This is my mom's and my husband's favorite book, and being a huge Ian McEwan fan, I was pretty sure I was in for a good thing. So I nabbed it from myThis is my mom's and my husband's favorite book, and being a huge Ian McEwan fan, I was pretty sure I was in for a good thing. So I nabbed it from my mom, started reading and...never got into it. Tried again a little later: Same thing. And a little later than that: Still nothing. Finally, prompted by the release of the movie (I hate admitting that it came to that), I decided it was time to buckle down and read this thing.
The beginning of the novel isn't exactly boring, but I think I found it a little hard to get into because it's not very plot-driven. Rather, it focuses on thoughts and feelings and perceptions, and the plot doesn't make itself obvious until later. That's wonderful and all, but compared to my other favorite McEwan novel - Enduring Love - where the reader is ensnared into the story almost as soon as they open it up, it was a bit slow-going at first.
Not that authors have to write each book in the same manner, and not that a big, exciting bit of action has to occur immediately for a story to be good - this is Ian McEwan, not a dime-a-dozen detective story - but...I'm just trying to explain why I wasn't taken to the book immediately.
All of McEwan's novels, one reason I enjoy reading him so much, examine how a mere moment can change everything. Atonement beings with thirteen-year-old Briony, a storyteller who witnesses something she doesn't understand one summer's day in England. Compounding factors further her confusion throughout the rest of the day, until she ultimately, based on her misinterpretations, wrongly accuses a family friend of a crime.
The book carries you from 1935 to World War II to the close of the twentieth century, and after the first three parts are over, you realize that it's a sort of novel-within-a-novel and that it's been written as a way for Briony to atone for her crime. One wavers between being infuriated with Briony for her childish inability to see the difference between truth and fantasy and to grasp the magnitude of her accusations and having your heart break for her as she lives her life wondering how she can forgive herself.
McEwan, to quote The Weekly Standard, "writes like an angel and plots like the devil." His writing is lyrical and elegant; each word he uses is precisely the right one (e.g. "a pointillist approach to verisimilitude" - perfect! p. 339), which I admire about him. It's enchanting and gripping and whether you're looking for a love story, a war story or a humanizing story, Atonement is a must-read.
When it was over, I didn't have the feeling that I sometimes get where I wish it could continue on forever and I could hear more of the story. In a way, I was glad it was over, because what else was there to say?
After suffering a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby endures one of the worst fates imaginable: locked-in syndrome, in which the mind remains completely, crAfter suffering a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby endures one of the worst fates imaginable: locked-in syndrome, in which the mind remains completely, cruelly lucid while the body - limbs, voice, breath - is paralyzed. Bauby is "lucky" in that he can flutter his left eyelid, which allows him to express himself thanks to a typed-out list of the alphabet and one very patient nurse.
Had this tragic occurrence befallen me, I don't imagine I would have handled it very well.
Exhibit A: Despite my sincere efforts to the contrary, I way too frequently find myself thinking that life wants nothing more than to laugh at me. Allow me to explain the injustices I have to face on a daily basis: Put on warm clothing and walk in the elements outside to the subway. Wait for subway, sometimes for like five whole minutes. Be near strangers on subway. Go to financially and intellectually rewarding job for the whole freaking day. Endure the struggle of exercise. Repeat subway drama. Arrive home to heated shelter and open stocked pantry and complain that there's nothing to eat for dinner. Yes, friends, I must endure these daily horrors before I tuck myself in to my warm, cozy, safe bed at night. It's a wonder I've lasted this long in this thing we call life. It may not surprise you, then, to learn that my first inclination, were I to be in Bauby's situation, would be to write a book bursting with pathetic and indulgent self-pity. FEEL BAD FOR ME! Constantly. Have no life of your own other than to feel bad for my sorry ass, because I am truly the most tragic person who ever lived. (Perspective is really my thing.)
Exhibit B: On a good day, I can be alone with my thoughts for approximately 60 seconds before I start my search for some form of entertainment - books, magazines, iPads, fellow humans, what have you. Given this dependency on stimulation, I can easily picture turning Bauby's situation into a tale of horror a la Stephen King: The Coffin, it could have been called. It would pretty much just serve to terrify people while making them afraid a similar fate awaits them, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next month, but someday, it will come for them. I'm bitter and vengeful that way.
But alas, Jean-Do is a better person than I. He chose to write a memoir that plays out like a French film: spirited in its fatefulness, poetic in its sorrow, and with a twinkling humor in its misfortune. Bauby writes one of the most elegant, observant books I've ever read.
