Lady Catherine questions Elizabeth about her education, etc. In the original novel, Lady Catherine is of course asking about the standard education for young women of gentility. She expresses shock that five girls have been brought up without a governess. In P & P & Z, the "education" they discuss is their martial arts education (aimed of course at how to defend oneself against zombies). Lady Catherine expresses shock that they have no ninjas, if I recall correct.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but the whole concept of the same, traditional dialogue having a new, zombie-related meaning, was my favorite thing about the book.

After reading P & P & Z, I anxiously awaited the release of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Now, Sense and Sensibility is actually the only one of Austen's books that I have not actually read, but I own two separate film adaptations, and I love both of them.

But I didn't find S & S & SM to be nearly as enjoyable as P & P & Z. Mostly because the story had much more significant deviations from Austen's story than P & P & Z did. Apparently this was intentional. I read in an article by S & S & SM's author that the feedback on P & P & Z asked for less of Austen's original text. (As the article reports, 85% of P & P & Z was Austen's text.) So the publisher gave the author of S & S & SM permission to embellish significantly more. Blasphemy, I say.

Not that there aren't high points to S & S & SM. The scene where Lucy Steele tells Elinor about her engagement to Edward is pretty awesome. And there was one line by Mrs. Jennings that was utter delight, but all in all, I didn't find as much humor here as I did in P & P & Z. I think there may be another reason for that, however, apart from the dialogue/text. Pride and Prejudice is just full of characters ripe for parody; Sense and Sensibility, less so. Mrs. Jennings and Sir John were pretty much it as far as humor goes in S & S & SM. But in P & P & Z we had Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, Lydia, Wickham, and Charlotte Lucas (hands down the funniest).

I'm curious to see what Quirk books will tackle next, however.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Book Review: Birdsong

It seems to me that the majority of war movies and war novels that I've encountered have dealt with World War II. I don't know why that is exactly, but I suspect it has to do with a few things: (1) It is seen as the "noble" war because of Hilter and the Nazis; (2) There are so many high-profile things to come out of WWII such as the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima/Nagasaki; and (3) Many people have known people who are still alive that fought in the war.

World War I, on the other hand, doesn't seem to get much attention. That is one thing I liked about Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks—it pays the proper homage to the men that fought in the trenches. This book is pretty intense. When Faulks takes his characters through the Battle of Somme in July of 1916, I had to stop reading and take a break. It was just too much for me. Normally I don't have a problem watching or reading about horrible things, but somehow this was different. I think that when you read a work of fiction that deals with a homicidal psychopath, or even hear about something like that on the news, it is not so difficult to take in because, although you know these things happen to actual people, you can assure yourself that it's rare and isolated.

You can't do that when you read about the lives of the soldiers in Birdsong because these experiences were not rare and isolated. A generation of men lived through this hell, and it was hell.

Once more in ragged suicidal lines they trudged toward the pattering death of mounted guns. Bloodied beyond caring, Stephen watched the packets of lives with their memories and loves go spinning and vomiting into the ground. Death had no meaning, but still the numbers of them went on and on and in that new infinity there was still horror.

It feels real because it is real. Great Britain just lost its last WWI veteran about a month ago, and the knowledge that a man who had experienced all of this lived on this earth with me is pretty powerful. I didn't much care for Part I of this book, which involved the pre-war experiences of the main character, Stephen Wraysford, because I felt that it was a pretty run-of-the-mill romance. But I suppose it's necessary to set you up for Stephen's experiences during the war. There are also a few portions set in 1978 with Stephen's granddaughter that I could have done without, but they also just serve to amplify the other portions of the book.

As far as war novels go, this is one of the best I've ever read. This was supposed to be "The War to End All Wars," and I can certainly understand why. How anyone who lived through that could ever want to enter into another war twenty years later is beyond me.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Summer Book Clubs

I joined two books clubs this summer, and between the two clubs I read four books. (I did not read a fifth book club book due to a longer-than-expected recovery from wisdom teeth extraction surgery. Ouch!) But anyway, here they are.

I don't even know where to start with this book. It is (inexplicably) set in 1991, and it centers around Connie, a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard University. Connie has just been granted candidacy and has to start thinking about thesis subjects when her mother asks her to look after an old house about an hour from Cambridge that belonged to Connie's grandmother. While Connie is exploring the old house, she finds a piece of paper with the words "Deliverance Dane" on them. Because she's curious and seems to want to avoid her thesis work, Connie starts investigating and discovers Deliverance Dane was a witch (at least ruled to be one) that bequeathed a book to her daughter, who then passed it on, etc, etc. Connie searches for this book for the rest of the novel.