True History of the Kelly Gang falls into the category of books I likely never would have picked up had it not been a book club selection. The cover iTrue History of the Kelly Gang falls into the category of books I likely never would have picked up had it not been a book club selection. The cover image may have something to do with it--I know, I know, we don't judge books by their covers, but pictures of wild horses cantering makes me think Misty of Chincoteague, not "SO putting this on my must-read list!"
Anyway, that's why God invented book clubs--so you read things you may never have considered otherwise. Prior to reading THKG, I had never read Peter Carey, and I wasn't entirely familiar with Ned Kelly beyond having some vague recollection of him being like the Australian Jesse James, but now that I'm finished with the book, I want more of both.
Most impressive about THKG is that the writing is stunningly beautiful, despite the fact that the book is told in first-person through Kelly's grammatically-inept letters. Run-on sentences abound (fortunately, we weren't subjected to phonetic spelling/misspellings), but the voice is clear, strong, consistent throughout. You get into a rhythm reading Carey's language, and the story hums on like a lullaby--lyrical and spellbinding.
That said, the story doesn't simply get by on writing (as a book I either LOVE or HATE [not sure which], Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale*, tends to do). Carey can certainly lure you in with his prose, but Ned Kelly, Australian bushranger, lived a life that makes what Carey writes as captivating as how he writes. Don't expect a constant stream of murders and robberies, though--Kelly isn't that kind of outlaw.
A book about the power of words, THKG doesn't help us determine fact from fiction about the character of our hero/anti-hero. As a portrayal of Kelly by Kelly himself, we hear no "True History", but it does open an interesting series of questions about unreliable narrators: If we can't trust Kelly, can we trust the corrupt police? Was he as bad as they say? Is it true that all he wanted was to farm on his own land, but that the injustice of the justice system abused him and his family until he one day lived up to their murderous expectations? Or was he a low-life criminal from the start--only a criminal with enough sense (in his words, a "clever ignoramus") to try to clear his name with an ultra-flattering rendition of his actions?
Like any great book, this one's going to make you do a little work, but it's absolutely worth it.
*Please read this book. It absolutely torments me...in a good way. ...more
REALLY liked this book. I'm not really a mystery/thriller reader, so I was a little concerned when I read that Motherless Brooklyn told the story of aREALLY liked this book. I'm not really a mystery/thriller reader, so I was a little concerned when I read that Motherless Brooklyn told the story of an unofficial P.I. with Tourette's who investigates the murder of his boss, a small-time mobster's, but I was blown away: I loved Lethem's writing---it's funny and clever---and the book isn't really about the crime---it's about our Tourettic (is that a word?) protagonist, Lionel Essrog, and his interaction with the world. You laugh Essrog's tics when they're inconsequential, but Lethem's writing teems with suspense and forces you to empathize with Essrog's frustration and embarrassment over his uncontrollable tics.
What a challenge Lethem took on...writing a character with Tourette's---and including dialogue---could quickly become more than disastrous: It could have easily slipped into the rude and offensive category, but Lethem is clearly skilled enough to execute the task perfectly. Very impressive...one of the most interesting books I've read lately.
My two-star rating discredits the book more than I intend; I objectively think Gilead a much better book than I subjectively found it to be. With itsMy two-star rating discredits the book more than I intend; I objectively think Gilead a much better book than I subjectively found it to be. With its weighty subject matter (life, religion, humanity) and beautiful writing, it certainly got the attention of the critics,* but it never grabbed me in the way I hoped it would.
One reviewer nailed it when he said that Gilead is meant to be read at its own pace: it's not a book you can speed through, and in this case, I found the slow pace tedious. I hate admitting to that for fear of sounding like an overstimulated millennial; I don't need action, adventure and faux vampire eroticism to keep me turning the page of a book, and I appreciate subtlety (Writing 101: show, don't tell), but I just wasn't particularly concerned with what the protagonist of Gilead had to say. Perhaps if I had children, or if I were older and ruminating on my life and legacy, I might have enjoyed the book more. Like I said, I can tell there's something to this one, so I'm going to chalk the fact that I didn't like it up to circumstance and give it another go in 20 years.
*Not that critics are infallible, but I don't consider their approval a negative... ...more
I thought I would savor it and reflect upon it and read it slowly to relish each sentence properly.
Instead, I was borI thought I would love this book.
I thought I would savor it and reflect upon it and read it slowly to relish each sentence properly.
Instead, I was bored. I didn't want to be, but I was.
It was all too bad, when you think about it, because McCann is clearly a talented writer--so much so that I did in fact savor and reflect and relish at times, but it wasn't enough to cause the scales to tip.
It wasn't a problem with the characters: They were captivating, and their stories were sad and powerful. It wasn't a problem with the structure: Each story is expertly crafted to somehow, in some way, link to the rest without coming across as contrived or forced.