Don't waste your time reading this book. I personally don't think it ever goes anywhere interesting. The ending is predictable, and Connie is a fucking idiot. We're supposed to believe she's this brilliant scholar, but the damn woman doesn't even realize what her own name is. Seriously. I'm not making that up. I figured out what her name actually was and what significance it held before she did. Lame. Katherine Howe seems to think that her readers are retarded and will put up with Connie being so dumb.

But what I disliked most about The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was that is so obviously full of smug. Howe is clearly a New Englander who did graduate work at Harvard, because, from the way she writes this book, she seems to think that Connie's life is pretty normal. Not only that, she is always throwing in little comments about grad school, Harvard, New England, etc, to prove to the reader that she's an insider or something. It's so annoying, because I really felt like the privilege of her life was completely lost on Howe. I know people say to write about what you know, but most of the world doesn't give a shit about some lame-ass grad student from 1991 who wears a lot of turtlenecks and spends her summer doing NOTHING worthwhile. Meanwhile, people are losing their homes and children are going hungry.

Don't read Sarah's Key if you don't want to shoot yourself in the head afterwards. Okay, that's unfair. But this book is super depressing.

It is mostly set in modern Paris. The main character Julia is an American who is married to a Frenchman and has lived in Paris for years. She works as a journalist, and one day she is assigned to write about the anniversary of an event in Paris history when the French government collaborated with the Nazi occupiers to detain and deport Parisian Jews. From one of the first deportations, most people went to Auschwitz and a staggering percentage of them died.

I forget how Julia makes the connection, but she eventually links the apartment she and her husband have inherited from his grandmother to a Jewish family that lived there before being taken away, particularly their young daughter. The incredibly sad story revolves around this girl.

I did like this book, but at the same time I didn't. I liked it because it alerted me to a part of French history that I really didn't know about. The author's characterizations of the French people in the book and the way they reacted to it was very interesting, and I got the impression it was something she'd experienced firsthand. A lot of French people do not like to talk about these events because it is a very shameful part of their history. This was not Nazi's knocking on doors, rounding people up, and busing them to their deaths—this was French police and French people. But on the other hand, Julia's reaction to events 60 years in the past that she had nothing to do with struck me as very manufactured. You'd have to read the book to know what I mean, but it just seemed unnatural to me how emotionally involved Julia got.

Fun tidbit: I got a little worked up at the book club discussion of this book after a woman in the group shared her thought that "religion is to blame for all bad things," or something along those lines. I'm all for laying blame at religion's feet when it's due, but I hardly think that the Holocaust can be laid at the feet of religion.

Here's what I will say about Run: it was a good story, but I didn't really take away any deeper message. The story revolves around an incident in Boston during the winter. Tip and Teddy are black, biological brothers who were adopted by a white couple. When they were very small, their adopted mother died of cancer, and they were raised by their father, Doyle, who eventually becomes mayor of Boston. They have an older brother, Sullivan, who is their parent's biological child.

When they're older, Sullivan is the black sheep who lived through a scandal that damaged his father's career. Doyle has poured all of his energy into Tip and Teddy with aspirations of them going into politics, but neither is interested. Tip just wants to study ichthyology (his major in college), and Teddy is interested in the priesthood (their mother's uncle is a Catholic priest). The three of them (Doyle, Tip, and Teddy) go to a Jesse Jackson lecture Doyle forced them to go to, and as they're leaving a car nearly hits Tip as he's not paying attention. He is saved when a woman knocks him out of the way, only to be hit herself. Her ten year-old daughter Kenya witnesses it. It's not really a spoiler if I tell you that the woman is Tip and Teddy's biological mother, and she's severely injured.

The rest of the book is basically about the aftermath of the accident, and Kenya. Like I said, I really enjoyed the story, but I was not really moved by it, in the sense that I'll remember this book for years to come. Not a bad read, though.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, however, is great. A very, very good book. It is centered around two woman from Afghanistan, and their stories are so sad. It is a great way to get a better grasp on what life is like for Afghani women, even though this book spans a couple decades.