Maybe it was a problem with me? There were passages that grabbed me and chapters that wouldn't let go, but I still found myself skimming in a rush to finish. My reaction to this book is similar to my reaction of Gilead: I know what I'm reading here is good, really good, but I simply can't get into it.
This is one for the "deserves another read" shelf. ...more
Erik Larson has once more sniffed out a compelling, untold story that most people know virtually nothing about, researched it bWell, he did it again.
Erik Larson has once more sniffed out a compelling, untold story that most people know virtually nothing about, researched it beyond the assumed limits of human ability and then turned every smidge of information into a historical page-turner that I shall eloquently refer to as "unputdownable."
This is a book set in the seething, tempestuous atmosphere of 1930s Germany, but early on, Larson makes it clear that he isn't here to write another account of Hitler and the Nazi regime's rise. I have no doubt that Larson could manage that task - and he'd make it fascinating, with his nose for history and perseverance for fact-finding - but fortunately for us, he chose to spotlight the era by doing what he does so, so well: Tap into people whose stories haven't been told - in this case, the U.S. Ambassador to Berlin and his flirty, oversexed daughter - and use their personal experiences as a way of illuminating history and explaining the sentiment of the time.
Some criticism could be conceived, if it must - namely that certain themes are repeated (such as the ambassador's persistence in warning the U.S. government of the dangers of the Nazi party and the U.S. government's persistence in ignoring him), and the man does love ending chapters with a foreboding sentence, but these are minor grievances that are easily overshadowed by the rest of the book's power to fascinate.
"Fascinate" really is the applicable word here: If Larson announced that his next book was going to be a detailed account of the toilet paper industry, I would be first in line to buy it. Now, if that doesn't convince you to read a book that's not about toilet paper, I don't know what will.
I wish I still had this book in my future. I wish it were tucked away in a stack of books on my nightstand, waiting patiently for its turn to be read.I wish I still had this book in my future. I wish it were tucked away in a stack of books on my nightstand, waiting patiently for its turn to be read. I wish I were going home tonight to curl up in a chair with nothing to do but pick up this book and slowly -- savoringly, if that's a word* -- take it in, one page at a time.
There's a lot to say about this book, but I'll simplify what could otherwise become a lengthy review (Me? Verbose? Nevah!) and say this: Cutting for Stone is a beautifully written story about fate, love and forgiveness. But see, even that doesn't quite do it justice, because it makes it sound like the next Oprah's Book Club selection. Sorry, Ops, but this book is so much more than that.
It was the first story I've read in a long time that genuinely swept me away. It left me in tears at times, but always through the essence of the story -- never through manipulative sap. Its words were painterly -- careful but expressive.
This is one for the esteemed shelf of my living room bookcase.
Despite what you think when the subway is slow, you don't know what to make for dinner and Law and Order: SVU is a re-run, your life does not suck. InDespite what you think when the subway is slow, you don't know what to make for dinner and Law and Order: SVU is a re-run, your life does not suck. In case you're the type who needs a little help remembering that, Behind the Beautiful Forevers will remind you on every page.
Let's play a little game. Give yourself one point for each of the following that you have:
- Fresh, running water on demand
- Permanent, professionally constructed shelter
- An education, including access to 13+ years of free public schooling
- A government that supports its citizens
- The right to equal treatment
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you scored 5/5, and I'm going to go up on a higher limb and assume that you don't very often think about how lucky that makes you. I know I certainly don't.
Then you read a book like this, and boom. Perspective.
More perspective: So I found this jar of jelly - Sarabeth's brand, the kind that costs like $9.99/520 rupees a jar - that was moldy in the back of my fridge this morning. First off, jelly gets moldy?? I had no idea that could happen. Anyway, it does, and it did, and while I'm a big recycler, the thought of scraping moldy jelly out of a heavy glass mason jar sounded like a gross way to start the day. (We live in NYC and don't have a garbage disposal, making these sort of projects even more fun than usual.) I held the jar over the trash, trying to convince myself that it was okay to toss it this time because it was so icky and all, but in the end, I sucked it up, cleaned it out and recycled the glass because otherwise I would have felt majorly guilty and dug it out of the trash later in the day, which would have been even grosser.
Observations on this gripping story:
1. I let food go moldy. I have so much food in my life that I can't possibly eat it all, so it goes bad, and I throw it out. This is not a very uncommon experience.
2. I buy jelly that costs 520 rupees (and then, as point one indicates, don't eat it). Sunil, a little boy in Annawadi, had to ask his friend for two rupees - that's less than four cents - so he could buy the food he needed to not go hungry.
3. After I let my food get moldy, I just want to throw it out because it's gross and I'd rather not deal with gross. Scavengers in Annawadi would fight each other for the chance to recycle an old glass jar previously filled with moldy jelly.
This book is loaded with perspective, and I think people respond to that either by turning against the book - This book is depressing; so many horrible things happen in it - or latch onto it and can't get it out of their minds. I'm the latter sort of person.
Sadly, I'm not sure how I can help. Corruption is so rampant in India - Boo even writes about orphanages selling the wares donated to them instead of giving them to the children - and until change happens at the top, I don't foresee the lives of India's millions of slumdwellers improving.
This means another generation of children who can't get an education because they have to work, then can't get steady, respectable jobs because they have no education, then can't support their families because they have no pay, then get married and bring more children into the world. Repeat cycle.
This book is tragic and upsetting, but it's something everyone should read. We're all in this together, you know.
N.B. Fans of Behind the Beautiful Forevers should take a look at Half the Sky. ...more
In 200 or so micro-vignettes, The Lovers' Dictionary reveals more about two people, their relationship and every relationship that ever existed than bIn 200 or so micro-vignettes, The Lovers' Dictionary reveals more about two people, their relationship and every relationship that ever existed than books many, many times its length. That in itself is remarkable---especially to someone like me, to whom brevity does not come naturally.
I love the sentiment expressed on page 120 (ineffable, adj.) that "trying to write about love is ultimately like trying to have a dictionary represent life. No matter how many words there are, there will never be enough." I love that that the author wrote this while actually describing so beautifully love and life through revised dictionary definitions.
At first, I thought this was a story about the birth and death of a relationship, but upon further consideration, I'm not convinced that's the case. I don't think it's a love story, or a break-up story, or a cathartic-release story. I think it's a story that portrays love as an entity different from being in love. When you're in love, everything is wonderful all the time. When you love someone, sometimes that person doesn't put the cap back on the toothpaste, or maybe they drink too much, or maybe they drive you nuts by using their legal background to out-lawyer you while arguing (or maybe that last one is just me...), and it's up to you to decide if that's something you can live with.*
That leads me to my favorite entry of the book---vagary, n. The mistake in thinking there can be an antidote to the uncertainty.
How brilliant is that?
Side note: I appreciate creative writing---not just Creative Writing, i.e. fiction, but creative in how the writing plays with prose and our preconceptions of what format a book should take. On that note, major applause to Levithan for taking a risk and succeeding wildly. I wonder, however, if this book would have earned the same reception had Jonathan Safran Foer written it. All the popular kids love to belittle JSF's creative work as precious and twee, but I'm not sure I see what makes one's work clever and the other's contrived.
*In my case, I'm going to stick this one out for the long-haul....more
So I didn't loooove this book, but I was still surprised by the universal panning of it on Goodreads. It's funny, peoples! It's also largely satiricalSo I didn't loooove this book, but I was still surprised by the universal panning of it on Goodreads. It's funny, peoples! It's also largely satirical, which is an under-appreciated art these days - in the written form, at least - and all too easily can be overlooked. So take out your satirical reading lenses and enjoy the following samples of Frazier's acerbic humor, as told through the voice of a burnt-out stay-at-home mother of two:
"Larry hopped out of bed before dawn and disappeared down in the basement, and I had the luxury of just lying there with the whole bed to myself and thinking about people I despised." p.59
"One very important key to maintaining our daily sanity is a simple scheduling tactic I call Putting Things the Hell Off. Today I am Putting the Hell Off Cleaning the Fucking Refrigerator, and the reason is simple: I just don't fucking feel like it. Looking at my calendar I see a whole raft of blank days during the rest of my life that I can devote to this stupid task, when perhaps I will be in more of a refrigerator-cleaning frame of mind." p.174
"Trevor has such an imagination and I hated to interrupt his creative processes, knowing how important this kind of play is to a child's development, but really he was driving me out of my fucking mind...." p.202
"Margaret and I agreed that it is somewhat harder to relax with a drink when the kids are home or when you know you might have to hop in the car without warning and chauffeur them somwhere. I feel this is an invasion of my personal space...." p.222
It's basically a book of that, so you can use the above to determine if this book is your kind of thing or not.
Still, despite some wickedly funny moments, I couldn't give the book more than three stars. Some of my first notes in this book were about how sad it made me when she closes with "Oh, what a fucking horrible day this has been," which happens about every third entry. Cursing Mommy is weary of her husband, her kids, her life - which makes me, as a stay-at-home mom (and one with a tendency to swear like a sailor, though I'm working on that), wonder what he's satirizing. Is Frazier saying Cursing Mommy has too much time on her hands to hate on things and should go find herself a job? Or maybe that part's not meant to be satirical? Complex literary styles can be so confusing, I tell you!
Oh, and an obvious disclaimer: Don't read this book if you're afraid of seeing Bad Words. There are many of them, as the title may indicate. ...more